- A Framework For How I Think About Social Media Supporting Social Movements + Links to #BaltimoreUprising Info
- Spoken-Word Tips and Tactics Part 4: Diving In and Getting Involved with Spoken-Word as a Culture
- Maybe Progressives Are Too Critical of Each Other, or Maybe You’re Just Not Used to Being Criticized
- “A Pragmatist’s Guide to Revolution (Graham O’Brien Remix)” Plus Links About the Effectiveness of Protest
- Protesting the Band “Viet Cong”: Another Example of How Organizing Around “Little Things” Impacts the Larger Culture
If you don’t know, See More Perspective is the best. We’ve been working together for years, and actually wrote and recorded this song a pretty long time ago. I remember performing some version of it at Soundset way back in ’09.
His brother Nye produced it (one of my favorite beats ever, by the way), and I knew that he had been working on a video for it as well. I just never thought the video would just happen to be done the same week as the premier of Episode 7. Good timing.
Check out everything on See More’s bandcamp page as well; his last album in particular is pretty incredible, and he has a new one coming soon.
“One Bad Cop” is the second single from the upcoming album “Post-Post-Race,” the debut collaboration from Twin Cities MC/poet Guante and producer Katrah-Quey. Featuring quotable guest verses from G.P. Jacob and Tish Jones, the song tackles not just police brutality in general, but one very specific element of it: how so much of the conversation in media focuses on the specific details of each individual case, while failing to make connections to the broader trends of police violence, institutional racism, and mass incarceration. Like the duo’s first single, “White People on Twitter,” this song is about digging deeper and striving to think critically– especially important considering the current #justice4jamar protests growing in the artists’ backyard, Minneapolis.
Music: Katrah-Quey: @kqbeats
Words: G.P. Jacob: @GP_Jacob | Guante: @elguante | Tish Jones: @TheTishJones
Mixing: Katrah-Quey and Graham O’Brien
That’s the official blurb. But a few further thoughts:
The whole album is on its way; as things generally go, it’s taking longer than the original plan. But it’ll be worth it. There’s a song on there with Jayanthi Kyle that might be one of the best songs I’ve been part of. A bunch of other tracks we’re excited to share too. We’re in the mixing/mastering phase, so we’re probably looking at a January/February release. But as always, it’s done when it’s done.
The album delay is one of the reasons we wanted to release another single. Another reason, however, is the context. The #justice4jamar protests and #4thprecinctshutdown were and are watershed moments in the movement for racial justice here in the Twin Cities. So regardless of whether you listen to the song, here are some links you should know about (as always, these links aren’t about saying that these are the only organizations or entities involved; just good places to start to get more info):
- Black Lives Matter Minneapolis: probably the best place to go for ongoing updates and action steps right now.
- MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change: another good resource for people looking to get plugged in to this and other movements.
- Waleed Shahid at Dissent Magazine: “How is Black Lives Matter Winning?”
- Keno Evol at Gazillion Strong: “4thPrecinctShutDown: A Statement on Magic and Resistance”
- A few photos (and commentary) that I took at the occupation site
- A million other links and resources; I’ve tried to keep up on my Twitter, but your best bet is probably a mix of the organizations linked to here, plus the two hashtags, plus any other on-the-ground activists you find through them. Stay informed.
Just announced: on Friday, November 6, I’ll be performing at the U of MN Coffman Union’s Whole Music Club at 8pm along with Tish Jones, members of the Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam team, plus a couple of special guests TBA. 7:30pm doors, all ages, free. (Facebook event page).
I’ve visited more than a dozen colleges just this Fall, and have had the opportunity to both perform for and build with students, staff, and faculty all over the country. Using art as a jumping off point to have deeper discussions about issues of power, identity, activism and more, it’s been a great time, and this capstone event will be yet another chance to explore how art can respond to injustice in concrete, meaningful ways.
While I’ll be performing a mix of poetry and music at the event, I thought I’d make a quick playlist of some of my favorite “political” songs of mine, all available for free download (though you do have to click through on the individual track you want to download to get to the link) for anyone interested:
“I don’t believe that the song/ is all we have to offer; I believe the singers are strong.”
That line captures a lot of what I think when people ask me about the role of artists in social movements. It’s all part of this brand new track from Jared Paul’s new album featuring both me and Ceschi Ramos (I’m the second verse). Pre-order his album here via Sole’s Black Box Tapes label. Jared and Ceschi have both been real leaders when it comes to radical, DIY poetry and hip hop, so it’s cool that we got this chance to do a song together.
More new music soon; if you missed it, here’s a link to “White People on Twitter,” the first track from the upcoming Guante & Katrah-Quey project.
