Refelections: 15 years since Sept 11th, 2016

I can’t believe it’s been 15 years. I had been out of town performing in Minneapolis. I was staying with Deepa Jeeva. She called me to say turn on the TV & I assumed that it had to be about Sri Lanka. But it wasn’t. It was NYC, my new home of less than two years. Duke Hogwild was supposed to be at BMCC at 8am. Please let him have overslept. He did, but I wouldn’t know for a couple hours. We couldn’t reach anyone by phone. I left one New York and returned two weeks later to a completely different one. Huge flags went up all over. The smell even days/weeks later would pound my head. Familiar enough for me to piece together what it was. Like when I’d put the iron too hot to my hair or a car was driven with the emergency breaks. Or the stove was left accidentally on cooking the meat to a crisp. All at the same time, but stronger and lasting and floating like the ash and burnt paper over the water, landing in Brooklyn. I could feel the ghosts passing. I was living with Prachi Patankar & Piper Anderson. Together we filled our home with paintings, poetry and song. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be triggered at that time and failed to see it in myself as I dove into workaholic arts, activism, & organizing– some healing, some escapist, some damaging.

I’d join APIA feminist performance collective Mango Tribe. I’d burst into tears as folks told us we need to focus on race right now. Intersectionality was not yet as common a term in activist circles. “But imperialism and war is gendered! The culture of violence being cultivated impacts us on multiple levels! September 11th is allowing for the acceleration of a comprehensive right wing agenda that’s been in the works for years! It is about race, but it’s more than that too!!” I would storm out of collectives “This is a Patriarchal collective!” and eventually would find my home at the Audre Lorde Project (ALP).

I would speak in front of over 100,000’s protesting against the war in Iraq, despite the organizers skimming my minutes afraid that I was going to speak on Gay Marriage, failing to understand that a Queer Feminist Sri Lankan Tamil perspective– representing one of the only slots for Queer & Trans People of Color– is about digging deeper, unearthing the silenced, opening space for the hard conversations and looking long term at the multiple possibilities and obstacles ahead. With others from ALP, DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving, Caaav: Organizing Asian Communities, Peoples’ Justice for Community Control and Police…, Justice Committee (JC), Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and others we’d launch Operation Homeland Resistance. Yul-san Liem & Wol-san Liem would teach me how to go limp, and I was carried off by 5 cops as I was arrested, committing civil disobedience, protesting the War on Terror at home and abroad. Meanwhile in Brooklyn there were more and more murders and the increasing police often made things worse. Queer and Trans People of Color were being killed in brutal ways and there was no accountability. ALP’s working group against police and state violence, that had been chaired for years by Ang Hadwin, would shift under  Ejeris Dixon‘s new leadership into the Safe OUTside the System Collective (Audre Lorde Project) which sought to address homophobic and transphobic violence without relying on the police. Peers located in other parts of the movement saw my commitment to ALP stemming from identity politics. But mine was always tied closely to a commitment to ending war in it’s many iterations and solidarity with old school Black & Brown Brooklyn. How could I fight for justice thousands of miles away and ignore the armed conflict here on the streets of Brooklyn?

I continued to open space in Sri Lankan Tamil diasporic communities for us to be critical of multiple armed actors, patriarchy, child abuse, and other silenced issues. Then came the Tsunami, and cease fire ended. The vibrations of my Cambodian and other war affected APIA communities would draw me in closer and I’d have the blessing to work with Khmer, Vietnamese, Laotian, Philipinx youth at Asian Arts Initiative— forcing me to center and model a healing relationship with activism. An encounter with Chitra Aiyar on the train would bring me closer to Nahar Alam and the amazing domestic workers organizing of Andolan– a workers center run by and for domestic workers. Andolan committed me deeper to the intersections of class, caste, (forced)migration, gender and violence– preparing me for the work I’d be blessed to be a part of in Sri Lanka.

The broader anti-war movement in the US dwindled. I went from speaking/performing before uncountable numbers to working against the war in Sri Lanka in quiet closed small underground circles. We wore masks at our vigils and rallies. Security an ever present issue. I would finally save enough money to go to Sri Lanka. But the war was in full force and why would I go to Sri Lanka if I cant go to the North to where my blood hails. So I began working in the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. Eventually though I’d return to the North & East, having to apply for Military of Defense permission, visiting my grandfather’s grave before my mother. I’d light candles with plastic matches in the Jaffna rain for every one of Papa’s (my grandfather’s) descendants.

