You are invited to a funeral for words...specifically: hypocrite, racist, sexist, normal, slut, evil, truth, miscegenation, click bait, deserve, and obviously. The Museum of Dead Words by Dyalekt is at the Wabi Sabi Warehouse on Friday & Saturday, 10/6 & 7.
Dyalekt will interact with exhibit visitors, leading tours at 5:30, 7:00, 8:30, and 10:00 on Friday night, and 11:00am, 12:30, 2:00, 3:30, and 5:00 on Saturday.
Hear our discussion with Dyalekt above and see our extended conversation below.
Gina: How did you choose those words to be represented in your exhibit, Museum of Dead Words?
Dyalekt: This is a little bit of a long answer, I'll take you through the process. It started because I talk a lot about race and identity and ethnicity. My first album and one man show was about me growing up mixed and passing for white and all these things, so I talk a lot about identity in my personal life, in my art. And I found that there were certain words I couldn't discuss with people. I couldn't talk to certain people because I realized we didn't have a shared understanding of what we were talking about so the conversation would devolve into a semantic argument or just some sort of fighting. And I was thinking about how, increasingly we're less empathetic with each other and how that relates to the typed word.
People with better science brains than me have figured out that the typed word inspires way less empathy than the written word or the spoken word because of your visual and auditory things and the other ways that we are communicating. So I decided to search the internet and dig through to find other words that were causing this, that were making conversations and arguments turn into fights. Arguments are cool because we get stuff out of arguments. But this is when it's just that nonproductive nonsense. So I spent about a year and I specifically read article comments- not Facebook, not Twitter, not a forum, nothing that felt private. I just went on article comments and where people anonymously just got to say whatever they felt in public because I thought that that was the best experiment group, I guess the best control, in terms of these words. And I whittled it down to 11 words. I whittled it down to 11 words and after I had chosen the words, I then did further research to make sure that my case was clear with each of these words.
Gina: What do these 11 words have in common?
Dyalekt: The biggest thing that they had in common is that- it's two things- vagary and obfuscation. I am also a big word person in general. Words are fun. That's why I'm a rapper. Right? Words. So a lot of these terms, they're too broad to actually be useful and they've sort of devolved into just a vague insult that's supposed to make you feel bad. They're incisive but they are incomprehensible. And obfuscation- oftentimes these words are used to hide actual things going on that are worth talking about. Things that are dealing with people's lives. Often things like oppression and big systemic stuff that's really difficult to talk about but we ought to talk about because those are the things we need to deal with. And it's easier to throw up a platitude and run away. Platitudes are actually doing better than some of these words, but they're in the same vein.
One thing I also want to make clear with my project- I'm not saying “don't say these words.” What I'm saying is, as my research has uncovered, that these words have stopped working in discourse and they don't mean what you think they mean any more. So if you use these words, don't be surprised at what the result is. And I think the progressive types who use the shorthand of, “You can't say this,” I think that would be a better and broader way to explain. It's not that they're like, “You can't say this.” It's, if you see these things or if you do these things there are certain consequences which I assume that you would like to avoid. I think one of the biggest things with my words and the thing that I’m saying in all of this is, you don't take enough time to accurately explain the thing that you're saying.
Gina: What the words mean to me and what the words mean to you.
Dyalekt: Yeah. Even universally accepted bad words like the N-word. I personally had a lot of issues and that word is quite a trigger for me in a literal, clinical sense. And I try to explain to people, I don't know about your relationship with the word and where you are, but this is where my relationship is with the word. And again, for the safety of everybody, my own sanity, and possibly your physical safety, let's be careful about what we're saying. Being a creative person and being the type of cat I am, I'm more giving. I think part of it is because of my light skinnedness. I have a lot of dark skinned people in my family who are not encouraged to speak as much. And I feel with great privilege you have great responsibility. I feel like, with the privilege that I have being light skinned, that it is important to me to go out on a limb and say and do things that other people have been have been pushed away from. I should put my skin in the game and I should help other people put theirs in, too.
