It was the third and final day of “From Vices to Verses,” a three-day conference that took place April 9-11 at the University of Minnesota. Panel discussions, performances, and workshops focused on various aspects of hip hop culture and its connections to community and education.
Tish Jones, a spoken word artist, activist, and educator from St. Paul, did the honors of introducing keynote speaker Marc Bamuthi Joseph, starting with a story about how she personally came to know him. They met back in 2005, when Jones and about 20 other young artists took a trip to San Francisco to participate in the International Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam Festival.
For the younger Jones, seeing Joseph perform changed her life: “He did something really major, and it made me want to embody words more. It made me want to investigate the power of the word more.”
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Is the hip hop generation ready to walk in its greatness? • By Jamal Denman, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder • It was the third and final day of “From Vices to Verses,” a three-day conference that took place April 9-11 at the University of Minnesota. Panel discussions, performances, and workshops focused on various aspects of hip hop culture and its connections to community and education….
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Jones then went on to recite two pieces, weaving them together in some sort of mashed-up fashion, which she performed during the 2005 festival. Touching on myriad scenarios that deal with relationships, beauty, and fitting into society, Jones’ piece paints vivid pictures of individuals and situations that seem all too familiar.
For instance, in the piece she told a tale of two friends and how they began go down completely different paths in life. “Then there’s the little boy whose father got sent away yesterday; he’s having a bad day, so he answered the test questions in the wrong way – now he’s in the hallway with extra help, frustrated, fighting to keep his tears to himself… Well, she’s lived in the inner city since the beginning; brown skin, long hair, but just a little bit skinny, she’s smart – makes failing a test seem hard – if you don’t believe me, peep her report card. Well, she and he were cool, they went to same school, hung in the same crew, did things that two best friends would normally do – until one day, after taking that test, she got labeled advanced and he got labeled a fool…”
After a strong round of applause by the 70-plus people in the room, Jones welcomed Bamuthi Joseph to the stage, letting the crowd know, “If this dude doesn’t embody the message behind this conference…then I don’t know who or what does.”
After giving the impression that he was completely taken aback by the reverence expressed in Jones’ introduction, Joseph let the audience know that he just got in and his stay will be brief, so he asked some people in the audience to fill him in on what had transpired since the first day of the conference. A few people willingly shared what they were getting out of the experience of attending the conference.
One young man, however, shared how the conference helped him realize the power and responsibility bestowed upon him and his peers: “My generation, this generation, has a lot of potential. We have a great responsibility to change the world; to make sure that hip hop is written in history; to make sure it’s still a liberating voice; to make sure that we don’t allow it to leave the people and have other people to use it to oppress us.
“We need to keep it fresh, keep it real, keep it being our voice – being our medium. I truly believe that our generation can see how the world is changing… We have so many college students here – great minds. Are we ready to walk in our greatness? Are we willing to fight for what we love?
“…We need to understand what has gone before us, and then understand where we are going, like the Sankofa bird [a mythical bird of Ghana that symbolizes returning to the past and learning from it]. We need to look back but keep going forward, [or else] we won’t have perspective. We have made great strides, but we can go even further; we are the generation.”
Joseph began his presentation “in the middle,” starting with a story about being overseas in Europe to attend a performance featuring young contemporary choreographers from Africa. Before he started to describe what he witnessed, he gave the audience an idea of what it was like being an African man from America in Europe: “I am the surrogate for Allen Iverson and 50 Cent.” Without breaking stride, he then wondered aloud, “What good is a Black man in America if stripped of his rights to threat?”
Then Joseph recited a couple of pieces from his show The Breaks, which are based on tales of his travels overseas. He explained how he structurally patterned The Breaks on the book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang, and how the fact that he was reading it in Paris caused him to be “struck by the different ways that I’ve been able to access hip hop culture around the world, and actually access the world through hip hop culture.”
He went on to tell the audience what impressed him about the way Chang structured his literary work: “In terms of its structure, [what I loved] was the way that it managed to emulate hip hop as form while narrating the history of the culture” in poetic fashion, using movements as often as words to bring his stories to life.
For Joseph, there are two core elements that embody the concept of hip hop as form. One is the dub, a recording technique that takes the majority of the vocals out of a track while adding sparse sounds and effects throughout. The other is the break, which is basically the part of a song when the drummer is highlighted for at least one bar. Both embody the concept of creating a new musical arrangement with already existing material, utilizing whatever you have to work with to create something fresh.
As entertaining as Marc Bamuthi Joseph was, it was obvious that he was merely using performance – coupled with his affinity with hip hop culture – as a tool to educate young people and provide a safe space for them to express and expound upon their ideas.
As he put it, Joseph’s intent is “systemically integrating a point of transformation into the classroom structure. In other words, when I engage young people around writing, around art, the goal is not for the young people to write poems. The goal is for them to lose their minds temporarily; to quite literally reach a point where they reach their own edge, and go over.”
Joseph works tirelessly with various arts groups and festivals, such as Youth Speaks, where he mentors young writers 13-19 years old. He also organizes a national festival called Brave New Voices, an annual gathering of young artists from all over the country.
Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.