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HIP HOP THEATRE: THEATRE OF NOW

To declare one‘s own identity is to write the world into existence.

– Eduoard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse


Until Lions have their own historians, tales of hunting will glorify the

hunter.

-Akan Proverb

EARLY DAYS

The term Hip Hop Theatre first appeared, as best as those of us involved in the
practice and development of the form know, in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom.
Jonzi D, a dancer and poet/emcee who had his training both in modern dance at London
Contemporary Dance School as well as in Hip Hop as a youth growing up in East
London, used it to describe a blended performance style.1 In this work, Jonzi drew on the
full complexity of his art practices and did not separate them out, as the traditional dance
and theatre worlds were demanding of him. Other artists around the world were making
similar, simultaneous innovations.

In 1999, journalist, performer, and Hip Hop Theatre activist Holly Bass published
an article in American Theatre Magazine, ―Blowing Up the Set: What Happens When the
Pulse of Hip-Hop Shakes Up the Traditional Stage?‖. In it, she details the presence of
Hip Hop Theatre that year at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC.
The pieces and performers she discusses and the accompanying aesthetics and artistic
goals for these pieces, seem, in retrospect, prescient. It is remarkable to see how quickly

and thoroughly this genre has grown in the ten years since its powerful presence at that
national festival.

In her March 2000 article for Source magazine ―Hip Hop Theatre: The New
Underground,‖ playwright/performer Eisa Davis introduces the performance ensemble
Universes and discusses other emerging Hip Hop Theatre artists, including some of the
same ones in Bass‘s piece. All these performers would become the core participants in
the first New York City Hip Hop Theatre Festival. Taken together, these articles were a
clarion call for a new form of theatre in the U.S. that was youth driven and proposed a
unique alchemy of aesthetics and socio-political concerns.

In 2000, Danny Hoch founded the NYC Hip Hop Theatre Festival as a public
platform for artists working at the intersection of theatre and Hip Hop who did not have
the support of the well-funded, institutional theatres in the U.S.. He described the
mission of the Festival as theatre ―by, for, and about the Hip Hop generations.‖ Hoch was
knowingly sampling W.E.B. Du Bois‘s 1926 ―Advice to the Krigwa Players Little
Theatre‖ in Crisis about what a ―Negro‖ theatre was: ―About us...By us...For us...Near
us...‖ (Du Bois 1926:134). For several years, Hip Hop Theatre pioneer performer and
playwright Will Power stated that Hip Hop Theatre was, for him, work that incorporated
one or more of the performance elements of Hip Hop in its mode of production. More
recently, he has begun to expand that definition to ―theatre artists exploring their
relationship to Hip Hop‖ (Power 2008). This definition focuses, as Power says, on
―content, form, or content and form.‖

At its origin, Hip Hop Theatre was born out of this struggle to own both content
and form. But, now that the pioneers have paved the way, some artists and producers are
―fascinated‖ by the possibilities of incorporating rap, ―graffiti,‖ and their commercial
version of Hip Hop dance into a musical or theatre piece. There are examples of
producers using the title Hip Hop Theatre to market work with very little understanding
of the history or the present day realities of the culture, much less its ―ethos‖ or core
values. What, then, differentiates a play or musical that features rapping from Hip Hop
Theatre? Could it be connected with the function that Hip Hop Theatre serves? In this
introductory chapter, I hope to lay sufficient groundwork for understanding how the plays
in this anthology came out of Hip Hop and theatre, the concerns of Hip Hop Theatre
artists and producers as a community of people developing this genre, and the body of
shared influences we have had.

THE BRONX, THE WEST AND SOUTH BRONX…

Before looking at the question of the function of Hip Hop Theatre, it is important
to understand the relationship between this form of theatre and the social movement from
which the theatrical form was born. The Bronx is often identified as the birthplace of Hip
Hop – and it is certainly the most documented location of the explosion of youth energy
in the 1970s that has come to be known as Hip Hop. But, as artist and activist Rha
Goddess says, ―Lightening can strike many places at the same time.‖ In many urban
centers across the country, marginalized youth of color and their allies were turning to
rap, dance, DJ‘ing, aerosol art, and other forms of self-expression to protest the reduction
of social services and the bleak post-Civil Rights landscape that met their generation.

The politics and aesthetics of this movement, especially the West and South
Bronx narrative, have been well-historicized and theorized by Hip Hop scholars who

have worked hard to contextualize this social and performatively expressive movement.2
As this anthology is intended for a wide readership, I‘ll set the stage with a brief
overview of some critical historical information. From 1973-77, reports noted Hip Hop
historian Jeff Chang, 30,000 fires were set by slumlords in the South Bronx for insurance
money. On one day alone, in June 1975, as many as ―forty fires were set in a three-hour
period‖ (Chang 2005:15). This is in a part of New York City where public works,
education, and other important services were cut to below tolerable levels. The reader
unfamiliar with this landscape needs only listen to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious
Five‘s epic track ―The Message‖ or watch the films Style Wars or Wild Style to get a
sense of this devastation. Indeed, one of the aerosol pieces seen in Style Wars reads,
―Hell House.‖3 Inside of this environment, unemployment and gang violence thrived. As
Chang writes, ―If the hip-hop generation was the first to enjoy the freedoms of a post-
civil rights world, they were also the first to recognize the hollowness of those promises
and to bear witness to the effects of the repeal of many of those same freedoms‖ (xi).
These young people had to provide for themselves and be agents of their own freedoms
and self-expression.

In response to the lack of municipal sponsored services and activities, DJs held
parties in parks, schools, and basketball courts, huge, recreational, community gatherings
that had at their core friendly competition, improvisation, and self-determination. They
also provided the outlets of fun and entertainment that, in and of themselves, embody
cultural expressive and practices. These founding DJ fathers include Kool Herc,
Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, and Afrika Bambaataa. Each of them
contributed to the innovation of the form and the development of this movement as a

performative, socio-political culture whose aesthetics helped members to ―write


themselves into existence‖ in a city that, by all accounts, did not much want to hear
about, know about, or see them.

On November 12, 1973, Bambaataa, a former Black Spade gang member who
attended Herc‘s legendary parties, founded the Universal Zulu Nation.4 The Zulu Nation,
according to Nelson George, was a ―collective of DJs, breakers, graffiti artists, and
homeboys that filled the fraternal role gangs play in urban culture while de-emphasizing
crime and fighting‖ (1998:18). Bambaataa created a space where young men and
women, known as the Zulu Kings and Queens, could ―battle,‖ using their creative skills
and imagination rather than more lethal weapons. Since then, committed artist-activists
have opened Zulu Nation chapters around the world, spreading Hip Hop‘s message of
peace and collaboration.

For some readers, ―Hip Hop‖ may be synonymous for rap and other popular
music. However, Hip Hop is much more than that – it is a global, multi-ethnic,
grassroots youth culture committed to social justice and self-expression through specific
modes of performance. Rap is a part of Hip Hop culture and there are many deeply
thoughtful, poetic, and socially conscious recording and live performance artists using the
mode of rap to communicate progressive, counter-hegemonic messages. The music of
these artists unites people by questioning some of the very circumstances that have led
other, primarily commercially-minded artists to use rap music to express themselves in
ways that seem to promote violence, sexism, and material culture (values, it must be
emphasized, are not unique to this form of music).5

This reader may, therefore, need to do a simultaneous translation here to

remember, when hearing ―Hip Hop‖ in the context of this book, to focus on Hip Hop

culture – not what the highly commercialized rap record industry has become. To help in

this reevaluation process, consider Bambaataa‘s affirmation of what Hip Hop is:

Hip Hop means the whole culture of the movement…..when you talk
about rap…Rap is part of the hip hop culture….The emceeing…The
djaying is part of the hip hop culture. The dressing the languages are all
part of the hip hop culture. The break dancing the b-boys, b-girls….how
you act, walk, look, talk are all part of hip hop culture…and the music is
colorless. Hip Hop music is made from Black, brown, yellow, red,
white…whatever music that gives you that grunt…that funk, that groove
or that beat….It‘s all part of hip hop. (Bambaataa in Davey D 1996)

Similarly, KRS-One explains:

Hiphoppas are judged by the content of their character and skill, not by
the color of their skin, their choice of religion, or social status. Since the
early days of our cultural existence, our moral pillars have been peace,
love, unity, and happiness. And such virtues have been expressed
throughout Hiphop‘s history in a variety of ways even though many
editors, program directors, and radio Deejays continue to ignore the
existence of such virtues and artists within Hiphop Kulture. (KRS-One
2003:181)

The intertextuality of KRS-One‘s manifesto, ―sampling‖ Martin Luther King, reflects Hip

Hop‘s connection to a history of anti-racism and social justice work and how its
aesthetics engage this history. This is the Hip Hop that signed a Declaration of Peace at

the United Nations on May 16, 2001, organized by the Temple of Hip Hop (KRS-One

2003:203). This Hip Hop also holds action and education summits around the globe,
works with youth for empowerment and community development, and stages protests
against misogynistic lyrics, dialogues about fatherhood, and workshops to end domestic
violence against women. These inspiring words from two of Hip Hop culture‘s (or
Kulture, as KRS-One writes) key leaders demonstrate Hip Hop‘s commitment to a plural
nation and a ―welcome table.‖ Cynthia Cohen, the executive director of the Slifka
Program in Intercommunal Coexistence at Brandeis University, indicates that there is an
inherent process of democracy building in Hip Hop. Similarly, Hip Hop author Adam
Mansbach, calls Hip Hop a ―structural metaphor for democracy‖ (Mansbach in Chang
2006:101).6 Indeed, as Eden Jeffries, a Hip Hop activist and former student of mine
points out, ―Hip Hop is unique for its ability to allow competition and inclusivity to
coexist – and it‘s this that fosters its progression and constant reinventing of itself‖
(Jeffries 2008). This is the hip hop culture and movement represented in this anthology.

A significant trait of Hip Hop is the way it models an ability to hold contradictory
truths in the same space. This is manifested by three generations of U.S.‘ers and other
young people around the globe who engage ―multiple intelligences‖ (Gardner 1993,
2006) and non dialectical models of being and knowing. Young people and adults who
have grown up during the age of Hip Hop are most likely comfortable in non-linear
sequencing and able to hold contrary motion – and so-called contradictory information –
simultaneously, without needing a ―resolution.‖ They hold an entire archive of sound
and music in their bodies that can be sampled, hyperlinked, and recognized
instantaneously. They can multi-task masterfully and have mastered the futuristic
technological gadgetry that has been mass-marketed to them and that they have helped

invent. As Claudia Alick explains in ―The Agenda of Hip Hop Theatre?‖ panel
discussion in the last section of this book, ―If you are Hip Hop, you have the ability to
belong or exist in several different places at once and be many different things at the
same time[…]and structure and content, they mirror each other.‖ To listen to a DJ set
carefully or watch a B‘boy or B‘girl‘s moves is to see all these elements at play – the
body and technology in synch, in contrary motion, one nation, as it were, ―under a
groove,‖ perhaps even lost in a groove (that is, until CDs and MP3s took over).

As such, Hip Hop is competitive and loving; spiritual and material; loud in-yourface
and poetic and deep; contemporary, cutting-edge, up-to the-minute, and recognizant
of the ancestor-elder-predecessor artist-warriors from which we came. Hip Hop is a big
poetry, dance, music, rhythm, loud, silent, protest, peace-making, political, jack your
body, swing, jazz, funk, rock, rap, beatboxing, DJing, graffing, meditational, Zen,
Kemetic, Judeo-Muslim-Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Black, White, Caribbean, Latino,
Asian, Indigenous, male, female, transgender cacophony that, wherever you see it, is
about the present moment. Whether it is spinning on your back or head or rapping the
vote, Hip Hop is immediate, necessary, constantly re-inventing itself, and consistent in its
struggle for recognition, respect, and inclusion.

THE WRITING ON THE WALL

Each of the performance elements of Hip Hop culture tells a political story of
resistance and reframing one‘s life experience. Aerosol art – the subject of several of the
plays in this anthology – provides a salient example of this interrelationship between
aesthetics and politics. Rather than calling it ―graffiti,‖ a term often associated with

vandalism or illegal activity, the large mural painting on trains and walls is often known
within the culture as ―writing.‖7 Employing this term, as described above, points to Hip
Hop‘s validation of multiple literacies and intelligences – especially among youth who, in
their ―formal‖ schooling, experienced racism, classism, and the systematic suppression of
their voices. There are different types of aerosol art, depending on the specific mode of
production and the intent – for example, ―tagging‖ is a quick hit of one‘s
sign/symbol/graf name. It is a signature, a calling card, a declaration of a writer having
been somewhere – especially a place difficult to get to, like a bridge or train trestle.
Another term is for going out painting is ―bombing.‖ In response to the Transit
Authority‘s position that ―young people are running the system,‖ one of the young writers
in Style Wars responds, ―I ain‘t running the system – I‘m bombin‘ the system‖ (Silver
2004). ―Bombin‘‖ clearly has a dual meaning – it is both a form of the art and the young
artists‘ response to power. The threat to writers was dangerously real – a chase could
result in a beat-down and arrest, imprisonment, and/or, tragically, death.8

In the Bronx, there were notable look-out spots – ―writer‘s corners‖ or ―writer‘s
benches‖ – where, after a train had been bombed or tagged, the artists would sit and
admire their work, watching as it left the area (see Bench 2008). The train would travel
to other boroughs – ―going all city‖ – that the young artists may not have had the
trainfare or felt the liberty to visit (as seen in Wild Style 2004). And, at the end of the day,
the artists would return to see the train come back to the Bronx, bearing their artwork –
an extension of themselves that had succeeded in leaving the grim environment of their
day-to-day lives, a means, perhaps, of transcending their physical circumstances. In this
way, young people performed their identities on both local and global stages, given the

eventual world-wide proliferation of images of aerosol art for which New York was
known in the 1980s.

In 1989, the MTA declared a ―victory‖ over graffiti. The most cited costs for this
―war‖ on graffiti are $300,000-400,000 of City funds annually – in 1972 alone, it cost
$10 million (Castleman in Forman and Neal 2004:21, 24; Kelley 1997:64). One source
reports that the City spent $78,000 per car and a total of $150 million – the equivalent of
$252.5 million in 2007 – on its ―clean train movement‖ (Speerstra 2008).9 This money
was spent mostly to acid wash the trains – leaving, perhaps, an even bigger blight on the
city – rather than on local resources, such as community centers, afterschool programs,
arts in the schools, and public art and youth leadership programs. Mayor Koch‘s design
to protect the train yards is an example of the ferocity with which the City targeted and
criminalized graf writers – the installation of two parallel fences topped by barbed wire,
with German shepherds patrolling in the space between the fences, at a cost of $24
million for 19 train yards (Castleman 2004:27 and Silver 2004).10 The fascist and
genocidal iconography is not lost on several generation of U.S.‘ers raised on history
lessons and films about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust of WWII. Yet, writers
persisted, creating beautiful, disturbing, and disruptive public art to make their presence
known. This form, too, is now practiced worldwide, not only by the economically
disenfranchised, but by young people who feel they have something to say in a world
where it seems to them only money and capitalism have power.11

SOMETHING FROM SOMETHING

Not only does this piece of Hip Hop history reveal how deeply imbricated the arts
and politics are in just this one element of cultural expression, but it also contests the oft-
used phrase about Hip Hop that it is ―something from nothing.‖ While this phrase is,
perhaps, accurate when solely examining financial capital, what it does not take into
account is the deep level of cultural capital and knowledge on which Hip Hop relies.
Grandmaster Flash flipped his technical training in high school to use his skills as an
electrician to invent styles of DJ‘ing that have transformed the way the world listens to
music.12 Writers employed multiple literacies in memorizing train and patrol schedules
and routes; displayed rigorous, almost military devotion in practicing their skills (as do
all Hip Hop artists); and drew on intricate team building and strategic planning skills to
reach a global audience. DJs invented whole systems of spinning and re-mixing vinyl,
while highjacking the electricity of a municipality that provided little recreation and
radically reduced social services.

