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On Losing Hope and Reclaiming It In a Season of Rebellion

The night I blew out the candle. I should have remembered that you can’t blow out a fire. May 6th, 2015.

“This was never about me being angry!”

My voice is hoarse. I have been shouting and screaming and rhyming into the microphone all night. I’m really trying to give it my all this time. There are about fifty or sixty people at Louie’s tonight and we are rocking one of the most raucous crowds we’ve ever had. People are in force to see us tonight because this is our last show. Sista Mista is leaving planet Earth to go tour the galaxy, because we’ve decided that the human race is doomed.

I’m sweating buckets. I’m tossing my head back and forth rapid fire, the crowd loves it. They feel an animalistic energy buzzing off of me, a mad dog barking one last time about everything wrong up with the world. Really, mascara got in my eye and it’s obnoxious and there’s nothing I can do about it so I’m shaking my head hoping the velocity will unscrew my eyeballs. The whirring of Sid’s MOOG synthesizer and the steady percussion of Kamesha’s kick drum keeps the energy going while I pause.

“This was about you getting f — king angry! And mad as hell!”

At this point, my faux-Liverpoolian accent has devolved into a scratchy base-tone, like I’d just had a couple pints of Guinness and chain smoked forty cigarettes.

“There is no fate but what we make for ourselves! And even if we get a world that is broken and toxic and terrible, if we set our minds to it, our brains and our rage, we can rise like a phoenix from the radioactive ashes that is our future! We can build a better world!”

I say it less for the crowd and more for myself, in hopes that I actually still believe it. Short answer: nope. But it inoculated my cynicism for a few moments, for what it’s worth.

I segue back into the song after, Invisible College, and the whole crowd sings the chorus along with us. Sid jumps out from behind his mad scientist rig of synthesizers and oscillators and shouts the chorus with me and the dancing, shouting onlookers. Everyone wants to go to the Invisible College, where they teach dissent. Today! Today! Toooodaaaaay!

“DJ Preposterous Pseudonym. Kamesha Rolan Mercedes. Ladies and gentlemen, we have been Sista Mista!”

The crowd cheers uproariously. We exit stage left, then come back to pack up the gear into Sid’s car. The typical accolades from our friends are forthcoming, “Great show!” “You guys killed it!” “So when should we expect the Sista Mista reunion tour?” More people want pictures with me than usual, for all intents and purposes this is going to be the last time I’ll be dressing in my war paint.

One month ago.

“So.. with Sista Mista. I don’t know. I’ve got some lyrics in my notebook.” I say it with all the enthusiasm of a seventh grader talking about his homework assignment. Me and Sid are hanging out in his living room. I had not been over for a social visit in a while as I was mostly self-isolating. The lack of energy or excitement from me is the elephant in the room.

I had big plans for the band after I’d come home. I had spent the previous summer backpacking all over Europe. I remember running around the Sziget Music Festival in Budapest in a bra and makeup, passing out Sista Mista leaflets and spitting bars to whoever would listen.

“American can spit fat rhymes, yes! Maybe you will be on that stage next year!”

But then you get home. And for a while it’s great and you fall in love with Kalamazoo (my home) all over again. But eventually the melancholy sets in.

“Yeah… I got a song about throwing a party at the Large Hadron Collider. We haven’t wrote a fun one in a while so… yeah.” Sid is just looking at me. I think he’s analyzing the situation. I think he sees a boy with a sick, old dog that needs to be put down but just doesn’t have the strength of will to do it. Because that boy loves his dog, it’s his baby. But there’s barely any life left in it.

Sid says what I can’t.

“I think our show in May should be our last one.”

A beat.

“Yeah. I agree.”

“Well, at least you won’t have to dress up as a woman anymore,” Sid jokes.

I don’t laugh.

My sister and my brother-in-law want a picture with me as Sista Mista. They’re older, they have the nice house in the suburbs, three kids, the whole package. They’ve never seen this part of my life. Todd muses about how I have a cult following, that my band reminds him of Rage Against the Machine. He goes on to say, “But Andy, if people riot, they should be shot.” I’d started the show with our track ‘Ferguson M.O’ and said some things in solidarity with the Baltimore Uprising that had recently occurred in response to Freddie Gray.

I don’t have the energy to argue with him about it, or even get all that indignant. “Well, I disagree.” I shake his hand and go outside to smoke a cigarette. I take the padding out of my bra. I had thought that it being my final Sista Mista show, there would be more emotional resonance. But looking at the bunched up socks in my hands, all I could think in the most clinical terms possible was, that is the last time I’ll ever unpack my bra.

