By design, hip-hop defies definition. It is a culture of resistance and reclamation. It is a culture that recognizes the inevitability of commercialization—and works with and against it subversively. Folks in hip-hop culture use slang, specific jargon and metaphors for an idea and then shorten it to a potent signifier. Know what I’m sayin’? Word? We play with language and challenge assumptions. It’s necessary in a culture so hot that every new innovation is instantly commodified, repackaged and sold back to us.
A lack of physical resources forces the aesthetic to embrace social capital, the entertainment that comes straight from the body, mouth and brain. Shakespeare had crazy, complicated language because he didn’t have CGI. Poetry was his special effect. Hip-hop evokes landscapes, history and new futures with overlapping words, sampled and original music, multimedia components and dance. This mixing and remixing is a vital part of the culture.
All these features of the form combine to make hip-hop an ideal aesthetic for theatre. But that recipe is extremely difficult to capture in prose. Say Word! Voices from Hip Hop Theater embraces this challenge and addresses it in some smart ways.
The book’s editor, Daniel Banks, treats the project like a DJ sampling from various sources. This establishes a vital authenticity. Banks created and directed the Hip Hop Theatre Initiative, which emphasizes youth empowerment and leadership, and presents workshops on hip-hop performance around the world. Despite his extensive credentials, Banks still questions his own place in the hip-hop scene and his cultural competency as an interpreter of it. This does several things: It humanizes an intimidatingly intelligent voice, establishes a note of authority without seeming like he’s fronting, and allows us to let go of the question of our own authenticity and simply embrace the work—nine plays in all—under discussion.
Banks begins his introduction with an Éduoard Glissant quote: “To declare one’s own identity is to write the world into existence.” The academic frame seems right for Banks’s heavy emphasis on interculturality, the djeli (or griot) and ritual. He samples equally from journalists, historians, academics, philosophers and hip-hop artists, punctuating the book with several glossary sections of hip-hop terminology. In a genre built on street cred, this provides some hard-core book cred, and promotes the anthology’s likelihood of being taught in classroom settings.
This collection aspires to be both foundational and definitive, and at the same time acknowledges that in terms of hip-hop, this is an impossible task. The plays are grouped into categories that are as arbitrary as they are useful, from full-length performances created from spoken-word roots to shows that emphasize the role of storyteller as “communal history keeper and cultural critic.” The choice of plays actually subverts Banks’s ways of organizing them and underscores the wide-ranging themes and tropes this genre explores.
Much of this work could be described as social-justice theatre. Subjects like anorexia, mental health, real-life events of police violence, and the pathologizing of marginalized communities are explored in Rha Goddess’s solo show Low, Rickerby Hinds’s Dreamscape and Chadwick Boseman’s Deep Azure. Goddess City, described as a “hip-hop poetry concert/play” by its creators, Abiola Abrams and Antoy Grant, blends ritual, storytelling, songs and theatrics to examine meaty topics like rape, female circumcision and sexuality. The latter play is complicated-looking on the page and serves to complicate our understanding of just who in hip-hop culture are the real insiders. These pieces of theatre are disparate in form, but aim for similar effects upon audiences.
Another work, Joe Hernandez-Kolski’s You Wanna Piece of Me?, an autobiographical account of a hip-hop theatre artist that makes use of a DJ and rapping, illustrates the difficulty editor Banks struggles with—he places the show in the solo-performance section, although the DJ has dialogue (one could argue that DJs always have lines, and the music serves as their voice). Kristoffer Diaz’s Welcome to Arroyo’s shares this use of the DJ, as well as direct address to the audience and a gleeful self-reflexiveness. These plays explicitly invite you to fully participate—and simultaneously emphasize the insularity of hip-hop culture-makers.
Welcome to Arroyo’s is about reclaiming lost histories. Zakiyyah Alexander’s Blurring Shine is a satirical indictment of the immersion of youth in hip-hop culture. In Case You Forget by Ben Snyder features a graffiti writer struggling to reconcile his place in hip-hop culture and his place in the world. “Hip-hop is immediate, necessary, always changing, and consistent in its struggle for recognition, respect and inclusion,” Banks writes. This is the thread that holds this work together. This type of fierce, identity-based art reflects our own humanity. That’s why it’s so popular. And it also comes with a beat.
Unfortunately, the beat is the one thing this book is missing. I was excited when I read that one of the plays covered was available online. From Tel Aviv to Ramallah, by Rachel Havrelock with Yuri Lane and Sharif Ezzat, is another solo/not-solo show in which a beat-boxer performs with multimedia elements, in this case to portray characters in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Annotating beat-boxing in a way that entirely replicates the live experience is, of course, impossible, but here the online content isn’t even video or music tracks—it’s a PDF with low-res photos that do not capture the kinetic elements of the video. Hip-hop theatre is hard to capture in static form—which is why you must go see, or present, or produce, these plays for yourself. At the very least get some friends together and read them aloud.
Hip-hop theatre is a conversation with the culture, the audience and the artists. That’s why it is so important that the book winds up with a roundtable discussion, moderated by Holly Bass, with hip-hop theatre creators Eisa Davis, Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones and Will Power. Bass observes that “what’s cutting-edge either becomes canon or fades away,” and describes this work as “urban postmodernism.” I love the renaming of the genre of hip-hop theatre in a book with hip-hop theatre in the title—but I’m hip-hop generation. How could I not love flipping that language? Call this brilliant work whatever you want, it’s all good. Word? Word.
Claudia Alick is an associate producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.