Activist duo DarkMatter use humor to promote social awareness

Tufts Asian American Alliance (AAA) and South Asian Political Action Committee (SAPAC) co-hosted the spoken word duo DarkMatter for a performance in Sophia Gordon on Nov. 15. titled #ItGetsBitter. The show explores issues at the intersection of LGBT rights and South Asian diasporic experiences.

The duo consists of Brooklyn-based Stanford grads Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon, who identify as artivists — activists that raise awareness of social and political issues through artistic means. They perform both individually and as a duo in this show, and their work is  hilarious, thought-provoking and powerful all at once.

DarkMatter’s assertion from its event description, that “gay rights are often only for gay whites,” comes through in many of its pieces. Perhaps most famously, the group’s collaborative poem “White Fetish” explores the question of what people of color would say if they had “white fetishes.” Its poetry and performance is clever and tongue-in-cheek, but always with painful, truthful undertones. “White Fetish” contains lines like “I’ve heard white men have huge … empires. And are really good in … gentrification.”

The fact that DarkMatter’s tour dates are jam-packed with performances at universities speaks to much of the group’s subject matter. Its work is targeted at issues facing contemporary college students, and the group seems aware of what these students do, think and read. Examples of the work include one poem about the dating site OkCupid and another from the point of view of Parvati and Padma Patil, characters in the “Harry Potter” series. Alok speaks to personal and shared experiences in their poem “A Breakup Letter to Stanford University.” Though both are strong performers in their own right, their styles are complementary; they truly shine as a duo, particularly in comedic moments. Their performance reflected the spoken word presence commonly seen on the national stage, infused with South Asian and, in particular, Indian culture. This includes dialogue in Hindi and parts of Hindu prayers, among other pieces.

“While art and academia teach us to hyper-individualize, we think that social change is a collective process.  We view our collaboration fundamentally as a friendship … where we also happen to tour a lot and make a bunch of art,” the duo said.

Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon’s collaborative spirit influences how they perform. At the Tufts event, they put substantial effort into engaging their already receptive audience, encouraging them to cheer, moan and join them in a brief chant of “F— the patriarchy!” at the beginning of the show. They also answered live tweets from stage and gave a Q&A afterward. Fundamentally, however, these artivists view their work as a vehicle for social change.

Ultimately, DarkMatter encourages its audience to think critically about issues presented to them and reject traditional definitions of success. When asked about social and civic engagement with STEM majors, Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon responded that the supposed “objectivity” of the STEM fields acts as a “perfect mask for oppression.” They encourage STEM majors to investigate program funding and demilitarize accordingly, and to become involved in issues of environmental justice. They explained that “Science and tech are ultimately about people. Make noise about it. Don’t accept problem sets at face value.”  

Darkmatter’s material covers some controversial topics, addressing questions about colonialism, race, trans issues and intersectionality that often leave audience members feeling frustrated. The group’s poems hold many different communities culpable for the world’s problems — including those traditionally seen as marginalized — and certain groups may feel targeted in the process. Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon often speak directly to these communities — the white LGBT community, South Asian community and others — and do not sugarcoat their criticisms. At their Tufts performance, they reminded the audience that the Tufts campus is built on the land of a slave plantation, proclaiming the university and its students as complicit in oppression. The shock value of these messages is high and the results are intense, delivered in well-crafted lines of poetry that elicit snaps, cheers and laughter. Performances by these two often leave audiences mentally and emotionally exhausted, but also strangely recharged, hyperaware of the problematic institutions we inhabit and energized with a zeal for progress.

Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian can be reached on Twitter at @DarkMatterRage, at returnthegayze.com and via Tumblr at queerdarkenergy.tumblr.com.  


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