The crowd outside is excitable. There is a heated discussion going on at one of the tables on the intersection of pop-culture and feminism. I used to engage in that sort of palaver with vigor. I don’t really have much to say. I listen to Leah and Myah discuss the cultural mismatch inherent in Iggy Azalea’s ignorance of the roots of hip-hop culture. There was a time I could spin a whole lecture out of that. All I can summon now is, “Yeah, she ignorant.”

This is the way a political hip-hop band ends. With a bang, sure. But then a resounding silence. A return to baseline, where you contemplate how you spent a few years entertaining people and got them to talk about ‘fighting the man’ right before they go home and binge watch some distraction on Netflix. Before they return to their day-jobs, perhaps intermittently complaining about systemic injustice but feeling a shared sense of abject helplessness, using booze and drugs and EDM and fast food and junk television to numb themselves to their own dreadful knowledge.

On the brink of Armageddon, ignorance is bliss. Sista Mista didn’t end because we “got tired of it” or because we wanted to “move on to other projects.” Me, Sid, and Kamesha had a shared sense of cynicism and knowledge that sent us all circling the drain at the same time. What was the point exactly? Punctuate our friends’ lives with a space every once in a while to embrace each others ‘wokeness,’ then go back to trying to blend in with the herd?

Sista Mista was killed incrementally, by the stray article about how our oceans were acidifying. How our culture’s staple crops were going to go extinct. How our population was increasing exponentially. How we were staring at a bleak future of resource wars, antibiotic resistant bacteria, increasing partisanship and fanaticism. We came to the same conclusion.

“Mankind is doomed.” What is the point of speaking truth to power when you see your species on an irreversible collision course with a do-it-yourself extinction-level-event?

We no longer saw any point.

So Sid got really into playing Magic: The Gathering. Kamesha focused on her progressive metal band Arson Party. I picked up every extra shift at work I could, loathing my own off-hours. I drank 40s of Olde English and Steel Reserve, smoked an ungodly amount of weed and cigarettes, ate ice cream by the carton, and binge-watched Star Trek with a marked bitterness.

“This could have been us. This could have been us if we weren’t so addicted to fossil fuels.”

So I staggered along. The self-aware walking dead. I read a lot of science fiction books and started playing with a synthesizer. Hoping against hope that something would happen that would make me feel alive again.

I envied my friends at the time. They seemed to cope so much better with our apocalyptic sense of helplessness. In retrospect, part of me knew that most of my friends were just as screwed up about it as me. Morbid jokes, ‘don’t let the end times get in the way of a good time!’ If they seemed happier or more balanced than I about it, it was just different coping mechanisms. Some of my friends dealt with the abyss by commiserating with their friends, getting drunk on the porch. At times I joined them, but for the most part I dealt with things by avoiding interaction as though I were playing a game of the ‘floor is lava’ (in this case, human interaction being said ‘lava’). For all my cynicism, I never knew how much my sense of well-being was tied to my hope that mankind could fix our problems and turn it around. In ending Sista Mista, I was defeated in just about every way.

Then 2016 came, a season of rebellion. I re-activated and learned many things.

As I came to learn in retrospect, a person can live without hope. But it is a mechanical existence, one that can at times be very comfortable in modern Westernized nations. That’s the danger. There’s a reason people have not engaged in outright revolt thus far. The working class jobs, even the crappy ones at Wal-Mart that have to be subsidized with EBT cards, survive with the correct combination of booze, drugs, and distractions (Call of Duty 12: Pretend to Be the Military Industrial Complex So You Don’t Think About What the Military Industrial Complex is Actually Doing).

As long as those baseline temptations remain accessible it will be any social movement’s greatest enemy. Donald Trump and his cartoonishly regressive, elitist cabinet are nothing compared to the pacification of ‘Netflix and Chill.’ The suppression of the voters that occurred in both the general election and the Democratic primary, that injustice was not obscured with any sort of conspiratorial savvy. These were obvious things, dealt with by the establishment through gas-lighting and manufactured consent, but those rather crude tactics and the rather easily discernible hogwash were nothing compared to their primary accomplices.

Apathy and cynicism. Not enough people cared, or paid attention.

