Approaching Health Through Hip-Hop

California performance artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who explores the inner life of black men in America through hip hop. His verses are both political and personal.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Through dance, spoken word and poetry, artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph takes a provocative look at the experience of a black man in America. His one-man show "Word Becomes Flesh" has been touring for more than a year. The performance is framed as an open letter to Joseph's unborn son.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Brown boy, am I supposed to teach you these things? How many brown boys left are being taught by the wilderness? Destiny hung, hinged, a doorway to death. Your life is great white height, (unintelligible). Do I tell you these things right away, brown boy?

LUDDEN: This month Joseph's second major work called "Scourge" premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Marc Bamuthi Joseph joins me from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Welcome.

Mr. JOSEPH: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

LUDDEN: So this is a series of letters to your unborn son, your current work. What were you feeling when you were waiting for the birth of your son?

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, I think pregnancy is necessarily a time when we focus our energy on mother and the impending relationship or the developing relationship between mother and child. I can't say whether the fathers go through a physiological transformation but certainly a psychological and spiritual one. And so part of the impetus behind creating this work was to give voice to the father's process and...

LUDDEN: And the fact that this was an unplanned pregnancy...

Mr. JOSEPH: Absolutely.

LUDDEN: ...figures largely in this.

Mr. JOSEPH: Absolutely. And also to give voice to non-traditional modes of parenting and fatherhood and, also, to specifically address in the black community the high level of absenteeism.

LUDDEN: Can I ask you to read a bit from "Word Becomes Flesh" when you're thinking about this, as your girlfriend is pregnant?

Mr. JOSEPH: (Reading) `Whoo, son, when I cannot handle the truth about myself, I either avoid it or rewrite it. I decorate the ugly and metaphor, dress it up in blue ink, maybe like a young boy at a summer birthday party, which is to say I lie. Three months in the womb, I am wishing you away. Inside your mother, you are a symbol of infinite possibilities, but inside my mind you are an emblem of disappointment, a gap between what I've spoken and the truth--or, rather, what I've neglected to speak, I have cloaked myself in quiet. No one has ever accused to the mutes of lying, and I am wishing you away, son, so I won't have to run.'

LUDDEN: It sounds like you're feeling that you're falling right into the stereotype of the young black male and wishing you hadn't.

Mr. JOSEPH: I think this is something that we all go through, male and female. There is, obviously, joy around birth. There's also tremendous anxiety around the personal repercussions. You cannot enter your role as parent without having your life transformed. Beyond my personal experience, there was a record number of homicides in Oakland the year that I was developing "Word Becomes Flesh." And most of those homicides were committed against young black men between the ages of 14 and 45, which to me is the hip-hop generation. And one of the primary questions I asked myself when I was writing the piece was, `How many of those young men had left children behind, and, also, how many of them grew up in homes without fathers themselves?' And so "Word Becomes Flesh" is a response not only to what I was going through but also to what I was seeing in my community.

LUDDEN: Your second major work is called "Scourge."

Mr. JOSEPH: Yes.

LUDDEN: It's about Haiti. Your parents are from there.

Mr. JOSEPH: Both of them, yes.

LUDDEN: Tell me about this.

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, I'm the first generation born here in the United States. I grew up in New York. My son is now three, and he is a sandal-wearing, tofu-eating, kopawhetto(ph) practicing, young Californian, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOSEPH: He is growing up culturally in a very distinct time and place. Just the other night we were having dinner, there were about 10 of us over at my house, and he was entertaining us by rapping. He was rhyming, and he was dancing, and this is what he's growing up with. And I'm watching the disconnect between my son and my grandmother. I'm watching my family become American. And so with "Scourge," I wanted to address that.

LUDDEN: The framework is a grandfather teaching his grandkids about Haiti, about their roots.

Mr. JOSEPH: Yeah. And even more so, his grandkids teaching themselves about Haiti through the--through making myth, so that the grandfather appears in choice moments, but for the most part it's the kids that find their own method through hip-hop, through movement and, you know, just in listening to the music in their own ...(unintelligible). That's the way that history really gets passed on, when it becomes a part of your body. And it becomes a part of your body if you can dance it. (Singing) `Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies'--right? We, you know...

LUDDEN: The plague.

Mr. JOSEPH: Exactly. It's the telling of the plague, right? And kids unconsciously pass that down orally.

LUDDEN: Can you read a bit?

Mr. JOSEPH: (Reading) `Point blank this close, gun blasts, gun smoke. Granddad shot dead. Rebel soldier force-fed. Boorish politics, misery endless. Point blank this war pointless. All black, all poor. Future looks dim. And now we must bury him. Remember this, the first myth to be spoken in English. Let's assume that New Orleans is our family's Garden of Eden. Right here in the center is me. This is a family tree speaking. Bury me like fallen leaves when summer proceeds into subsequent season. Ask a snake why I've made this request, and no doubt he will writhe ...(unintelligible).'

LUDDEN: Wow.

Mr. JOSEPH: OK.

LUDDEN: That's very powerful reading. Is there a link between the folkloric traditions of Haiti and the hip-hop that you do today?

Mr. JOSEPH: Hmm. In the--(deepens voice) in the beginning--(raises voice) oh, wait, in the beginning...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOSEPH: Yeah, I think in the beginning, hip-hop was about the spirit of creativity and, to some degree, a spirit of revolt. And that is where many of the folkloric traditions in Haitian culture come from. And I think the B-boys and the deejays, you know, in the late '70s and early '80s that defied gravity and spun on their heads and created new ways to make music--I think that they were operating from the same spirit.

LUDDEN: Marc Bamuthi Joseph. His new performance is called "Scourge." It premiered this month at the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in San Francisco. His first work, "Word Become Flesh," continues to tour the country.

Marc Joseph, thank you so much.

Mr. JOSEPH: Thank you so much, Jennifer. Be safe.

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