Gina: Can you expand on your work with hip hop theater? And how did hip hopping help students’ performance in school?
Dyalekt: I started rapping and acting in my senior year of high school and decided I really loved acting and wanted to be a part of it. Hilariously, the way I started rapping is I wrote one rap and my friend, who I was doing a lot of theater with, had a rap group and brought me in. And I came to New York and I was studying acting and I hated the TV, film, and theater world. They were just unfriendly in so many ways, incapable of dealing with the nuances of ethnicity, things like the black family and stuff like that and I was really put off by it. But I was really digging this hip hop stuff that I was growing and learning more about, being in New York. And I found that my theater bug was actually picked up more in the hip hop scene because a lot of these plays just felt like TV shows on stage and hip hop had that interactive element, that Shakespearean thing that is the real crux of the reason I like performing. And the reason I like this type of art. I mean, I even went to the Globe Theater some years ago and they took me on the tour and every time they told me something they did at the Globe I was like, Yo we do that in Brooklyn too. It's one of the things that I proselytize about a lot. Because the Shakespeare ear is the hip hop ear. They do iambic pentameter, we do iambic quadrameter.
So I was performing around New York and I met a lady named Claudia Alec who was running a hip hop theatre company at the time and she asked me if I ever acted and she wrote a hip hop play where there was rhyming and there was a lot of stuff where we discuss these issues that I was concerned about in the text. And we used rhythm and we used a lot of the other art forms to create a really interesting thing, so I got interested. I wrote a terrible half hour rap version of Macbeth for the Hip Hop Theatre Festival in 2001. The actors did a great job and everybody, I'm just saying my script was pretty rote and silly and I began building and growing. While working with Claudia we started doing some teacher trainings, teaching about hip hop theater and working with some young people and that's when I really understood what my purpose was. Because I love rocking in a nightclub for a bunch of drunk people jumping up and down, but there is nothing like a seven year old critiquing the third word in your second stanza and being like, “What do you really mean by that?”
So that led me to digging more into education and by the time I put out my first solo record- it was called Square Peg Syndrome. It was a one man play plus a deejay and rap album about my experiences growing up mixed and the race riots in the area I was in. I put together a six week curriculum about identity and literacy and I brought it back home to the Virgin Islands where I finished high school. I presented it to every school, group home, afterschool program, the youth prison, everybody. And I began bringing that show and that curriculum around the country and a few other countries I was able to rock in. My whole thing about how I loved learning, I love learning, but institutions often are not great at learning. I didn't love my acting school because they were trying to instruct something where they needed to facilitate. I didn't like a lot of the things I was getting in my public school education as a youngster because they were leaving things out and not allowing me to be autonomous in my learning direction. I started putting together my philosophy that I now use, that the aesthetic hip hop elements line up with Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory. I started helping students learn how they learn. For instance, I'm clearly a word guy. I love words and words have so much to do with my learning and my understanding. And other people, they may need to learn visually, they may express by remixing.
So I started working with students, helping them understand how they learn so that they could lean into their learning tendencies and thus be able to learn anything. And this manifested in hip hop Lincoln-Douglas debate programs. I worked with students on math and beating the Regents exams and other standardized tests. We've shown and understood that paying particular attention to understanding your personal rhythm helps with math and just all sorts of wonderful things. So I've been a hip hop educator nearly 15 years now. And most recently, with my wife, we've been doing hip hop and finance workshops.
Gina: Hip hop and finance?
Dyalekt: Yes. So this was a super accident in terms of how we started doing it. She is a financial planner and works as a finance educator. I'm a teacher, too, so we would check each other’s curriculum and taught a couple of times just trying her stuff out to help out. She got offered a gig where they wanted a job prep workshop. My Lincoln-Douglas debate program is a job prep workshop. We're teaching you how to speak in prose, we're teaching how to speak in meter, we are teaching them how to look people in the eye, how to improv, how to handle questions, and most importantly how to code switch and how to research for the audience that you're looking for. When we put that together and she added the financial principles that were inherent to these things, we realized- I've doing money based stuff all along. Entrepreneur based stuff all along.
