A 2016 wrap-up post, featuring some of the stuff I created or released that you may have missed:
1. I Wrote a Book I’ve been working on this for a long time, so thanks so much to everyone who has already picked up a copy, and to Button Poetry for the signal boost. Here’s the official blurb: One part mixtape, one part disorientation guide, and one part career retrospective, this book brings together spoken word poems, song lyrics, and essays from the past decade of Guante’s work. From the exploration of toxic masculinity in “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’,” to the throwback humanist hip hop of “Matches,” to a one-act play on the racial and cultural politics of Eminem, “A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry” is a practitioners eye-view of the intersections of hip hop, poetry, and social justice.Get it in-person or online here.
2. New Album: Guante & Katrah-Quey: “Post-Post-Race” Katrah-Quey and I released an album all about race, racism, and solidarity, featuring a bunch of my favorite local voices. You can get the whole thing here, but here are a few highlights:
3. Sifu Hotman’s “Matches” on Vinyl (Plus a B-Side with Tall Paul) I’m very glad that we got to do a vinyl release for this song, which is both my most successful song (thanks to its being featured on Welcome to Night Vale) and one of my most personal, meaningful songs. Get it here. I’m also proud of the b-side, a remix of “Embrace the Sun” featuring Tall Paul:
4. 8 Million Views for “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up'” on Facebook This was a great surprise to close out the year with: Button Poetry posted my poem (which is a few years old now) as Facebook video, and it took off. It’s nice to see that the message of that particular piece is still resonating with so many people, especially this year. See the video, and read more about the poem, here.
5. A Handful of New Videos Between my own page and Button Poetry’s, we released a few new poems and a few updated versions of older ones, plus a couple of songs:
8. TruArtSpeaks Contines to Grow Under the leadership of Executive Director Tish Jones, it was another great year for TruArtSpeaks; I’m both honored to have been able to be part of that and excited about this coming year. The Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series starts up again in January!
9. Shows, Connections, and Reasons to Be Excited About 2017 This year was bad in a lot of ways, for a lot of people. I’m grateful for the opportunity to travel, to perform, and to work with people from so many different communities on issues that matter– from the ArtChangeUS Design for Equity Conference, to the MN Campus Sexual Violence Prevention Summit, to opening for Marc Lamont Hill at the UMN, to Brave New Voices, to a bunch of college/university visits all over the country– it’s clear to me that as dire as the situation in this country might be, there are still a whole lot of bold, brilliant people doing the work. As I think about 2017, I’m trying to figure out how best to use whatever resources I have to support those people.
I’m excited about local politics– 2017 is going to be a huge year in Minneapolis with regards to city council races. I’m excited about Jillia, Jeremiah, Andrea, Erica, Phillipe, and all of the sharp, community-minded people running for seats; I’ll be posting more about this as the caucuses approach. But even if you’re not in Minneapolis– this is going to be a BIG year for local politics in general– that’s the level at which so many battles are going to be fought, and we can win them. Get involved.
Related to that, I’m excited about the potential for artists to meaningfully plug into movement-building work, now more than ever. Will be sharing thoughts and resources (beyond what I’ve already written) very soon.
My excitement is not to say that things aren’t scary, or that people aren’t going to be hurt by what’s going on in this country. Our fear is valid. But so is our courage. I’m excited to see more and more people start to realize that there is no “neutral,” that change starts with us, that plugging into activist organizations and getting involved is a key first step in creating the world in which we want to live, no matter who is in office. It’s going to be a tough year, but I believe in the power of this movement.
Finally, as for me, I’ve got a new music video coming out right away this January. I’m also booking for both Spring and Fall 2017. Also working on some new projects. Just want to say thank you for reading and connecting. Let’s keep building.
I shared my post-election thoughts a while back, and here’s something a little more substantial. As an artist who routinely gets up in front of hundreds of people and talks about activism and power, and as someone who also has lots of friends who do that same thing, in some way or another, I’ve been trying to think more critically about how we USE that platform.
Because talking about issues is good and important, but so many of those performances or conversations end with “talk is not enough; go do something.” And for those of us who have had a political education, we know what that means. We may still struggle with the specifics, or experience anxiety about not doing enough, etc., but it’s a statement that makes sense.
For a lot of people, however, I’m wondering if “go do something” is a little too abstract. Especially for young people, or people with no prior activist experience, or people who are isolated due to identity or geography– how can we make “go do something” really mean something concrete and specific? How can we use the platforms that we have access to to cultivate a culture of organizing, to promote activism not just as some weird hobby that a few hippies do, but as something that everyone can and should and must do?
That’s the impulse behind this zine project (text by me, design by Liv Novotny). It’s nothing revolutionary; just sharing what I’ve learned about action, power, and change, while highlighting concrete action points and plugging people in to existing networks. The image at the top of this post links to a PDF of the entire document (which needs to be cut and folded a particular way to become a book, which I’m sure you can figure out). The basic text is included below as well. JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE THE POWER TO RUN OUT THE FRONT DOOR AND MAGICALLY “FIX” EVERYTHING, IT DOESN’T MEAN THAT YOU DON’T HAVE POWER.
