The media is the message: Guante uses hip hop culture to educate and engage the community

Canadian philosopher and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the expression “The medium is the message” in 1964 (long before the creation of the Internet), implying that it’s not so much what is being said but how that is important. McLuhan believed that the medium through which an idea is communicated directly influences how the message is perceived, and that the focus of examination should not be so much the message itself but the vehicle through which it is delivered.

McLuhan would surely have a field day in today’s all-consuming social media climate.

Kyle Tran Myhre, who performs under the stage name “Guante,” is a kind of communication theorist himself, though his strategy is less cerebral and more hands-on. Guante is a hip hop artist, two-time National Poetry Slam champion, social justice activist, educator, and writer…or, if we were to break down his work into three primary categories, they would be performer, social activist, and educator, though the three are hardly mutually exclusive. His work covers a lot of territory – he writes and teaches about gender and sexism, racism and racial equity, homophobia and LGBTQ equality, and in a more general sense, hip hop culture, media, and spoken word. Guante acts as his own mirror, a performer whose work is to examine the nature of performance – what it means for a culture, how it can serve a greater purpose.

Tran Myhre identifies with hip hop culture, and this culture is also something he tries to educate people about. In an essay entitled “Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Hip Hop,” he identifies several common misconceptions people have about hip hop – the first being that it is not just a style of music but a lifestyle, a fully-articulated culture that includes rappers, DJs, b-boy/b-girl dancers, and street artists, as well as a whole distinct sound and aesthetic. He writes that while hip hop was born out of African American music traditions and black and brown struggle in the 1970s, it now bridges “every racial/ethnic group, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, nationality, class background, geographic origin and any other marker of identity.” He also notes, “Every city in the U.S. has a hip hop scene. It’s not just New York, and it’s not just major cities. Even suburbs and smaller rural communities often have one or two kids who rap, or at the very least take part in the culture in some way. On top of that, just about every country in the world has a hip hop scene. At this point in time, it truly is a global culture.”

He has been using the name Guante for 10 years now, performing as an emcee, a spoken word artist, and a teaching artist. “I’m lucky enough that this is my job, that I make a living as a performer, and the only reason is because I intentionally diversify what I do,” he says. “Over a month might facilitate workshops and guest lectures, and also go to high schools and do a residency, and also do a couple of hip hop shows or am brought into a college for spoken word, and also organize events and promote here and there.” As a performance artist, his work has a common theme of social justice with educational components running throughout all of it.

Though he always loved to write since he was very young, it wasn’t until he attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison that he started sharing his work with other people. “The hip hop and spoken word scene was really jumping off [then],” Tran Myhre says. “It was in 2003 and there was a lot of activism because of the Iraq war. The people I was around and was friends with were all artists, so all these things [his work as a performer and as a social activist and educator] were happening but didn’t necessarily come together until later in life.”

Tran Myhre’s point of entry as a social activist was the war and the culture of activism that sprang up as a result. He figured out what his passions and strengths were, and found himself drawn to media as a tool to help spread his message. ”There are many things you can do as an activist,” he says. “I found my strengths were connecting things happening to larger audiences through flyers, press releases, and social media, which was just starting. By doing media work you can work on all issues and talk about different ways issues intertwine. Media overlaps very much with education and art in asking, ‘How do we take these big abstract ideas and make them come to life for people?’”

Through his writing, live performances, and education work Tran Myhre touches on many different issues, though for him they are all interrelated. “I’m a media and education person. That might put me in contact with people doing anti-racist work, or sexual assault prevention, or union/labor stuff, or whatever, but I kind of know how I fit in, in that sense.”

His background in media includes working as a staff writer and as an editor in traditional print media. He also had a radio show, and today focuses on finding effective ways to use social media to transmit his ideas. “It’s important to understand how traditional media institutions work, but it’s also important to understand we ARE media. That’s obvious [with social media], but also in how we design flyers, or in a rally looking at who’s speaking and how they were chosen. It all impacts how the message gets across. We have control in how we signal boost out our own messages and disseminate [them to a larger audience].”

On the performance end of Tran Myhre’s multi-role career, Guante started out with open mics, and from doing open mics he figured out that, as a writer, he liked the idea of being able to take his work directly to people instead of waiting to get published in journals and books. Also, despite being a quiet and shy person by nature, it was easier for him to engage his community around issues he thought were important by being on stage in front of 1,000 people.

“In hip hop and spoken word communities there is always an emphasis on giving back and being part of the community,” says Tran Myhre. “That’s a huge part of it most people don’t see.” It was through his ties in these communities and friends of his who were working with youth groups that he started getting involved. He also began co-facilitating social justice workshops on the themes of power and identity and topics like dismantling rape culture. “Basically I got around people who had more experience than I did in pedagogy.”

His approach to education and social justice education is to ask questions to start conversations, creating a space for students to talk about the issues they want to talk about and simply lead the discussion. “I’m not just teaching but facilitating discussion,” he says. “Being able to take that social justice education and bring that into the classroom…all this stuff overlaps really neatly. It really informs the work I do today, looking at the intersections of art and media and social justice education and using art to talk about these ideas we don’t always get a chance to talk.”

Tran Myhre is now on the Community Programs in the Arts (COMPAS) teaching roster, an organization that places teaching artists throughout Minnesota with students, seniors, patients, and passersby to strengthen people and communities by engaging them in the arts. Tran Myhre works with high school and middle school students, sometimes for one performance, sometimes for a week-long residency, in both the urban cores and in rural areas. “It gives me access to students I wouldn’t normally have all over the state,” he says. He teaches poetry and spoken word and relates his lessons to whatever the teacher is currently focusing on, but “it always becomes a conversation of identity and social justice, self-expression, leadership – that’s what spoken word is so good about bringing out in students. At its most basic level it’s exciting because you can talk about whatever you want to talk about however you want to talk about it.”

The issues that Tran Myhre talks about also tend to be issues that are particularly relevant to the hip hop community – masculinity and rape culture, homophobia, racial justice. He examines how these issues impact the hip hop community, the greater community outside of hip hop, and how they are dealt with in the media. For Tran Myhre, hip hop is the medium and the media is the message.