I was working as a paralegal when I was like 19 in New York when the lawyers got the cops who murdered Amadou Diallo acquitted and came in popping champagne bottles. I quit and stumbled around figuring out how, with my rapping skill, I was going to make money for years. Stumbling into what I was doing. And part of what we do is, Pam being the expert, brings the proper method of doing things. I explain how in the past I've stumbled through, what I did wrong and how I have corrected those things now, so I'm able to provide a model for young folks and a space for them to express and learn and take those principles I was talking about in terms of the hip hop and learning philosophy and apply that to their understanding of economics and their personal finance.
Gina: Where did you get your name?
Dyalekt: It's funny. I had a terrible rap name that I'm not going to say when I first started rapping, and I picked out the name Dyalect for myself before I moved to the States. Weirdly enough, it sort of became my name. My government name is Brian Kushner. I have weird connections to them. I love my father, Lou Kushner, but the rest of the Kushner's shunned my black mom after he died. And Brian is a very weird name because my cousin gave it to me. My parents couldn't agree on what my name was. My mom wants to call me Derek, my dad used to call me Ed, and my cousin comes in the room and names me after some boy she likes. Weirdly, my whole life everyone wanted to call me a D name. David, Daniel. People just assuming. And when I came to New York I used Dyalect on a couple of acting auditions because I was like, “Oh, maybe I should try to brand.” And then the next thing I knew, it's the only thing people in New York called me. I just accepted it and it's been a while now, so it's very much a part of me.
Gina: In your play Square Peg Syndrome, what did you mean by, “Nothing in this world is 100 percent”?
Dyalekt: That one was about certainty. It was about identity. I feel like I talk about these themes in a lot of my work. Nuance is so important. We get so hard core defined by these gigantic concepts when it's really like we're taking pieces. Pieces of everything. One of my big ideas in my life is I think belief is not a great thing. Scientifically, I'm incorrect. Belief in a negative afterlife like hell contributes to people being kinder to each other. But I'm not into believing things, I'm into thinking things. Having ideas and being open to them being wrong.
Gina: So you don't necessarily believe everything you think?
Dyalekt: That's my general thought process behind it. Which I think is a more a personal philosophy than anything. It'd be nice, I think, if everyone had that. It's not something I would attempt to impose on people.
Gina: What are the dead words for the Dead Word Museum?
Dyalekt: Let's see if I can pull them all off my head. Let's try to do them in order: hypocrite, racist, sexist, normal-and by racist or racism and hypocrite or hypocrisy, because the conjugations matter- slut, evil, truth, miscegenation- awful word. Click bait- the newest of them. Deserve- one of my most interesting and controversial ones. Deserve. Deserve is a tough but fun one. That was the one that had me realize that I had something going here. When I dug into that word. Deserve is such a crazy thing.
Gina: I see all of them there in the comments section. I can see these words and I know what they're doing.
Dyalekt: Such indicators. One thing I also want to make clear, I was specifically picking out singular words rather than phrases. So there are a lot of ones that people use that are phrases like, “Oh, I know you're being a jerk.” But when someone says, “Just my opinion.” Opinion is great and opinion got really close to being on my list because of people saying, “Just my opinion.” It's like a shield to deflect them from anything. Because we know it's just your opinion. Don't give me that faux humble stuff.
Gina: Which word is the most fun to talk about?
Dyalekt: “Deserve” is really interesting. It's really interesting because “deserve” is a thing that could have positive and negative values placed on it. And "deserve" is really you just saying "I want. And I want to make it sound like this is officially cosigned by everyone." You know, and saying "oh so-and-so didn't deserve that promotion because I wanted someone else to have that promotion. And I think that you should agree with me." You know, if you had said "so and so didn't earn that promotion," that's something you could back up with data. You could quantify that. But deserve is this nebulous thing. And when you want to take away- they didn't deserve- or whether you want to give to someone- they did deserve. The song that I have attached to this is actually one of my older songs that I remade. It's one of my mom's favorite so I remade it because she wanted me to. It's called "Ellwood Song" and it's a story about a boy with a congenital heart defect who wants to play basketball. And he becomes a basketball star, but since he has a congenital heart defect he also dies at 35. Which is what would happen. And I really thought that that song was a great example. What did he deserve? Did he deserve to die young? Did he deserve to be a star? He just was. And I think that's the thing that we really need to take and accept out of life, is the reality of the things rather than trying to find what place in "deserve" things are.
