Twelve Songs That Teach Hip-Hop History

“What we’re gonna do right here is go back, way back, back into time.”

— Troglodite, by the Jimmy Castor Bunch

Hip-Hop has always been hyper-conscious about its roots, maybe because it began with young people playing, and then rapping over, older music. Hip-hop artists of all stripes are constantly sampling, referencing, and quoting artists from the past, creatively reconstructing their family trees. Every once in a while, an emcee takes this to the next level. They become lyrical historians, narrating the evolution of hip-hop and its art forms. I’ve always been a sucker for this genre of song, ever since I was a kid in the Boston suburbs scanning the radio dial intently to learn everything I could about this incredible sound coming from the nation’s urban centers.

In this post, I share twelve songs about hip-hop history, some famous and some lesser known. Unless you’re extremely well-informed, it’ll probably take some additional research to get all the references (Rap Genius can help, For teachers, these songs could come in handy as prompts for classroom discussions. For example, conversations about what these songs include, and what they leave out, could be extremely informative.

These songs don’t really tell the whole story. They are pretty US-heavy and overly-nostalgic, and there are plenty of gaps. For one, I couldn’t find any written by women (if you know any, please comment!). Still, if you’re looking to dive into hip-hop’s roots, here are some guides to lead you.

1. South Bronx, by Boogie Down Productions

It’s generally agreed that hip-hop as we know it today first emerged in the South Bronx, so there’s no better song to start with than South Bronx, by KRS-One and Scott LaRock. This song was written in response to MC Shan and DJ Marley Marl’s, The Bridge, which claimed Queens, NY, as hip-hop’s birthplace. It’s clear today who won this argument.

2. Knowledge is Power, by Akala

Of course, hip-hop didn’t appear in the South Bronx out of nowhere. It’s roots lie deep in African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latin American musical and oral traditions. In Knowledge is Power, UK-based emcee Akala calls the Bronx-based origin story a “myth,” and argues that those who love hip-hop need to look much deeper into its antecedents.

3. Lune Tns, by Company Flow

Today the emcee has become the preeminent image of the hip-hop artist. But, of course, rapping is only one of the hip-hop elements. In Lune Tns, Bigg Jus of Company Flow pays homage to the great and lesser known graffiti artists of New York City.

4. Gangsta Rap, by Ice T

Hip-hop may have originally coalesced in New York, but it quickly spread. In Gangsta Rap, Ice T recounts how hip-hop was picked up by artists on the West Coast. There, hip-hop and local gang culture converged to birth West coast gangsta rap, which then took the world by storm (for good and ill).

5. Latinos Stand Up (Remix), by Chino XL, Sick Jacken, Thirstin Howl, B Real, Sinful, and Kid Frost

Latinos artists have been part of hip-hop’s evolution since its birth, but have often been unrecognized for their contributions. In this song, some of the most well-known Latino rappers join together to represent for the Latin hip-hop tradition.

6. Underground Heaven, by Cesar Comanche

Underground Heaven highlights the central role of the DJ/Producer in creating the sound we recognize today as hip-hop music. It’s something of an ode to the independent record store and the sample, and has a great verse that rolls through some of the most classic samples in hip-hop.

7. I Used To Love H.E.R., by Common

In this famous song, Common narrates the evolution of hip-hop metaphorically, personifying hip-hop as a woman with whom he has a sort of on-again, off-again relationship. Despite the somewhat sexist nature of the metaphor, this song beautifully captures the feeling of nostalgia for hip-hop’s early days which can often be found among hip-hop aficionados.

8. Hip-Hop Knowledge, by KRS-One

In this song, Blastmaster KRS-One narrates some of the history of conscious or political hip-hop, including various efforts (mostly his) to use hip-hop culture as a vehicle for peace, learning, and social change.

9. At the Party, by Macklemore

This is a fun one. With At the Party, Macklemore narrates hip-hop history as if it were all taking place at the same time, at one house party. Along with nods to many of hip-hop’s premier innovators and popularizers, he manages to include social commentary about the shifts in hip-hop’s audience towards white, suburban America.

10. From Jeddah to LA, by Qusai

Qusai is a Saudi Arabian artist who co-hosted the first hip-hop show for MTV Arabia. In From Jeddah to LA, Qusai raps about the path hip-hop took as it left the shores of the US and was picked up in Saudi Arabia. While his story is specific to the Middle East, his lyrics capture a piece of the global process by which hip-hop spread across national borders and was adapted to local contexts around the world.

11. I Was There, by KRS-One and Marley Marl

Is it possible to have too much KRS? I don’t think so. This track comes off of the 2007 album Hip-Hop Lives, which brought KRS-One together with his rival in the Bridge Wars, Marley Marl. KRS challenges the legitimacy of hip-hop historians studying the movement from outside, arguing that his own experiential knowledge of hip-hop’s past is much more valuable. While most of the songs on this page focus on artists, I Was There also touches on the business side of hip-hop, as well as some of the important historical events that shaped hip-hop’s rise.

