Keynote – Nobuku Miyamoto

Introduction by Deborah Wong, ethnomusicologist:
What you are about to experience is you are in the presence of a legend. I first heard Nobuku Miyamoto when I listened to her amazing album of 1973. I had memorized all of the songs of that album, so when I heard her live in 1993, I was blown away. Here, we feel the history of past Women Who Rock gatherings and the future. When we come together in this way, we feel the coming together of art, politics, and community building. And I experienced that when I first heard Nobuko’s work. 20 years ago she founded Great Leap, an organization that originally first focused on Asian American issues. But in 1992, after the LA Uprising, that shifted to address the complexities of communities in Los Angeles. I best describe her as a community artivista. I love that daily she is working at the community level. This morning a bunch of us learned one of her dance choreographies and am hoping we might be able to share it with you later. But for now, I share one of the gestures with you.

[Wong takes a bit step forward and opens her arms completely out to the side, a wide gesture of invitation.] So…this is Nobuko Miyamoto.

[Nobuko Miyamoto takes the stage.]

You all have been sitting for such a long time today, let’s stand and do some movement exercises. I don’t want you all to fall asleep!

[She has audience go through a series of exercises]

I am joined on this stage now by the legendary Monica Rojas. It is an amazing thing to be with you here today to experience such deep thinking and creativity. The thing is that I’m not stopping until I drop. I just turned 73. I don’t mind saying how old I am because women have been hiding their age, and at some point, you have to say you are proud of the years you have been alive and of what you have done. I can see in this room that there is an incredible amount of energy and humanity. I’m going to share a little song with you because I’m not a speech maker. Do we have music?


I don’t know why it took us so long for Asian Americans to find their voice through music. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was 17 years old when she married a picture of a man she never met; at 18, she then sailed across the Pacific and met him when she came off the boat. My other grandmother met my grandfather when she came off the boat. Somehow this Mormon woman decided she would marry my grandfather, and in doing so she crossed the borders of race and religion. The kind of racism and hatred of Asian Americans — there were all kinds of laws keeping them from coming into the country. Flash forward to 1942: I was just a baby, and WWII began when Japan dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor. It only took until the springtime to develop plans to move 120,000 people from the west coast into these camps. So, first we are in an unholy place, Santa Anita race track, sleeping in the horse stalls. A lot of young men wanted to prove their loyalty and fight in the war. My father felt that if he was in the camps, he would not go to war. So he volunteered to work on a farm in Montana where we went to pick sugar beets. And then if there was a chance to go to Idaho, we could say we had family there. If you were going to move inland, they would let you go. Turned out the farmer knew my grandparents, Lucy and Harry Miyamoto, and was out their wedding, so he helped us get out of there.

There, working at a trucking company, my father decides he will take us to a concert in Salt Lake City. We arrive, and go to a grand hall where we are on a balcony looking down at an incredibly beautiful orchestra playing Tchaikovsky. Suddenly, I felt I was part of this music; and it turned my world from a gray dusty childhood into a place of wonder and imaginement. When I got home, I would go and play my father’s records and dance. Though as a child, I had those early moments where I felt lost, I would then after play the music and feel embraced by another world.

In 1946, when we moved to Boyle Heights, my mother took me to a dance school, and that’s where, at the age of seven, I began to seriously study dance and began studying to become a ballerina. Sonia Sato was half Japanese American and Irish and a legendary presence. My mother was a frustrated artist who somehow learned costume design. Dance became a way for her to also belong as the mothers would sew costumes for the children performing. The music was European and the dance form European. I went to the American School of Dance in Hollywood. Now it was getting serious; I was in a professional school and getting scholarships. A Mr. Laury said that in order for me to become a dancer, I had to be twice as good as anyone else. I was 12, so it hurt me, but it also spurned me. I thought, I am going to be better than anyone else. It pushed me to prove myself. He helped me, and the other teachers pushed me into the front row and made me do things I didn’t want to do.

One level of my training was rigor. Mr. Laury would make me go to these auditions. TV shows were already on. I would go the auditions, and they would apologize, saying I was a good dancer but they couldn’t use me because I would stand out on tv. Finally, I went to an audition for THE KING AND I and then THE GIRLS, where Asians were actually “in” and Orientals on stage were the big thing. The next step was Broadway with FLOWER DRUM SONG. It was a big deal to be on Broadway. It was. But there was a song in FLOWER DRUM SONG called “Chop Suey,” and I remember looking out to the audience. The song was supposed to be making fun of this, but when I looked out at the audience of white ladies, I said to myself, “They look at us like Chinese food for white people.” That’s what we were to them. I had this feeling inside of me that I wanted to cross the color line and somehow get out of this situation.

It was 1960, and they were auditioning for the film WEST SIDE STORY. There were hundreds of dancers auditioning and somehow I got through and passed for Puerto Rican. You think that’s easy? There were only a handful of Puerto Rican women in the piece. Of course, it was an amazing experience. Not only were we dancing to incredible music and to amazing choreography, but it was an incredible story of racial clashes and inequities and of class struggle as well. So after that, I was like, now what? Where do you go from here? I started studying singing because I had a fear of voice, actually. A lot of others in WEST SIDE STORY were studying with this one coach, who I started to study with and who then introduced me to Billie Holiday and other signers. I thought, if you could choose your own songs, you could find your own voice.

Pat Suzuki was a Japanese American singer. She invited me to Seattle and offered to reopen a club for me, allowing me to live in a hotel for 8 months in order to train vocally. That is why I love Seattle and find it a dear place because it gave me the opportunity to train and be on the stage 6 nights a week to develop my voice. But at the same time, coming into the club were young people from the University of Washington organizing against the war. So I’m singing in a nightclub, and there’s a war going on, and my brother might get drafted. I started questioning the relevance of my singing. I went back to Los Angeles and volunteered for the McCarthy campaign; it was a chance at the age of 27 to step out and get involved. I met a friend who introduced me to a documentary filmmaker named Antonello who said he was making a documentary about the Black Panthers and asked me to help him with the project. In 1968, I did not know that meant I would be diving into the sea of revolution.

We shot in Los Angeles and Toronto. All the Panthers were working jobs and running political projects at the same time. It was a time the police were heavily harassing them. They had education classes and clinics; I would go to the classes and see how they were working to help the community, and it started to make sense to me about what the struggle was about. I got called a sister. I felt part of a family, that they understood what Japanese Americans went though and defined that history as part of their own struggle. So then we went to New York City to record the Young Lords Party and the Break for Kids program there. It was a fantastic gathering of hundreds of people organizing. This Japanese American woman tapped me on the shoulder, started grilling me about my family and where I was from. Her name was Yuri Kochiyama. She had six children in Harlem who went to freedom schools in Harlem, and she got arrested for going up the Statue of Liberty in solidarity with Puerto Rico. She was a link between Asian, Latino and Black communities. When Malcolm X got shot, she ran onto the stage to cover his body with hers. She asked me to come to Asian Americans for Action. It was the first time I’m in a political group with Asian Americans, young people and elders together, all planning to go to Chicago because they wanted the Japanese American Citizens League to make a statement against the Viet Nam War. I go, not sure about the Asian American thing. There, for the first time, East and West Coast as Asian Americans together for the first time, like today at this conference, people of like minds discovering that we aren’t just isolated groups but a movement.

