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Her name is Jyoti Singh Pandey. The 23-year-old female medical student was brutally raped by six men on a private bus on her way back from watching a movie in New Delhi on December 16. She died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
The crime has sent India and the world into a fury of protests and debates about the safety and security of women--and social justice, in general. Some are calling for tougher laws and enforcement; others demand police reform and surveillance. The news media is both pointing fingers and accepting the blame for under-reporting sex crimes. In the midst of the international wake-up call, five men have been charged with Jyoti's abduction, gang rape and murder.
As gut-wrenching as it is, Jyoti's case is not unique. TIME magazine reminds us: "As the five accused were driven to court on Monday, for instance, a 16-year-old girl in the northern city of Allahabad was in critical condition after being set on fire by a boy who allegedly attempted to rape her on Saturday. That same day in Delhi, the body of a 21-year-old woman was found; her father says she was gang-raped and murdered on her way home from work the previous evening."
How are we supposed to make sense of these heinous crimes - and all the other countless incidents like it? You could start by the telling the stories over and over again, until someone finally listens. Here are a few examples:
SCULPTURE: Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik created a sand sculpture with the words "We Want Justice," displayed on a beach in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
FILM: The city of Kolkata hosted the OUR LIVES...TO LIVE Film Festival on January 4-6, calling attention to the growing global phenomena of gender crimes and violence. It was organized by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television India Chapter, in association with Swayam, a local women’s rights organization. The screenings covered stories beyond India, too. The featured film, for example, was the Academy Award-winning "Saving Face," a documentary about victims of brutal acid attacks in Pakistan. Other stories shown included "Facing Mirrors," about a transgender girl fleeing Iran to have surgery with the help of a female taxi driver, and "Orchids: My Intersex Adventure," about an Australian woman’s discovery of intersexuality. Since the multi-city film festival’s launch in November, other screenings and panel discussions have been held in Bangalore, Delhi, Trivandrum, Gwalior, Thrissur, Bhopal, Mumbai, Bihar and Pune. More are planned for the rest of the year. For updates, visit www.iawrtindia.blogspot.com.
GRAFFITI: If walls in Delhi could talk, they'd be screaming in rage. Self-taught graffiti artist Rush expressed her anger by spray-painting "designated rape zone" on one wall next to Green Park Metro station. The guerilla trend has gone corporate, with media advertising agency Discoveri Media Group posting billboards declaring: "Wake up India. She's dead. Stop sexual terrorism." According to Joint Managing Director Sunjjoy Daadhicch, "We felt it is now important to keep the public anger against sexual crimes...This is the first time that we have advertised for a social cause."
WRITING: Sohaila Abdulali created a stir in the women's movement nearly three decades ago for her essay, “I Fought For My Life...And Won,” after surviving rape as a teenager in Bombay. Now, following Jyoti's death in Delhi, she has published another poignant piece in The New York Times, "I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t," this time, older, wiser, more forgiving of herself, and more empowered to take on any violators of a woman's body, intimacy and control. "This is where our work lies, with those of us who are raising the next generation," she writes. "It lies in teaching our sons and daughters to become liberated, respectful adults who know that men who hurt women are making a choice, and will be punished."
DANCE: Playwright-activist Eve Ensler created a global dance-inspired movement called One Billion Rising. The campaign will stage performances and activist meetings in Delhi and Dhaka this month, and founder Ensler will make appearances in Paris, London, and Bukavu in February. People around the world are invited to host their own events, including a “dance strike”, concert, flash mob or performance, on the campaign’s launch this February 14. The campaign is based on the statistic that one in three women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. Based on the current world population, this adds up to more than one billion women and girls.
NETWORKS: Genderlog.com is an excellent crowdsourced hub of research, news and resources on gender violence in India. Also, Real Talkies has carefully curated Pinterest boards on videos about women, particularly on gender violence, as well as a list of documentaries, PSAs and nonfiction films that explore the status of women, sexuality and gender from an Indian perspective.