12. Hip Hop, by Wyclef Jean

I’m going to end with Wyclef, because his song Hip Hop came out in 2013, and brings us almost up to date. Fortunately, someone put together a video with images of all the artists whose names he drops. His lyrics point to history’s cyclical nature: “Things done changed but they stay the same.”




Photo at Top: Hip-Hop Timeline created by youth at Project HIP-HOP,

#DareToImagine: A Call to (Creative) Action

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
— Arundhati Roy

This October, the people-powered US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC)*, in partnership with Cultural Organizing, is launching a nationwide action called #DareToImagine. We are looking for your help.

Real democracy runs on social imagination, our capacity to envision alternatives to what is. Imagination is a muscle—and right now, it needs exercise! Are you ready to step it up? The USDAC is inviting you to sign up as an “Emissary from the Future.”

ImaginationStationFrom October 10-18, 2015, Emissaries from the Future will create Imagination Stations nationwide, popping up in parks, classrooms, galleries, conferences, farmer’s markets and beyond for this large-scale act of collective imagination. Using creative tactics, Emissaries will engage people in envisioning the world they hope to inhabit and—looking back from the future—celebrating the work they did to get there. The resulting texts, images, videos, and more will be uploaded to an online platform, yielding a crowd-sourced vision of the future, inspiring art, policy, and community action.

In these times, exercising social imagination is a radical and necessary act, shifting dominant narratives and affirming that all of us make the future. Too often, we’ve been persuaded to believe our voices don’t count or that the future is determined by a powerful few. But when we have the audacity to dream in public, when we begin to unleash imagination and turn it into action, we can move the world.

As an Emissary, you’ll invite people to imagine the world they wish to live in, then help them connect imagination to action. It’s creative, fun, and effective.

Emissaries receive a free step-by-step toolkit full of creative activities and tips, access to online training and 1-1 assistance, and the opportunity to put their Imagination Station (and all that it yields) on the map, connecting local visions to a national dialogue. You can sign up** to host an Imagination Station as an individual or as a group/organization.

The future belongs to those who #DareToImagine.


*The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture is not an official government agency. It is a people-powered movement dedicated to cultivating empathy, equity, and social imagination.
** The deadline to sign up for this action is September 10, but we encourage you to sign up now so that you have ample time to plan for awesomeness and impact.


Artists: Engage in Global Un-War Project

Today I am reposting a powerful call to action from artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, head of the Interrogative Design Group and professor in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. For decades, Wodiczko has been carrying out large-scale public and community-engaged design projects addressing social issues, many related to the causes and consequences of war. In 1998 he received the Hiroshima Art Prize for his contributions to world peace. In this essay, Wodiczko calls on fellow artists to turn their talents toward dismantling the “culture of war.”

The 70th Anniversary of the Hiroshima Bombing

“Nuclear weapons have changed everything except the way we think.”
– Albert Einstein

To Fellow Artists

Seventy years ago Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed with the use of nuclear weapons. The atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima killed women and children in addition to soldiers. Within three miles of the explosion 60,000 of the 90,000 buildings were demolished. While Hiroshima’s population had been estimated at 350,000, almost one third, approximately 70,000 people died immediately. In three years the total death count from radiation and wounds reached 200,000 and as of today stands at 297,684.

Hiroshima is the exemplary site in our living memory of destruction and disregard for human life. It is the historical and ethical referent that compels us to condemn all acts of war and urges us to end the perpetuation of war.

Questions concerning “why” Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed with nuclear weapons are pointless and ethically insulting, implying that there might be acceptable explanations and “logical reasons” to justify the atrocities. The cause was the war itself. If there had not been war there would have been no bombing of any kind.

There would be no war – and no Hiroshima bombing – if there had occurred a change in our “way of thinking.” Our eternal assumption that conflict can be “resolved” by war, and that the path to peace is war must be changed. “The way we think” is assumed to be immutable by our national cultures. In fact all nations and nation-building societies and their governing bodies cultivate such a notion.

To end the perpetuation of war demands ending the perpetuation of the very idea of war. International laws, treaties and UN conventions are only pieces of paper as long as they remain contradicted by the actual practices of nation-states and statehood-seeking groups that everlastingly drag their ideological patterns, rituals of culture, and cult of war through the centuries.

The processes of preparing for, waging, and commemorating war are seen as essential elements of history, rooted in human psychology, admired as a martial cultural tradition that, with a powerful intensity of emotion, remains central to the lives of those who participate in it.

The motivation to fight and die in war is preserved by a war culture that manifests itself through uniforms, war games, parades, military decorations, and war memorials (including statues and shrines, triumphal arches, cenotaphs, victory columns, and other commemorations of the dead), as well as the creation of war art and military art, martial music, and war museums, not to mention the popular fascination with weapons, war toys, violent video and computer games, battle reenactments, collectibles, military history and literature.

