Imagine Otherwise: Shanté Paradigm Smalls on Hip Hop’s Queer Aesthetics and Shambhala Buddhist Meditation

Imagine Otherwise: Shanté Paradigm Smalls on Hip Hop’s Queer Aesthetics and Shambhala Buddhist Meditation

August 23, 2017 Podcast

 

How can Shambhala Buddhist meditation and other body practices help writers manage stress and express their ideas? In what ways is hip hop fundamentally queer? How can Afro-pessimism and Afro-futurism help us to imagine a more conscious world?

In Episode 46 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Shanté Paradigm Smalls about their journey with Shambhala Buddhist meditation; their research on the queer collision of race, gender, and sexuality in hip hop cultures; building a critical practice around embodiment; and how working towards an enlightened society is critical to how they imagine otherwise.

Guest: Shanté Paradigm Smalls

  • Shanté is a performer and performance studies scholar who works at the intersection of blackness, popular culture, and critical theory. They are an assistant professor of Black Literature and Culture at St. John’s University in the Department of English. Shanté is currently writing a book called Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City, which won the prestigious 2016 CLAGS Fellowship Award for Best First Book Project in LGBTQ Studies. Their writing has appeared in The Black ScholarGLQ LateralWomen & Performance, and the forthcoming volumes The Oxford Handbook of Queerness and Music and The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies.

We chatted about:

  • An overview of Shambala Buddhism (1:38)
  • Meditation and mindfulness during graduate school (3:40)
  • How meditation shapes Shanté’s teaching practice (9:21)
  • Shanté’s Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City book project (11:44)
  • Difficulty and pain in the writing process (14:09)
  • Martin Wong, graffiti, and Afro-Asian relationships in hip hop culture (16:07)
  • Shanté’s advice to their younger self (19:00)
  • How and why Shanté built a critical practice around bodies (21:16)
  • The relationship between art, academic work, and social justice work (25:03)
  • Imagining Otherwise (29:21)

Takeaways:

  • On meditation and being present: “Everyone and anyone can do it. There’s no special skill except being a human being. Meditation is not about clearing your mind, [having] no thoughts or a calm mind. Rather, it’s about seeing what’s happening in your mind. So if my mind is very stormy, then I relax with that storm. If my mind is very thinky or busy, just noticing that and being with it. Not trying to change it or judge it, or wish I had another mind. If my mind is super calm, then just enjoying that too. If it’s all of those things in a session, that’s fine too.”
  • On teaching and working with space: “The most visible [usage of mediative practice] to me is really in the classroom, in terms of being able to work with space—both in terms of my own relationship with students and knowing how to work with silence. [It’s about] being comfortable with letting people come to their thoughts. A lot of students, even my graduate students, are so shy and feel such a sense of shame around not knowing things. I feel like I’ve been getting better and better every year, and every semester, about letting there just be space and letting silence do it’s work.”
  • On hip hop’s queer aesthetics: “I’m looking at how New York City produces art and artists that are working with gender, race, and sexuality. Even people you might not expect. I have chapters on Jay-Z, Jean Grae, film, and visual art, and queer hip hop artists looking at contemporary artists. [The book] makes an argument that hip hop’s aesthetics are really queer, both in terms of LGBTQI people or sexual minorities, but also the way New York City artists think about the relationship between art, visual art, fashion, embodiment, and racialization.”
  • Shanté’s advice to their younger self: “I think in part, one of the things I would say to my younger self is: you can do it. And to be fearless. For a long time I was like ‘Am I an artist or am I an athlete?’…I was a very serious athlete, and I was also a very serious performer and singer. I was acting and writing. And it always felt like those things were incommensurate. I hid a lot of things that I enjoyed because it seemed like they weren’t going to bear fruit. It really wasn’t until I graduated college, and really in graduate school, where I felt like ‘oh I can do all those things.’ I think what I would say to my younger self is to just do it all, enjoy it all, enjoy what you enjoy, and it doesn’t have to have a career attached to it.”Embodiment and Bodies
  • On embodiment: “Sometimes the body, particularly in terms of Black bodies, Black philosophy, and Black theorization or embodiment, gets kind of a bad rap as if it’s reductionist. But for me, it’s not that the Black body is only a body or that a Black person is only a body, but rather thinking about the ways that our relationships to bodies are complex and often unconscious or uncanny. I am curious about about how embodiment theorizes or refigures theorization. We have these bodies. Bodies are real, as real as anything is. So what do we do in relationship to the limits of the body, the possibilities of the body, or even the dissatisfaction with the body?”
  • On Imagining Otherwise: “One of the things that drew me to Shambhala, the Buddhist practice, was the idea of enlightened society which I had never really heard of. It’s kind of unique in Buddhism. It’s not simply talking about personal liberation or even helping others to wake up. It’s really saying that there’s a fundamental wisdom that we have as human beings and as a society…There’s a fundamental wisdom that’s been obscured by a lot of our patterns. There’s a possibility for us to wake up and not have everything be bliss, but there’s a possibility for us to be much more skillful in how we relate to ourselves and to conflict. I trust that, implicitly….Anything that’s connected to that kind of waking up, that’s connected to that kind of wisdom, that’s what I am for.”

More from Shanté:

Projects and people discussed:

About Imagine Otherwise:

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/episodes. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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About the author

Christopher Persaud:

Christopher is a Digital Media Associate at Ideas on Fire, as well as a writer and scholar whose work touches on new media studies, queer and feminist theory, and science and technology studies.