This is a lengthy interview. I’m telling you this up front because the conversation I had with spoken word artist, rapper, writer, and teacher Guante, known off stage as Kyle Tran Myhre, spanned so many different topics and delved into each new subject with such depth that I felt it would do him a disservice to try to crop out only the most interesting parts.
As he does on his newest and best album to date, You Better Weaponize, Guante showed a willingness to dive into one sociopolitical topic after another, and our conversation covered many of the same themes he contemplates on his new CD: white privilege in hip-hop, privilege in the media, the relationship between media and art, and the choices we face in our day-to-day lives between tuning out and staying engaged with what’s happening in our larger community.
I’ve sprinkled a few of my favorites tracks from the new album — which also features the adept production work of Big Cats! and guest appearances by artists Chantz Erolin, Kristoff Krane, Toki Wright, Crescent Moon, and Chastity Brown — throughout the interview, and you can also stream You Better Weaponize in its entirety on his Bandcamp.
Guante and Big Cats! will be celebrating the release of You Better Weaponize tonight at Hell’s Kitchen.
Local Current: I want to ask you about some specific songs on your new album that ruminate on the relationship between music and the media, but I feel like we’re going to get meta pretty quickly.
Guante: It’s easy to get meta with me, because my background is in both traditional media and also independent activist media. So I’ve been reviewing CDs for as long as I’ve been making CDs. There’s always that kind of tension. It’s kind of a hobby to analyze media trends and the ways things are working and not working.
What’s it like to be an artist who puts out albums with that kind of awareness?
Well on the plus side it allows you to rig the game, to a certain extent. Like, I know that if I write a press release that is well-written enough, most bloggers will just repost it and not even think about it. Maybe not even listen to the album. So if you have the training or experience writing that kind of stuff, writing bios, it helps a lot. But on the same token, it’s like I see how people pick apart what I do. I don’t really get negative reviews, but people give me positive reviews and I’ll see their thought process, and so much of music writing isn’t about, necessarily, a track-by-track analysis. It’s like, ‘this is my narrative that is going to allow me to talk about this in a way that has a natural arc to it, in the form of an essay.’ I’m sure that’s not true for everyone, but it’s just fun to see how people interpret the stuff that I do.
Tell me about your writing process. Your songs are so thematic. Do you sit down with one specific topic in mind?
What I tell the students that I work with is, often times as writers we know what we want to talk about, whether that’s a subject or a specific point that you want to make. And the key is, rather than just get up on stage and write a poem that’s just like, “Hey, racism is bad! We should all not be racist,” the key is to wrap up the idea in something concrete and something human and have heart to it. I’m not someone who’s going to reject the label of political rapper or conscious rapper, I think that’s what I am, I embrace that, but at the same time I hope that I avoid the baggage that goes along with that in terms of rhetoric and platitudes. The challenge here was to write about stuff and make it personal, make it really human and down-to-earth.
Sometimes when I hear the label “political rapper” or “conscious rapper” I feel like I’m about to be preached to. Do you think about your tone and the way you present information?
I think it’s definitely a balance. As a spoken word poet, when I’m on stage doing a capella stuff, you have to be really careful not to preach to people because all they’re doing is listening to what you’re saying, so it’s much more about wrapping it up in a story or a metaphor or whatever. Whereas with rap, when you’re in a club and people are drinking and dancing and whatever, I think it’s ok to be a little blunt. I think it’s ok to be a little preachy. Public Enemy was preachy, but we don’t talk about them being preachy, they made some of the best music ever. As long as it’s balanced with some of those human moments and down-to-earth values, and also just good music — I’m really lucky to have Big Cats! If I didn’t have a good producer behind me, I probably wouldn’t be as successful.
How long have you been working with Big Cats!?
Not too long. I moved here five years ago, and we’ve been working together for about four years. We actually had a show together at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, it was a Sample Night Live, and we didn’t even meet each other, we were just on the bill together. Then he sent me a MySpace message the next day, or something like that. [laughs]
In the song “Lightning,” you say that you were literally hit by lightning. I still have to ask — is that true?
When did that happen?
In high school. I should keep the mysteriousness of it, but it wasn’t like a direct strike into my head, it was something I was standing next to and knocked me down. Everything else in the song is completely true, like what it smells like and what it looks like and what it feels like.
It makes for a really good metaphor.
Yeah, I was lucky to come across it. [laughs]
I like the contrast between the message of “Lightning,” which says you need to channel your energy into something outside of yourself, and the message of “Everything Burns,” which is talking about a black hole inside that needs to be fed. Can you talk about the messages in those two songs?
