Hip-Hop Culture Confronts the Theatre and Asks, "Where to Go, beyond the Borders of Outreach and Audience-Development?" the First Part in a Series on the Convergence of Hip-Hop and Theatre

By Uno, Roberta | American Theatre, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Hip-Hop Culture Confronts the Theatre and Asks, "Where to Go, beyond the Borders of Outreach and Audience-Development?" the First Part in a Series on the Convergence of Hip-Hop and Theatre


Uno, Roberta, American Theatre


HIP-HOP IS A WORLDWIDE, MULTI-BILLION-DOLLAR industry and cultural phenomenon that evokes passionate responses. Many are turned off by its commercial promotion of materialism, misogyny and violence. And, paradoxically, there are those who believe that it is a culture and art form that provides a space for artistic innovation, democratic participation and incisive social analysis--that it is an effective organizing tool for reaching youth and disenfranchised populations.

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The scholar Augustin Lao Montes tells us that these two divergent experiences of hip-hop emanate from the way in which hip-hop has been globalized on two parallel yet permeable tracks: One track is the top-down globalization of the marketplace and global capital; it is insidious, omnipresent and incredibly sophisticated. The majority of rap, for example, has been promoted as urban black culture and, ironically, is sold in the suburbs to white consumers.

The second parallel track is the ground-up, grassroots globalization of hip-hop, which has been embraced by communities across the lines of race, class and ethnicity worldwide. This track reminds us of hip-hop's origins in the Bronx in the early '70s--where DJs such as Kool Herc, Africa Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash created drug- and violence-free havens that celebrated unity. Hip-hop as an art form has given voice to individual expression and community narratives. The conscious roots of these aesthetics have been embraced by hip-hop-generation activists such as the Prison Moratorium Project, the League of Young Voters, Third World Majority, the 21st Century Youth Leadership Project and others who have evolved the civil-rights-era agenda to address myriad issues--including education reform, the prison-industrial complex, labor practices, immigrant rights, the environment and civic participation. British hip-hop theatre artist Jonzi D asserts, "Hip-hop isn't violent--America's aggression in the global marketplace is the real violence."

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We all know that other true innovations in art have elicited similar polarized response and controversy: We need only look at the beginnings of modern dance, modern drama or modern art. Perhaps the closest parallel would be to compare hip-hop to a previously unrecognized indigenous American art form. Jazz--once reviled and associated with crime, shady characters and disreputable places--is now appreciated as America's classical music and a preeminent contribution to world culture. Hip-hop, born on a continuum of African-American culture, is now old enough to have a history and a legacy as its four interdisciplinary elements--MC'ing (or rapping), DJ'ing (or turntablism), B'boying (or breakdancing) and graffiti--influence performance forms, media, visual art, literature, fashion and language.

"Hip-hop theatre," coined from inside the culture by Brooklyn-based poet Eisa Davis in The Source magazine in March 2000, has come to describe the work of a generation of artists who find themselves defined in a new category of both prospective opportunity and limitation. These artists range from dance-theatre choreographers like Rennie Harris, who heads Puremovement of Philadelphia, and the New York City-based duo Rokafella and Kwikstep, founders of Full Circle Productions; to ensemble artists such as Universes and I Was Born With Two Tongues; to solo artists, including Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones, Will Power, Aya de Leon, Caridad de la Luz, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Teo Castellanos and Mariposa; to playwrights like Ben Snyder, Kris Diaz, Eisa Davis, Chad Boseman, Candido Tirado and Kamilah Forbes.

These artists range widely in their response to the term. Hoch and Forbes, for example, are at the center of defining and promoting the genre as the co-artistic directors of NYC's Hip-Hop Theater Festival, which has produced highly successful satellite festivals in San Francisco and Washington, D. …

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