Marc Bamuthi Joseph upends the phrase “think globally, act locally,” striving to inject core community values into his work as an international hip-hop artist. “I’m not a stereotypical emblem for what hip-hop culture is or how it gets broadcast around the planet,” he says. “Hip-hop is definitely in my body, but I also don’t have a gold grill in my mouth, don’t have rims on my car, I pay my taxes, I have a family. On the flip side, I’ve been able to travel around the planet because I use hip-hop as an idiom and forum to express not only personal narratives, but allegorical ones.”
A National Poetry Slam champion who has been featured on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on HBO, Joseph has grown into a vital multidisciplinary artist whose work combines theater, movement, spoken word, poetry, and personal storytelling. He is also a dedicated educator—he founded the national spoken-word organization YouthSpeaks—who turns hip-hop into a curriculum of personal and political investigation and expression.
All those facets come into play as Joseph conducts an ambitious residency with the Walker Teen Programs and other young people that culminates in an April 3 performance. He spent the early part of this year matching a handful of teenage spoken-word artists with young videographers to create political expressions of local and larger relevance. Those pieces will also be available for viewing on the Walker Web site.
The following weekend, he premieres the break/s, a “travel diary” constructed as “a series of dream journal entries” exploring the personal costs of hip-hop’s ascendancy into a worldwide cultural force. Featuring live music by remarkable human beatbox/percussionist Tommy Shepherd and DJ Excess, Joseph takes audiences to the Philippines, Bosnia, Senegal and France, Cuba, and also to Madison, Wisconsin, Miami, and other American cities people wouldn’t readily associate with hip-hop. Part of his mission, he says, is “to eradicate some of the monolithic images that we have not only of hip-hop culture, but of some of these places. This is where it’s very important for the personal and global to collapse, in these little battles. The ethos of traveling and the times I travel throw everything into a little bit of a mist for me about what’s real and what’s not, and there’s almost a feeling of narcolepsy in there. There’s this thing of ‘representing’ in hip-hop, but when I come home, I don’t represent anything. The battle for me at home is more about family and personal decisions, how I relate to my partner, my son, my family. That’s the tension in the piece, and it’s definitely a struggle.”
Joseph has devised another method for engaging local audiences: “I have this whole Prince poem I’ve been playing with, and I keep trying to cram it into the break/s. I think it’s great, but my dramaturge says, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting, not sure it belongs in this piece,’ ” Joseph says with a laugh. “But after the performances, if no one’s throwing anything at me, I might try to put it in as an encore.”
—Walker Magazine March/April 2008