This page features posts from the blog that profile organizations or interview people doing exciting work at the intersections of art, culture, activism, and organizing. Please be in touch if you know of a great organization that should be featured.
I recently had the chance to speak to Karen Young and Payal Sharma at The Genki Spark, a Boston-based group doing cultural organizing with Asian women. I learned how Japanese drumming can be a source of personal empowerment and political action.
The Genki Spark works to develop Asian women as artists and community leaders who can give voice to the challenges facing Asian-American communities, while celebrating the communities’ deep cultural strengths. The organization was founded by artist and organizer Karen Young in 2010. Intergenerational and Pan-Asian in its membership, The Genki Spark is made up of a core performance ensemble that puts on an impressive array of performances, workshops, and talks around the country.
The organization’s work is based in the Japanese art of Taiko drumming. Taiko, an art form with a long history in Japan, was brought to the US during the 1960′s — specifically to San Francisco. So American Taiko grew up in the context of burgeoning Asian American activism, in a hotbed of radical youth organizing. Taiko became a medium for political and cultural activism — a way for Japanese-Americans to build a powerful cultural identity, and give voice to relevant community issues such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. While drawing inspirations from other strands of Taiko history, The Genki Spark is directly rooted in this tradition. In fact, Genki founder Karen Young’s relatives, Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, were trailblazers in Taiko-based activism in San Jose. (For more on American Taiko, check out this article by Hideyo Konagaya).
Karen sees Taiko as a valuable way to foster individual empowerment, particularly for Asian women who face dual gender- and ethnicity-based expectations of subservience and gentleness. In addition to its history as a form of activism, and its cultural resonance, Taiko performance is imbued with physical strength. As Konagaya writes of taiko players, called sansei, they “physically acted out their resistance against inequality and injustice in American society and against their own passivity and weakness through actions such as whirling sticks over their heads, shouting, jumping, turning, and pounding on taiko.” As Karen tells me, the very act of hitting a Taiko drum with a huge stick can be an empowering experience for women, and seeing such performances can challenge audience members’ stereotypes of Asian women.
Like many cultural organizing groups, The Genki Spark has multiple goals. Perhaps foremost among its goals is the personal transformation of its members. It supports women developing not only as artists, but as leaders, with the skills, confidence, and sense of cultural efficacy to take action in the community. These leaders, in turn, advocate for the value of all cultures while modeling cultural pride — as Karen puts it, “we hope to model what it looks like to proudly claim your whole self in a society that wants us to assimilate and be the same.”
The Genki Spark is part of a broader movement to challenge stereotypes of Asian women, and to address issues affecting Asian-American communities. The group supports many grassroots social justice efforts, and is often invited to perform at rallies and other political events. In addition, The Genki Spark is part of the national Taiko community and has goals for the art form. At a time when Taiko is being appropriated by US pop culture (including Katy Perry, Alicia Keys, and Mitsubishi), The Genki Spark keeps alive the tradition of Taiko as a medium for political and cultural expression.
I cannot do justice to their performance in words, so please take a few minutes to watch the video below.
I recently had the chance to talk to Dr. Toby Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii. I had come across her work on cultural leadership and was very curious to learn more about the concept, as well as her work. She spoke passionately on the topic, raising issues of family, pride, service, community, and love. She definitely pushed my own thinking about the kind of leadership that our communities need.
Why don’t we start with the course you teach called Cultural Leadership; how did that come about?
It’s something that I’d been developing for a number of years. I worked at the cultural center at the University of Maryland and developed a leadership program focused on leadership in underrepresented communities. We were trying to figure out what we could learn from studying social movements and leaders of color. Probably at that point is when I started looking at combining the concepts of leadership and culture. Then, when I got to Penn State, I developed it into a formal course experience. It was a hodgepodge of different things. We were looking at the history of leadership in communities of color, so we looked at Che Guevara, the Black Panther Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez. We were looking at the ethics, the values, and the commitment to cultural community that were espoused in a lot of those movements. We were also looking at arts and music and poetry — things like the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance — as forms of leadership and social education. We were looking at the advent of hip-hop and spoken word, and the different ways that leadership may not look like a boardroom, but it definitely does move communities and create action.
So the course became a full and robust examination of culture and leadership. One of the most transformative parts of the course for students has been the piece on family. We ask: how does what we’ve learned from our families — the values, the histories, the stories that are told in living rooms and on porches and stoops — influence the type of leaders we become? My father was a janitor. But as much education as I’ve had, as many organizations I’ve worked with and incredible people I’ve worked for, I know that the type of leader I am ties back to what I learned from my father. Because he taught me through his life that he was never too good to do anything. He was willing to humble himself, to pick up other people’s trash, to take care of his family. And I remember how he would say, “I know you’re going to grow up and get one of these big jobs, but always remember to speak to the janitors.” So I have the students write a cultural self-portrait, kind of a cultural story of your life, and those stories are absolutely incredible. The exercise of writing them allows students to develop a whole new appreciation for their family or their community experience. Whether they’re coming out of very difficult life experiences or privileged life experiences, they see value in all of it — that it’s teaching them lessons and it’s teaching them how to navigate life.
I also think place-based, experiential, community-based learning is really important. So in the class we spend time working with community organizations. We did an international exchange, taking them to Trinidad to look at how they incorporate culture into their community’s leadership; we’ve done weekends in Newark New Jersey to look at the idea of transformation at the city level, and needing to incorporate cultural sustainability. Those experiences definitely have been transformative for the students.
