***EDIT (October 2020): Button Poetry just posted a NEW, higher-quality video of this poem***

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.

Check out this story for a bit more background; there are a ton of other resources online as well. As the poem talks about, this is the kind of story I feel like a lot of people know about in a general sense, but that few internalize and really grapple with. And we need to be thinking about it, especially right now. Full text below.

Finally please support organizations working to build immigrant power and/or fight xenophobia, Islamophobia, and hate of all kinds. Locally, that might mean MIRAC, Navigate MN, CAIR MN, the Young Muslim Collective, or others. Find more at the MN Activist Project’s database.

Also relevant, I have another new video up this week on Button Poetry’s channel. It’s called “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist.” A few extended thoughts (plus the text) on it here.

Dust

1.
“Asked what the infant city was like, those first residents might have, with some justice, summed it up with one word — dust.” –Journalist Taro Katayama, writing about Utah’s Topaz internment camp.

The Japanese side of my family settled in Hawaii. And of course, during the war, they couldn’t intern all of the Japanese there; that’d be a third of the population. But still, decades later, I grew up hearing about the camps. For every story about one of my great uncles fighting for the US against the Japanese Empire, another story, about a different empire, an empire of dust.

There was a kind of distance, of course: hearing the echo, of the echo, of someone weeping. It was subtle, like, for every Packer game, to make room for snacks, I’d have to move those three huge coffee table books: one about Hawaii, one about Ireland (for some reason), and one about Manzanar. This is where the “less” of my more-or-less whiteness lives. Not so much a waving flag as a map hidden in the sole of my shoe.

I learned very early that ghosts are not just the disembodied spirits of the dead. They can be, but they are also more, in the same way that water is more than just rain, that history is more than just the history we are taught. Ghosts appear, like dust, everywhere, from nothing, they multiply. They swim in the ink of newspaper headlines, smile in the background of photographs seized by government censors, burst by the thousands from a grandmother’s single tear. They create patterns in the dust; we breathe them in, when we breathe in the dust. And I learned very early, that ghosts don’t just haunt houses. They haunt history. And that knowing your history, determines: whether you learn to live with your ghosts, or are devoured by them.

2.
Tennessee legislator Glen Casada calls for the National Guard to “round up” all Syrian refugees, despite constitutional protections. He says: “you have to ask yourself, which is greater: life or due process?”

As if that were the choice. As if our history, if we listen to it, does not curse and condemn those who offer these kinds of choices– life or your freedom, life or your culture, life or your property, life or your language, life or your child’s life. Just do the math. How much can you carry, as you leave your home, unsure of your return? What do you leave, what can you not live without? Do you plan to return? Do you hope? What year is this? Is the distance disappearing? And suddenly it isn’t math anymore.

Question #27: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”

Question #28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?”

Is answering yes an admission that you, at one point, would not have answered yes? Will you be loyal to that which is not loyal to you? When uprooted, will you still reach for the sun? Will you grow here, in this dust? Will your children? How will you protect your children? You have to ask yourself, which is greater: one grain of dust, or all those ghosts? You have to ask yourself: which is greater: that weight on the conscience of a nation, or all those ghosts? I learned very early, that you have to ask yourself: which is greater: your commitment to order, or your commitment to justice?

3.
Before he died, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave a talk at the University of Hawaii Law School about the Korematsu decision, the legal rationale for the internment of 120,000 innocent people of Japanese descent, most of whom were US citizens, born here, half of them children. He invoked a Latin phrase: Inter arma enim silent leges: “in times of war, the law falls silent.”

And evolution is slow, slower than the sun crawling across the desert sky, slower than the fading of memory. The only real difference between who we are now and who we were in 1942 is our history, and what we choose to learn from it. I learned very early that it is always a time of war. That they will always find a scapegoat. If not our people, someone’s people.

There are still people living, who witnessed lynchings. There are still people living, who survived the Holocaust. And of those Japanese Americans still living, who lost time to the camps, to the dust, we must hear them. And those who are not still living: we must hear them too.

