MichelleMyersMichelle Myers

Michelle Myers is a founding member of the spoken word group Yellow Rage, a dynamic duo of Philly-based Asian American female spoken word poets. With her poetry partner, Catzie Vilayphonh, Michelle performed as part of "Black Hair, Brown Eyes, Yellow Rage" in December 2001 on the first season of the critically-acclaimed, HBO television series “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.” Michelle is also a member of the arts collective Asians Misbehavin’, which has performed in the U.S. and Canada. The members of Yellow Rage and Asians Misbehavin' all met in the Summer of 2000 as second-generation participants in the Asian Arts Initiative’s Something to Say performance workshop led by Gary San Angel. Since then, Michelle has been actively involved in various Asian Arts Initiative programs and events, including performances as part of the Rap Series, Artists Exchanges, and the Edge of the World production that toured to the National Asian American Theater Festival. Yellow Rage created their second CD, Handle With Care, Vol. 2, and held their CD release party through an Artists and Performance in Action (APIA) Residency. Most recently, Michelle served as Project Coordinator for the Asian Arts Initiative’s Oral History Project, which focuses on arts and social justice and celebrates the Asian Arts Initiative's 15-year anniversary.
Photo Credit: Tyrone McCloud

What impact has the asian arts initiative had on you as an artist?

When I first got involved with AAI, I wasn't part of Yellow Rage-I was just being me. I mean, people always remind me that Yellow Rage began here. And of course when Catzie [Vilayphonh] and I talk about how we got started, we always, obviously, mention that it was here at the Asian Arts Initiative. But I have to say that the Asian Arts Initiative is a place where I've been able to feel like I could be an artist individually. Yes, I'm a part of Yellow Rage. Yes, I was a part of Something to Say. Yes, I'm a part of Asians Misbehavin', which was also born out of that second Something to Say group. But I think that I've been given a lot of opportunity at the Asian Arts Initiative to be Michelle-to be Michelle-the-artist, you know. And if it so happens that I'm Michelle with Catzie in Yellow Rage, or I'm Michelle with Dan [Kim] and Anula [Shetty] in Asians Misbehavin', or I'm Michelle with Omar [Telan] and Dan and Anula and Regie [Cabico] and whoever else in Edge of the World, that's fine, but I can always return to being Michelle, the individual, the artist.

To sort of put it in a more personal perspective, I think that the Asian Arts Initiative did give me what I had hoped that it would-which was provide me with a space and a community where I could really feel like I could be me. And, "me" doesn't necessarily have to be Asian American in a one-dimensional sort of way. I mean, yes, definitely Asian American, but also, Korean American, as well as biracial, as well as working-class or coming from a working-class background, as well as having an advanced degree, as well as being a mother, as well as wanting to do work that furthers the community and wanting to do work that has a positive impact on youth. AAI has allowed me to be all of the things that make up who I am-I really do believe that the Asian Arts Initiative has provided me with the freedom to do that.

And it hasn't always been peaches and cream-those things haven't always come easy. But, I have to say that, even for the times when it's been difficult, even when there has been conflict, even when I felt like I needed to be away from this space, when I made a return to AAI, I always felt like this was a sort of home for me-home in the sense where I really feel like I can be me, and I can be accepted that way.

What issues are important to you as an artist?

Lately, some of the topics that I've been focusing on in my poetry have been on issues specific to women, particularly domestic violence. It's not something that people like to talk about-we don't like to talk about women getting beaten. We don't like to talk about women who are being emotionally abused, being completely torn down psychologically and emotionally so that they have no sense of self. And part of what I want to do in my work is say, "We can't judge these women." ‘Cause I feel like part of what happens is that not only are people uncomfortable talking about it, but at the same time I feel as though they lay blame on those women, like - "If it was so bad, then why don't they leave?"

Well, the issues are a lot more complex than that, right? So, I hope to try to illuminate that. And, it's a problem that obviously crosses cultures-it crosses race, it crosses ethnicity. But I also feel like it's something that is a huge problem within the Asian American community. Because what are we oftentimes taught? We're taught that, whatever happens in the house should not be discussed publicly. There's a lot of silence around those kinds of things, especially if it's domestic violence. So, if we have had that experience-if we've had mothers who have been abused, or if we have experienced abuse ourselves, we feel like even the idea that we would try to seek help outside the family is something that would bring shame on the family, right?

So, in my work, I try to struggle with the difficulties of all that and wonder why it needs to be that way. And if we do break out of that silence, does that mean we're not being Asian? Sometimes this dichotomy pops up between traditional values vs. American/Western ones-I get annoyed when it seems as if what's being pushed is that the Asian thing to do to is be loyal to family, obey the authority figure, swallow your shame, and keep that silence. I think that's ridiculous because this silence among abused women crosses races and cultures. It's not about being more Asian or more Western-it's about being human and treating each other accordingly. But, again, trying to negotiate all this and not judge the women who remain silent-that's my goal.