I’m curious about the concept itself. What does it mean to practice “cultural leadership”?
That’s what I’ve been trying to tease out. Cultural leadership is grounded in servitude and community. It ties back to Robert Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership: the idea that you use your talents and resources and abilities and access to help other people. It’s not just about you making decisions, it’s about you figuring out what the community needs. Another critical piece of cultural leadership is creative leadership, and this can take a variety of different forms. It can be as simple as the stories mentors tell their mentees. Basic storytelling. Here in Hawaii they call it “talk story”: sharing histories and perspectives and experiences. Some cultural leaders may use visual art, some might use music, some might use dance. Some might use food: in past programs we looked at domestic leaders, most often mothers, and the value of domestic work, the creativity and ingenuity it takes to transform food that’s really disgusting and turn it into soul food, the value and importance of nourishing.
Cultural leaders have a strong sense of cultural efficacy. They see their culture as valuable. There’s a sense of pride, and a sense of real community love and rootedness. It’s about reaching back, the idea of Sankofa, and valuing the lessons of the past. Calling them forth, remembering them, bearing witness to them, and sharing them so they won’t be forgotten. A couple years ago I started looking at what a “love ethic” means in leadership. Are you committed to helping people to live love-filled lives, lives of peace, lives of joy, lives of abundance? Even when you challenge people, do you lovingly challenge people? You have to bring a spirit of love if you’re truly a cultural leader.
I’ve been studying cultural organizing, which is a related concept. Often, cultural organizers have very cultural goals: they are focused on helping their communities to see themselves in a different way, or they are challenging deficit narratives, or trying to change the way we think. Does cultural leadership focus on affecting how we see ourselves and shaping how our culture functions?
I honestly think cultural leadership can be for anything. Some people may choose as their life work to specifically create organizations like the ones that you are talking about, rooted in community, working with a particular population of people, and advancing cultural sustainability and transformation. But I also think we need cultural leaders in non-community spaces: in boardrooms, in classrooms, in hospitals, in all these spaces where people are significantly marginalized. If you had people with a more cultural ethic to their leadership, more of a sense of responsibility to their communities, then communities would be better served.
What are you working on these days?
Right now I’m working with an organization called PLACES, and they’re working with local schools to create place-based education, and to incorporate Hawaiian culture and ways of learning into the educational experience. They are bringing Hawaiian elders into the educational experience, not just as a speaker but to help build the curriculum. They are working with farmers to transform science curriculum. You’d be amazed at how much the island itself is used as a form of education. Art forms are being used to raise awareness and consciousness and build cultural efficacy among youth — spoken word is pretty big here, and music, a fusion of reggae and traditional Hawaiian music.
I still have former students in their thirties that get in touch with me, saying how much the course really shaped and motivated them to be conscious of what they did with their careers and the kind of impact they’re having, changing that dynamic of individual success. Because that was an ultimate goal for me: to re-imagine what success looks like, so that your success is bound to the success of the world, of your neighborhood, your community. You have to figure out what your contribution is going to be.
Last week I had the privilege of talking to a powerful cultural organizer from Oakland. Favianna Rodriguez is a visual artist best known for her political prints and posters addressing issues from the Iraq war to women’s rights. She is the director of CultureStrike, a grassroots collective of artists, and the founder of Presente.org, an online network “dedicated to the political empowerment of Latino communities.” She has recently been featured in an online documentary titled Migration is Beautiful.
We began by talking a bit about how Favianna came to her artistic and political work, but quickly fell into discussing the role of artists in the immigrant rights movement, the challenges political artists face, and the difference between art as a tactic and art as a strategy for social change. We also spoke about her effort to promote the monarch butterfly as a powerful symbol of the humanity and beauty of migrants.
How did you first get involved with art, when did that start?
Since I was a child I was really into art, but it wasn’t something that was encouraged in my family. My family wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer; given I was a first generation college student it was always really important for me to pursue, in their eyes, a more meaningful career. But art has always been a way for me to claim my identity and make sense of who I was, because I grew up in an environment where I would be one of the only students of color in many honors classes in high school. I would find myself not reflected in the curriculum, not reflected in student government or extracurricular activities, so for me art was a way to claim that space.
When did politics and activism start to move into the picture?
When I was 16 the governor of California introduced Proposition 187, the first anti-immigrant state based proposition. Around that time you also saw propositions killing affirmative action; you saw the prison industrial complex creep up in California via Proposition 21, which was a way to criminalize young people of color. All of that happened in my teenage years and I found youth organizing. I got involved when I was about 14 years old, walking out of my high school, doing actions at the juvenile detention centers. For me organizing was a real wakeup call because I could really understand how political power was formed.
Back then were you finding ways to work your art into your organizing?
Yeah, I was more working in my art as a designer. I was filling the need that was emerging, which was that you needed flyers, you needed educational materials for the community. I understood art as a tactical thing, and not necessarily as a strategy.
What does it mean for art to be a tactic instead of a strategy?
For a long time I was using my art skills to serve the immediate and short term needs of movement work, whether that would be making flyers or giving away art for auctions by political organizations or doing pop-up art exhibits at rallies. On the other hand, I would spend time developing my own body of work, or working with other artists. And we were not necessarily thinking about policy outcomes or the next rally — we were thinking, “What is this space of big ideas we want to go into? What are the values we want to promote?” I began to understand that while artists were valued for the short-term work that they can do, we were not valued for the creative capacity to touch people’s hearts. Dance choreography, or a short play, or a novel — anything that did not fit into the short-term needs of a movement, people just could not see it as useful.
