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slams in support of mental health

Eva Dameron Issue date: 11/20/08 Section: Culture Print


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Page 1 of 1 Media Credit: Courtesy of Jacques-Jean Tiziou Rha Goddess flew in from New York to perform her one-woman show this weekend at VSA North Fourth Art Center.

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Rha Goddess is using hip-hop to fight for the rights of people who have mental health issues.

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The New York-based spoken-word artist and social activist who coined the term "floetry" will stage her onewoman show, "Low," Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at VSA North Fourth Art Center. It's about a girl named Lowquesha and her journey through the mental health system. "It is a young woman's story of real struggle and moments of real triumph, as well," she said. "I am deeply committed to the empowerment of young women. Young women rock - they deserve to be invested in.â!" It's not uncommon that women struggle when they're asked about role models. Women do a lot of the thankless and invisible work that actually keeps this society standing."

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Goddess said the hour-long performance emerged after her mentor's suicide in 2002. "When I heard about my friend's death, I came home and wrote a poem called 'How Do You Spell Relief?'" she said. "I was giving a concert a few months later at a really amazing venue. I was working with an eight-piece band doing full-on hip-hop music. I stopped the set and kicked this poem, and it was incredible the way the audience reacted. I knew at that point I had to do something; it had to be bigger than a poem." Susanna Kearny, marketing director of North Fourth, said there's an adult language and content advisory for people bringing children. "She uses authentic urban language when she's in her character," Kearny said. "It's perfect for college - the intensity.â!" Rha is just a really nice fit for a lot of what we try to do at North Fourth, which is something a little less mainstream, giving voices to artists you might not see elsewhere." Goddess founded 1+1+1=ONE, an organization that combines art and social justice initiatives to raise awareness about mental illness, empower women and eradicate racism. "Low" is part of the Hip Hop Mental Health Project. "If we look at the health care system as a whole, we know it's not in good shape, right?" she said. "By any stretch of anybody's imagination, regardless of what the issue is.â!" The face of mental heath has not been one that's been presented with dignity or with honor. They've presented it as this thing to be ashamed of. Treatment is not as successful as it could be. There are institutions and agencies that are doing incredible work, but as a whole, it's sort of like the health care system but worse. Which is pretty bad."

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Jessica Rucell, program coordinator for the Hip Hop Mental Heath Project, said people's social environments impact their lives and that people should consider the social environment before laying blame on one person for his or her lot in life. "We're doing this work around mental illness to reduce stigma, silence, alienation, and (we're) using the arts really as a way to frame and invite people into the discussion," Rucell said. "Our environments also influence how we're feeling day to day. It's going to feel a little bit different for me if I'm going to be able to bike somewhere versus taking the subway during rush hour." In 1996, she began working on an album with Marco Jenkins, aka N8tive Son, who was instrumental in bringing slam poetry into the cultural forefront. "Marco and I were in this conversation in terms of how to describe (the album)," Goddess said. "We were going back and forth and we were like, 'It's music, but it's poetry. It's, it's floetry!' We were just like, 'Word!' When you say 'slam,' people know what you mean. Through my work with him, I feel like I really got a chance to participate in that movement in a significant way." Goddess was in town during the Albuquerque Slam Team's championship in the 2005 International Slam Competition. "I was at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and the women who were slamming in preparation for a spot on the team - they were just incredible," she said. "So, I'm very, very clear about your artistry in this here city."