The Culture of War makes men and women face death willingly, even enthusiastically. War is a destructive, self-destructive, mass operation, and the Culture of War reinforces its social pathology and its function as “an end in itself.”

Some facts are so enormous that we do not see them. The largest such fact is that war poses a mortal danger to our civilization. Our blindness results in a tolerance, passivity, and silence when faced with the international legitimacy and popular acceptance of the culture of war. Such silence and passivity is closely related to our denial, blaming of others, and inadequate effort in taking actions towards eliminating war. It all leads us to the point of annihilation through nuclear warfare. Public attitudes are a symptom of the contradictory condition in which we claim a critical stance against war while simultaneously we pay taxes that support war and enthusiastically attend war parades and war films, with their necro-orgiastic spectacles.

Changing such deeply-rooted cultural acceptance of war needs a pro-active approach that combines critical interventions that disrupt, ridicule, and unmask our hypocrisy with new transformative projects: projects of the kind that engage the cultural and pedagogical sphere, directed to all, but especially the young.

We must contribute to this complex task through our own individual and collective experimental and proactive projects. We must do so through collaboration with those from other fields and disciplines, engaging anyone who can contribute their commitment, experience, knowledge, sensitivity, and talent to the cause.

As psychoanalyst Hanna Segal has pointed out, “the war manifestations are despised and regularly denigrated as atavistic and irrational while secretly or openly embraced and celebrated.” The Culture of War consolidates this psychological division of our souls. To challenge such a schism requires an exceptional investment of political will, ethical energy, cultural imagination, intellectual depth and artistic vision.

In such a complex war-ending project, the preferred term should be “Un-War” rather than the word “peace,” because peace is not a simple matter. To end wars, one must first confront the social and cultural phenomenon of war and recognize how firmly war is entrenched in our singular and collective minds. Un-War is the new state of mind that enables the process of understanding, uncovering, and undoing war. It acknowledges that war exists as something hidden within us, which must be brought symbolically and culturally to our singular consciousness before matters erupt into bloody conflict. The other implication of the term Un-War is that war is an old state of mind and a mental condition installed in us from without, through the Culture of War. We must culturally uninstall it.

The task of dismantling the Culture of War requires the creation of new methods of transforming all war-based and war-bound cultures toward a Culture of Un-War as a global, national, regional, and urban project. We must do so on through the laboratories and experimental zones that are provided to us by arts funding, art education, art production and art-disseminating media, institutions, organizations, agencies and centers. We must do so as well with non-artistic governmental and non-governmental organizations, institutions and networks.

Culture, especially popular, artistic and media culture, is the field in which we work. We the artists know of the larger national culture – an essential part of which is the culture-of-war. We know it all too well. Such knowledge has been for a long time based on our own direct experience with it.

In fact it is we ourselves – artists and designers, including architects – who are profoundly implicated in reinforcing and disseminating the culture and cult of war. Since ancient times visual, sound, performance, and mixed-media artists have been major contributors to the culture of war: the massive presence in museums of military art and the participation of artists in war propaganda efforts and in designing symbolically and visually effective uniforms, armor and camouflage, as well as hundreds of thousands of artistically conceived war monuments, memorials and shrines that promote war as a way to make peace, or as a way of admiring killing and death as a noble duty and a sacred sacrifice.

If artists and designers have contributed to war through its aesthetic reinforcement, phantasms, war mobilizations, and indeed through warfare itself, they can certainly contribute to the opposite: the creation of a Un-War culture and the construction of a new consciousness toward a war-free civilization that generates the global abolition of war.

We are prepared.

We already know a culture with a tradition of opposing war, of opposing both war itself and the culture and cult of war throughout at least four centuries of anti-war art which engages visual arts, performing arts, media arts, music and poetry and literature projects, movements and campaigns. A number of important artists have questioned the assumptions surrounding war: Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Manet, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz, Pablo Picasso, Hans Haacke, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Yoko Ono, Barbara Kruger, Jochen Gerz, Ben Shahn, Walid Raad, William Kentridge and collectives such as Publixtheatre Caravan are just some among many examples of past and present anti-war artistic endeavors. Significant parts of this tradition include, after the First World War, Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War project and the Anti-War Museum in Berlin (shut down by the Nazis in 1933); John Heartfield’s photomontages satirizing the Nazis. Following the Second World War; there was also Robert Filliou’s Fluxus proposal for exchanging war monuments between adjacent countries and Yoko Ono’s “art for peace.” The Vietnam War ended in part thanks to resistance movements supported by anti-war artists. Artists have long been involved in conflict-transformation initiatives, war-related post-traumatic stress relief, and cross-cultural communication projects. Many war veterans and members of their families have become artists so as to better heal their emotional wounds and publicly share their war experiences, while addressing society’s lack of a truthful emotional comprehension of war.