Now I see the value of cultural strategy, which means to me that we are thinking about culture as a tool that can move our ideas forward. Culture is a space that we actively need to be working in, and we need to respect the labor of artists. Its important to work in a rapid response mechanism, but its equally as important to work on long term ideas that are going to shift the way people fundamentally think about an issue. Cultural strategy is not communication strategy, and art is not just as a tactic. When you see artists as a tactic it means you have predesigned a pathway to a campaign which the artist is going to participate in. To me cultural organizing is to see that art it can be a complimentary path that is not driven by the short-term needs of a campaign. Another part of cultural strategy is artists also need to be organized.
What does that look like when artists are organized?
When artists are organized, it means we have an awareness of the political strategy, and the general direction the movement is trying to go in, so that we can position ourselves. This is why I think it’s important to use the word strategy. I do think we need to be strategic with our timing. We have to think about how our art is going to advance or not advance different beliefs.
What do you see as the ideal relationship between artists and more traditional organizers?
I think that there has to be ongoing communication. Artists are not sitting at the table when strategy is being designed, and I think that’s a mistake. Artists need to be a part of overall movement work in a way that really values what we do. The tendency has been to contact artists at the end, about campaign engagement, or “Now that we have our rally planned, let’s invite the artist.” That to me is only one very small piece of cultural strategy.
Also, artists need to have strong relationships with movement folks so we can understand what they’re pushing for, because some things we do could actually not help. I’ll give you an example. Steve Jobs’ widow just released a video-based site called The Dream Is Now, and its all about undocumented youth. I can tell you, as somebody who works directly with undocumented youth and has good relationships with organizers, that the dream narrative is no longer as helpful to our movement as it was 2 years ago. Undocumented youth are now saying “It’s not just about us as youth, we want our parents legalized. Our parents brought us here because they are responsible and they want opportunity for us, and we’re not going to shove our parents under the bus.” At CultureStrike I work with artists, and if artists say we want to do something around young DREAMers I’m able to say “Well, the political strategy is no longer moving in that direction. In fact, dreamers have gotten some relief via DACA. What is now urgent is that we address the deportation of parents, and move away from a youth-only lens” And by understanding where the movement is at it makes the art all that more powerful and effective.
What are the different roles arts are playing, or could play, in the immigrant rights movement?
I’ll give you a great example. A group of eight senators introduced what they call a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. That blueprint included drones at the border and at least two decades of waiting for citizenship. Unless you understand the nuances of what this means, the public hears the words “comprehensive immigration reform,” and may not necessarily approach with a critical lens. Here’s where artists can come in really great: artists can expose the truth about these policies and highlight the information or misinformation in a way that simplifies the message. We can begin to emphasize what drones are, connect it to the immense amount of debt, saying “This is what border enforcement looks like, this is what border enforcement costs.”
At the same time, there are 11 million undocumented migrants. How do we as artists help people see what those 11 million look like? It’s children, it’s mothers, it’s parents, it’s students it’s workers. How do we humanize that so that it’s not just a figure, so it tells a story?
We are all hoping that this is the year for immigration reform, and you can expect there to be a lot of rallies and visits to congress and marches. This is what we’ve been doing for the last six years already. What would new kinds of cultural engagement look like so we are not just repeating the same way of telling the story? Theatrical pieces, mobile art labs, filmmakers, concerts all over the country. What about Comic books, graphic novels, street art highlighting the immense pain that so many children feel from losing a parent because they are being deported.
Maybe you could talk about the symbol of the Butterfly, and what you’re trying to do with that.
The immigrant rights movement began to slowly adopt the butterfly as a symbol. As an artist, and as someone who studies symbols like the pink triangle, the black power fist, the black panther — I think symbols definitely have the ability to create a culture of resistance. So for me it was important to popularize the image of a butterfly. I wanted to piggyback on the symbol of the butterfly as a visionary symbol. Butterflies can cross borders, so the butterfly is the symbol to talk about the beauty of migrants as they are moving from place to place. Just like butterflies migrate in order to survive, people migrate in order to survive. It is not just about economics, it is also about people wanting to be unified with their families, or people wanting to be safe from environments where they can’t be gay, or women escaping situations that are dangerous to them, or young people trying to find opportunities. These are all beautiful stories of who we are as humans, and I think that the butterfly is very symbolic of that.
The butterfly as a symbol of policy can be a little bit tricky, because the butterfly clearly crosses borders . Yet I don’t believe in our lifetime we are going to see open borders. However, I think it’s an important idea to push out, because art sometimes is about imagining what could be, it’s about allowing people to think really big. Even though it may not translate to a policy outcome just yet, its important for the idea to be there because people in their subconscious associate migrants with really ugly concepts. People associate migrants with leeches, or they think about migrants like “Those migrants don’t belong here, they’re taking my job.” And that is because the media has repetitively shown those symbols, so we need to counter those with more positive symbols.
Who else do you see in the immigrant rights movement, or other movements, that you particularly think is doing great work around cultural organizing?
I think that 350.org does an excellent fob of activating folks around climate change. A few years back they did something called EARTH where they organized, in cities around the world, huge art productions that you could only see via satellite all produced on a particular day. I thought that was really powerful because first, it really maximized on artists being problem solvers. At the same time it requires community participation, because you needed people out there to make it work. And also it centered on a really simple idea, the number 350.
What keeps you going in this work?
