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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Wednesday, April 17

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Interview Fri Mar 27 2009

Interview with Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Broadway vet. World traveler. Winner of the GOLDIE award, National Poetry Slam champion, and featured artist on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry for two seasons in a row. Oh yeah - he's also a former teacher of high-school English. It would seem that dancer/poet/playwright/choreographer Marc Bamuthi Joseph has done it all. This weekend, he'll be doing it all at the MCA, where he is performing his latest project, the break/s, an international hip-hop diary which combines spoken word, live music, and outstanding dance. Joseph was recently kind enough to take some time off from a sound check and answer just a few questions for GB.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the break/s?

Sure. The break/s is probably two or three years old now. We premiered it last year at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre in Louisville. The process or trajectory of our tour heavily revolved around the trajectory of the piece - it has a very international dynamic, like a dream journal or travel diary extending across the planet, focusing on how identities shift with geography in ways that are both predictable and totally unconventional. I used documentary film, spoken word, choreography, and live music to document that transformation across the planet. It's an emotional ride as well as a difficult ride for me, and I'm quite proud of where we now are in the process of presentation.

What was the catalyst that got this project rolling? Globalization in hip-hop is certainly no small mountain to climb.

I was first inspired by reading Jeff Chang's book, Can't Stop, Won't Stop. He calls his book "the history of the hip-hop generation" and it really is that: it's a four hundred page textbook that is more sociology than discography, discussing what's transpired over the last thirty-five years in terms of musical culture. What really turned me on about the book was that it managed to articulate a history of hip-hop that's modeled after the form that hip-hop takes - the elements of call and response and specifically the way that a DJ uses the finger on his mixer to easily transition from one piece of music to another is the way that Jeff wrote this book. So I was inspired to create a piece that dealt with hip-hop culture that modeled the best part of the form itself, that easy transition from one piece of inspiration to another.

The second piece that followed was just trying to travel. At the time I was in France at a festival of African-based choreographers, reading this book about hip-hop culture, you know, one of the great cultural exports of the United States, written by this Chinese dude from Hawaii, and I was aware of that mash-up. It was this mash-up that turned me out and turned me on to how so often in my own life I've come across these crazy collisions in a similar way. So, structurally and narratively, the piece deals with transience, and a sense of narcolepsy, even. The in between state of awaking from a dream that we sometimes feel when we travel far distances across time zones. I feel like identity in the United States is that way as well.

You mentioned that music of your inspirations was traveling. How do you see the American concept of hip-hop, with its pillars of breaking, beatbox, graffiti, etcetera, developing itself across the globe?

Around the world, I think people have taken different ownership of the elements of hip-hop as cultural liberation. And I don't mean that so much politically, I mean it in a sense of self-transformation. I was just at Little Black Pearl down on the South Side, and the kids come in and they have clay and canvas - real tools at their disposal to achieve a certain amount of peace. It's a safety zone for them. I think around the world dance and graffiti in particular, I think even more than emceeing or DJing, are tools for transformation in places where there aren't the same sort of resources we enjoy here in the United States. You go all over the world, places like Cuba and Senegal, and you find that hip-hop becomes a folkloric tool because it really is of the body. People don't need much to make it happen.

I know it's hard to predict something like this, but do you have any ideas of how hip-hop might continue to change as it metamorphs not just across the United States, but on a global scale? Also, considering how we've become so completely interconnected through television and internet and radio, do you have any ideas of how hip-hop might be changing right here, at present?

I think about how blues culture developed out of forced labor, and how hip-hop culture developed out of rampant unemployment; I think there's something about extreme economic conditions and it's relationship to labor that has an impact on the cultivation of culture. In our present moment of recession, we are being forced to think globally because of changes, shortages, and extremes in our environments, and I think we are coming upon a wave of great transformation, which is necessary if we are to thrive in our cultures. Have innovation, allow imagination to take over, and revival will occur. I think that the same events hip-hop needed to riff off of funk and disco and jazz, along with the evolution of beat poetry and rapping, is upon us. We are at the advent of a new culture, and all of those musical predecessors will be apparent.

Also, the sort of networking we're doing, the velocity of access and connection will have a tremendous impact. You can hear it in things like Jay Electronica, you can hear it Bjork, you can hear it in Saul Williams - there are artists that are clearly making something different. I think that hard times, to quote Run DMC, will "create a new and brighter day".

I am so happy you just quoted Run DMC.

Ha, me too.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph will be performing the break/s, his "mixtape for the stage", at the Museum of Contemporary Art, March 27th and 28th. Contact the MCA at 312.397.4010 or visit their website for tickets.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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