I would come back to fall in love with and join forces with Jendog Lonewolf. Our first performance together would be at the Stolen Lives Project Induction ceremony that brings families who recently lost loved ones to police violence together with others who lost loved ones in the past. My return to the US would also be gripped with the economic struggles of being a working artist. The landscape had changed. We were now in the world of social media and years of quiet solidarity did not serve you in an economic landscape dictated by visibility, likes and youtube hits. The recession had taken its toll and “pick up jobs” were harder to find. My capacity to volunteer dwindled and I left SOS collective, only having room for my art, Sri Lanka, and slowly getting on social media, as piecing together my income with performing, facilitating, bartending, babysitting, database entry, dancing at raves, became harder and harder.

I finally found consistent part time work at War Resisters League and was able to locate my trajectory of anti-war activism within the org’s 90 year history, learning more about Bayard Rustin and discourses on radical nonviolence. In 2014 Jendog Lonewolf, Varuni Tiruchelvam performed at the opening ceremonies of War Resisters’ International in Cape Town South Africa, sharing a stage with Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, Omar Baghouti, and more. But even more soul shaping was meeting our brothers from Soundz of the South (SOS) Mkhululi Khusta Sijora and Mawethu Gejies Mapotolo who generously taught us the resistance of the townships and meeting Roegshanda Pascoe who inspired us to keep fighting for the children, love and justice no matter the circumstances.

The last two years has been understanding better what Emile YX? calls the Mathematics of Survival, so I can one day better execute the Mathematics of Thriving. Vision Change Win Consulting called me into its fold– with Ejeris Dixon reminding me that quiet solidarity is remembered more than I thought. Monisha Bajaj and Susan Roberta Katz saw that I have skills to share and invited me to teach Social Justice Pedagogy and the Arts to graduate students in Human Rights– believing that there is wisdom that can be learned from those without PhD’s. Emory M Moore Jr. created the path for me to bring all I’ve learned to the children of Brooklyn giving me space to teach the teachers. Robert Gass invited me to relax into my dreams and continue to believe in my bold new visions.

15 years later I am equipped with so much more insight and skills. I recognize the need to center our healing in all of our work. Recognizing that politics/activism without love can become a virus, the spark of another war. I recognize that relying on the fuel of anger alone to build our movements is dangerous. I follow the call of Eve Tuck to go beyond the damaged narrative and cultivate our dreams of what could be. I am still mourning all the lives lost that day and since.  And I am full with possibility.

 

For our beloved Priyadarshini Thangarajah

Priya Thangarajah

Priya Thangarajah

I did not know absence’s depth until you illuminated it.

I missed contradictions & absurdities until your laughter mocked it,

like I seemed not to feel the gasping aches, until love blistered beneath scarred skin to soothe it,

nor did I fully anguish with the ghosts until the peace disturbed them into wail.

Yet to the vulnerable between armor & shield, your existence gave hope– shrinking the utter solitude of being so deeply affected….

It became a given.

We will swab stories
with salt water and petals
under smokey halos
sipping toddy
while adorned in crowns of
resilient, rebellious, undyeing silver
wittling the truth from the ones we still await with easy teases–

the other marked outcasts
with higher standards of liberation
fighting with every breath for transformation

They will come.

But how often
were you a lone gull
beak on land & sea
darting tween shells
to fish the poisoned sacred?

What was given has been taken.

And while I am so much more connected because of you, my loneliness looms without you.

Learn more about our dear friend Priya and her powerful work:
http://groundviews.org/2015/11/06/in-memoriam-priya-thangarajah/
http://kafila.org/2015/11/06/tribute-to-priya-thangarajah/

Blocked Writer

Blocked Writer
by YaliniDream

When you know your potential

are hungry to fullfill it
yet find yourself having to fight each step of the way
fencing off harm
pausing for the pain
sharpening defenses
stitching your own safety net and parachute in one as you fall, tumble, & find your way back to ground,

the difference between where you are and could be
can make the distance you’ve come feel mediocre
regardless of your brilliance or journey.

And yet on the deepest days of doubt
when mediocrity, rejection, judgement, blame, fear, abuse, weariness
take thick ghostly grip,
it is that same pain that
compels many of us to live.

