“Art is my Occupation”: Rethinking the Role of Artists in the Movement

As a member of the self-identified “slash profession” – writer/organizer/educator/whatever pays the rent that month – I have learned how to wear multiple hats. How to move between different worlds and code-switch my headgear to meet a particular place and community. Alright, I got this big event coming up tonight…should I wear the Kangol, the fitted, or the yarmulke? (Correct answer: all three.) Sometimes, though, it’s a struggle figuring out which slash to bring out in which situation. Take Occupy.

I got back in Oakland full-time last month, and immediately jumped into the beautiful chaos that is Occupy Oakland. I joined the big West Coast port shutdown on December 12, started attending the alternatively powerful and painful General Assemblies, and connected with the two committees I’ve begun organizing with, Occupy the Hood and Labor Solidarity. It’s been great, and I’ve gotten to stretch some of activist muscles that I hadn’t used in years. (Sometimes literally – holding one side of a 30″ banner with that wind whipping off the bay is harder than it looks.) But while I’ve been bringing my organizing and education experience to the table, sometimes I leave behind the thing I do that I’m doing right now on this laptop. Writing. Telling stories. Creating culture.

Last night, however, some of my cultural comrades and heroes reminded me what it means to be artist in the movement. Artists of the 99% organized a panel/workshop (oh artists, how we even have “slash events”) that dealt with strategies for artists participating in social justice movements. It was a power-packed room: Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop), Favianna Rodriguez (printmaker activist powerhouse), David Solnit (street theater artist/organizer), and Zeph Fishlyn (Beehive Design Collective). Plus 100 or so radical artists who love talking about radical art on a Saturday night. My kind of folks.

Jeff set it off with his thesis that “cultural change precedes political change.” Meaning, we need Jackie Robinson before we get Brown v. Board of Education, Ellen Degeneres before we get gay marriage (at least in seven states). I don’t fully agree with Jeff – I think culture and politics very much go both ways – but overall, yes: people connect deeper on a daily basis with beautiful flash mobs and Youtube videos than with congressional committees and talking points. The question is, how do we get that flash mob’s message to those congressional committees and make the changes we need? (And yes, I know the obvious answer is to do the flash mob IN the committee itself…but I just don’t think Bernie Sanders has the dance moves to pull it off.)

Or maybe the point of cultural organizing is direct our energies more towards the 99% itself, rather than our so-called representatives. That seemed to be Favianna‘s argument, as she explained her work with CultureStrike, a pro-migrant project in Arizona started last year in the racist aftermath of SB1070. CultureStrike organized a pop music boycott of Arizona that was inspired by similar actions targeting apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. At the same time, they actually brought grassroots writers and artists to Arizona — but rather than perform, their job was to see the border walls and mass deportations for themselves and then create and promote artistic work to challenge the anti-immigrant climate of fear spreading across the country.

Regarding the Occupy movement, Favianna asked,  “What are the strategic stories that we need to tell? Whose stories in the 99% are we lifting up?” The corporate media likes to focus on college students and angry anarchists for a reason. We need to highlight the stories of urban youth activists, immigrant day laborers, Black and brown homeowners — AND the college students, the (former) white-collar workers, and even the occasional anarchist. This is what artists do: shift the conversation, broaden the debate, literally paint the pictures that show both our unity and our diversity.

In that spirit, I was thinking about ways that “slash artists” can do more than just participate but take a real lead in progressive movements, from Occupy to environmental justice to international solidarity. I seem to be into lists these days, so I’m going to focus in on three concrete roles I see for me and my fellow artists:


1. Artists as Questioners

All great art, like all great political movements, starts with a question. I don’t mean marching around in a circle chanting, “What do we want? When do we want it?,” especially when we all know that the answers are deeper than “Justice” and “Now.” Artists have the power to question and critique the many injustices that often go unnoticed or unmentioned in present-day America. Just check the massive reaction, both positive and negative, to the recent “Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls” videos. Culture, and especially humor, opens people up to ask the tough questions they would otherwise avoid.