I'm not a psychologist but I do dig a lot of psychology- and there's this reversion to status quo that people have in their heads where, if something out of the norm happens to someone, the quickest response is, what did they do that was abnormal? What did they do that was wrong to get put back into place? Because status quo, even if it's a crazy world we're living in, it's normal. It's like, it's super evident in dogs. You know, you raise a dog well or you raise a dog terribly, either way they love you because that's all they know. It's the status quo. And it's so funny, I feel like mammals are mammals. What you see in one you mostly see in the other. It's the same thing with kids who have parents who treat them terribly. You still love them because what are you going to do? It's what you know. It's the status quo. And it's comfortable to revert to that. It's why we stay in bad relationships when we get used to them, and bad jobs, and bad lives. And I think one of the things, our job as artists, is to say when status quos aren't working.
Gina: And is that what you're saying?
Dyalekt: Most definitely. Most of our status quos don't work.
Gina: Do you want to expand on that at all?
Dyalekt: A lot of people like to talk about things that are brand new to them. It's really interesting hearing our European American friends talk about a lot of black and brown issues that weren't talked about when I was a child and then hearing people say, "Why do you just care about this now?" Like, Confederate statues and stuff. Guess what? When I was seven years old and I walked by a Confederate statue, it was crappy for me. But I couldn't do anything about it. I had no power. And more so than my having no power, I knew that I had no power. I knew that if I spoke up I would be in trouble. I was just relating with someone who lived in the same area of Pennsylvania when they were young, too. And my mom nearly got arrested for kidnapping me. She didn't kidnap me, she was just a black lady walking around with a white baby. And the young lady I was talking to said her parents kept her in the house because she was light skinned- lighter- when she was a baby. They were worried about the same thing. And those were just accepted things. We just lived and dealt with that.
A lot of my family members are dark skinned, my cousin is one of the smartest people in the world. He's a deejay and a musician and taught me everything I know about hip hop. He wasn't afforded the privilege of being able to be a professional artist. I've seen how, not only the large outer systems, but even the small comments and the things that happened within my own family that our systems were all just riding with because what are going to do? We don't know any better. It's one of the things when you talk about systemic issues. To be honest, guys, we're not blaming any single one of you because we're all culpable to a great degree. I'm from the Caribbean and moved to Brooklyn where all the Caribbean people were at. I didn't think I was helping gentrify the neighborhood, but next thing I turned around and everything's expensive and nobody lives there anymore. And it's because us artists came to the neighborhood and made it enticing. So many of us are part of these systems unwittingly or half wittingly oftentimes. I think systems are a good concept. Just, let's not be jerks about our systems.
Gina: What do you hope to accomplish by eulogizing the 11 words? Do you hope to eliminate them from our vocabulary?
Dyalekt: I've been looking for a better way to say this because a lot of people say this, but I mean this very directly: I want to spark a discussion. A discussion that hasn't been had. These words- feel free to use them. Feel free to use them. But understand that in many conversations, you are not going to be able to assume their definition. Have a better understanding between your intent and your action. People all the time like to say, "Well, I did this thing with good intentions." You're hurting folks and you're absolving yourself of any guilt because of your good intentions. Nobody cares about your good intentions.
Gina: So you're not trying to eliminate these words?