Another of Hip Hop‘s revolutionary innovations is versioning and re-naming –


taking ownership of a deprivileged situation through an act of self-determination, as well
as the on-going creation of Hip Hop vernacular. KRS-One‘s addition of elements to the
basic four or five performance forms (see Preface) and reframing them as ―refinitions‖
acknowledges the multiple institutions of knowledge and cultural production that Hip
Hop validates and out of which it self-defines (KRS-One 2008). In so doing, KRS-One
challenged the institutionalization of the elements (a very Hip Hop thing to do),
especially as they began to become co-opted by commercial interests. He ―re‖-defined
the culture‘s ways of knowing and modes of expression within the culture and created his
own resistant speech act, flipping so-called ―standard‖ English by inventing a new term.

Even KRS-One‘s name was a recuperation of the appellation Krishna, used to tease him
at a New York City men‘s shelter in which he lived because of his interest in the
Bhagavad Gita and Hare Krishna. He flipped this act of aggression and began tagging
KRS and later KRS-One, an anagram for ―Knowledge Rules Supreme Over Nearly
Everyone.‖

This re-framing, re-integration, reliance on imagination and creativity, and


institutionalization of entrepreneurialism as a cultural ethos echo a principle in West
African aesthetics and survival – ―baabu banza‖ – a Hausa phase meaning ―nothing is
thrown away.‖ Awam Amkpa, Chair of Africana Studies at New York University,
explains that this proverb is also ―usually part of a phrase alluding to the idea that anyone
who lives in a community cannot be deemed illegitimate‖ (Amkpa 2008).13 From a pan-
indigenous perspective, both the cultural production and the individuals who innovated
and continue to innovate ―something from something‖ are indispensible to the health and
holism of the community. There was never ―nothing‖ there. However, by removing all
material resources, dominant power structures would have had young people in places
like the Bronx believe and internalize this myth in an attempt to make them feel
―discarded‖ and criminalized in the context of a more affluent, Eurocentric public sphere.

These forms of cultural capital need to be enumerated and validated so that Hip
Hop is not obscured in the history books as a brief, accidental moment in U.S. or world
history. Clearly Hip Hop has won a partial victory over the colonial circumstances out of
which it grew by becoming globally mainstream – yet the market continues to act on the
culture by appropriating its performance forms to perpetuate capital gain and oppressive
ideologies (such as misogyny, violence, and homophobia). . Hip Hop, at its advent, to

quote Duncan Cutler, a former student, ―was not a method of pushing products, but an
astounding creative response to the oppressive society that is America‖ (Cutler 2005).
Hip Hop was and is something – and to grapple with it seriously is to open up a whole
new chapter in understanding the multiple cultural influences in today‘s global multi-
ethnic society and the ways in which racism, classism, and sexism continue to serve as
systemic tools of oppression.

HIP HOP‘S INTERCULTURALITY

Hip Hop has deep roots in many cultures. In the early days in the Bronx, the
pioneers were from African American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Jamaican, and
Bajan parentage, among others, with Euro-American allies involved in helping to make
some of the art forms profitable commercially (such as Rick Rubin, Henry Chalfant,
Martha Cooper, Ruza ―Kool Lady‖ Blue, Malcolm McClaren, et al).14 Robert Farris
Thompson explains, ―To live in the Bronx was to live in a multicultural happening‖
(Thompson in Perkins 1996:214). Yet, despite this cultural and ethnic plurality – which
is visible from any of the photos from back in the day and early Hip Hop films – Hip Hop
is often marketed as solely an outgrowth of African American culture. Juan Flores
discusses both sides of this argument in From Bomba to Hip-Hop and, through interviews
with pioneer DJ Charlie Chase, cites both the discrimination against Latinos in the arena
of rap, as well as the contribution of Latinos in the arts and development of the early
culture (Flores 2000).

In terms of understanding the full cultural history of Hip Hop in a U.S. context, it
is useful to consider the questions: Why is it so important for the record industry to put

forth Hip Hop as a ―Black‖ form? What are the implications of the record industry
marketing the hyper-masculine and fetishized images of Black male rappers and the
hyper-sexualized, ―Jezebel‖ image (or, in some cases, the masculinized image) of Black
female rappers to a large, but separate, audience bases of mostly inner city youth of color
and privileged White suburban youth? I‘ll leave readers to parse out their own answers,
but will simply mention that the way that the record industry employs and exploits the
majority of recording artists (with the exception of the small percentage that do succeed
commercially) is economically identical to the post-emancipation industry of sharecropping,
in terms of creating a system of indebtedness where the artist does not own his
or her own work and must repay ever increasing debts against a promise of future work.
This is one way in which the industry inserts content that may not represent the creative
intent of the artist.15

Even within Hip Hop culture, it is challenging for participants, theorists, and
artists to explain Hip Hop‘s origins and ethnic affiliations, because they exist on the
interstices of colonial and post-colonial history and the way this history has impacted the
ethnic and cultural groups that gave birth to it. For example, in The New H.N.I.C.: The
Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop, Todd Boyd writes that Hip Hop is an
―outgrowth‖ of ―Black nationalist sentiment‖ (Boyd 2003, 17). On the next page, Boyd
explains, echoing Bambaataa‘s statement above, ―Hip hop transcends the boundaries of
culture, race, and history, while being uniquely informed by all three‖ (18). And, yet,
these are not necessarily contradictory statements. They reveal the complexity of the
social fabric in the Bronx and how these groups influenced each other – the former

statement pertains to the culture‘s place in a lineage of revolutionary praxis, while the
latter describes affiliation and cultural influence.

Nelson George discusses this important issue in Hip Hop America:

One of the prevailing assumptions around hip hop is that it was, at some
early moment, solely African-American created, owned, controlled, and
consumed. It‘s an appealing origin myth – but the evidence just isn‘t there
to support it. Start with ―who‖ invented hip hop: In its days as an evolving
street culture, Latino dancers and tastemakers – later internationally
known as breakers – were integral to its evolution[…] (George 1998:57)

Similarly, in a legendary interview that George did for the Source with Kool DJ Herc,
Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, Bambaataa states, ―Now one thing people
must know, that when we say Black we mean all our Puerto Rican or Dominican
brothers. Wherever the hip-hop was and the Blacks was, the Latinos and Puerto Ricans
was too‖ (George in Forman and Neal 2004:50). Hip Hop Theatre mirrors this same
plurality and inclusivity.

Juan Flores (2000) and Raquel Z. Rivera (2003), in their work, respectively,
discuss the ―African retentions‖ in Puerto Rican culture as a result of both the cultural
and ethnic mixings that colonialism set into motion and the proximity of Nuyoricans and
African Americans living side by side in the Bronx. There are conflicting ideologies at
play here, as well – some Puerto Ricans and other descendents of colonial subjects claim
their ―African-ness,‖ while others repudiate it, favoring a pan-Latino designation. As

mentioned above, Charlie Chase describes how certain Nuyoricans had to prove their
belonging to Hip Hop in the early days in regards to certain skills, like DJ‘ing and
emcee‘ing, while B‘boys and writers are seen as innovators in these areas of expression.
Crucial to this history are the ways in which the youth of the South and West Bronx
developed the performance forms of Hip Hop with and against each other – such as the
various historical waves of breaking and the contributions in style and form different
ethnic groups brought to the dance. As Hip Hop scholar and activist and NYU student
Tamara Davidson explains:

The reason why Hip Hop is so inclusive and plural is because


African culture is prevalent in so many cultures. We all have
ancestors in Africa, thus Hip Hop really speaks to so many
cultures. So it‘s not a contradiction to say that the core ethos come
from African aesthetics, because I think this fact leads to the
plurality of Hip Hop. (Davidson 2008)

Henry Chalfant‘s film From Mambo to Hip Hop (2006) details the important influences
Cuban culture and music in the Bronx had on Puerto Rican music and dance, and the
many ways this impacted Hip Hop‘s birth and development. Famed Salsa musician
Willie Colón explains in the film that Salsa was the ―philosophical precursor‖ to Hip Hop
and that it is ―an inclusion and reconciliation of all the things we are.‖ His description of
the role and function of Salsa in the Puerto Rican community sounds very similar to what
grew into Hip Hop among the children and grand-children of this generation:

We not only wanted to make music. We had a goal. We wanted to


convey a social and political message. Salsa was very important for that

because it was our voice. It was one of the few things that was not
controlled.