Unfortunately, despite so many powerful anti-war efforts, artistic culture and to a large extent the entire contemporary Western visual culture, remain dominated by art that is either fascinated by war, emotionally distant from war, or – the most regrettable – silent about war. The number of artists involved directly in peace-building processes remains minuscule. In this situation, the deconstruction of the culture of war, while constructing a new culture of Un-War, is the most urgent project for artists to pursue.
Joseph Rotblat, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Peace Price, said: “A nuclear weapon-free world would be safer that the present one. But, because now we know how to build such weapons, the danger of the ultimate catastrophe would still be there. The only way to prevent it is to abolish war altogether. War must cease to be an admissible social institution. We must learn to resolve our disputes by means other than military confrontation.”

Let us state it again: Since the bombing of Hiroshima, we have faced the potential of war as total global nuclear annihilation. In our era of proliferation of nuclear weapons, the key condition for ending wars and maintaining peace on our planet, indeed the key to its very survival, is the disarmament of this culture of war, historically entrenched, even cherished by the nation-states — a dangerous condition from which all humankind suffers.

It is time for artists and designers to engage in urgent peace-building and Un-War projects, sharing their experiences, educating themselves and urging others to join war prevention and peace building organizations, institutions and networks, and to engage in educational and pedagogical work that intersects, supplements and informs through original artistic input in the fields of peace education, conflict transformation and mediation, post conflict studies, psychoanalysis of war and peace, positive peace building. These efforts must be in collaboration with art pedagogy, art education, art therapy, urban pedagogy, toy and game design, software design, media and instrumental research and other fields that can strive to change the way we think about war and envision an Un-War future.

The performance, design and media based un-war projects may include:

  • New toys‎ and electronic games for playfully learning conflict mediation and transformation methods, diplomacy and other forms of dealing with conflict without war, while inspiring non-violent discourse on the issues of war conflict and national cultures.
  • Supplemental media based and spatial projects linked directly or remotely online to war memorials, memorial halls and other war related monuments, including sites of former battlefields, designed for discursive public engagement on the issues of war, conflict, history and national culture and related to pedagogical programs.
  • Artistically conceived performative actions, interventions, rituals and events engaging war and war related monuments and sites of memory as an alternative, or supplement to official marches, parades and commemorative or celebratory gatherings.
  • Design of new guides, smart phones and computer software as well as special portable or wearable media equipment for ‎visiting art, cultural and historical museums to reinterpret in discuss war and war related art, artifacts, displays and curatorial narratives.
  • Design of special portable or wearable media equipment for discursive re-reading of the textbooks, history books, national literature with suggested new critical and analytical approach to wars and conflicts while inserting missing data, including the missing groups and individuals who contributed averting the wars.
  • Development of new pedagogical art projects that engage people in developing informed perception and discussion on war impact on specific civilian populations abroad as well as in one’s own country and a place where one lives.
  • Design of new computer-based or wearable un-war equipment for interpretative and analytical ways of watching war and military action films, including war saturated TV “history” channel, and military recruitment advertisement.
  • Design of tools for gatherings, civic actions and protests as an alternative or a supplement to official war-related commemorative or celebratory occasions and events (to be also useful for performative actions that engage war and war related monuments).
  • Special deconstructive and playful artistic and design projects for the recognition and development of critical distance to one’s own hidden desire and fascination with war (which contradicts one’s own resentment to it), and for openly discussing such issues with others especially in the public domain.
  • Development of new communicative cultural and art projects with war refugees and war veterans to help them to open up and share in the open their war and post war experience and challenge our imaginary relation — especially among young people — to the reality of war and its existential and mental condition and crossgenerational fallout.

There are of course many other possible methods, techniques and contexts for Un-War projects. This is a call for us, artists and designers, to join each other in the global project of recognizing and dismantling through their projects and actions the culture of war both from within and without ourselves, to educate our societies and nations about war, to build together a new vigilance about war toward a new culture based on mediation and sense of common interests that is dynamic, “agonistic” and open, cherishing healthy and creative conflicts but never violent — a Culture of Un-War.

Krzysztof Wodiczko

Recipient of the 4th Hiroshima Art Prize

August 6, 2015, Vinalhaven, Maine


Photo: Public projection © Krzysztof Wodiczko at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

“I Don’t Mind Standing a Little Longer”: Remembering Julian Bond through Poetry

Yesterday, long-time civil rights organizer and social justice warrior Julian Bond passed away at the age of 75. His legacy reads like a map of the African American civil rights struggle in the US: from co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center, to sitting 20 years in the Georgia State Legislature and being elected Board Chairman of the NAACP. Some very moving statements and retrospectives have been making the rounds, including from President Obama, who said that Julian Bond “helped change this country for the better. And what better way to be remembered than that.”

