I've reproduced here an essay I wrote for S300: The Arts in Education.
Poet, Hip-hop Artist and Educator
My development as an artist and educator begins in September 2009, in a downtown Honolulu community arts center. The ARTS at Marks Garage housed a weekly Youth Speaks Hawai’i poetry writing workshop, and the course of my life was dramatically altered by my first attendance. I was initially reluctant to attend when my mother walked into my bedroom and dropped a newspaper article describing the workshop on my desk. In fact, I threw the article in my wastebasket. Following high school graduation months before in July, my life had become a predictable cycle of surfing, skateboarding, line cooking at a Mexican restaurant and studying at Honolulu Community College. For the most part, I was content with this routine, but my mother encouraged me to attend the workshop regardless.
A few days after discarding the article, I sprained my ankle while skateboarding. Because of this injury, I could no longer surf or skate. I retrieved the article from the trash can and hobbled a half mile from my apartment to the writing workshop. In that workshop, I was exposed to the art of spoken word poetry for the first time, and that exposure was the first step on a path that would lead me to perform my own work in nearly a dozen states in the relatively short span of five years. As I write this, I am celebrating the five year anniversary of my first workshop.
That first workshop marked the beginning of my development as an artist, and within months I had begun performing at various poetry slams and open mics. At the time, I considered myself a “slam poet,” and I was reluctant to accept the “artist” label. Slam poetry had been marginalized by the academe and the “art” world more generally since its inception in the 1980s, and, stylistically, my work met popular expectations of the slam poetry genre. Over time though, I began to embrace the less constricting label of “spoken word poet.” Spoken word encompassed not only slam poetry but also forms of poetry not written for a competitive setting. By 2011, I had fully embraced this new label to describe my work. Recently, I have taken to dropping “spoken word” from the label. I now identify myself as a “poet” in my biography. This singular identifier is meant to encompass both my spoken word poetry and the “page poetry” that I am presently submitting to various literary journals.
The progression of my self-identification from “slam poet” to “spoken word poet” and “poet” highlights the constraining and enabling effects that labels had on my conception of myself and the ways in which my identifiers were deliberately chosen to influence the perceptions of others. In my case, each transition marked a move toward inclusion as I sought to avoid being pigeonholed in the narrow confines denoted by a specific label.
Concurrent with my development as a poet, I also was developing my skill as a hip-hop emcee. At first, I was reluctant to identify as an “emcee” or “rapper” because I felt the bulk of my artistic work was concentrated in poetry. In addition, as I steeped myself in hip-hop culture, I began to have misgivings with others who claimed these labels. The dominant hip-hop culture in Honolulu is overwhelmed by rappers influenced by the popular tropes of “money, weed and bitches,” and the consequence of this focus is shallow, materialistic and misogynistic work. I did not want to align myself with these artists through a shared identifier. In many ways, my refusal of these labels was an attempt to avoid being lumped in with others who I believed to be producing inferior work.
The hip-hop culture I identify with has always been steeped in improvisation and critique of existing power structures. My own work is similarly critical, and it is with this type of artistic and cultural production that I identify. Inspired by this strain of hip-hop culture, I now consider myself a “hip-hop artist,” in that my art emerges from and is aligned with the struggles of marginalized people. I appreciate the nuance of this label because it is not restricted to making words rhyme or using rhythmic syllables to move a crowd. Instead, this label informs the way I approach all my art.
The above described artistic development as a poet and hip-hop artist precedes my self-identification as an educator. In early 2012, I began coaching debate and regularly facilitating poetry writing workshops. This shift in role increased my awareness of the power imbalances inherent in many traditional relationships between students and teachers. I often struggled in settings where youth only a few years younger than me looked to me for answers. In August 2013, I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the book solidified my personal identification as an educator. I seek in this identification to disrupt traditional conceptions of the educator and expand the possibilities for education to include critical pedagogy. I believe that claiming an identity can be a first step toward redefining that identify in a progressive fashion.
As described here, my development as an artist and educator has been a process of assuming and discarding labels for myself. In each successive stage of development I have mimicked a snake shedding skin or an insect emerging from cocoon. Each label has served as a developmental stage, and while I am unsure when or if my next transition will occur, I am currently content with the labels poet, hip-hop artist and educator. By assuming these identifiers, I hope to broaden the possibilities associated with the identities I have chosen to inhabit.