Movement artists have a double role to play when it comes to asking questions, though — turning the lens not just on wider society, but on our own personal actions and organizations. When it comes to spoken word, I know the best political poem is when the poet isn’t preaching at me but struggling within themself. If only we saw more humility and self-reflection at Occupy Oakland.

On an organizing level, elements like street theater or marching bands do more than just liven up the crowd — they question the division of protesters and folks just passing by, of message and medium, of serious politics and God forbid, having a good time. To paraphrase Emma Goldman: if I can’t dance to some remixed, radicalized pop songs with you, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.


2. Artists as Promoters

This is a practical one. If there’s one thing that all artists have in common, it’s the hustle. We’re constantly on the move, passing out flyers, sending out Facebook blasts, talking to people wherever and however we can to pack the next show. Outreach is always my number one focus for any event, because if you don’t have the folks ready to rock with you, what’s the point?

Too many political organizers, though, have an “If you build it, they will come” mentality when it comes to publicity. That might get you enough people to fill up a baseball park in Iowa, but if you want the tens of thousands of people needed to say, shut down the San Francisco district on January 20, the outreach motto needs to be more like, “If you build it, make it look and sound hella fly, build real community partners, and do a combined month-long social media/street team promo campaign…then they will come.” Assuming you don’t plan it the same day as the 49ers game, of course, which luckily is the next day.  

Musicians, poets, and visual artists can bring this all-out outreach mentality to the movement, not to mention our mailing lists. Some of us are even moderately famous. Boots Riley has been at the forefront of Occupy Oakland not just because he’s on point in what he says, but because every hip-hop head in the Bay and around the country already loves dude’s albums with The Coup. This is the true artist as promoter role. Don’t just shout out Mumia in your one “conscious rap” song. Shout out the movement that’s trying to free him and invite people to join in. People listen to what you say. That’s why they call it Call and Response. Give your fans a call to liberation and just see how they respond.


3. Artists as Strategic Organizers

Now this is the most interesting, the most challenging, and ultimately the most important role. Not just for artists, but for anyone in a grassroots movement. Strategic organizing involves thinking about what it would actually take to win our demands, and how the hell to go from here to there. Putting on a poetry slam against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is organizing. Putting on a poetry slam of LGBT former soldiers and staging it outside an army base as part of a multi-tiered, national campaign…that’s strategic organizing.

To make any real change these days, we need to change the culture. Occupy Wall Street is never going to be able to physically occupy the stock market on Wall Street — the NYPD has too many guns, too many helicopters, and too many undercover infiltrators.  What we do have, or could have, is the will of the people. We need the 99% to become a massive wave of real democracy, rather than the isolated ripples of confusion and consumerism that we are now. Artists, especially the artists/teachers/biracial-bakers who have their finger on the pulse of so many different worlds, as much as anyone can help change the tide.

In the end, our job is to contribute our creativity to the greatest art project ever: saving humanity from ourselves. For me, that means getting down and dirty in the nitty-gritty work of planning, building, and executing specific campaigns for justice. But at its most basic level, it means just doing what a good artist does: responding to the reality of our times and imagining the possibilities that could be.

Part of being a political artist also means fighting the competitive, individualistic nature of American art. If we want to build a collective future, we’ve got start with a collective now. More and more folks are stepping up to the plate, from the local Occupy SF Arts & Culture committee to the national, newly launched Art is My Occupation project, which is offering mini-grants to artists on Occupy-related efforts. Resources for the creative revolution? Love that!

I don’t know if a full-on Occupy arts movement is going to emerge like the labor-left Cultural Front of the 1930s or the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, but there’s only one way to find out. See you on the streets, my friends…and don’t forget your dancing shoes.

In the meantime, here’s my vote for #AnthemForTheMovement…So Far.