One day we went to visit Black Panthers who had just lost Fred Hampton. Crazy how these young people were not threatened by this. We walked the streets and ran into Native Americans protesting for better housing. They pulled us into their circle, had us smoke pipes with them, and told stories about the prophecy of 5,000 years of evil followed by 5,000 years of good with change following warriors of the rainbow coming together. We went back to the church, and we sang to the guitar. I saw an Asian American man with Yellow Soul who was a natural songwriter, and the two of us wrote a song that night. The song was the “People’s Beat,” based on what Fred Hampton used to say. The next day at the conference, we sang that song; there were elders and radicals, all Japanese Americans. And it was one of those moments where we could all feel that we had never seen ourselves singing our own songs. It was a magical moment when we realized that we needed this song and more songs like this. After that, Chris Iijima and I wrote five songs. We wanted to know more about what was happening on the West Coast, and we went to LOs Angeles, Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento, and started across the country taking on the stories of what was going on — like the Internet — but doing it the hard way. We made stories from the hunger for cultural voice, doing something that speeches could not do.

Not only did it help to bring together Asian Americans. I lived in the Upper West side with PUerto Ricans and African Americans. At night time, it was a great thing because the Puerto Rican rhythms and music would fill the street. But the rich people in the high rises would call the police and ask them to stop. As the Asian American cluster, we were starting to notice what was going on. There was a squatters movement taking over buildings targeted for urban renewal (aka removal), moving in families rent free, and having people watching over it all from the outside. Police were afriend to move them out. We said, we need an Asian drop in center, a store front. So we got the help to do that, established one, and were told to take over a building. We cleaned it out and waited for the police. We wanted to show that we were strong and revolutionary. So we named it Chickens Come Home to Roost, like what Malcolm said. But we were cool chickens.


So after three years of doing this work, I did an album, GRAIN OF SAND, and Yuri comes along and introduces me to a beautiful warrior who had been with Malcolm since 17 and was just a visionary person. He worked with hospitals in the Bronx helping people get off drugs through acupuncture. I was torn about going back to LA. Sometimes the universe asks you to do something you could not imagine otherwise. I was pregnant and could not imagine going back to my community, wondering if Japanese people would accept me if I had a black child? He said, they will talk about you at first, then they’ll move on. Once the child was born, my family came around. Ten weeks after, I got the call in the middle of the night that said our son Kamal’s father had been shot and was dead. I went to NEw York City. He was ten weeks old; I had to go back, walks the streets of his father and feel his presence. We stayed at his mother’s house; this was the third son she had lost, two of them by gun. Attallah was working to set up a mosque in Harlem, and they were attacked. I was thinking, I wonder how many black mothers have raised sons by themselves, not just one but many. I wondered how I would do it, how I would make up for this loss. And I remember vowing that I would make it up to her somehow. I didn’t do it by myself, but with the help of a community, my sisters, who gathered around us. And this child gave me a reason to do the work; he grew up in the Buddhist church. When I was teaching dance, he would sleep while the Taiko drums were playing. Then I started created pieces with my band, WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW, and that led me to start creating larger musicals for the stage, the first being CHOP SUEY. As Deborah Wong said, in 1992, with the LA Uprising, my organization became a multicultural organization.

When my son went away to college, he called me up and said, “I just became a Muslim.” Then 2001 happened, 9/11, the Twin Towers. I knew I had to do work that would bring Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists together. In a way, Kamal’s life has intertwined with me as we do work together. And then he became a father, and I have four grandchildren. I really began to think about what kind of world we are leaving these children, what kind of life will they have with the planet we are leaving. I began to go to Native American gatherings. They would call, “All of my relations, Mother Earth, Father Sky, all relationships, two legged and four legged.”

We all have to look at our connection to the earth. Grace Lee Boggs is a person who urged me to think about the healing of the earth. And with that, a last song.


Rock the Archive – Creative Source Panel with Gretta Harley, Sheila Jackson H., and KItty Wu


Moderator: Angela Macklin

Gretta Harley: She began speaking about the work of Home Alive and the two films that have emerged about the organization. Work interested in looking at how women have been left out of the archive of history of grunge. The Women Who Rock archives have given their support for the interviews she has been doing with women. Currently, she has a play THE STREETS on stage in Seattle; a non linear play that focused on women’s contributions to the grunge scene.

Sheila Jackson H.: Still in production on NICE AND ROUGH. Film has been a journey; as I uncover more and more black women in rock, discover that they are all over the world, not just in Los Angeles. About a year ago, hit a funding wall, and discovered the need to expand the scope of the project. Wish to see black women in rock get recognition as established figures in rock. Established a website “” where people can go to learn about the scope of the music produced by black women in rock. The typical number people imagine of black women in rock is 5, at most 25, when in actuality the numbers are much greater and need to be documented. NICE AND ROUGH still unfolding as a mission, a lesson that shows we all want the freedom to be who we are and to do our art regardless of race.

Kitty Wu: I feel a lot of parallels with both of you. I work for 206Zulu here in Seattle. I’ve been working with many collaborators around archiving work in Seattle. I’m happy to be here. We have about 750 episodes with a lot of footage of people and shows that we are working to put into the archive. Being here in the building with the space to create is an incredible thing and want to encourage people to create.

Macklin: There’s always the question of where do you store your work and who’s going to house it. There’s also the issue that for every hour that makes it into the archive, there are about 60 hours that don’t. Can you talk about the experience of doing the interview?

Harley: A lot of the women we have been interviewing do not have a presence on the Internet. We have a site, “” in which there are pages and links; archiving is an incredible asset we have that we didn’t 20 years ago, when remembrance was not even part of the process. Right now we are dealing with raw footage and Wes Hurley has been releasing 3 minute clips on TheProjectRoom website. We feel we are at the beginning of a project. Each interview is about an hour long; we work to keep the interview footage as whole as possible.

Sheila: Editing is such a daunting process. Before I first began and conceptualizer documentary, I went though an outline of my anticipated outcome. Kind of a double edged sword. You can look at your expectations but the outcome leads to something else. I try to keep my vision but remain open at the same time. when I look at the interviews, I try to think what part of the journey of women in rock that the interview belongs to. I’m excited about the aspect of just staying open to the stories that unfold through the interviews.

Kitty: Technically what we do when we make a show is pick out a sentence or paragraph. For the documenting, we were lucky to get some funding.

Angela: Each of your projects have a community building component.

Harley: When I was growing up there wasn’t a lot of role models; the goal is to create those for the next generation.

Shelia: important to be reflective and document what does not presently exist; so important for us on a spiritual and psychology level for us to see ourselves reflected in the media. So many of the women feel that they are alone in their work. To me, the healing is in putting out the stories.

Kitty: the community component is in the consumption and why audience is so importance.

Angela: Please follow the websites of each of these presenters. Thank you all for the work you are doing and we look forward to seeing all of your work in the women who rock archives.

Women Who Rock Film Festival & Oral History Archive Launch

MC Christa Bell opens the event. The film festival features work created for the Women Who Rock Digital Archives. (see detailed overview below)

Michelle Habell-Pallan and Sonnett Retman, the cofounders of the Women Who Rock Conference, unveil the launching of the Women Who Rock Digital Archives, featuring the first set of interviews, 13 oral histories, with 16 more forthcoming and more forthcoming after that. “It’s not just an archive of the past, but an archive of the future, and an archive of possibility,” says Habell-Pallan. They have divided the archives into various categories that include people who work on stage, behind the scenes, and make work. Retman added, “Many of the interviews were conducted by the network of people involved in the making of community here in Seattle.”

In the first film, we see archival footage of various female music groups and hip hop artists who have played at Washington Hall. They spoke about the importance of the archive and the documentation of the conversations about power and control, opposition and resistance, taking place through music.