Fred Korematsu said: “… No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”

Mary Hirata said: …we have to make sure it’s never done again. It’s so easy, and the more I read about it, the more I know that this was already planned way before the war… it’s a terrible thing to happen. Of course, I don’t think they’ll ever do it again, they couldn’t. I think. But that’s what we thought, too.”

Yuri Kochiyama said: “Remember that consciousness is power. Tomorrow’s world is yours to build.”

These words, these stories, are my family’s only heirloom. And we must listen. Through the dust storm of history, through the wailing all those ghosts. We must hear these voices.

…But they must hear us too.

Because when the law falls silent. We must not be. When the law falls silent. We will not be.

Like a lot of people in my community, I was out this past weekend at a couple of different actions/protests regarding the killing of Philando Castile (and others across the country). Rather than write my own big think-piece here, I thought a better use of this platform would be to collect a bunch of the links and resources that have been helpful to me over the past week (I also did this back in 2014, but it’s time for an update). I’m framing this around the question “BUT WHAT CAN I DO?” which has come up a lot recently.

I think it’s important to note that there’s no easy answer to that question. I want to say “organize.” I also want to say, though, that at different times, “doing something” will look different. It might be calling a jail to check on arrested protestors. It might be just showing up to whatever action is happening and standing in solidarity. It might be donating money to a bail fund, or dropping off supplies at an occupation, or filming a police encounter, or going to a meeting, or being there for a friend, or organizing a healing space or benefit concert, or a million other things. It doesn’t mean, however, sitting back and criticizing what’s going on when you have no skin in the game. It doesn’t mean emailing your one Black friend and asking them what to do (they probably have enough on their mind right now). And it certainly doesn’t mean business-as-usual. There’s always something that can be done, even if that “something” isn’t a big red button that fixes everything right away.

So here are a few starting points. Feel free to add more thoughts in the comments.

Follow: Activists and Organizers Doing the Work
No matter who you are or in what ways you want to get involved, I think the first step would be to follow the organizers on the ground– not just the media talking heads, or artists who support the work, but the actual activists and organizations on the front lines. I will list Twitter handles here, but many of these orgs are also on Facebook and other social media.

  • Twin Cities
  • National
    • Part of the strength of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that it’s pretty local-focused. There are “chapters” in some cities, but there are also organizations and collectives that use the phrase as a rallying cry rather than a specific organizational relationship. That being said, a few accounts that tweet info regularly include @BreeNewsome@DeRay, @Nettaaaaaaaa, and the national BlackLivesMatter account. I also always appreciate @PrisonCulture‘s perspective on the broader project of abolishing the prison-industrial complex. Note that this is not a list of the “most important” organizers, or founders of the movement– just a few links for people interested in more information. Feel free to add more.

Learn: Readings and Resources
Here are a few links to readings that have been useful this past week, both in terms of learning and challenging myself, and in dialogue with others.

Organize: Get In Where You Fit In
I know that this is sometimes easier said than done. But it’s still the answer. Change happens when people get together and make it happen. What might this look like?

  • Joining, supporting, and/or donating to existing organizations. The links in the first section of this piece might be a good start.
  • Showing up. Rallies, marches, vigils, and protests don’t solve problems on their own. But the bigger they are, the more energy gets infused into the movement that will solve those problems. Apart from that, these are the places to go to get plugged in.
  • Think about your own positionality and the spaces you have access to. For me, since my job is to build with college and high school students around the country, it’s pretty easy to make sure that a racial justice focus is part of that. Depending on what identities you hold, what your job is, or what spaces you have access to, this will look different. But thinking about our peer groups, workplaces, places of worship, families, neighborhoods, and beyond is a good step. Make problems that are so often so huge and overwhelming local. The thing is, there’s no easy five-step checklist to do that. It takes critical thought, and work, and dialogue. But it can definitely be done.
I hope some of this can be useful. Feel free to add more thoughts or links in the comments.

