Art Files: Marc Bamuthi Joseph


Bornday: Scorpio, 32 years old
Birthplace: Queens, New York
Medium: Performance (hip hop theatre, spoken word, oral tradition, movement)
Alma Mater: Morehouse College

Relevant Themes: Fatherhood, identity, diaspora, immigration, hip hop

It was 2004, the night before the second inauguration of George W. Bush and Lisa and I took a trip to New York City to escape the paralyzing communal mourning taking place in our freshman year dorm 200 Church. When the news hit we sat silently in crowded hallways with heavy hearts trying to find the words…any words to explain it all away. They never came. After a long and disheartening day of protesting in Union Square and wandering aimlessly around Times Square among the “walking dead” we found ourselves sitting with our cheeks pressed up against the cold balcony bars of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Enter Bamuthi. Before he even spoke, the room fell silent. He had an unexplainable presence about him. Without explicitly acknowledging the elections, Bamuthi began by telling a story about the anxieties of raising his son M’kai in such a cruel and strange world. It served as the perfect metaphor for the anxieties we all shared that night. Afraid for tomorrow. Given the circumstances of that particular moment, his stories carried a weight and sense of urgency that simply cannot be repeated. By his second piece (about his relationship to his father) a small stream of tears collected and eventually ran down my face as I watched in awe of his ability to move, I mean, really move. It’s rare for a performer to effect me so viscerally, to speak from and to a place I never knew existed inside of me. Bamuthi’s work operates at that guttural and unknowable place. Perhaps you have to experience it to understand. Unfortunately, youtube videos don’t do Bamuthi justice. In general, performances are impossible to properly capture on film…the audience is necessary to bring them to life. For now, this will have to do:

“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.”

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.”– an excerpt from Jeff Chang’s interview with Bamuthi

At 32, Bamuthi has already written, produced and directed a number of projects that continue to inspire young writers like myself to pursue otherwise naive ambitions in poetry and performance. I should mention that Bamuthi was one of my muses throughout an overwhelming thesis production process. I can honestly say the fight to preserve stories is a brutal one and Bamuthi has showed me that our struggles are not in vain. I also respect the seemingly effortless incorporation of humor and youthful energy into his work that balances the intensity and potency of his heart-wrenching stories of displacement, alienation, racism, tortured-complicated masculinity and love. As the Artistic Director of Youth Speaks, a literary organization for youth based out here in the Bay, Bamuthi manages to stay more genuinely grounded than any other performer I’ve met (except for my boo Boots from The Coup). I seriously regret not bringing him to Wesleyan when I had the chance…(hint hint to current Writers’ Bloc members!). Here’s a list and short summary of some of his previous projects:

Word Becomes Flesh: “Word Becomes Flesh (WBF) is a fluid evening length choreopoem, the latest in a long tradition of narrative verse plays whose contributors range from Shakespeare to Ntozake Shange. Presented as a series of performed letters to his unborn son, the piece uses poetry, dance, live music and visual art to document nine months of pregnancy from a young single father’s perspective.” — Create Space

Scourge: “Commissioned by George Mason University, the National Performance Network, Dance Place and the Bates Dance Festival, “Scourge” reflects on the plight of Haiti in the post-colonial New World and was developed during the artist’s tenure as a Phillis Wattis Artist-in-Residence at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.” – The Mason Gazette

The break/s: “His most recent work, “the break/s” (June 2008) has been acclaimed as a new level of hip-hop theatre.  A mixtape for the stage, the break/s” is a multimedia infused theatrical journey and international travel diary across planet hip hop, based on Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. The subject is the fate of hip-hop in a world slipping ever more into globalization. He developed this piece while completing the prestigious Arts Institute Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.” —University of Wisconsin-Madison

“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
tap dance
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” (MBJ)

Maybe now you can understand why I was so thrilled to finally run into him at the Janelle Monae/Raphael Saadiq show last week. Be sure to seize any opportunity that comes your way…we were meant to interact and build with each other so reach out! Make moves! Move! And…

Hit up his MySpace to see when he’s coming to a city near you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: