photo by Elliot Malcolm for Dharma Hype
I’m a long-term planner. I knew 2012 would be a huge year, but I had no idea that 2013 would be even bigger. Here’s a sampling of what I did this year. As always, endless thanks to everyone who has supported me, given me opportunities, or just paid attention. A rundown:
1. SIFU HOTMAN (Guante x Dem Atlas x Rube)
This summer, I collaborated with producer Rube and MC (and recent Rhymesayers signee) Dem Atlas for a three-song suite called Sifu Hotman– free digital download or on vinyl. It’s definitely one of my favorite projects I’ve ever been part of, and my first vinyl ever. It’s also been an honor to play shows and just build with these guys– two of the most genuine, cool people I know. We also collaborated with PCP to film in-studio videos of all three songs:

Between March and right now, I’ve written 31 op-eds for new MN-based op-ed co-op Opine Season. The brainchild of Matt Peiken, the site has featured opinion writing from some of my favorite Twin Cities writers: Kao Kalia Yang, Chaun Webster, Ricardo Levins Morales, Vina Kay and more, plus guest-pieces from writers like David Mura and Bao Phi. I’m honored to be in such good company, and am very proud of how much of an impact (both in terms of raw traffic stats and community chatter) the site has made, despite being brand-new and completely community-driven. My full archive is here, though here are a few standout posts:

3. NEW POEM VIDEOS, including “A Visit From the PC Police”
I got to work with Linebreak Media twice this year, and always had a great experience. I love how this one turned out. Also released a bunch of other videos, and finally got serious about cultivating a presence on YouTube. Speaking of that…

My friends at Button Poetry have been capturing performance poetry all over the country, and really blew up this year. My poem “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up'” got featured on Upworthy, and my poem “REACH” got released right before the holiday season. I also had a piece published in Button’s e-book “Viral,” which you can order here.

I had the pleasure of working with Tish Jones of TruArtSpeaks on rebuilding and rebranding the youth spoken-word scene in Minnesota. We traveled to a bunch of schools, met hundreds of young artists, and Tish did a hell of a job organizing a whole series of slams to pick a team to represent MN at Brave New Voices. I was the coach, and it was inspiring to witness the growth of these brilliant young artists over the course of an entire summer. Even bigger things coming next year.

A big part of my work that doesn’t get as much attention is working in schools. Through COMPAS, I engage in artist residencies in middle and high schools throughout Minnesota. Sometimes these are just performances, but they’re usually week-long residencies, where I get to teach multiple classes every day and basically just talk about writing and performance with hundreds of MN students. It’s an incredible gig, and this year I was in dozens of different schools.

Aside from working with teens, I also got to travel to dozens of colleges and universities all over the country this year. Between performing, guest-lecturing and facilitating social justice-oriented workshops, I was on the road for much of the year. One standout gig was at El Centro College in Dallas, where I got to stay for a full week and really engage with students. If you want to bring me to YOUR school, check this out.

While college performances are my bread-and-butter, I still get to play the occasional rap show here and there, including a few big ones this year. I played the CD release parties of Mixed Blood Majority, Common Labor, See More Perspective and Homeless; opened for Saul Williams, performed in the First Ave. Mainroom again, played at the MN State Fair, continued the Hip Hop Against Homophobia series, and played a bunch of festivals: the Red Hot Art & Music Festival, the Future History Festival, the Phillips Music Festival, the Grounds & Sounds Festival, and more I’m probably forgetting. I also performed a commissioned piece at the Child Neurology Foundation gala. I also gave a few keynote speeches, played more benefits and fundraisers than anyone else in the universe, and generally just kept busy. Ongoing list of past shows here.

Beyond Sifu Hotman, I got to release a few random songs this year, really just for fun. The video above was shot and edited by Adam J. Dunn and is a personal favorite. Free downloads:

A lot of what I do is stuff you’ll never hear about– consulting, curriculum development, mentorship stuff, etc. I also did a complete overhaul of my website; check out the revamped “resources” page in particular. It’s been the busiest, most exhausting and most rewarding year of my life, and next year should be even more wild. Keep up on Twitter and Facebook. New music video and new mixtape coming in EARLY 2014 too. Thanks!

Originally published at Opine Season

I’m not sure how common this is in other scenes, but in hip hop, the phrase “local artist” is very often used pejoratively. It brings to mind that MC or producer who was never good enough to break out from his or her hometown, that starving artist playing the same sets at the same dive bars, year after year.

To be sure, that does happen. You’re never going to be famous and sell lots of records if you focus all of your energy on just one community. But the assumption that every artist’s goal is to “be famous and sell lots of records” is a dangerous one. The assumption that playing 200 shows in 200 cities has more inherent value than cultivating a substantive presence in your hometown is a dangerous one. And the assumption that anyone who talks about this stuff is just making excuses or “aiming low” isn’t healthy for the culture or for our communities.

When I think about the artists who have had the biggest impact on me, the artists who have actually changed my life, very few of them are nationally-known. Or if they are nationally-known, it’s just a side-effect of the work they do in their communities. Almost all of them could be classified as “local artists,” even if the locales are different. They’re people doing important, concrete work in their communities, using art not just to express themselves, but to carve out space within those communities for positive things to happen. They’re using their art to create platforms for other kinds of media, for organizing, for education, for a whole host of goals that go far beyond fame and fortune.

Obviously, being engaged locally and being famous are not mutually exclusive. Someone like Boots Riley of the Coup can have an international following while still doing great work in Oakland. Invincible in Detroit, the Figureheads in Milwaukee, Geologic in Seattle, Jasiri X in Pittsburg—this list could go on and on. None of these artists may be household names, but the impact they’ve had and are having is immeasurable.