The key is focusing less on the power that we don’t have, and more on the power that we do:
AS INDIVIDUALS: LEVEL UP
Listen. Read books. Take classes. Follow activists and organizations on social media. Challenge yourself to think more critically and more tactically, to ask more questions, and to never stop learning. Engage in critical self-reflection; be humble and willing to grow. Take care of your physical and mental health too. This all builds our capacity to do the work, and while nothing here is enough to change the world by itself, it is an important step. ACTION EXAMPLES:
Do some research about activist organizations in your area, and then make a point to get looped in: sign up for email lists, follow them on social media, and pay attention to the work already happening.
If you’re a student, set up a meeting with your advisor to explore pathways into change-making career fields, or even just classes that can help you learn more about the issues you care about.
Take the time to reflect on your passions, your talents, your identities, and your capacity. You don’t have to do everything; figure out what the specific “something” is that you can do.
Use existing resources: educators and activists often put together online “syllabi” like the Ferguson Syllabus, Standing Rock Syllabus, Syllabus for White Self Education, etc. (more at the bottom of this post).
Commit, while also taking the time to breathe, to find joy, and to organize your life in whatever way works for you, in order to ensure that that commitment is sustainable.
AS COMMUNITY MEMBERS: SHOW UP
Power is a platform: no politician or millionaire has access to your friends, family, co-workers, and networks like you do. So start conversations. Post compelling articles on social media. Write blog posts or letters-to-the-editor. Show up (if you are able) to rallies, vigils, teach-ins, meetings, or other events in order to plug in and build community. Also, be mindful of your own identities; for example, don’t expect someone who is oppressed in a way that you are not to “teach” you everything. Proactively bring this work into spaces where it isn’t already happening. ACTION EXAMPLES:
Start a book club or study group addressing the issues that you are passionate about.
Media matters; not everyone can “show up” in the same ways. Cultivate a more intentional social media practice, signal-boosting activists whose voices need to be heard, as opposed to just memes or opinions. A few more specific thoughts on this here.
Communicate with your elected leaders to keep the pressure on; in-person meetings, phone calls, and personalized letters are best. Emails, tweets, and petitions are less effective but can still be useful tools. Show up to town halls and community/neighborhood meetings!
Create, and/or use your platform creatively. Poems, for example, don’t change the world on their own; but enough poets (and other artists) directing their energy toward a particular topic, issue, or idea, really does have the power to shift culture.
Remember that “ally” isn’t something you are; it’s something you do. Think about your own identities, and how they might impact your ability to disrupt the status quo. Don’t let harmful talk/actions slide. Challenge people.
AS ORGANIZERS: STAND UP
Change doesn’t happen because “things just inevitably get better,” or because we vote for the right people and they “save” us. Real, sustainable, progressive change is always the product of organized movements: everyday people joining up in community groups, student organizations, unions, cyphers, living rooms, and beyond, working together to figure out what we have, what we need, and how we can make it happen. ACTION EXAMPLES:
Find (through one-to-one meetings, internet searches, conversations, databases, etc.) an organization working on the issues you care about and get involved—that might mean sending an email inquiry, attending a meeting, working with friends to start a local chapter of a national organization, or even starting something brand new (although my advice is always to seek to join first, since everyone constantly reinventing the wheel can be a drain on energy).
If you are able, set up a monthly donation to an activist group, organize a fundraiser, or find other ways to support existing work.
Vote, and get all of your friends/family to vote too—while also understanding voting as one small part of a much larger movement-building process; organizing can also be about tactical voting campaigns and holding politicians accountable after they’re elected.
Some people go into careers that are explicitly about social justice. Other people have to figure out how to infuse social justice principles into the work that they’re already doing. Cultivate a sense of the structure of your school, workplace, or community. What could be different? What rules, policies, or elements of the culture could be changed? With whom can you work to make it happen?
March, protest, and resist in whatever ways might be effective, while also working together to create plans for next steps, to provide alternatives to the status quo. Find local ways to apply pressure to national/international issues. Tearing down oppressive systems is necessary; so is building something better.
TAKEAWAY: We need all three levels (personal, interpersonal, institutional). One or two, without the other, are not enough. Luckily, they’re all connected: we can strive to be better individuals, while building relationships with each other, while we work on challenging systems and shifting culture. The point here is that we already have the power that we need to win; what remains is the work.
ON “GETTING INVOLVED”
A big part of this post is attempting to demystify how change happens. Power is not magic. It is not some commodity that only other people have. We all have power, and organizing together is one of the best ways to bring that power to bear. That being said, all of this comes with a few caveats:
Some people have more time, energy, or resources than others. After all, just surviving is a kind of activism too. So it’s important to think critically about our own identities, levels of access, privileges, etc., as we begin to figure out how we can plug into this process and make our work sustainable.
Take some time to think about why you want to get involved. Trying to “save” other people or act out some altruistic hero fantasy will never be as effective or sustainable as figuring out where your own self-interest intersects with activist work.
No organization is perfect, and no organization alone can do everything. But they are important starting points.