I wake up and I am just so excited that my job is to think about how to organize artists. For a long time as an artist I felt really frustrated about the way artists’ labor wasn’t recognized, and frustrated because the art word marginalizes artists of color and socially engaged artists. The art world is already such an ultra-capitalist environment and sometimes that’s all we’re offered, that is shown to us as the ideal. So to be able to say to my fellow artists, “Lets get organized, lets think about the work that we do, and also think differently about art overall. There’s a saying that says “art workers don’t kiss ass,” and that is so true. The awesome thing about being an artist is that we have space to do the most controversial, in-your-face content that you can imagine and we can totally get away with it because we’re artists. That drives me. You’ve seen my “I’m a Slut” poster — I would never get the support to do that through the nonprofit world, and yet its so needed.
“Schooling basically looks at the students as if they are not bringing in knowledge…Education says that every young person has experience that is valuable, that needs to be accessed.”
— Roberto Rivera, President and “Lead Change Agent,” Good Life Organization
This week I got hooked up with a hot organization based out of my old hometown of Chicago. The Good Life Organization (GLO) is a capacity-building effort that blends hip-hop education, socio-emotional learning, youth voice, and social justice. Founded by Roberto Rivera, GLO offers training and support for local groups across the country that are working to empower young people as change agents in their communities.
The centerpiece of this capacity building is the Fulfill the Dream curriculum, written by Rivera and first piloted in 2008. This curriculum is designed to facilitate leadership development and learning with young people, supporting them as they strive for personal goals and address community issues. Drawing on hip-hop, youth culture, and media, the curriculum is meant to be flexible based on the local context, and to lead to young people creating original projects to share with others in their communities.
The impetus for GLO’s founding grew from Rivera’s own experiences as a youth. He struggled in high school, he told me, and was labeled special education, even while he was thriving and innovating in the world of hip-hop music and visual art. After starting a line of hip-hop clothing and writing a hip-hop play, he began to think, “What if I’m not learning disabled? What if I just learn differently?” Flipping his own image of himself, Rivera succeeded at school and went to UW Madison, where he began to conceive of using hip-hop as a tool for education and healing with youth labeled “at risk” as he was.
Today, GLO and its Fulfill the Dream curriculum have spawned projects across the country, including Hip-hop music celebrations with classic artists like Kurtis Blow, a Fulfill the Dream CD, an enhanced ebook featuring youth writing, and a phone App that offers a stream of independent hip-hop. By focusing on building networks, supporting local groups youth and adults across the country, and spreading their curriculum, GLO is building not just an organization but a movement. I expect we’ll be hearing much more from them — or from the youth that they have inspired — in the coming years.
This is Part 2 of my conversation with Anas Canon, founder of the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, a group that does cultural diplomacy through hip-hop around the world. When the last post left off, we were discussing the need that Anas felt to take responsibility for putting out music into the world that is both socially conscious and entertaining, to counter many of the images of Americans — and particularly African Americans — that the US media exports. Click Here to read Part 1 of this interview
That has been one of the things that’s always in my mind when I think about what sacrifices have to be made in order to do these tours. There are a lot of sacrifices. Money is one of them, but also coming to grips with what it means to me to work with the State Department, which is a branch of the US military industrial complex. There are a lot of people who critique that, and J’m open to that critique. But I’ve made my peace with it because I’ve seen the effect that this work has on the ground. And there’s no script, it’s not choreographed.
I was on a panel in Jakarta, with fifteen or twenty people from the press, and this woman from the BBC goes, “Is America at war with Islam?” And there’s no script. I could have said whatever I wanted at that moment. Luckily I have the kind of social sophistication and political savvy to address those questions in a way that can be really honest and candid, but also think about the effects it’s going to have on every other American, or on anybody who’s going to read about it. What you say matters. You could make or break relationships in terms of how people perceive Americans or African Americans — by looking like you’re just a sellout and you’re saying whatever the State Department wants to hear, or on the other side looking like you’re this extremist marginalizing yourself from the people who invited you there in the first place. So that’s my mind, man. I’m thinking about what every single person that I bring wears that’s on the tour, every word that comes out of their mouth, every greeting that they do. You gotta pick a guy who’s a great musician obviously, but at the same time you gotta think, “How is this dude gonna be off stage?”
It sounds like you’re taking very seriously your role as a representative of the United Stats and African Americans.
That’s the only reason I do the job. Do I represent all Americans? Absolutely not. Are there some Americans who would like to drop bombs on every other country? Sure there are. But that’s not most Americans. Most people are open to the idea of meeting people that are different. There’s a verse in the Koran that says “Allah made you different tribes and nations so that you could come to know one another.” This is the Koranic understanding of why we’re different in the first place.
How does the music fit into this vision of the connections you want to make?
To me the music is naked expression. You don’t actually have to like it, but you can understand that this is somebody’s expression of who they are. And the neat thing about hip-hop is that anyone can express themselves through hip-hop as long as they have rhythm and a decent grasp of their native tongue. It’s kind of lowest common denominator music. And combined with the fact that America has exported it to the far ends of the earth and it has permeated youth culture everywhere, it becomes this currency that we can use to exchange. Anybody can start banging on a table to get a beat, and one of my guys can jump up and spit sixteen bars, and someone else can jump up and spit sixteen bars in their language, and they don’t have to even understand what each other are saying.
The hip-hop part is interesting because hip-hop is not my music, I make hip-hop, but I don’t really listen to it. And when we go out and play do we play hip-hop music all the time? No. I always have rappers, but I also have vocalists, and I usually take a full band: drummer, a guitar player. We’re doing covers of songs and original songs, running through the lexicon of American music, showing how with a basic hip-hop drum-beat you can superimpose all these other components. That’s not me as a DJ with a couple of rappers, but that really is hip-hop to me.
