Sometimes Music is the Best Medicine

Sometimes Music is the Best Medicine

One of the longest struggles for human rights in the United States is rarely talked about. Indigenous Peoples in the US (and around the world) have faced colonialism, oppression, economic and environmental injustices, and violence throughout history. Many threats to their lands and livelihoods have yet to be addressed. Frank Waln, a 25-year-old Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist, uses music to make sense of the world and to spread awareness of the issues facing Indigenous people. He believes that music can help to spread this message because of the emotional response it creates.

 My music became political whether I wanted it to or not, just because I was talking about my life and the history of my tribe. [For example], the feeling I get when I think about what the Keystone pipeline will do to my home and the future for me. Capturing the way that it makes me feel and putting that in a song so that no matter who you are, when you hear or see the song performed live, you’ll be able to feel that same urgency. I think that’s where art comes in—and music especially— in things like resistance against the pipeline. It brings an emotional element that’s very much needed.

Though his music relates directly to his life, it also ties into universal emotions, which makes the music more relatable to a wider audience. This is part of the power of music as well, to reach audiences that are different, that see the world differently, and connect with them as well.

Frank has been featured on MTV’s Rebel Music, and continues to tour, performing and holding workshops with youth. He believes that “walking with young people is where I will have the most impact.” He is currently working on the release of his first full-length album.

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Theater of the People

Theater of the People

Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent plea to Hamlet audiences asking them to refrain from taking pictures or video during his performance, in some ways seems like the typical “please silence your cell phones throughout the performance” announcement, that often accompanies plays, concerts, and movies. However, this announcement has caused quite the drama (pun intended). There are people who defend Cumberbatch, and lament the horrible influence cell phones and mobile technology has had on our lives. In some ways I understand the point of view of the Cumberbatch supporters, the flashing lights of a camera can be very distracting when you are on stage in a dark theater (although I can’t really imagine that someone who is used to acting in front of multiple cameras, boom mics, and bright lights could really be that distracted by a flashing camera light), and no one wants their hard work to be turned into an internet meme with screaming goats (though Taylor Swift didn’t seem to mind.)

However, some critics of the Cumberbatch announcement have brought up the question of access–does this announcement discourage people from coming to see the show who are more Cumberbatch fans than Shakespeare fans? And shouldn’t the theater be trying to bring in the Cumberbatch fans, and show them how cool Shakespeare actually is?

Lyn Gardner comments that this presents a conundrum for theaters: “on the one had it is desperate to increase diversity and get more people to give it a try, rather than thinking that it’s not for the likes of them, and on the other hand it gets really narked when people who buy theatre tickets don’t know the rules about how you’re expected to behave.” While access to art should be about more than bringing in the Cumberbatch-obsessed Sherlock fans and exposing them to Shakespeare, she brings up a good point–if someone has never been to the theater before, should they be pushed away from it because it seems unwelcoming?

I’m not sure I can come down on either side of this debate–on the one hand I want everyone to feel like the theater is a welcoming place where they can be who they are and not fear getting kicked out if they don’t know the “rules.” The theater has had a long-standing tradition of breaking “rules,” and being a place to challenge conventions. On the other hand, people should be able to enjoy and immerse themselves in the wonders of a live performance, without the distractions of the extra lights, or the bright phone screen. We spend so much of our day with our world mediated through screens–phones, computers, televisions–it is nice that there are still some places where we can just be, and live, and experience, without the pressure of texting about it to our friends or updating Facebook or Twitter.

Either way, I’m not sure, however, that banning phones from the theatre is the answer. I see great potential for the way that theater can adapt to our technological world. It’s hard not to watch something like the recent PSA about texting and driving released by Volkswagen and not see the potential that technology has to get audiences more involved and more engaged with performances.  Phones, iPads, iPods, laptops, smart watches, brain-chips in our head (because those will be out soon, right?) could all be used as tools to open up more creative possibilities for theater. Because the truth is, our world is changing. Technology isn’t going away, and it is reshaping how we think, process, and communicate, and this world is going to demand a new kind of theater. As much as I appreciate the sentiment behind asking me to leave my technology at the door, I worry that it is sentiments like this that will pull theater away from the dynamic, engaging, rule-breaking art-form it has always been, and turn it into the stuffy old white man art that many already fear it is. As Gardner points out, Hamlet would not have been performed in silence in Shakespeare’s day, and the raucous audience was one of the pleasures of the theater-going experience. It is only since then that we have turned theater into the silent, formal event that it is. But theater is constantly adapting, so instead of sticking with the old ways, perhaps the answer is to embrace new ones.


