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.
Below is part two of my interview with Nicolas Lampert, author of A People’s Art History of the United States. Click HERE to read part 1 of the interview, in which we discussed his early development as an artist and activist, his work with Justseeds Artists Cooperative, and how Howard Zinn encouraged him to write his book. In part 2, we discuss A People’s Art History of the United States, the rich legacy of arts activism in the US, and the importance of debating the tensions and contradictions in this work.
What was your vision when you first began writing A People’s Art History, and how did that vision change over the course of the eight years you worked on the project?
Prior to starting the project, I had been writing articles on art and activism for Clamor magazine, doing interviews with activist artists, and I co-edited a book called Peace Signs: The Anti-War Movement Illustrated, so that gave me some experience in writing and developing my voice. But really, Howard Zinn gave me this unbelievable opportunity, which was such a gift. He planted the seed of the idea and introduced me to The New Press and thankfully they were really intrigued by the proposal. I told them that I was not a PhD historian, I was an activist artist, and I wanted the book to be useful to artists and activists, and for it to be accessible to a general audience. The editor at the New Press said, “That’s perfect, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.” So all the stars were aligned to do the book.
Structure-wise I knew that I wanted to move through U.S. history chronologically. I also knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to do an exhaustive survey. I wanted to select specific examples and write critically about the intersection of art and activism. For instance, I knew I wanted to write about the Wobblies, and I could have selected multiple examples where the I.W.W. used art in their organizing — Joe Hill’s cartoons, the graphics of Ralph Chaplin, Mr. Block, or so forth. But I felt it was much more useful and more interesting to focus on one specific example from the I.W.W. over the course of 10–15 pages where I could explain the history and have room to debate the tactics.
So for the IWW chapter I detailed the Paterson Pageant of 1913 – a one-night pageant at Madison Square Garden where over 1,000 striking workers re-enacted the Paterson silk workers strike during the strike itself. This pageant was so controversial because the strike fell apart shortly after the performance and some blamed the use of art for its demise. (Read an excerpt from this chapter HERE)
I definitely noticed that there was more of a focus in your book on the difficulties of doing this kind of work, whereas most books on the subject are pretty celebratory. What led to that decision?
To me, the most interesting chapters are those in which the art backfired somewhat, or where it was complicated. I think a book that’s simply celebratory is dishonest, and doesn’t do justice to the realities of social movements. Movements rarely are defined as a series of victories.
My book is best understood as a series of tactics — ones that were exceedingly complicated. Again the Patterson Pageant is a good example. 25,000 silk workers, mostly recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, went on strike in Patterson, New Jersey just south of New York City. The IWW came in as strike organizers, and they made the decision to bring in avant-garde, middle-to-upper class artists from Greenwich Village to help publicize the strike. What became complicated was the class dynamics. People like John Reed, a recent Harvard graduate who directed the Pageant and later became a famous journalist, could act in solidarity with the striking workers. But he had less at stake if the strike succeeded or not. His livelihood was not on the line. The situation was much different for the recent immigrant on strike whose family was at near starvation.
That said, I think the chapter was about solidarity. Solidarity is of course positive, but the tactics have to be well thought out. Studying past examples of solidarity across class lines is instructive to solidarity efforts today. We can learn from the tactics of the past and hopefully duplicate what’s successful, or at least have a sharper sense of critique about what not to do.
I definitely appreciated the focus on complexity and contradiction. I also noticed that, compared to other histories of political art, this one strayed farther away from professional artists and gallery artists, and brought in types of art that other people may not even have thought to include. For example, you start right off the bat with wampum belts.
My decision from the onset was to focus on the art that happens outside of the art world – a parallel art history to the standard version. Of course, there is crossover, but I tried to veer away from writing about artists whose work was rooted in a gallery or a museum. Instead, I wrote about artists like Emory Douglas from the Black Panther Party, or the photographers in SNCC, whose work at the time was rooted in a movement. I was arguing that the art world is too isolated, that it reaches too small of audience to have the same level of impact that movement culture does. I wasn’t dismissing museums and galleries. The ideas put forth in the those spaces are significant, but the audience and the level of collaboration differs.
A good example today would be to differentiate between a museum show about climate change versus artists working directly within environmental groups and using creative resistance tactics to block tar sands trains and pipelines. I find the later example to be a form of activist art, whereas the artist showing in the museum is political art. Both approaches are needed, but my book was focused on a history of activist art.
In terms of individuals or groups out there today, who do you think is doing particularly good work around art and social movements?
Coming up with a list is so difficult because there’s so much good work happening. That was part of my struggle with the book and why I decided not to follow a survey route. I didn’t want it to feel like a “who’s who” of important artists.
