Breaks on a stage, breaks on a screen


“Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.” (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)

Breaks on a stage, breaks on a screen
Breaks to make your wallet lean
Breaks run cold and breaks run hot
Some folks got ’em and some have not
(Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks”)

the break/s, which received its world premiere at the Walker Art Center earlier this month, is a riveting traversal of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s emotional and global travels and conflicts in, through, and because of hip-hop. A spoken word and performance artist based in San Francisco whose previous work includes Word Becomes Flesh and Scourge, Bamuthi uses his own narrative to not only reveal his own power and vulnerability, but also the world that shapes, and is shaped by, the whole culture of hip-hop.

For a schedule of the break/s tour dates, see

Questioning simple statements of “hip-hop is this” or “hip-hop is that”—especially when these statements are wedded to specific racial, gender, ethnic, sexual, age, and class markers—his self-reflection and refraction engages some of the thorniest, yet most necessary debates around hip-hop culture in the contemporary moment. These include black authenticity, gentrification, whiteness, the economic inequalities surrounding hip-hop, presenting hip-hop at institutions like the Walker, the global transformations of hip-hop, and academic engagements (and non-engagements) with hip-hop—as well as his own coming to terms with the many identifies constituting his life, his West Indian roots, a white girlfriend, and his son with a Chinese mother.

In a Q&A after the opening night presentation, Bamuthi said that “I wanted this piece to feel like I was the crossfader.” Throughout the break/s, subtitled “a mixtape for stage,” Bamuthi expertly fuses hip-hop’s content and its forms—both the way hip-hop is constructed but also the materiality of the music, i.e. records and turntables.

The show begins with Bamuthi inside of a projected record, literally on the record, writhing inside the grooves, the cuts of the record, and all of the associated histories etched into those grooves. Like a good DJ mixing disparate records into a seamless whole, Bamuthi’s work traverses historical precursors as varied as the two epigraphs above, to W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness” (“it’s easy to lose my mind ‘cause I’ve got two”), to, of course, the sounds of hip-hop history. The two other musicians on-stage—Soulati on drums and beatbox and DJ Excess on the turntables—deftly recreated hip-hop touchstones like “South Bronx,” “Walk This Way,” and “Sucker MCs.”

The show begins with Bamuthi inside of a projected record, literally on the record, writhing inside the grooves.

While he pulls these disparate texts together like a DJ, Bamuthi is also pulled by the records…only these are the more metaphorical records of personal and cultural history and memory. There were moments when Excess pulled the record back and Bamuthi violently flung himself across the stage, as he slipped in and out of time like a needle skittering across a record. (I was struck that these moves Bamuthi’s dancing are actually someone else’s, as the break/s was choreographed by Stacey Printz.)

The show’s recurring spoken trope of “this story starts in the middle” works in a similar vein, reminiscent of most breaks on a record—which don’t occur at the beginning but somewhere in the middle of a song. Metaphorically it’s both an embrace and a questioning of origins. The mobile riggings for the lights were reminiscent of a New York bridge, with their criss-crossing supports: an ode to the origins of hip-hop, perhaps, but also a metaphor for Bamuthi’s explorations of the roots and routes of hip-hop.

the break/s is but one moment in Bamuthi’s life, and the show also takes on the character of an imagistic and sonic travelogue of Bamuthi’s (and hip-hop’s) travels to Florida, Haiti, Japan, South Africa, Senegal, Paris, Minneapolis, Wisconsin, and Bosnia. While in Japan, for instance, he jokingly assumes his own egotistical black authenticity in a club full of Japanese hip-hop heads who nonchalantly ignore both him and his authenticity.

The show takes on the character of an imagistic and sonic travelogue of Bamuthi’s (and hip-hop’s) travels to Florida, Haiti, Japan, South Africa, Senegal, Paris, Minneapolis, Wisconsin, and Bosnia.

There was also a filmic element to the break/s, including moments from the best-known of hip-hop films—including Style Wars, Wild Style, and even Breakin’, as well as interview clips (edited and organized by renowned hip-hop filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi) that feature artists, family, friends, even people off the street. According to Jacobs-Fantauzzi, they were woven into the show so that “they could share the stage with Marc Bamuthi Joseph when he’s doing his thing.”

Also in the Daily Planet, read Dwight Hobbes on Sha Cage and e.g. bailey and Jay Gabler on The Cutt open mic night.

For Jeff Chang, whose book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop inspired the break/s, Bamuthi, like the best MCs, has the ability “to cram all these ideas into a line and then make that line sing.” When I asked Chang how he characterizes the two works’ relationship, he said that for a long time “I didn’t really know, myself, and I still kind of don’t know. [Bamuthi] has a line where he’s talking about riding the lightning. That’s like at the end of the chapter about 1982, but then he takes it in a completely different direction, it’s like a whole ‘nother story. That’s inspiring to me to think, wow, he unpacked it and flipped it and took it in a completely different direction. There’s almost this loop of discussion that you can start having between those two texts.”

Bamuthi is a little more clear on the relationship. “That book gave me a sense of history,” he said. “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a book that I’ve probably been waiting all my life to read, a comprehensive history that I felt included in. The intelligence and structure of Jeff’s book made me feel topically that I was included but also structurally, that he was writing for me.”

“The work doesn’t mean very much if it’s not grounded in community.”

These performances were the culmination of Bamuthi’s residency at the Walker, which included a writing workshop as well as a three-month workshop offered with Jacobs-Fantauzzi and facilitated locally by e.g. bailey, Sha Cage, and Rachel Ramist, with some of the most talented youth involved in Twin Cities hip-hop and spoken word. “The work doesn’t mean very much if it’s not grounded in community,” Bamuthi told me.

The culmination of this workshop was a program entitled “I Represent” on April 3 at the Walker, where each of the 13 participants delivered poems, showed videos, and breakdanced. The theme of the night was what each of them represented, from the Filipino-rooted Chantz saying that “I represent your distance” to a number of calls for more honest representations of ourselves, past brands and labels. Jacobs-Fantauzzi, who co-facilitated the workshop with Bamuthi, told me excitedly that “the youth, they’re such good people. Any time I come back or they’re in the Bay, I got their numbers and they have mine.”

In the end, the break/s is a smaller part of a larger whole: the transformative potential of Bamuthi’s own work, both on-stage and off, as well as that of hip-hop and art itself. “I understand the mechanics of the world,” says Bamuthi, “but I also understand change is possible, to flip our thinking and positioning. Art is the mechanism by which that happens most often and most attractively, the repositioning of culture through art and performance.” the break/s continues its own journey across the country in the coming months, and if you’ll be in any of the cities where it will be appearing, you don’t want to miss it.

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.