We Can Get Down: Artist and Critic Talk Hip Hop and Theatre

Humana is down with hip hop.

In 2008, Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s solo piece the break/s: a mixtape for the stage had its co-premiere in Louisville. Joseph dances through stories he collected as a “hip-hop educator,” and in my review, I compared him to a rapper. Last year, Idris Goodwin’s How We Got On, an homage to hip-hop’s Golden Era, had its debut at the festival.

I didn’t intend to talk to Goodwin about the similarities between hip hop and theatre when I unexpectedly met him a couple days ago. He was surprised (shocked?) to learn I cover hip hop even more than theatre (I wear red cowboy boots and have big hair – don’t judge a book by its cover). As we began discussing rappers, Jenny Lawton suggested we do it on record.

Having just posted a piece on HowlRound regarding the similarities between hip hop and theatre, I agreed. A creator of both art mediums talking with a critic of both art mediums? Fun.

Haithcoat: I wanted to talk a little bit about your having one foot in hip hop, one foot in theatre as a creator and my being one foot in hip hop, one foot in theatre as an outside observer/critic. The differences, the similarities – there are so many similarities, I want to focus on the similarities.

Goodwin: I started out as a rapper. I was born in 1977. “Rapper’s Delight,” which is pretty much the first rap record, comes out in 1979; Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel “The Message,” that’s ’80 or ’81 – so as I’ve grown up, rap music as we know it as far as being on the radio has been present in my life, but was also new at the same time I was new. I’ve been following rap music my entire life. The thing that drew me to it was the art of rapping, the idea of rapping, being lyrical, playing with words. Playwrighting came much later. I wrote my first play when I was 22, 23. But I was drawn to plays for the same reason I was drawn to rap. It’s live language, live performance, and the ability to move people with words, characters, situations. All of it is the same for me. Moving the crowd with language.

Haithcoat: There’s also the storytelling element. Some of the greatest rap records of all time are these amazing three-act plays. Biggie, “I Got a Story To Tell”; Nas, “One Love.” Amazing stories being told by a narrator.

Goodwin: Yeah, you could throw in Slick Rick. Even Melle Mel in “The Message” – he’s like a Greek chorus setting a scene. “Broken glass, everywhere, people pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care. I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise, got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice. Rats in the front room, roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat” – he’s setting the scene.

Haithcoat: It is. It’s the opening [paragraph] on the setting.

Goodwin: The tradition, in our Western idea of what plays are, it’s just people using language to transport you. To a lesser degree, when you’re kids, and you’re like, “Ok, guys, we’re gonna play A-Team,” make a pile of leaves and a fort. That was my entryway into theatre. I think most people come in from a different place and set of aesthetics –

Haithcoat: Your mom takes you to Kentucky Center or the Orpheum and you see CATS.

Goodwin: Or from an acting standpoint. They like the production of it, the big stage and costumes. For me, it started with the word. As a kid, I was like, I don’t understand this, everybody has an accent, it’s 1705 or whatever, people are sword fighting, and I felt alienated. My entryway was language instantly transporting me.

Haithcoat: I’ve always believed it, but theatre and hip hop are so similar. Even the emotion in hip hop. Biggie when he’s sewing alligators and tigers on his shirts as a kid – that’s so raw. Any kid who was ostracized or bullied can identify with that. But why is hip hop just not as respected as theatre?

Goodwin: A lot of this has to do with context. I don’t think about what culture or nationality or the ways in which they approach the art of performance. For me, the issue is that hip hop found its most effective home for reaching people in the traditional song format of three minutes. Theatre found the best way to present itself in you go to a venue, sit down, there’s an intermission. Because of that, hip hop is far more digestible and moves at a quicker pace of production than theatre does. Theatre is entrenched in a certain kind of class, elitist culture. You have to have a certain amount of money to go, when you go you have to sit and be quiet as if you’re not there. Rap music invites you to participate. The way most people know it is a recorded form. But how it started out was an event.

Haithcoat: Kool Herc DJ’ing block parties.

Goodwin: Right, very similar to what we consider theatre to be. Multiple forms: dance, lyricism, storytelling, all happening simultaneously, for a long ass time or “to the break of dawn.” So again, I think part of it is that people have a very limited understanding of what hip hop is. It’s turned into something so focused on songs, and songs on Clear Channel. And with theatre, they’re thinking Neil Simon, you pay $40 or $50 and go sit in your sport jacket and watch an old story. A lot has to do with context. To a more distilled degree, hip hop started in the 1970s; theatre is centuries old. It has had more time to get people to understand it. People don’t understand hip hop. They think it’s people rhyming and swearing over some loud ass music. DJ Premier always says you have to know how to listen to hip hop.

Haithcoat: That’s the engagement issue, too. Live theatre versus live music. In a show, if the rapper is a good actor, the engagement is crazy. Again, the similarities! You look at someone like Tupac, who did have an acting background and was so charismatic. So many great rappers are, and when they’re onstage, you can’t help but be drawn to them like great actors. Their ability to move the crowd – the definition of an “MC.” People go to shows and feel like they KNOW these rappers, even though their personas are created in many cases.

Goodwin: I would concur. As a spoken word artist who operates in the world of theatre, the difference between spoken word or rap and theatre is that you’re performing rap or language. An actor performs the meaning underneath the language, the truth underneath. One of the cool things about hip hop is that the performer is presenting a version of himself in the same way a stand-up comedian does. It’s me, turned up a little bit. When you see a play, you’re spying on, watching actors re-enact something that probably occurred to other people at some other point in time. A form that’s like, I see you, I need you to throw your hands in the air versus a form that’s like, shut up, turn off your phone, don’t be here, we’re gonna show you some things and you’re gonna act like you’re not here right now.

Haithcoat: Even when a play moves me, I’m almost more bonded with the audience. Because I’m watching, it’s a bit private. If the rapper looks out and sees you, you feel devoted. Even though a lot of people do that with actors, too.

Goodwin: If Willy Loman looked at you, you would freak out. Breaking the fourth wall, they’re literally saying there was a wall here.

Haithcoat: And it’s uncomfortable, for me, if someone breaks it. I don’t want you talking to me.

Goodwin: That’s why a lot of people don’t like rap shows. I paid money to see YOU perform. Steve Harvey has this joke, “Rappers want me to scream. I paid $50. I don’t want to scream, you scream.”

Haithcoat: The difference is, hip hop is just getting bigger. It’s pop music. And we’re pulling teeth to get young people to come see theatre.

Goodwin: The hip-hop model has a lot to teach the theatre industry. My play is modeled after DJ art forms. It’s a story, but the style of presentation is more akin to hip hop. A lot of theatres don’t know how to handle it. They only know one style. And in hip hop, we embrace a bunch of styles. It’s a convergence of every other form of American style of presentation.

Haithcoat: That’s what I was gonna say. We just gotta open our arms.

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