The Best Revenge – Art and Culture in a Time Without Hope

“The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one’s soul to grow.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

Imagine watching at the deathbed of your dearest loved one as their body undergoes its final stages of surrendering to the ravages of a horrific disease. Standing next to you is a friend, a comrade, who is blind. You describe to this friend exactly what you see, down to the most intimate details of what happens to a human body as it wastes away. You tell them the problem, and, as best you can, you explain how heartbreaking it is to witness.

Then the friend says to you, in a voice pregnant with judgmental resentment, “So, what’s the answer? How are we supposed to fix this?”

Imagine the loathing, the disgust, the rage you might feel in such a moment.

That’s a decent analogy for the way I feel when I talk to certain folks about the current situation of our society, and of our dear planet, our only home.

From 2014 to 2017 I worked at a newborn, ragtag non-profit here in Oakland, California. Its mission was to educate folks about the importance of hip-hop culture in alleviating the sufferings of oppressed communities, and to apply the tools of that culture accordingly. I was already in my mid-thirties when I started working there—a veteran hip-hop artist, a seasoned scholar of the atrocities visited on my African and indigenous ancestors, and an enthusiastic enemy of the cybernetic imperium. If there had ever been a time in my life when I had any hope for a beneficent future, by then it was already long gone. I just needed a job.

Since moving to Oakland in 2013, I’d been looking for ways to work with youth through hip-hop culture. It so happened that this tiny little pirate ship of an organization had a model in place to do just that. I jumped on board. The entire operation was financed by street canvassing—going out on street corners to raise money with nothing but a binder and a mouth full of game. There was a weekly fundraising quota that we had to meet in order to stay employed.

What I wanted to do was teach, but that wouldn’t come until later. For the better part of a year, I was a full-time street canvasser. To get an idea of how intense this method of fundraising is, consider this: the average career duration of a street canvasser, for any organization, is three days. That’s how long you get to first make quota. Most people don’t make it. After I eventually took over the company’s education program, I spent an additional six months or so canvassing part-time, often training newbies (you get your black belt after your first nervous breakdown).

I hated canvassing. But I was great at it.

My first day on the job I raised almost double the quota. I was in. But by the end of that day, I felt more exhausted and dejected than I had ever felt in my life. I couldn’t believe this was something a person could possibly deal with day after day, week after week—the rejection, the harassment, the bitterness, the emotional overload of being employed in a capacity where your job is to monetize compassion.

In my time on the street I had plenty of adventures. I had face-to-face conversations with over 4,000 people about social justice, hip-hop education, and culture-based activism. I heard every stupid, racist comment there is. I got money off everyone from wealthy professionals to couch-surfing ex-cons. I acquired an intimate knowledge of San Francisco’s public transit system. I saw bums shitting on curbs and junkies shooting dope. I got cussed out, hugged, high-fived, ignored, celebrated. Some people brought me coffee and food, others tried to fight me or throw me into traffic. I prevented an old lady from getting run over by a truck. I got hit on by a transgender call-girl. I once canvassed Angela Davis, and didn’t realize it until the end of my pitch—anyone ever tell you that you look hella much like Angela Davis? She laughed.

In the name of The Cause, I raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000—about three times the highest annual income I’ve ever earned in my life. I hosted a radio show on KPOO, specializing in music by local rappers… which entailed wading through a lot of sub-par submissions. I interviewed dozens of artists and activists. I taught workshops on hip-hop history and culture at schools, colleges, and organizations throughout the Bay Area, for a total audience of over 8,000 students. I once gave an entire lecture to an auditorium packed with more than 600 high school students… without a microphone. Good thing I’m loud.

After I began serving as the Education Coordinator, which technically made me second-in-command at the org, every Wednesday at our office meetings I had an allotment of fifteen to twenty minutes to update the street team on our school programs, and to drop knowledge on the team, both for their education and to provide information that might be useful in their fundraising conversations. My unofficial title was Chief Mind-Blower.

I didn’t do all of this because I thought we could “fix” anything. I did it because it was worthwhile and honorable. Often enough, it was also fun.

My time there ended after I had a falling out with the executive director. He was also the founder… and a grifter of the first order. He was so shady that the board of directors eventually gave him the boot. But that’s another story.

I often forget that I’ve had most of my life to emotionally digest the horrors I’ve studied. Whether on the street, in team meetings, in classrooms, or at conferences with teachers, mentors, and counselors, there were many occasions when I found myself descending into the rabbit hole of tangents on The Evils of TechnoBabylon—casually delivering tales of global holocaust to an audience that was completely unprepared for the emotional weight of this knowledge. I would look up in the middle of a monologue and realize I had sucked all the air out of the room. People got depressed. They felt hopeless.