Can you talk about someone at AAI who had a lasting impression on you?

If I had to identify one person who has had a huge impact on me in my growth as an artist-and who I will always be grateful to-it's Gary San Angel. I think that part of the reason why I was able to emerge during that Summer 2000 Something to Say workshop into a comfortable place with my own creative expression and gain the confidence to share that creative expression in front of a group of people was because he was such a great workshop facilitator. I mean, I had done theater before. I did theater in high school. I did theater in college. The theater I did in high school and college were productions written by somebody else about fictional characters. But this was my work that I was sharing-and it was all about me! And that's a very scary thing because you open yourself up to people's judgment. And, obviously, that makes you vulnerable-it exposes you to the possibility of being rejected.

And I have to say that I think that I was only able to share my work because of how Gary was as a workshop facilitator. Gary was very nurturing-I don't know any other way to describe it. He was the type of person who really listened. He seemed to really care and to be in tune with the group. Even when we were dealing with very sensitive, personal issues in terms of what we were discussing-because Gary's approach facilitating workshops does draw from your personal experiences, your personal memories. But I think that he handled it, for the most part, with a lot of sensitivity. And, as I said, I think that if he hadn't been the workshop facilitator, I don't know if I would have felt so supported to go up and share really personal experiences and memories in my poetry as well as publicly on stage. For all artists, we have that one person we remember who was pivotal in making us believe we could we really be an artist. For me, that person is Gary San Angel.

Why do you believe that art is important?

The first reason I feel art is important is because, as a way of sort of reaching people, art has the power to actually touch people-to move people-unlike other ways folks use to get people mobilized. Like, people who do a lot of public speaking, or people who hold rallies, and that kind of thing. I think all of that is very important and very effective work, but I think that with art there is a way in which you can reach a broader base of people, and sometimes you can reach people who don't necessarily expect to be reached.

Before the performance, they might not have known that they cared about it or even have thought about why they should care about it-like about the many youth who are on the streets who are becoming addicted to drugs or getting involved in gang violence, or who are being raped, or who are being pushed into prostitution or sexual slavery, or who are being forced into these horrendous work conditions and are being exploited. Maybe they never cared about who is standing next to them on the bus, or walking by them on the street, and before they might have just saw them as shadows.

Once the artist releases the creation or performance, it's out there-it can really go anywhere in the globe-where someone can pick up a book, or now where anyone can get to a computer and get on the internet and get on YouTube. It can reach so many people, and you can't even fathom how many people are listening, or seeing, or hearing, or experiencing art in some kind of way. For the people who do respond, within art there is the possibility for healing, there is the possibility for change, there is the possibility for people coming together and reaching a greater understanding, and perhaps trying to move forward together, rather than move or exist in opposition constantly. And so, I think that art has the potential to actually facilitate change, and I think that can only happen through truth, and through touching people in their hearts in some way.

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

Catzie and I once performed at a show for the Art Sanctuary in North Philadelphia, for a group of predominantly African American middle school and high school students. I don't even remember how many students there were, but they were from three or four different schools in North Philly, and it was a show about Asian Americans and Hip Hop, which always upsets me because Catzie and I don't go around identifying ourselves as Hip Hop artists because we don't rhyme over a beat and we're not trying to disrespect true artists in that form-we're spoken word poets. So, anyway, this show was about Asian Americans in Hip Hop, and I was a little concerned about what the students might be expecting.

I have to say that when we perform in front of young people, I think I'm my most nervous because young people are really honest. They're going to let you know up front whether or not they like you. They don't care if they hurt your feelings if they boo you and stuff. But I remember while we were performing, I was looking out into the audience and some of the kids actually knew the words to our poems, and they were saying the words with us while we were performing. Some of them were standing up, clapping and cheering during our poems, and afterwards, they all stood up and gave us a standing ovation. They were cheering and standing there, and I was so moved by it all. Some of them came up to us afterwards, and they said stuff like, "You know, it was really good for me to learn that Asian Americans can feel the same way as I do as an African American male or a Latina-that all of the issues about racism you guys experience, too, and you get angry about it because I didn't know that Asian Americans were angry about it." Even some of the young women came up to us afterwards and said, "I'm feeling your poem ‘Woman Not a Flavor'-I know exactly what you're talking about. I hate when men disrespect me."

Those kinds of experiences remind me that regardless of what our race is, regardless of what our ethnicity is, our religion, what language we speak, what god we worship, ultimately, we're all people. Ultimately, we are all people, and we all want the same things in life. We all want to have people around us who really care about us, and who really love us, who don't bullshit us and who really support us. We don't want to live our lives around hardship and constantly dealing with obstacles, or constantly dealing with poverty, or constantly dealing with alcoholic family members or drug addicted family members or guns in the house. We, on some level, want to be happy, no matter how cliché that sounds. So art shows people that we're all trying to figure out how to move towards a space of happiness, whatever that space of happiness is for us.

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