Well, who are a few that you personally are into?
Favianna Rodriguez is doing really important work on migrant workers rights. I am also really impressed by Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group that has really harnessed art and cultural resistance better than most out there. I think the People’s Climate March was really incredible to see, not just because of how much art was in it, but because of the leadership role that artists took in framing the march.
Across the pond, Liberate TATE is doing amazing stuff, interventions into the Tate Modern where they are bringing to light the corporate sponsorship of the museum and the need to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The Illuminator Project, the Overpass Light Brigade…the list goes on and on. I admire the work where artists are directly aligned with, and part of, social justice movements. Not just on the outside adding commentary.
Even just listing artists to you, you can see my hesitation with surveys because you inherently miss a lot of important work. That’s why, in my book, I wanted to choose one specific example for each decade throughout American history, and to really lay out how the artists interfaced with a particular movement.
I wanted to study what worked and what did not. The model that I often look to is ACT UP, and specifically Gran Fury. Gran Fury is so significant because were 10 to 12 designers and they acted as an affinity group within the larger framework of ACT UP. This was so brilliant because it allowed them and other affinity groups to work towards a common goal, but it didn’t bog down the artists to have to get consensus or to explain their process to a larger group of 500-700 activists. That would have diluted the process and prevented artists from working quickly, which is needed when the goal is to disseminate graphics fast.
In the process of writing A People’s Art History, what surprised you? How have your ideas about art and social justice changed through this project?
Similar to when I first read Howard Zinn’s People’s History, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know. Just the pure volume of artists and activists engaged in these forms of creative resistance. I was also surprised by the recycling of tactics. Many of the conversations that artists were having in the 1920s and 1930s are conversations that resurface today: critiques of the gallery system, the economic issues of how artists survive, the need for more public art, the need to harness art to social justice movements. Those conversations happened at the American Artists’ Congress in 1936 and through the Artists’ Union in the 1930s, and among 1960s groups like the Art Workers’ Coalition and Guerrilla Art Action Group. Recently you see groups coming out of Occupy Wall Street like Occupy Museums making the same calls.
In Justseeds I work in the realm of producing graphics for movements, and to me it was really interesting to read about other artists going back through American history that were doing the exact same thing. Their technology may differ, and the way the work is disseminated may differ, but the spirit behind the work is similar. There are a lot of parallels between the past and the recent present. I wrote about the Workers Film and Photo League (F&PL) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They remind me a lot of the “Become the Media” movement that emerged out of the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. There is a recycling of tactics because people are responding to similar calls for justice. And there is a lot to learn about from this history if we carefully study and critique it. I wouldn’t say that my book is a hidden history, but the material in it is certainly not common knowledge to many of us.
Its certainly not what you run across in your art history classes
No it was not.
Thank you for your time, and for the book.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing Nicolas Lampert, a long-time artist and activist working out of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Lampert was an early member of the Justseeds Artists Cooperative — a printmaking collective — and the author of the recent book, A People’s Art History of the United States (which I reviewed a while back.) We talked about the genesis of Justseeds, working with Howard Zinn, and what we can learn from history about the challenges and potential of harnessing the arts to social justice movements.
My art has been aligned with activism since the early 1990s when I moved from Michigan to Oakland, California in my early twenties. My time in the Bay Area was an awakening period for me. It awakened me to so many activist campaigns and issues. It was a point of no going back. Once I learned about all these issues and saw the power of movement culture it seemed natural to direct my visual art to the causes I believed in.
When I talk to a lot of cultural organizers and arts activists, a common theme is the struggle to combine arts and social justice work since, especially in this country, the two can feel very separate. What was the process like trying to bring together your visual arts work with activism?
Well, you’re right, art and social justice work are often presented as polar opposites. I grew up outside of Boston, and was never introduced to the idea that the two could merge. This might have been because I was not looking in the right places, but I certainly was not introduced to the idea of activist art in high school or college for that matter. I went through a fairly conventional art training that focused its attention toward the art world – the gallery and the museum as the only important places where art happened. The type of art that I wrote about in A People’s Art History was all but absent from my education. When it was presented it was often presented as significant politics, but art that was subpar and far below the quality of art found in the “art world.”