Here at Cultural Organizing we would like to remember another piece of Julian Bond’s legacy — his poetry. Bond was an English major at Moorehouse, where he co-founded the literary magazine the Pegasus. Along with his many essays on race and politics, Bond’s early poetry has appeared in a number of anthologies and publications. These poems speak to Bond’s love of Black culture, his understanding of racial oppression, his commitment to the long, difficult work of social change, and his beauty as a person. Below are four of his most well-known poems.

Rest in Power, Julian Bond.



This poem was written as a response to Walt Whitman’s, I Hear America Singing, and resonates with the language and spirit of Langston Hughes’, I Too (also likely a response to Whitman). The poem was published in the first issue of SNCC’s newsletter, The Student Voice, in 1960.

I too, hear America singing
But from where I stand
I can only hear Little Richard
And Fats Domino.
But sometimes
I hear Ray Charles
Drowning in his own tears
or Bird
Relaxing at Camarillo
Or Horace Silver doodling,
Then I don’t mind standing
a little longer.



In the video below, Bond reads his most famous poem, a couplet he wrote in college.

Look at that girl shake that thing,
We can’t all be Martin Luther King.



In this poem, Bond celebrates Ray Charles, whose combination of blues and gospel inspired many young African Americans in the emerging civil rights struggle. “Bond was quoted as saying about Charles, “He just seemed to me to be such a compelling personality. The voice, the music, the whole package taken together, pulled me in as it pulled in many, many others.”

The Bishop seduces the world with his voice
Sweat strangles mute eyes
As insinuations gush out through a hydrant of sorrow
Dream’s, a world never seen
Moulded on Africa’s anvil, tempered down home
Documented in cries and wails
Screaming to be ignored, crooning to be heard
Throbbing from the gutter
On Saturday night
Silver offering only
The Right Reverend’s back in town
Don’t it make you feel alright????????



According to Bond, this poem was based on conversations he had during his first trip to Cuba as a nineteen-year-old college student at Morehouse, soon after the Cuban Revolution.

Soldiers fuzz the city in khaki confusion
Pincushioned with weapons
Seedy orange venders squeeze among the pulpy masses
Camera pregnant tourists click down the Prado
Lotería salesmen tear along the dotted line
Guitars pluck loafers into corner bars
Uniformed schoolgirls genuflect languorously
Climactic roaming rainbow dresses cling slowly
Punctuating neon orgasms in the mambo night
And above Fidel’s sandpaper voice,
“You want a girl, maybe?”

Black Symbols Matter

The one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder has many of us looking back in wonder at the powerful social movement that has coalesced over the past three years. Neither police violence in Black communities nor resistance to that violence are new. But something new has emerged: a new focus for anger and despair, a new source of critical hope, a new catalyst for social imagination and creativity. There are surely many reasons that a movement has developed at this particular moment. The wide availability of cameras on phones has been a key factor. But another factor has certainly been the skill with which organizers have deployed symbols, hashtags, chants, metaphors, and images in order to communicate — quickly and powerfully — the underlying values and goals of the movement.

Every social movement develops a cache of symbols. These symbols give coherence to dispersed grassroots efforts. They tap into our emotions and encourage us to learn more. We use them to mark our collective identity and to capture the attention of media outlets, with their famously short attention spans. Sometimes, these symbols and the meaning they carry can be the most long-lasting effects of a social movement — just think about the raised fist symbol that came out of the Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s, and its continuing importance. In the timeline below, I chart the evolution and spread of the Black Lives Matter movement’s symbolic repertoire, beginning with the protests following Trayvon Martin’s death. I could never capture them all, of course, so please be in touch to add some that are meaningful to you.

Transforming LGBTQ Narratives through Art: Past, Present, Future

Last week’s historic Supreme Court decision on marriage equality has sparked celebrations of love around the country, as well as calls for a refocusing on more intractable issues like LGBTQ discrimination, homelessness, and hate crimes. This is a time to honor the hard work that has been done, while situating this win in the context of a much longer struggle. Here at CO, this seems like a great moment to look back at some of the artists and cultural workers who have supported the movement in the US by challenging mainstream narratives of gender and sexuality, and by offering transformative visions of LGBTQ life and identity. It’s also a good time to check in on some of the newer artists who will carry this work into the future. There’s far too many to name in one post, but I’ll share a few of my favorites — please feel free to add more in the comments!

