Some other big news on the way, but just a quick update: you can now listen to my book! I did the voiceover myself, in Big Cats’ studio.

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 here!

“Right now, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire.” –Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

With more and more discourse lately (online and in real life) about how corrupt and out-of-touch the super-rich are, I wanted to share a few thoughts and links related to this song. “You Say ‘Millionaire’ Like It’s A Good Thing” has been around for a few years– the original version of the song is available here, and the lyrics are included in my book. This remix, courtesy of Big Cats, is the song’s Final Form– a lean, focused burst of venom directed at the rich.

As a writer and as an activist, I’m really interested in the power of language to reframe issues. It’s important to write songs and poems that describe poverty, that tell our stories, and that call us to action toward economic justice; this song, however, was an attempt to do something a little more specific: to reframe the accumulation of wealth as something that is not just “an unfortunate side effect of the system,” but rather as something that is *morally* reprehensible.

There are caveats; I’m reminded of Jay-Z’s “If you grew up with holes in your zapatos/ you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.” The argument here isn’t that all rich people are “bad” on an individual level (although many absolutely are!); it’s that a system that makes it possible for the distribution of wealth to be so extremely, so obscenely skewed is flat-out wrong. It is directly responsible for the death and suffering of too many people.

And sure, we can have conversations about how wealth is relative, how even working class people in the US “have it better” than x, y, or z other group… but that’s part of the point of the song too– there’s a point where that relativity fails. Maybe it’s not at a million dollars exactly; but somewhere on the wealth spectrum, earning becomes hoarding. Need becomes greed. Here are some articles that go more in-depth; I hope they can be useful, especially as so many of us are watching the 2020 candidates navigate this issue:

Christopher Ingraham: “Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new research” (Washington Post): “American wealth is highly unevenly distributed, much more so than income. According to Zucman’s latest calculations, today the top 0.1 percent of the population has captured nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth, giving them a greater slice of the American pie than the bottom 80 percent of the population combined.”

Farhad Manjoo: “Abolish Billionaires” (NYT): “But the adulation we heap upon billionaires obscures the plain moral quandary at the center of their wealth: Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?”

Sophie Weiner: “AOC: A Society With Billionaires Cannot Be Moral” (Splinter): “‘The question of marginal tax rates is a policy question but it’s also a moral question,’ Ocasio-Cortez said. ‘What kind of society do we want to live in? Are we comfortable with a society where someone can have a personal helipad while this city is experiencing the highest levels of poverty and homelessness since the Great Depression?'”

A.Q. Smith: “It’s Basically Just Immoral To Be Rich” (Current Affairs): “It is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.”

Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark: “Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that.” (Washington Post): “As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can.”

Emmie Martin: “Here’s how much money you need to be happy, according to a new analysis by wealth experts” (CNBC): “‘The lower a person’s annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness,’ Time reported in 2010, citing a study from Princeton University conducted by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman.”

Jesus, in the Bible: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Once again, not a great year, in terms of the world. But I was able to be part of some cool stuff, and am endlessly grateful for everyone who helped make that possible. Here’s a quick recap (and you can find my other end-of-year recaps here) of some of the stuff of mine that people may have missed:

1. Button Poetry Re-Released My Book

Thanks again to everyone who has picked this up, read it, used it in classes, etc. Still blown away by the response. You can still get it here, and an audio version is on the way!

2. Guante & Big Cats: War Balloons

Proud of this album. Ever-grateful to Big Cats, Lydia Liza, and Tony the Scribe for helping to make it happen. If you missed it, I think it’s some of my best work. You can listen to the whole thing here, and consider buying it if you like it:

Oh and for people new to our music (since this is the first project we’ve released in years), here’s a retrospective mix featuring some of our best older songs too. You can also order a t-shirt featuring some cool designs juxtaposed with my lyrics.

3. New Poetry Videos

Some of these are brand new poems, written just this year; others are old favorites for which we captured some more polished footage. All of these performances are from my book’s release show, a sold out night at Icehouse in Minneapolis; thank you to everyone who came through.

