Hip Hop Against Homophobia

20 Jan

At the time of this posting, the clock has just flipped over from Martin Luther King Jr. Day to Inauguration Day.  President-elect, soon to be President Barack Obama urged Americans to spend MLK Day in service to others.  Think about that in the continuing context of of the fight for equality, a progressive, ever-shifting and enlightening struggle for the future- one that always feels like it is two-steps-forward, one-step-back.  Since a number of anti-gay, anti-equality measures passed on the same day the voting public elected Obama, there is a renewed urgency to fight homophobia, to give hope for love.  Sponsored by Outfront MN, Join the Impact TwinCities, The Twin Cities AvengersCulture Bully and Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records, local hip-hop luminaries (and politicos, and organizers) Toki Wright, Maria Isa, El Guante and others are throwing down at the Nomad World Pub this Friday.  We caught up with rapper, poet, organizer and Culture Bully contributer Kyle “El Guante” Myhre about the importance of activism, where hip-hop stands politcally, moving to Minneapolis and his National Humility Award.

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Cake In 15: Starting basic, how did you get involved in GLBTQ issues in general and with this show in particular?

Kyle “El Guante” Myhre: Before I moved to Minneapolis, I worked in Diversity Education at UW-Madison—facilitating classes and workshops, writing, organizing events, etc.  My work centered on identity issues: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and more, so they’re all things I continue to think about and work around today. 

As an activist, I think it’s really important to recognize when various undercurrents are coming to a head, and this is just the right time for this show.  I attended the November 15 anti-Prop 8 protest in Minneapolis, and got involved with the organization who planned it, Join the Impact Twin Cities, afterward.  Playing to my strengths as an artist, I thought this show could be a positive contribution to the real work that’s being done in this city for social justice and LGBTQ rights.  Concerts don’t change the world by themselves, but the more cooperation and contact we can get between communities (particularly big, diverse, beautiful communities like the local hip hop scene and local LGBTQ-rights scene) the better.

 

Which came first for you, activism, or hip-hop?  Or is that a chicken/egg proposition?  What should people know about your music in relation to politics?

 I got involved in both around the same time, which I’m sure has affected my art.  I had been writing forever, but starting doing spoken-word and hip hop seriously in about 2002/2003, which was also when the anti-Iraq war movement was gaining steam.  I was about 19 years old I guess.  That was my entry point into activism.  Around the same time I co-founded a newspaper and that was my entry point into writing/blogging, so the three things I do for a living all kind of came together at once at this crazy time.

A lot of my music is political, and I’m absolutely unapologetic about that.  So many artists these days are scared of being labeled “preachy” or whatever, and it’s this whole big false humility garbage like “I’m just a rapper; don’t listen to me.”  I feel like everyone has a voice; artists are just in a position to get their voices out there a little more.  If anything, that means we have more of a responsibility to understand the issues and speak on them.  Maybe not a “responsibility,” but something… I just figure that if you have a platform, why NOT say something meaningful?  Life is too short to just rap about rapping or string together cool-sounding non-sequitirs on every damn song.  I understand that no one wants to be typecast or put into a box like “oh he’s that political rapper,” but if I have to choose between being typecast or shutting up, I know what side I’m going to take.


Given that the recent election was one characterized as one of a desire for change and that the election of Barack Obama was undoubtedly a historic event, what does it mean for you that Prop 8 and a number of other anti-equality measures were passed on November 4th?

 The short answer here is that the election of Obama represents something very positive, but he’s also an American president and we’d be naïve to expect too much from him.  This country is still racist, sexist, classist and homophobic, and if we’re going to do anything about that we have to do it ourselves, not solely through our elected officials.

Looking at those election results, you have to infer that a large number of people who voted for Obama also voted for Prop 8, just like how states in the 2004 elections elected Democratic politicians but passed all kinds of marriage bans.  I think this just means that we have a lot of work to do not just in terms of reaching out to (or fighting, to be more accurate) conservatives, but looking at our own progressive/liberal communities and engaging in some self-critique as well.  Social justice is about understanding how all injustices are intertwined, and how to fight one, you really have to engage them all.


A lot of rappers came out in support of Obama, and there has long been a struggle in hip hop between progressive and commercial, reactionary elements.  Was the pro-Obama sense in hip-hop a passing zeitgeist or part of a developing political consciousness? Is it fair to expect a music form to take on and maintain a political characteristic or be a part of a movement?

I could write a book on this.  The biggest thing about hip hop is that it’s much bigger, more complex and more heterogeneous than most people think.  For some artists, Obama was a fad, a way to make a gimmicky song and get more MySpace plays while jumping on the “conscious” bandwagon.  Other artists were deeply committed to his campaign and actually put in work to get him elected.  Still others didn’t really care either way, or cared but didn’t put anything in their music.

I think hip hop was pro-Obama because hip hop is composed of young people and people of color, two groups that were heavily pro-Obama.  I’m not sure if hip hop as an entity, as the “giant who lives in the hills,” was necessarily all about politics this past year.

I’d love to see the hip hop community as a whole use its networks and energy and connections to do some real crazy activist stuff, but I think that’s a pipe dream at this point.  Specific artists, fans, labels and entities are doing amazing work, but I really think the culture is, at this point, too big and diverse to really be able to throw its total weight behind something.  Maybe I’m wrong though.

Actually, I just wrote a piece for Mill City Scene on hip hop and activism that is probably a better illustration of my opinions.  It might not be online yet, but check out a hard copy.

 

2008 was been a big year for you, releasing “El Guante’s Haunted Studio Apartment,” being selected as one of the 2008 URB Magazine’s “Next 1000,” a City Pages Artist of the Year and being named a finalist in the 2008 Independent Music Awards (how does it feel to have that read back to you?).  What’s 2009 holding for El Guante?

You forgot the Minneapolis poetry slam championship, my St. Paul slam team taking 13th place at Nationals, my mixtape ranking #7 on the Vita.MN “best local albums” poll, and my recent first place prize in the annual Humility Awards.

 

For real though, it’s been a great year, particularly having only lived here for a year and a half.  I’m lucky to have a great label behind me and a bunch of amazing communities (hip hop, spoken-word, activism, bloggers, etc.) to connect with.  2008 was really about getting my feet wet, and now that I’m comfortable and somewhat established here, 2009 is going to be about kicking people in the face.

 

I’m working on a one-man theater/spoken-word show, a collaboration album with labelmate See More Perspective, and a concept album with producer Big Cats.  That last project is one that I’m just insanely excited about right now.  Big Cats is such a brilliant and slept-on producer and musician, and the story we’re telling with this concept album, “An Unwelcome Guest,” is something like Cormac MacCarthy’s “The Road” meets “V for Vendetta” meets “28 Days Later,” but all very hip hop and very political.  I have a feeling that it’s going to catch a lot of people off guard, both hip hop heads and non-hip hop listeners alike.  It’s really almost done, but we probably won’t release it until winter ’09, so we have the proper amount of time to promote it.

 

Then there’s continuing to write for Culture Bully, facilitating spoken-word workshops in Twin Cities area schools through the Minnesota Spoken-Word Association, competing in poetry slams and, hopefully, being more and more engaged in the activist community.  I’m obviously very excited; should be a wild year.  Thanks a lot for paying attention to me.

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