ART: In the aftermath of the Delhi rape tragedy, artist P.S. Jalaja designed a fresco calling attention to violence against women. His work was on display at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art. "We salute the courage of the woman who fought 'til her last breath," said the artist. A makeshift "tomb" was built in front of the fresco. "What lies buried in the tomb is not the girl who put up a brave fight,” writer K.R. Meera told The Hindu. "It is the conservative male ego that has for long claimed ownership of the female body."
SOCIAL MEDIA: Reena Combo, a media specialist and editor of an entertainment magazine, organized a candlelight vigil for the Delhi rape victim in Birmingham, England, by sending a tweet that went viral, even among Bollywood stars. "People were saying 'you work in media -- you can do something!'" Reena told CNN. Supporters are urged to continue using the hashtags #JusticeForDamini to raise awareness about the issue.
Friends and fans joined us at The Dunes for a special evening featuring live performances by D.C.’s best and brightest youth poets, plus excerpts from Louder Than a Bomb, an award-winning documentary about the world’s largest teen poetry slam, based out of Chicago.
Funds raised at the party will help stage the first-ever Louder Than A Bomb High School Poetry Slam Festival in the District in June 2012.
One of our guests was so inspired by the cause that she attended the following day's DC Youth Slam Team Grand Slam Finals at Busboys and Poets, and then wrote a poem inspired by the performers.
“Ode to Louder Than a Bomb” by Heather Sullivan
A mic. The floor. One stage.
Vocal canvas for the word painter. Healing haunt of poetic landmines. Tepid teapot set to flame.
Scalding, seeping, weeping, humble…your waters begin to rain.
You cry; I cry. You flood; I brace. You pause; I wait.
Nothing is more important than what you’re about to say.
Standing in your shoes, I lose my brother. Living in your home, I lose my parents. Loving with your heart, I chase the mangoes, too.
But all is not lost.
Your Community stands around you. Your Occupation stands within you. And Your Beauty sings the highest notes we may ever hear.
With this mic, on this floor, center stage…
You bend all insecurities with courage. Whiteboards will rise in ovation Because you stood facing the Light.
About the poet: Heather Sullivan works at an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C. and dreams of being an artist full-time. She currently resides in Arlington, Va.
Jonathan B. Tucker is a poet, educator, and coach of the DC Youth Slam Team. Two-time winner of the Community Oriented Underground Poet (COUP) Award from the National Underground Spokenword Poetry Awards, "JBT" is passionate about using poetry as a community organizing tool. When not working with students he can be found around D.C. performing and hosting open mics at Busboys and Poets, The Fridge, and other community art spaces. His book, I Got the Matches, and other poems are available at jonathanbtucker.com.
"We can all benefit from dedicating ourselves to a craft like poetry," he said. "Giving life to these words and stories—it's a healthy practice for life and for communities to listen when these poets get up and speak."
Tucker and his peers are organizing the first-ever Louder Than A Bomb High School Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C., to be held in June 2012. The event will be based on the largest teen poetry slam festival in the world, as featured in the award-winning documentary film of the same name (read our Q&A with Chicago filmmaker Greg Jacobs to learn more.)
Tucker, who works for youth poetry nonprofit Split This Rock, is partnering with Benevolent Media to host a special fundraiser party on February 24 to support festival planning. (RSVP on Facebook or buy your tickets on Eventbrite.) I sat down with him to learn more about his passion for poetry and what he wants the community to know about making positive change through reading, writing and performing.
What makes poetry an agent for community organizing?
The community organizing comes in through the reaction to the process of reading, writing, listening and performing. In that reaction, you start to enter poetry circles—it becomes a network for support. You don’t go on being the same person after hearing a poem that shakes you, that moves you. You want to understand the poet on a completely different level. The poetry helps us understand one another. You find these people that all become concerned about one another, and they want to see each other's growth and development. For community organizing, it becomes an amazing community to build.
I've used poetry for raising awareness about HIV and AIDS. I was working for a year with Children's National Medical Center's peer educator program, Teens Against the Spread of AIDS (TASA.) They would do these "Rock the Block" events several times a year, when they would go out and pass out literature and condoms and safe sex packets. We’d stop in the middle of the street to perform and speak. We incorporated some theater into it. I was also doing poetry workshops with the youth. Some of the pieces were re-purposed and used for peer education, with juniors and seniors in high school. We had two big shows throughout the year, including a fashion show with poetry in between.