'Low' Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. VSA North Fourth Art Center 4904 Fourth St. N.W. $15 general, $10 students Call (505) 344-4542 for ticket information Page 1 of 1

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RHA GODDESS BELIEVES in empowering people — and be it by analyzing cultural taboos, shattering societal misconceptions or breaking down barriers, she's doing it. With an upcoming interactive dialogue ("Who Got Next?") and performance ("LOW: Meditations Trilogy Part 1") at the University of Maryland, the artist and playwright wants you in on the action, too. "I think, in terms of the interactive dialogue of 'Who Got Next?,' my hope is that people are looking very squarely at themselves: 'Where does this live in me?', 'What is my opportunity?', 'Where does my leadership potential lie in the midst of this?', 'How can I begin to transform my own reality?'" Goddess said. "And I think for people who walk out of 'LOW,' it's also a conversation of empowerment as it relates to the issue: 'Where am I in relation to this issue?,' 'Do I care?,' "Are there other people in my family who this affects?,' 'Does this affect me?,' 'Even if [the result is] as basic as talking with the people in my life about what I experience, what do I want to do about that?'"



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"Who Got Next?" will be a conversation on the role of women in mainstream American culture, while "LOW" is a 75-minute solo piece focused on the single character of Lowquesha, a young woman who journeys through the hardships of the mental health system. "Young women really need to be posed to be the next wave of social, political and educational and environmental leadership; I think it's crucial they be invested, and I don't think it's something we're necessarily talking about, but we need to talk about," Goddess said. "There are 30 million [18- to 25year-old] women in this country, and that landscape is vast and diverse and incredible, and we're not talking to them unless we're selling lip gloss and blue jeans [and] Britney Spears' meltdowns. It's like, so what about that? Thirty million voices, does that count? I hope so!" The conversation sparked in "Who Got Next?" won't be all negative, Goddess said. In fact, she wants to bring issues to the forefront and then actively find ways to solve them, with a focus on how women can lead themselves instead of relying on others and "the politics of pretty." "I think it's going to be an interactive dialogue. ... When we women come together, we talk about how we're victimized, but we don't talk about how we're working to transform it or our desire to transform it," Goddess added. "And we don't talk about our own personal struggles; we talk about 'their' or 'them' and 'we,' we don't get to pull the armor down and talk about, 'This is how I'm struggling.' We talk a lot about how we need to work on the outside, but we don't really give concrete opportunities to talk about how we can work on the inside. We sort of just say, 'Women need to have better self-esteem or women need to love themselves,' and that's the end of the conversation. I'm interested in picking up where that conversation leaves off." That kind of problem-solving mentality is also what inspired Goddess to write "LOW," which premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2006. But she began writing the piece years before, during a time when she was hit again and again by personal hardship. "The impetus for creating the work was really for me a period in my life that culminated in a number of people in my family being severely diagnosed with mental illness, and it culminated with the suicide of a dear friend and mentor, and you know, he died a really horrible death, and I found that the community had no capacity to talk about it," Goddess said. "We didn't want to talk about the fact that he was suffering and no one knew. We didn't want to talk about the fact that he killed himself. We didn't want to talk about how he killed himself. As much as it felt very personal to me, that coming on the heels of the people in my family and friends being diagnosed, I got really close in realizing this was an epidemic, and we no real capacity to talk about it." The experience led Goddess to write a poem, "How Do You Spell Relief?," which helped her create the script for "LOW." The next three years were spent in research and development, with Goddess conducting in-depth interviews and crafting a piece that was part autobiographical, part documentary. After completing it, Goddess traveled the country, presenting excerpts in different communities and using audiences' feedback to help craft the piece. After receiving positive reviews from both critics and audiences — especially from people who told Goddess the piece inspired them to "come out around their own status of mental health or what's been happening in their families," fulfilling her intention — Goddess has continued to perform the piece for the last two years. And since "LOW" is the first part of a trilogy, Goddess hopes to tackle two more "pressing social issues" with the next two installments of the series. Until then, however, Goddess plans to keep performing "LOW" and helping people learn more about how our society views — and judges — the issue of mental health. And though the piece — a mix of music, poetry and prose that is infused with a hip-hop sensibility — is intense to perform, Goddess said that sense of purpose keeps her going. "People ask me all the time afterward, 'You must be exhausted!' and it's like, 'Yes, right,'" Goddess says with a laugh. "It's like, yes, it's a very painful piece to do, but there are moments of extreme laughter, and there's something about life, when even when it's dark, it can be very funny, and it has to do with the authenticity of the moment or the truth of the moment or just the way we can find humor as a force of survival. It's all kind of in there. And my commitment, every time I step on the stage, is to really surrender to the story, and really just allow myself to be utilized, to be the story." » "Who Got Next?" will be performed at the Nyumburu Cultural Center, University of Maryland, College Park. "LOW: Meditations Trilogy Part 1" will be performed at the Robert and Arlene Kogod Studio Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park. "Who Got Next?" will be performed Mon., Oct. 13, 7 p.m.; free. "LOW" will be performed Wed., Oct. 15, through Fri., Oct. 17, 8 p.m.; $7 for UMD students, $35 for nonstudents. 301-405-2787. (College Park).