(9/19/15: UPDATE: three days after publishing this piece, the band announced it was changing its name. I can only assume it was because of this writing, haha. For real, though, respect to all of the organizers and advocates who made noise about this)
…they explained that their name came from a moment when their bass player was holding his instrument like a weapon. One of them remarked, “All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong.” (source)
You may or may not already know: there’s this band called Viet Cong. And you also may or may not know: that name is offensive to a whole lot of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian people.
They’re about to play First Ave. here in Minneapolis, and here’s the petition asking/demanding: “change your band’s name, and provide more critical thought into whatever it is that you choose.”
I signed it, and I’d encourage you to sign it too. I’ll share a few further thoughts below, but I’d suggest people first check out the text of the petition (“The name is a reminder of a history’s worth of violence and trauma to many Southeast Asian communities…”), and also read these links for some background info and commentary:
- Angry Asian Man: Meet the Four White Dudes Who Call Themselves “Viet Cong”
- Sang Nguyen at Impose Magazine: Dear Viet Cong
- Charles Lam at City Pages: Viet Cong is a Stupid Band Name
- Slant Eye for the Round Eye: When You Name Your Band “Viet Cong” Prepare to Get Banned
- April Aliermo: Not Yours to Play With: Why Viet Cong’s Name Offends
I can hear the questions already. Here are my answers, for what they’re worth:
1. Everyone’s always so angry about things that don’t matter. Why is this an issue?
If this is your first response, the odds are good that you’re someone who doesn’t have any kind of connection to or history with the real-life Viet Cong. And shouldn’t that be enough? Shouldn’t this think-piece just be able to end there? Why do we constantly ask people who are harmed by something to provide a ten-page report with pie graphs and statistics “proving” that their feelings are valid? If thousands of people are offended by something, it’s an issue.
2. Who are you to dictate what is or isn’t offensive?
No one gets to “dictate” what anyone thinks about anything. Literally no one is petitioning the government to force the band to change its name. That would be censorship. I absolutely believe the band should be free to call themselves that. I also absolutely believe that all of us should be free to call them out on their ignorant-ass band name. Organizers putting pressure on the band to choose to change their name is an act of free speech.
3. Shouldn’t art (especially rock) be controversial and push boundaries?
Yes, it should. But let’s not assume that all controversies are equal. If your band were called “Donald Trump’s Head on a Pike,” or “The Chopadickoffs,” those names would be controversial and offensive (to some), but they would also be making some kind of statement. “Viet Cong” is not making a statement. The band has admitted this: “When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about… We never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful.”
Is that punk rock? What boundary is being pushed here? What greater truth is this controversial name pushing us toward?
When asked about Viet Cong, Gang of Four’s Andy Gill said “as soon as you get into… taking it upon yourself to decide what’s ok and what is not, you are acting in an illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive way.” This fails to acknowledge that our silence is also a form of “deciding what’s ok and what is not,” especially when that silence is weaponized and aimed at a population that has been made all but invisible in North American popular culture and politics. What is “illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive” is telling a group of marginalized people to shut up because you don’t personally identify with their cause.
4. It’s just a band name. Aren’t there more important things to organize around?
This argument is never constructive. It’s never “hey you’re all talking about this but I’m working on this project over here and would love your support;” it’s always “hey you’re all talking about this but I don’t care about it so shut up.”
In short, yes, there are more important things to organize around. But this is the wrong question to ask. Because people can care about– and organize around– more than one thing at a time. Because public protests build on one another. Because the people who are loudest about these “little things” are often the same people who are most effective when it comes to the “big things.” Because media-focused protests like this are jumping-on points for young activists interested in building their skills. And finally: because there is a connection between the erasure of Asian and Asian-American stories/histories from the larger conversation and the erasure of Asian and Asian-American voices and bodies from the spaces in which power flows and policy is made.
Small battles are not distractions from big ones. They’re practice.
This is a weirdly personal story for me, in that I’m Asian-American (Japanese + Norwegian + etc.), my in-laws are Vietnamese, I’m an artist with a confusingly appropriative stage name, and I study intersections of art/media and social justice. So I’m trying to stay objective here.
It’s just that whenever a community makes noise about an issue– like the Washington NFL team, racist Halloween costumes, rape jokes, Miss Saigon, and on and on– we hear these same arguments, over and over, and it’s frustrating to see certain people putting so much energy into defending things that are so garbage. None of these controversies are major issues in the same way that, say, racial inequity in education is a major issue. But what so many fail to see is that this fact damns Viet Cong a lot more than it damns the organizers making noise about this. If it’s really “not that big of a deal,” then change the name. We’re only going to get louder.