I've also used poetry to raise awareness about dating and violence, working with Student Advocates for Education about Rape (SAFER). It was a monologue where we would go and do workshops with different groups, sports teams and student groups, and we’d have several poems and dialogues addressing the issues. We were able to engage some people that otherwise might not have been engaged.
The whole reason I got into poetry, too, was because of anti-war stuff. I did poetry in middle school and high school, gave it up, and got back into it in college. At the same time, we were invading Iraq. I was involved in anti-war activities in the lead-up to it. My first really good slam poems were about that.
How do you measure whether a poem makes a difference?
Some of it, you’ll never see. You don’t know who you affect in an audience with a poem, in the same way you don't know who you affect in a classroom or a program you run. Sometimes people come back years later and say, "you know what, what you said to me that day really changed my life." Mostly, we see it in the actual actions taken by individuals that write something revealing about themselves. For example, they'll be talking about illness or sickness, and then we see them taking action to get healthy.
Why is it important to bring Louder Than a Bomb to the DC/MD/VA area?
It was going to happen whether or not we called it "Louder Than a Bomb," but it's nice to partner with someone doing something successful, instead of reinventing the wheel.
In D.C., almost every night of the week, there are so many poets and writers doing this stuff. There’s a vibrant culture here spreading, but we don’t see it given any institutional support, especially with young people. These are the people that we need to be hearing from; this is who needs to be up in front, getting on stage. They bring out these statements that are about peace and justice and healing and transforming in communities—they're the exact kids that everybody needs to listen to. We give them a microphone, but more than that, we give them time, we help them work on their words and what they’re dealing with at home and in their community.
As poets, we like to play with words and language, and there are tangible skills that help kids achieve success in reading and writing. But more than that, it's about listening to someone else’s story in a peaceful way. That's where the community building comes in. The competition is just a game we play, but it doesn’t hold power over us. It doesn't mean anything; it’s just random judges. It’s numbers to poems; it makes no sense. But it’s a fun little game.
How can people get involved in supporting Split This Rock and Louder Than a Bomb in D.C., Maryland and Virginia?
We need website support. We need volunteer photographers and videographers. We need poetry coaches, who can come in after school and work with a team of young poets and guide them and keep them organized. We need street team promoters. We need someone to help with graphic design. We need people with access to free or donated sign-making and T-shirt making. We need young poets. We need institutional support through donations, or even just putting on happy hours at your local pub. To get involved, write to email@example.com.
Hip-hop has always been breaking down barriers. American hip-hop artists were among the first to have videos shown on MTV, with shows like Yo! MTV Raps, which brought them national notoriety, intertwining their music with the dawn of a new global era in music. The evolution of hip-hop has not been confined to the United States, though, as shown in the documentary film, The Furious Force of Rhymes (2010), directed by Joshua Atesh Litle.
The film travels through four continents and six countries, showing how each region made the musical genre its own. While in the U.S., the music has trended toward a more materialistic message, other communities around the world have created verses out of deeper material representing a worldwide movement of people looking for a voice and a method to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Hip-hop nonprofit Words Beats & Life, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Channel and Hip Hop Cinema Cafe (presented by solSource), is hosting three screenings of the film as part of the "Focus-in! Cinema for a Conscious Community" series at Busboys & Poets this month.
"Hip-hop is more than what people think, and people around the world are using it to do innovative things," said Mazi Mutafa, founder of Words Beats & Life. “ What we do here in D.C. has global repercussions and can make a difference in the world.”
If you are in the D.C.-area tonight, January 29, it is worth the trip to the Busboys & Poets in Shirlington, Va. to see the final screening (RSVP on Facebook), including a panel discussion, "Blurring the Lines: Journalist, Scholars & Fans," with the following hip-hop bloggers and media creators:
- Amanda Bassa, blogger, UntitledType
- Saaret Yoseph, founder and director, The Redline D.C. Project
- Modi, blogger, DC to BC
- Renina Jarmon, contributor, WBL Journal
For those of you unable to make it to the showing, the film is also available on iTunes.