Dyalekt: I'm not. I can't eliminate them. They're there. If I could eliminate a word, I would eliminate "miscegenation" because what an ugly and disgusting word that I personally have lots of issues with. I want us to be careful about what we're saying. I want us to be cognizant of what we're saying. Actually, we don't even have to be careful. Feel free to spew whatever you're spewing, just know what you're saying. Have an understanding. That's the really important thing to me. And when I say I want to spark discussion, I want people to dig out what they feel on their own. What words do you see in your life that you think are not working? What words, out of my words, do you think are incorrect and what are the reasons why you think that what I'm saying is incorrect? You don't have to make your own art shows, but you can. If you want to have a competing one across the street, that is hilarious. I'd be into it.
Gina: Do you define yourself in any way? Do you align with any specific viewpoint?
Dyalekt: Yes. I am a black man and I am a hip hopper.
Gina: “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” What do you think about that?
Dyalekt: That's crazy. Words have caused lots of pain, either directly or by inciting people to pull out sticks and stones. I think that's it's one of those refuges of the person who doesn't want to take responsibility for stuff. Sound is vibration. Communication comes from drums. It's drums and it's sound. And those things have actual definitions that are locked down. When I give you a certain type of rhythm, you're going to feel a certain type of way. It's why a lot of these words have morphed their meanings, because they have a certain type of rhythm and a certain type of color to their sound that gives you a feeling. That's the reality of our communication.
Gina: Tell me what happens if I go and see this.
Dyalekt: I will take you on a guided tour. The show was inspired by George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, so it's a guided tour through a museum. I'm going to take you through and I'm going to speak to you and I'm going to rap at you and, at appropriate times, I may even answer a question or two. We are going to jam on some words. I hope to have fun. I hope to create a cypher type environment. Don't feel hierarchical, I want to invite you to be a part of it.
Gina: Is there something to look at?
Dyalekt: Yes. The words are all up. I've presented them in their Sunday's Best, their finest popular fonts. If there are any font nerds, I got all of the ones that pop people know- the Helvetica, the dreaded Papyrus, I've got Arial in there, comic sans- out of the hated fonts, I don't hate that one as much as others. But all of the popular fonts I thought would be a fine way to dress them in their finest.
Gina: For their funeral.
Gina: Why choose hip hop as the medium for activism?
Dyalekt: Since I've started it's been my method of expression. Because of the learning styles. Not because it's a popular pop thing, but because it gets you on all levels. It gets you in the sight, it gets you on the sound, it invites discourse. It's not hierarchical, it's about circles. These are things that I value and that's why hip hop is a big part of everything.
Gina: What aspect of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum did you draw inspiration from?
Dyalekt: Specifically the format. It's a wonderful play and I love the idea of tableaus breaking out into things. It just makes theater so much more alive and feel more interactive.
Gina: Describe the moment where you decide to drop law classes and quit working at the law firm.
Dyalekt: My mom wanted me to be a lawyer. I was doing the acting thing. I was going to be a lawyer and I was a paralegal for a firm that represented the police who shot Amadou Diallo. I realized in that moment- because it wasn't just a protest- I realized that being a lawyer wasn't going to do what I wanted to do. I saw the future and I saw that I was going to be either some rich jerk who wasn't doing what I wanted to do or a public defender making nothing and also not making change. And that's what led me into my art. That's what led me into my education. It's a weird thing to say because lots of folks like to say it, but I care about folks. As much as I'll yell at society, it's because I love y'all.
Gina: How do you handle criticism? What kind of criticism do you face?
Dyalekt: I faced a lot of criticism on all sides. Academics often feel that, because I come from my hip hop vein, that what I'm saying isn't accurate or hasn't been properly researched. I have people in the creative world who are on the other side, think that I am too much of an academic. There are people who question my ethnic identity and the validity of that. And my whole thing is, what you want to battle?
Gina: So you're at a crossroads in a lot of ways.
Dyalekt: It's why I called my first record Square Peg Syndrome. Because in all of these worlds, even these things that I self-define as, I don't entirely fit in and I can be sometimes seen as a malcontent. The first poet poem I ever wrote was when I was 18 for a Kwanzaa festival about being a hater. And my last line was, "thin line that says I'm only a hater because I love so much." And you know, when you really love something and it's unrequited, you just get more and more forceful. I guess that's what it is. This will be a big old forceful hug.