“I have so much more still to write.”

How tightly tied some times
is the wish to die

to the wish to thrive.

IMG_7044
photo by YaliniDream

This Step On the Path: #Love Wins

#LoveWins

Ylini & Jendog in woodsMy journey from Catholic Sunday school teacher to unapologetically Queer has taught me not to run away from my sorrows or fears, but rather experience them and follow them to my deeper unrealized desires.  I am asking the broader Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) movement and it’s supporters to do something similar:  listen to our communities’ heartaches, love ourselves through painful realities, understand our fears, and follow these sorrows to deeper unrealized desires and aspirations.

I went through my teens in a socially conservative Catholic Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant family in 1980’s & 90’s Texas.  The pressure to get married to a man is a stress I have endured starting as early as 10 years old.  By the time I was 12, I was clear it was not what I wanted for my life.  Though I wanted the dignity and acceptance that I thought came from being attractive to boys, the idea of marriage suffocated me.  Being religious, I did my best not to think about being attracted to women.  I became convinced love was a collective hallucination that fairy tales and romantic movies fostered to make little girls insane.

3rd grade6th grade school 9th grade school pic 2

I was a social outcast and teased for so many reasons. As the first of my family raised outside of Sri Lanka, my parents knew little, or thought absurd, American feminine teen norms of shaving your legs, wearing skirts above the knee, or wearing deodorant/make up/hair spray/name brands. I was small, wore thick lensed glasses, and, as a Tamil, darker than any other lanky-armed “Indian-looking” girl running track with unshaven legs. In junior high, I got branded with slurs like “cockroach” and “orangutan arms” and was the object of more than a few “let’s make over the ugly girl” and “I triple dare you to ask cockroach out on a date” sessions.  My mustache garnered the insult(s) of Lesbian & Dyke, but since I had no idea what that was, the sting was less. (I thought Dyke was a southern way of saying Dick.  I learned what a Dick was in first grade in San Francisco, fresh off the plane from England, I asked a classmate to pass me the rubber [in England that’s an eraser]).

At home, my parents were under an entirely different level of pressure.  Sri Lanka was engaged in a horrific civil conflict, the longest war in modern Asia.  Our family is of the Tamil ethnic minority that was systematically discriminated by the state and whose political voice got hijacked by a rebel group (the Tamil Tigers) that countered the monstrosities of the state through ruthless tactics. Our family is from the areas where the war raged.  As a teen, my mother escaped peaceful demonstrations tear-gassed by the state. By the time my father was eight he had witnessed Tamils doused in gasoline and burned alive in front of him by a racist mob.  A combination of privilege, luck, sacrifice, exceptionalism, and debt had it so that I grew up playing on American black tops, apartment complex playgrounds, suburban cul-de-sacs, and splashing in subdivision pools.  Meanwhile, my aunty breast-fed my cousin hiding in chicken coops to keep from being killed.  Another cousin, two years old, was shot by helicopter fire as she laughed in the yard watching Uncle dig a bunker.  And as food and holidays stretched, as school was interrupted by displacement and fighting, my aunties were convincing their teenagers not to join the rebels. Countless calls came in the middle of the night informing my parents of someone else they grew up with being killed, of another person needing support to escape, and desperate requests for more money.  My parents had little patience for my whining about Guess jeans and waxing my mustache.  Fights went quickly from zero to a hundred. I understood I had two things I was allowed to be concerned with:  studying and remaining marriageable for a “suitable” Tamil Catholic man.  Shaving my legs, wanting the approval of freckled blonde boys, or crying about scratching up girls trying to stuff me in a gym locker, did not fit into that equation.

Suicide and running away were constant daydreams of mine.  Like so many resilient outcast young people, however, I found a life outside of school and my home.  While there were no Lesbian discernment groups or Gay-Straight alliances where I was, I had the privileges of finding solace and hectically juggling away my problems by getting involved with church, running track, performing with a community theater, taking dance classes, and working as a babysitter.  My dance & theater friends embraced my weird, shared my passions, and taught me how to shoplift lipstick, deodorant, razors, and bras.  My track friends cheered for me no matter what place I was at; were the first to unearth the true essence of my dancing soul; and taught me mantras like “dynamite comes in small packages” and “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”  Working let me pay for mustache waxing, a new wardrobe from thrift & discount stores, tickets to dances, and other forbidden items.