Colón speaks about Salseros‘ connection to the beat and the spiritual aspect of drumming
while Popmaster Fabel Pabón, an important pioneer in Hip Hop dance, explains, ―We‘re
looking to become one with that beat, with that rhythm, to the point that your body is a
musical instrument.‖

Another Hip Hop pioneer, Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers,
explains, ―Hip Hop came from desperation. It came from people‘s desperate need
for an outlet.‖ It becomes clear that the function of Hip Hop was similar for these
groups living in close proximity and rocking side by side. In each of these
groups‘ African heritages there were languages of expression – and spiritual
connections to these languages – that have common roots and embodied cultural
memory. The physical and geographical journey to the Bronx was, indeed,
different for each group; but the expressive and spiritual responses to its
oppressive environment reveal significant points of cultural connectedness

Todd Boyd writes about Hip Hop in terms of ontology:

Hip hop is like an interdisciplinary academic community, combining the


fields of sociology, psychology, political science, English,
ethnomusicology, economics, American studies, and African American
studies, and offering a choice of electives to its subscribers. The weight of
all this is what makes hip hop something far beyond music, and far greater
than the fashion, language, and ideology that expresses it. Hip hop is an

unrivaled social force; it is a way of being. It is a new way of seeing the


world and it is a collective movement[…]. (Boyd 2003:13)

It is this focus on collectivity and its spiritual ramifications that are Hip Hop culture‘s
most threatening traits to hegemony and what make it such a potent political force.
Moreover, when all the contingent elements of performance are combined to make
theatre, the role of the arts as a source of community well-being and health are, once
again, mobilized in a way that has been lost with their more modern professionalization
and commercialization. To return to the plays in this anthology, Hip Hop Theatre lends
its voice to problematizing and expressing the frustrations and victories of these three
generations of people who continue to be marginalized, ignored, and exploited. It is, in
fact, the ritual theatre of Hip Hop culture, which situates it as the immediate descendent
of all the cultures from which Hip Hop derives (and gradually impact the tapestry of Hip
Hop‘s practices).16

THE RITUAL ELEMENT OF HIP HOP THEATRE

When you go into any culture, I don‘t care what the culture is…you have
to understand the language, by that I don‘t mean what we speak….you‘ve
got to understand the interior language of the people, you‘ve got to
speak…the metalanguage of the people.

-Wolé Soyinka (in Harrison, et al 2002:7)

Its function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive[…]a story they tell

themselves about themselves.

-Clifford Geertz (on Balinese ritual; 1973:448)

In ―The Sense of Self in Ritualizing Performance Spaces,‖ Beverly Robinson


explains, ―Ritual can be defined as a recurring pattern of action that represents the desire
to begin life anew, and the need to find some way of expressing that desire‖ (Robinson in
Harrison, et al 2002:332). She then discusses the early performances created by enslaved
Africans during the Middle Passage and upon arrival in the Americas:
Ritualizing spaces where rhythms, dance, songs, storytelling, humor, and
masking are used reflect the ambitions and intelligence of people who
have created their own theatre history. These people may have been
displaced from their homeland, but they have not lost their self-
knowledge. (341-2)

This strategy and these tactics of resistance indeed describe the expressive elements of
Hip Hop culture today, situating it in the lineage of other cultures of resistance.

Hip Hop Theatre, like the performative elements of Hip Hop, is a space for
members of Hip Hop culture to take control of our own stories, telling them the way we
want them told, and carving out a place at the table in the history of U.S. theatre. It is
where we legitimize our voices, our audiences, and our unique cultural ways of telling
stories appreciated by these audiences. Thus, like any culture‘s ritual theatre, Hip Hop
Theatre is where members from within the culture come for reassurance, to find the

values of the culture reiterated, to have the history re-told, to locate oneself inside of
one‘s own cultural frame, tradition, and epistemology. It is not just about information.
Equally important is the cultural mindset and logic. As described above, a Hip Hop head
will, more than likely, feel at home in a poetic, non-linear, fragmented narrative with
multiple ethnicities represented on the stage, possibly multiple languages spoken,
certainly inter-disciplinary (indeed, any narrative about Hip Hop that does not draw on
multiple forms of self-expression would seem strangely un-Hip Hop), while attempting to
navigate the contradictions of a post-post-modern, post-colonial, constantly code-shifting
existence. Hip Hop Theatre, like Hip Hop, is both a ritual of resistance and of self-
determination, which speaks both to its form and function.

For those audience members from the outside, Hip Hop Theatre gives a glimpse
into the inner-workings of the culture – the stories, the heritages, the core values and
mindset, and the ways of thinking and knowing. This is how any cultural theatre
functions, such as Noh theatre, performances of the Hindu epic The Mahabharatha, or
Yiddish, Gaelic, and indigenous theatre forms. These performances provide a cultural
negotiation through expressive means for people both inside and outside of the work‘s
cultural context.

Although clearly it would be a misstep to essentialize the African continent,


scholars and artists, such as Kariamu Welsh Asante, discuss certain important
―commonalities‖ (Asante 1990) that indicate an ―African continuum,‖ a notion in
diasporic studies theorized by Paul Carter Harrison, among others, and often referred to
within Hip Hop Theatre (see Davis 2004, Hoch 2004).17 Crucial to the construction of
culture is the role of the storyteller. Indigenous cultures have traditionally preserved

themselves through orality and continue to do so. In West African cultures, this
storyteller is often called griot (male) or griotte (female), which is often assumed to be
French derived but, may, in fact, come from the Portuguese ―criar,‖ or be related to
various African languages (Hale 1998:358). I prefer to use the Mande word, jali or djeli,
which describes a ―caste‖ of musicians and singer/poets, the ―official keepers of history
and tradition‖ (Curry et al 2006). The djeli was also the court praise-singer in many
ancient African kingdoms. In Mande, djeliya is the word that, like the English term
orature, refers to the ―songs, storytelling, riddles, proverbs, dancing and gestures, call and
response, and an entire communal event‖ (Woodgett 2005:1). The djeli is the agent of
this ritual activity. In Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, Djeli Mamadou Kouyate describes
his role and function in society:
I am a griot. It is I, Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté son of Bintou Kouyaté and Djeli
Kedian Kouyaté, master in art of eloquence… we were the vessels of speech,
we are the repositories which harbor secretes many centuries old… without us
the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of
mankind; by spoken word we bring to life the deeds and exploits of kings for
younger generations…I teach kings the history of their ancestors so that the
lives of the ancients might serve them as an example, for the world is old, but
the future springs from the past…My word is pure and free from all untruth; it
is the word of my father; it is the word of my father‘s father. (Kouyaté in
Niane 2001:1)

Wanita Woodgett, a former student and brilliant poet and performer, writes that the djeli

is:

[…]the carrier of the culture of a people. Serving as a bridge between the


generations, the griot passes morals, values, practices, and history from

one generation to the next. The griot also serves as a bridge between the
community at large and the monarchy, often speaking for the king, and
interpreting community concerns. The griot is thus the glue of a
community. (Woodgett 2005:1-2)

According to her research, the roles of the djeli include: ―teacher, historian, genealogist,
musician, composer, spokesperson, adviser, praise-singer, diplomat, interpreter,
ceremony-participant, and warrior‖ (2). These roles are significant in considering the
intersections of Hip Hop and theatre.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD….

Every rap song is a history lesson.


-Wanita Woodgett

I include Woodgett‘s descriptions above because it is clear how passionate and


deeply felt her understanding of this crucial community mediator is. Taken with her
statement about the significance of the rap song, the legacy of the djeli is manifest in the
role of the emcee or the commercial rap artist. The rap song is a history lesson, not only
in its content – Chuck D of the group Public Enemy called rap ―the Black CNN‖ – but
also in terms of its evolution of form.18 The history of rap as a constantly transforming
musical genre – in terms of technology, lyricism, and structure – and form of protest
poetry tells as much about the history of the times that the music inhabits as does the
lyrical content.

In Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams (1998), Ngugi


wa Thiong‘o credits

Ugandan linguist and literary theorist, Pio Zirimu, with re-defining the term ―orature‖ in
the early 1960s. Zirimu ―at first used it interchangeably with ‗oral literature,‘‖ but soon
recognized that using the word ―literature‖ foregrounded and gave primacy to the written.
He then defined orature as ―the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression‖ or,
as Ngugi
writes, ―a system of aesthetics‖ (111). This distinction is crucial when thinking
in terms of African continuities in Hip Hop. To begin with, Hip Hop is clearly an
intricate interweaving of related aesthetics – even in the development of the form, the
elements evolved as overlapping circles of creativity: the Emcee grew out of the DJ‘s
need to have more freedom behind the 1‘s and 2‘s; B‘boys and B‘girls began to break in
relation to the DJ‘s technical and compositional innovations of extending the break-beat;
graf writing, already in existence, extended the public art and performance of outdoor
parties to beyond the confines of a park or lot.

In addition, Hip Hop has a fervent fascination with and commitment to ―the
word.‖ Common vernacular expressions include, ―Word!‖ ―Word is bond,‖ ―Word up,‖
―Say Word,‖ and a repeated sentence coda of ―you know what I‘m saying,‖ compressed
into one syllable. These are all phrases that remind the speaker and the listener of the
power of ―the word,‖ the importance of being understood and recognized, and the
contractual relationship between listener and speaker – all of which bear a close
relationship to Zirimu‘s notion of the ―use of utterance as an aesthetic means of
expression.‖ The opening line of the play Goddess City in this anthology is, ―in the
beginning there was….word‖ and the last line is ―WORD‖; and Baraka Sele emphasizes
this same power in the panel discussion.

Paul Carter Harrison revolutionized African American studies, specifically


dramatic theory, in explaining, ―In the West African nation of Mali, the Dogon people‘s
version of the Word is Nommo, which is understood to be the creative force that gives
form to all things‖ (Harrison in Harrison, et al 2002:316). He instructed several
generations of scholars and theatre practitioners to read African American drama from
the perspective of the power of the word as a central and core connection to an intricate
system of African and African derived aesthetics. In his landmark book, The Drama of
Nommo (1972), Harrison writes of ―[…]the power of the word, that Nommo force which
manipulates all forms of raw life and conjures images that not only represent his
biological place in Time and Space, but his spiritual existence as well‖ (xiv). Next, he
defines the universal principle of Muntu as: ―[..]all human being, spirits, certain trees, and
God; only this category is endowed with intelligence‖ (xx). And, then, crucially, he
explains:

When Nommo force is properly activated, man demonstrates a capacity to


manipulate the forces of nature – however resistance or callous may be the
mode – in a manner that would preserve him as Muntu. While the
community of the dead – the ancestors – may be activated for this purpose,
the problems of life fall upon the living. And as the wisdom of traditional
life would have it, community is the social force that perpetuates the
image of man. (3)

Thus the Word is more than an instrument of storytelling – it is an agent of world-


making.
Hip Hop was born out of the same cultural memory. Marc Bamuthi Joseph‘s tourde-
force dance/performance/poetry piece is entitled Word Becomes Flesh. Hip Hop

generation playwright Suzan Lori Parks instructs, ―Words are spells in our mouths‖
(Parks 1995:11). KRS-One advises readers of his inspirational book Ruminations,
―Learn how to speak, and then learn the power of speech‖ and discusses the
―metaphysical meaning‖ and power of words. He explains, ―Your liberation and life
success may be directly related to your knowledge of[…]‖ the language a person uses
(KRS-One 2003:64-5). Hip Hop is dominated by the revolutionary belief that we make
our own world through the performativity of our words and beliefs.

This is, in fact, a refrain of the Millennial generations – from the passionate
embrace of Don Miguel Ruiz‘s book and philosophical system The Four Agreements
(1997), based on Toltec tradition, to the runaway success of the film The Secret.19 These
generations, in the context of a world system that seems less and less concerned with the
welfare of people, have turned their attention to the belief that there is power left to us, in
our ability to transform our circumstances through our thought and speech. In this
worldview, the Word‘s power is that it creates Being, which, in this case, might be
considered the process of coming back into being from the margins – the Lions writing
their own history. The djelis of Hip Hop reflect and sustain a history where the Word is
at the center of the culture‘s mythopoetics and is crucial to self-definition and self-
knowledge, as it is to the perpetuation and documentation of the culture. All the elements
of Hip Hop implicitly tell stories about present day situations, relationships, histories, and
struggle.20 And Hip Hop Theatre makes these stories explicit and provides space for
continued collaboration across the various expressive forms.

PREDECESSORS (or It Didn‘t Just Grow That Way, a.k.a.The Topsy Re-Mix)

In this section, I want to show the body of some of the shared influences Hip Hop
Theatre practitioners have. What follows is more than a mere laundry list – it is a
testament to the breadth and depth of the work that has preceded what is currently
thought of as Hip Hop Theatre, as well as the incremental development of the form. I
have found that people both unfamiliar and familiar with the form are surprised at how
complete an archive this is and have commented that it lends credibility to what Hip Hop
Theatre practitioners are doing. It also helps to reveal that, like Topsy in Uncle Tom‘s
Cabin, Hip Hop Theatre did not just appear – it is the inevitable product of the
intersectionality of histories, in this case, artistic and cultural.

As mentioned above, the Hip Hoppers who see themselves as part of an artistic
and cultural movement know their histories. Hip Hop inherited djelia/orature as a
method of sustenance and sustainability from all its ancestral cultures and traditions. Hip
Hop, spoken word, and Hip Hop Theatre all owe a debt to the art and politics of a host of
artistic foremothers and fathers who paved the way. For instance, patter speaking clearly
did not begin with Hip Hop‘s version of rap – it can be found in many world cultures:
West African djeliya, Kabuki theatre, R&B, and Western poetic and theatrical forms,
such as opera recitative, Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, and the songs of Tom Lehrer,
as well as auctioneering, among others.

Musicologist Dick Hebdige discusses the relationship between rap and the patter
of radio DJs from the 1950s that was incorporated into the tradition of Jamaican toasting
and dub music, and may have found its way back to the U.S. via the Caribbean
immigrants and their children who, themselves, became the first DJs and emcees of Hip
Hop culture. Certainly in listening to the djelis of Mali and Senegal, the intensity and

lyricism of the spoken and sung rhythmic storytelling feel like a not-so-distant relation to
rap and spoken word. These epic tales and praise songs resound with the same urgency
and import that rap represents to its generations of listeners.

James Brown is frequently identified as one of the first rappers. Other oft-cited
early influences include Linton Kwesi Johnson, H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X, Muhammed
Ali, Eddie Jefferson, John Hendricks, preachers, blues men and women, such as Muddy
Waters, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and the famous poets of the late 1960s and early
1970s (Baker 1991). The Last Poets (David Nelson, Gylan Kain, and Abiodun Oyewole)
helped ignite ―rhythm and poetry‖ as a socio-political form of cultural performance, a
precursor to some Hip Hop Theatre. They were born on the anniversary of Malcolm X's
birthday, May 19, 1968, in Marcus Garvey Park and dropped their first album Last Poets
in 1970. They have frequently been cited as ―foreshadowing‖ or as the predecessors of
rap groups such as Public Enemy.

Like the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, whose first album Small Talk at 125th and
Lenox also appeared in 1970, mixed political poetry over music and a beat.21 The Last
Poets and Scott-Heron added soul and funk to their soundtracks, and the meter of the
poetry and its dramatic effect became deeply imbricated with the music (for example, the
dialogue with the drumming at the end of Scott-Heron‘s ―Whitey on the Moon‖). The
Watts Prophets from Los Angeles formed in 1967 and, similarly, recorded protest poetry,
sometimes with musical accompaniment – their third album was titled Rappin' Black in a
White World (1971). Similarly, the Watts Poets are oft-cited as a major influence in rap
and Hip Hop poetry (Powell 1991, Ankeny 2008, Sapp in Burnham 2005, Decker 1993).
Other poets that have deeply influenced (and, in many cases, taught) Hip Hop and Hip

Hop Theatre generation performers include Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki
Giovanni, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Pedro Pietri, Gwendolyn Brooks, Louis Reyes
Rivera….and the list goes on.

