Editor, Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop
Author, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
Before it became everyone’s youth culture, hip-hop was, first of all, New York City youth culture. Growing up in the Laurelton section of Queens, Marc Bamuthi Joseph was surrounded by it. Born to Haitian immigrants in 1975, a couple of years after the culture itself emerged in the Bronx, Joseph came of age as the Black neighborhoods of Queens became an important center of hip-hop activity.
“I got into hip-hop socially at first,” he says. “It was what you heard at parties and on the basketball courts. It was what all the cool kids listened to.” He went to church in Hollis, the suburb best known as the home of Run DMC. Rappers like LL Cool J, Leaders of the New School, and A Tribe Called Quest also hailed from nearby. Posters from Word Up and Right On magazines of these young local heroes adorned Joseph’s teen bedroom.
As he grew up, hip-hop became something more. It seemed to suddenly encompass everything he learned, until it became the lens through which he saw the world. At 10, Joseph was a young tap dancer, performing as understudy for Savion Glover in a Broadway show called “The Tap-Dance Kid.” Joseph learned b-boying and popping in hip-hop ciphers, and would later connect this foundation to studies of modern dance, ballet, West African, and Cuban folkloric movement. “I bring that experience as well as the do-it-yourself aspect everywhere I go,” Joseph says, “whether it be to 15 people on a corner or in a patch of dirt in Africa.”
Hip-hop also influenced his understanding of the word. “I never rapped,” he says, “but I always had a fascination with language.” At Morehouse College in the mid-90s, he fell into the resurgent spoken word movement with fellow students like Saul Williams. The poetry was urgent and visceral, and provided for Joseph a catalytic moment. “I got open to spoken word as the idea of using text in a way that was informed by hip-hop, but wasn’t traditional MCing,” he says. “In 1995 and 1996, the social context for language was ripe for a particular kind of politic. With the level of belligerence in rap music at the time, spoken word sort of birthed its counterpart.”
A multidisciplinary prodigy, Joseph worked with the Senegalese National Ballet by the age of 23, and captured the National Poetry Slam crown as part of the San Francisco team by 24. He worked with Katherine Dunham, appeared on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Slam, and performed with artists like Gil-Scott Heron, Linkin Park’s Joe Hahn, Mos Def, and Bonnie Raitt. With a fresh understanding of how to take word, movement, and narrative forward, Joseph joined collaborative theatre projects, resulting in “De/Cipher” (2001), a post-mortem on hip-hop culture, and “No Man’s Land” (2002), a deconstruction of male identity in verse.
“Marc Bamuthi Joseph is always in motion, and is intimately conscious of his own journeys as metaphors for larger questions beyond himself.”
In 2003, he presented his first solo evening-length work, the acclaimed “choreopoem” called “Word Becomes Flesh.” A creative and critical breakthrough, “Word…” integrated all of his talents for the first time. The piece was an intensely personal set of poems delivered to his unborn son, reflecting on sex and love, race and generation, fatherhood and legacy in ways that were, by turns, humorous and haunting. Hailed by the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and the Washington Post, the Seattle Times named him “Cutting Edge Performer of the Year”.
His next project was “Scourge,” a piece intended to re-present his Haitian heritage in myth and story to his now-born son. He says, “There are elements of the culture that I am less able to pass on to my son because time and context separate me from that Haitian culture. So ‘Scourge’ is an attempt to set these things into a familiar vernacular.” Continuing his concerns with race, gender, and generation, Joseph calls “Scourge” a work of “future folklore.”
Joseph will be using his time in Madison to examine questions of a generational aesthetic in his lectures and workshops, and to begin his fifth work, a piece entitled “The Breaks”, that is in part inspired by my own book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. The two projects are, of course, interrelated. He calls the hip-hop aesthetic “a soulful, intellectual, and “kinaesthetic” response to the politics and rhythmic impulse of our generation.”
Legacy plays a central role in all of Joseph’s work. He has taught extensively through Youth Speaks, and is a well-published writer, and an in-demand lecturer at colleges, universities, and institutions around the world. When asked about his artistic aspirations, Joseph speaks about the desire to edify: “I am an educator first. Pushing the idea of performance as pedagogy is important, so that the work exists to provoke discourse about history and to use the idiom of hip-hop culture to push audiences emotionally and intellectually to another place.” He adds, “I don’t create work in a vacuum. I don’t create work to please myself. I create work to create an educational environment, not necessarily to teach, but to nurture an environment in which learning or growth can take place.”
Perhaps this concern with environment befits an artist who is so aware of his own transits. In recent years, his work has been presented in Bosnia, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Cuba, and Japan. Over the next two years, he will develop new projects with le Centre Nationale de Dance, the National Dance Project and the International Theater Institute to be performed in France, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germany, and the Philippines. Marc Bamuthi Joseph is always in motion, and is intimately conscious of his own journeys as metaphors for larger questions beyond himself. That his art should be found so compelling to students and audiences in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Europe says much about the universality of hip-hop, and so much more about the vision of Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
For more Jeff Chang: www.cantstopwontstop.com
understand the innovation
syncopation constructed to reflect dancing celebration of birth and love and harvest
an entire social order divested of its principal means of announcing its own being
that was the African in the European colonized state
the colonies made it an offense
punishable by death for folks of color to be in possession of any noise making instrument
however they had enough business sense not to devalue their property by chopping off our feet
leaving just enough space
to bring back the beat
ad hoc repository of rhythm reflecting the organizing principle of improvisation
the nations built jazz
behind the back look aways
we stay transcendent through the transformative art