And church. Church gave me a space for my soul to sing in collective praise, a group of friends more interested in “doing good” than “what to wear,” and a place for my heart to ache in silent prayer.  I was all in when it came to church.  I joined the youth and adult choirs, became a Sunday school teacher, was on the church youth board, and was a confirmation sponsor.  I went to church at least three times more than my parents did; I still have catalogs of Christian children’s songs stored in my brain.  Being any kind of die-hard Christian in Texas has a little zest to it, even if you’re not evangelical.  So it is confusing to many, how I went from zesty Sunday school teacher aching for the attention of blue eyes, to a radical Queer anti-capitalist performing artist who is strongly connected and committed to communities of color.

YaliniDream by Ren Hsieh-2My journey has been one of healing my own wounds, releasing guilt, mourning injustice, refusing to be at the mercy of other people’s bigotries, challenging my own place in oppressive systems, and becoming an accomplice in the sovereignty of the outcast, marginalized and oppressed. Despite intense homophobia from multiple communities that I am deeply connected to, I have been out as Queer for over fifteen years.  I am deeply in love and building my life with a Two Spirit woman.

You would think. That I would be. Rejoicing in the streets. Now that Gay Marriage has been legalized in the US.  And yes, it is amazing.  When I was a child, all I knew about being gay was the TV show “Three’s Company.”  Now, on every major news network LGBTQ people are speaking openly about their experiences, expressing their love, claiming their dignity, and celebrating their relationships.  My wife and I, though not legally married, have the choice to access rights that impact how we raise children, care for each other when sick, and share resources.  Still, as I raise my glass, my heart aches and pounds deeply.  And it is infuriating some members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual community that I am not celebrating with them, wholeheartedly.

As a performing artist, I collaborate with my partner/wife/Kueen, Jendog Lonewolf.  Jendog is a Hip Hop MC and photographer of Caymanian, Black and Native American descent who grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  Together, we travel and perform work about our lives, perspectives, and communities.  We intentionally perform for audiences who are very new to the ideas we explore, sometimes putting our lives at risk.  We are used to talking lovingly to and navigating our safety amongst people who believe our relationship is wrong and/or find our political views outrageous.  We have dedicated our lives to catalyzing conversations, opening hearts, building trust, and sharing information on a grass roots level with “everyday people” of all racial, class, education, ability, age, and gender backgrounds.

Jendog & Yalini on way to ChicagoI find this work essential, as I’ve observed that without engaging across different communities, higher visibility can actually make conditions even more dangerous for vulnerable parts of a community.

If a Gay person has the money, social mobility, and/or can pass for straight, they can move to a community surrounded by other Gay people, get a job that’s Gay-friendly or at least where they can mask their sexuality or identity.  They can hang out with only Gay people and not engage with homophobes.  They can use their economic power and privilege to get the political and legal system to work for them.

Meanwhile many rural, working class and/or people of color communities experience an economic, political, and legal system that disenfranchises them.  For some straight people, when laws such as the one legalizing Gay marriage are enacted, it can once again feel like an oppressive system imposing it’s will.  Greater visibility of Gay marriage in the media, especially when the representations are of more privileged people, can stoke flames of resentment and anger amongst straight people against openly Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer (TLGBQ) peoples.

Straight folks in systemically marginalized communities don’t have access to most people on television. Thus, the people who end up receiving the backlash are youth, visibly TLGBQ, or other vulnerable gender non-conforming people within the community.  There are deep fears that the legalization of Gay Marriage, without a strong on-the-ground movement engaging people new to these conversations, could actually result in more homeless TLGBQ youth, more suicides, and more Trans Women of Color being murdered.  It’s important to note the reason we see more transphobic and homophobic violence in rural, working class, and people of color communities is not because these communities are more bigoted than rich white communities.  It is because more rich, white members of the LGBTQ movement can use their money, mobility and access to shield themselves against brutal violence; it is because the political, economic, and legal system works more for rich, white people in general.

Thus, when I raise my glass to toast for Gay Marriage, it trembles with anxiety-ridden clinks.  I think of the backlash that many of the people I love– especially Working Class & Poor Trans People of Color– are vulnerable to.  There were many years that I would wash away my anxieties with drink after drink turning my heartaches and fears into the life of the party. These days, however, I have learned to listen to my nerves.  I take inspiration from my younger self as she first bravely owned her Queerness.  I discover my feelings.  I sit with, and understand, them.  I learn.  I mourn.  I move further from self-destruction, supporting my aging bones to dance even fiercer on the floor.  I follow my emotions to deeper, unrealized desires.

When I take a breath and listen to my heart, I feel how angry and bitter I am with the Gay Marriage movement.   As an organizer and artist who has been working for TLGBQ liberation since George Bush was governor of Texas, I feel a deep betrayal by the Gay Marriage movement’s lack of commitment and resources to artists, community groups, and organizations working across different communities on a grass-roots level. So much of this life-saving work happens volunteer, on shoe-string budgets. Many artists who have been risking their lives and doing the hard necessary work of speaking to people’s hearts, creating spaces for healing, working across movements and communities, barely make a living wage while larger LGBT organizations are renovating their office spaces and siphoning resources from fancy galas to just a limited few.  As a result, these legal victories remain a precarious shell with caverns of distance between a vulnerable grassroots core defending themselves against some of the most violent, vitriolic backlashes.  What many privileged members of the LGBT movement fail to realize is that the limited focus of gaining rights primarily through the legal system and media has literally cost us lives — especially those of Black Trans Women and other vulnerable communities sitting at the intersections of multiple bigotries and hate.  Because of the vast reach and power of American media corporations, this narrow focus has global implications.  This betrayal creates deep divisions along race, class, education, language, ability, and immigration status.  Many within the TLGBQ community in the US are in the midst of mourning the staggering weekly murder rates of Trans Women that opened 2015, while additionally mourning the horrific police, hate and other gang violence committed this year; the increases of detention and deportation; and the horrific abuse(s) endured in a prison industrial complex that breeds more violence than stops it.

As I breathe into my bitterness, sadness, anger, and fear, I discover that I also hunger the less fractured movements my critics get angry at me for illuminating.  As I breathe, I remind myself that in the midst of great sorrow is an opportunity to expand empathy, connect deeper, and express care.  I remember that rainbows are not symbols of betrayal, but a magical vision of bold unapologetic color that manifests when Sun meets the rain– our rays mix with tears; when thunder booms and lightning strikes in the shine of our most intimate star.  This reminder helps me to envision mass movements united in lifting up, having the backs of, and taking leadership from, the most vulnerable, subversive, and courageous amongst us. I dream of mass movements so powerful that we radically shift the course of humanity!  I see us breaking the boundaries that separate us so that we truly love deeper and better.  Because when we LOVE each other, we feed and nurse each other.  We raise our children, no matter how different they are, with undying dedication, collective understanding, and compassion.  We share. When we love each other, we listen to each others pain.  We take responsibility for our oversights and harmful actions.  We change.  We grow.  And we Win. Because it always does. #LoveWins.

YaliniDream & Jendog Lonewolf


About YaliniDream

As a poet and performer, YaliniDream invites us to hold onto what is precious about the ancient while moving society forward to become less violent, less harmful, more loving, and more magical.  She has fifteen years of experience using artistic tools for healing, organizing, and empowerment with communities recovering from trauma, including war-affected communities in Sri Lanka, refugee camps in India, and South Asian domestic workers in Queens, NY.  She’s a volunteer with the War Resisters League and was a founding member of the Audre Lorde Project’s SOS (Safe Outside the System) Collective working to address homophobic and transphobic violence against people of color in Central Brooklyn.  YaliniDream is currently a consultant with Vision Change Win, a partner with Wellness & Arts Specialists EM Techniques, represented by awQward Talent a Trans & Queer people of color talent agency, and performs/tours with her partner in art & love Jendog Lonewolf as part of DreamWolf.