The second short film we see is about the Century Ballroom on Captial Hill and its founder and owner, who began the space out of her love for swing dancing. She started partner dancing and wanted to create a place where people could take queer dancing classes. She spoke about the power of the space and the positive ways it works to break down gender barriers. “We’ve created an open environment…it’s a group effort to do events.” She spoke about the ways dance works to stave off dementia.

The next film was by a filmmaker named Barmi who creates documentaries to look at the history of communities of struggle, beginning with her own Somali community; her filmmaking is rooted in the tradition of Somalia storytelling, using digital filmmaking to expand the frame of the narrative. She spoke of the work she is most proud of: usually a story of a person’s transformation in a way that anyone can relate to it, stories of people making change in their community. “I’m serving the community, but also part of the community.” Her goal is to empower more people to use digital media art to document the community.

The fourth film featured “Militant Child” who began work with spoken word and evolved to hip hop poetry. Labeled her music and reflections under the naming “militant child” to capture the inspiration for her work beginning with her readings of movement leaders, such as Malcolm X, and artistic influences from Tupac. “I try to model my own art in that way . . . not cutting myself off from the people I am trying to reach.” Which is why she sees poetry and hip hop as such potent vehicles for delivering political work.

The next film looks as Monica Royas and her work in Seattle with the De Cajon Project. Interview comments give testimony to the force of her work to unify people. She works to create musical encounters that mirror what is happening in her native Peru. (See my blog on the Welcoming Comments for 2013 Women Who Rock featured Monica Royas.)

The following film looked at female drummer, Frank Stankevich. She spoke about the ways she is constantly defying the expectations of female musicianship by entering a space to play the bass drum rather than the expected smaller instrument, like bongos. She closed by encouraging women who have thought about playing drums to start.

The next film was on “queering the campus” and featured many students. It includes footage of the double consciousness poetry jam showcasing work that gives testament to the struggles queer students face in coming into consciousness about who they want to be in the world and the pressures and challenges posed by the expected norms of family and community.

Next presentation was “Cycles of Change,” a music video by Quetzal featuring Nobuku Miyamoto, directed by the fabulous visual artist Dan Kwong.

“Now Promenade Right at Home” – Charmain Slaven, of the Tailboys. speaking about her investments in old time music. Brittany Nettle, also featured, spoke of her playing of Bluegrass music. We see footage of the dance halls where they have played, with Slaven speaking about how the squaredancing, call, dancers and band work together collaboratively at the performance events held in the dance halls.

Next work is a film about Star Nayea, Native American singer, writer, recording artist; a 2 time Grammy artist. This short work provides a glimpse into the work she has produced and her philosophy about making music.

The next film documents this year’s Grammy with the nomination – and award — of Martha Gonzalez and Quetzal playing “Fuego.” The transnational work of music to disrupt and the using of the Grammy to subvert what they represent.

Workshop: (Inter)Action! – Amplifying Voices Through Storytelling and Interactive Theater

Tikka Sears and Theresa Ronquillo are the workshop leaders. Both are community artivists and theater artists trained in Theater of the Oppressed and interested in other theater for social change methodologies, such as those practiced by companies such as Cornerstone.

A woman arrives and says she was attracted to the workshop because of her experience with a Theater of the Oppressed based performance. For her, it broke down barriers between performers and the audience through a piece focused on political violence. This most transformed her thinking about the work theater can do by spotlighting how theater can be more than just a form of entertainment; it can participate in activist work.

The leaders begin the workshop by orchestrating the playing of some theater games and engaging in what Augosto Boal terms “image theater” based on the workshop participants’ own stories. The first exercises are sound and movement games. This is a beginning place that asks people to deliver a movement and sound that illustrates how they are feeling. Each person shares a gesture and vocalization; this then graduates to people choosing actions that speak to the group — sounds and gestures that read as metaphors for where the group is presently at as a collective. These sounds and movements are then embraced and enacted by each person in the group. The theory is that these “games” help develop a mind/body connection and enable us to rehearse working together as a collective.

They play “catch a clap”: one person turns to another and claps at the same time they do and then turns to share the clap with another. The goal is to “catch” the clap on cue and keep the rhythm as the thrower decides which direction to send the clap. It’s an exercise that demands total presence and focus; it’s also a powerful exercise in the contagion of emotions. One witnesses the immediate ways the workshop participants take on the facial expressions of the actor throwing the clap their way.

The next exercise is based on counting out loud. Workshop participants break down into groups of two. One person counts off numbers 1-3 and the partner must pick up with the next number that follows where the partner left off in the sequence of 1, 2, 3. It goes like this:
Person A: “1, 2”
Person B: “3, 1”
Person A: “2, 3”
Person B: “1, 2” and so on.

Then next part of the exercise is to add into the mix a sound following after “1, 2, 3.” So, the new sequence is: “I, 2, 3, [yell] or [screech] or [yawn].”

The next step is to replace the number with three sounds: [yell], [screech], [sound]. Person A and Person B alternate between the performance of the three sounds they have together selected throughout the exercise.

The ultimate step is that all groups in the workshop get up to share the “dialogue” of sound and movement that each group has created.

Through the activity, everyone’s mood has transformed from when they first entered the space. The workshop leaders ask for comment about the experience: “What a great way to begin an Un/Conference! It made me get over my anxiety about participating”; “It helped me relieve the stress I was carrying.”

The leaders comment how each group seemed to have their own story, some conveying lightheartedness, others seriousness.

They then turn to individual introductions: Tikka asks everyone to introduce themselves by name, state the gender pronoun they prefer used to refer to them, and to share something about the meaning of their name. Through the exercise, we have another layer of information and meaning added to the growing creation and sharing of story that is taking place through the elements of collective theater making. What a gift to learn that someone’s name means “one trusted by God”; how powerful to hear the many stories of the affective force embedded within our names. For example, someone in the group talked about first coming to the states and feeling compelled to introduce herself with the American pronunciation of her name; she described the moment of enlightenment when she realized she could actually model for others how she would like to be addressed by sharing her name and pronouncing it with the accent of her original home language, the origins for her sense of self.

The next exercise is for members of the group to go around in a circle and make a gesture that convey how their sense of responsibility. The leaders ask participants to think of 3-4 key words and come up with a gesture to illustrate a selected word. Then they break into groups of 5 with one person becoming the lead storyteller and the others acting as the “back up dancers” to the storytelling, enacting the gestures of the key words.

I observe the groups compose their stories. In the short time of the workshop, unities have been formed. One group arrives at their vocabulary almost immediately. They come up with this very elegant and economical gesture: the rising of hands clasped together in prayer and reaching forward (a more active and invitational version of namaste, I think). They are beginning to choreograph their story. I hear someone say, “I remember when you spoke about when you were little, and the power of your name for your family…” A workshop leader comes by and offers, “We might end up performing this for the larger conference group, so choose something that you feel comfortable about.” The group consults together: they like the suggested story about the name. They want to foster the telling of what they agree is a very powerful story that speaks to the group. The lead storyteller begins. When the “back up storytellers” lean in to her and deliver their gestures of support for her telling, she becomes overwhelmed, shyly laughing about how surprised she is by their active moving forward, their enthusiastic support. They begin again. It is so beautiful the story they have composed in such a short time and the choreography the group has orchestrated to punctuate the lead tellers speaking of story! I hope they actually do perform it for the conference.