I will update this post with any new information about the band’s MPLS appearance. Huge shout out to VSA at the U of MN. In the meantime, feel free to leave any thoughts or comments.
- More current events: At this link, 19 writers (including Bao Phi, Franny Choi, and more!) respond to Michael Derrick Hudson’s appropriation of the name “Yi-Fen Chou” and subsequent inclusion in the 2015 Best American Poetry collection.
- 8 Invalid Arguments Regarding Pop Culture
- Responding to Common Arguments About What Is or Isn’t Offensive
“White People on Twitter” is the first single from the upcoming album “Post-Post-Race,” the debut collaboration from the Twin Cities’ Guante & Katrah-Quey. Over Katrah-Quey’s disarmingly subtle, contemplative beat, Guante (a two-time National Poetry Slam champion in addition to a critically-acclaimed MC and social justice activist) lays out all of the common complaints and evasions from white people whenever the subject of racism comes up, building from a clever, laugh-to-keep-from-crying deconstruction of #AllLivesMatter tropes to a devastatingly serious look at the consequences of those attitudes.
Music: Katrah-Quey: @kqbeats | Words: Guante: @elguante
Mixing: Evan Bakke and Graham O’Brien
My biggest worry with releasing this song isn’t trolls or that white kids might “un-like” my Facebook page. It’s that the song is very much part of the album, and the album has a specific thing that it’s trying to do. This is the first track, so even though it has its own self-contained “breezy-half-funny-intro-transitioning-into-a-serious-point,” it’s also very much the setup to a larger arc.
I actually had no plans to release an album this year. But then I got a folder of beats from Katrah-Quey, spurred by a relatively random Twitter exchange between us and Lydia Liza. While brainstorming song ideas, I found myself only being able to write about race, based on all of my Twitter conversations, real-life conversations, and the work that I do as a touring artist/facilitator. The danger in that, of course, is assuming that “writing about race” is automatically a good thing, especially coming from someone who looks like me. I’ve written songs about race before (like “The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege” and “Other”), but never an album-length analysis/deconstruction/exploration/whatever.
So I decided to run with the impulse to write songs about race, racism, whiteness, and racial justice activism in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, but did it only under two conditions. First, it had to be a platform for multiple voices, and not just me. So there are a lot of guest artists on the album, each bringing their own perspectives to the project. Second, it couldn’t just be “songs about race.” It had to have something more specific to say, something deeper to contribute to the conversation.
Which brings us back to this single, which doesn’t necessarily illuminate those two important points. What it does, hopefully, is set the stage for them. We don’t have a release date yet (just trying to record a couple more guest appearances and finish the mixing/mastering), but this is work that I think is as conceptually grounded, as lyrically focused, and as musically engaging as anything I’ve done yet. Excited to share it. Lyrics after the jump:
White People on Twitter
White people on Twitter are angry
saying “why does it always have to be about race?”
They never owned slaves and they only say the n-word
when they’re drunk and never to anyone’s face
White people on Twitter are offended
by the fact that anyone anywhere’s offended
The outrage about the outrage when it’s about race is endless
White people on Twitter are defensive,
playin’ devil’s advocate in your mentions
and they’ll probably check out before they empathize
‘cause white people on twitter don’t like to be generalized
That’s the greatest sin you can commit;
groupin’ people together is at the source of all of this—
or so the white people on twitter say:
just stop talkin’ about racism and it will go away, right?
Love and light, it’s not complex
like a Martin Luther King quote out of context
Yeah they got a lot of quotes
lined up like dominoes arguin’ with Ta-Nehisi Coates
White people on twitter have feelings
White people on twitter have FEELINGS
so many FEELINGS, so it’s doubtless
that every conversation is in orbit around them
And I can hear ‘em sayin’ right now:
whatever dude, you’re white too, I’m like true
I ain’t full-blooded but I am a little bit
enough that white kids still listen to my shit
White people on Twitter are my fanbase
White people on Twitter self-deprecate
But this is bigger than saying the right things on the right platform;
this is about how we transform
When police kill a black child,
white people on twitter stay quiet
Funny how they got so much to say
soon as you mention a racial bias
or soon as a protest turns to a riot-
that’s when they’ll talk about violence,
but not a peep for the blood in the street or the ave
when it’s drawn by a thug with a badge, and I know
white people on Twitter aren’t evil
Racism’s bigger than bigotry; it’s a history,
but white people on Twitter tell me all lives matter
the newspaper disagrees
the nightly news disagrees
the statistics disagree
the lived experience of millions of our neighbors disagrees
so who do you believe?
This song is included on my latest release, a free sampler mix pulling together some of the songs I’ve written that are most important to me. Big Cats produced the original version (here), and Graham O’Brien produced this one, which mashes up two verses from that song, a third verse from another song, and a hook from yet another song. I like the overall effect, and love this beat (especially the outro– listen to the whole song!)
My “political” writing tends to be pretty specific– a song about sexual politics, a song about whiteness in indie hip hop, a song about language & bullying, etc. At first glance, this song might seem like a departure from that, more of an all-purpose “conscious MC ‘political’ song.” And there are elements of that in here, but I wrote this song to make another fairly specific point: that change comes from organized struggle, from everyday people working together to build the world that they want. It isn’t just about electing the right people, or hoping things will inevitably work out; it’s about actively shaping history through intentional activism and solidarity.
“Marching around with signs doesn’t really change anything” is such a shallow analysis of what “marching around with signs” represents. Of course, on a literal level, a single protest doesn’t change the system. But protest organizers know this. A march is never about magically fixing everything; it’s about a range of tactical considerations: plug-in points for new activists, media coverage and narrative-shaping, a public show of force to foreshadow future electoral (or extra-electoral) power, a space for solidarity and emotional release, a jumping off point for even more intentional organizing inside & outside systems, etc.
The same could be said for social media– a hashtag along doesn’t change the world. But it can be an incredibly useful tool for raising awareness, coordinating multi-city efforts, shifting the larger narrative, and building a movement. Movements are, after all, complex machines, with gears of many different sizes turning simultaneously to accomplish different functions. It’s personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the real world has reflected this idea quite a bit lately. A few good links:
“The #BlackLivesMatter movement is already making a difference. We’re clearly nowhere near where we need to be, but these recent cases played out differently than they would have a year ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago because of all the work and all the noise that young people have been making while we keep saying that they don’t have a plan.”
Jay Smooth is the best. I think a lot of people know that already. But this video in particular is super important, in that it recognizes how much still needs to done while affirming that the work being done right now is already starting to bear fruit, that “that mountain is moving.” More proof:
Lynette Holloway at The Root:
40 New State Laws Sparked by Michael Brown’s Death in Ferguson
“Who said protesting is ineffective? Since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., was shot and killed Aug. 9, 2014, by white then-Officer Darren Wilson, lawmakers in nearly every state have proposed changes to the way police deal with the public, according to the Associated Press.”
“Yet, the refrain I hear far too frequently is, ‘Protests don’t produce change.’ Technically and practically, this just isn’t true. First and foremost, offline protests are a way for people of like minds to join together to express their shared pain and frustration. This solidarity is wildly significant but is too often dismissed, mainly by people who don’t protest, because they don’t haven’t experienced it to understand its value. Online, tens of millions of people are now better connected with one another and with the issues around police brutality in ways that are markedly different than anything we saw in 2013 or earlier. While it’s despicable that every person killed by police ends up as a hashtag and trending topic, the reality that people killed by police are often the No. 1 trending topic in the world signifies a sea shift in solidarity and awareness of the issue.”
Andy Cush at Gawker:
Here’s Proof That Black Lives Matter Protests are Working
“Those who argue that forceful demonstrations only serve to entrench people in the positions they’ve already taken are wrong. People are changing their minds. Just like it did for the suffrage movement 100 years ago or civil rights in the ‘60s, public protest is working in 2015. Now all we need is some meaningful policy change.”
Julia Craven, Ryan J. Reilly, Mariah Stewart at Huffington Post:
The Ferguson Protests Worked
“What’s sad is it often takes a tragedy,” Oates said. “What happened in Ferguson wasn’t unusual — which is awful, but true. The response was unusual, and the depth and breadth of the protests was unusual. And you could kind of see it coming from Trayvon Martin … This rising awareness [about] race and unfairness, and this real question about what was really going on.”
…and if you’re looking for a super concrete example, check out this story by Scott Heins at Okayplayer. A lot of people shared this because of the Kendrick Lamar angle, but I think there’s a bigger story in this quote:
“Today after the ending of the convening as everyone was walking down the street CPD arrested a 14 yr old,” wrote uploader Blake Piffin. “While everyone was demanding his release an officer pepper sprayed the crowd and further escalated the situation. In unity and solidarity everyone was demanding that he be released, and we stayed and protested until they released him!”
Again, no one is arguing that the struggle is over, or that “marches and rallies” alone are all we need. None of the new laws being passed will end police violence. But this is what movement-building looks like. Here in the Twin Cities, the Black Liberation Project just organized a successful #SayHerName solidarity action, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (one of the most active, effective orgs in the community) are raising money to literally rise from the ashes, and there’s more coming from #BlackLivesMatter Minneapolis, Voices for Racial Justice, Communities United Against Police Brutality, TruArtSpeaks, and countless other organizations and individuals are doing good work. As always, it starts with knowing what’s going on, then plugging in and getting involved.
