Thursday, May 29, 2008

Spoleto Festival 2008: the break/s

From the Spoleto website:
Forged by the charismatic poet/hip-hop theater sensation Marc Bamuthi Joseph and featuring live music by remarkable human beatbox/percussionist Tommy Shepherd and DJ Excess with video by David Slzasa, the break/s explores the ascendancy of hip-hop worldwide. This dynamic new work puts hip-hop culture into personal, historical and political perspective while erasing boundaries between movement, spoken word, personal storytelling, and poetic revelation.

I'm not sure what about that spoke to me, but when I read it in the program I knew it was something I had to experience. I'm of the generation that grew up as rap and hip-hop was being forged in a crucible of agitated inner city youth and gangster and drug cultures. I watched it turn from fringe street music into a massive business, with the requisite wannabe's and sell-outs. I was curious what led to it being kicked off at that specific point in time, what drove that genesis. That journey is what Mark Bamuthi Joseph explored.

"This story starts in the middle..."

The performance was divided into several stories, all of which started in the middle of somewhere. The locations were as diverse as Wisconsin, Senegal, and unconsciousness. Marc performed a mix of dance, spoken word, rap and storytelling against a backdrop created by three large screens playing various videos to emphasize key points.

Those points were at times funny, touching, biting, introspective and self-loathing. No subject was too taboo, no cows too sacred. It was enlightening for me, a middle-class white man, to get a glimpse inside the mind of someone with a very different racial and socioeconomic background. It was also refreshing to see someone who has street cred to admit his own failings of ego and racism, such as the time he walked into a Tokyo hip-hop night club and expected to be treated like royalty only to end up standing in the corner by himself, ignored.

"The more acceptance I get from others, the less I accept myself."

I walked away from this performance with a better understanding of how hip-hop came about, from its roots in Africa through the birth of jazz and eventual social acceptance. I also understand now how people who grew up in the struggle that birthed hip-hop can undergo an identity crisis when people who are not part of their socioeconomic class want to participate. Validation of their art isn't what they were originally after. They were telling the story of their oppression. Now we're seeing the people who do it for the artistry and that's causing some internal struggles.

It was an interesting performance that will be food for thought for a very long time.

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