4. New Zine: “How Do We Build a Culture of Consent?”

This little booklet comes from asking that question in spaces all over the country (which is part of what I do for a living) and listening to the responses of advocates, survivors, activists, and educators.

With the help of some partners, we got this zine into the hands of thousands of people this year. Lots of concrete action ideas and resources for further study; read the whole thing online and/or download a PDF of the zine version.

5. An Ongoing Writing Project: Deep Dives into Individual Poems

The idea behind this project was to have an archive not just of spoken word poems, but of analysis and commentary that might be useful to aspiring/emerging poets. There just don’t seem to be an over-abundance of spaces to “talk shop” with regards to spoken word specifically, especially for people who may not have access to workshops and classes. I did some of these through Button, and some just on my own as a “Poem of the Month” feature, and the link is now full of fantastic poems, plus some thoughts on technique related to each one.

6. Other Writing

A few other things I wrote or where part of writing this year:

Thanks!

We Are Waking Up In Our Caskets (Mix) by Guante and Big Cats

With the new album, WAR BALLOONS, a week away, here’s a free retrospective mix of songs pulling from the last decade of Guante & Big Cats’ collaborative work. Perfect for a quick workout, hunting vampires, etc. Featuring:

Stories | Everything Burns | Welcome to the Border w/ Chastity Brown | No Capes | Gifted Youngsters w/ Lydia Liza | With Great Power | To Young Leaders | The National Anthem w/ Haley Bonar | The Hero | Asterisk

The new album is something else. Be sure to get your tickets to the release show (Friday, September 21) here!


War Balloons by Guante and Big Cats
For Labor Day, wanted to make another song from the new album (specifically, this song) available. If you already pre-ordered, you can download it now; if you didn’t, pre-order now and you get this song (and another) right away. The lyrics are also available in that link.

Thanks to everyone who has already pre-ordered. Pre-ordering is one of the single best ways to support artists you like; it is definitely appreciated, and we’re excited to share the whole album with you.

The new Guante & Big Cats album, “War Balloons,” is out on September 18. The release show will be September 21 (get tickets now!). In case you missed it, another song from the project is available now: “Fight or Flight,” and features this beautiful design by the incredible Frizz Kid:

War Balloons by Guante and Big Cats
Our first new music in five years. Pre-orders are live now, and if you pre-order, you get the first song on the album, “Fight or Flight,” immediately. The lyrics are available at that link too.

Update: here’s a free sampler mix of some of our best work from previous projects!

Excited to share this with everyone. We’re having a release party on Friday, September 21 at the U of MN’s Whole Music Club. Here’s the cover and official blurb:

“War Balloons” is Guante and Big Cats’ first collaborative project since 2012’s “You Better Weaponize.” Since that time, emcee Guante has become one of the leading voices in the spoken word movement, performing at the United Nations, giving a TEDx talk, and touring the country working with young people around issues of gender violence prevention, identity, and agency. Producer Big Cats has become one of the most respected beatmakers in the country, with work appearing on both solo and collaborative projects, as well as in media for CNN, The Golden State Warriors, PBS, TakeAction MN, and beyond.

Something else that happened between 2012 and 2018: Donald Trump. The songs on “War Balloons” are unapologetically political, but their politics are grounded in narrative and world-building, as opposed to platitudes and sloganeering. “Dog People” looks at the culture of white working-class resentment and the scapegoating (of immigrants, feminists, and other working people) that results from it. “You Say Millionaire Like It’s a Good Thing” is a blistering remix of an older Guante song framing the uninhibited accumulation of wealth as a legitimate moral failing. In between, there are polar bears, superheroes, star-crossed lovers, and all of the visionary, just-this-side-of-magical-realism imagery that the duo’s older work displays. 

Influenced by equal parts Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy, and adrienne maree brown’s “Emergent Strategy,” this is a project called into existence by necessity. As Guante recently tweeted: “screaming at this hellscape is not enough to change it, but changing it probably won’t happen without the screaming.”

An image released by border patrol showing the McAllen, Texas detention facility; source.

This whole post is a writing prompt.

