Monday, June 5, 2017

Black Disability Activism at the Whitney

At 6:43 p.m. on June 2, 2017, as part of the Whitney Biennial, artist-activist Leroy Moore gave a presentation on “Black/Brown International Disability Art and Hip-Hop.” Aqueductistas Ann Keefer and Josh Lukin were present, having ridden a bus up from Philadelphia to show support for the speaker and his agenda. Although the event was listed as being full, there were over twenty empty seats; but the diverse group of people who could make it was enthusiastic and appreciative. Upon entering the black box theater on the third floor of the Whitney, visitors found a pile of handouts on each chair, including Moore’s interview with rapper TapWaterz, his San Francisco Chronicle article about Black Disabled History, a list of Twenty-One Black Disabled Trivia Questions, Moore’s definition of AfroKrip, an account of Krip-Hop Nation’s politics, and a bilingual transcript of the youtube video, “Jake explain what Hip Hop is like in Spain for people with disabilities.”

Sasha Wortzel, the Whitney’s director of access and community programs, made a nice access announcement that included a “You may get up and move around during the presentation” and quickly turned the mic over to Carolyn Lazard. Carolyn wrote the intro in the form of a love letter to Leroy. She first met her copanelists Tina and Park at a panel on Access Intimacy two years ago at the New Museum. From Leroy she learned that she didn’t have to hold her blackness in one hand and her disability in the other.

Leroy Moore, artist Sunaura Taylor, artist Carolyn Lazard

Upon taking the mic, Leroy remarked that he was from the area—his mother was awfully excited to hear he’d be at the Whitney—and that it was very hard to be back in the city on account of all the people he’d known who’d been covered up in concrete or gentrified out of New York or . . . he began by showing a BlackDisabled Art History 101 video, then moved into his own personal history. In the eighties, here in New York, three other black disabled boys came up to his room, and they would all write letters—yes, people wrote letters then—to black leaders asking for resources and support and solidarity, and often they got form letters in reply, saying there was nothing out there. Nowadays he doesn’t write letters; he writes emails; but he still sometimes gets the same replies.

When Leroy was a kid, he once dashed into the kitchen yelling, “Mom, I’m on tv!” And his mother came with him into the living room and said, “Leroy, that’s Porgy.” It was the first and only time he’d seen a representation of a black disabled guy in the entertainment media . . . he then read an autobiographical poem about his wild youth and showed a brief interview with Tap Waterz . . . his first work was published in the Amsterdam News, for which he is still extremely grateful; then when he moved west, in the San Francisco Bay Review.  He worked with DAMO—Disability Advocates of Minority Organizations—and then cofounded the National Black Disability Coalition with the great New Jersey civil rights activist Jane Dunhamn.

Next he showed and discussed videos from various Krip-Hop Nation artists, including
Josh Lukin, Sunaura Taylor
Rinnessy, cofounder Keith Jones and DJ Quad, and began to present his definition of Krip-Hop. Krip-Hop Nation has existed for ten years without funding: “We don’t want to be tied up by grant designs and the nonprofit state.” Now Krip-Hop has put out four cd’s, including their 2012 cd on police brutality against people with disabilities; and Leroy has collaborated with Emmitt Thrower on the Where Is Hope? documentary about police brutality against disabled people—hire them to come and speak at your institution. He’s hoping to sponsor an all-women, trans-inclusive Krip-Hop cd with Lisa Ganser in charge, and a cd of South African Krip-Hop. And he recently produced the tenth anniversary Krip-Hop cd, which includes the famous rapper DMC.

There was a bunch of laughter in the audience as the transcription technology of youtube misrendered “Krip-Hop” in like sixteen different ways, and Leroy said, “Sorry about that: youtube has its own language” and segued into the tactics marginalized people have of flipping language: “ . . . people think of ‘Crip’ as a gang, but we flipped it as a positive thing.” Look at the role disability played in the origins of the dozens, a ritual that became the basis of hip-hop. Look at Blind Willie Johnson, accused of inciting a riot by moaning outside the courthouse. Look at Josh White and all the blind musicians he worked with and learned from as a child. All of these stories that music scholars have left out . . . and it’s hard with ableist artists today such as Lady Gaga and Rick Ross and Kendrick Lamar with the blind woman in “Blood” and the Washington Post saying that the president has a mental illness—how do we fight this? Krip-Hop! Krip-Hop uses hip-hop and flips it to the positive. Listen to a song about Blind Willie Johnson, “Moan to Me.” And with international Krip-Hop artists such as Simon Mandela from South Africa, King Montana, Jake from Spain, Billy Saga from Brazil . . . Krip-Hop Uganda, which raised funds to buy AtimEunice and her sister a wheelchair, after which she said, well, this is very nice, but I need to go to school too, so they started another round of crowdfunding—Krip-Hop is more than music.