Think Critically: Whose Narrative is Valued?
Thinking specifically of this past weekend, if you only listen to what the nightly news says, or what St. Paul’s mayor says, you’re not getting the whole story. Because where are they getting theirs? Often, the “official” police narrative becomes the story that gets repeated, even if that narrative isn’t entirely accurate. A few links:

  • While a lot of the local media’s coverage focused on the simplified narrative of “violent protestors,” this piece from HuffPo’s Black Voices gives a more nuanced report of what actually happened.
  • Do You Know the History of the Rondo Neighborhood? The march that shut down I94 had a lot of symbolic weight behind it. If anyone is going to be angry about a march shutting down a freeway, they should be a lot angrier about a freeway tearing apart a neighborhood. We need to know our history. Fadumo says it best.
  • Finally, the homie Abeer Syedah posted a firsthand account of what went down:

The narrative that’s being painted about last night’s protest is appalling. As someone who, in my work capacity, engages with mainstream media & with liberal/progressive public figures, I find myself sometimes frustrated with the way stories are warped and repeated by those who aren’t experiencing it. But it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything like this. 

Some of my role last night was to help people stay safe, peaceful, and resourceful. This means that I witnessed, or was involved in, some of the incidents being very much so warped in the storytelling of this protest. Yes, rocks, water bottles, and other items were thrown at the police. Majority of them were thrown by folks who identified themselves as attending the march “for myself” and disrespected Black Lives Matter. I personally confronted two of them on two separate occasions, before things were thrown, and they made it clear that they weren’t going to listen and their goal would endanger the entire crowd. Mica begged over the bullhorn for them to stop. Community members would ambush them and make them leave. On several occasions, I watched (and filmed) community members de-escalating folks ready to cause harm. I cannot put into words the DESPERATION in people’s voices & actions as they told agitators to “stop throwing shit, stop agitating, you’re endangering everyone, this isn’t us.” 

Before the march began, through the bullhorn during the entire march, and after, Black Lives Matter pleaded for nonviolence and non-agitation, even though the Black community has not been afforded that treatment. 

I counted at least a dozen firecracker-like items thrown at the crowd by the police. At one point we were gassed. I coughed so much, I vomited with blood. A woman next to me was heaving on the ground while folks ran over to her with gallons of milk to lessen the burn. Rubber bullets and markers were shot at the crowd. At this point, most major news media outlets, aside from the people of Unicorn Riot who livestreamed everything, had left the ground scene. 

All the while, before things started getting really poor, people were told to make sure kids were out of the crowd. They were put on the pickup truck used by BLM to drive them away from the situation and keep them safe. Instead, the cops blocked them from leaving and, eventually, maced this truck with kids on board. Mayor Chris Coleman grossly and falsely claimed kids were being used as shields. Was he there? Where are the kids’ stories? 

If you disagree with this protest style or the cause as a whole, that is a different conversation (that I had in 2014 and you’re welcome to use those Facebook statuses as my responss to critiques of protest styles and the BLM cause) but what I’m trying to make clear is that the stories being told are biased. Ignoring our words. Because, you know what I saw?

I saw hundreds of white people link arms and stand ready to defend the black community from danger or harm. I saw people whose cars got blocked on I94 raise their fists in the air with us, give us thumbs up, and chant ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ from their cars. I saw families, couples, friends, strangers, black people, white people, APIs, Latixs and/or Native people, queer/trans people, straight people, men, women, folks of all gender identities, old people, young people, parents, and kids, marching together. I saw people carrying pictures of Philando while singing and dancing to Purple Rain.

I saw, and joined, people grabbing empty water bottles from the ground so they could recycle them later because “we respect our streets.” I saw people, with tears in their eyes, chant “no justice, no peace,” and could only imagine which of their loved ones they saw in Philando, Alton, Tamir, Freddie, Walter, Jamar, Eric, Mike, Sandra, Akai, and hundreds more. I saw people making sure we never forget these folks who were LOVED, had FAMILIES, had ASPIRATIONS. I saw people who were demanding that people not forget, not move on with their lives, not be comfortable, with the executions of people who did not deserve to die at the hands of those sworn to protect them. I saw a lot of radical love.