HIP-HOP PORTRAITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The Furious Force of Rhymes starts its journey in the 1980s, documenting a marginalized population in France that found a semblance of their life in the music originating from the ghettos of New York. The outskirts of Paris are littered with high-rise government-subsidized housing. The messages from American rappers about inequality, racial tension and police brutality hit a chord with the population there. Inspired by hip-hop music, Hélène and Célia Faussart of Paris formed the group Les Nubians.
“In France, first came the graffiti artists and breakdancers and then came the music,” they say. Hip-hop music fits perfectly with their feelings of alienation in a country that often defines citizenship along racial lines. As the film portrays, French hip-hop brings this to the forefront and helps to define the “new France.”
From France, the film moves to the starkly divided city of Berlin, where Joe Rilla, a white skinhead, raps about the city he loves. Growing up in the Communist-controlled East Berlin, he found out about hip-hop through West Berlin radio broadcasts. The lyrics about ghettos and poverty resonated with him. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he had high hopes that the city would come back together peacefully. After being separated for so long, it was hard to reconcile the two parts of the city. People who were identified as “foreigners” and “not-German” bore the brunt of the strife through attacks and racism. Though Joe is a skinhead, he is no Nazi. Joe Rilla along with rapper Tyrone Ricketts, who identifies himself as Afrodeutsch, use hip-hop to spread messages of unity.
“Hip-hop doesn't stand for racism and creates a conversational platform in which differences can be aired and allows people to talk about these issues," Tyrone says. "Conversation in turn makes things normal.”
Palestinian rappers of the group Dam agree. "We're very angry but we learned to deal with things in a cool way," they say. "Instead of fighting someone we will challenge them to freestyle. Music is the answer.”
They stress that hip-hop has helped them learn to solve problems with ingenuity instead of violence. In Palestine and Israel, people of all geopolitical perspectives use rap to make themselves heard. Themes of violence, disenfranchisement, resistance and life in the ghetto color their verses.
Groups like System Ali, including both Jewish and Arab rappers, go one step further than Dam. Leading by example, their songs feature both Hebrew and Arabic lyrics. As American rapper D-Nice points out, “it's all about the flow in hip-hop even if [you] don't understand the language.”
In Senegal, a traditional language of spoken rhyme already existed in the ancient African music of Tassou. The transition into hip-hop was easy. Lord Jamar of the Senegalese group Brand Nubian insists, “It's not about color; it's about the condition and the machinery that creates that level of poverty,” which can affect anyone.
There's a strong sense in Africa that the leaders are "selling out" their countries because of the relationship that still exists with the European powers who profit while the local people continue to struggle. Rapper Pee Froiss feels a responsibility to be the voice of the people.
“Rappers are the bridge between the lowly and the elite,” he says. By singing about them, he gives people who are struggling a voice strong enough for those in power to hear.
Sharing Froiss' sentiments, Senegal's first female rap group, Alif, speaks out against other struggles, like female circumcision.
ONE FAMILY, ONE LANGUAGE
From location to location the film shows how hip-hop has become the voice of the people and successfully proves American rapper Busy Bee's point that “hip-hop is all cultures. It's not green, red, black, white. It's everyone.” Themes of poverty, violence and powerlessness are universal and stretch so far across national and racial lines as to unite human beings not only into one family but also under one language. “From capital to capital, we speak the same language: hip-hop,” Les Nubians says.
This idea was put into context at last week's panel discussion organized by Words, Beats & Life. The event included conversations with one of the film's stars, Waterflow, a rapper from Senegal who has been rapping professionally for 15 years; Risikat “Kat” Okedeyi, a professor of English at Prince George's Community College and event organizer at Lil Soso Productions; and Jerome Baker III, a local DJ and event organizer.
"Artists are in a global community and need to be responsible for what they produce,” Kat said.
Waterflow also stressed that hip-hop artists need to be accountable. “Hip-hop is like a reflection of your own self," he said. "We need, as artists, authors, organizers, to involve people.”
While the film does not mention anything specific about a particular country's government, the language of hip-hop is ultimately political because, as Waterflow said,“the power of hip-hop is to be able to control the information and also the action behind it.”