It seems that you specifically go to majority-Muslim countries. How do faith and spirituality and religion fit into this for you?
Most of the guys on remarkable current are Muslim, and the connection was initially built through Native Deen, who are Muslim. So we are not exactly stuck in a niche, but the State Department knows we are comfortable being in those spaces, and aware of the cultural sensitivity that needs to be adhered to in a Muslim country. It also acts as a sort of currency for the State Department to say, “Not only are these guys hip-hop artists but they share your faith.”
Do you think that opens doors for you in those countries?
There’s no question about that. They’re still open to other kinds of Western music, but when they find out we have Muslim artists there’s a curiosity. And when they see the guys praying they’re like, “Oh wow, there’s Muslims in America, real ones like us.” That part is kind of a trip. I don’t think it’s an exploitative relationship form the State Department’s position; it’s more of an opportunity break down multiple walls. For me personally, I think religion and spirituality are private. Most people would consider me a devout practicing Muslim for most of my adult life, but most recently I’ve been beginning to separate myself from formal religion. I just don’t want a label. I’ve been on a journey for many, many, years and I don’t every plan to stop thinking.
So what’s your outcome? What are you hoping comes out of these meetings with other people when you travel?
There’s the micro and the macro. There’s the heart and mind of each individual you come in contact with. And then there’s also the impact on people who hear about the event or see the event via social media. My first concern is the micro.
I’m mixed race — my mother’s White and my father’s Black. My mom’s family was upper-middle class, fairly conservative. My grandfather was from Idaho and my grandmother was from Missouri. They were for real white people, as white as white people can get. When you’re mixed you’re forced into an identity crisis at a very early age. Depending on how you navigate that situation, typically mixed people I know will realize there is no one thing, and that people who live in these polarized cultural identities — that’s self-created. So mixed people walk around the planet in this kind of no-mans land, and when you’re in that space you feel compelled to show people how much the same they are.
That’s my contribution, I want to find ways to bring people together. That’s something that’s ingrained in me — it’s not like a book I read in college made me say, “People need to come together.” It’s who I am. I don’t separate myself from another molecule, let alone another creature from my same species. So this work is the most effective thing that I feel I can do. I can show up in a space and sit in front of somebody who’s a representative of their community with their constituents surrounding them — whether its a group of students or politicians — and I can show them how open my heart is to them. And if that’s their first and only interaction with an American, that’s how they will feel about America, on a visceral level. They might think all kind of things about America, but now they can’t say, “All Americans are this,” or “All Americans are that.” They can’t use George Bush or Barack Obama or American foreign policy to say, “This is how American people are.”
You have no idea how you might change someone just by meeting them one-on-one. And you know how I know that bro? Because it happened to me. Every time I go to these places I see things and think, “I never thought to look at the world like that.” I’m just observing somebody, their etiquette, their mannerisms, their vibrations, and then I see an entire culture that vibrates like that. And I incorporate that into how I vibrate, how I move in the world.
For my own self-interest I want to have as many of those experiences as I can, that kind of exchange, to be an ambassador for my nation, to be an ambassador for my ethnicity and my culture, and then also figure out how that can be amplified through our respective communities.
Thank you to Anas Canon for speaking with CulturalOrganizing.org, and to Tracy Curry, for making this interview happen.
Recently I had the chance to speak with Anas Canon, founder of the independent hip-hop label Remarkable Current, and the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, which builds cross-cultural bridges around the world through music. He was very open, kind, and actually surprised me quite a bit with some of his answers. We discussed the founding of the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, working with the State Department, the goals of cultural diplomacy, and the roles of spirituality and hip-hop in bridging across difference.
How did you get involved in music and producing originally?
I was raised around music my whole life, I have it in my blood. My father’s a professional musician — he plays the organ. And my stepfather, who raised me past the age of 3 or 4, was an audiophile. He and my uncle had music listening rooms, where they would put the speakers just right and put on a brand new pressing of a certain recording, like Miles Davis. Then they would smoke a joint, put the needle on the record, and sit there and listen. Then they’d stop it, get up and move the speakers a little bit, and then sit back and listen. Listening to music was their hobby and their passion. So I grew up listening to music in a unique way. And we would listen to high-end jazz, more avant-garde stuff; they were tuned into that and I wanted to be cool like them.
And then in late high school I started teaching dance at the dance studio of a man named Keith Banks, who is still a mentor of mine. And I was making a lot of money compared to cats who were flipping burgers or working at the yogurt shop. I was a choreographer and dance instructor through my early 20’s. Then because of a certain spiritual trajectory I was on, I decided to travel. I traveled to North Africa and Europe and hung out and studied, and when I came back I went to work as an assistant in a recording studio. That sort of began my career as an engineer.
Basically ever since then I’ve kind of been bouncing around studios, had some great mentors, and then began freelancing. Somewhere along the line I decided that I wanted to make music as well, so I started recording and producing with friends and in 2001 founded Remarkable Current. I think we’re at 14 or 15 releases now.
How did the Hip-Hop Ambassador’s program come about?