At the end of the workshop, the two groups shared the words they used as the anchors for the stories they created: “determination” and “choice.” The two composed stories came together around the theme of the power of story to affirm identity and come into voice. Workshop participants spoke about how the stories connected one person to another. Words and gestures show change and reclamation. For the lead storytellers, having back up storytellers made them realize how they were changing with each rehearsal of the story, each pass making them more conscientious about how it speaks to others. The workshop leaders spoke about how within our culture women are often not ushered into the spotlight as storytellers; they noted the power of the work that was done in the workshop today. They closed with one last gesture and image, a sound and movement that captures where each person is at the end of the workshop journey. I noted operatic exaltations, fists raised in power salute, release of air in complete peace, opening arms.

The entire workshop is a testament to the powerful work that unfurls when we gather together to listen and bear witness by giving each other the gift of active presence.

Welcome Comments

Monica Rojas and dancers take the stage, representing the Seattle Fandango Project. There are three of them, and they move intertwining like braids, their bodies declaring fierce power and speaking out, unabashed with direct address. Two others weave into their line of invitation to the audience. They are clapping, signifying, giving it up with their hands and feet pulsating against the floor, their thighs, turning and dancing, pulsating back to their instruments center stage where they hammer out the welcome. The pounding of the beat boxes on which they sit requires the extension of their bodies: they are the drum, the body transformed into an instrument that powerfully resonates into all of us seated and standing in the hall. You FEEL the rhythms surge into your flesh. You, too — we, too — become the drum. AH HA! They yell, as they close the performance.

Moncia Rojas: “This is a very special day. I feel honored to be hear with all of you. The instrument you just heard, is traditionally played by men and this project is part of introducing women to percussion. I’m the director of the cajon project; I’ve been working to fight racism and discrimination in my country; as a middle class Puruvean I realized that I was part of the culture of oppression and since then I woke up and realized that I need to be part of the solution. That is the work I am doing in Seattle, supporting by educating communities as best I can about the culture of my home country of Peru. We’re going to start with a Puruvan waltz called BROWN WOMAN.”

The group plays a beautiful waltz comprised of cajon (the musical box of a drum played by sitting down on the drum itself), guitars, handheld percussion instruments, and castanets. Monica sings with the kind of fever that begins in childhood, the song surging forth as a snapshot of memory for us to embrace.

Their second song is a song about a woman who wakes up and describes the path she musts traverse as she goes to work in the fields. Her husband, a man she describes as “one who rocks” opens the song with his voice. He throws out the first verse, Monica responds. They are clearly narrating a story about how people survive and keep it together. The beat is one that demands joining in. People are clapping, moving to the beat, joining the call to join the movement. The repetitions of refrain remind of the repeated rhythms of work; the way the music asks us to move in response makes clear this is a story about collective movement.

Their next song works from a Peruvian phrase to explain how we are all mixed and have different cultural roots: African, Japanese, Indigenous. The song begins with the guitar, a line that sounds distinctly Latin but quickly melds into cajon percussive beats that are more African sounding, their tempo dissonant and purposeful, something that to me I hear coming from more Indigenous music practices. But it all blends together quickly and morphs into coherency, a song like nothing I have heard before when listening to Peruvian music.

The three songs have taken us on an incredible musical journey. Monica introduces all members of the band. Their last tune, Oyita, has a chorus of “ha, ha, ha” and she invites the audience to join in the signing of the song. We clap and begin the chorus. At this point Washington Hall is ROCKING! This is my third year blogging for the conference, and I have never seen the hall fill up so quickly and with so many people! Striking is the fact that there are more young people here than in the past and it’s a very multicultural scene. The female dancers are returning to the stage to join the musicians. Ha, ha, ha….and with that, audience members join them! The stage is turning into a dance floor! The music has conjured representatives of the very diverse cultural roots it sang of! What a fabulous beginning to this year’s UnConference!!!

Opening Ceremony & Blessing

The opening blessing starts with music to bring us all together. The drumming begins with a powerful calling forth of ancestors and spirit. No cameras, no recording allowed. In the back of the room I blog and feel protective of the door. A wonderful surge of people quietly streams into the room to take part in the blessing and witness the altar that has been built in tribute to the incredible artistic energy that lives within this building and fuels the creative community it has inspired leading to this annual Un/Conference, Women Who Rock. We are called to remember the people who made this land and the issues of struggle we must face in honor of their sacrifices and the better world we wish to make for their children. We are gathered together to honor everyone’s work and give cultural respect. With that invitation, we commence.

Negotiating Dual Identities in Performance with Keyabee

Mikeya Keyabee is a young queer woman born with with HIV who is nearing college graduation with a degree in sociology. Her goal is to combine sociology with activism through work that focuses on stories about people living with HIV and to produce work that addresses media representation of AIDS issues, most especially as they impact youth. Her observation is that within the dominant mainstream culture, when these issues are talked about, they have been filtered through a near exclusive focus on health issues. In her workshops, Keyabee’s goal is to expand the frame to include personal stories of struggle that allow for a closer look at the complexity of negotiating identity for those living with HIV and as a means to identify and counter stigma, most especially for youth living with HIV. Keyabee’s work follows from her own reflections about having learned as a 7-year old that she was a child living with HIV and then navigating her way into young adulthood with the challenge of how to balance that part of her identity with all the other parts of her identity. The question that provided the seeds for her workshop: How to come into a fully empowered sense of self when the representational field of people living with HIV is so limited?

Keyabee began launching into the workshop by honoring those who have survived violence and acknowledging the need to create a safe space for dialogue. Her opening exercise asked participants to reflect on their own subject positions in relationship to struggle: How many of us know someone who is living with HIV/AIDS? How many of us are living with HIV? How many of us have experienced violence? How many of us have experienced feelings of exclusion or shame?

Keyabee then shared a spoken word poem she wrote specifically for this workshop. In this piece about being born with HIV and surviving childhood violence, she imagied the complexities charging her parents’ relationship that resulted in her birth. Keyabee’s poem provided a meditation about trauma and the challenge of “to love or forgive,” referring to herself as “the child pheonix.” She positioned her own personal story as a tool to help further frame our reading of the opening workshop exercise. How does a young child learn to cope with struggle? What would it mean for a young child living with HIV to see no positive images in the mainstream media of anyone who looked like herself and no stories about children living with HIV? What would it mean to grow up in the 1980s and see most images of those infected with HIV associated with the ravages of disease and socially stigmatized behaviors, such as drug use and promiscuity? How can a young person love and embrace something within herself that seems to cause so much death and disease in the world?

Keyabee had participants to make a list of media representations of people living with HIV and AIDS. Our collectively brainstormed list included: images of suffering children from third-world countries; gay men wasting away from a disease blamed on a promiscuous lifestyle; exclusive associations of the disease with white-male homosexuality; images of HIV as a disease contracted by those who are less civilized. (A gay male student of mine shared that growing up in the 1980s, such images caused him to believe at the age of 9 that because he was gay he had HIV even though he’d never had a sexual relationship with anyone.) When it comes to representations of treatment, our group recalled images that make it appear one’s life must completely revolve around medicine. The problem with dwelling on what causes the disease is that it avoids focus on how HIV currently impacts the public culture on multiple levels.

Keyabee discussed the impact of such representations, such as feeling that those living with HIV can never be in a romantic relationship, development of a fear of intimacy, and distrust in engaging in sexual relationships.  In thinking about other forms of social impact, we spoke of how up until recently, there was the need for bloodtests to enter other countries. In 2008, the US used to bar people with HIV from entering the country, and this law was only changed 4 years ago. There are activist foundations that have had a huge impact in public health campaigns and policy making, but the mindset of many of these organizations is not prepared to serve different populations and communities. Our group talked about the gap between the intention and the impact of the storylines in media campaigns.