I needed to go through a period of un-training myself. My education took a jump simply by living in the Bay Area. I was exposed to groups like Food Not Bombs, Cop Watch, spaces like the Long Haul, projects like Free Radio Berkeley, and hearing talks from people like Judi Bari. For three or four years I was just a sponge for all the activism in the Bay Area. I became disenfranchised from the “art world” and the type of art that had inspired me in the past. I became much more interested in underground music and began to really question if visual art would continue to be my focal point or not. Luckily, I was introduced to art that spoke to my concerns and the movements that I was participating in. I became more aware of the artists who produced World War III Illustrated. I started seeing the graphic work of John Yates pasted around the Bay Area and on album covers in the punk scene. This inspired me to put up my own images in the street and to merge more of my art with my politics.
My own work was still developing but I had a supportive community around me. I lived in a warehouse space that had shows every weekend — touring bands, film showings, art shows. We were around a host of really interesting people that were all becoming politicized and have gone on to do some really interesting work, people like Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, people who were living out their politics on a daily basis. The bookend for that period for me was the WTO protests in Seattle — spending a week immersed in that, seeing the power of direct action and seeing the art that happened up there, like the work that David Solnit and others were doing in Art and Revolution.
Two years after Seattle I co-organized with Sue Simensky Bietila a traveling political art show called Drawing Resistance. It included 30-plus artists and traveled from city to city across North America for nearly a half decade. The model was based off a D.I.Y. punk-rock tour and building an underground network. The show began in Milwaukee and Sue and I then transported it to Chicago. The Chicago hosts then had autonomy to choose their own location for their show and have a local art component to accompany the traveling show. However, they had to then transport the artwork to the next city — Detroit. And then the Detroit hosts had to get the show to the next city down the road. This built an incredibly infrastructure and network, and that’s where I started to meet many of the artists that would become part of Justseeds.
How did Justseeds come about?
It came about through mutual friendships and mutual respect for each other’s work. Josh MacPhee first started Justseeds in the late 1990s as a way to distribute radical art through the mail. He was distributing his own work, plus the Celebrate People’s History project that he still curates to this day. At the same time, he began reaching out to other artists whose work he admired and began distributing their work as well. After a while, Josh reached out to the folks in Clamor magazine who expanded the reach of his distro, but when Clamor went under, their assets and stock was seized and Josh found himself in major debt, with no way to distribute his work. So he reached out to 10 or 15 of his friends and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I want to turn Justseeds into a collective.” We launched Justseeds and it just amplified all of our practices. We now have 30 artists in Justseeds and are going on close to 10 years as a worker-run print cooperative.
Let’s turn to your book. What inspired you to write A People’s Art History of the United States?
I was directly inspired by Howard Zinn. I wouldn’t have written the book without his influence or direct guidance. I had read his book – A Peoples History of the United States — and was really surprised about how much I didn’t know, especially about the early labor movement. It really rekindled my interest in history and my interest in scholarship as a form of activism.
When I first started teaching at the college level in Milwaukee I wrote to him. I knew that he would speak in Madison a couple times a year, and I asked him if on one of his trips if he’d visit my classroom. He wrote back and said, “I’d love to, and I’ll be in town in a couple of months.” He noted that for it to work, I would have to pick him up in Madison and drive him to Milwaukee, which was pretty much too good to be true.
So a few weeks later I found myself driving down I-94 with Howard Zinn in the passenger seat en route towards my classroom. And during the whole ride he didn’t want to talk about himself. He wanted to know about what was going on in Milwaukee, about my interests, and about my teaching. So I talked to him about radical art, and the role of art in the anti-war movement, and by the end of that ride he basically said, “I initiated the People’s History series through The New Press and we are lacking a book on visual art. If your interested, send me a one page proposal for A People’s Art History and if I like your proposal I’ll put you in contact with my editor at The New Press.” This invitation propelled me on an eight-year project to research and write the book. Howard Zinn wasn’t my editor, but from time to time I would send him drafts, or send him emails, or call him up on the phone. It was inspiring, to say the least, to get feedback from Howard Zinn.
This post covers the second half of my recent interview with Ebony Golden, CEO of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative (BDAC) in New York City. Ebony has helped to design and implement the curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute at the Highlander Research and Education Center, so she is at the center of defining cultural organizing at this moment in history, particularly for the US South. I took advantage of the opportunity to get deep into what cultural organizing is all about, beginning by asking how she explains cultural organizing to students at the Institute.
For as many organizations as I’ve worked with there are as many definitions of cultural organizing. At Highlander we teach that cultural organizing is the strategic use of art and culture to shift policies and practices negatively impacting marginalized communities.
It would be great if you could break that down. What do you mean by strategic? What do you mean by “using” art and culture?
We have developed what we call the “cultural organizing triad,” the three components that a cultural organizing effort needs if it is to be sustained and community accountable. If you draw it as a triangle, the base of the triangle is wellness and transformation, the left side of the triangle is the strategic use of art and culture, and the right side of the triangle is policies and practices.