In the 1970s, writers experimented with new forms that combined multiple
elements of performance, perhaps re-fusing what had been separated by Social Realism.
The Black Arts Movement was producing non-linear poetic and political drama. The
choreopoem, a term coined in relation to ntozake shange‘s for colored girls who have
considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf (1974) – a collection of poems staged as an
ensemble, total theatre piece – became its own genre. Sister Son/ji (1969) by Sonia
Sanchez, a poetic one-act that preceded for colored girls, paved the way for this work and
others, such as the performance group Thought Music, founded by Laurie Carlos, Robbie
McCauley and Jessica Hagedorn in the 1980s, producing Teenytown (1988) and other
groundbreaking work. McCauley‘s Sally‘s Rape soon followed in 1989 and today it is not
so unusual for artists such as Sharon Bridgforth (Con/flama, 2000), Talvin Wilks (Tod
the Boy Tod, 1990), Carl Hancock Rux (Geneva Cottrell, Waiting for the Dog to Die,
1991, and Who ‗Dat Who Killed Better Days Jones, 1993), Daniel Alexander Jones
(Phoenix Fabrik, 2002) and Universes (Slanguage 2001, Eyewitness Blues 2005), among
many others, to re-integrate in their work the multiple essential components of live
theatre. This is significant when thinking about many of the plays in this anthology that
use both poetic diction and non-linear structuring, but also focus on the personal
narratives of disenfranchised peoples.

There were also clear predecessors to Hip Hop Theatre on Broadway. Melvin van
Peebles‘s Ain‘t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) was a spoken word, jazz, gospel,

R&B, soul portrait of Harlem and Black street life; Micki Grant‘s Don‘t Bother Me I
Can‘t Cope (1972) used poetry and song to express the life struggles of young Black
folks. shange‘s for colored girls… (1975) and Luis Valdez‘s Zoot Suit (1979) influenced
several generations of theatre artists through both their form and content. In terms of
creating work with a socially conscious, cutting edge, and ensemble message, many of us
who do Hip Hop Theatre have studied not just Du Bois‘s famous advice to the Krigwa
Players, but Douglas Turner Ward‘s Negro Ensemble Co. (founded in 1967) and Barbara
Ann Teer‘s National Black Theatre and her commitment to actors as ―activators‖ and
―liberators‖ of community dialogue and socially relevant art (Thomas in Harrison, et al
2002:361, Benston 2000). Teer began her research in 1968, her building finally opened in
Harlem in 1990, and the company still exists today, training new generations of
performer/educator/activists.22 Woody King, whom many credit as being responsible for
having the vision to turn shange‘s performance poems into a theatre piece, has been
producing theatre that focuses on the ―African American experience‖ since 1970 at the
New Federal Theatre, supporting a wide variety of ethnic and cultural writing, including
many of the pieces and genres discussed above (New Federal Theatre 2004).

These are just the New York companies. Theatres across the nation have long
been experimenting with performance styles that draw on all the elements of ritual and
indigenous theatre traditions married with political content. Some of these groups are
known, some have existed mainly in communities and have not been on the radar of
institutional U.S. theatre – in church groups, community centers, in schools, as dance
theatre, or just young (and not so young) people creating a vehicle to have their stories
told and acknowledged. As Marc Bamuthi Joseph writes in his inspiring essay ―(Yet

Another) Letter to a Young Poet,‖ ―Everyone is in your cipher‖ (in Chang 2006:12).
People have been ciphering for as long as they could form a circle – it is the collective
consciousness of the community, the way in which we ―see‖ and ―know‖ each other, the
way people maintain the well-being of the community, the way non-ego-driven art is
made and where skills are practiced and emotional release is encouraged in a safe
environment. Are all these theatres predecessors to or current practitioners of Hip Hop
Theatre? As highlighted in the panel discussion in the last section of this book, there are
many reasons for and uses of the name Hip Hop Theatre. I would suggest that all forms
of political and/or culturally specific theatre (for, in a country that is founded on and
encourages assimilation, to be culturally specific is an act of resistance) are in some way
in dialogue with each other. They do not exist hierarchically, but horizontally, in a
discursive plane of the simultaneous resistance to dominant power and a celebration of
survival.

Early Hip Hop Theatre pieces in the U.S. (or pieces that those of us working
within the ―genre‖ identify as being influential and ground-breaking) include: Danny
Hoch‘s solo performances Some People (1994) and Jails, Hospitals, and Hip Hop (1998);
Will Power‘s one-man, multi-character, neighborhood oriented shows, The Gathering
(2001) and Flow (2003); Sarah Jones‘s Surface Transit (1998) and Bridge and Tunnel
(2004, produced by Meryl Streep on Broadway), and Hip Hop Theatre Junction‘s Rhyme
Deferred (1998). Original members of the Rock Steady Crew, calling themselves The
Rhythm Technicians, performed in 1991 what is often billed as the first Hip Hop Theatre
musical – So, What Happens Now? played at PS 122 to high acclaim and was followed
by Jam on the Groove at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 1995.

There are Broadway shows that were either clearly Hip Hop Theatre or have
shared aesthetics and audience draw. Bring in ‗da Noise, Bring in ‗da Funk (1995) was a
history of the African American experience told through tap dance that began off-
Broadway and also had a successful Broadway run. It was choreographed by Hip Hop
Gen‘er Savion Glover with poetry text by reg e. gaines, another of the godfathers of and
generous mentors to Hip Hop Theatre. Def Poetry Jam on Broadway (2002) was clearly
Hip Hop but garnered much debate in ―theatre‖ circles as to whether it was theatre. This
is a moot point, in my estimation, when considering the young audience it attracted to a
Broadway theatre who sat side by side with a more ―typical‖ Broadway audience – in
terms of class and ethnicity – while listening to their own stories being told though a
vernacular that was familiar and empowering. John Leguizamo‘s solo shows, Mambo
Mouth (1991), Spic-O-Rama (1992), and Freak (1998) attracted large and young
audiences of color. And, in Regina Taylor‘s prescient and hotly criticized adaptation of
The Seagull, Drowning Crow (2004), the theatrical experiments of Constantine Trip
(a.k.a., C-Trip, the character formerly known as Treplev in Anton Chekhov‘s original)
were in a rapped form that can only be described as Hip Hop Theatre. In addition to its
content, the play starred actor-rappers, including Anthony Mackie, best known for his
work in the film 8 Mile (2002) and Up Against the Wind (2001), a theatrical ode to Tupac
Shakur by Michael Develle Winn.

Other pioneers who have moved and innovated the form include Marc Bamuthi
Joseph, Aya de Leon, Baba Israel, Hanifah Walida, Dan Wolf, Psalmayene24, Angela
Kariotis, Nilaja Sun, Piper Anderson, and Vanessa Hidary; the companies Hip Hop
Theatre Junction, Felonious, Progress Theatre, Universes; the numerous playwrights and

performers in this anthology, as well as Eisa Davis, Christina Anderson, Claudia Alick,
Zell Miller III, and many more. Performance poets, such as Toni Blackman, Dennis Kim,
Chinaka Hodge, Willie Perdomo, reg e. gaines, Jessica Care Moore, Liza Jessie Peterson,
Pandora Scooter, and the late Sekou Sundiata have helped theatre artists think through the
nature of this work and have worked with us closely on skill-building, inside of the
context of theatre training for Hip Hop Theatre. Dance companies have also been
experimenting with form and content, integrating poetry and DJing, and choreographers
have collaborated with more narrative theatre artists. Such groups include Rennie
Harris‘s Puremovement, Olive Dance Co., and Kwikstep and Rockafella‘s Full Circle
Productions. DJs have worked hard to make this form complete – Reborn, Center,
Excess, Spooky, Mohammed Bilal, and Tendaji Lathan, among many others. Some
international artists who have made an impact in the U.S., and with whom the Hip Hop
Theatre Festival and other institutions have collaborated, include Jonzi D (as mentioned
above), Benji Reid, and Kwesi Johnson (all artists from the U.K. working with
dance/movement and experimenting with form and storytelling techniques), Storm
(France/Germany), Made in ‗Da Shade (Netherlands), and Godessa (performance poetry
from South Africa). This is an embarrassingly incomplete list that could go on for pages
and I beg the indulgence of the many important artists whose names do not appear here. I
only start it here to give the reader a sense of how quickly Hip Hop Theatre – as a
movement, as a practice, as a genre, and as a marketing tool – has spread in the past five
years. The reader need only Google ―Hip Hop Theatre‖ to be able to assemble a more
complete and more geographically diverse bibliography.