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi Photos courtesy Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Posted By Express at 8:10 AM on October 13, 2008 Tagged in Arts & Events , College Park , Maryland , Music , Stage ShareThis |



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Last week fifty people squeezed into the Marcus Bookstore in Oakland to hear young women share their stories, their rants, and their issues from a new collection of women's writing, We Got Issues! A Young Women's Guide to a Bold, Courageous and Empowered Life edited by arts activists Rha Goddess and JLove Calderon (pictured here). Anne Zarnowiecki, a lesbian whose son's skin is darker than hers, described being questioned at a hospital in Ohio: She stopped me midstory, to ask if I am the babysitter or roommate. My teeth ground in frustration as I reminded her that I am Javier's other mom. Oakland-based performance artist, Aya De León, shared her secrets for a healthy relationship: Being in a relationship, particularly as a black woman with a black man, just means that we are each bringing our own land mines to the relationship. One of the ways we find them is when we step on them and they blow up. It has been important to bring in other people with better mine-detection skills, and the occasional medic Adrienne Maree Brown, Executive Director of the Ruckus Society, described how in her vision of heaven you can ask the "big questions": and then nina simone, to ask how she was able to keep singing when some days break you of sound.

We Got Issues! began in 2003 when Rha Goddess and JLove Calderon went on the road for a year to collect almost 1,000 stories from women ages 18-35 about the things they cared about the most. After collecting the stories, they commissioned a team of young female writers to create over 80 monologues for the WGI! Performance Piece. In September 2004, the piece opened for Vaginas Rock, Chicks Vote at the Apollo Theater in New York, which was executive produced by Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda and V-Day.


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In 2005, they launched the WGI! Leadership Institute of Arts and Activism. Their work is supported by the nonprofit, Next Wave of Women & Power, or NWWP/1+1+1=ONE. Now Rha Goddess and JLove Calderon, along with the graduates of the Leadership Institute, are on the road promoting the book, performing pieces and facilitating workshops. WGI! just finished touring through Colorado, New Mexico and Northern California. They will be performing in Amherst, MA December 4-9th, and in Chicago, Atlanta and more cities in 2007. For more info., check out their web site at CRM Solutions for Nonprofits

Photo Credit: Rha Goddess & JLove Calderon, co-editors of We Got Issues taken by Eli Ceballos.

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Feeling Mighty Low By Astride Charles— Contributing Critic Jan 14, 2008, 23:19