Fuck violence against anyone. Stop provoking a war when we want it to be democracy. Tons of arrests happened last night. The agitators don’t seem to be among them. Students, young people, old people, people of all races, are. UMN students are among them. I support them & am requesting their release as a civically-engaged Minnesotan. If you want to donate to the bail fund, send via Paypal to blacklivesmattermpls2016@gmail.com. If you want to request the release of protesters, call Ramsey County District Attorney John Choi’s office at 651-266-3222. You can also contact St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

That might be a good thing to end with for now. Again, feel free to add more links, resources, or thoughts in the comments.

***EDIT: the video here is the NEWER version of this piece (the one that appears in my new book), posted on 2/12/17. Fast-forward to the year 2020, and I wrote some expanded thoughts on this poem, and a particular line that has been resonating with people.***

I could write a whole thing here, but I will try to keep this commentary short. This poem has been through a lot of drafts– even this video is subtly different from the one on the album, and both are different from what I’ve been performing over the past couple of weeks. Just a couple of quick thoughts (all of which are in addition to the album commentary I already wrote):

Probably the biggest theme on “Post-Post-Race” is the importance of having a more critical, wider perspective on issues of race and racism. Racism isn’t just about “bad people being mean to other people because they look different;” it’s about history, it’s about systems and institutions, and it’s about power. This poem is maybe the most direct exploration of that idea on the album.

Especially today, in the context of Trump (and the movement that he represents) it’s important to see racism and xenophobia as bigger than one individual’s bigotry. We should work to defeat Trump, but we should not labor under the delusion that defeating Trump will be enough. It won’t. Electing a Democrat won’t be enough either. Even electing a progressive Democrat won’t be enough. Defeating racism (and sexism, homophobia, etc.) will take a multi-tiered approach, and I’d argue that step one is affirming that these problems are fundamentally bigger than individual attitudes or actions.

And “bigger” doesn’t mean “invincible.” It just means that our work is not just the work of changing people’s hearts and minds; it’s the work of changing our institutions, laws, policies, media, and systems too.

I get that this is a tough thing for some people to wrap their heads around. I also get that this particular poem might be a little tough to stomach as an intro to this concept, and might be better suited as a supplementary tool. So here are a few recommended links/readings:

I’d encourage everyone to read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which might be the most important book of the last decade. I’d also recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” which describes the system that we call “racism” as clearly as you’re likely to read anywhere. For all the visual learners out there, here’s the NYT’s “The Faces of American Power,” which lets us just look at the literal faces of people in positions of power in this country; hard to argue with that. Also, be sure to watch “13th” on Netflix! Feel free to add other good resources in the comments.

Thanks again for listening and for sharing. The whole album is still available here:
Post-Post-Race by Guante & Katrah-Quey

Full text of the poem:
HOW TO EXPLAIN WHITE SUPREMACY TO A WHITE SUPREMACIST
(originally printed in my book)

Sometimes, you are a lit match dropped into a boiling ocean. Sometimes, you are a stray dog proud of the sunrise after a long night of barking at the moon. Sometimes, you scream at the television, shadowbox mushroom clouds; your hand-to-hand hatred outclassed, outdated. You: post-apocalyptic litterbug. You: venomous spider in the basement of a burning building. You: whose anger is so vast, and so empty—all teeth, and no mouth, just that white rattle.

Remember: white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water. It is how we talk about racism as white hoods and confederate flags, knowing that you own those things, and we don’t… as if we didn’t own this history too, this system—we tread water.

And you: chum in a bucket. How many skinheads do you think are in the room when they set immigration law? Or decide curriculum for public schools? Or push policies like redlining, mandatory minimum sentencing, benign neglect, gentrification, broken windows policing, voter, ID, stop and frisk, three strikes, the drug war? Remember: the eye of the hurricane is the least destructive part.

You: meanest glare in the chatroom, all poker-face and no cards. Was it your politically incorrect YouTube comment that made the median net worth of black families in this country nine percent the median net worth of white families?

Which individual Donald Trump bigot bogeyman are we supposed to be angry at about the millions of people impacted by discrimination in housing, and banking, and education, and employment, and the criminal justice system, each year? Remember: sharks kill about one person each year; thousands drown.

So, when there is a new name hashtagged each week, when police create more black stars than Hollywood; how long do we keep pointing out the bad apples, ignoring the fact that the orchard was planted on a mass grave? …and that we planted it there?

Because of course, this isn’t really a poem for white supremacists. I don’t know any white supremacists.

But I know a lot of people in this room. And I know myself. And I know how white supremacy is upheld, whether through our action, our inaction, or just through paying our tuition and taxes. How it isn’t just the broken treaty; it also the treaty. How a gavel can speak as loudly as a grenade. How a white fratboy in blackface on Halloween and his friend, who knows it’s wrong but doesn’t say anything, begin to blur together.

How the real racists, today, are so often not even racist. Those teeth, sharper when smiling, sharper still when smiling, and meaning it.

A burning cross is so dramatic. Just say: I don’t see race. Just say: we all have an equal chance if we work hard. Just say: all lives matter. Just say nothing; surround yourself with others who say nothing, and convince yourself that silence is the only song: this muted, underwater melody, this pulsing quiet.

And when a chorus blooms in Baltimore, when trumpets sound in Ferguson, when every one of our cities breaks… into song, will we hear it? Will we choose to listen? Or will we just continue treading water, watching for that great, white, shark… not realizing that we’re drowning?

(plus an image for Facebook share previews):

 

Post-Post-Race by Guante & Katrah-Quey

The new album is here. Thanks so much to everyone who pre-ordered it, came to the release show, and had a hand in putting the project together. I will likely do a follow-up post with some more notes and thoughts on specific songs, but for now, just wanted to get this out there (although I will share a few more general reflections below).

As always, the only real way people will hear this is if you share it– on social media, in real life, however. All of those RTs, re-posts, and emails make a real difference– and me and Katrah-Quey really, truly appreciate it. I’m not really expecting this one to blow up on the rap blogs, haha. Word-of-mouth is everything.

Also, because you can’t release an album without some kind of video too these days, here’s a video of me performing the last two verses on the album (which work as a pretty good encapsulation of the whole primary theme of the album, as does this video I released last week) a capella:

Finally, I’d like to share a couple of thoughts and reflections, especially since this album is attempting to do some pretty specific things.

1. First of all, huge thanks to all of our guests: Tony the Scribe, Jayanthi Kyle, GP Jacob, Tish Jones, Lucien Parker, See More Perspective, and Laresa Avent. We knew going into this project that because of the subject matter, it had to be a collaborative album. We had to feature more than just my voice and perspective. And all of the guests we got are not only phenomenal artists, but also people who walk the walk too– as organizers, educators, and advocates in many different spheres. If I can give myself a compliment, it’s that I’ve always been very good at choosing people to work with, and this album might be the best example of that yet.

2. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not we succeeded, but there were three kind of “guiding principles” for this project. One was collaboration, which I mentioned in the last point; one extension of that idea, though, might be that we wanted to have an intersectional lens. “Venom,” for example, is as much about class as it is about race. Throughout the album, we talk about oppression both along racial lines and more generally– the goal is to make POWER visible, to see how it flows and functions (which relates to the next point too).

Two was criticality— the idea that if we were going to do a hip hop album about race, it had to push further than saying stuff like “racism is bad” or “privilege is a thing that exists” or whatever. If the album has a theme beyond “songs about race and racism,” it’s pushing back against the narrative that race doesn’t matter, that we live in a “post-racial” society. But on an even deeper level, it’s exploring the idea of racism as something bigger than interpersonal dislike or even hate– it’s about history, it’s about trends and patterns, and it’s about systems of power. This might be the single biggest thing that a lot of people don’t *get* about race and racism, and a bunch of the tracks explicitly tackle that.