I was working as an independent producer for a band called Native Deen. They were doing some work for the State Department, and they asked me to go out with them. Native Deen does Muslim rap, so the state department would send them to Muslim-majority countries. That was my first exposure to the fact that the State Department was using music for cultural diplomacy. But I realized that the state department didn’t have anything designed to utilize real, serious, authentic hip-hop. Meanwhile I had this roster of artists from the label, and tons of original content. I knew the history of the Jazz Ambassadors program, and I thought, “Why don’t I start a company that’s designed to fill that need?” We did a website and I reached out to some contacts I had known, and that was the beginning of it, man.
And this was in the Condoleeza Rice and George Bush era. George Bush was actually spending a lot of money on cultural diplomacy, more than Obama has. You’d think it would be the other way around. We think of him as being this real right wing conservative, “we don’t care about anybody but Americans,” but there was a whole other side to that administration. Of course the knee-jerk counterargument was that they were doing so much harm around the planet, they were doing this stuff to balance it out. But i don’t know if that’s completely true.
When you go out on a Hip-Hop Ambassadors trip, what exactly do you do while you’re there?
I’ll use Indonesia as an example. We hit the ground and went directly to the US ambassador’s private home and did a show for his guests, maybe 150 people. Then every day, in the morning, we’re either at a radio station, a TV station, or a school. Then we grab lunch, and in the afternoon we go to the next location. It could be an orphanage where we do an impromptu show, or a panel discussion. From there we usually go to a venue and do a sound check, have a little break, and then play the night show. And then we wake up the next day and do it over and over and over again. It’s hardcore. We don’t stop.
Who do you work with in the country?
If we’re going to a Muslim country I often know somebody there. Or I go on Facebook and ask “Who’s the best rapper in Tunisia,” and I’ll Google search the cat, watch them on YouTube. And if he’s dope I’ll contact the State Department and ask if they can get in touch with them and tell them I want to meet with them while we’re there. Sometimes the liaisons at the embassy, younger cats who are locals, will have relationships already. So then the embassy will reach out, and say “Hey, we’re going to be in your city. Would you be interested in coming and performing with these guys or having dinner? Inevitably we’re gonna hit it off because we’re all musicians. And because I’m a recording engineer and producer and I do a lot of remote recording, I can record anywhere. I’ll be like, “Yo, let’s do a song,” and we’ll record in the hotel room.
I’m curious what made you want jump into this work. And why did you feel like there was this need for a hip-hop ambassadors program?
I’m really into American foreign policy, and I’m very much into music and the history of American music, so this is kind of a fusion of all the things that I’m really passionate about. And it’s also a way for me to try to make some impact. When I was on the early tours before Hip-Hop Ambassadors I was really able to see the impact that connecting with Americans could have on people in developing countries who maybe have never met an American, and who have probably never met an African American person.
I think it was probably one moment that I had in Zanzibar, when I was out with Native Deen. One of the guys in the band had lost his luggage on the flight, so we went out shopping. We’re in this little shop, and a kid starts speaking to us, he’s maybe 17. He speaks a little English, and he’s like, “Where are you from?” We’re said, “Oh, we’re from America, from California. And he’s like, “Oh, California. Tupac.” And he starts spitting Tupac rhymes, like 16 bar verses, not missing a word. At the end of it he goes, “I don’t really like west coast, I like the east coast, I like Biggie.” So he starts spitting Biggie verses. And we’re just standing there watching this dude. He doesn’t understand the words that are coming out of his mouth, but that’s how he’s showing us what he understands about our country and about our culture. And I’m very critical of Tupac. He was a drug dealer, a misogynist, and a criminal. So to me this was like if someone was in Africa and might be like, “Ooga booga,” or some ignorant shit like that, not having any point of reference. Or going to holland and saying, “Where are all the wooden shoes?” But it wasn’t his fault. That’s what we export. America’s greatest export is media.
We talked to the kid, we’re like, “Yeah, we don’t really do music like that, that’s not what hip hop’s all about.” But you can only say so much. This is how he understands the Black American experience. And I realized that people who are interested in the world perceiving African Americans and African American art in a different way, it’s our responsibility to create compelling content that competes with what major media companies are doing. We need to be finding ways to distribute and disseminate that content, and to make it equally entertaining. It’s not enough just to make it socially conscious, it has to be as entertaining and energetic and cathartic for the listener, and maybe it has to be as shiny or as aggressive or as sexy. If I don’t like walking into a little boutique in Africa and having somebody explain my culture to me vis-á-vis a Tupac lyric, it’s my responsibility.
A civil rights education project transforms into the kind of creative movement organization that it was founded to inspire.
Founded in 1993, Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past: History, Organizing, and Power) originally had little to do with the arts or culture of hip-hop. It began as an effort to engage young members of the hip-hop generation in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In its first years, while still under the auspices of the Massachusetts ACLU, Project HIP-HOP (PHH) took high-school-aged youth on annual “civil rights tours” through the South, visiting important sites and meeting with movement veterans. The goal was to offer young people a “living history of the Civil Rights Movement,” and to inspire them to continue the struggle.
After a few annual tours of the South, and a powerful visit to South Africa, young people in PHH decided to take the organization in a new direction, expanding from simply learning about social justice movements to organizing for change. They also began to integrate their own youth cultural practices into the organization, including poetry, rap, djing, hip-hop dance, visual art, and more. Then, in 2001, PHH left the ACLU, formed an independent non-profit, and hired one of their former members as executive director.
Over the next decade PHH initiated a flurry of artistic and organizing projects, from open mics and hip-hop cyphers to campaigns against military recruitment and mass incarceration. But while connected by a political sensibility, the organizing and artistic practices remained, on the whole, separate. This changed when, starting in 2009, PHH began a strategic planning process to determine the future of the organization. Rather than be stretched in two directions, PHH decided to fully merge these two pieces of itself through the practice of cultural organizing.