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Low: Meditations Trilogy, performed by Rha Goddess at the Public Theatre in Manhattan, transports us to that world where one out of ten people on the streets is a woman begging. It explores invisibility and a dire state of life, amplified by the intersection of marginalized identities and circumstances. The topic here is addiction, the dependency that arises from medical prescriptions, as experienced by people with fragile familial and communal structures. Lowquesha comes from a family Photo by Jean Jacques Tiziou where the women in her life do not provide the love that she desperately needs to do well in life. She starts taking anti-depressants and other medications during her late adolescence. Years later, after physically attacking her mother, Low is kicked out of her mother’s house. Meanwhile, Low’s sister prioritizes material security instead of fully devoting her attention to family issues. The sister serves as a telling example of the choices people make in an individualistic and capital-driven society. The other characters, appearing in brief glimpses, are not wholly demeaning. Their desire to save themselves reflects an alluring pragmatism. Left to her own vices, Lowquesha experiences the realities of being on the street and her particular vulnerability as a female is exploited. The linear progression of the show is coupled with Low’s mental and emotional regression, yet is energized by Rha Goddess’s electric portrayal. She reveals the interior deliberations of a person who is often seen as a spectacle and fully exposed. She reveals how a sufferer like Lowquesha is most silenced when sociological and psychological mishaps turn into a physiological disability. This melancholy story does have its comedic moments but, despite the humorous commentaries, laughter does not come easily. The bitterness of Low overpowers its sweetness, leaving only the possibility for us to display a courteous smile or fleeting chuckle that can easily mistaken as a sigh. This is a narrative that cuts close to the bone.

Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1 will be showing as part of The Under Rader Arts Festival at the Public Theatre, for more information visit For Rha Goddess’ upcoming shows and the partnerships with health initiatives visit or

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From health to violence, spirituality to sex, We Got Issues! A Young Woman's Guide to a Bold, Courageous and Empowered Life chronicles the top 10 issues many of today's young women say they face in their everyday lives. Editors Rha Goddess, world-renowned performance artist and social/political activist and JLove Calderon, activist and author of White Girl, traveled across the country to bring young women's real-life rants to print.

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"We Got Issues!" is made up of powerful, and raw reflections, poems, and interviews, that express the views of women between the ages of 18 and 35. WireTap spoke with both Goddess and Calderon via telephone between stops on their current book tour.

