Bling, or Revolution: Hip-Hop's Theatrical Avant-Garde and Intellectuals Come of Age

Article excerpt

If hip-hop is the pervasive music of the moment, why does so much of it sound like rap? If hip-hop is about breakin' old conventions, why are the phat beats and lyrical flavas usually derived from Shakespeare? If collage is fundamental to hip-hop, why are the wordplayz spellings just buggin'? Is the revolution about wack lines and typographical bling? And now that hip-hop mogul P. Diddy is hitching the Mos Def ride in A Raisin in the Sun, who's going to represent the hip-hop musical that will stir up Broadway ground?

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As querulous as these issues may seem, such intense questioning cuts right to the hip-hop state of mind. Once in place, it is a self-conscious aesthetic that is constantly synthesizing, evolving and causing a ruckus. It is embodied by a righteous crew that belongs to a different breed. As the following edited excerpts from "Making Hip-Hop Theatre," a community gathering organized by the Hip-Hop Theater Festival last February at New Dramatists in New York City, show, hip-hop is a participatory culture where the audience is insistently diverse, restlessly young and mostly under-subscribed.

It's also continually on the move. From July 12-17, the D.C. Hip-Hop Theater Festival sets up shop at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Folger Shakespeare Library and Ira Aldridge Theatre in Washington, D.C. The full schedule of performances and workshops highlights Full Circle, olive Dance Theatre, Marc Bamuthi Joseph's Word Becomes Flesh, Aya De Leon's Thieves in the Temple, Chadwick Boseman's play Deep Azure and the solo plays of D.C.-based writers Psalmayene 24, Quique Aviles, Patrick Crowley, Anupav Yadav and Ruth Young. The centerpiece is the U.S. debut of U.K.-based Benji Reid's freestyle poppin' in 13 Mics.

Hip-hop theatre is something most of us have to search for, because the culture that surrounds the theatre isn't where this radical generation is at. With a $1.6 billion-a-year commercial industry throwing hip-hop down everyone's throats, its artists and thinkers have become Gen-H torchbearers, staking out ground. At a critical moment, they strive to keep it real, especially in the theatre, where they have moved from being a wide-eyed discovery to become the latest scene thing. Valuing hip-hop as a subterraneous model, its proponents are in fervent dialogue about the gaps between their realities as progressive artists and the ways hip-hop is represented, even when they're not kicking rhymes or scratching records.

CLYDE VALENTIN, producer of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival: Eisa Davis's March 2000 article in The Source ended with Reg E. Gaines saying that "hip-hop theatre becomes valid if Sean "Puffy" Combs or Russell Simmons or Master P reads this, invests and puts hip-hop theatre on Broadway ... until they invest, nothing matters." My question is, What's changed in the hip-hop theatre world? What matters?

DANNY HOCH, playwright, actor, filmmaker and founder of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival: Hip-hop has been looked at as an accessory to culture, as a pop-culture add-on: "Okay, we can improve Hamlet--we'll put it to rap," or "We can improve this modern dance company--we'll put some break-dancing moves in it." Hip-hop is viewed this way, rather than looking at hip-hop as a culture with its own aesthetics and history. Are we only going to be validated because we are revisiting the classics? What about the stories about now--the fact that artists today have something to say right now, in this language of right now?

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RAPHAEL XAVIER, choreographer and co-artistic director of the olive Dance Theatre: As an artist, sometimes you have to forget what people think hip-hop is, compared to what you think hip-hop is. …