Gran Fury & ACT-UP

Poster by Gran Fury

Poster by Gran Fury

I just have to start with Gran Fury, the small artist collective that grew out of the ACT-UP organization during the 1980s and has became a touchstone for cultural organizers ever since. Gran Fury’s guerilla-style visual art campaigns captured the urgency of the struggle against AIDS at a time when so many were dying, and demanded public space for gay voices and images. In the midst of a narrative that focused blame and fear on gay men and ignored other victims of the plague, Gran Fury and ACT-UP rewrote the narrative through bold visuals and brief catch phrases. In Gran Fury’s art, people living with AIDS received the empathy they deserved (“All People with AIDS are Innocent”) and the public figures who ignored the crisis were recast as villains (“Silence=Death”). As activist-artists working in movement organizations as well as the art world, Gran Fury and ACT-UP had a lasting impact on AIDS, the LGBTQ movement, and the arts. As former member Loring McAlpin put it, “I think what we accomplished was to drive a wedge into public discourse and open a space where AIDS could be talked about in all its dimensions.”

The Lesbian Avengers

The 1990s direct action group the Lesbian Avengers shared much of the same spirit (and many members) with ACT-UP. The Lesbian Avengers challenged homphobia in all its forms through creative actions, or what they called “zaps.” In the Lesbian Avengers handbook, they state “Avoid old stale tactics at all costs. Chanting and picketing no longer make an impression. Standing passively still and listening to speakers is boring and disempowering.” They, in turn, could be found running a marching band through a school singing, “Oh When the Dykes come Marching in,” or eating fire in response to the burning murders of two LGBTQ individuals (“The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.”). According to former member Kelly Cogswell, “Every time the Avengers pulled off an action, we weren’t just making lesbians visible or trying to change society. We were changing lesbians. Creating a new kind of dyke who saw public space as hers, who could step out into the street and make noise, be herself, feel at home in the world.”

Dyke Action Machine

The women behind the Dyke Action Machine

The women behind DAM

In 1991, not long before the Lesbian Avengers got started, artist Carrie Moyer and photographer Sue Schaffner launched the Dyke Action Machine (DAM). Inspired by the Situationists, this culture jamming duo began running poster campaigns inserting lesbian images into commercial advertisements (e.g Gap, Kalvin Klein), challenging the lack of queer representation in popular culture. Over time they have used websites, mailers, t-shirts, and other products to critique mainstream media’s increasing attempts to cater to the gay and lesbian “demographic,” while at the same time challenging mainstream gay rights efforts (including the fight for gay marriage). They remain a sort of radical, queer, humerous conscience for the movement.

Alison Bechdel & Howard Cruise

Among the growing number of comics to address LGBTQ issues, two authors stand out. Alison Bechdel — best known now for her award-winning comic memoir Fun Home — became a cultural trailblazer with her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 to 2008. The strip is philosophically deep, politically astute, and hilarious. Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, suggested that DTWOF, “has been as important to new generations of lesbians as landmark novels like Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” (1973) and Lisa Alther’s “Kinflicks” (1976) were to an earlier one.” Meanwhile Howard Cruise’s 1995 book Stuck Rubber Baby is simply one of the best graphic novels to date on any topic. It’s story of a young gay southern white man getting involved in civil rights organizing in the 1960s is moving, terrifying, and beautiful. Prior to that, Cruise was an openly-gay underground comics artists (who introduced a gay character in his comic in 1976) and who wrote an ongoing piece for The Advocate.

Looking Forward

What issues are LGBTQ young arts-activists addressing now, and where are they headed? While gay and lesbian individuals still face discrimination and, often, physical danger because of their sexuality, the context of the movement has changed. With the increasing presence of gay and lesbian images in popular culture, it is no longer so radical to write a lesbian character into a comic, or to put up advertisements featuring two men kissing. In response, artists are pushing into more complex and intractable aspects of heteronormativity. They are addressing LGBTQ narratives that don’t fit into clear binaries, that don’t align with mainstream visions of loving relationships, and that were  marginalized in earlier movement efforts.

Two trends stand out. The first is definitely an increased focus on transphobia, and on the lives and voices of transgender/gender-diverse people. Just check out this list from the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art covering some of the great work done in 2014. A second, and related, trend is giving more attention to intersectionality — the ways that LGBTQ experiences intersect with other axes of oppression. Artist-activists like Julio Salgado and Favianna Rodriguez are exploring the intersection of queerness and immigration. Nia King has been cataloging conversations with queer and trans artists of color on her podcast (which is now a book — review to come soon!). And theater group Sins Invalid adds in a focus on (dis)ability alongside race and gender/sexuality. There are many more I could name, and surely many, many more I don’t yet know about. If these are the cultural leaders who are going to lead us into a new future, there is much reason for hope.


Remembering Cultural Organizer Guy Carawan

This past month we lost one of the great cultural organizers of our time. Guy Carawan passed away on May 2 at the age of 87, closing out a life dedicated to music, justice, and the celebration of folk culture. As music director at the Highlander Folk School, he was a gentle hand guiding the spread of the freedom songs. With his wife Candie, and later his two children, he supported social justice struggles in the US and around the world, while documenting the rich diversity of folk and indigenous music.

