These artists revealed the unwritten truth of their time and did so by capturing the rawness of life. They gave a voice and a face to the oppressed and the forgotten, and were able to do so by expressing the latent emotion of their subjects. Art captures what lies beneath.—Justin Bua, “Introduction” in The Legends of Hip Hop
Be the lighthouse. Be the boat. But either way, be visible. Be brave. Be bold. Be proud. Be the imposter and the real thing.—Jessica Sabogal, “Raza Day Speech”
You got eyes but they’re not for me—Positive K
I have found, that in every community or classroom I come into, it is important to figure out what those people or those students need – let them tell you – before you go telling them what to do for hella long. I mean, they see you. Do you see them?
Ask yourself and others: Can you see your community where you are?
Some relevant back story: Galería de la Raza sits on the corner of 24th Street and Bryant in San Francisco, CA, and the first time I entered the space was when I was invited to co-lead the writing portion of a graffiti art slash mural-making workshop for mostly Mexican and Central American youth living in what was a mostly Mexican and Central American version of the Mission District. In October of 2013, my homegirl Jessica Sabogal (or Jessi, to me) asked me to help her since I had just started teaching in my own classroom at the time, and so that I could possibly help the students figure out what they wanted to create for their collective mural.
Before any drawings, or sketches, or spray paint cans, we wrote. I asked the students to write to one of my favorite prompts that always, always gets anyone to start the creative process. I asked students to fill in the blank by writing as many responses as possible in five minutes to the prompt, “Don’t ask me about…” This prompt gets people to write down topics that they don’t necessarily have to explain. This prompt allows writers to see, feel, and name without the heft of explaining – especially when the prompt demands that people don’t ask them. What comes, and what I taught them that day, is that there is a word for that – for that feeling you get when you can’t describe it. Funny, no? How there exists in English a single word for all the words you can’t (yet) state. That feeling, the one we are left with, as though we are holding our breath with our mouths, or pushing down air with our noses, or balling up pressure and power in our fists is: ineffable. Ineffability is when something is too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words. The community organizers putting on the workshop were so great. And the other bad-ass artists who were there were extremely encouraging. The youth, some friends and some acquaintances, after sharing their writings, seemed empowered. And the surrounding community, along with the watching and listening world, were about to find out just how powerful ineffability could be.
I don’t know if my short stint on writing helped or made any significant impact in the series of their workshops. I do know that the students excellently executed a mural that fused together a visual response remixing Tupac’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” Chicana/x activism and scholarship, with some of their faces, mandala designs, and the act of breaking through a glass ceiling. I teach this mural of Jessi’s in almost all of my classes – hip hop learning community or not, but it is still innately hip hop at its roots.
I am thankful that I have friends who call on me to share what I love as it mixes with what they love. That’s community. That’s friendship. That’s reflection.
I teach my CIPHER students to work together while they use important tools in visual literacy: subject, form, content, and composition. We looked at and analyzed underlying messages in hip hop artists’ album covers. No, really, we did. You can follow us on Instagram: @criticalhiphop to see the work. To see the grit. To see the grind. I believe images contain arguments, just like writing does. Therefore, image-making and image-reading takes skill, much like graffiti-writing and tagging. Creating requires tending to one’s craft, and it is in that process that much of one’s intellectual capacity is revealed to them and manifested in whatever art form.
“Graffiti is one of the last reservoirs of highly refined, well practiced penmanship.
The most reviled and persecuted form of Graffiti, the Tag, is seldom appreciated for the raw beauty of its skeletal letter forms. Most tags are removed immediately, and thus the casual viewer seldom has a chance to discern the difference between entry level and advanced hand styles.” – Gingko Press, on Christian Acker’s Flip The Script: A Guidebook for Aspiring Vandals & Typographers
My answer: Yup. I do. And my definition of community often contracts and expands.
Working with other artists, educators, and makers makes me step my game up. It makes me teach. It makes me want to teach. It makes me want to teach well. It makes me be where my students are, in a manner and fashion that they know very well, which allows them to take ownership of new spaces, and new territories.
I teach artist Justin Bua’s The Legends of Hip Hop because it is a dope non-fiction narrative suitable for college-level writing students (plus, it has pictures and gives students a brief, curated history of hip hop). In it, Bua covertly makes an argument about how his portraits of hip hop artists blur or even do away with the ivory tower between high art or high culture and low art or low culture. He names themes and aesthetic traditions from artists like Rembrandt, Millet, Rivera, van Gogh, and Daumier, and paints game changers like Muhammad Ali, Queen Latifah, Eazy-E, and Wu Tang Clan to highlight them as substantial subjects, in a(n art) world that would otherwise render them invisible.
There are mosdef some privileged ass literary, visual arts, and educational spaces that don’t let you and your friends in at all, or make you feel like you ain’t allowed. And what happens when those expensive, guarded, and homogenous (read: hella white) art spaces happen time and time again, are labeled ‘tradition,’ labeled ‘canon,’ labeled ‘exclusive,’ and really mean ‘the result of longevity and wealth based on white supremacy and perpetuated political power’? I think that most folks and makers create a way to fight back. To learn against. To make visible these structures and gatekeepers. To be where we’re not supposed to be, but to be there anyway, as illicit as possible. Sometimes, when we stick and stay, we be the graffiti on the wall. And so many authorities want to remove, erase, or deface us as soon and as violently as possible.
“The subject is Queen Latifah placed in the center of American currency and it is a dollar bill signifying that she's the number 1 lady in a male dominated game. The content of the picture includes "State of Hip Hop" portrayed above her portrait. Her date of birth is also subliminally included to her left. The word UNITY is spread through the dollar bill and to the top left of the bill there is a number 1 and the bottom left contains the letter L which may signify The Number One Lady. Canvas and blotted paint seem to make up the form. The portrait is colored green with hints of gold. Her center portrait itself is in full color. The composition contains her looking away from the viewer. Mean mugging, if you will. And looking badass.”—Matthew V. and Kyle N., CIPHER Students
Education is hella lonely. And it doesn’t have to be. And I want to change the game so that students in my classroom are tasked with seeing themselves where statistics, policies, and even schools tell them they are not welcome. One of the most powerful tools students can have to challenge those master narratives in order to survive in school, in life, in struggle – is a friend. A homie. A comrade.
Every friend I’ve come to really call a friend in my community has reflected back to me my strengths, pasts, journeys, or shortcomings. Community can be difficult and challenging, but still there. So when people say, or when friends say, “Hey, I see you,” they are recognizing you and your presence. They see you. You see them back. You see each other. You see each other back. It is reciprocal. And if you see yourself in them, well, then it can be a community.
Janice Lobo Sapigao is a poet, writer, and educator from San José, CA. Her first book of poetry about her mom, microchips for millions, critiques the Silicon Valley and its exploitation of immigrant women workers, and will be published this summer by Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), Inc. She is the Associate Editor of TAYO Literary Magazine. She teaches English at San José City College and Skyline College. She loves hip hop, runs races occasionally, and craves Philz Coffee. If you want, you can learn more at janicewrites.com