PHH seeks to address not only the policies but also the ideologies that maintain systems of oppression. Internally, young people at PHH hone their self-understanding and political analysis by studying oppression and resistance across the centuries — from African history to the inner-workings of hip-hop culture and art. They draw on collective artistic practices like cyphers, along with shared rituals, to build community and construct an organizational counter-culture that challenges the racism and individualism of dominant US culture. And externally they bring their arsenal of street theater, flash mobs, poetry, and more — all based in a hip-hop aesthetic — to addressing issues affecting young people of color.
Recently, PHH has joined the Youth Way on the MBTA coalition. In partnership with other youth-led organizations like the Boston Area Youth Organizing Project and the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, they have been pushing the city to limit fair increases, create a new youth pass, and ensure affordable public transportation across Boston. Below is a short street theater piece from a March, 2012 rally at the transportation building.
by Favianna Rodriguez
This post has been reposted from the blog of Favianna Rodriguez at Favianna.com. It was originally posted on May 2, 2012. If you like my CulturalOrganizing.org (or even if you don’t), you should definitely be reading hers.
I’m really honored to be able to collaborate with some off-the-hook undocumented artists and writers who are not only making waves in the immigrant rights space, but also in the arts and culture space overall. If you are in San Francisco, you will the opportunity to meet some of these artists at the upcoming Undocunation event on May 3.
Last year, I had heard about Julio Salgado, an undocumented artist who was posting images all over Facebook in support of the DREAM Act and about undocumented youth coming out of the shadows. I had seen the images around but hadn’t actually met Julio, until last may when he visited the Bay and I invited him over for lunch. (Art below by Julio Salgado)
Empowered by both his queer and undocumented identities, Julio was following the tradition of using art as a tool to fight anti-migrant laws. I was so tremendously inspired by him that I committed to supporting his creative work and I invited him be a part of a delegation of artists that went to Tucson, Arizona, last September.
Julio eventually introduced me to his collaborative media project, DreamersAdrift.com. Along with Jesus Iñiguez, Fernando Romero and Deisy Hernandez, the four undocumented college graduates had started DreamersAdrift.com as a way to combat the negative language used by the media when they talked about undocumented folks in this country. Using video, art and music, DreamersAdrift.com has been a creative outlet for other undocumented students and allies to speak out about their immigration status. You can see some of their hilarious work here.
It was refreshing to see these artist take on serious subjects with humor and sarcasm. I also was really impressed that everyone involved in the production, down the video editor, was undocumented. This demonstrated to me the importance of art, culture and media coming directly from the folks most impacted by a given issues, in this case, our country’s failed immigration system. I believe that as radical artists, we have to recognize our priviledge and be able to strongly support other artists who do not have the same access we have. The fact that I was born in this country grants me access to a host of grants, public money, and artistic opportunities that undocumented artists dont’ have.
The “Undocumented and Awkward” series by DreamersAdrift.com have gone viral within pro-migrant activists who have used the videos to share the realities of being an undocumented immigrant.
They’ve also collaborated with other undocumented artists as well, such as Yosimar Reyes, who was featured in one of the “Undocumented and Awkward” videos that touched on the subject of being undocumented and queer, or “Undocuqueer.” Yosimar, a self-described “two-spirit gangsta” and author of “For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly,” has used his poetic talent to criticize the current state of immigrant politics. Issues of race, borders and “joteria,” are abundant in his work.
Julio also connected me with Felipe Baeza, a fierce, undocumented artist from New York who not only has he been actively creating art about being UndocuQueer, but has also been at the forefront of a migrant movement led by a lot of women and queer youth. Last year, Felipe participated in a sit-in in Gerogia and risked deportation. Check him out here:
These artists are a huge inspiration for me, and I’m excited to be working with them on national projects, like this print portfolio project here, and like “UndocuNation: An Evening with Artists for Immigrant Justice,” which opens tomorrow, May 3 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Patty Berne and Leroy Moore, two of the co-founders of Sins Invalid, a Bay-Area organization that “incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.” Leroy is also the founder of Krip Hop Nation. They shared their own journeys to this work, the story of Sins, and their philosophies around arts, disability justice, and intersecting oppression.
CO: I was hoping you could start by introducing yourselves and telling me a little bit about how you got into this work.
Leroy: I was born with cerebral palsy. I grew up on the east coast, and moved to the west coast in ’91, where I have been involved with activism around disability, poverty, and stuff like that. I met Patty through doing poetry, and we’ve been friends ever since. At one point Patty and I were discussing our art, and we both recognized that there was very little cultural work being done around being people of color and being disabled.
Patty: I was born in San Francisco and became involved in the Bay Area community organizing/political activist community. I did a lot of work with Latin American liberation movements as well as southern African liberation movements and violence against women in the US, particularly against women of color. As Leroy was saying, we started talking about how rare it is to meet people of color in disability rights organizing, and on the converse to see people who hold their disability as a political identity taking part in organizing amongst communities of color.
CO: So then you founded Sins Invalid?
Patty: We started Sins in 2006 with four of us. Leroy and co-founder Todd Herman had a video out at the time called Forbidden Acts, and I had just put out a small, untitled erotica video, and we were like, “We should have a venue for this, where would we not just be the token other. Where would that be?” And then we thought, “Oh, our own venue!” So the four of us friends decided to start Sins. And Paul, there was just so much traction. As far as we can tell, there’s nothing else that centers disability and sexuality, held within a disability justice framework, that is led by the people who are most impacted. People wanted to get involved in organizing, and wanted to see their work on stage, and this was a place where the framework and the politics were centered around our experiences.