Our observation was that the public discourse tends to dwell more on those lost than those living with HIV. There are exceptions, such as Magic Johnson and his success with antiviral therapy. But for the most part, as a culture we hear very little about people living with HIV. We also discussed the perception that HIV is a problem of the past and not something that today effects people on a daily basis. There are people who ignorantly believe HIV/AIDS has been cured and is gone. (In 2009, the Act Against AIDS National Campaign reminded Americans of the then current statistics: “Every nine and a half minutes someone’s brother, mother, sister, father or neighbor is infected with HIV.”)

In addition to representational violence, Kayabee was also shaped by her childhood experiences of physical and emotional violence. When Keyabee’s mother was pregnant, the doctors did not want her to have the child because during that moment in time AIDS was seen as a death sentence. Her father had not disclosed to her mother that he was HIV positive and the disease was passed forward to the children. Until age five, Kayabee experienced a household defined by her father’s physical abuse. Then, at age 5, her brother passed away. She remembers sitting in the backseat of the car after being piekced up from school when her mother noticed her brother not breathing; he was taken to the fire station where Keyabee watched the EMT try to revive him. By age 7, when Kayabee found out she was living with HIV, she already had several traumatic experiences.

Keyabee credits the development of her core strength and expressive powers with Seattle’s Rise and Shine, an organization whose mission is to provide emotional support programs, stability, advocacy, and AIDS education for children and teens affected by HIV/AIDS. They facilitated her ability to express her emotions and learn to speak about her experiences. Kayabee credits them with saving her life and directing her to be the person she is today. She spoke at length about being in their youth summer camp with other children aged 5-18. She remembers coming to the camp as a needed release when her brother passed away when she did not yet know she was living with HIV. Upon returning home, she asked herself why she’d been sent to a camp where all of the kids were talking about their relationship to HIV? Her mother had not yet told her daughter she’d been born with HIV because she’d wanted to protect Kayabee from the stigma associated with HIV.

Kayabee’s personal sharing illustrates the point of her workshop: the importance of youth being give a way to communicate about HIV/AIDS. She wants to bring a human element to reaching out to young people living with HIV/AIDS and to give back to the sense of community fostered by such groups as Rise and Shine. Through her spoken word poetry and workshops, Kayabee’s already seen a positive impact with people reaching out to her through Facebook. She offered the example of being contacted by a girl who contracted HIV through rape with peers who learned of the event stigmitazing her for having AIDS. Kayabee wants to create a space for understanding how our responses to HIV impact identity formation.

Kayabee recalled that when she found out, she did not fully understand what it meant to have HIV/AIDS. It wasn’t until high school that she understood the impact but also the stigma; ie. in health classes she saw images of those with HIV taking lots of pills and looking close to death. This prompted her to raise questions about what would happen to her. She felt deeply impacted by her fear of violence in telling people about her experience and status; and there was the the challenge of making other intersections. She had no access to anyone to talk to within the education system. Her only support was Rise and Shine.

Because during her childhood and adolescence Keyabee did not see many positive role models of others growing up with HIV, a looming question for her was when to tell friends and partners. She’s learned to analyze structures in which it is safe to trust others with sharing information. In our discussion, a workshop participant commented: “I would want someone to tell me right away if there was the potential of romance involved. Otherwise, I’m not sure if it matters.”

One of the materials Kayabee provides to workshop participants is a handout that includes examples of stigmatizing terms and preferred terms. For example, “AIDS Virus” is listed as a problematic term with the explanation that “AIDS is a syndrome not a virus; HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The preferred term is HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).” A participant expressed much appreciation for the handout. It make us think of all the things that well intended people have done that are hurtful. She wondered if as a person who is not positive she has ever said things that have been hurtful and/or ignorant as a result of social conditioning.

Keyabee was asked if she had stories to share about encounters. She responded, “Education is difficult.” She follows the life of Magic Johnson; rap videos, images from the 1980s, and contemporary work to reinvent images. As far as the issue of being an ally, she would like to see people explain how a community sees things but also interject the notion of privilege. She sees watching documentaries and the conversations that result from them as a powerful starting place. An audience particpant expressed thanks to Keyabee for how her workshop helps us come together to talk about fear and stigma.

Keyabee hopes her spoken word poetry and performances provide a way to tell her story without having a direct conversation. They show a different way to speak about the experience of living with HIV.  Kayabee says that there is always an academic or health discourse that puts things in one ear and out the other. She wants to broaden the discourse to educate people through a human story that offers more positive representations about and by those living with HIV, most especially young people. One of her favorite bloggers is Brandon because of the ways he talks about his life, his recovery, and navigating between different struggles. She says, “I relate to him because of the ways he must also deal with society and intersectional identity and how he uses art as a tool. Her goal is to see more diverse stories in theater and hip hop about the experience of living with HIV.

Interestingly, I attended this workshop during a week in which I was preparing to teach Tony Kusher’s Angels in America and the Pomo Afro Homos’ Dark Fruit, a play that begins with a performed critique of Kushner’s character Belize; the impact of HIV/AIDS for Belize, and by extension other people of color, is figured only in response to white gay men. Clearly, white male subjectivity does not represent all people, most especially when it comes to the complexities of living with HIV and the ways doing so is clearly dramatically impacted by class, race, and gender. Kayabee’s workshop made me think about what it would mean for her to grow up with Kushner’s play as a celebrated work of American theater and how this play would read to her? Kaybee’s workshop brought a new lens to my thinking about the play as well as many other issues. For example, in that week’s discussion with my college students, one student offered that he felt Kushner’s play was “archaic” and that “People aren’t as politically conservative today and AIDS is not such a crisis issue.” Kayabee’s workshop made me ask: “How many of you feel that if you were diagnosed with HIV, the campus health center could take care of your treatment?” No one raised a hand. I then asked, “How many of you feel that you could be completely open about living with HIV and not fear or experience any discrimination?” Again, no one raised a hand.

Kayabee’s workshop was an incredibly powerful experience that I highly suggest educators and others consider brining to their school, university, business or other organization.

Mikeya Harper (Kaya Bee) is a youth mentor, spoken word artist, hip hop emcee, teacher and workshop facilitator. She can be contacted at: and

Alice Bag and Medusa – Women Who Rock Keynote

At the closing conference keynote address, Alice Bag and Medusa engaged in a historic performance together. Alice read from her new memoir VIOLENCE GIRL. She is recognized by Mako Fitts as an “OG, a soldadera of punk music.” Alice and Medusa jam together on “Babylonian Gargoyle.” The world of the music hall is shrunk down to their musical exchange as they look at one another and sing with focus and intent. Medusa and Alice embody a full-on connection of presence, creating energy that bounces off the walls in the room, one feeding off of the other in a full volume energy-fest exemplifying Women Who Rock in action. As Fitts reminds us, their performance is a bridging of scenes and voices.

Alice Bags ends her set and Fitts introduces Medusa as a groundbreaking MC and foundational hip hop artist (see also her work in Cheryl Dunye’s film STRANGER INSIDE), the first hip to be featured with a live band: “When one thinks about The Roots and The Black Eyed-Peas, one has to acknowledge Medusa as someone who instilled the refocusing on live band presence in hip-hop. She is someone who is both a dope MC, an author, an actress, AND an artist who is archived at Harvard University.” Medusa and Alice Bags perform together again, and again their worlds converge.

After their keynote performance, Maylei Blackwell and Mako Fitts lead conversation between the artists and the audience:

Maylei Blackwell (MB): What inspired you both to pick up the mic?