A FEW TWIN CITIES-ORIENTED LINKS & EXAMPLES
This list is not about pointing to any particular organization as “the one” or endorsing some over others. The purpose of this list is to make it easier for people to get a “snapshot” of some of the work that is being done in our community right now—with some of these orgs, you may be able to run out and join them, get a job with them, or volunteer with them; with others, it may be about supporting their work through donating money or services, or even just getting them on your radar. This is a starting point, and one very simple action you can take right now, if you’re on social media, is to “follow” everyone on this list (if you’re in MN).
Additionally, only Twitter handles are included here, and not everyone is on Twitter; find a more detailed list with full website links and blurbs about each org (and ones not included here) at www.mnactivist.com.
ORGANIZATIONS/TWITTER HANDLES: • MPD150: @mpd_150
• TakeAction Minnesota: @TakeActionMN
• Voices for Racial Justice: @MNvoices
• Black Visions Collective: @BlackLivesMPLS
• OutFront MN: @OutFrontMN
• The Sexual Violence Center: @svcmpls
• ISAIAH: @ISAIAHMN
• MN Immigrant Rights Action Committee: @MIRAcMN
• Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America: @TwinCitiesDSA
• Planned Parenthood MN: @ppmn
• Parks & Power: @ParksAndPower
• Showing Up for Racial Justice: @surj_mn
• MN Council on American-Islamic Relations: @CAIRMN
• MN Public Interest Research Group: @mpirg
• Navigate MN: @navigatemn
• Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha: @CTUL_TC
• Wellstone Action: @wellstoneaction
• Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia: @IX_Unidxs
• 15 Now Minnesota: @15NowMN
• Indigenous Environmental Network: @IENearth
• Shades of Yellow: @SOY_LGBTQ
• Socialist Alternative: @SocialistMN
• Black Liberation Project: @blklibmn
• Communities United Against Police Brutality: @CUAPBMpls
• Hope Community, Inc: @Hope_MN
• UMN Women’s Center: @mnwomenscenter
• Minnesotans for a Fair Economy: @FairMN
• RE-Imagine Education: @RiEdK12
• Consent Ed MN: @ConsentEdMN
ART AND MEDIA SPOTLIGHT:
• TruArtSpeaks: @TruArtSpeaks
• Juxtaposition Arts: @JXTA_ARTS
• Black Table Arts: @BlackTableArts
• Kulture Klub: @kultureklubMN
• KRSM Radio: @KRSMradio
• The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent: @HmongCHAT
• Unicorn Riot: @UR_Ninja
• Line Break Media: @LnBrkMedia
• TC Daily Planet: @tcdailyplanet
• KFAI Radio: @kfaiFMradio
• Insight News: @insightnews
• Ancestry Books: @ancestrybooks
• Pangea World Theater: @PangeaWT
• FLOW Arts Crawl: @FLOWNorthside
• Tru Ruts: @TruRuts
MORE:this is just a starting point. In addition to these community organizations, there are dozens of campus organizations, high school organizations, neighborhood groups, etc. all over. It may just take a bit of research to find them.
STEAL THIS IDEA: If you’re not in Minnesota, feel free to make a list like this for YOUR community and share it.
Obviously, numbers don’t mean everything. But it is cool to see a poem with a message like this resonate with so many people. I doubt that a million views means a million people watched, but one number that does matter to me is those 25k shares. I figured I’d use this opportunity to both say thank you for all of the shares and reposts, but also to share a couple of thoughts on the poem itself: 1. The poem is in my book. If you like it, you will very likely enjoy the whole book, which is full of poems, song lyrics, and essays about these issues and many others. The blurb is below, and here’s a link to how you can order one (through Button Poetry).
One part mixtape, one part disorientation guide, and one part career retrospective, this book brings together spoken word poems, song lyrics, and essays from the past decade of Guante’s work. From the exploration of toxic masculinity in “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’,” to the throwback humanist hip hop of “Matches,” to a one-act play on the racial and cultural politics of Eminem, “A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry” is a practitioners eye-view of the intersections of hip hop, poetry, and social justice.
2. Bring me to your school or conference. My work actually involves traveling to colleges, universities, conferences, and other places to use spoken word as an entry point into deeper conversations about identity, power, and resistance. Check out my booking info here and get in touch. 3. On a craft/writing level, I’ve always thought of this one as an okay poem with a really strong “hook,” which is the term I use to refer to its conceptual framework, the thing that makes it different from all of the other poems about masculinity/gender stuff out there. If you’re an aspiring spoken word artist (or really any kind of writer), I think hooks are really important to understand, whether you choose to lean on them or not. I talk more about them through this video series.
4. Finally, a quick note on the content. I haven’t been able to sift through all of the comments, but I can pretty much imagine some of them. Just want to make a handful of things very clear:
The poem is about how so many of the assumptions associated with masculinity are based in fear, shame, and insecurity; it’s also about how so many assumptions about competence and power are based in masculinity. And yes, this is reflected in so-called “little things” like language and everyday pop culture that we don’t often think critically about (not sure if people even remember the specific Miller Lite commercials that this poem is directly responding to). The poem is very much about the relationship between those “little things” and the larger realities of sexism and gender-based violence.
The issue is not that telling people to “take responsibility and be strong” (which, yeah, I know is what “man up” means) is always a bad thing (though it can be, depending on what that person actually needs); the issue is that framing responsibility and strength as solely masculine qualities reinforces a whole lot of poisonous essentialist garbage about gender that ends up hurting people.
Because this always comes up in conversations about language: remember that “hey let’s maybe think more critically about the language we use” is not the same as “hey you should go to jail for saying the ‘wrong’ thing.” Empathy is not censorship. The poem is about language, but it’s also about something deeper than that.
The poem is not saying that men have it worse than women (or gender-nonconforming people), or that we have it just as bad. Sexism hurts everyone, but it hurts everyone in very different ways, and a critical understanding of how sexism/patriarchy works is a necessary first step in disrupting and dismantling it.
I know that sometimes MRA-type people kind of like the poem, which is weird. I mean, yeah, I can imagine how it might resonate with people who want to talk about the unfair and messed up expectations that society places on men. But this is still very much a feminist poem. Because it isn’t women, or feminism, that places those expectations on men– it’s patriarchy. So people bring up men’s high suicide rates, or how so many men “don’t feel like they fit in” in our society any more– I hear you. I just don’t share your analysis. Feminism isn’t the enemy– it’s an invaluable lens, a tool for actually fixing some of those problems (as opposed to just going on the internet and harassing women/complaining about feminism, which is the MRA approach). For more on this topic, check this out.
Finally, just a note that if you like this poem, check this one out too. Plus, you can find all of my work here. PLUS, I made a list of 100+ spoken word poems by other people, including a dozen or so on gender and masculinity. This is an ongoing conversation, featuring many voices, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of it.
First of all, I think it’s worth noting that whatever emotional response you might have to this is valid. I’m not trying to push anyone right into “this doesn’t matter; let’s just get to work” mode. Similarly, I like the twist on the classic Joe Hill quote “don’t mourn; organize.” It’s possible to do both. It can be necessary to do both.
In that spirit, just wanted to share a few links/thoughts that have been helpful for me; maybe they can be helpful to you too.
2. This interview with Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture on Twitter): “[We] have to think and imagine bigger and understand that these things take a long time and we’re not going to end things in this moment, we’re not going to rebuild the entire world in seconds, and that we’re part of a long struggle.” – Mariame Kaba
3. Real talk from Jay Smooth: “I don’t know if we will survive; I don’t know that we’ll be okay. But what I know, is that we will resist.”
4. A Note on the MN Activist Project: I put together this database of local activist organizations a few years back; it feels like it’s time for a major update. If you have notes for me, get in touch. Either way, I’m going to work on adding to this and making it as useful as it can be. A focus on local struggles is going to be an important tactic for the next four years.
I’m also adding this link, to a big bank of resources regarding legal matters, health stuff, etc. that could be affected in the next few years.
Again– I wouldn’t dream of telling people how to process, or how to grieve, but it is worth noting that change comes from organized movements; now is a great time to get involved. Whether that involvement is showing up and working, supporting that work through donations, signal-boosting and leveraging networks, or something else, it’s key.
5. My Thoughts: I don’t think it’s helpful to just tell people to “relax.” Or, really, to tell people to do people anything. Let’s listen. Let’s be there for each other. Especially today. Check in on your people. If it is helpful for you to vision/brainstorm about activist plans, do that. If it is helpful to use this as an opportunity to more fully commit to a particular cause or movement, do that. If it is helpful to just hang out with friends or read a book alone, do that.
This matters. It’s bad. But I’m reminding myself that everything that we (and I’m thinking about the “we” who cares about equity and justice and empathy) told ourselves we’d have to do under a Clinton presidency is still the work that has to get done under a Trump one. It might be tougher now, and there might be other things that come up that will demand our attention, but again– I believe in this movement. I believe in us.
But on another level, this is a poem that attempts to think critically about the concept of allyship, or a framework that only allows for heroes and villains. It’s about how much anti-oppression work of any kind is about relationships and the community/culture we build through both our actions and inaction. I hope that we can read/hear this poem in that context as well– especially with everything going on in the world right now– the election (my thoughts on that here), #NoDAPL, the continuing struggles against mass incarceration and police violence, and a whole host of other issues. What does it mean to challenge ourselves to do more than just “be” on the right side of an issue?
3. I got to perform this poem at the United Nations last year, which I think is testament less to the poem or to me, and more to the work that so many have been doing– on campuses, in communities, on social media, and everywhere else, to fundamentally move the conversation around sexual assault forward. In MN alone, I have to shout out SVC, the Aurora Center, MNCASA, and everyone doing that work.
Please feel free to share. A couple other resources:
I put together a list of poems on consent and rape culture as part of an even larger list here.
1. If you live in a state with early voting (like MN), do that. Aside from just the convenience of picking which day is easier for you, it makes the line shorter for other people on election day. Here’s a link to MPLS sites, just as an example; if you’re somewhere else, google it.
2. Knowing the general audience who reads my work, I think it’s worth sharing: yes, voting matters. No, it can’t take the place of organizing. No, it won’t magically stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, police violence, poverty, or climate change. Yes, candidates are imperfect. Yes, we need to think beyond election day. All of that is true, and voting still matters. It’s a power bottleneck that allows us to help decide whether that post-election day organizing will be offensive or defensive in nature. That’s the key for me, more than any other argument. And especially in down-ballot races and referenda, it can have a real impact on people’s lives.
So yeah. Please vote (if you’re able). Then, of course, we get back to work on 11/9 no matter what the outcome is.
3. I’m not really interested in telling people for whom to vote (aside from the obvious one: not Trump), but I did share my own thought process regarding Dems vs. Greens (and the larger issues that are part of that debate), in case anyone is interested.
Clearly, I’ve been talking about this, and everyone has been talking about this, so there’s probably nothing revelatory in here. I just think it’s worth pushing back against the assumption that voting doesn’t matter, or that election time has to be a time when everyone tunes out of movement-building work to focus solely on voting. If anything, I see people more plugged-in, and paying more attention, right now. The key is harnessing that energy. 2017 can be a spectacular, transformative year when it comes to movement-building and people-powered activism. But that work is on us, not our politicians.
One part mixtape, one part disorientation guide, and one part career retrospective, this book brings together spoken word poems, song lyrics, and essays from the past decade of Guante’s work. From the exploration of toxic masculinity in “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’,” to the throwback humanist hip hop of “Matches,” to a one-act play on the racial and cultural politics of Eminem, “A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry” is a practitioners eye-view of the intersections of hip hop, poetry, and social justice. ***UPDATE for 2018: Button Poetry is officially re-releasing my debut book (the one this post is about). You can get it here.***
Very brief background for those who don’t already know: at the University of MN, student orgs each get to paint a panel on a long wall to promote what they do. This year, the College Republicans’ panel included the phrase “Build the Wall.” This made a lot of people angry. Someone painted over the panel. Navigate MN, along with La Raza and others, organized a powerful open mic-style action that allowed student activists, multicultural Greek leaders, community members and others to share their stories and stand in solidarity with each other. La Raza and the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (along with the Gender and Sexuality Center and Women’s Center) each held open forums/processing spaces for further conversation and strategizing. President Kaler released a statement expressing grave concern about, yeah, the vandalization of the panel (as opposed to what the panel actually said). Finally, the school’s conservative alternative newspaper printed one of the most bizarre op-eds I’ve ever read in a conservative student paper (which is really saying something) comparing the vandalization of the panel to rape culture.
Mostly, I just wanted to use this space to link to the various organizations doing good work around these issues (links included below), but I’ll share a couple of brief thoughts too: 1. Whether you call the statement “Build the Wall” offensive, racist, xenophobic, hateful, or something else, it’s a messed up thing to say for reasons that transcend politics. I think we have to start there. This is a campus full of immigrants, and yes, some are undocumented. These are actual people, and whatever your politics are, whatever policies you support, affirming people’s basic humanity is non-negotiable. “Build the Wall” is not a policy position in the same way that “get rid of the estate tax” or “more green jobs” are policy positions. It’s an attack against a specific group of people– both in a direct sense (whose families will be most affected by more draconian immigration laws?) and an indirect one (you don’t have to be a master political strategist to see that the phrase is also a dog whistle euphemism to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria and the votes that come with it, especially this year). These students and community members already face so many obstacles and receive so little support; shouting a slogan like this is straight-up bullying, and can have real consequences in terms of anti-immigrant violence.
2. College Republicans will deflect critique by making this about “free speech” because they know the actual issue is a loser. For a political ideology that never shuts up about the dangers of “victim culture,” American conservatism loves nothing more than to play the victim, especially when it comes to their positions being challenged. And when your positions are deeply unpopular (and/or actively harmful), it will always be easier to hide behind “stop trying to censor my opinion!” than to actually defend those positions.
“Build the Wall” doesn’t work as actual policy (link, link, link, link). The fact that any media coverage of this situation will likely focus on the rights of conservative students to say messed up things, as opposed to digging into the messed up things themselves, is a victory for those students. Remember, aside from someone (who is not a representative of any organization or official entity) deciding to paint “stop white supremacy” on the panel, no actual censorship is taking place. People having forums and community conversations is free speech. People speaking out about why “Build the Wall” is harmful is free speech. People demanding that the university administration do more to support undocumented students, immigrant students, and students of color in general is free speech.
Conservative students catching feelings about their opinions not being respected has nothing to do with censorship, and it certainly isn’t oppression (as implied by the aforementioned bizarre op-ed, which also compared openly supporting Trump to a gay student coming out of the closet). But it sure is easier to spin this controversy toward that debate, to frame yourself as a brave freedom fighter, than to actually engage with people’s critiques of your position. I guess we’ll see how well that strategy works in a month.