Say Their Names

Say Their Names

I have spent the last year in a constant give and take between devastation and awe. As images, news articles, and videos flood my Facebook feed, with yet another death, yet another act of violence fueled by hate and racism, I am devastated by the state of our world. I don’t even have the words to express how sad, and scared, and angry this news makes me feel.

I have spent a lot of time outside of the United States this year, and I’ve had to explain what was happening to host families, and friends. I’ve had to explain what people meant when they said “Black Lives Matter.” When I told my host family in Guatemala that people were being killed by the police because of their race, they were saddened but not surprised. They had lived through dictatorship, armed conflict, genocide. But I haven’t lived through those things, and I am shocked every time a new article appears on my Facebook feed. Another death. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked by it anymore.

I am shocked and devastated, but I am also in awe. I am in awe of how our communities have come together to protest the violence. I am in awe of the way that people continue to stand, to fight, to speak up. In many ways I have felt distant from it all. I have been unable to attend protests and marches in my homes of Chicago and Massachusetts, but every time I see pictures, or read articles, I could not be more proud to be an American.

Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout” , released last Thursday (Aug 13), spoke to how I’ve been feeling this past year. Its power comes in its simplicity. Repeating the names of some of those who have been killed, with the refrain “say his name”, reminds us that in silence we are complicit in the violence. It is only with a voice, it is only be speaking up, standing up, noticing, and remembering that we can fight violence. This song simply, and beautifully, memorializes those who have died, and incites people to action.

Perhaps Monáe said it best:

“This song is a vessel. It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it to channel the pain, fear, and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters. We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard, and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue. Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves…Won’t you say their names?”

Image: Janelle Monáe at the CCT show at the University of Iowa

Can a Book Really Save the World?

Can a Book Really Save the World?

The Atlantic‘s recent article “Climate Fiction: Can Books Save the Planet?” raises a lot of questions about the role of fiction in the fight for climate justice. Climate Fiction, or cli-fi, has recently become a trending genre in literature, especially YA literature. Perhaps this has to do with the dystopian craze. The loss of food, water, oxygen, land, as well as the increase in volcano eruptions, earthquakes and floods, all seem to provide the perfect inciting incident for the next dystopia.

J.K. Ullrich, in the above article, argues that cli-fi has a certain appeal to youth because it makes the “scary” STEM fields more accessible by cloaking hard science in easier-to-understand fiction.  Furthermore, it makes youth more aware of their environment and climate change issues because otherwise they are too sucked into their digital worlds. Besides Ullrich’s obvious lack of faith in the young adults of today (millennial bashing is so last year), there are other flaws to this argument. According to a 2014 study by EcoAmerica, 18-24 year olds are the least likely demographic to believe that climate change is a hoax, and they are also the most likely to believe in solutions to climate change.

While I do not agree with many of Ullrich’s points, that does not mean that cli-fi is not an effective too. Fiction can help personalize an issue that is highly politicized and seems distant from reality. By giving a personal face to issues like drought and food shortages, fiction can give facts and statistics new and deeper meanings.

But there is also a challenge to this—much of climate fiction is too apocalyptic to promote real change. I still have nightmares about the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow. After seeing this film, did I want to go out and save the planet? No. It seemed like too big of a problem that not even the characters in the movie could solve. All I wanted to do was hide in my bed and hope the impending doom of climate change that I was sure would happen tomorrow would at least kill me quickly. (Though I was only 11 when this film came out, I have still not lost my flair for the dramatic. I re-watched this film recently and went to bed with all my clothes on afterward, in case we were suddenly thrown into another ice age.)

Thomas D. Lowe’s 2006 working paper on this topic also seems to agree with my assessment of The Day After Tomorrow and other forms of cli-fi that present a catastrophic, end-of-the-world type scenario for climate change. He argues that this view of climate change depersonalizes it for the public and makes them less likely to act. Instead, the problem of climate change must be made “tangible” and “manageable” in order to truly promote action.

Sarah Holding, author of the SeaBEAN trilogy, suggests that maybe the solution comes not in making the problem tangible, but in providing hope. Perhaps characters who are empowered to take action about climate change can make young people realize that “they too can rewrite our future.”

Cli-fi, like other forms of art that hopes to inspire action and change, is complex. Alone, it will not change the world. But maybe, if it is done right, it will inspire people to change the world.

The real question is, though, do the eco-points I gain from reading Sarah Holding’s book on my kindle (scientifically proven to be greener than paper), make up for the extra-long shower I took this morning? That’s how climate change works, right?

Image: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)