Jerome also emphasized the potential of hip-hop to affect social and political change, saying that because of the nature of the “financial influence of the music industry, inevitably it comes down to the politics of funding.”
All three of the panelists challenged the audience to support what you love. “We all have a voice," Waterflow said. "Use your own skills to support [hip-hop] because it is important for people like you to spread the word."
The uplifting and inspiring documentary film Louder Than a Bomb follows four Chicago high school teams in their journey to compete in the world's largest teen poetry slam, created by local nonprofit Young Chicago Authors that empowers youth through writing, publication and performance education.
The feature film begins at the start of the school year, six months prior to the slam competition. Each team must prepare at least five poems: four solo poems and a four-person group piece.
Says one of the young poets featured in the film:
"Writing a poem does not change the world. Learning about new people and understanding new people and really feeling inspired by people who are very different from you—I would like to say that that's changing the world. And if not, it's definitely coming much, much closer."
I chatted with filmmaker and co-director Greg Jacobs, from Siskel/Jacobs Productions, to talk about the power of poetry and the unexpected consequences of making a socially conscious documentary about it.
"We've never had this experience," Jacobs says, "of making a movie that makes a difference."
After the film made its television debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network on January 5, the filmmakers say they hope to "seed" Louder Than a Bomb competitions in cities across the country. You can support the film by spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook, host your own screening, buy the educational DVD for a school, join the mailing list, or donate to Young Chicago Authors to help launch LTABs in cities across the country.
What makes LTAB unique?
It's different than the way slams are typically done around the country. The idea is that you create a team in the school, and that team becomes a place where kids can be vulnerable around each other and train themselves to listen and edit and hone their craft. By the time they get to the actual event, they've already started to change. They're developing skills that they may not be able to in other ways.
This thing that they thought was a competition between teams starts to break down. It's a big bait-and-switch, where the competition dissolves and you realize it's this incredible community of people who are also there to write and listen and express themselves, but from places that you'd never know about in your city, because cities are so segregated.
They're hearing the reality of everyone's stories, and those stories turn out to be not wildly dissimilar.
In 11 years, there's never been a fight or incident at Louder Than a Bomb. You get this, "Wow-I-wish-the-world-was-like-that" feeling afterwards.
Starting the teams in the schools turns it into less of a competition-centered thing and more of a pedagogy, education-centered thing. In turn, it can change the culture of the schools. You've got these normal kids doing this cool academic activity, and they can go on and have success at this bigger competition. Other kids may be hanging out, just being in the room, and word gets out, and hopefully it becomes another accepted perennial club at school.
What makes poetry a powerful vehicle for social change?
In general, writing and expressing yourself in language is much cooler than it used to be when I was in high school because of hip-hop. Slam poetry or spoken word is a cousin to hip-hop. But canonical poetry—old school poetry—is the cousin that you hope doesn't come to Thanksgiving. Hip-hop is the cousin that you want to hang out with all the time. Because of that, kids can gravitate from writing rhymes to writing poems.
Louder Than a Bomb puts the experience of the kid outside the school inside the classroom. For a lot of kids, they've never had that before; school has no connection whatsoever to their lives. By starting with the question, "tell me about yourself," it gives them something to hook into and engage with, and that hook can pull them into other things academically.
Then there's another opportunity to express themselves, which is hugely therapeutic for a lot of kids.
Finally, it really requires a lot of active, empathic, attentive listening. It's a skill that people don't always have.
What was your intention for the film?
Our background is in TV documentaries, and you don't really get the chance to make a difference. In Louder Than a Bomb, there's a phrase: "The point is not the points; it's the poetry." In TV, the point actually is the points, it's the ratings.
During the making of the film, we just wanted to make an entertaining movie. We thought, if we can make it as entertaining as possible, people would come to it and the rest would take care of itself. It's like the Mad Hot Ballroom model—after that film was made, all this money was spent on ballroom dancing classes for middle-schoolers.
In reality, the response of the audience was so much more intense and emotional than we had experienced before.
We came to the realization that something we're doing as a documentary can really affect people.
We haven't done a feature documentary before. We had successful TV documentaries. 102 Minutes That Changed America was simulcast in more than 150 countries to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was seen by 25 to 30 million people. It's something we're incredibly proud of and is now being used in classes to introduce kids to what happened that day. But that's not a campaign; it's just a really fortunate by-product.