That’s one of those things that comes up organically that wasn’t planned, but I think you hit it on the head, where so much of being a performer that I’ve found, especially doing the a capella stuff, spoken word stuff, is that you can’t always just be pushing your energy. You have to try to create — and I’m totally not a hippie, new age kind of guy — but it’s like you create this vortex of this transference of energy. And I think that relates not only in art but how you exist within a community. So yeah, both of those songs are very much saying a similar thing, in terms of what one’s priorities are. They’re not necessarily political songs as much as they are this idea that you can turn your pain into something positive, into something constructive, and that all the other stuff going on in your life, in terms of what you obsess about or what you’re into, that ends up kind of defining you. It’s about action versus intent.
That reminds me of another line I wanted to ask you about, from “Straight Outta Genosha”: “Your reach is not the same as your impact.”
Partly, it’s a defense mechanism. To say that, you know, I’m not going to sell 10,000 copies of this. So if I’m not reaching lots and lots of people, I want to make sure that with the people I am reaching, I actually give them something. Not to call anybody out, but I just can’t imagine playing sold-out shows and not leaving people with something beyond, like, ‘oh, we had a good time.’ And that’s important too, we need party music and fun music, but it’s just missed opportunities. Not that I am an expert or anything, but I have a platform, and I’m going to use that platform. It’s mind-boggling to me how many people don’t do that.
Do you consider your music “serious music”?
Serious? That’s funny. The first review of the album was from Reviler, and they’re friends of mine, and I’ve written for them. And they really liked it, they gave it a very positive review, but it was definitely like, ‘This is super serious and dark and there’s no moments of levity.’ The thing I’m most proud of with this album is I think it’s really funny. I think there are laugh-out-loud moments on it.
I have laughed out loud to this record, actually.
I think it’s serious in the way the best serious art is serious. It’s dramatic as opposed to melodramatic. It’s serious as opposed to oppressively dark. My favorite artists are like the Coup, and the Coup have always had really funny stuff, but they’re also Marxist revolutionaries. I think if you’re going to make political music, it has to have something more in it beyond the intellectual side. It has to either have a lot of heart or a lot of humor, or hopefully both. That was definitely a goal with this album.
I want to talk about “Underground Sex Party,” because that is one that definitely makes me laugh out loud. It almost sounds like you’re making fun of a specific person and all of the mistakes they’ve made. Can you tell me about the background for that?
I think that’s one that in a weird way also relates to “Everything Burns,” in that it’s about priorities. It also relates to the one line where ‘your reach is not the same as your impact.’ All the musicians I know, whether we’re friends or just people I know, put so much energy and time and money and work into creating the art that they create. And so much of it is just bullsh*t. If you want to be successful, you have to make good art and you have to know how to market that art, but I think a lot of people really latch onto the marketing side of things and know how to market themselves and know how to reach a particular target audience, but aren’t doing anything that I find interesting or engaging or relevant or useful to the world. And then it’s the whole cycle that plays out between artists and publicists and media that feeds back and creates a self-sustaining cycle. So yeah, it was a very cathartic song. And Kristoff [Krane, who guests on the track] is the same way. We got together and were just like, let’s just purge all of these negative emotions that we see going on, and have some fun with it.
Do you feel like some of the mistakes that are pointed out in that song are unique to the hip-hop community? Or could it be applied to other musicians?
I think on some level with hip-hop it’s just magnified, because hip-hop artists tend to have more of a sense of promotion and of the hustle, whereas rock bands are like, ‘we’re gonna make a really good EP!’ And they don’t even send out a press release. I think generally hip-hop heads are more business-oriented and marketing-oriented, and so I think a lot of the stuff isn’t necessarily more true for hip-hop, it’s just easier to see in hip-hop. I’m sure it happens in folk and indie rock and everything else, too.
I want to talk about “The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege,” and specifically the lines talking about how people who work in the music industry are overwhelmingly white. Why do you think that is, and what can we do about it?
That’s actually going to be the next video, because that’s a song that’s gotten a huge response, more than anything else on the album so far. And I don’t know if it’s striking a chord just because some people already agree with it, or if they’re actually thinking about it. First of all, before we get to the specific question, the thing about privilege that so many people don’t understand is that it’s about the way things are set up, structurally. It doesn’t mean that if you’re a white person you’re a bad person, or that you shouldn’t rap, or shouldn’t be a writer, or whatever. It’s just saying that these structures are set up in a such a way to make it easier for certain people to get into certain positions. I don’t think there’s anything that’s necessarily too controversial about that.
That song is based on a poem, and in the poem I talk about how I have the success that I have largely because I know how to do media stuff and do press releases. I know how to write well because I went to college. I got to go to college because I went to a nice high school where I got good grades because I had good teachers because those teachers and that school was funded by the property taxes of a specific type of community. It goes back and back and back. Which can make it really hard when you talk about well, what can we do about it? Because these things are so entrenched. These systems are so entrenched. So step one is just acknowledgement that privilege is a thing that exists. That’s what Chantz [Erolin]’s verse is really about, because Chantz, I know, struggles with that a lot with other people that he’s around, either people that don’t want to think about it.