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WireTap: Do you think many young women know what it means to be bold, courageous and empowered? Or do you think many young women need guidance and mentoring in order to understand and reach these personal goals? Rha Goddess: When we toured the country talking to young women, there were three things that really struck us. The first thing we learned and discovered is that young women do need permission and affirmation to raise their voices. The second thing we discovered is that young women crave a thriving community. If they have healthy people around them who encourage and nurture them -- which includes, obviously, mentorship -- the answer is yes, they do feel the sense of being empowered. They do have a context for what it means to be bold and courageous. But if the environment around them, and the individuals around them are not empowered, the answer is no. The third thing we discovered is that women are afraid of the word "power" -- particularly young women of color. They have pushed back from that word because of the experiences of corruption and abuses of equality that we have historically experienced in this country. However, they hold huge aspirations for themselves and huge aspirations for their communities. WT: Did you find that many young women across the country respect and accept feminism? J-Love Calderon: A lot of people identify feminism as an old white vanguard women's movement and are not connected to that term, especially younger women of color. I don't think many people identify as "feminists" necessarily. But if you look at the definition of feminism, they're right there. They choose not to label themselves because feminism is too small of a word that doesn't capture what they're really up to in the world. The word "feminist" was a talking point that allowed us to move forward in dialogue on what it means, what it has been in the past and what it maybe can be in the future. RG: I think one of the aspects that this generation of young women are struggling with that is very different from [what] our mothers and grandmothers [struggled with] are the issues of race and class. I think there's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done there, but I think this generation is willing to take it on a little bit more than our mothers and grandmothers were. WT: Can you give some examples of race and class issues that are particular to this generation of young women? JL: As a white woman, there is a group of conscious white people that I'm working with to help change the idea of feminism as it relates to race and class. We're working towards really looking at what our leadership can look like: a diverse leadership that supports all women coming together, understanding that white women come with certain privileges that women of color do not come with because of racism and white supremacy in this country. And really understanding what it means to be partners on this quest for self-determination for all young women and all people. I think it's about looking at the term, redefining it, flipping it, and creating anew from some of our basic values. And from having the ability and power within ourselves to make change within our families, within our communities, and within the world. But doing it in a different way. In a way that is more about mind building [and] coalition building. And more about sisterhood as opposed to, "I'm doing it this way and if you don't like it, well, you can't get down with this." It's really about reframing the whole movement of what feminism can and should be like. RG: I think the other piece of that is really creating a space for honest dialogue about the perceptions and assumptions we make about one another based upon race and class. Which is part of our work more and more these days. I think there are things young women of color don't feel safe enough to express to younger white women. And I think the same is true of younger white women not feeling comfortable expressing certain things to younger women of color. There's this generational built-in hostility. I also think it's about everybody willing to put their cards on the table and being willing to own those assumptions, acknowledge those assumptions, and there being a real agreement that they as a community are willing to start to work through some of those assumptions. I think the other piece is the way in which resources get allocated, brokered and structured in a society. Particularly, within the context of the feminist movement. Very often you have the experience where white women are calling the table. And I think this generation is trying to work in a really different way. Meaning [those] who are used to calling the table are actually willing to allow other organizations led by young women of color to do it. WT: When talking about young women's issues, the mainstream media often focuses solely on eating disorders. Is this perhaps an example of how white women's privilege and mainstream feminism's perception of eating disorders affects the media's portrayal of all young women's issues? RG: I think there is a conversation about how the term "young women" focuses on white women but is framed as all women. That's part of the issue of privilege that we deal with and J can tell you about an interesting experience we had around the book cover. [Laughs] But I think that is one particular area of privilege where white women's issues are held up as to represent all women in the world. And yes, of course there are places of commonality. But there are also places of stark difference. I think the other reason there's such a focus on eating disorders is because the media is so hyper-focused on women's physical appearance. It's all about the preoccupation with the pretty. So, it's about who's getting plastic surgery, who's getting the boob job, who's getting their toes redone, and who's starving themselves. And there's the whole thing with celebrities, like Nicole Richie, living with eating disorders. JL: I totally agree with Rha. I know eating disorders is a big issue that we do need to look at, but in a way, it can keep us occupied -- "Here's another example of women who can't even control what they eat and what they don't." I think it's just ridiculous that they put the focus on that. Back to the whole cover thing, Rha and I worked with our publisher on a cover design of a beautiful woman who was sitting with her arms crossed looking out. We thought she was really engaging; "Talk to me, I wanna hear." We loved it. But we got a call from our publisher who said one of the biggest bookstores, who was going to order 400 books, decided they wouldn't order the book unless we made the cover multiracial. They said [the cover] would attract only African American women. RG: And she wasn't African American, she was multiracial. They made an assumption that because she was black that automatically meant that look or that composition was not accessible to any woman who wasn't black. One thing I just wanted to add to this whole conversation about eating disorders is that it's posed like alcoholism, like drug addiction. It's a personal struggle and there's never a core analysis of the social political pressures that bear on young women. Not as the actual illness, but as a symptom of a deeper, deeper core of an illness that young women are facing because of the ways they are hindered in this society. That's never spoken about. It's always about the personal gossip and the drama. WT: What advice do you have for young women who feel only certain women can be bold, and they're not one of them? RG: Boldness, beauty, and creativity belong to all of us. That's also why we're very adamant about the fact that we stand for all women because we all have something to bring, and if young women don't bring whatever it is they uniquely are here to bring, then we don't get it. Turn off the television. [Laughs] Shut off the radio. All those mediums that attempt to define who is anointed or ordained to be bold, courageous and powerful. And really listen to your heart and know that you're not alone. We're out there, we're looking for you and we're calling you out. Come play if we're in your city! [Laughs] JL: I also think bold shows up in many ways. You can be silent and still be bold. What does bold mean to you? And how can you feel confident and comfortable in your own skin? The bold can show up in your smile. In the way you wink your eyes. Define what bold is to you and find different ways you can enact it every day. Celina De Leon is a contributing writer for WireTap and the Interviews Editor at living in Brooklyn, NY.

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