Yet, like myself, I saw thousands of people embrace hope again. Not enough came on board for a win. We fought hard to a loss, but a loss that has fractured the political landscape irrevocably. A few more good swings of the hammer and it could be possible to bring our civilization back from the brink. As the smoke is clearing from this year, the election of ‘Crazy Uncle Don’ could be exactly the alarm bell that we need.

Could.

As I write this, I’m still getting over the “DAPLcough.” It’s a thick, wheezy sort of cough you get spending a month in sub-zero temperatures with a few thousand other people, fighting a police state not averse to using water cannons and tear gas. I’ve been taking it easy. It has been an absolutely exhausting year for those who engaged in activism. A year of drama and deceit and tension, more akin to a season of Game of Thrones than a typical election year. More dramatic for radicals, as for many of us our wishes and desires for the future were on the ballot for the first time in our lifetime. The stakes of the election were unique this year to most of us cynics who traditionally view presidential elections as a passing of the baton from one oligarch to another.

We tried to reclaim humanity this year through our political system, and had a unique opportunity to do so through a genuine emissary, a fellow from Vermont who effectively broadened the scope of political discourse. Of course, there are even still those within the Democratic establishment vying to narrow that discourse back to its pre-2016 baseline. Even in the face of a victory of the regressive ‘alt-right’ radicalism that emerged from the darkest corners of our nation’s body politic, the politics of ‘total retaliation’ against an elitist left more interested in personality politics and incrementalism than a genuine referendum of progress for the majority against the 1%. Expensive introspection traded for cheap blame assignment, be it Russia, untrustworthy news sites, or even the very same radicals who had spent the better part of 2016 playing Cassandra, broadcasting prophecies of doom to ears too arrogant to listen.

The genie is out of the bottle. And not just for progressives or democratic socialists. This slow-motion train wreck has emboldened the radical fringes from all corners. Right now, the regressive alt-right has scored a victory out of the complete obliviousness of the ruling corporate wing of the Democrats. But us socialists, anarchists, hippies, radicals, greens, libertarians, and the rest have become awakened to the possibility of a renewal of our democracy based on the genuine will of the people, not the elites. We will strive for a new political discourse that relies on genuine ideas, not endless distraction, endless ready-for-prime-time scandals, and politicians who are simply mouthpieces for lobbyists and their masters.

But not yet. This is the hard part. This is the part of the story where everything is against us, and we have to rise to the challenge. And some, like myself after Sista Mista, may be in a place of abject hopelessness and cynicism.

For myself, and many, many others in our movement I am sure, we are dealing with the sour position of having tried to save the world and failed.

I’ve always lived by the assertion that failures are and should be treated like valuable lessons learned. That doesn’t make failure of a certain scale any less difficult to deal with. 2016 was the craziest year of my life. A lot of other peoples lives I am sure. I’ve traveled around the country. I’ve been arrested six times this year for various political dissidence. I’ve watched the greater geopolitical landscape morph from a Pleasantville, where all the bad truths are obscured unless one does some digging into them, to a full-on dystopia (glass half-full; run by amateurs who seem to be taking notes from a ‘1984 For Dummies’ instruction manual).

Sitting in on a police line during the final night of the Democratic National Convention during our attempted citizen’s arrest of Hillary Clinton organized with the DNC Action Committee. Me and two of my colleagues were arrested instead.

Something I heard while I was at Standing Rock was the ‘Seven-Fires Prophecy.’ Nutshell it as much as I can, humanity will find itself at a fork in the road. There will be a hard path and an easy path. The easy path is comfortable, probably quite pleasant with, you know, trees and cute deer and a nicely paved path with intermittent signs telling you where to go. The hard path is jagged and twisting and laborious and long, and there’s probably a hungry bear or two along the way. The end of the easy path is clear however, and that way leads destruction. The harder path, more difficult by far, leads to a better future for everyone in the human family (love, peace, humanity finally getting its collective head out of its ass).

The easy path.

Get a job as a janitor. Live a quiet life. Read science-fiction novels in your spare time. Get your happiness from intermittent visits to diners and bars and the occasional concert. Ignore the fall of civilization as best you can. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The hard path.

Wake up. Hear the words in your head, spoken by Public Enemy, “Armageddon, it’s been in effect!”

Mobilize. Educate. Organize. Pull humanity kicking and screaming from the abyss. Because these are the make-or-break years. The difference between evolution and extinction. So tell yourself, and tell your friends, and tell your loved ones…

“Come get a late pass!”

But most of all, keep telling it to yourself.

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