What is your outreach plan?
It's a three-pronged multi-layered thing: First, you start off in school with an educational DVD. The excitement that the movie generates will get teachers and kids wanting to do this and ask, "Why don't we have this in our neighborhood and our city?" Then, you use the curriculum and poems and film to get the kids writing about themselves and writing together. We've created this infrastructure now that allows cities to come to us and say they want to do this and we help them—through Young Chicago Authors—launch Louder Than a Bomb in their city. That's the third step.
The final step is that we're about to launch a youth poetry Ning network, a closed social network for youth poets. We've got this great Louder Than a Bomb community, but can we create this great feeling online? So that kids in Chicago can connect with kids in D.C. or Boston or Tulsa? And create the same type of incredible transformative community that you get live, so that kids can do this all year long? It's an experiment. Will they want to post themselves performing their pieces online? How will they react to each other? Can you keep it positive?
We're trying to find the cities that don't have the infrastructure right now. It helps when there's a critical mass of kids that want to do this, and teachers that are engaged in it, and the film lights the spark.
Do you have any requests for collaboration?
Eventually, we hope to make our money back for the film. If anybody has a huge golf tournament-sized check for the film, that would be awesome. You can also buy an educational DVD for a school; it makes a great gift. We also welcome donations to seed Louder Than a Bomb in other cities, or to support Young Chicago Authors.
What have been some of your most memorable filmmaking moments or reactions from the audience?
When you see the film, it's the kids in the film that are the stars. They're really inspiring and amazing.
At the Cleveland International Film Festival, in an auditorium of 250 Cleveland public school kids, this one kid stood up and said that, on behalf of the entire audience, "it was the best true story movie we've ever seen," and everybody burst into applause.
At one screening in Little Rock, Arkansas, one woman started to say how moved she was by the film. Waving her hands, she burst into tears, sobbed, walked away, and came back to finish her sentence.
After a screening that Chicago Mayor Emanuel introduced, a fourth or fifth grade girl said to [Young Chicago Authors Artistic Director] Kevin Coval, "I just want to know what it's like to have made something that inspiring."
The individual connections with people and creating real concrete institutions or events that are having an impact— it's just been successful beyond anything we've imagined.
Do you have any advice for aspiring benevolent filmmakers?
We started our film careers at a moment that was really different than it was now. The model then was that you show your film at the Sundance Film Festival and someone buys it for a million dollars and the rest takes care of itself.
It's now the Wild West and no one knows the best way to do it. It's all about creating your own path through all the tools now at your disposal. Think in terms of multiple distribution channels, multiple revenue streams. Start thinking about your publicity and outreach and social media the moment after you start thinking about the idea of the film. Most importantly, make a great story and try to tell it well.
"We're from Dallas, Texas and we love New York!"
"Mommy loves you!"
"Have a good day everybody!"
"You are all wonderful!"
These are just some of the nice things that people shouted into a megaphone installed on a wooden lectern displaying a placard with simple instructions: "Say Something Nice." The installation was placed in the middle of downtown hotspots in New York City by Improv Everywhere, a self-described "prank collective" known for causing "scenes of chaos and joy in public places" through performance-based or participatory projects.
Say Something Nice is part of the Guggenheim Museum exhibition stillspotting nyc, a two-year multidisciplinary project that encourages participants to create or identify "places of peace and stillness" in a city known for its hustle-and-bustle and never-sleeping. Not everyone followed the instructions, but by and large, "while a few were opportunistic," the group's blog says, "we were pleased that the vast majority of the people who encountered the lectern got the spirit of what we were going for."
This is Improv Everywhere's second collaboration in the exhibition series. The first was called The Mute Button, in which 23 actors and two dogs went on a mission to spread themselves around a public space--playing music, arguing loudly, barking, dancing--and went on “mute” at synchronized intervals, creating a jarring and unsettling scene for passersby.
Improv Everywhere shows how performance can encourage positive public dialogue--you just have to set the stage and believe in humanity.
Here are some more resources on improv and theater for social change (feel free to share more links in the comments below):