If we understand that the base of the triad is wellness and transformation, that means that we understand that any movement for liberation, any movement for progressive social change, cannot happen if the people aren’t well. When the people are well, the people can vision and make what they want to see in the world. This is huge. It means that we have to start from this place of: What is wholeness? What is health? And what does it mean to have a vision? Because you can’t change a policy or a law without a vision that is bigger than the oppression. Right now I and some others are looking at the role of meditation, conflict resolution, food justice, environmental justice, spiritual practice, and all of those things that sustain culture and sustain community.
In terms of arts and culture, we are talking about the ways in which we shift culture, and the ways that we use culture to shift other things. Cultural organizing is not just about having a poetry reading about the war in Afghanistan to educate people. We have to give folks a strategy to use outside of coming to a poetry reading. So, back to applied poetics, what are some aspects of the process of writing the program, or of developing a community event, that can be applied to the strategy? The art is not just the product, it’s the process, and the process is embedded in the strategy to get people to talk to each other. That’s how art becomes a strategy.
The third piece of the triad is around using arts and culture strategically to shift policies and practices that are negatively impacting marginalized people. Coming out of the Highlander School, we are talking about political change, voting laws, environmental justice. Highlander is responsible for working regionally across the south and helping organizers and activists to figure out how to resist and how to change things politically, on the local or national level. But the legacy of Highlander is that you can’t build a campaign if you don’t attend to culture. It’s just not possible.
And it’s not just about going in one direction. Culture is immersive, its not uni-directional. We can’t just go from here to here then to here. We change policies and practices with art and culture, but at the same time our culture is impacted by our wellness, our culture is impacted by these policies. The cultural organizer has to to figure out, “Where do I jump into this mix?”
So, you see this as a big-picture effort? One group might address politics, another might do work around wellness?
Yeah, but it’s not really that clean. Cultural organizing is becoming very professionalized, it is being funded, and so it is becoming necessary to have a language to describe how to do it: what is the blueprint? But culture is not as clean as the definitions make it sound. Some people think cultural organizing is about the campaign. It’s not. It’s about the people. It’s about building infrastructure and community networks so if there is a need for a campaign then you’re able to mobilize and activate. But the is that we’re not it crisis mode or fight mode or campaign mode; we are in community mode. For example, the Laundromat project is not launching a political campaign, but they are embedded in this practice of building communities so that when folks walk down the street or go to the Laundromat they are not strangers, they are neighbors.
Why is there a need to distinguish a distinct practice called cultural organizing, as opposed to, say, promoting more cultural practice within community organizing?
Cultural organizing is a buzzword, like “social practice” or “community-based arts.” The actual doing of the thing is much older than the words that describe it. When I go into communities in rural Tennessee, rural Mississippi, even places in the Bronx, nobody on the ground uses the term cultural organizing — unless they are funded by several of the major cultural organizing funders in the country. Funding agencies oftentimes drive the language and the conversation for non-profit arts and cultural organizations.
Cultural organizing is about thinking strategically about all of the cultural practices that make up a community, and being able to activate those as the campaign. Cultural organizing is not necessarily related to making art, because culture is bigger than art. For example, I worked with this one community, and I wanted to write a play with them. But they didn’t want a play. They needed me to help them figure out the most effective way to get information out through their own cultural practices. So I helped them plan a festival. Arts and cultural institutions have to think more broadly than art, in order to really work locally. Or if they do want to do just art then they can’t just say “we have great theater so we are going to put theater there.” That’s actually oppressive. They have to really think strategically about, “What are practices that are really going to facilitate some kind of change in a local community?
In the communities I come from, these things have always been a part of the way we’ve organized. There is no effort in my communities that does not involve culture, that does not involve healing, that does not involve food, that does not involve attending to the whole person. This idea that organizing happens in meetings and workshops and conventions and conferences it is very antithetical to where I come from. I’ve been in some rooms recently where there are more business marketing people, more “strategic planners,” more urban designers and architects than organizers and artists. And there are no people from the community in the room. It is big business. With one of the efforts I am working with in Brooklyn, the only reason I am on the team is to help remind people that we need to stay grounded in community and the needs of the community. That’s what I’m there for.
This month I had the pleasure of chatting with Ebony Golden, CEO of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative (BDAC) in New York City. Golden works with cultural, political, and educational organizations to help them develop community-based cultural strategies aimed at justice and liberation. Golden is also at the heart of defining the modern field of cultural organizing, and helped to develop the curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center. We ended up talking for an hour and a half, and she got deep. She spoke at length about the inspiration she received from her mother; the similarities between studying poetry and studying culture; the professionalization of cultural organizing; and the necessity of embedding organizing in cultural expression and community wellness.