CO: When you say traction, what was the kind of response you got?
Patty: On the first call to artists, a bunch of people we knew were interested. And the show sold out the first night. Five years down the line, our performances still sell out. We consistently get people saying that they haven’t seen anything like this, and that they feel a sense of community and home here. One person asked us once, “Who do you think is the best audience for Sins Invalid?” Well, somebody that lives in a body, somebody who’s alive. If we’re embodied, at the end of the day we’re struggling with what that means. Our intention is to acknowledge and magnify the beauty of our bodies and of our communities. Leroy and I both come from an advocacy background where you’re always fighting, fighting against oppression. That only takes you so far. We want to create a place where the vision isn’t just against oppression but for who we are, where it’s a given that we are beautiful, where it’s a given that we’re powerful, that we are amazing people because that’s the nature of being a person.
CO: How would you describe the kind of performances that you put on?
Leroy: Our performances open people up to see that people of color with disabilities, people who are queer and trans, can bring their whole bodies to a piece, and can bring their whole history to the performance.
Patty: Every year there is a different theme, with multiple artists. There might be a dozen pieces in the show but all of them are interacting with the central theme. In 2011 the theme was Knotting Stories across Time and Geography. We had a time machine in the lobby recording video podcasts, and within the performance itself there was a lot of historical referencing, including a piece on Carrie Buck, the first landmark case around eugenics sterilizations in the US. In 2012, the plan is to have the world premier of our Sins Invalid film, and then afterwards we’ll have performers from the people featured in the film.
CO: Can you tell me about this film?
Leroy: The film is a documentary of Sins Invalid and our politics, with performance footage and interviews with artists from the show. We are still working on it but we hopefully will be done with it soon.
Patty: We launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the documentary — for color correction, music, distribution. This project is as unique as they come.
Where did the name Sins Invalid came from?
Patty: The full name is Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility. It is a play on words in multiple ways. First, the fact that people with disabilities were called invalids. And also the eugenics-derived idea a person being “invalid,” taking up social and political and economic space and not contributing. Which is bullshit. The only invalid concept is that anybody is disposable and dispensable. “Sin” means without, but also many of us have been told that our disabilities are somehow a reflection of our mothers doing wrong, or that “the sins of the father are carried out on the son.” But there are lots of ways of being in the world. Bodies are complicated, and beautiful in that complexity. The idea is that disabilities are somehow outside the natural order of things. But nothing is going wrong when you’re body’s behaving differently. Is it outside of the norm? Sure. Is it convenient? Not always. But what’s oppressive is the systematic exclusion, marginalization, and violence we experience, not the fact that we have complex bodies.
CO: From your experience, what is the role of cultural workers in movements for justice?
Leroy: I like that question. I think there is no separation of art and activism or art and movements, they must go hand in hand.
Patty: Sometimes people think of cultural activism as the soft front of a movement, but we think that’s not accurate. I firmly believe that capitalism is winning because it has stolen the political imagination. We need to take that political imagination back. Obviously we have to engage the conditions, we have to address oppression, but that’s not the end of our vision. As cultural workers it’s our responsibility to hold a broader vision of what it means to be a woman of color, what it means to be a person with a disability, what it means to be a man who has cerebral palsy. Our vision has to be greater that what we can access from the dominant culture.
“The interesting thing about music is that you don’t need to speak the same language with someone to communicate when you are using music. It crosses linguistic barriers, cultural barriers and it’s a way to share something about yourself, your culture . . . and even more specifically, Hip Hop becomes a sort of language for youth around the world so it doesn’t really matter what region you go to.”
– Anas Canon, Founder/Director, Remarkable Current
The last decade has seen massive deterioration and upheaval in the political relationships between the US and Islamic countries across the globe. Though the election of Obama brought hope for change in these relationships, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, the slow end to the war in Iraq, and the disappointing reaction of the US to the Arab Spring only served to add new tensions. But where political diplomacy struggles, cultural diplomacy is making its mark.
Hip-Hop Ambassadors is an initiative by the artist collective Remarkable Current, led by founder Anas Canon. As Hip-Hop Ambassadors, Remarkable Current travels to Muslim nations around the world and uses music to encourage cultural exchange and mutual understanding. Their visits — which have included Tunisia and Indonesia — combine live performances, workshops with youth, and collaborations with local artists.
Remarkable Current is following in the footsteps of the Jazz Ambassadors of the Cold War. Beginning with Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra in 1956, the US State Department sponsored jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong to travel across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East playing concerts, and meeting with diplomats and children alike. This was cultural diplomacy, a musical battle for the hearts and minds of the world — though admittedly an unlikely alliance, given that these artists faced such biting racism at home.
In these trips, RC works through the State Department and local embassies. I imagine this could bring up many thorny issues, like what it means for a group of Black Muslim Americans to represent a country with such a terrible history of invading Muslim countries abroad, and cultivating both anti-Muslim and anti-Black sentiment at home. However, Canon says that, beyond bringing them to the countries, the State Department has no control over their work. And as hip-hop spreads across the world, this kind of cultural connection may be one of our best hopes for true cross-cultural understanding, justice, and, dare I say it, peace.
As an illustration, here is a beautiful collaboration between RC and Tunisian hip hop artists celebrating the street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian uprising.