Bring YaliniDream to your community:

To Book YaliniDream or DreamWolf to perform or speak contact awQward Talent or email bookdreamwolf@gmail.com

To Book YaliniDream to work with your organization towards social justice solutions contact Vision Change Win

To Book YaliniDream for Professional Development, Wellness support or Arts Administration with your school or educational institution email emtechniques@gmail.com

dusty waters by YaliniDream

there is deep pain the world seems not to feel

beneath dark earth flows

rich blood, burned bones, torn tendon

she is slowly being paved

less dust

less foot to sand

after droughts

when luscious waters finally fall

unable to sink

they flood

soul to soul

skin to skin

dust to dust

they blood

they word

they one

they they

they she

she she

she he

she heal

she

be

she I

I

We

We, Lands of muddied red soil unable to swallow the mounting bodies

We, Seas of Spirits of dark drowned skins

We, Moons who witness the horrors thought unseen

We

harness the power unions release

Join

healing courage truth love faith dignity

balance alignment connection unity

understanding stillness risk integrity

passion joy desire creativity

focus wish

surrender, now and infinity

as the Universe activates stars

the body activates cells

as the moon pulls the seas

We Waters Rise

We Rise

We listened to the pain

intended to be felt

We are the power that can not be unseen

This Step On the Path: An Artist Asks

Design by Opie Snow
Photo: Ren Hsieh

Support Needed

Writing these words is my way of asking. Asking is hard for me. It is a spiritual and political commitment to activate my connections, ask for help to reach my aspirations, and advocate for what I need.

I am asking for conditions to change.

Next year will mark twenty-five years of my being in the theater. When I first came to that realization, a flood of tears pushed to the surface. I cried for three days on and off.  It was a powerful release of emotion, recognition of desire, and assertion of spirit.

With this moment came a sharper clarity of capitalism’s war for the artist’s soul and anger at the working conditions many artists face.

Despite having an age range of 15- 40, a radical range of gender expressions, and a look that passes not only for my own ethnicity of Sri Lankan Tamil, but also for Guyanese, Ethiopian, Indian, Bangladeshi, Trini, Malaysian, Somalian, Fijian, Iranian, South African, and numerous other nationalities;  I will have spent twenty-five years shut out of structures that says I look too unique, but in reality refuses to tell the stories of people who look like me.  And like so many brilliant artists who would rather expend energy building work than swimming across moats, I will have spent twenty-five years building my career as an independent artist creating groundbreaking work on my own terms.  I will have spent 15 years living in New York City as a working artist.  And I will have spent 17 years as an artist committed to social justice movements.

More and more cultural workers and artists are relied upon by various movements and sectors to serve as educators, outreach workers, content providers, healers, spokespeople, and entertainers.

Yet, I know too many generous accomplished independent working artists contributing to justice movements who have been performing, painting, filming, writing, composing, creating over decades, who struggle to make even $15,000 a year. I also know too many artists who remain tied to day jobs that mute their light because there is no way they could take care of their child or mother or self on what they would make from their art.

These artists have had films screened at the Angelika, edited anthologies, presented at numerous Ivy League universities, been on HBO, been on the cover of magazines, performed at Lincoln Center, exhibited at high end galleries, have thousands of youTube hits, shared stages with legends, and rejected invitations to the White House. Despite achieving high cultural capital, many artists find themselves not receiving due financial compensation for their labor.

In New York City one bedroom apartments rent for $2666 a month on average and two bedroom apartment rents average $3331. It remains one of the most competitive cities for the arts. Many acclaimed independent artists struggle to keep rooftops over their heads and food on the table. All the while maintaining the bravado, divadom and allure of success necessary to score the next decently paid gig.

According to a survey by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) of visual and performing artists exhibiting in nonprofit exhibition spaces and museums in New York City between 2005 and 2010: “on average, the majority (58.4%) of respondents did not receive any form of payment, compensation or reimbursement for their participation, including the coverage of any expenses.”

Additionally power and privilege play itself out in artistic communities creating huge divides between artists with different accesses to resources. According to the same survey, women artists are less likely to get paid or reimbursed than their male counterparts. While the survey gives limited further statistics on gender, class, race, immigration status, ability and other demographic factors, we can imagine the infinite ways power and privilege play out in peoples’ lives. How do the challenges of being structurally discriminated increase for the artist responsible for their aging parents; the Trans or Queer artist ejected from their community, or the artist with disabilities unable to access necessary meds, assistance, or tools?  The conditions in New York City and other large cities are increasingly exploitative. The practice of bars and clubs to pay their Jazz musicians, DJ’s, Hip Hop musicians and other live artists has faded. Today many musicians find themselves in a position to pay to play with bars requiring $3000 bar minimums or producers requiring artists to pay fees to open for bigger names.

These conditions can encourage the worst flavors of competition, secrecy, back talking, social climbing, and individualism amongst artists as they scrape and claw to access the most basic needs survive and create.