3. Abstract, intellectual debates about “issues” end. But the students affected by them have to keep moving. This situation will come and go in the local media, and in the minds of many students. But it’s important to note how this is just one more specific instance of something deeper and more troubling (already, panels representing multicultural Greek orgs have been vandalized). “Microaggression” is not just a buzzword. These issues affect students in very real ways, and the fundamental inability of so many conservatives (and honestly, a growing number of liberals) to just empathize with students of color, to try to imagine what they have to go through, directly contributes to the continuing inequity within higher ed and beyond.
Luckily, students (along with some staff, faculty, and community members) are pushing back. Here are a few more readings and resources, including official statements from some UMN organizations:
NAVIGATE is a leadership development program for immigrant young adults in Minnesota facing financial, social and legal barriers to achieve their dreams through changing unjust systems. Through NAVIGATE, these young adults help their community and themselves by working to access college education, jobs and legal status.
Feel free to leave more links in the comments.
Finally, check out this poem from Tatiana Ormaza and Juliana Hu Pegues; text here:
A very common piece of advice in spoken word workshops or critique circles is “just do the poem.” So many of us, especially when we’re just starting out, instinctually want to frame, contextualize, or introduce the poem. This manifests as any number of statements like “this is just something I wrote when…” or “this isn’t really done; I’m not sure if it has a title yet, but…” or even “this is terrible but I’m going to share it anyway,” etc.
That advice—to dive in, with no disclaimers or introductions—is partly about acknowledging the dramatic effect of a poem that starts from silence, from breath. It is also partly about calming the performer down, allowing their work to simply exist, as it is, with no apologies. Especially in poetry slam spaces—you only have three minutes, so there isn’t really time for “artist statements.”
That being said, I love contextualizing poems. The more that I’ve moved away from slams and toward performing hour-long sets, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the power that can come from framing notes, artist statements, and organic dialogue with the audience. We all listen and learn in different ways, and these fourth wall-breaking moments can sometimes be as meaningful as the poems themselves.
In that spirit, I wrote this as an introduction to my book so that it could both contextualize my poems and offer an introduction to the form—and culture—of spoken word for anyone who may not already be part of that community.
Of course, this list is not about capturing all of spoken word and slam poetry culture in one piece of writing; part of the beauty of our community is that we don’t all agree on everything, and the work that we do is fluid, dynamic, and impacted by context, identities, and intertwining thought-currents. I do not expect every spoken word artist or listener out there to agree with everything I write here. And that’s cool. What follows is more so an illumination of a few pet peeves and misconceptions that I run across all the time. Though I’m no voice-of-God authority on this subject, I am a practitioner; my hope is that this piece can add additional clarity, depth, and nuance to the ongoing conversation.
1. Words Mean Things: A Point About Terminology
This is a can of worms, so I’m not going to to attempt to provide the ultimate, catch-all definition of spoken word here. I will, however, share the framework that I use when it comes to terms:
“Spoken Word” is an umbrella term. It refers to poetry that is read aloud; it may contain elements of theater, stand-up comedy, storytelling, rhetoric, jazz, hip hop, or other forms. We could go deeper with this, in terms of the difference between “recitation” and “performance,” or the difference between creating work that is meant to be performed vs. work that is about the page first and then happens to be performed (and how each approach impacts the writing itself), but I think this is a good starting point. You could also potentially use the term “performance poetry.”
“Slam Poetry” is often used interchangeably with “spoken word,” but I would argue that it means something more specific: slam poetry is spoken word performed at a poetry slam (more on that later). While there may be certain tropes or approaches that are more common in slam poetry than in other kinds of spoken word, the real difference is not about form—it’s about context.
“Beat Poetry” refers to the poetry of the Beat Generation, whose work is now 50+ years old. Please do not call a 20-year-old spoken word artist a “beat poet” unless that’s some kind of explicit shtick they’re running with. The stereotypical imagery of berets and bongo drums is simply not what spoken word is today.
“Spoken Slam Hip Hop Beat Jams” is not a real thing. Additionally, I was once called a “slap poet,” though that was probably a typo. Probably.
2. Spoken Word is Poetry, Whether You Like It or Not
Of course, we don’t all have to be on the same page regarding our enjoyment of or appreciation for spoken word. But to say that “it isn’t poetry” (as many do, with gusto) is closed-minded and, frankly, ahistorical. After all, the history in which poetry was primarily about the page is shorter than the history in which poetry was primarily oral (see next point).
Furthermore, I can’t help but notice the racist and classist undertones in the bizarrely narrow definition of poetry that so many hold on to so desperately; I am interested in asking why that narrow definition (the one that says that poetry must rhyme, or be metered, or be published, or follow established rules) persists in the minds of so many. Where does that definition come from? Who benefits from it?
Now, this does not mean that I believe that all spoken word is beautiful and perfect and amazing. For every spoken word piece that I love, I can think of another (or five) that I despise. The argument here isn’t that we shouldn’t have standards; it’s that we should think critically about the history of those standards, and who has had access to the spaces in which they were created.
Finally, it is also helpful to note that the “page/stage” divide is an artificial one. Lots of great spoken word artists are published poets, award-winners and professors. Lots of page poets are very good at performing their work. As different as spoken word and written poetry can be in many regards, there’s still an enormous overlap.
