Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Extending the Breaks: Fires in the Mirror in the Context of Hip-Hop Structure, Style, and Culture

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Extending the Breaks: Fires in the Mirror in the Context of Hip-Hop Structure, Style, and Culture

Article excerpt

In New York City in the late eighties and early nineties, hip-hop music not only expressed some of the tensions that existed between Jews and African-Americans, but it was characterized in the media as part of the problem. Most of this media attention was focused around charges of anti-Semitism that were being leveled against the hip-hop group Public Enemy, who at the time were among the most popular and critically acclaimed hip-hop artists. In their 1988 song "Bring the Noise," from the It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album, Public Enemy's leader Chuck D rapped that Louis Farrakhan was "a prophet" and someone "to listen to" and "follow for now," at a time when Farrakhan was coming under media scrutiny for comments he had made in regard to the Jews. (1) A year later, Professor Griff, Public Enemy's "minister of information," implicated the Jews for "the majority of wickedness that went on across the globe." (2) In 1990, Public Enemy revived the controversies over anti-Semitism in their 1990 song "Welcome to the Terrordome," from the Fear of a Black Planet album by referring to the Jews as the "so-called chosen frozen," and rapping that the "crucifixion ain't no fiction. (3) At the same time, a number of Jewish leaders and television and radio personalities were using the media to speak out against hip-hop and Public Enemy by claiming that hip-hop was not music, and did not deserve the critical attention that it was receiving. (4) By the fall of 1991 when tensions between Jews and African-Americans exploded into the Crown Heights riots, hip-hop culture hardly seemed the artistic site to explore relations between the two groups in an inclusive and productive manner. (5)

Yet a number of people interviewed by Anne Deavere Smith and later performed for her one-woman play Fires in the Mirror asserted that hip-hop was absolutely the place to attempt an intercultural dialogue. In the Fires in the Mirror monologue entitled "Rhythm and Poetry" rapper Big Mo suggests that with hip-hop rhymes:

   You have to be def, / ... / Def is dope, def is live / when you say
   somethin's dope / it means it is the epitome of the experience / and
   you have to be def by your very presence / because you have to make
   people happy. / And we are living a society where people are not
   happy / with their everyday lives. (38-39) (6)

In this monologue, Big Mo imagines a new vision of community through the powerful form of hip-hop poetic expression. Later in Smith's performance, the activist Henry Rice speaks of his efforts to stop the Crown Heights riots, as Public Enemy plays prominently and suggestively in the background. And most explicitly, and perhaps most importantly, the activist Sonny Carson feels that hip-hop has "mesmerized" him and America, and he hears in its rhythm, chords, and most importantly its discord, "a whole new sound" (106). He concludes by telling Smith, albeit in reference to the musical West Side Story, that perhaps the answer to society's ills "should be a musical" (107).

Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror shares with hip-hop culture certain thematic, stylistic, and structural concerns that are deeply related to how Smith explores, envisions, and performs an approach to race and community in America. At the core of both hip-hop music and Smith's thematic vision is the idea of "the break" used structurally in Fires to develop themes in much the same manner as hip-hop music. Like hip-hop, Smith uses new artistic techniques, such as a form of verbal sampling and recombination, born out of technology, to explore and assert a new model for social change. Moreover, Fires in the Mirror anticipates what will become a highly productive relationship between theater and hip-hop music that has yielded a proliferation of hip-hop/theater hybrids, including a number of productions of hip-hop Shakespeare and a yearly New York hip-hop theater festival.

Fires in the Mirror (1992) is a performance piece about the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that is part of Anna Deavere Smith's ongoing project, On the Road: In Search of the American Character. …

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