Mastermind: An Open Letter to the Storytellers
In re: Molina Speaks Cultivates Creative Power and Hustles for Denver’s Soul by Kyle Harris
April 10th, 2017
To Kyle Harris, and the Storytellers,
First, Kyle, know that I appreciate your interest in my artistry. I respect your time writing about me. The constant state of hustle The Artist is locked into in a capitalist society cannot be understated. We are constantly fighting for our livelihood, told in one ear to sell out, and in the other… to accept the life of a “starving artist.” A Westword “Mastermind” award, accompanied by a feature story in print, is a big deal for the independent artist.
Your story is a fine story. You speak to some important moments in my life. I perceive you to have good intentions towards me as an artist and human being. I acknowledge the truth within your story, as all of the facts are correct, and all the words that are attributed to me are in fact words I said. I also want to acknowledge that it is your story, as much as it is mine. Perhaps, it is more about you than it is about me. While I am the subject, I am not the lens, nor the storyteller of your article.
I am writing here to address the framing of the story. For me, Art is about exchange. And the art of storytelling shapes both reality and the dream.
The story you wrote is one story among many that could have been told. In roughly three to four hours spent in conversation over the course of several interviews, I must have said 30,000 to 50,000 words to you. Given the substance of our conversation and the scope of my artistic work, the story may have been set up within the context of time travel through music; choosing the future over the past; the cycles of life and death within an artist’s work; the bending and blending of artistic genres; the art of collaboration; or an artist’s effort to highlight cultural knowledge. There are other possibilities as well.
While there is a genuine sense of depth to your story, the ultimate framework we get is one with which we are all familiar: the egotistical rapper.
The story begins with the statement: “Molina Speaks is not demure.” This sets up the premise that I should be demure, i.e. reserved, modest, meek, timid, unassuming. The fact that I am not appears odd, and must be explained. The titles of some of my works, including Greatest Rapper Never Heard, Brown Genius and Chicano Picasso further set the context for the story of the ego-driven rapper… you find it necessary early on to explain that the rapper (me) is not an egomaniac, despite the titles. Given the premise of the first two paragraphs, the rest of the story must naturally reinforce, relate to, or circle back to the starting point: the affirmation that “[the rapper] is not demure.” Certain words and phrases from the interviews are cherry picked to highlight and accentuate this storyline.
The rapper is not demure. The rapper is egotistical. Why does he see himself this way?
The rapper thinks he is Somebody…
I have thought a lot about this storyline. I have come to the conclusion that it speaks to the pervasive dynamics of race, culture and power within our society.
When the classical artist plays, directs, or composes the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, this act of artistic expression is not thought of as egotistical, despite the fact that these artists are channeling and reciting the work of those who are considered musical geniuses. When rock and heavy metal artists personify and channel the energies of gods, devils, demons or other supreme beings, they are often written about as creative, mystical, and edgy, as opposed to egocentric. When the country artist calls himself a champion or a star, he is celebrated as an emblem of the American dream, as opposed to ego-driven. I could go on.
The successful artist of color as rapper is always required to account for why he or she thinks that We are Somebody. This is true of the east coast rapper, the west coast rapper, the southern rapper, the midwest rapper, and rappers from reservations and small towns.
The underlying impression laid upon us by society is that we are not supposed to control our breath like this. Our spirits are not supposed to be this strong. Our words are not supposed to carry such force. Our stories are not supposed to embody such magnitude. The system was supposed to have beaten this out of us. If we are to exist at all, it is as Nobodies…
Yet, we are never confined to the stories that have been imposed upon us. We whirl words together to birth new worlds. This is the realest and most basic form of Resistance. We tell stories of greatness, because our survival depends upon it.
The album Greatest Rapper Never Heard (2013) was not the birth of an ego. It was the death of an ego. By music industry standards, to call one’s self the “Greatest Rapper Never Heard” is absurd. While the album addresses real life matters of manhood, fatherhood, love, culture, land, artistic freedom, activism, and technological manipulation, the entire project is flanked with satire. The comedy of my collaborators from the Black Actors Guild provides the backdrop. Greatest Rapper Never Heard was meant to pierce the veil of corporate controlled rap spectacles. By clowning the notion of rap success, the rap game, conversations of who is “top five dead or alive,” and so on… I murdered the insecurity that existed within me as a “rapper”. In doing so, I created space for new works, with fresh concepts and themes—the success of which could be defined only by me. This was also the point in which I stopped calling myself a rapper.
While I personify the concept of Chicano Picasso within various aspects of my art, this is a concept that extends beyond me. This work is carried forward into the future, out of respect for Chicano history. In the eyes and minds of the mainstream, the Chicano—if he is seen at all—is one of the most degraded and caricatured elements of the population. But from my experience, the everyday Chicana and Chicano that you do not see…is a genius. We create magic out of pain, oppression, exploitation, and the scraps of a society we helped to build. We do not require the admiration or legitimation of institutions. We create Picassos out of everyday life. This is an ode to a culture and legacy of indigenous peoples who have no tribal recognition. The Chicano symbolizes poverty. The Picasso symbolizes wealth. In pairing these identities together, I am telling a story about the wealth of our artistic, cultural and spiritual contributions to humanity.
The podcast Brown Genius is an effort to disrupt the black/white racial dichotomy that divides human beings. It is also an effort to highlight the diaspora of Mestizo, Indigenous and Mixed Race peoples of the Americas. Ninety percent of the airwaves broadcast within this project are offered to interviewees who share their knowledge and wisdom about art, music, theory, folk culture and street culture, the spirit, the soul, food, medicine, holistic health, political systems, social institutions, education, architecture, science, mathematics, astronomy and astrology. We are building a library of community knowledge, at a time in which our communities are under political and economic attack.
I do not mind the portrayal of me as a badass rapper, as this is true. I do not deny that I have an ego, as this is an aspect of Self inherent in every human being, and perhaps plants and animals too. But we need new stories about hip-hop. It is up to the rapper to BE about something beyond ego. I also call upon the music journalists and music lovers to see, write and produce new stories about this artistic form. It’s a mutual process.
Kyle, I look forward to the evolution of our relationship and our conversations.
Peace to Westword. Peace to Saul Williams. Peace to Denver Hip-Hop. Peace to my Co-Creators, I wouldn’t be me without you. Word to the Storytellers, it is always our job to tell our own stories.