3. Spoken Word is Old, and New, but Mostly Old
Even though spoken word is very often characterized as a new, underground artistic phenomenon, or as a novel, radical reconceptualization of the relationship between poetry and its audience, it’s important to note that spoken word has been around for as long as language has. It is one of the oldest artistic practices that we have. The griot, the storyteller, the person responsible for orally passing down information from generation to generation: every culture on earth has some kind of analogue to this.
The Iliad and Odyssey were spoken word poems. We can trace the current spoken word boom back through the Black Arts Movement, the Beat Generation, the Harlem Renaissance, deeper and deeper into history, and we’ll get to the griot.
And sure—when most people today talk about “spoken word,” they’re referring to the 30 year-old manifestation of the practice driven by poetry slams, Def Poetry Jam, and viral videos. But it is important to know that this art has deeper roots, and that those of us who do this are taking part—knowingly or not—in a much older cultural practice.
4. Spoken Word is Big and Diverse
I understand that for a lot of people, slam poetry is a punchline. The stereotype of the grim, ultra-earnest college kid shouting clichés about how “the man” is corrupt, in a forced rhythm, while a dozen people in a coffee shop snap their fingers, is deeply embedded in pop culture.
But I’ve been performing in poetry slams, traveling around the country for spoken word shows, and watching poetry online for a decade now, and one thing that always strikes me is how authentically diverse the community is. After all, a fundamental pillar of the culture is the idea that everyone has a story, and every story matters. People approach spoken word from all walks of life, from all identities, and from a myriad of approaches to the form. I would say that the culture is largely driven by young people, and young people of color especially, but it is by no means dominated by a singular voice.
The attitude that “spoken word all sounds the same” is similar to the attitude that “all jazz is just random notes and gesticulating,” or “all hip hop is just shouting about guns,” or “all photography is just high-contrast black-and-white portraits of elderly people.” While there are common tropes and shared delivery tactics (which is true in any form), those elements exist within a framework that allows for endless variations and stylistic impulses. This leads into the next point:
5. Spoken Word is Democratic, and Yes, That Means that Some of It is Bad
Another fundamental pillar of spoken word culture is the idea that poetry is for everyone. Anyone can be a poet. Anyone can serve as a judge at a slam. Anyone can sit in the audience and decide what they like or don’t like. It isn’t about what MFA program you got into, or how many poems you’ve gotten published, or who co-signs you; it’s about how we build community with one another through the telling of our stories and the sharing of our words.
What this means in practice is that no matter who you are, or how much experience or training you have, you can sign up at an open mic or poetry slam and share something. So of course, if you’re an audience member at some random open mic, you are not guaranteed two hours of brilliant writing. A lot of spoken word is pretty bad. But the larger point here is that most art is pretty bad—we just might not ever experience the “bad” indie rock, visual art, dance, etc. The spoken word community, however, is intentionally set up in such a way where the great and not-so-great exist in the same spaces. And though I’ve sat through many a not-so-great slam, I would still argue that this is a very positive thing.
The spoken word community includes icons like Andrea Gibson and Saul Williams, right alongside some 15-year-old kid performing at their very first open mic. It includes Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s boundary-pushing spoken word theater work, right alongside a part-time bartender who competes in poetry slams for a little extra money. It includes the best writers I know—Patricia Smith, Bao Phi, Suheir Hammad, etc.—and countless people who are just starting out, or still growing, or trying to figure out what they have to say. It’s about process and product. It’s about the function of art beyond the art itself. This is immeasurably valuable, and part of why spoken word represents something deeper than just another hobby or literary/artistic movement.
6. Spoken Word is Bigger than Poetry Slams
A poetry slam is a poetry reading staged as an Olympic-style competition. Five judges are picked randomly from the crowd, poets perform, and the judges give those poets scores based on content, form, delivery, originality, or whatever they want. It’s silly, and most of the people who participate know that it’s not really about the points; it’s about getting the audience engaged. Still, slams are popular all over the US (and beyond), and have become the focal point for spoken word’s resurgence.
Although the competitive element turns a lot of people off, I like poetry slams. I like the symbolism of them: write for the people. Write something that connects. Have fun. I like that the judges are random weirdos and not creative writing professors or literary critics. Everything in points #4 and #5 comes alive at the poetry slam. Slams aren’t perfect, and there are important conversations to be had about the intersections of competition, art, identity, and trauma, but I still believe that they are valuable.
That being said, it is important to note here that spoken word happens in other spaces too, and that a lot of the value of slam is that it is one outlet among many. For those of us who grew up in the slam world, it can be too easy to forget that slam is just one way to participate, and that participating solely through slam can be unhealthy (and/or just boring). You can find spoken word at open mics, themed readings, political rallies, classrooms, social justice education programs, churches, punk shows, prisons, and many other spaces too.