Medusa: I was ispired by my Aunt Billy who was with the group The Undisputed Truth; she also wrote “Wishing on a Star” with Rolls Royce and toured with the Jackson Five. At an early age, I wrote a song, “Angel in the Sky,” and it was my aunt who gave me the opportunity for publishing my first song.

Alice: I was kind of a weird kid. The one bright moment in my school day was with the music teacher. Eventually she motivated me to sing on educational cartoons. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was making educational outreach cartoons, which I sang on as a fifth grader because I could sing bilingually; that was my first case of success.

Mako Fitts (MF): You are both known as innovations. Where does that come from?

Medusa: In the realm of the creative, you get a brew going, and its up to you to transform that energy into something else and to not be afraid of allowing that energy to flow through you. The work is to not fear allowing the many facets and energies to speak.

Alice: It’s not necessarily that you are creating that energy but harnessing it. You have to have no fear.

MB: You have both been characterized as fierce and sometimes angry. How do you characterize the feminie in your performance and bring elements of sexiness and the erotic into your work?

Medusa: In the world of hip hop, you have to compete with a lot of men. You have to challenge yourself to be agressive and pushy. In my work, I do that through my lyrics. Inside of me there is this piece of man, there is also a woman, a child, a stripper, a pimp, and a goddess. When I”m on stage, I allow them all to have their place and to have their way with me. I really believe your femininity is your strength. For a woman to deny part of her feminity is to deny God’s given gift. No matter how masculaine you find my attire, my energy is about my femininity. Recognizing this is the epitome of not judging a book by its cover.

Alice: I agree with Medusa. (You already know where my anger comes from.) The “sexy” comes from feeling grounded and self confident. I feel androgenous on stage and channel energy towards a point where one is not defined by gender. I dont feel male or female; I just feel my strength. We talk about tapping into an energy that’s bigger than oneself, and that’s what I am tapping into.

MF: One of the things that’s often talked about is the issue of women’s access to space, including spaces for women to hold their musicianship. What has changed since you entered the game in tems of women’s access to space?

Alice: I haven’t been around the entire time in the way that Medusa has been playing consistently for years. Somethimes I’ve been playing, other times I’ve been a teacher, and at other times the role of the parent has taken center stage. I see a lot more women playing and forming bands than when I was young. I see women empowering themselves to produce their own music, records, and touring. For a while, the scene I was a part of was ending, and I saw it being taken over by a very male patricarchal force that was excluding women. I think that’s a cyclical process where people try to take over your movmeent and you have to stand your ground.

Medusa: I come from a different world. Hip hop is not like R&B where women rule the mic and where men are trying to emulate that. Hip hop is different in that women have to take what they want and take a space within a space. Some females will get into that space, and you have to have the growl and hunger of a lion when you are there. Some will grab it with a daisy or a daffodil in a glitter kind of way. In an arena of lions, you have to agressively access the mic. If the daffodils and daisys are put center, they will get played to the backdrop. I’ve also epxerienced women at the mic who don’t belong at the mic. They are cute and want to try it, but in the space of lions, you have to really hone your craft and sharpen your tool in order to be the lionnes you need to be. It’s really hard to find a pack of aggressive lionesses from which to attack the space as an MC and make it your own. It seems a little easier with B-Girls because they bond and grow in a certain way and get to evolve and become strong but also more masculine. As an MC you have to be able to do those moves, too. Sometimes we get kicked out of a space becasue we don’t have sharp enough tools; that’s who gets to claim a space. Others need to recognize that they might be poets and writers. In hip hop, you don’t just have a space, you have to take a space.

MB: Both of you are from Los Angeles and talk alot in the media about the so called Black and Brown conflict. How do you draw on your culture to get to that fierceness that you bring to the mic?

Alice: In my experince in the early punk scene, I felt it was well integrated and reflected the broader LA scene composed of those who did not feel like they fit in, those who came to Hollywood and found a supportive community. I didn’t sense conflict in my creative environment, and that’s what made it successfull because it any judgement was about what you were bringing to the mix and not what you looked like. I didn’t realize at the time that in my work there was an influence of rancheras, Mexican movies, etc.; in such a supportive context, your ethnicity is able to come through in an organic way.

Audience Member: Medusa acknowledged the importance of harnessing different energies. I want to know where you find sources of support to sustain the various energies that inform your work. How do you get to that point? Did you have support from someone in your inner circle or family who supported your artistic sense of self?

Alice: That’s a really good question. “I am Who I am, and I am happy with who I am” is a powerful message to listen to as a kid. That’s a message I got from my father who told me I could be the President of the United States. So when I started doing things that were atypical for a kid my age in my neighborhood, I thought that everyone else was wrong and I was right. And that came from my supreme sense of confidence from my father’s teaching me those early lessons. Punk rock teaches that you don’t have to meet anyone else’s idea of competency; you are going to do what you need to do, and you need to trust and follow your instincts.

Medusa: Definitely in hip hop, I’ve seen those borders. I grew up in Ontario, Chino, and Alta Dena. In Buena Park, I was one of 5 blacks in a school that was predominantly Chicano. I had to make a pivotal decision in looking for a social life. I didn’t want to hang out with the white girls who were cheerleaders — that wasn’t my speed. I hung out with the Chicanos who wanted to jump me in but were wondering if I was too tough for that; they just embraced and accepted me, no questions. The only difference was language; that kept me out of certain conversations, but my energy made it okay and kept me in the mix. I became a chameleon who knew a lot of cultures and respected them for who them were. It’s really necesary to explore the different cultures because you realize they are all in you, innately. As far as translating them into music, it is apparent when I am around Hispanics in the scene when they call themselves nigga that they relate to the power of the word; they call themselves that in front of other cultures and feel empowered to use it. That is the power of being creators of lots of things. You often come across something that stands out and say, “Damn, they have a swag like no other!” You want a piece of that, and you connect by listening to the music. We influence one another across the board. It’s only the powers that be that segregate us in their building of neighborhoods. But we do want to know one another and do want to culturally create things together. I think the growth of music and realizing we are so one is what allows us to mix in powerful ways.

MF: I love stories and this opportunity to hear stories about your experiences. What is your most outrageous memory of performing?

Medusa: There’s a lot of them. but the most memorable was a time I performed in Frisco in the Bay. It was this incredible space, set up like an old-school theater where the stage was in the center and the chairs all around. It was beautiful. It was for a gay power movement event. There was a couple things that happened. My pants were a bit baggy. I’m rockin a bit to a beat that I’ve never heard before. I’m rocking back and forth and did a move in which my pants fell but I didn’t know ’cause I had on shorts under my pants. Everyone was into my rhymes and not letting me know. I went on for a while and then discovered my pants were down to the floor and was like, FOR REAL!?! No one was letting me know! Then, during that same performance, I said to the crowd, “If you are a lesbian couple, the world still deserves to see the children that would come out of you.” And I suggested in the free style that you find a king or a genetlemen that you both dig and one of you bear children. I’m just being myself, and a couple of claps happened. But afterwards, there were women who were just pissed at me. I couldn’t figure out the problem. They were pissed that they thought I said they needed a man. I had to clarify: what’s wrong with women wanting to reflect and carry forward themselves through their children and picking their own children’s father? My stance was: I love everybody and can say whatever the fuck I want.

Alice: I’ve never lost any clothing on stage. The only embarrrasing incident I can think of is the first time I stepped on stage. We played the first song, and the crowd wanted more music. I went on stage and said, “Play my body, it’s a musical instrument.” The band never let me forget that.

Audience Member: How often do you make efforts to see young new artists in the punk and hip hop scenes?

