I’ve been a big fan of graffiti and street art, since my time spent living in the Bronx. What impressed me the most were street installations that spoke to the masses. Often, they were laced with commentary on current struggles in our world. This is especially present in Europe, where political graffiti had remained notorious, even before the American style of throw-ups and production pieces became popular. These pieces ask us to consider our complicity in broken systems.
I met Swoon at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and Bowling Green — she faciliated a workshop on stencilling and wheatpasting — it continues to be a personal reference on the realness of AMC. I didn’t find Swoon’s work to be explicitly political, until I had seen Portrait of Silvia Elena.
Swoon recently produced an installation regarding the ongoing mass rape and murder of women in Juarez, Mexico. It is located in a basement crawlspace, only accessible through a hole in the floor at Honeyspace, a radical arts space located in Chelsea, New York City.
The band At The Drive-In produced a music video based on the femicides in 2001.
I am a big proponent of using music and art for the process of healing, learning and justice. It is great when artists like Swoon and At The Drive-In have the ability to expose this injustice to the world. For emerging artists, art and music laden with political messages can be perceived as self-righteous, or a commercializaton of a ‘political rebel’ image.
In my own solo recordings, I try to explore themes I feel consciously while living in Philadelphia: murder, poverty, prisons and unending war. As an activist and artist, it is easy to become conflicted about where to put one’s energy. How does one focus in such a cluttered and broken world?
Murder in Philadelphia was my most serious concern for a time. The solutions are complex and involve attacking root causes of urban violence, which means we are a long way from relief. This is why folks in neighborhoods most affected by violent crime are looking for quick-fix solutions: police surveillance cameras and more arrests. These tools help one thing: catching criminals. This doesn’t change the mindset which causes someone to blow someone away over petty arguments. It is not preventative, it is not curative.
And it’s not drugs. Drugs do not beget violence as we’ve been programmed to believe. It is a symptom of the problem. Ihe drug economy is another resources for jobs, education, and mental relief when such resources are not provided otherwise. The ‘straight path’ provided by our broken schools and a severe lack of jobs do not cut it. Are we supposed to be surprised?
It is complicated. It is the perfect energy for creative voices.
How can a song prevent a teenager from catching a bullet during a basketball game? If you believe in “Each-one-Teach-one”, then our collective understanding is developed by changing one mind at a time. Then the question of audience. If I’m only reaching folks who already feel safe in their neighborhoods, who don’t live in Philadelphia — does it really matter? It feels like parachute activism. We can write letters, send donation checks, have a conversation over breakfast — somehow it all feels too passive.
Perhaps we are best involved in local struggles, where we can listen to and actually touch each other. Issues we can identify with. This is troubling for middle-class activists, or those who are labeled as such, based on skin color or other orientation.
I learned this often when working street-level in North Philly. There is increased hostility and skepticism towards someone with white skin says they want to help — and this cynicism is justified. There are many complex and deeply embedded reasons for this which are for another day. What I have experienced in my work in Philly and Camden has been powerful. The more open, innovative and sustained an effort is, the more it establishes its credibility. To be clear, it is not simply a race thing, it is a perception issue based on class, intent and historical context.
As a friend recently said, you have to avoid leading the charge, and find your role in how to best support a community concern. I have found a role facilitating youth and adults in this creative process, and feel blessed. I consider this to be central to much of my work; to give a voice to the voiceless. Onward.