Action Project

First Wave Line Breaks Festival advocates for change and equality

Image By: Photo Courtesy of Aliza Rand

In many ways, advocacy and activism start with the arts. Countless individuals use their creative talents combined with personal experiences to bring attention to a wide array of political and social issues. Addressing concerns such as racial inequality, body shaming and gender stereotypes with a creative approach does two very important things. The first is that it makes the message easier to receive. For those who are pushing for unequal treatment or those who just don’t care enough to pay attention to the social issues, hearing the message in a creative manner could potentially cause them to pay more attention. It may not change their minds, but it opens a dialogue. The second is causing an emotional impact. There’s something unique about expressing oneself through poetry, music or a comedy skit. The words come alive when they are recited in front of an audience. Emotions are stronger than plain facts; that is why the arts are a perfect place to push for change.

Bringing attention to these social and political problems through creative expression is exactly what First Wave is doing with their 10th annual Line Breaks Festival. A total of 10 different events took place in the Overture Center this past weekend. The organization is part of the UW Office of Multicultural Arts Initiative. As students at a university with a rich history of activism, First Wavers show how they can make a difference without relying on traditional forms of advocacy. With a combination of their three pillars—academics, arts and activism—they work to promote change for the better. Being the first program of its kind in the entire nation, First Wave has recruited students from all over the country, each with their own stories, passions and artistic abilities.

Line Breaks Festival gives these students an opportunity to showcase their work in front of live audiences. The weekend-long events focused on prevalent social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and women empowerment, and even more personal topics like mental health, substance abuse and endless day-to-day struggles.

A performance from First Wave’s 9th Cohort called “Unhe[a]rd: Radical Forms of Protest” showed how effective advocacy through the arts can be. While UW-Madison has a long history of activism, there is also a long history of hate. The first act of the festival was a continuous series of powerful statements fighting the hate of past and present. Signs saying “Ain’t no place safe these days,” “Cliteracy is a form of language,” “What is a hoe?” and “Black Lives Matter” were held by the performers and spread through the audience in complete silence and stillness. These signs would turn into important topics that were discussed in some way during the show. It forced the audience to sit and think about the words in front of them. Emotions played a major role in the show.

Spoken word poems about living a life filled with oppression evoked some of the strongest reactions from the audience. First Wave’s strongest attribute is its ability to seamlessly combine the tragic experiences with a sort of entertainment. Though not the classic definition of entertainment, these performances stay with their audiences and are much more memorable than simply stating what is wrong with the world. With so many different topics covered in the show, the 9th Cohort graced the audience with a variety of performances. Whether rap, dance, poetry or even comedy skits, each type carried different feelings. The skits allowed for lighter moments in the show, while keeping the content relevant. College affordability, promotion of sexual independence, demolishing gender stereotypes and systematic racism were the main focus.

A message constantly promoted was that one of the most impactful forms of protest is being yourself. There will always be people who disagree with your actions, but First Wave continues to push for individuality and equal rights for everyone who faces oppression.

Eli Lynch’s show “Explosions” spoke on a more personal level. His combination of a live narrative, raps and a touch of theatrics told the story of life growing up while struggling with loss and reliance on substances. The one-on-one nature of the story helped narrow the scope for the audience. Many problems often seem too distant and complicated for anything to be done about them. In what seemed to be a disjointed set of stories of childhood, Eli stitched together a chilling narrative with a theatrical ending of him finding relief from prescription pills. Audience members gasped in shock from the ending of the show. The quick, abrupt ending illustrated how matters of personal struggle and abuse can end in devastating ways. The show seemed as if it were actually happening before our eyes, a testament to the emotional power of the arts.

Line Breaks’ event schedule wasn’t strictly performing arts. Dasha Kelly, a poet and author, held a poetry writing workshop at the Madison Public Library. The workshop was not nearly as saturated with social commentary as the shows, but focused on the importance of writing and language. In one specific exercise, the people attending were asked to describe a force of nature such as wind or lava. After being asked several questions, Dasha instructed everyone to replace their force of nature with the word “Women”. The result was a set of beautiful poems about empowerment of women. Creative literature proved that it has an infinite potential for advocacy.

First Wave’s Chapbook Series allows its scholars to get their poetry published. The personal stories from the six presenting poets covered a wide variety of topics just like the 9th Cohort’s show. From Ricardo Cortez de la Cruz II’s remixes of childhood fairytales that denounce the fetishization of black women, to Mariam Coker’s unique, broken-Arabic poem, the artists each had their own ways of addressing the national troubles that they feel most strongly about. Many people underestimate the power that different phrases can have.

Without the arts and motivation of these insightful artists, many of these issues wouldn’t gain the mass attraction and appeal they need to be properly addressed. In an age containing what seems to be an endless flow of social unrest and political injustices, First Wave is taking huge steps in promoting change. Line Breaks is a prime example of how the arts can bring different groups together wishing to spread awareness for the social ailments this country holds. Traditional forms of activism still have a place in this world, but advocacy through the arts has proven to not only allow for the expansion and growth of creativity, but also reach audiences who respond more positively to emotional displays.

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