Rather than edit out too much, I’ve split the interview into two posts. This first post features Golden discussing her life trajectory and current work. The next will focus on her thoughts on the definition and field of cultural organizing. I began by asking her where she came from originally.
There are lots of ways in which I could describe where I come from but ultimately I entered the work through my family. I had a mother who was a shining example of how to be accountable in community. I grew up in a working class African American and Mexican community on the south side of Houston, Texas, the oldest of four. Growing up, I saw very concrete images of my mother, Betty, doing work that involved lots of kids from the community, lots of art, physical fitness, and education.
What kind of things did your mother do?
My mother retired as a professor in educational psychology, but when I was a child she was a social worker and she started a not-for-profit called the Ebony Foundation that provided lot of opportunities for young people, mostly in the city. Then she went back to school and got a Masters and an Ed.D. Her dissertation was all about the need for experiential education for youth. Later, she started working in educational policy and changing the way youth-centered organizations were working. So, growing up, I saw lots of different examples of this kind of work, from very grassroots and local to very academic and macro, and everything in between.
I got my undergraduate degree from Texas A&M, where I studied writing and history and art and theater. But every summer my internships brought me back home to work with community arts groups. That community work deepened once I graduated and moved to DC. I went to American university and studied poetry in an MFA program. That experience was really profound. Studying poetry is really about studying culture. It’s about studying language, and how people relate to each other, and how people relate to their surroundings. Poetry is a portal to understanding people’s lived experiences. Through poetry you can learn about culture, you can learn about what’s important to people, what people are passionate about, and what people want to change.
But poetry got very boring in terms of sitting down and writing poems. So, very soon after I started my MFA, I needed to find a way to be creative in community, because that’s where I come from. And of course I have my mother in my ear talking about, “How is this going to do anything beyond something for you and your family?” I’m part of a community that believes that art and culture should have real, tangible applications in community. What happens? What improves? What changes because you spoke this poem? That’s a lot of weight to put on a poem, but that’s the intention: to be able to move something with the art.
I began finding community spaces for poetry, performance, and sharing progressive ideas. That was the most important part of my MFA process. I learned that however I was going to use this poetry thing that I was learning, it would have to be in a collective kind of a way. That’s also how I see my work right now: It’s about the ensemble approach. That’s why Betty’s Daughter is a collaborative. I see the organizations I work with as collaborators, not as clients. We are all helping to continue this story of what it means to work towards justice and progressive social change. In some ways I feel like I’m in “applied poetics.”
How did you move from that to founding BDAC?
After I finished the MFA I moved to Durham, NC and taught public school and worked as a visiting professor. I then went to NYU for a PhD in performance studies. But I decided I didn’t wan a PHD, so I finished up a Masters degree and went to find a job. The economy was tanking at the time, but career counseling at NYU helped my find some contract work, freelancing in the field of arts, culture, and community education. Then it began to snowball. When the money started to gel, and my clients didn’t want to write these checks out to me — they were like, “You don’t have a business bank account?” — I realized I needed to formalize this thing.
What kind of partners do you have?
Currently my collaborators include the Laundromat Project, the National Black Theater, the Highlander Research and Education Center, Spirit House down in Durham, Alternate Roots, and ArtSpot Productions. I do a range of things, and subcontract folks to help move pieces of work. One of my most recent clients is the New York Public Library. They asked me to come in and create a community arts and environmental education service learning project for 16- to 24-year-olds, and I basically had to hire a staff. Some collaborations are more extensive, some of them are more creative, some of them are more administrative, some are a combination. But whether I’m directing a play, writing a curriculum, or designing a community and cultural effort, folks typically want to work with me because they know that I am gonna help them stay accountable to community.
I have a longstanding relationship with the Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander is one of the institutions that I went to in order to learn, and then a partnership was created. One of the things I’m most proud of is helping to write a cultural organizing curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute. It has been around for a number of years and I was a part of the initial residencies under the leadership of Tufara Muhammad, who is one of my mentors and teachers. They also have a program called Seeds of Fire, which is a youth cultural organizing camp, and I’ve been on the faculty for that for the last five years. Most recently I’ve been a part of a team of people that have been doing these southern-wide convenings in which we are talking to people in communities about what they need. It’s basically a participatory research and asset mapping process. We’ve been able to gather a lot of information about what the needs are in terms of cultural organizing campaigns, political campaigns, and efforts in the south. All of that will be compiled into a document and shared publicly.
Continued next post…
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.