The artists that I have chosen to spotlight come from three continents and different ethnicities. They are actors, musicians, lyricists, rappers, poets, and comedians. They are also revolutionaries who are using art to transform the world that they live within into a better place.
Saul Williams is an artist with many interests and abilities; he is hard to place in a single category. Saul Williams is a poet-both written and spoken; an actor; a philosopher; a rapper; a rock-star; a productive musician; a producer…and the list continues (Williams, Bio). No matter what genre Williams is creating within, one thing remains the same- namely, the theme underlying his work. In all of Williams's work, whether one looks in the albums, the movies, the song tracks, or the books, one can find Williams' commitment to transforming individuals by challenging and transforming how they think, what they believe, what norms they are accustomed to, and even what they eat. Much of Williams' work includes an inner rhythm and beat, Williams says this is part of the reason his poetry led to his hip-hop music career (JR Interview).
In season three of Def Poetry, the poetry show on HBO, Saul Williams gives a brilliant spoken word performance called Coded Language. It is arguably among the most powerful spoken word pieces ever performed. It is a long poem spoken quickly to a beat with an innate rhythm. Watching Williams perform the poem, available on YouTube, can be a life changing experience. In the poem Williams seems to be speaking to the whole world. In the third paragraph of the poem Williams states "Whereas the velocity of spinning vinyl, Cross-Faded, spun backwards, and re-released at the same given moment of recorded history, yet a different moment in time's continuum has allowed history to catch up with the present." (Coded Language). From sentences like that in the poem, it is clear that Williams was a philosophy major. The poem begins with a few statements about how the world is and goes on to challenge individuals to use "dance, drama, photography, carpentry, crafts, and love…to uplift the consciousness of the entire f-ing world." (Coded Language). In an already epic poem it is difficult to choose one section that addresses oppression, however, there is a section near the end where Williams makes global connections between Egyptian princesses, the four little girls killed in Birmingham, Alabama, and the gods of the past. This part of the poem is the dedication of the poem and it ends with "Those who burned, those still aflame, and the countless un-named." (Coded Language).
Saul Williams is a vegan, but unlike most vegans, Williams is also concerned with what humans consume that is outside the category of food. For Williams it is not enough to watch what we eat but we have to watch what goes in our body period. In his interview with Hip-Hop corner, Williams adds another dimension to using his art in the fight against oppressive advertising and consumer culture. In the interview with Hip Hop Corner, Williams's states "be mindful of what you ingest…your diet is not only what you eat, it's what you watch, it's what you listen to-all of that is digested."
As a black male artist in America, whose written and spoken poetry deals with the legacy of slavery and modern day racism, Williams' portrayal of a young black man's journey from prison to poetry in the movie Slam is another example of Williams fighting oppression through his art.
Slam Williams combines his acting and spoken poetry skills to create an alternative end for young urban black males. Even the possibility of an outcome different from prison or death is powerful. In different pieces of art, Williams fights oppression by addressing race, the war on Iraq, and urges people to think about becoming vegan and to be aware of what they watch and listen. Oppression comes in many forms and it is only fitting that a multi-talented artist, such as Williams would address many forms of oppression through different artistic mediums and do so simultaneously.
K'Naan Warsame, a Somali refugee and current resident of Canada, is a hip-hop artist and activist. He was born into a family of musicians and debuted in Canada with his album The Dusty Foot Philosopher in 2005 (Cunningham). Through his music, he brings attention to war and all of its human consequences. More than just an African or Black artist, K'Naan's work and influence is international in scope. K'Naan's work fights oppression by challenging senseless war. To date, K'Naan has released two albums, with his second album Trouboudaor being released in 2009 (Cunningham).
Sobaax, a single from Dusty Foot, has a video shot in Kenya where K'Naan spent time with Somali refugees living in Kenya. (Cunningham) Sobaax is a rap song speaking directly to the warlords in Somalia. In the song, K'Naan raps in both English and Somali. Hip hop reviewer Susie Kim provides a translation of the Somali verses of the song, and it is clear that K'Naan is expressing the Somali people's frustration with the fighting warlords. In Sobaax, K'Naan raps, that the warlords have "exasperated the people, increased the troubles, and burnt the earth…" (Kim). Sobaax means come out or get out. (Kim)
In addition to making songs about the refugee and immigrant experience, K'Naan also uses the celebrity status that his music career has gained him to act politically. This September, K'Naan returned to Somalia for the first time in decades. (K'Naan, New York Times) What is remarkable is not that he returned to Somalia-even though as a country without a government that is impressive in and of it self, rather it is that he returned to write about the trip in one of the world's most widely read newspapers in the world. On September 24, 2011, in the opinion section of the Sunday edition of the New York Times, K'Naan described to the world scenes from his trip to Somalia. K'Naan described mothers holding malnourished children who were little more than a skeleton. In one of the more powerful sentences he says he saw "Mothers hum lullabies holding the skeletal heads of their children" (K'Naan, New York Times)/
He describes his sadness about performing in 86 countries but not being able to perform in his homeland. He describes his desire to speak for the silenced war ravaged citizens of his homeland, he says "if my voice was an instrument, then I needed it to be an amplifier this time…nothing I have ever sung will matter much if I can't be the mouth of the silence. But will the world have ears for them, too?" (K'Naan, New York Times). His description of the trip was geared towards sharing with the world what the conditions of the country. Artists do fight oppression directly through their art, but sometimes, like K'Naan, they also use their stardom to affect change in the world.
In 2010 K'Naan's song 'Waving Flag' was selected as the Fifa World Cup Anthem for the World Cup games of 2010 occurring in South Africa, K'Naan truly arrived on the international stage. As an artist his concerns about war and hunger are global, his music is international, and he is the epitome of a true citizen of the world. An artist with a cause he fights oppression through music and politics.
Margaret Cho is a bisexual Korean-Chinese-American artist. Like Williams and K'Naan, Cho too is multi-talented. As an actress, a comedian, a burlesque performer, Cho has used humor; swear words, outrageousness to challenge society's treatment of members of the Queer Community, America's stereotypes of Asians, and gender equality (Mazur, 1).
Margaret Cho may be married to a man, but her "politics are more queer than my lifestyle" Cho says, when asked about her marriage to a man (Levine, 1). Cho fights much oppression, but she is known particularly for using her comedy to talk about homophobia and the experience of gay individuals in America. She has pointed out; in a conversation about the effect of body image issues in America, that sometimes "it is harder for gay men than it is for straight women." (Gilmartin, 27).
Cho's comedy routines frequently bring lesbian and gay people front and center (Lesbian Jokes & Are You Gay). Her comedy often occurs at the expense of her Korean mother who she uses to illustrate ideas about homophobia in immigrant communities. Her comedy and provocative comments- she once stated that people who fervently critique gays are usually closeted gays- help open up conversations about sexual identity. (Mazur, 5) In many ways, Cho fights against the oppression of homophobia by being so in your face about what are usually topics we discuss quietly. Sexuality, sex, race, gender, and stereotypes are all many of the themes she addresses in her work.
Cho's comedy is not limited just to her commentary on homophobia in America or patriarchy her work is also frequently political. Cho is unafraid to discuss the…