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some insights from kiwi illafonte

September.20.2009

kiwi brings up a lot of really hard, but necessary questions in his blog post, On Cultural Activism… For now at least. although being an “artist” is a new identity that i am still exploring, it is definitely important to me to stay grounded, humble, and accountable to the community that i serve with my art. a lot of good food for thought in the post below!


In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.”
– Mao Tse Tung

As I’ve gotten a little older and had a little chance to reflect, one thing that I’ve always gone back and forth on is this idea of art for the people, or cultural activism. Or as it relates to me: “music for the masses.” Namely, where does the balance between art and activism lie? Is it just someone who just happens to paint pieces that have a certain “political” message? Or is it someone who doesn’t just represent politics in her/his art, but is also involved in community work that reflects that? Is it blatant political art? Or is it some deep, profound, there’s-politics-somewhere-in-there art? Does it serve a concrete purpose, like to draw people into a particular organization or movement? Or is it simply to “spark” critical thought? These are questions I’ve always dealt with as my life has gone through its changes and transitions, and my music and art along with it.


Papo De Asis (above, left) taught me firsthand what it meant to be a true people’s artist

Thankfully, I’ve been connected enough to community work, whether directly or indirectly, to feel like my music is, to a certain degree, grounded in organizing and politics I experience with some regularity. This is important, I believe, because I keeps me from straying off into my own self-righteousness or individualism as a “conscious” rapper. It also keeps me up to speed on the changes and growth of our respective “movements” as we move forward and figure this shit out. I feel like I’m integrated in it.

“Now culture being a social product, I firmly believe that any work of art should have a social function – to beautify, to glorify, to dignify man.”
– Carlos Bulosan

The most important part of this all, to me at least, is accountability. I am reminded of the movie “Che (Part I)” during the Cuban revolution, where the guerrilla soldiers were held to a strict code of conduct to build the trust of the people, such as: “Pay for everything you get from the masses,” “Be polite,” “Do not take advantage of the masses,” and so forth. I feel like cultural activists should be held to a similar code which, in some ways, may challenge how we expect to be treated. And though I do feel like some things are justified (like sound & stage requirements, fair compensation, etc), I do feel like artists can get a little overboard sometimes. Or act like because they’re artists, then they can just stand around after the show while folks around them are folding chairs and shit. Or expect shit for free all the time. Or conduct themselves like arrogant assholes. This would include myself, and I really have had to check myself more than a few times after being guilty of this. The accountability part also allows folks other than myself (i.e the organization that I’m a part of, or the community members themselves) to check my ass too. In a constructive, principled, and nurturing way, of course. Well, most of time at least ;-)


Geologic (aka Prometheus Brown) balances being a dope emcee with his involvement in political work and organizing in the Northwest

Here’s the hard part. I can’t imagine a place where it’s more challenging to be a cultural activist than the United States. Here we are, bombarded with art and culture that is not just simply “art for art’s sake,” but in actuality is really art for the sake of capitalism; art to reinforce the status quo. It is this art that encourages excess, arrogance, selfishness, and individualism. This is nothing new.

For a minute now, I’ve been seeing this idea of artsy elitism seeping into even the lowest echelon of cultural types. And this is where part of the struggle lies as far as really transforming into true “people’s artists.” It is a similar transformation, I would imagine, that someone with a more privileged background would have to make to work more closely with those of less privilege. Or a straight-identified person would have to make if they want to be a queer ally. If we are to truly create art and culture by and for the people, then it needs to essentially come from that working class perspective, which is rooted in struggle and resistance. This in essence, means that we must challenge and resist the standard of what it means to be an artist in the modern age, and transcend that to represent the needs and vision of oppressed and exploited people everywhere. It involves challenging our own bourgeois values and ideologies, to go beyond what is simply ideal to creating measurable results through our art. And my intuition is telling me that our communities are at the point of urgency where this vision is becoming more realer by the minute.

“The poet should also know how to lead an attack.”
– Ho Chi Minh

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