Yet despite the currents encouraging otherwise, many marginalized/underground/political/social justice/dissenting/counterculture/revolutionary/conscious/independent artists and cultural workers—sitting at intersections of identities and warding off onslaughts of multiple bigoted forces remain committed to principles of love, generosity, and justice both on stage and off; in the studio and out. So much of our creative energies are poured into making ends meet.   And we do so beautifully– trading any skill at our disposal from childcare to choreography for skill-building, healthcare, website design, rehearsal space, studio time, video editing, and all else we need to create our work. We collaborate in our lives, sharing everything from photoshop to asthma pumps, guitar pedals, and ebt cards. We juggle who the check gets written to so that those with health conditions can stay on medicaid, mothers can stay on WIC, or that those who are undocumented can still get paid.  We fight our landlords to stay in our rent-stabilized apartments and have each other’s backs when our only means of survival is one that is criminalized. We love through the hardest of times. We model joyous ways to live within our means. We are ballers on a budget. We are resilient.

I imagine that in the midst of mass mobilization centered around the needs and aspirations of working people, the poor, and other survivors of violence; the cultural worker and revolutionary artist can be cared for, housed, fed, and healed. The practices of sharing, feeding, housing, and caring are necessary for these movements to even exist. Because it is difficult to organize day after day on empty stomachs.   It is also harder for a system to squash an artist who threatens the power structure when that artist is backed by ten’s of thousands of people.

In a US context, however, progressive movements often center NGO’s, nonprofits, and universities. There are few legal provisions to protect artists’ rights. In Canada the rights of artists are protected through a legal provision that mandates the payment of artist fees by non-profit organizations and ‘artist-run spaces.’ In the US we often see artists being exploited and pitted against each other by dynamics in the same movements they have committed their lives to. Without the power of a mass movement, artists catalyzing new conversations and speaking from the margins are at greater risk of being silenced, slandered, and shut out by the dominant power structures they challenge.

These dynamics not only impact the artist but often also the survivor. In the non-profit, ngo, and academic settings it is the artist, survivor and artist-survivor who serves as the heart coaxers. We perform, present, and speak at galas, fundraisers, events, and conferences for free in front of audiences who make two, three, four, five or more times than we do. We are the outreach workers, educators, spokespeople, content providers, connectors of dots, and heart string pullers. However, rather than giving artist fees a distinct budget line as institutions do for other contract workers or vendors; we are treated as what the financial market considers a speculator.   We are often expected to take a risk and perform/present for free with the hopes of exposure and a paid gig. This practice systemically positions artists to work for free for audiences with greater privilege.

Imagine if conditions allowed artists and other people who’s calling is to cultivate and channel insight, critique, light, laughter, wisdom, reflection, and mourning– to commit their lives to implementing and developing their skills. Imagine if more artists were able to commit their time, creativity, and thoughts to their art rather than making ends meet. Imagine if the production, distribution, and, evolution of art was back in the hands of the people.

Thus, I am writing these letters below as a means of asking. I am asking we work together to change these conditions. I am asking we work towards a time where we are all free from violent and exploitative conditions. A future where all people are able to engage in work that joyfully utilizes their full range of gifts and skills. A time where our collective utility provides healing, sustenance, and evolution for human societies.

Dear Artists,

It is hard. It is hard not to compare. It is hard when someone seems to come out of nowhere and catch all this shine and your hard work goes unrecognized. It is hard to pour your everything into a project and barely have enough money to live. Or to be tied to a type of work that doesn’t serve you or your art or hurts you because that’s what you need to survive. Or have a brilliant vision, the skills to execute it, but not the resources. Jealousy, fear, and bitterness are sign posts. They help direct us to our deeper desires and wishes.

For many these desires are simple. We want to be seen, recognized, granted the space and resources to create, live, and care for our loved ones. We want to be the best artists we can possibly be and make this world a less harmful place.

The details of those dreams are ours to unveil. Let our jealousy and fears teach us about our wants. When our community, comrades, and friends become our fiercest competition, perhaps we’re fishing in a pool too small. After all, we are part of a universe. We are part of a movement. Let’s reach for larger platforms in the service of justice and peace. In defense of this earth. Let’s break down those walls into larger, more resourced, playgrounds and laboratories together. Let our critiques evolve us instead of break us. As we claim our space, let’s create more space for others.  Let’s complement and collaborate. Let’s create artistic communities where we heal, trust, and build– where we can share our selves, resources, knowledge, and connections. Let’s tie our success to each other.