Step one is just making people aware, and that’s the whole point of the song, is just putting it out there. Step two is, there’s a line that I say about ‘know the history, build the community, and put people on.’ I think if you’re in a position of power, you have to understand how you got there, understand the history of it. Build the community — I think you have a responsibility if you are a person of privilege in any position to be community-minded, and not just say ‘well I got here because I worked hard and I’m going to do my thing.’ And put people on. When you’re in a position of power, you can share that power. In general, I think it’s important to share the wealth.
I’ll be honest, I have really only started seriously examining my own privilege over the last couple of years. Hearing art like yours, and art like Brother Ali’s latest album, it’s really eye-opening in a lot of ways. Specifically in the Minnesota hip-hop scene, do you think that white artists have an easier time getting attention because our most famous rappers are also white? Is it a unique problem here? Or is it across the hip-hop world?
I think it’s magnified in Minnesota, but it’s true all over. I mean, I’m sure there are specific cases, where if you’re a white rapper coming up in a particular scene that’s dominated by African-American rappers, I’m sure you face some kind of discrimination. But again, generally, white people have it easier. And I think in Minnesota, because demographically a lot of listeners happen to be white, and lot of people who go to concerts and buy CDs happen to be white, a lot of the media and the press and the radio happen to be white, and then looking back at how much you can trace this scene back to Atmosphere touring in 2000, 2001 — and obviously the hip-hop scene goes back further than Atmosphere, but the way that they broke out and then put on Brother Ali, Doomtree, Eyedea — they inspired generations of young emcees. And again, I don’t see that as a bad thing, I don’t think that they did anything wrong. It’s just a reality that we now have to grapple with. My other background is in social education, and whenever you start talking about privilege people assume you’re attacking them or saying ‘you’re bad because you have money and you’re white.’ It’s about acknowledging the form of society and working within that and grappling with it.
It’s definitely something I think about. One thing I’ve found with the Current is that the majority of the local submissions are coming from white artists. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, because maybe people of color just assume the station plays a lot of white music, so why bother?
I think there’s an extra layer of complication when you’re talking about media, too. If you’re a music writer, not everyone likes hip-hop. So maybe you don’t want to write about hip-hop. Does that mean you only cover white artists? Do you force yourself to write about something you maybe don’t know about?
That’s a challenge too, because if you don’t cover hip-hop a lot and you want to review an album, you feel like maybe you don’t have the skills or that people are going to call you out because you phrased something wrong. I’ve talked to writers that feel that way; they feel like they have to stick to what they know so they sound informed.
And artists are so quick to pounce on writers, too. I mean, I’m always super critical of how people write about hip-hop, but I think there’s a difference between being critical and putting something out there in a positive way and being like ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ I think that happens a lot. There has to be a give and take, and a symbiotic relationship between a scene and the people who cover a scene. That’s a big topic.
In both your opening track, “To Young Leaders,” and the track “A Pragmatist’s Guide to Revolution,” you’re definitely encouraging people to take action, but you’re not necessarily pushing them in a specific direction. Is that a conscious decision, to not overly politicize your message?
Definitely. I think there’s so much fragmentation in the left — and I hate to even say that, the left — and traditionally, it’s important to recognize what our similarities are and recognize the history of this country and that where change has come from is from people working together. They don’t always agree with every little thing but they work together and they organize and they push forward. A big part of what I try to do with my election stuff that I’ve been writing and talking about at shows is to just really drive home the idea that whatever you do on November 6 is important, and you should be principled about it, but it’s really important what we do on November 7. And November 8. Change comes from people organizing, no matter which party is in power. It’s maybe a little bit more of an abstract thing, because elections are great — you do something, you show up, and then something happens! Activism isn’t always like that.
What’s the meaning behind the title, You Better Weaponize?
It’s funny, because I didn’t conceptualize this as I was writing it, whereas our last album definitely was a concept album, it told a story. The concept just organically emerged from it because of the stuff I’m doing in my life right now. Again, going back to the idea of perspective and power and energy, You Better Weaponize is about the idea of — a lot of what I do has an arts definition and then an outside of the arts definition. So the arts definition is that anything that we do as writers or as visual artists or as dancers can have a concrete impact on our communities, and sometimes it’s whether we want it to or not. I believe art can be more than just background music, or something pretty to look at. It can make real, concrete, practical differences in our lives. And again I think that transcends just being an artist. Whatever you do for a living or as a human being, you have power. And that’s such a simple platitude, but it’s something a lot of people don’t think about. Like with the election today, we’re taught that voting is the only way we can exercise our power, but we can weaponize the consumer choices we make, what we do with our time, what we do with our money.
Guante and Big Cats! perform a release show for You Better Weaponize tonight, Friday, November 9, at Hell’s Kitchen with Mankwe, members of Audio Perm, and the New Heist B-Boy Crew.