7. Spoken Word and Hip Hop Are Not the Same
I’ve heard people talk about how spoken word is just another element of hip hop. I’ve also heard people talk about how hip hop grew out of the work of early spoken word pioneers like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. I would say that there is truth in both statements, but also that both statements make it easy to oversimplify the relationship. I think that hip hop and spoken word—as both art forms and cultures—have been in dialogue with one another for the past few decades, but also that neither one is wholly indebted to the other. They overlap—in terms of audience, artists, roots, styles, and approaches—but they are also distinct cultures and communities. This comes up in conversations about form. Students ask me all the time: “what’s the difference between rapping and spoken word?” There’s a deeper conversation we can have there, but in short, I think of rapping as a specific kind of poetry; and like any poetic form (haiku, sonnet, etc.), it has rules. Rapping rhymes. It is performed at a set tempo and rhythm. It is performed over music. Spoken word, on the other hand, can rhyme, but doesn’t have to. It can be performed to a set tempo and rhythm, but doesn’t have to be. It can be performed over music, but it doesn’t have to be. There are fewer formal guidelines with spoken word and slam poetry. But in terms of substance—you can rap about anything, and you can write a poem about anything.
Of course, both spoken word and hip hop are about speaking truth to power, and lifting up the voices and narratives that are so often silenced in our society. Both are about the implicitly political act of a human being standing on a stage and saying something to a hundred other human beings (especially when you, and/or that audience, hold identities that are misrepresented in the broader culture). Like I said, there is overlap. But where the casual observer might just see “urban youth saying stuff into a mic” and assume that the two forms are exactly the same, I would encourage us all to have a more nuanced view of their similarities, differences, and histories, in order to pay the proper respect to both.
8. Spoken Word Does Not Have to Be Political, But There Might Be a Reason for Why So Much of It Is
Again, there are no rules with spoken word, beyond the fact that poetry slams have three-minute time limits. This applies to form, but also to substance. A poet can write and perform about any topic they want. Of course, the stereotype is that all spoken word is ranting about the revolution; and to be sure, poetry slams generally do feature a lot more poems about identity, power, oppression, struggle, and politics than poems about trees or “pure” lyrical experiments. Part of the reason for this, I would argue, is that as much as spoken word is poetry, it is also something more. It’s a public forum for people to get together and have the conversations that we so often don’t get to have in our everyday lives. It’s a platform to say something that means something to you in front of a hundred strangers. And when so many spoken word practitioners are young people, and/or people holding oppressed identities, and/or people with voices that have just generally not been valued (or even noticed) in society, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that so much spoken word is political. It should be. It needs to be.
9. Spoken Word is Not a Fad; It’s Growing
Every few months, someone publishes another “Is Poetry Dead?” essay. I understand why—it’s click-bait, and there are certainly valid arguments to be made on both sides of the debate regarding aesthetic populism, outreach to new audiences, the accessibility of MFA programs and other weighty topics. The problem, however, is how the question is framed: poetry is dead because fewer people buy poetry books or read poetry journals, or poetry is dead because it’s stylistically stagnant, or poetry is dead because it doesn’t have a presence in the upper echelons of American media or culture. Left out of these equations, due to either simple ignorance or a willful distaste for the form (and its practitioners), is spoken word. Even the inevitable response essays and counterpoints that talk about how poetry is still vibrant and important almost always ignore spoken word. And spoken word is very much where poetry is thriving right now.
At the time of this writing, Button Poetry (the biggest distributor of spoken word videos online) has a YouTube channel with more than a half million subscribers and well over a hundred million views. And they’re just one channel. Even using myself as an example: my work has nearly two million YouTube views, and I make my living as a touring poet traveling around the country. When I do that traveling, I notice spoken word clubs sprouting up at just about every college and high school that I visit, as well as poetry slams in cities across the country generating big, energetic crowds.
Which is all to say: this movement is popular and still growing. Especially when thinking about Button and its impact on thousands of people around the world: spoken word is making people (especially young people) excited about poetry. Its viral boom is sparking a new generation of writers, poets, performers, and storytellers—all of whom may start with poetry slams, but then branch into theater, publishing, music, or other arenas. We’re still in the middle of that ripple effect.
10. You Can Do This Too, If You Want; Spoken Word is About Community
One of the running themes here is that spoken word is about us, more than it’s about me, or you, or whatever poet has the most YouTube views. It is a participatory culture. While I make a living as a spoken word poet (along with a growing handful of others), it is important to understand that you don’t have to go “all in” to do this. Most spoken word poets have day jobs. Most never go viral. Most don’t win every poetry slam that they enter. And this should be celebrated. I’m not sure that we need more professional poets; I think we need more cab drivers, teachers, nurses, organizers, and service workers who write poetry.
I can imagine someone reading this and saying “easier said than done.” And sure, performing in front of people isn’t always easy. To support anyone who might be interested, I’ve tried to collect a few resources here, including a video series of tips, tools, and tactics for aspiring spoken word poets, a list of all of the open mics and poetry slams in my community, a list of 100+ favorite poems by other artists, and more. It might be a matter of finding the space first—a local open mic, an online community, even just an informal writing circle of three or four friends. From there, it’s about diving in, having fun, and figuring out what you want to contribute. Let’s build. If anyone out there has any alternate takes, critiques, or just general thoughts, feel free to leave a comment.