Already this month, Kyle Tran Myhre gave a keynote speech at a Macalester College leadership conference, performed spoken-word pieces at a Joe Strummer tribute and Women of the World Poetry Slam, and read his work at a Bryant-Lake Bowl writers series. Oh, and he played a few rap gigs, too.
“The rap sets are the ones I sweat over the least,” said Tran Myhre, better known by his MC and poet name Guante. “Not that I don’t put a lot into them. Rapping is just what comes most natural.”
This weekend, Guante will do what once seemed unnatural for most rappers but might be his most defining title: activist. Four years ago he launched Hip-Hop Against Homophobia, a concert series that raises money for gay-rights organizations while breaking rap music’s once-prevalent anti-gay mold. There are two installments this weekend — Friday at St. Paul Central High School and Saturday at Patrick’s Cabaret. (Because of a death in the family, Guante likely has to skip the Saturday show, but Desdamona has stepped in to perform.)
Speaking out against homophobia may not seem like such a big deal in hip-hop anymore. Seattle indie-rap stars Mack-lemore & Ryan Lewis, now riding at No. 1 in the pop charts, first got mainstream attention last year with their equality-preaching single “Same Love.” Locally, the hip-hop scene helped fight the proposed state amendment to ban gay marriage last November, and Brother Ali recently wrote a much-read opinion piece for the Huffington Post shaming himself and others who’ve used the other F-word in song.
But a lot of work still needs to be done, believes Guante, a 30-year-old native of La Crosse, Wis., who arrived in the Twin Cities in 2007. He started Hip-Hop vs. Homophobia two years later and has since turned into one of the hardest-working local artists of any genre (and clearly he covers several of them).
“Gay people still don’t have the same rights I do,” he said. For proof, he pointed out with a bit of uncharacteristic self-deprecation that — like many full-time rappers (or poets or writers or activists) — he relies on his wife and her job for health benefits: “That’s a personal reminder to me how important this issue is to some people.”
Performance and activism have gone hand in hand for Tran Myhre since his days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “You can’t call yourself an activist just because you write a song about an issue,” he said. While cutting his teeth at open-mic nights in Madison, he also took part in a media justice organization and war protests (during the Iraq war), and was first exposed to gay-rights issues there.
His diverse pursuits came to a head on his third Guante album, “You Better Weaponize,” a collaboration with pervasive hip-hop producer Big Cats that came out in November and quickly made our Twin Cities Critics Tally as a year-end favorite. The record sounds like a call to arms for his young peers to de-emphasize social media and truly get socially active. “In less than 100 years, every single one of your Facebook friends will be dead,” he howls in the opening track “To Young Leaders.”
“It’s not too early to get started on leaving a legacy,” he summarized before taking the BLB stage last week. Wearing his signature black knit cap and looking as serious as a heart attack, he did joke lightheartedly about the album’s heady and hotheaded content — a tone that he credits Big Cats for lightening up musically. It’s actually a very fun record.
“Every successful rapper has some kind of gimmick, and my only gimmick seems to be writing songs of substance,” he said with a laugh. Referencing two of the album’s wildest tracks, he added, “There aren’t a lot of rappers writing songs about comprehensive sex ed or white privilege.”
The latter topic comes up in “The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege,” in which the half-Japanese MC raises his own mixed ethnicity — “I identify as white enough,” he raps — to portray an inherent advantage white rappers have in getting noticed. He and I agreed to disagree on that point, but it was hard to argue with his reply that a good rapper’s job is to at least be provocative. It’s a mantra he seems to apply to his other roles, too.
“It’s hard to lead from the middle,” he said.