SO WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED HIP HOP THEATRE

[…]belonging to something means being able to criticize it. Anything

beyond that is dogma.

-Joel Barraquiel Tan (in Chang 2006:217)

At this writing, there are Hip Hop Theatre courses being taught on college
campuses across the country; Hip Hop Theatre camps; Hip Hop Theatre Festivals, both
commercially and/or at universities; grants, panels, and conferences all dedicated to Hip
Hop Theatre. In terms of writing the history of this form, it is a salient moment to
consider, ―What is Hip Hop bringing to theatre?‖ Here are some possible answers, as
well as subsequent qustions. After reading the plays and essays in this book, I hope you
will add to this list.

Hip Hop Theatre brings the voice of today. It represents the creative energy of
where the ―people are at,‖ as well as the political and social concerns of young people.

Hip Hop Theatre is ―avant garde,‖ in the sense of creating new forms that work
against the mainstream or dominant forms, and that employ and push technology in so
doing. What is so particular about Hip Hop Theatre being considered avant garde is that,
while its resistance is against mainstream theatre forms, Hip Hop actually reflects popular
culture. So this might be a unique moment in theatre history when the avant garde is
actually also the most ―popular.‖23

Hip Hop Theatre also embodies and introduces an important dialogue about ―theatre‖
and class. Hip Hop Theatre‘s appeal to young, non-mainstream theatrical audiences

reveals how elitist the theatre has become, yet the form, itself, also risks elitism. The best
known practitioners are, ourselves, college educated professional artists with theatre
backgrounds and so-called formal ―education‖ and theatre training. There is Hip Hop
Theatre happening in neighborhoods and communities across the country – but does it
receive the designation ―theatre‖ or is the term being used only in certain contexts,
venues, and states of professional development? More and more, as the name Hip Hop
Theatre is catching on, it is, in fact, being used in many environments and situations,
bridging the recent gap between the ―popular‖ and the ―professional.‖

Although Hip Hop Theatre, ironically, is not really conceptually that new – each
generation has a history of resistant theatre – the uniqueness lies in is how the particular
elements of popular culture and theatre blend and work together, the incredible variety
this produces, and how it reflects the diversity of Hip Hop and of the U.S.. It tells the
stories of folks whose faces are not usually seen consistently or in great number on
―mainstream,‖ institutional theatre stages (or in mainstream theatre audiences).

Another crucial dynamic to consider is how Hip Hop Theatre has progressed in its
relatively short life-time. As is clear from the list above, there is no shortage of artists
working in or around this form. Many theatres and producers have had a hand in
supporting the growth of this genre.24 The form also faces some key issues, challenges,
and concerns as it becomes more well-known and the mainstream theatre becomes more
and more curious about Hip Hop Theatre‘s power to attract different demographic groups
to their institutions. One crucial issue, as with all new or culturally specific forms –
heavily discussed in the panel – is the need for better understanding and critics who have
the background to assess Hip Hop Theatre based on its own aesthetic principles and

logic, instead of a more ―traditionally‖ Eurocentric theatre lens through which to


read/view it or one that relies primarily on Realism.

A prime example of this is the New York Times review of Drowning Crow. While
it was encouraging to see both Taylor‘s play and Sarah Jones‘s Surface Transit in lead
articles on the front page of the Arts section, it was disappointing that Taylor‘s use of
sampling and re-mixing popular culture was described by reviewer Ben Brantley as a
critical misstep. There was no appreciation of the cultural and aesthetic logic of the form.
In that review, Brantley writes, ―More than a century‘s worth of cultural detritus has
accumulated since Chekhov wrote The Seagull, and a staggering amount of it appears to
have washed up on the shores of the[…]Biltmore Theatre.‖ He continues, ―In
transplanting Chekhov's play from the Russian countryside of the late 19th century to the
Sea Islands of South Carolina in 2004, Drowning Crow heaps on songs, dances and some
snazzy technological effects to establish its frame of reference, which is really nothing
less than the entire history of the African-American experience‖ (Brantley 2004:E1).
Drowning Crow may have needed some footnotes for a traditional, Manhattan-TheatreClub-
going audience – but wouldn‘t European ―classics,‖ such as The Ring Cycle or The
Revenger‘s Tragedy, as well?

My hope would be that a reviewer would help an audience understand the


complexities in cultural translation, rather than impose his or her own cultural biases
(e.g., ―detritus‖) on that audience‘s ability to appreciate the art. There were things about
the production that could certainly have been critiqued – it was an ambitious project with
some challenges in production. How it located itself culturally, however, should not have
been one of them. Moreover, this ―entire history‖ has a cultural connection to djelia,a

valued element of African diasporic performance. Rather than this being a detriment
from a Euro-centric critical standpoint, it located Drowning Crow as belonging
formalistically to a culturally specific performance tradition.

Another challenge Hip Hop Theatre faces as it enters the mainstream is summed
up by Todd Boyd when he asks, ―Can hip hop serve two masters? Is it possible for hip
hop to remain true to its roots and, at the same time, still be popular?‖ (Boyd 2003:19).
KRS-One expresses a similar sentiment: ―Sometime around 1990, Hiphop the culture
became Hiphop the product‖ (KRS-One 2003:198). Hip Hop Theatre currently faces the
same dilemma as its founding artists are getting older, having families, and trying to
make a full-time, ―grown-up‖ living off our work in this form. How do we keep the
―authenticity‖ of Hip Hop Theatre and have a relationship with the market that, by
nature, has a history of mass marketing and diluting cultural production?

This begs the oft-asked question, ―Who defines Hip Hop Theatre and what
constitutes it?‖ Is it more a term that is useful to presenters and producers than to artists?
Does anyone ―own‖ the designation – i.e., who is the arbiter of what is Hip Hop Theatre
and what is not? What happens when people from outside of the culture create stories
that have very little to do with Hip Hop – or, even worse, belie their prejudices about Hip
Hop and Hip Hoppers – and mass market a commercial show to an urban audience, for
instance, with suspect values and artistry? Is it Hip Hop Theatre if it is near and for, but
not by? Is Hip Hop Theatre destined to go the route of Hip Hop, in terms of its
commercialization and deracination of intent and cultural values?

Carla Rzeszewski, another former student, eloquently lays out the challenges that
lie ahead for this movement:

A certified label of ―Hip Hop Theatre‖ would make it easier for


marketing and probably easier money. But to whom would that
money go? Would the theatre be appropriated and sold just like so
much of current Hip Hop culture? And is the goal to make art that
speaks to the Hip Hop audience, or to make a new kind of theatre that
fits into the category ―Hip Hop Theatre,‖ therefore making it easier to
be pigeonholed and tied down to binding definitions? Hip Hop
Theatre is already happening; there is already a listening audience and
artists with their own flavor specific to this culture. Instead of paying
so much lip service to the benefits of a title, let us focus on what we
can accomplish with the medium of Hip Hop Theatre. (Rzeszewski
2004).

Carla‘s call-to-arms is indicative of the response that I have encountered among many of
her peers – a simultaneous assertion, ―We love Hip Hop Theatre,‖ and a resistance to
being ―defined‖ by a label. Is it necessary? Is Hip Hop Theatre only a fad? That‘s what
cultural critics said about Hip Hop – that it wouldn‘t last; 35 years later people are still
saying it‘s a fad, or that it is already dead. What happens if Hip Hop Theatre does get in
bed with commercial institutions – what will become of it when their interest fades (or if
they begin to lose subscribers)?

