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Monday, January 09, 2006

re-envisioning safe spaces, hierarchy, and competition

And now for something slightly more serious…any and all thoughts on this are welcome, particularly if you were at the Open Mic.

Last Saturday night, around 200 people crammed into the Kirkland JCR for one of the Spoken Word Society’s well-reputed Open Mic events. Good people, good food, and the promise of good poetry had drawn the large crowd that, at its most voluminous during the evening, overflowed even the standing room space. While Spoken Word Society (SWS) Open Mic nights are no stranger to thronging audiences, it was especially gratifying to see so many people milling about since the conspicuous absence of a few SWS leaders—'05 graduate Niles Lichtenstein, as well as four major writers who all went abroad this semester—could have hurt attendance. But crunching samosas, resounding laughter, and plentiful hugs in the pre-show downtime reassured me that the night would be a classic Spoken Word success. (more in expanded post)

The show began beautifully with some talented singers, poets, and performers, and the vibe between stage and seats (and jam-packed standing listeners) was supportive and appreciative. No surprise there. The most recent Spoken Word leaders (there are many, since the organization does not have official positions like President, etc.) are extraordinarily committed to creating a safe, open space for writers, artists, and art enthusiasts to share their work and feel a part of a welcoming, almost familial environment. Just as I value Kuumba for its ability to provide an inspiring kind of community, I admire Spoken Word Society for its commitment to inclusiveness and supportiveness. Their commitment certainly pays off. For many members, I think, SWS’s workshops take on a quality of almost spiritual rejuvenation. Last year I went to maybe six or seven workshops—weekly meetings where people can relax, de-tox, freewrite using prompts provided by workshop leaders, and workshop their own pieces, asking for constructive criticism on both the poetry itself and the presentation style. Did I sometimes felt intimidated by the sheer talent of many of the writers present? Of course. But it was more a sense of awe than a sense of aw damn, I suck. The people in SWS aren’t out to make anyone feel inadequate. Quite the opposite. I mean, they decline to adopt titles, for heaven’s sake—despite resultant complications in task delegation. To me, that choice speaks to a wonderful philosophy of egalitarianism and growth through cooperation.

That’s why I was dismayed to witness last night’s emcee rap battle, a performance sandwiched between two blocs of spoken word/poetry/song presentations. To me, the rap battle was the antithesis of much of what I adore about SWS. Within the first two lines of the first emcee’s improv, he had called his opponent a fag. Later gesturing to his own crotch, he goaded his adversary to take a drink from his ‘fountain’ and then take a hike on Brokeback Mountain. Homophobic and/or sexist themes ran throughout all four emcee’s freestyles (although two attempted to dismiss homophobic/heterosexist insults, all used imagery involving sexual domination to insult their opponents). As I looked on, I felt my heart sink. Not because the insults they were volleying were particularly shocking—as Chimaobi has pointed out, negative themes like sexism and homophobia are unfortunately commonplace in many hip-hop lyrics. In fact, that’s probably why the emcees felt so comfortable falling back on these kinds of jabs. Comes with the territory. And the audience certainly responded. But this battle occurred on Spoken Word territory—a forum that regular participants have worked diligently to craft into a safe, creative space. There were definitely gay and/or queer people in the room that night, and if I, an ally, felt uncomfortable, it’s likely that self-identifying queer people felt the same. In addition to offending audience members like me, the heterosexist and sexist themes also implicitly designated the rap battle space as a site of straight male dominance. What if one of the emcees had been a woman—how would the meaning of phrases like “suck my dick” or allusions to rape change?

Apart from the crude insults, and in a larger sense, the very idea of a battle in an SWS Open Mic just rubbed me the wrong way. Sure, the emcees might respect and even like each other in real life, and I appreciate that they’re just ripping on each other for the sake of the performance. But the larger issue here, for an organization so committed to supportiveness and equality, is whether or not it’s a good idea to stage an antagonistically competitive format in which the entire goal is to attack and triumph over another artist. For me, the battle created an awkward, irksome tone totally incongruous with the values of the Spoken Word Society—an organization I have come to know and love as an oasis of non-hierarchical, cooperative creativity in the Harvard community.

Post- Open Mic discussions with others who were there have left me wondering about the value of competition in artistry. I think that competition can be a positive motivating force for many people. But I don’t believe it’s always necessary to explicitly name winners and losers, particularly in an intimate, live setting in which the compliments and thanks people give to artists can serve as both a source of subtle competition (seeing who can get the biggest audience response) and as a motivating force unto itself (knowing that your work really touched someone). It’s possible to challenge people to extend and develop their skills without relying on an explicitly hierarchical competitive model to provide incentive. For example, professor and feminist author bell hooks describes her “confrontational” teaching style as a method of motivating and challenging students without using outright competitive structures:
Unlike the stereotypical feminist model that suggests women best come to voice in an atmosphere of safety (one in which we are all going to be kind and nurturing), I encourage students to work at coming to voice in an atmosphere where students may be afraid or see themselves at risk. The goal is to empower all students, not just an assertive few, to feel empowered in a rigorous, critical discussion.
Perhaps Spoken Word Society is in a rare position as an organization having the freedom and flexibility to avoid structuring itself in a hierarchical fashion. Most student groups are unable or unwilling to take such an organizational risk. Too often, people think of supportive, non-competitive environments as being mushy, non-rigorous, and staunchly uncritical. However, testing the limits of what’s considered feasible or appropriate in methodologies of group interaction and cooperation can yield splendid, surprising results. They say college is a time to experiment—and in this case I don’t mean with sex and/or substances. A university setting can be a prime place for useful experimentation in pedagogy and social organizing, especially when we learn from the failures and successes of predecessors.

Since this is a forum for contribution and collaboration (and competition as well, in certain ways), let’s make the Open Mic Night into a learning opportunity. To me, the larger political implications of this episode for progressives aren’t a matter of political correctness, but of the politics of creating safe spaces, inclusive environments, and institutions that value both cooperation and competition, all while protecting the freedom of individuals to express unpopular viewpoints. In your experience, how does making an organizational structure more or less hierarchical change group dynamics (recognizing that certain groups need to be more or less hierarchical depending on their size and need for immediate accountability)? How does increasing or decreasing the level of explicit, institutionalized competition affect organizational dynamics? What experimental strategies have been successful in transforming the climate and/or functionality of your groups?


At 12:59 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Believe you me, Katie I understand what you mean. I have to place the blame of the rap battle fiasco on whoever (or whichever...if a group of people) greenlighted it for the SWS performance. Anyone cognizant of hip hop/rap battle culture knows that rap battles are brute, chest-thumping, opponent-bashing fests and the average rap battle crowd usually begs for more. The generally progressive crowd in Kirkland's JCR the other night? Not the average rap battle crowd. I'm not a fan of heterosexism nor sexism in any of its forms but that is commercial rap (and certain other genres) today. Heck, that's the world today. Still not OK though, you're right. Just wanted to extrapolate that event a bit in that context.

Before continuing, let me say that the quality of the battle was remarkably low. No one had very good material and I felt as if a childhood pet that I loved was being killed for dinner in front of my face. It pained me to watch.

On the topic of safe space, there's an inherent contradiction with safe space and what is supposed to be an uncensored and truly expressive environment. Rap battles are supposed to be based on freestyle rapping (that is, rapping spontaneously without writing the lyrics beforehand). It's difficult. I've never done it well and I've been rapping (sort of) for ten years. I'm a writer and this blog attests to that. Others will call this method improv (such as Mike GW's piece with the guitarist). In this spontaneous and dynamic artistic environment complete censorship is difficult if not impossible. I guess this is going to seem like a defense of the rappers who used queer slurs...I don't want to do that. I just want to point out that when one is told they are in an open environment where they can express themselves however they feel, sometimes things that are not cool (Brokeback Mountain), make no sense (Teddy's rhymes), or just plain wrong (the queer slurs) come out. Safe space atmospheres are not completely free environments. Are there any FUP people that want to comment on this? I'm personally aware of people who were put off by the censorship of true (even if hurtful) words and feelings even in the uber-liberal FUP environment.


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