The third point here is communication— as mean as this album can be, and as radical as it might be to some listeners, it was important that the album “let people in,” so to speak. The very first track might piss some people off, but it’s also about immediately attempting to let people in on the “joke” (while affirming that the joke isn’t funny). Winning an argument isn’t about the other person immediately, explicitly saying “oh I get it now;” it’s about presenting a new frame of understanding that might impact how they think weeks, months, or years later. Almost every song on this album is attempting to present deeper, more critical frames of understanding– not to indoctrinate anyone or make them think exactly like I think, but to encourage questioning and critical thinking.

This will likely be a longer post later, but I also want to state that it was important to me to make the points I wanted to make. That might sound weird; I just think that sometimes in art, we sometimes over-value a kind of detached, above-it-all, hyper-metaphorical or imagistic subtlety. So yeah, this album is pretty damn direct, sometimes blunt; but neither “blunt” nor “subtle” are universally good or bad. They’re tools. Subtle art can be brilliant, but it can also be empty. Blunt art can be boring, but it can also be transformative.  It all depends on what work you want your art to do. Again, I’ll try to expand on this later, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

3. My half of the profit from this album goes to TruArtSpeaks; if you follow me here or on social media, you probably already know about them (full disclosure: I’m currently the managing director of the organization while Tish Jones is on a fellowship in Oakland), but if not, check them out. This video is a fantastic introduction to the work that we do.

I could keep writing. A lot went into this project. Thanks again for listening.


Brand new video for an older poem courtesy of Patrick Pegg. Full text after the jump. I usually like to let the poems or songs speak for themselves, but a few background points on this one:

1. I’m trying to walk a pretty fine line in this poem. The argument that hip hop is a rainbow-colored racial utopia isn’t true. And the argument that white people have no place whatsoever in hip hop is an increasingly abstract, academic one. Both of these arguments, however, are easier to stand behind than what I’m trying to actually say. I think it’s important to recognize the facts on-the-ground, while at the same time being careful not to excuse anyone or cop pleas; we have to understand the history of cultural imperialism, and we also have to know how that history interfaces with what is happening right now. The ending of the piece is intentionally layered/muddy.

2. White privilege as a symptom of white supremacy plays out in many different spaces. When I was more actively doing social justice education/facilitation stuff, a common argument among students was that white people lose their privilege when they become the minority, or visit another country, or whatever. Part of this poem is pushing back against that idea. Even in hip hop, a culture created by and still driven by people of color, white privilege plays out– that’s kind of a central message in this piece. It’s also about pushing the “privilege framework” a little further and complicating the idea of “allyship.” The key line in the poem, for me, “what is the difference between acknowledging your privilege and acting on that acknowledgement?”

3. My perspective in this poem is also complex– I’m speaking as a white MC, while also speaking as a mixed-race, white-presenting MC; beyond that, I’m speaking as a practitioner. While the racial identity stuff might get more attention in this poem, that last point is really important to me. I think it’s important for practitioners (active, involved MCs, DJs, b-boys, b-girls, etc.) to be driving these conversations, not just think-piece writers and bloggers.

4. The title is confusing, yeah. I have a SONG called “The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege” too; plus the older version of this poem was called “Confessions of a White Rapper.” I decided to use the former title for both the song and the poem– partly because I just think it’s more clever (“backpacker” being casual slang for underground hip hop fan, and the whole title riffing off Peggy McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack metaphor), but also because I wasn’t super comfortable with the old title– didn’t want it to push into “isn’t it so novel and amazing that white kids rap?!” clickbait territory.