Medusa: I go to events to see new work all the time. I stand in the back of the room so that my presence is not a stigma for new artists. I want to see what’s happening and then provide feedback about what is needed for a new artist to be a better entertainer.

Alice: Medusa is so powerful, generous, and giving on stage. She was here for the soundcheck and telling my bandmates how to better things. Very generous. I don’t get to see a lot of bands often because I am in Sedona, Arizona, a very slow paced area without a music sene like in the big cities. I see women’s bands, and that inspires me and feeds my soul.

Audience Member: What is your shower jam? When considering your stage name, was there anything crazy you considered?

Medusa: [Sings a song: “….you remind me of a friend… oooh….ooooh…ooooh… I’m lost in time….da, da, da….”] That’s my shit! I have a mental Rolodex of songs, a juke box of things that I sing in my shower that goes from Aretha Franklin to Chaka Khan to Pheobe Snow. It runs the gamit depending on mood. Medusa is the only name I considered because I turn male MCs to stone. Once I dove a little deeper into the naming. A friend of mine had a dictionary and told me to look up Medusa: it’s the way a jelly fish swims in the ocoen, free flowing. I felt my rhymes were like that. I also found out Medusa was one of 5 sisters that had the power to shape shift, not just her body but events, and she could only use it for the positive. When she was being hunted by the kingdom of the land of Nod, they felt her power was in her hair, in her dreadlocks. If you didn ‘t know what her hair was, you would call it snakes. When they found her doing something horrific to men, her head was taken back to the kingdom and it actually destroyed the land. I took those things, made them my truth, and use them to this day.

Alice: [Sings “Our Love is Here is Stay.”] That’s my shower jam. I don’t have great stories of how I got my name because when the Ramones came out, everyone just called out their names: Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone.  With the Bags, I was Alice Bag. Growing up, I hjad a teacher who didn’t pronounce my given name “Alicia” and instead called me Alice. Not as empowering of a story as Medusa’s, but that’s my truth.

MB: If you had a dream collaboration across space and time, who would you dream to collaborate with and why?

Medusa: Marvine Gaye. He is one of the most incredible producers. His vocal arranging is like no other, R&B, folk, funk, all of those things. I’ve spent hours, years, sitting and analyzing his music. Now I can hear. He’s the reason I can hear every instrument in every song. He made me appreciate music more. I can listen to Marvin Gaye and then Carole King and recognize her orchestration. And I would give him some too! I love that man. He was fine.

MF: That would be some beautiful children.

Alice: I would say Bessie Smith. And I would give her some, too. I don’t have a big explaination.

MB: She was an innovator.

Audience Member: I was wondering about the group Suicidal Tendencies’ influence and if you see a crossover betweeen punk and hip hop.

Alice: I’m not aware of that.

Medusa: The only thing I can think of that fit is in the 1980s, I would cruise down Sunset and as I passed by the clubs, look at the Mohawks, the color at the tips, all the scooters lined up. There would always be the select few black folks. There would be the gang bangers who liked diving into the mosh pit cause they could sock whoever they wanted to. They would dress punk on the weekend to get into the vibe.

MF: We are opening with Stephanie Hazelrigg.

Alice: Blondie and Sugar Hill represented early mixtures of styles.

Stephanie: What would you do instead if you didn’t have the mic.

Medusa: I would do a mean ass a capela. I would beat box the crowd, tap dance on the box like Queztal, find a percussionist, a chest beater. I don’t need a mic. I’d find a way to do what I need to do.

Alice: I interpret the question a different way. I think if I hadn’t had the creative outlet, I would have been an angry and dangerous person. For me, it is very important to support the creative arts in schools because young people need to have a creative outliet to express themselves and their frustrations.

Storytelling as (R)evolutionary with Robin Suhyung Park

What drew me to this workshop was its focus on the role of storytelling in creating channels for personal transformation and social change through its emphasis on “forgiveness of self/community.”

Robin is a 2nd generation Korean American woman who graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Ethnic Studies. Her work focuses in large part on youth programming, and she has worked as a teaching artist and a grass roots organizer with community college and LGBT students to help retain them in higher education and foster their successful completion of college. Robin also grew up in a household where arts were part of the daily fabric of her family with storytelling recognized as a crucial part of keeping and passing forward family history.

The phrase “the personal is political” is one she works to break down. This is a large phrase that often gets thrown around. Robin asks, how far do we go in putting the phrase into practice and developing the capacity as a community to hold everyone’s stories as a truth?

The seeds for some of her thinking towards this work began forming in Oakland, 2010, when Robin went to a Youth Town Hall. At this meeting, she consciously held back in sharing comments because she was an adult presence; she saw her role as one there to listen and learn. Present at the Town Hall were Youth Speaks, along with several other organizations. In the back of the hall were adults also there to listen to the youth. This meeting took place during the time of the Oscar Grant verdicts. Many of the youth engaged in heated discussions about community issues with a lot of creative responses and an expressed need for arts programming. A man jumped in and said, “This poetry and art is great, but what about the real activism?” The youth clearly wanted art as a vehicle for their work and an uncensored way to circulate their voices. As an active listener, Robin felt that for the youth art was their cause.

From this experience, Robin discerned that when we tell our stories, it is important to also name our values. A revolution is value based, and storytelling plays a significant role in breaking us out of mechanizations. It helps us to develop the capacity to evolve.

For Robin, storytelling is cultural presentation. It is cultural work that leads to healing. It’s a way to affirm, “I value myself enough to heal from trauma.” It is also about who has access to the microphone. There’s also the reaction to our stories; how people react to the stories being told shows where people are at. Are they accepting, defensive, or understanding?

What happens when injustice strikes? Robin outlined some of the stages. You can name the injustice. There is the evaluation of the situation. You can go through a transformative process. It can also be ineffecitvely addressed with the behavior continuing. Or you can remain silent. Robin offered a case study of a radical local organizing community in which a male member punched his girlfriend. That’s an injustice that has occurrred. If we ignore it, we say the behavior is okay. There a range of impact: the man can leave, the woman can leave, the community gets rattled. Over time, things settle down with the history forgotten, the tension building back up, the cycle repeating.

How we interact with our organizing communities can be very abusive. Robin pressed us to ask: How does the contradiction occur between an organization’s declared commitment to speaking out against social injustice and its allowing acts of injustice to occur within the organization? How do the principles contradict one another? How does a community fall short of the required work and not allow itself to move forward? She cites the example of a woman in an organizing community who began dating someone else in the organizing community. The woman was raped and violated by this male member. Notably, this was not the first time such an event had happened within the organizing community. So the question was, how could this be a cycle within the culture of the group? This forced the woman to engage in some deep soul searching because the organizing community had become part of the fabric of her life.  Principles must be put into practice legitimately and honestly. Robin theorizes that people in organizations where such events occur can’t move forward because they can’t forgive themselves for having participated in social injustice. Forgiveness is crucial for the ultimate transformation of trauma and necessary to moving on.

WORKSHOP EXERCISE: Participants were given paper and pen and asked to think about a situation when they saw an act of injustice and did not make an intervention. This doesn’t make us a bad person; rather, it shows how we become inculcated in focusing on individual survival. The goal with this exercise is to examine instances when we have seen an injustice occur and not taken action.