First, some background, since while everyone on my social media is already talking about this, I know that isn’t the case everywhere. And this is an issue we all need to know about:

  • Inside look at Border Patrol facility in Texas housing hundreds of children (CBS)
  • Trump Again Falsely Blames Democrats for His Separation Tactic (NYT)
  • ‘America is better than this’: What a doctor saw in a Texas shelter for migrant children (Washington Post)
  • Trump and the Baby Snatchers (NYT)
  • Alida Garcia’s Twitter thread sharing organizations to donate to and ways to get involved.
  • More links and action ideas in my post from last month
  • “A thread of things we can do.”
These are policies that demand a response. And because one thing I’ve learned from organizers is “know your lane and identify what power you have in it,” I wanted to zoom in and share a few thoughts specifically about what that response might look like when it comes from poets, MCs, musicians, and other writers. As always, nothing here is prescriptive, or will apply the same way to every individual. But for those who are interested in how artists (especially poets) might respond to the present moment, I wanted to at least spark some dialogue:

A Few Thoughts on Writing “Political” Poetry
I want to be precise with that phrase: “political” poetry. There’s a much longer post one could write about that label and how it gets applied to all kinds of poetry, how the act of creation can be inherently political, and how the identities that we hold impact how audiences hear our work as “political” or not. For this post, I’m talking about poems that intentionally, explicitly engage with specific political issues. 

Also, these are thoughts on one particular angle of that process. I’m not including some of the more general stuff that we often talk about in workshops (like the power of storytelling, or using concrete vs. abstract language, or thinking critically about structure, etc.), but you can find some of that here

1. Speak Up, but Speak with Intentionality
Fascism thrives on silence, on people seeing something awful, shrugging their shoulders, and assuming it’ll all just work out. So yes, we need to speak up. We need to use whatever platforms we have to spread the word about what’s happening. But just because silence is unacceptable, that doesn’t mean that running around screaming is the answer. So research. Read. Listen first.

The next three points all kind of revolve around a deeper question of who should write about what in the first place. There are valid arguments to be made about how it can be problematic when, for example, white people write about racism, or men write about sexism– just in general, no matter how “good” the writing is. That’s maybe a longer post, but the point I’m trying to make here is largely a contextual one: when we’re talking about creeping fascism, it’s going to take as large a chorus as we can muster to push back; it’s just that that speaking up process needs to be done carefully and intentionally. It’s hard. It’s very easy to do poorly. Figuring out how to do it well takes experience, and community, and critical self-reflection, but it is possible. The next few points offer a few thoughts on that.

2. What is Your Story to Tell? How Does it Connect?
Not every poem about war has to be from the perspective of a soldier. Not every poem about human trafficking has to be from the perspective of someone being trafficked. These may be the easiest entry points, and some writers can indeed speak from those perspectives because they have the life experience to back it up. But not everyone does– and part of being a writer is figuring out how to speak up without speaking for or over others. What identities do you hold? What is your story? How does it connect to the issue you’re writing about? It may or may not be an obvious connection.

This can be as simple as: rather than writing about what it’s like in a camp set up for children separated from their parents at the border, you write about the moment you read that story in the newspaper– where are you? What is your body’s reaction? What does it make you think about? You still get to signal boost the information and spread the word, but you’re telling your own story. And sure, a poem about reading the newspaper may not be super engaging; but that same basic framework can be pushed into more creative places.

3. Make Appropriate Connections
One reason why poetry is valuable is because it’s a space where we can connect ideas and experiences that don’t always get connected. That process of juxtaposition can highlight new truths about those ideas and experiences. For example, I wrote a poem about my family, Japanese internment, and the current refugee crisis; it’s not a one-to-one, linear relationship between issues, but there are important historical and contextual connections we can make to help us understand what’s going on.

While this relates to the previous point about figuring out how your story intersects with the issue you’re writing about, it also highlights a potential danger: not every connection is appropriate. For example, a poem that compares being bullied for wearing glasses to slavery or the Holocaust would not be appropriate. That’s an extreme example, but more subtle examples pop up all the time. The point here is that there’s a way to make connections without saying “X is exactly like Y” or “I fully understand this horror because I experienced this other thing.” When in doubt, ask others for feedback.