Park McArthur
After an intermission, there was an introduction of Carolyn Lazard, Park McArthur, and Constantina Zavitsanos that recounted the many venues in which their work—work informed by disability and care—has appeared. They played Leroy Moore and Rob DaNoize Temple’s “Moan to Me” again, to honor Leroy’s accomplishments. Park said she’d been talking about Leroy as archivist/time-traveler, simultaneously reviving the past and navigating the world into the future. Tina said she’d been thinking about slippage: “There’s a lot of slip in that song. Layers and facts and things are traveling in multiple directions.” Leroy noted that the history of black disabled people has been repressed. Hip-hop is the baby of the blues, the fruit of the blues tree: he’s trying to take stories of early blues artists to today.

Park asked if Leroy could comment on two issues. 1) Ableism in pop culture, the appropriation of disability, in genres like mumblerap, and visual artists taking on crip aesthetics 2) Context—what’s the relationship between the criminal justice system and law enforcement and how that system produces disability? Leroy said he’s noticed that, amazingly, hip-hop artists and scholars of hip-hop don’t know how disability is one of the main components of music: it’s astonishing how artists can take disability and riff on it but artists with physical disabilities cannot make it in mainstream hip-hop. Krip-Hop has to push back against the scholars, the artists, the journalists, and say, Here it is. When we got started, there were all kinds of radio stations, but only KPFA would play us. And I love you, Michelle Alexander, but where is disability in The New Jim Crow? The prison pipeline from the schools is mostly special ed—where did that come from? I was talking to an author who did a whole book on sickle-cell anemia under the Black Panthers, and she was like, Oh, I never thought about disability.

An audience member asked, Whom should we be writing to today? Leroy talked about
Pioneering disability scholar/educator Simi Linton
different kinds of dissemination, all kinds of ways one can get the word out, including bringing Krip-Hop to the Whitney. But so much work remains to be done to reach people. “I see a lot of talk about intersectionality, and people still don’t bring up disability! IT’S NOT A GAME! Scholars and writers still need to be told.”

An audience member asked about training police to deal with people with disabilities. Leroy said he’d seen calls for police training in the Eighties, he’d seen calls for police training in the Nineties; he’d believed in training the police thirty years ago, he’d believed in training the police twenty years ago, and the police have not improved. We need to flip our focus from what the police need to what the community needs, We’ve been focusing on the police since the Eighties, and they get all the money, they get all the resources—and when you come back to the community, there’s nothing there. Sounding like Jane Dunhamn, he said that we need to flip the focus so that when a disabled person is in crisis, you don’t call the police; you call your neighbor. And that’d be a hard change. A member of the audience mentioned the killing of Ethan Saylor, remarking that Saylor had been universally loved and was a superstar in his community, and that he’d had a paraprofessional with him communicating on his behalf, but that didn’t stop the police ‘cause they weren’t interested in listening. And he, audience member, has a son with Down Syndrome who could be Ethan Saylor, And what do we do?

Of the anti-police brutality organizations, Leroy has only seen October 22 consistently addressing disability. A lot of movements don’t deal with disability justice—it’s not sexy.

David Linton talks with UPenn's Heather Love and NYU's Mara Mills
Park asked a question about the Harriet Tubman Collective, and Carolyn answered: it’s completely run online, so it brings people from many locations together. It points in both directions; and it’s truly intergenerational, encompassing elders like Leroy and young activists. It’s in conversation with Black Lives Matter. And—we know these are complex issues, but the ubiquity of disability in police brutality cases, environmental justice cases, etc. is not talked about! Park considers the question of what happens when we think of Harriet Tubman as a disabled woman. It’s a love letter to the past. It’s that archival process. Tentatively, because she doesn’t want to alienate her friends who do conventional archive work, Tina generates the word “anarchivism,” a form of archiving that’s at odds with the Official and the Academic. Leroy said, how much could we have done back in the Eighties if we’d had something like the Harriet Tubman Collective and how great it is to have it now. Back then all we could do was go to police commission hearings.

A guy who’d already asked two questions started saying something and Leroy replied,
Leroy Moore, Ann Keefer
“Can we get other voices in the room?” A woman then asked about invisible disability and its place in Krip-Hop, especially now that we’re aware of how mental disability issues play a role in police brutality, and in black feminism—and we have mainstream singers talking about their affective disorders. How do you see the role of madness and invisible disabilities evolving? Leroy agrees about the importance of these disabilities but is iffy on mainstream hip-hop’s taking on mental health, because if you look closely it’s coming from a medical model. “I want it to go deeper: I want to really challenge where it’s coming from . . . I don’t think a lot of hip-hop artists have a connection to activists on the ground who can teach them . . . I wish they had more disability justice in the mix.”

Leroy concluded by saying that we need to learn more about global disability activism. Especially now that we’re ruled by these fools, we have to examine the movements in other countries who’ve had similarly horrible rulers. Look at recent activism in Bolivia: it’s amazing, and the people doing it live on ten dollars a month!

Watch the whole event (intermission and post-lecture mingling included!) here, starting at the fourteen-minute mark.

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