Carawan began his career as a musician in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a transitional time for US folk music. The first wave of the folk music revival was dying down, battered by McCarthyism and the Red Scare, while the seeds of the second wave were being sown. As a student at Occidental College and UCLA, where he studied sociology, Carawan became involved with the progressive folk music community in LA. He later moved to New York City to join the Greenwich Village folk scene. In the summer of 1953 he famously toured the south with singers Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Frank Hamilton, listening to folk and country musicians throughout Appalachia — a trip memorialized in Ramblin’ Jack’s song 912 Greens.

It was while on this trip that Carawan first visited the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center). Since its founding in 1932, Highlander has been a focal point of cultural organizing,  due in large part to the efforts of Zilphia Horton, the Center’s first music director. Horton believed strongly in the importance of music, particularly group singing, which she saw as a way to forge group solidarity, foster cultural pride, keep indigenous leaders connected to the masses, transmit stories and ideological messages, and inspire activism. She worked to integrate singing into all aspects of the Highlander curriculum. Horton died in a tragic accident in 1956.

In 1959, Carawan took over as the Highlander music director and continued Horton’s work. While the Center’s early efforts had largely been in support of radical union organizing, by 1959 Highlander had become a key training ground for civil rights organizers, including many well-know figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Highlander served as a launching pad for the Citizen Schools, as well as the freedom songs that would become the sound track for the movement.

Like Horton, Carawan believed that music could bridge racial and cultural divides. By combining aspects of Black spirituals and white folk music, Carawan hoped to help integrate the civil rights movement. He is most famously noted for his role in adapting and spreading the anthem “We Shall Overcome” throughout the movement. A snapshot of his work is captured in this quote by Reverend C. T. Vivian, a close colleague of MLK:

I don’t think we had ever thought of spirituals as movement material. When the movement came up, we couldn’t apply them. The concept has to be there. It wasn’t just to have the music but to take the music out of our past and apply it to the new situation, to change it so it really fit.…. The first time I remember any change in our songs was when Guy came down from Highlander. Here he was with this guitar and tall thin frame, leaning forward and patting that foot. I remember James Bevel and I looked across at each other and smiled. Guy had taken this song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” — I didn’t know the song, but he gave some background on it and boom — that began to make sense. And, little by little, spiritual after spiritual began to appear with new words and changes: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On” or “I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table.” Once we had seen it done, we could begin to do it. (qufoted in Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, 1990.)

This last statement, “once we had seen it done, we could begin to do it,” speaks beautifully to Carawan’s style of cultural organizing, which was humble, behind-the-scenes, and focused on empowering others as leaders. Over time, Carawan came to the decision that others were more capable of carrying the torch of the freedom songs. He turned his attention to teaching young African American singers, and to documenting the music and story of the civil rights movement.

As Highlander shifted its focus in the 1970s to Appalachia, Guy and his wife Candie, who he met at Highlander, helped to support social and environmental justice issues in the area, including the black lung movement. Along with their two children, they have worked to document and celebrate the music and culture of Appalachia, the Sea Islands, and other groups, inspiring artists and cultural workers along the way. Their books include, Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? The People of Johns Island, South Carolina — their faces, their words and their songs, and Freedom is a Constant Struggle Songs of The Freedom Movement, with Documentary Photographs.

In their online tribute to Caraway, the Highlander Center wrote the following about their long-time colleague and friend.

Groups that visit Highlander know that here on the hill we still sing. We stand in that circle of rocking chairs, cross our arms, link our hands, and sing the songs that so many have sung before us – and at the same time we learn and teach new songs from new communities struggling for justice – sharing old and new alike in an ongoing chain of support and inspiration. This is Guy’s legacy. We will continue singing, and we will think of him when we do.


VIDEO: Guy Carawan singing We Shall Overcome


Further reading that informed this post:

Guy and Candie Carawan: A Personal Story through Sight and Sound

The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement, by Joe Street

Guy Carawan, by Ellen Harold and Peter Stone, at Cultural Equity


Featured photograph by Heather Carawan, taken from CC Wikipedia

Educating for Cultural Citizenship

I’m excited to share with you all a new article of mine that has come out in the most recent issue of Curriculum Inquiry, titled Educating for Cultural Citizenship: Reframing the Goals of Arts Education. This post summarizes some of the main ideas in the article which you can find here. If you don’t have access, I’m told the first fifty people to visit this link can download it for free.

What does it mean to be part of a society? What are the responsibilities, roles, and rights of community members? How does one become a “good” citizen? These questions are central to the field of civic education, which prepares individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to be active and responsible participants in civic life. Those of us in the field of arts education, I believe, should be asking similar questions.

Citizenship, after all, is about more than political rights and responsibilities. It is also a matter of culture. You may be formally recognized as a citizen of a country, but still have your cultural perspectives and practices marginalized, leading to second-class citizenship. You may have access to the ballot box but not the right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to “freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” Moreover, artistic and cultural practices — from hip-hop to documentary film to traditional ceremony — have a vital political dimension, and can serve as their own form of civic engagement.