4. Find an Angle
Building on the previous two points, this is a note about how we approach the poem. A lot of poems are basically built around the phrase “here’s what I think!” and while it is possible to work with that, a laundry list of thoughts isn’t always the most effective start. How else might you approach a poem about a specific issue? How can you write about something from a fresh angle? What concept or structuring impulse might help the poem “stick” in people’s heads?

Maybe it’s about filling in some historical context that people don’t know about. Maybe it’s about zooming in on one specific detail of the larger story in order to comment on the bigger picture. Maybe it’s about that aforementioned process of exploring how the issue affects you and your personal experience. Maybe it’s about leaning into magical realism, satire, or hyperbole to challenge people to see an issue in a new light. Maybe it’s an open letter (especially to someone the audience doesn’t already expect). Maybe it’s a poem that incorporates a specific call to action.

5. Think About What the Audience Walks Away With
This may be a controversial point, but I think it’s at least worth considering. Of course, you never have to think about what the audience walks away from a poem with, but with political poetry, you might want to. This is not to say that every poem has to be inspirational. This is not to say that every poem has to have one specific action item at the end. It’s a broader call for more intentionality.

For example, someone could write a poem about how the phrase “tearing children from their parents is unAmerican” is actually ahistorical, since this country has done just that at many points throughout history. But there’s a difference between a poem that makes that point in order to show how smart the poet is, and a poem that makes that point in order to deepen the audience’s commitment to doing something about that.

Another example: someone could write a poem about fascism and authoritarianism, and how they’re creeping further and further into US culture, policy, and politics. That could be the whole poem– “fascism is here and it’s bad.” But there’s an opportunity there to push the audience further. The poem could be “fascism is here, it’s bad, and here’s what we can do about it.” The poem could be “fascism is here, it’s bad, and I’m thankful to the thousands of activists who are pushing back every day.”

Art can be anthemic without being corny. It can cultivate hope without having a neatly-wrapped happy ending. It can call us to action without presenting platitudes and easy answers. That’s all part of the challenge: art can inform, but it can also mobilize. Both are good, but the latter has a special power.

6. It Doesn’t Have to Be a Poem
Just a quick final note that as artists, we can still use our platforms to talk about these issues even if we’re not able to figure out a good way to talk about them in our actual artistic work. Get involved on the ground, show up, signal boost, perform at fundraisers, and make noise. A few expanded thoughts on that here.

Feel free to add more in the comments.

So, not a great year, in general. But I was able to be part of some cool stuff, and am endlessly grateful for everyone who helped make that possible. Here’s a quick recap (and you can find my other end-of-year recaps here) of some of the stuff of mine that people may have missed:

1. My TEDx Talk:


Read more about this here.

2. Our Relationship is a Slowly Gentrifying Neighborhood (Video)

Read more about this (including full credits, lyrics, and more) here.

3. How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist (Video)


This got posted on both YouTube and Facebook (via Button Poetry) and became a very useful tool for performances and dialogues all year. Read more about this here.

4. A Furious Vexation (Mixtape)

Read more about this (including ALL the lyrics) here.

5. Dust (Video)


The Japanese American Citizen’s League asked me to write a piece for the 2017 Day of Remembrance (the day in 1942 that Executive Order 9066 was signed, requiring internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry), connecting it to current issues regarding xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate. Read more here.

6. Some Writing
A few essay-style pieces here, but I’ve also been trying to focus my online writing a bit more, zooming in specifically on resource-sharing posts.

7. Also, I’m on Instagram now
Just a few years too late. But it’s a good record of some other stuff from this past year, from performing at Eaux Claires, to the CU-Boulder planetarium, to a former NASA centrifuge, to A Call to Men’s national conference, and beyond. As always, feel free to get in touch to bring me to your school, conference, whatever.

As for the future, I’m working on a new book now. TruArtSpeaks‘ #BeHeard18 Youth Poetry Slam Series is right around the corner. I’m trying to connect with organizers in MN, WI, IA and beyond about creative ways artists can support progressives running in midterm elections. And a million other things. Thanks for reading.