“The Left is eating itself!”
“We need to focus on our real enemies instead of criticizing each other!”
“Ultra radical social justice warriors are a joke, and their PC-policing will be the end of the progressive movement!”
And yeah, those people are annoying. But they’re also relatively rare. The problem is, however, that there seems to be a growing number of progressives who take that basic jackass archetype and apply it to ANYONE who has a critique, or a call for greater inclusiveness, or a challenge to the progressive status quo. So even when people have super legitimate, necessary critiques, they get lumped in with the fringe, characterized as “just as bad” as their radical conservative counterparts.
The reason that I’m no longer sympathetic to those attitudes is that my real-life experience with movement-building has shown me that very rarely is the problem that progressives are too critical; much more often, we are not critical enough.
When Bernie Sanders flubs an opportunity to stand with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we can acknowledge that as a flub and push him (and his relentlessly white campaign) to do better, or we can shout down the critiques, on some “he’s really great and the best chance we have for real change so everyone shut up!” (further conversation about this on my FB page).
When a panel discussion on a feminist issue features five white women, and then gets called out for being too white, that’s not “nitpicking.” That’s acknowledging the long tradition of the erasure of indigenous women and women of color from mainstream feminist discourse, and pushing for something better. Maybe it’s easier to see it as “not a big deal” when you happen to not be affected by it.
When “well-meaning” talk-show hosts and journalists continue to ask ridiculous, offensive, invasive questions to trans people, we shouldn’t all just shut up because they’re “trying to raise awareness.” There are ways to raise awareness without throwing people’s dignity under the bus. Again, they can do better.
The whole “we have to stop making good the enemy of perfect” attitude assumes that those adjectives are objective and universal, ignoring the fact that what so many of us see as “good” can actually be harmful and counterproductive to movement-building efforts. Historically, who has been able to frame this debate and decide what “good” is anyway? Even in progressive circles, it’s been people who already have some access to power.
So now when the internet gives a platform to counter-narratives and other definitions of “good,” old-school mainstream liberals find themselves being challenged. That’s why so much of this discourse is couched in condescending, tech-oriented language (“hashtag activist,” “tumblr feminist,” etc.), and framed as personal attacks when they’re actually critiques of power.
The idea that feminism, for example, has been “taken over” by the man-hating trigger warning reverse racist thought police is as ridiculous as it is weirdly common, and a lot of the people making that argument either benefit from the status quo, or have no dog in the fight anyway. My job lets me meet feminists/activists/leftists from all over, and I can tell you: the problem isn’t that “we’re too self-critical.” A lot more damage is done by those with some access to power refusing to be challenged/critiqued than by the critics themselves.
The thing that I just cannot wrap my head around is this bizarre belief that it’s so HARD, that there’s an expectation that everyone has to be PERFECT and we just can’t– as individuals or as a movement– ever get there. Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. But there is an enormous difference between those of us who actively try to do better and those of us who whine and want the rest of the movement to accept us unconditionally. I’m certainly not perfect, but somehow, even as a very vocal, very privileged, public personality talking about a lot of serious issues, my life is not an endless series of call-outs.
If your life does seem like an endless series of call-outs, maybe that’s on you. If you’re a liberal professor and you’re scared of your liberal students because they embody “call-out culture,” maybe you deserve to get called out because you’re saying or doing things that hurt people.
If you’re a guy who doesn’t feel welcome in feminist circles, maybe you should think about why you want to be in feminist circles as opposed to introducing feminist ideals into the circles you’re already part of.
If you’re working on a campaign and you know that your candidate’s platform will have a positive effect on communities of color, but those communities aren’t supporting you, maybe you need to do more to bridge that gap rather than huff and puff that “they” just don’t get it.
Of course, passionate people go too far sometimes. But it’s really important to think critically about who gets to define “too far.” Because for every bogeyman story about someone caught up in a wave of critique for an honest mistake or misunderstanding, there are many, many more stories about erasure, invisibility, and liberal racism/sexism/homophobia/etc. that have been silenced for decades. Slowly, this is changing. This shift is happening right now, and as progressives, we should have the strategic and moral sense to embrace it.
To me, being a progressive/radical//leftist means challenging established systems of power. Doing that within our own movement doesn’t make us weaker when it comes to doing that in our society; everything I’ve ever learned or experienced as an activist tells me that it makes us immeasurably stronger, and that it’s the only way we can actually win.