And to those of y’all who (like me!) find it so hard to do– ASK. In whatever way is yours. Ask, by writing a grant. Or asking a friend. Or writing a blog post. Or making an intention. Write your wish on a leaf and let it be carried away by wind or water. Sing it in your lyrics. Paint it on the walls. Ask to get paid. Even if you don’t need to get paid, ask in solidarity with those who do need to (and then donate the money or invest in another artist). There is nothing wrong with asking for the support you need to reach your aspirations. We are interdependent creatures. We need each other to survive. It is better to ask than to force, demand, exploit, or manipulate. If it seems there’s no answer or the answer is no or you don’t receive exactly what you want– it’s all good, don’t take it personal, and keep asking.

 

Dear Non Profits,

Let’s imagine new organizational structures, policies, and roles that implement and integrate the arts, support artists, increase organizational capacity, infuse deeper creativity, and is more sustainable for all involved. Create budget lines for artist fees, materials, accommodations, and travel. Compensate your artists as you would any other vendor, contractor, or consultant. Collaborate with artists in ways that generate revenue for both you and the artist(s). Intentionally integrate creative tools with leadership development, outreach, communication, basebuilding, and providing services. Collaborate with artists in disseminating shared messages and catalyzing deeper conversations with new audiences. Create roles that allow space for staff to cultivate and implement their own creativity.

 

Dear Academia,

Let’s work together to implement the vision of the early ethnic studies movements.  A vision that fosters interdisciplinary discussions between scholars, organizers, artists, healers, other practitioners, and community. Let’s work together in leveraging resources towards deepening progressive thought and action. Support artists, organizers, and community members by learning how to access the resources for speaker and artist fees, accommodation, and travel. Learn the resources landscape of your institution. Collaborate with artists to create programming that reaches beyond the current borders of academia, deepens the ethics of research practices, reinvents pedagogical approaches, integrates artistic tools, increases participation, and engages multiple intelligences and modes of learning.   Collaborate with artists in disseminating shared ideas and catalyzing deeper discussions through multiple mediums in as many spaces we can.

Dear Funders and Patrons,

Let’s actualize an environment where working artists are recognized for what they contribute and independent artists receive a living wage. Mandate that the organizations, initiatives, and projects you fund provide artist fees. Invest and cultivate the longterm health and success of the artists you support. Increase your accessibility to marginalized communities. Develop application processes that do not replicate administratively violent dynamics. Cultivate solidarity between artists of varying cultural and capital attainment as well as between institutions, curators, scholars, and artists. Through deeper investment, support the development of environments where artists thrive rather than barely survive. In doing so increase the potential for paradigm shifting work to emerge.

Dear Audiences,

Without you the artist’s work is incomplete. If you are shaped or moved by an artist, amplify their reach. Let others know about their work. Talk about it with your friends, share their work on social media, and give donations when you can. You are the independent artist’s marketing machine. Allow the artists who have touched you to make mistakes and grow. Most of all keep your artists in your thoughts and hearts. Make intentions and wishes for their journeys, cause their paths aren’t easy.

With Love and Faith,

YaliniDream

For more info regarding the rights of working artists in the U.S. go to W.A.G.E.

SUPPORT YaliniDream :

YaliniDream, her partner Hip Hop MC/photographer  Jendog Lonewolf, and long term collaborator cellist Varuni Tiruchelvam have been called to South Africa & Sri Lanka.   They’ve been invited to

  • perform at the Opening Ceremonies of the War Resisters International Conference in Cape Town, South Africa on July 4th at the historic Cape Town City Hall for an audience 1000 people!
  • performing and collaborate with anti-capitalist Hip Hop Collective Soundz of the South on July 7th.
  • work with war-affected communities in the North of Sri Lanka

Thus instead of sticking to their work plan of setting up paid work for the fall– they’ve taken a huge leap of faith to answer spirit’s call.  They’ve spent the last 6 weeks raising funds/stitching logistics; and will spend the next 6 weeks doing incredible, much needed, yet unpaid work.

As of June 22nd $3309 has been thru grants and individual donations.  We need $2200 MORE by the time we leave this June 28th!! to help cover the rest: Click Here to DONATE.