Arts education is about more than transmitting the skills and knowledge needed to create artistic works. It is also a process of developing young people’s orientations towards the arts — teaching them about their roles and responsibilities as artists and/or audience members. Arts education offers an entryway for young people into an important aspect of cultural life. One useful way to think about arts education, then, is as a process of developing cultural citizenship, the the right and capacity of people to develop and pass on diverse cultural traditions and identities while participating effectively in a shared cultural and political arena. Arts educators are helping youth to acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible members of their cultural communities. In other words, arts education is a form of civic education.

As scholars like Westheimer and Kahne have demonstrated, not all civic education efforts share the same vision of what it means to be a good citizen. The same is true for arts education — different types of arts education promote different types of cultural citizenship.

Some arts programs are designed to develop what we might call informed cultural citizens. The informed cultural citizen has the capacity to understand, appreciate, and critique works of art, and is confident in her right to attend museums, plays, concerts, and other artistic fora without feeling alienated or excluded. She is not a passive consumer of whatever media comes her way; she is engaged in choosing, critiquing, and discussing art, thus involving her in the evolution of artistic tastes. Programs promoting informed cultural citizenship can be found in the realms of aesthetic education, arts appreciation, and discipline based arts education, among other places.

Other arts programs are designed to develop participatory cultural citizens. The participatory cultural citizen is involved in producing, remixing, and sharing original artistic works, even if she does not see herself as an artist. She has a strong connection to her own cultural heritage, along with the freedom to explore new forms of expression and to share in cross-cultural exchange. She sees sees the arts as a way to connect with and understand the broader communities of which she is a part. She does not see firm divides between “artist” and “audience,” and is resistant to hierarchies among art forms. The development of participatory cultural citizens has long been a goal, for example, of many educators and artists in the community-based arts movements that have swept the US over the past century.

Still other arts education programs are designed to develop justice-oriented cultural citizens. The justice-oriented cultural citizen can critically analyze the ways that the arts are implicated in processes of oppression and resistance. She actively values and promotes cultural perspectives and narratives that are kept out of mainstream discourse, while maintaining a strong sense of cultural pride and identity. The justice-oriented cultural citizen feels a responsibility to use her art to improve her community and directly confront injustice, while understanding that social change must be a collective effort utilizing multiple forms of cultural and social action. Programs promoting justice-oriented cultural citizenship can be found in the fields of social justice arts education, community-based arts, youth participatory action research, youth media, youth organizing, critical media literacy, hip-hop education, community cultural development, and cultural organizing, among others.

This line of thinking suggests that we as arts educators should begin asking ourselves questions like those with which I began this post. What kinds of cultural citizens are we educating? What are we teaching about who can be an artist, and what the arts are for? How might education in the arts support young people as they seek to be recognized as full citizens? Such questions can help us to be more conscious of our influence on young people as members of overlapping local, national, and international communities, and of the role of arts education in an aspiring democracy.

The State of our Collective Story

What if the annual State of the Union was not a speech spoken by one, but a poem created by many?

A couple of weeks ago, I facilitated a story circle for the USDAC People’s State of the Union with the students in my Communication and Social Justice course. Rather than a monologue from a single elected leader, the People’s State of the Union is a national dialogue. All around the country, community members met in living rooms, churches, community centers, classrooms, parks, and other public and private spaces to share personal stories about the current state and future potential of this nation.

During our story circle my mind turned, as it often does, to the question of how we know what we know. Where do we turn when we seek truth? What counts as accurate knowledge? How do we come to understand the true state of our conflicted and striving union?

Too often, it seems to me, we limit ourselves to a chosen few sources of knowledge, while ignoring the rest. We privilege the measurable over the elusive, numbers over stories, average trends over quirkiness and diversity. We idolize logic and dispassion, while discounting the wisdom of embodiment and emotion. In our striving for the “right” answer, we lose sight of the value of ambiguity, contradiction, and the possibility of multiple truths.

As my students shared their stories, I was struck by how much we had to learn from one another. Embedded in our 14 diverse yet interconnected narratives was a wealth of knowledge about family and community, identity and ability, discrimination and acceptance, and what it means to truly belong. What if we, as a nation, opened ourselves up to the many sources of knowledge available to us? What if we looked to artists as often as we do to scientists? What if we listened to young people alongside adults, community members as well as so-called “experts”? What wonders might we learn, and how much more effective might we be in building something better?


The stories from the People’s State of the Union have been collected at the USDAC Story Portal. Visit, search, and share your own.

What does an act of collective imagination look like?

This past summer, the people-powered non-governmental US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) launched an array of creative “imaginings” across the country. Run by the USDAC’s newly-minted cultural agents, these events brought together artists, organizers, and community members to build shared, creative visions for the future of their neighborhoods. Below is a new video sharing some of the fun!