There are clearly no firm answers to these questions. They are more the questions
that we, as practitioners, ask ourselves and that keep us self-critical and conscious of the
power and responsibility we have as artists and producers of culture. And, as the reader
will see in the panel discussion, we have already been asking ourselves these questions
for a decade – and continue to do so. We don‘t all necessarily agree. Nor do we need to.
(Unsurprisingly, we sometimes even disagree with ourselves in the same sentence and
change our minds over time.) We just keep making the work, trying to reach new theatre
audiences, bringing our communities into the theatre. We work to renew the engagement

between ―the people‖ and ―the art,‖ having the art reflect the lives of society at large,
across cultural, class, and color lines.

What is more and more distinguishing Hip Hop Theatre from other forms of
theatre is this artist engagement with community. Rarely does a Hip Hop Theatre artist
just perform at night. During the day she is giving workshops with youth and community
members; he is doing his own pamphleting on the streets of inner-city neighborhoods or
downtown to try to attract young people into the theatre; they are facilitating community
dialogues about the issues raised by the work, or the state of Hip Hop, or the negative
image Hip Hop has to some who only think of it as a music genre. We are working
intergenerationally to promote healing in communities; documenting a community‘s
history, challenges, needs, stories, and cultural resources; helping youth create their own
work, using their own voices, skills, and obsessions as source material – serving as
conduits for us all to ―write ourselves into existence.‖

In the U.S. – as around the world – people are still divided in ways that often are
not even recognized. Oppression – especially psychological and internalized oppression,
the ―colonization of the mind‖ – is how a market economy functions. Hip Hop Theatre
addresses ethnicity, class, culture, gender, sexuality, generation – it is a theatre of all the
issues that confront not just young people, but the whole world. Those of us doing this
work have seen the effectiveness of Hip Hop Theatre as an agent for uniting people and
expanding people‘s thinking and understanding between and among cultural groups. It is
the theatre the world desperately needs now as we continue to contemplate the
sustainability of the planet and the future of capitalism as a viable economic structure. It
is the theatre of now.

1 See Kamilah Forbes‘s story about visiting the U.K. in ―The Agenda of Hip Hop Theatre?‖ in the last
section of this book.
2 See, especially, the writings of Jeff Chang, Nelson George, Tricia Rose, Bakari Kitwana, Robin

D.G. Kelley, Raquel Z. Rivera, William Jelani Cobb, Raquel Cepeda, Joseph Schloss, Juan Flores,
Mark Anthony Neal, Michael Eric Dyson, Chuck D, Kyra Gaunt, and Cristina Véran.
3 See also Kelley 1997 and George 1998 for descriptions of cuts in funding and resources.
4 See George 1998, Fricke and Ahearn 2002, and Hager 1982.
5 This does not take into account the ways that many commercial artists do, in fact, give back to
their communities
6 Perkins 1996, Cohen 2007. For a more complete discussion of the role of Hip Hop and Hip Hop Theatre
as a tool for peacebuilding in conflict areas, see ―Youth Leading Youth: Hip Hop and Hiplife Theatre in
Ghana and South Africa,‖ a chapter I curated for the forthcoming publication of Co-existence International,
Acting Together on the World Stage: Performance and the Transformation of Conflict (2009).
7 And, yet, some artists do use the term graffiti, reclaiming it, and reject ―aerosol art‖ as the term
that was used to market this form when it gained commercial popularity. Even so, I favor ―aerosol
art‖ because it foregrounds the work as art and references the uniqueness and form of its practice.
In 1986, Henry Chalfant introduced yet another nomenclature, ―spraycan art‖ and published an
important book by the same name (1987), documenting the art‘s global practice. There are indeed
many Hip Hops.
8 See, for example, the highly publicized story of Michael Stewart (Rose 1994:193, Chang
2005:194-8). I have heard writers question how a fellow writer who knows the train yards or
tunnels perfectly in the dark could ―accidentally‖ fall on a third rail and die by electrocution,
which is sometimes the listed cause of death in a fatal interaction with police.
9 See Oregon State 2008 for conversion factors.
10 At one point, Koch suggested using wolves instead of dogs because MTA officials were afraid the dogs,
which were only meant to be a deterrent, would bite the writers if they climbed the fences. Koch is seen on
camera in Style Wars explaining that wolves would be a good alternative because there is no record of a
wolf biting a human, unless rabid (the wolf was rabid., that is).
11 Within the past month I have met graf writers from a poor, at-risk community in Oaxaca City, Mexico –
shout out to Fuser and his crew – and a middle class, artistic community in Jakarta, Indonesia. All of the
artists are passionate about their art with a revolutionary fervor.
12 In many school districts across the country, high school students, especially men of color, are often
directed towards more ―technical‖ or vocational tracks because of an analysis that they do not have the
capacity for more academic or white-collar fields. There have been studies disproving the efficacy of this
practice and its inherent racism and classism (see Ainsworth 2005 and Braddock & McPartland 1990).
13 The notion of reversal and finding freedom and play within oppressive structures is not unique to Hip
Hop. Hip Hop relies on signifying/signifyin‘, a rhetorical and artistic strategy found throughout African
diasporic production (see Gates 1988, Baker 1991). Similarly, the strategy of rasquache in Chicano art is a
process of transforming the necessary and immediate, of no matter what market value, into something of
cultural and creative worth. As Juan Flores points out, these are strategies ―characteristic of oppressed
peoples‘ realities in general‖ (Flores 2008).
14 See Fricke 2002, Chang 2007, among others. Nelson George writes, ―[..]I‘d argue that without white
entrepreneurial involvement hip hop culture wouldn‘t have survived its first half decade on vinyl[…]Scores
of white stepmothers and fathers adopted the baby as their own and many have shown more loyalty to the
child than more celebrated black parental figures‖ (1998:57). There were also a few Euro-American and
mixed heritage heads from early days – specifically in writing and B‘boying.
15 For more information on the structure of the industry and the pressure put on young rap artists, see the
last two chapters of KRS-One‘s book Ruminations (2003) and Byron Hurt‘s revealing film Hip Hop:
Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2006).
16 As I am writing this Introduction, Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, has just declared in a
letter to the G-8 leaders in regards to the imbalance of food and resources in the world: "What we are
witnessing is not a natural disaster — a silent tsunami or a perfect storm[…]It is a man-made catastrophe,

and as such must be fixed by people" (Weisman and Keith Bradsher 2008). Do I need to justify that these
are not empty or unsubstantiated theories, but day-to-day realities all over the world?
17 It is interesting to note that many of us, independently, have found similar language to describe our
work
and its origins and that we have shared origins – Angela Kariotis in the Panel refers to ―ethos‖; and Marc
Bamuthi Joseph and Anthony ―Made‖ Hamilton in Total Chaos cite Nommo (Chang 2006).
18 See Tricia Rose‘s groundbreaking book Black Noise (1994) for an in-depth critical history of rap and its
stylistic innovations.
19 The first of Ruiz‘s agreements is ―Be impeccable with your word‖ (Ruiz 1997:25). The Secret is an
Australian produced film and book, endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, in which a team of scientists, ministers,
philosophers, and inspirational speakers instruct the viewer in the ―law of attraction,‖ i.e., through word
and thought how to influence one‘s own destiny and attract to oneself the life desired (Byrne 2006).
20 The excellent documentary films The MC: Why We Do It (2005) and Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
(2000
speak to these points.
21 As did the Beat Poets of the 1950s-60s, but there is clearly a very different history of interaction and
cross-cultural negotiation in relation to the jazz and Bebop rhythms over which they read their poetry and
improvised.
22 Dr. Teer sadly passed at the time this chapter was being written.
23 See Russell Potter‘s book Spectacular Vernaculars (1995) for a discussion of Hip Hop as Post-Modern –
similar, but not identical to thinking of it as avant garde, especially within the context of a Euro-centrically
based theatre history.
24 These include The Public Theatre (NY), Harlem Stage, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, New York
Theatre Workshop, the Marc Taper Forum (LA), Berkeley Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, PS 122
(NY), Under the Radar, Centerstage (NY), Actors Theater of Louisville (KY), The Children‘s Theatre of
Minneapolis, New World Theatre (MA), La Jolla Playhouse, Theatre Royal Stratford East (UK), Contact
Theatre (Manchester, UK), and quite a few others who have supported artists and projects, both on the
commercial or the community side.