Of course, the more famous you are, the more of a platform you have to spread whatever message you want to spread. I’m not arguing that being famous is bad. I’m just saying that I have a lot of respect for artists who consider fame as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. This isn’t about scolding anyone for not being “conscious” enough; this is simply about recognizing the potential that artists (from the most revolutionary slam poet to the most apolitical shoegazing indie band or party rapper) have to be changemakers in our communities, in ways that go far beyond the occasional benefit concert.

This is about re-imagining the possibilities. I don’t believe that the highest calling of an artist is to leave, to get famous and never look back. I don’t even believe that art is the most important thing artists have to offer.

What really inspires me is seeing things like I Self Devine facilitating community organizing trainings, Tish Jones mentoring the next generation of artist/activists in the Twin Cities, Bao Phi mobilizing communities around the Miss Saigon protests and much more, Brother Ali attempting to have critical conversations about race with his fanbase, poets from the Button Poetry collective using their platform to signal-boost other poets ten times further than they could go on their own, Tall Paul organizing the “Cold Flows for Warm Clothes” event last week at the Cedar, Adam J. Dunn shooting free music videos for dozens of local artists, all of the artists who donated their time, talent and networks to help defeat the marriage amendment in 2012, Wing Young Huie and B-Fresh, both of whom don’t just take brilliant photos, but make a point to share that knowledge and support other artists too, B-Boy J-Sun passing down the history and culture of breaking… not to mention Desdamona, Tou Saiko Lee, Kristoff Krane, Crescent Moon, See More Perspective and far too many other teaching artists to name all creating space for young people to express their authentic selves.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, too. Some of these artists are nationally known, some of them will be someday, and some of them potentially won’t be. But what they’re building right here, right now, is important. Art isn’t just pretty pictures and catchy melodies. It’s the lifeblood of a community. It’s a platform to broadcast ideas. It’s a tool to frame issues. It’s a way to connect the past, present and future. It’s an excuse to bring living, breathing human beings together. I’m grateful to everyone who continues to do that. Keep building.

Originally published at Opine Season

Fun fact: white people’s feelings are magic. They can bring any conversation, meeting or movement to a halt. In a debate, they can outweigh even the most credible, concrete evidence. They can threaten someone’s job. They can even kill. White people’s feelings are one of this country’s most abundant natural resources and important exports.

Because of all this, any conversation about social justice, power, or history is going to naturally settle into orbit around white people’s feelings. And I get it: if we want to really do something about racism in this country, it’s white people who need to change the most, and it’s white people who often have the longest political/spiritual/emotional journey to undertake.

But when social justice education and/or media focuses solely on understanding racism through a white privilege framework, that can recreate the same oppressive structures we’re trying to destroy. When the conversation has such a laser focus around educating white people and carrying their emotional baggage, what potential voices, perspectives or frameworks are missing? We may be moving forward, but how are we defining “we?”

As someone who is both a social justice educator and who identifies as at least somewhat white myself, I’d like to explore some other options. How else can we engage in anti-racist work without having everything be about white people’s feelings? A few possibilities:

Separate Spaces
This kind of work is already happening, but I think it’s worth noting: we can continue to develop programming that is specifically for white people (alongside programming that is specifically for any identity group) rather than relying on the “catch-all” approach that alienates, bores or infuriates so many students (specifically students of color). In these spaces, we can talk about white people’s feelings without having that conversation derail the other work that’s happening. “Caucusing” can sometimes be controversial, but it can also be effective.

Maybe that’s a strong word, but in social justice education spaces, we can acknowledge that some material is going to make white people (or men, or straight people, or any other privileged group) sad. Or angry. Or guilty, confused, defensive, etc. And we can acknowledge that, and then we can just keep moving. As a facilitator, it’s not your job to “save” anyone. As an educator, you want to get your point across and cultivate understanding, but when all of the energy in the room goes into making a handful of defensive white students feel better, that’s not healthy or productive for the larger group.

Sometimes, Education Isn’t the Answer
Sometimes, the personal/cultural change happens after the institution has already moved on. There may be times when the funding, time and energy poured into “diversity education” initiatives could perhaps be better spent changing the fundamental structure of the institution. We can teach an all-white board of directors about the importance of racially-inclusive language, for example, or we can fight to get people of color on the board of directors. Education is always going to be part of the larger movement toward racial justice, but that doesn’t mean that it is the absolute answer in every scenario. Clearly, education and organizing are not mutually exclusive (just the opposite), but as the saying goes, “the work is not the workshop.”

White People: Do Your Homework
Most of the points on this list are for educators and organizers who work in these spaces. But those of us who are white can do more, proactively, even outside these spaces. Read books. Listen. Suppress the urge to always get defensive about everything. Never rely on someone else to do the emotional dirty work for you, or hold your hand while you do it. Related to this point, one of the most powerful things I read this year was Mia McKenzie’s “No More Allies” piece here.

Brave Spaces vs. Safe Spaces
I’m not sure who came up with this framework, but I think it’s very important. In any social justice education space, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s good to be challenged and to be uncomfortable. Of course, we need to take care of ourselves, but “taking care of yourself” should never mean “sticking your head in the sand to avoid all criticism and/or difficult conversations.”

A common thread in all of these points is that change isn’t predicated on anyone’s feelings; change is the product of collaborative, intentional work. Education matters—and even feelings matter—but only as much as they make that work easier or harder. When all of the energy in an educational campaign or organization is poured into making sure the people who already carry the most privilege aren’t getting their feelings hurt, that hurts movements. We can do better.

Nothing I’m saying here is new; these are ongoing conversations that will continue to shift, evolve and come to new conclusions. I also, clearly, have my own baggage and biases around this topic. Feel free to add to this list, post relevant links, etc.