5. Finally, this poem isn’t on the new album, but it is a great introduction to the ideas and themes explored on it. Reminder: the release show is 3/3 at the Whole Music Club in MPLS (free and all ages!), and here’s something special: the full tracklist featuring song titles and guest vocalists:

THE INVISIBLE BACKPACKER OF PRIVILEGE

A pocketful of props, a quick pound and a handshake
A free mixtape, a highway through a landscape
as far from the Bronx as heaven is
Moment of uncertainty, moment of clarity, moment of hesitance
A bio with a spark a truth,
a couple sharpies, Party Music and The Carter Two
Labcabincalifornia, Illmatic and Headshots,
A couple handbills left in the back of a reststop,
A rhymebook, a sticker with my name on it
stickin’ through the rain washin’ all the other flyers down;
hoodie up, fitted to the side, bottled water, last minute to decide
setlists, rep this: livin’ for the rhyme
but moreso for what that rhyme represents:
forty-five minutes of our lives to connect
Broken hearts over breakbeats, live and direct
from the belly of the beast, strivin’ to get free…

The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege; OR: Confessions of a White Rapper:

1. KRS-ONE says there are nine elements of hip hop, a solar system of art, and fashion, and innovation orbiting an inferno. Some promoters will book me over a black rapper because they don’t want to attract the wrong element.

2. It is easier for me to get a buzz going because most bloggers, radio DJs, publicists, music journalists, videographers and booking agents are white. And I don’t even really identify as Caucasian; I’m mixed. But that usually doesn’t fit on the flyer.

3. Listeners, who are often white, and identify with me because of it, actively seek out meaning in my music, rather than just looking for a good beat to dance to. And I will readily admit: I am very talented. But is that talent the reason you bought my album, the reason you came to my show, the reason you want this interview? I will never know.

4. I can code-switch on a dime. We developed warp technology years ago and will leave this solar system as soon as we find a more fashionable one.

5. My music can be perceived as rebellious because it’s hip hop, but safe because of my skin. Fans and listeners get to engage with an oppositional culture without ever leaving their racialized comfort zones. Tarzan is the king of the jungle. Tom Cruise is the last samurai. Michael J. Fox goes back in time and invents rock and roll in 1955.

6. The thing about stealing is that it’s addictive. A little here. A little more. And we all know it’s not wrong to steal to feed your starving family… and white kids in America are hungry.

Whose food are they eating? Whose food are you eating? Whose food am I eating?

7. Maybe white people don’t belong in hip hop. But white people don’t really belong in America, when you think about it. So these questions remain: what is the difference between acknowledging your privilege and doing something about that acknowledgment? How do we move forward? How do we define progress? Who is we? Who should be we? Who deserves to belong in the category we?

8. When I say one small step for man, you say one giant leap for mankind. Just remember whose planet you’re standing on.

9. The code of the white rapper is this: know the history, build community, put people on. And if they ever make you a monument, scratch your name out. Break it. Spit on it. Burn it.

We are not tourists, but we are also not the native inhabitants of this land. Aliens. Invaders. Put your hands up. Put your fucking hands up.

“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):

Finally, one last link: this will be my last show of 2015: Sunday, December 13 at the 7th St. Entry for Aym Telos’ album release party; w/ Sarah White, EJ and more!

“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

…so that’s the official blurb. A few more thoughts:

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?

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, and I’d like to be clear that this framework is what I try to remind MYSELF of, not how I think all people everywhere need to operate. If other people can relate to this or use it, great, but I’m not trying to dictate anything to anyone. Especially when I think about my own identities and positionality, these points only really make sense in that context. For example, telling a Black person “you should do more to educate people” would be a super messed-up thing to say. But telling myself that would not be. So please read this spectrum with that in mind.

Also, I’m not particularly interested in being “deep” here. This isn’t some profound philosophical discussion about how human beings relate to change-making processes, or a poetic exploration of the roots of racial violence; it’s a concrete look at how social media practice can relate to movement-building.

With regards to the #BaltimoreUprising and #FreddieGray protests, a few examples:

1. Silence: So some people are silent because they’re ignorant, or because they don’t care, but there’s also a case to be made, especially for white people, that silence could mean listening, not trying to take up space: two good impulses. But as the rest of this list shows, there are ways to speak up without without speaking over others, especially when we’re talking about social media practice. And there’s just too much at stake to be completely silent.