In my own reflection, I think about the times I have seen mothers hit their children in public. I’ve wondered how this will impact their sense of self worth. For boy children, I’ve wondered what impact this will have on how they will feel about women when they grow up. For girl children, I’ve wondered what the impact will be on their own sense of mothering in the private and public spheres. For any child, what is the impact of being publicly violated, shamed, and forsaken by a parent? My impulse has been to speak out and ask the parent to remember their child is a small human being who needs their loving guidance. I’ve wanted to let the children know that what their parent has done is not right and does not mean the parent doesn’t love them. Why have I not made these interventions? Fear of further agitating the situation with the parent feeling judged and turning their violence against me or my further traumatizing the child.

Robin’s point is for us to see how violence effects everyone, including those who witness it. A workshop participate shared example of how in her organizing work with a group there was a complaint made about the playing of sexist music that she did not join because of racism she also saw charging the exchange and didn’t have the wherewithall to speak out because of the complexity of the situation. Another participant mentioned how the issue of shame can also limit our speaking out.

Robin pointed out the need for visionaries who focus on envisioning what we want more so than what we do not want. How then can we forgive ourselves? Our own forgiveness of ourselves shapes how we then can forgive others. In her own life, Robin has had issues with the police, but has worked to develop a sense of compassion for the police because they must participate in a system of oppression. If we want to fully realize the world the way we want it to be, free of social injustice, we then have to actively paint the world the way we want it to be; we must act in the world according to the way we want to be treated by others.

WORKSHOP EXERCISE: Think about a time in which we have spoken out. How have we charted the next steps needed to move past a situation of injustice, shame, guilt, and resentment?

In reflections about the workshop exercises, a participant spoke about the importance of recognizing presence. Remaining present in the scenario is crucial to coming into awareness. How can we develop the capacity to better others’ taking on the responsibilty for speaking out? Another participant asked, How do you think this concept can infiltrate more mainstream structures, in schools, etc? How do we institutionalize oral traditions? Robin’s response was that this work is becoming part of institutions, but what comes with institutions is all the trauma you inherit with those institutions. Robin’s high school programming emphasized the skill set of delivering knowledge through presentations. This made it easier for her to have the confidence to stand in front of a crowd and share her stories but to then also speak out about what those stories mean for her personally and as a mode of social transformation and countering injustice. The culture of protest is now becoming more accepted. It’s her hope that in art classes, as everyone sits as a table and draws they can talk about what they are drawing and why what they are drawing is significant to them.

A workshop participant asked Robin how her filmmaking practice intersects with this work. In school, Robin was cultivated as a playwright. She saw theater as a great medium, noting that in other cultures and societies, theater is part of the entire social fabric. In fillmmaking, the medium is now accessible. If the film doesn’t have a story, the film is not there. She is always looking for the narrative about what the filmmaker is working to say not just in words or in themes, but in the entire aesthetics of it. A lot of spoken word artists are now transitioning to making spoken word videos. She is noticing how easy it now is to pick up a camera and accessibly circulate the work. (Robin mentioned white house video program called What Is Your Story? for API communities.)

An audience participant then asked, How do you address matters of injustice among people who have good intentions and do not think they are engaging in oppressive and unjust behavior? Robins response begin with the example of Jeremy Lin as a case that illustrates intensions versus impact are two different things. She urged us to be clear that racism is not evil looking but deeply coded and ingrained. When she’s had such situations come up, she’s observed that people seldom have bad intentions; they just lack the tools to examine the impact. A participant added that there is a privilege in claiming the position of the well intended that only leads to defensiveness. Robin’s concluding remarks: We have to be able to name our itentions about our boundaries as well as our goals for the conversations according to where we are at with a situation.

I found this workshop to be incredibly important and enlightening. I highly recommend considering Robin for presentation at your university, businesses, or other organization. Typically institutionalized forms of oppression go unaddressed because the culture lacks a  vocabulary for frankly, clearly, and honestly recognizing social injustice and moving forward. There might be policy in place, but the language for personalized engagement is lacking. Here, Robin’s point that we have to forgive one another for how we have all been inculcated into institutionalized forms of oppression seems key. What changes might result if we can get past the hurt and defensiveness and frankly identify the wrongs that have taken place and the rights that have to be put into practice in order to move forward and create an organization that engages with social justice in theory not just in practice?

Robin Suhyung Park can be contacted at:;; and

Conference (Un)Introduction

Coming up the stairs into the UnConference space, we are greeted by the Seattle Fandango Project in full swing, roquera activists, musicians, and theorists fully activating the audience! Michelle Habell-Pallan is there on the jarana with Sonnet Retman, the two lead conference organizers. Mil gracias!

The conversation begins with a blessing by Christina Guiaocalling on the ancestors — spiritual and musical — Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Hendrix, MLK, and all others who have blessed and graced the space of Seatlle’s Washington Hall. We call on the energy that lives in all of us; crying out for the healing and transformative love needed to take all of us onto higher ground with music bringing tremendous power and intention: all music and all sound reverberates throughout space long after the initial sound. Let us remember not just to be the sound, the action, but also the body that receives and carries forth these vibrations of love and healing to inspire and transform us. To seal this blessing, let us all say thank you three times together.

Music and cultural studies scholar Sherry Tucker then took the stage to offer her perspective on the conference theme of vibrations of love: referenced a sad song about longing and love, ending on the note that some time we might get an opportunity to embrace love vibrations. Thank you to the Women Who Rock conference organizers to create forum for us to engage in vibrations of love — as reconceived by Audre Lorde — the capacity for joy in the way that my body stretches and opens to joy — the way the body opens to become a bridge for sharing and lessens the threat of difference. The vibrations of love also sparked in the work of Chela Sandoval. The unabashed, unapologetic work of the roquera theorists that Tiffany Ana Lopez talked about last year in her identification of women who rock as creating a space for speaking out and calling forward of others into a circle of bearing witness. Tucker emphasized the ways we perceive sound ways: through the body, not just through hearing and listening. The vibrations in the auditory cortext just one way of perceiving sounds. Cristine Zann Kim is a deaf sound artist, a women who rocks, who teaches us much about sound. Most of the sounds we perceive are discarded. Even the sounds we share have different accoustical reference points. Women Who Rock are experts in perceiving the discarded vibrations and transforming them into vibrations of love. Paulina Oliveras has developed many useful exercises that are dedicated to this very goal. A brief one to share: if you are speaking, you are sending; but are you receiving what you send? Tucker urged us to  repeat the mantra from one of Oliveros’ exercises. “With each breath, I send and receive sound.”

Lara Davis and her crew ChiChi then took the stage and blasted sounds full throttle, drums, electric guitar, bass, creating a soundscape that permeated the entire body (the vibrations are buzzing into my fingertips as I type this now!). The sound is aggressive and commanding, the vocals weaving poetry, signaling the ying and yang. The second song references the punk aesthetic, the drums hammering a steady beat, the vocals screaming out and screaming out.

Monica Rojas de Cajon Project is then up. The Cajon Project uses music, arts, and dance to educate about the cultural presence in Peru and its history of slavery, the goal to fight against racism and discrimination. Cajon is a drum that wasn’t used by women, who were not allowed to play the instrument, but is now the prime force for her own music and collaborations. They play their music today for the conference to begin the day by getting on its feet to dance. Monica begins to play out beats on the cajon, a box-shaped drum which is played by her sitting on it and hammering out beats on a box. (The sound and style reminds me of the street-style performance on found plastic containers.) The sound she creates is multi-layered and dynamic One of the Fandango Project members joins in and steps onto the stage adding her own rhythmn patterns, answering the invitation, freeing Monica to lead our dancing. Everyone is now on their feet; the hall is throbbing with the conference participants dancing together at 10 am on a Saturday morning! Vaya! And with that, there is a line dance out into the workshop sessions. Look for the next post on the first of the workshop sessions.