Saturday, May 28, 2011


Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, most famous for his 1970 song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," died yesterday at the age of 62. Here is an obit from the New York Times, an In Memoriam from The Root, and the first segment of an hour-long documentary about him.

As the NYT story puts it, "Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. 'I don't know if I can take the blame for it,' he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm." Nevertheless, many hip-hop artists cited him as an influence. Among them was Public Enemy's Chuck D, who tweeted, "RIP GSH...and we do what we do and how we do because of you." It was Chuck D who also famously called rap "the CNN of the ghetto." It is this political function of rap that leads me to write. 

Below, I've posted selections from a longer article on "Hip-Hop as Oral Tradition," by Weyland Southon, of KPFA's recently-ended "Hard Knock Radio" show, published in a one-off magazine I put out in 1995. 

"HipHop is the fist of urban America and the pulse of its youth. It is the absolute cutting edge of social and political commentary. However, the origins of HipHop are not in the sampled loops of George Clinton, Sly Stone or James Brown. The roots of HipHop are beyond even The Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron. Before Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Gwen Brooks or even before the written word, there was the griot, or African storyteller.... 

"Michael Franti, Spearhead frontman and former rapper for Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, comments, 'HipHop and rap itself follows in the roots of the African griots, you know--storytellers who are tellin' what's goin' on in the community and what's happening in their life and tellin' the stories and tales of morality--generally being the watchdog and reporting the news. I consider rap to be folk music. It's a whole new art form that's been developed and a lot of people don't recognize it as that. They won't recognize it 'cause A) it's black, and B) what people are saying through the music is something a lot of people are afraid of....'

"Chris LaMarr of Without Rezervation insists, 'rap music is more than entertainment, it's a movement.... We're doing the same things our ancestors did: they told stories to relay information they wanted the younger people to have. That's how culture is passed. We're using our oratory skills to do the same thing.'" 

Sunday, May 22, 2011


The San Francisco-based organization Voice of Witness describes itself as a "nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them." The series was founded by author Dave Eggers, and physician and human rights scholar Lola Vollen. Books in the series cover such human rights crises in such places as Zimbabwe, the Sudan, the United States, and, most recently, Burma.

In the video above, I talk with the organization's executive director, Mimi Lok, and with Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, the editors of the book "Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives From Survivors of Burma's Military Regime." That book contains not only stories of all-too-common arrests, detentions, beatings and other human rights abuses in Burma, but also -- crucially -- stories of everyday life as well. The protection of human rights means nothing unless you have a sense of the humanity of the people whose rights are being violated. Reading the stories of survivors' daily goings-on, their arrests, their solidarity, their fear, and their courage was troubling, enraging, and finally inspiring.

Sunday, May 15, 2011



Please check out the latest podcast episode, a conversation with Taylor Krauss, the director of Voices of Rwanda, an organization that is "dedicated to recording and preserving testimonies of Rwandans, and to ensuring that their stories inform the world about genocide and inspire a global sense of responsibility to prevent human rights atrocities." In that country in 1994, an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were killed by members of the Hutu ethnic majority over the course of just 100 days. Interestingly, interviewees talk not just about the genocide itself, but share their life stories, allowing listeners to get a fuller picture of Rwandan culture -- and to feel more deeply the devastation of the genocide.

Listen to the episode on the audio player above, or you can also download it on iTunes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


APPLIED STORYTELLING: I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it's only recently that I renewed my (long-lapsed) membership in the National Storytelling Network. NSN has an old-fashioned charm. While many of the organizations I write about here traffic in new media, or tell stories about pressing political issues, or take edgy post-modern approaches to narrative, or even use the word "narrative" at all (instead of just "storytelling"), NSN tends to be more traditional. They co-sponsor a big annual festival in Tennessee, organize a bi-annual conference, publish Storytelling Magazine, and host various discussion and special interest groups (such as in higher education, the environment, interfaith dialogue, etc.). There's a "once upon a time" quality to their work. What I like about NSN and member storytellers I've seen is an attention to craft. They're also a practical bunch, and they say, "From classrooms to boardrooms to operating rooms, storytelling is being used as an effective communications tool around the world." To wit, they have assembled a list of over 380 newspaper and magazine articles published since June 2003 that describe some of the many uses of storytelling. Check it out!

COMPASSION FOR THE CRIMINAL: In the May 9 issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin writes (subscription or purchase required) about how Texas lawyer Danalynn Recer, director of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE), aims to tell the life stories of criminal defendants during the penalty phase of a trial, so as to mitigate their punishment. Even people who have committed terrible crimes, such as rape or particularly gruesome murders, have a back-story: maybe they were abandoned or abused as children, or had injuries that caused brain damage, or suffered some other trauma that does not excuse but at least helps explain their actions. When juries hear those stories, they appear to be less likely to impose a death sentence on the defendant, and more likely to opt for life in prison. As Recer says in the article, "This is not some unknowable thing. This is not curing cancer. We know how to do this. It is possible to persuade a jury to value someone's life." It would seem that her clients' life stories affect not only jurors, but also Recer herself, who is quoted in the article as saying, "I don't apologize for saying I love my clients in all their complexity. We insist on seeing their humanity, despite what they've done. That's what mitigation is all about. I'm not motivated just to make the system fair. I'm motivated to help these broken and despised people. I'm in it to stand up for them."

Sunday, May 8, 2011


"THE NORMAL HEART" ON BROADWAY: I was lucky enough to score a last-minute ticket to the opening night performance of the Broadway revival of "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's 1985 play about the early years of AIDS. (The title comes from W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939.") The play's characters -- including activist Ned Weeks (a stand-in for Kramer), Dr. Emma Brookner, and others -- rage against the indifference, if not the outright hostility, of the government, the press, the medical establishment, and even many gay men in the face of the burgeoning epidemic. It's a polemic, and a powerful one: I was moved by the sorrow and the humor it contained, but mostly I found myself hugely angry at how indifference to AIDS was informed at first so thoroughly by homophobia. And now, 30 years after the first documented case of what would come to be called AIDS, and with over 30 million people worldwide infected with HIV, its spread is greatest among other marginalized people, and the cause for anger is just as present as ever. Upon leaving the theater, I would gladly have signed up for just about any commitment against AIDS! My thoughts turned to lighter things, however, as I did some star-sighting (Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Rosie Perez, Gabriel Byrne, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and others), and got autographs from the cast. Leading man Joe Mantello (he played Ned Weeks) was nice enough to give me his ticket to the opening night party, too! To his credit, Larry Kramer has reportedly been talking with people outside the theater after some shows, trying to galvanize them to action. This is in keeping with his character: besides being a writer, he's an activist who founded or helped found Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP


"IMAGINE THAT: HOW THE VISITOR HELPS VIEWERS SEE THEIR WAY FROM OUTRAGE TO ACTION": If "The Normal Heart" brought me to the edge of action (well, okay, to be fair to myself, I used to be active in the fight against AIDS), the 2007 feature film "The Visitor" was accompanied by a social action campaign that gave viewers a way to turn their emotions into action. I wrote a case study (PDF) of that campaign, for its co-sponsor Active Voice. The film is about the friendship that develops between a disillusioned economics professor and an undocumented immigrant -- and what happens when the latter is arrested and detained. What sounds like a possibly strident political film is actually a moving tale of friendship and commitment -- so artfully done, and such good entertainment, that you hardly know your sense of justice is being aroused until you're (silently, perhaps) yelling at the screen.