2. Platitudes: “We all just need to LOVE each other!” Some platitudes are innocent, but a good amount of them implicitly amount to “why are you talking about this? I’d prefer to not think about it.” And then, of course, there’s the “All Lives Matter” crowd.

3. “Thoughts and prayers:” The last thing I want to do is disrespect people who are authentically trying to process tragedy and injustice. But I struggle with this one. If saying “my thoughts and prayers are with Baltimore” helps you survive, then I support that; this spectrum, after all, applies to me and yours might look different. But for me, I don’t give my own thoughts or prayers much weight. Sometimes a phrase like this can be an excuse to disengage, to say something when you feel powerless to do anything. But I don’t believe in powerlessness, as the following points illustrate.

4. Outrage: Sometimes, this is just raw emotion, and that’s fine. “This country is messed up and we need to DO something” is a great sentiment, and one I agree with. But this point is in the middle of the spectrum for a reason.

5. Outrage + links to more information: Social media can be really powerful, but not just for the vague push-and-pull of culture battles. It can be used to legitimately transmit information that can be used for the building of movements. So saying “this country is messed up and we need to DO something” AND linking to something like one of the following is more valuable to me than the previous point. A few examples:

6. Outrage + links to concrete actions or organizations: When the question “but what can I do?” is on so many people’s minds, I return to the idea that systemic problems require solutions that are bigger than just “striving to be a better person.” That means organizing: joining and/or supporting activist organizations that are doing the work. Of course, no organization is perfect, and no single event can magically “fix” things. But these are vital first steps. A few examples:

7. Signal-boosting the activists on the ground: I don’t always do this, since it can be tempting to center my social media practice on my own thoughts and opinions. But I think the “tweet less, retweet more” impulse is important. I have opinions, but I’m not in Baltimore, or Ferguson; beyond that, I’m also not Black, and this movement is very much about how #BlackLivesMatter. So shout out to people like @osope, @aliciagarza, @opalayo, @deray, @prisonculture, @karnythia, @blacklivesmpls, @nvlevy, @micamaryjane, @eveewing, @blklivesmatter, @dreamdefenders, @wintanamn, @mnnoc, and the hundreds of other activists and organizers out there. Feel free to add others in the comments.

If you’re one of the many people who feels like “I want to say something, but I’m not an expert; I don’t have anything to contribute,” then finding ways to signal-boost others can be a good option.

8. ADDENDUM SPECIFICALLY FOR ARTISTS:
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that there’s extra pressure on anyone who has a significant social media audience (whether you define that as 5k, 25k, 100k or beyond). ESPECIALLY because, as artists, it is very easy for us to veer into performative allyship, posting the hottest hot-take, being super vague, abstract, and faux-poetic. But we can do better. Artists (especially hip hop artists, my community) reach audiences that organizers don’t. When you’re tweeting/posting, please keep that in mind. Like this whole continuum illustrates– you can do some good by tweeting about the movement, but you can also actively help BUILD the movement with a little bit of intentionality.

The key word here, I think, is “specificity.” Even though so many of us are conditioned to strive for “timeless” rather than “timely,” sometimes being timely is simply more important. This is about how even though we’re all planting seeds, there’s a difference between randomly scattering wildflower seeds and planting crops.

Also feel free to add other links or resources in the comments. Thanks.

I made a collage of some of responses to the “but shouldn’t it be ALL LIVES MATTER?” crowd.

Because pointing out and organizing around the fact that black people are disproportionately targeted, harassed and killed by police does not take away from the fact that other people are also affected, that the recent murders of police are also tragic, or that other lives are not also valued.

If you’re more offended by the phrase #blacklivesmatter than the reality that prompted it, I would challenge you to reflect on that.

MORE:

Collier Meyerson at Fusion: A guide to debunking the need for “All Lives Matter” and its rhetorical cousins

Kevin Roose at Fusion: The next time someone says ‘all lives matter,’ show them these 5 paragraphs

And then there’s always this:

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