This is part of why I gave up on teaching young people within the confines of our society’s sinister institutions; young people need hope, and I don’t have any to offer them.

Personally, I feel that hope is overrated, if not dangerous. I think it’s mostly a delusion, a burden that prevents acting in the present moment with some measure of authentic freedom. I find life to be full of beauty and meaning and fulfillment, despite being without hope, and I am spiritually grounded enough to get away with it; that’s a blessing and privilege that most people simply do not have. Hope is a stand-in word for the collection of lies that folks tell themselves to get through the day without eating a bullet. It took me almost until my forties to realize how cruel it is to damage that hope. Whatever else is going on in the world, most regular people are doing their best just to get by.

Early last autumn I had started having premonitions that something horrible was coming down the timeline. Soon after that, Israel (or, as I call it, so as to circumvent zuckerbook censorship, “The Outpost”) embarked on its campaign to reduce Gaza to a wasteland of blood and rubble. Since that happened I have not been able to bring myself to write about politics, or to compose essays of any kind, something I’ve been doing consistently for over two decades. Suddenly, it didn’t matter. I knew long ago that the game was over and the home team lost, but damn. It hit me hard.

Most of Amerika’s politicians are flying around in capes of self-righteousness, championing this blatant act of genocide. Legions of Good Germans, oops, I meant Liberals, are all for it. Sure, a small percentage of our citizens are staging symbolic actions against the invasion, protests and whatnot… which, when it comes to stopping the murder of Palestinian children, is about as effective as begging dogs to vote. Meanwhile, everyone else is going to stand by and let it happen. A Sand Creek massacre to the tune of millions.

So… What’s the answer?

I hate that question. I’m starting to hate the kind of people who ask it.

It’s gotten hard enough for me to even talk about the Problem… and I’ve been doing that for most of my life.

I spent years standing on street corners hollering at citizens, and standing in front of classrooms full of teens—some with trust funds and some with house-arrest ankle bracelets—explaining to them how important art & culture are for mental, emotional, and spiritual survival. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, artists have the benefit of being able to actively treat their own neuroses through their creative endeavors. That’s not a lesson I had to buy at a degree factory; I learned by doing it. I had to—it was that or die. I made zines, wrote essays, recorded songs, self-published books, drew comics, danced, had lovers, and free-styled kungfu. I still do.

Such is the way of the diasporas of African and indigenous people; this is the blues and the round dance, the sweat lodge and the b-boy cypher, the prayer song and the tall tale. This is how we’ve made it through the aftermath of some of the worst atrocities in history. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can manage the pain of this cybernetic nightmare without transmuting that pain into art of some sort. I can only imagine that such people are living a kind of half-life—drones in thrall to the vampire screen.

I went on pause from essay composition, but I didn’t stop creating. One of the benefits of gaining skill in multiple art forms is the ability to switch it up when one of them isn’t working. When The Outpost unleashed the beast, I stopped writing prose and dove face first into making beats and writing songs. Ass out, full tilt; it’s been less than a year since I learned how to make beats, and I’m already finishing up an album. It will probably be heard by less than a hundred people, but so what? The process of making it has kept my joy alive and thriving. And, once it’s done, I’ll be able to listen to this album whenever I want, and each time I do I’ll be reactivating that joy.

I don’t have The Answer™, and I don’t trust anyone who claims to have it. What I do have are coping skills, methods and techniques, so here’s my unsolicited advice: if you’re an artist of any kind, whether a pianist or a chef, do it. Permission granted. Too depressed? Keep it small—pluck a chord, scribble a note, anything. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

Fair warning: search for any reward or validation outside of the act itself and you’re likely to be disappointed, if not crushed.

Your ancestors survived everything from ice ages to invasions to ensure that you would be walking the earth right now. They might have even provided you with some talent. Honor that. Whatever you do doesn’t need an audience—it doesn’t even need to be good. I’ve sat in plenty of sweat lodges messing up ceremony songs; what’s most important is the spirit of the thing. Your spirit, your heart, your breath. Life is for the living.

Any genuine act of creation is an act of resistance against the forces of anti-life.

I say genuine because there are a lot of activities that might appear creative, but are really just a form of servitude to the Machine—witness the proliferation of online memes, video shorts, tweets, brainless articles, hack journalism, and other asinine bullshit. That sort of thing might be the closest the cyborg masses can get to creativity; this deserves pity, not analysis.

There is a theme to the album I’m working on, and here it is: if nothing else, there is always revenge.

And the best revenge is to live a good life.

Malik Diamond is a hip hop artist, cartoonist, author, educator, and martial arts instructor. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the descendant of kidnapped Africans, conquered Natives, and rural laborers of the Scots-Irish, Swiss, and German varieties. He currently lives in Oakland, California, with two brown humans and a white cat. E-mail: malikdiamond (at) hotmail (dot) com