I think art is a battery”Vocabulary is an integral term in the dance world – it refers to the language of body movement a dancer has learned and uses to communicate with. But articulation is an entirely different thing. Many dancers who express themselves fluidly on stage have a harder time with verbalizing their thought process, or explaining their creative inspirations.
That’s not the case with Marc Bamuthi Joseph. A dancer, choreographer, playwright, poet, and unrepentant hip hop intellectual, Bamuthi has no problem finding his words. It’s tempting to call him a visionary, but since much of what he imparts is universal common sense, the question really becomes, why aren’t more people able to speak what’s really on their minds?
The current Chief of Program and Pedagogy at YBCA, Bamuthi’s extensive resume includes numerous awards and career highlights. One of the things he’s proudest of, however, is co-founding Oakland’s Life is Living Festival, an annual cultivation of community. Featured in this month’s Black Choreographers Festival, he took the time to speak with SF Sounds about the new work he’s premiering, the connection of dance to ritual-myth traditions, the current state of politics, and the role art and artists can play in stimulating consciousness — and conscious action.
SF Sounds: The original work you’re presenting for the 2017 Black Choreographers Festival is called “The First 100 Days of Trump.” What’s that all about?
Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Many of us around the country are, I won’t say counteracting, but certainly responding to the first one hundred days of Trump’s presidency with a series of actions. I’m working with a collective at YBCA which has specifically sponsored one hundred days of action in response. The poem that I’m composing is patterned after NWA’s “100 Miles and Running.” … As we started our call, I started talking about walking on shaky ground, I was reading about the proposed budget that Trump spoke of putting out, which includes a call for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as gutting service programs in a number of federal agencies… In terms of public imagination, artists are responsible for upholding and creating a landscape where the public imagination might thrive, and we can both dream ourselves forward and also constitute the vocabulary of resistance. Hopefully, this piece will add to the broad vocabulary that so many of us are feeling in this tender, tenuous moment.
SFS: How do you frame that landscape through the movement arts? What’s your process there?
MBJ: Unfortunately, I don’t have to do a lot but look around… I don’t wanna come from a place of fear. But I am agitated and angry, and I’m not shocked or stunned… I guess I can say that my level of disappointment in the American process has deepened. I recognize, as so many of our elders and ancestors before me and before us have also recognized, that this isn’t the moment for achieving common ground. So, if my process neither comes from fear nor does it come from the impulse to think of art as a bridge. I don’t think art is a bridge. I think art is a battery. And the desire, then, to empower folks or to charge folks that not only are similarly-minded, but also are in a similar emotional state. So the process is to try to place myself in the space above the fear, to think about, again, this idea of one hundred miles and running, like, where are we one hundred days later? Where are we thirteen hundred days later? When my son who’s now 15 is eligible to vote in 2020, what will the landscape look like then? … Small things like poems or dances or visual art pieces, or music, how do we use these elements to broker a vision of the future? As Gil Scott-Heron or as Chuck D did very specifically. I don’t know where my physical consciousness would be without KRS-ONE and Chuck D, that’s something you and I have talked about going back fifteen years now, right?
One of the by-products of our social media landscape is the erasure of history. There’s so much content that comes out on a daily basis, that we tend to forget what happened yesterday, just keeping up with whatever comes out today fully, and scrolls in front of our eyes… Which is why I think the Life is Living festival is such a powerful tool, because it’s not just something you experience with pictures, it’s something you experience in the body, as a collective with others. It’s like gathering around music or theater or dance. It’s so powerful because there’s experiential memory, rather than a digital separate point for a stream of content. So I wanna say something that feels right within the context of the Black Choreographers Festival, that comes from the revolutionary spirit of hip hop that I grew up on, and is poignant enough that my kid can carry a poem in the back pocket and use it as a reminder of their pathway to 2020.
SFS: You’re kind of getting into the crux of what dance really is, which is this whole language of body movement, the body language aspect of communication. And on the other hand, it’s very much connected to traditions, in particular, the ritual-myth tradition. And here you are, making a ritual myth inspired by NWA.
“It’s as useful to talk about black future as it is about black history.”
MBJ: I’m doing this other project at the Brooklyn Museum called “The Restless Dead.” And essentially, I’m making a series of site-specific rituals for hip hop-era ghosts that come out of Brooklyn. Elegies for Biggie Smalls, for Phife, for Yusuf Hawkins, and in this work, what I’m thinking about is how we honor our young dead. And how we do something more than agitate ghosts. How we commune with them, and normalize a kind of communication with the spirits to guide us and protect us. And the ancestors who paved the way for us… Because dance is the language of abstraction, dance is choreographed physical abstraction, there’s implicit in it this idea of the ritual, or kind of fragments of consciousness that are quite literally embodied and represented, or re-presented for an audience to engage in. Not all of us go to church, or not all of us have these spiritual backgrounds. But what I think what dance needs to do is locate emotion in a body, in a way that feels legible to an audience. It’s a really difficult skill, and it’s a pretty intimidating task. And because it’s the language of abstraction, it’s easily-dismissible…
So, I think one of the things that we collectively have to do is engage a higher level of thought. Or just engage thought in general. A quick reaction to bite-sized content is part of the de-intellectualizing of the country. We’re very fortunate in the Bay Area… this is the bluest region in the bluest state. By and large, there’s a lot of progressive ideology that comes with it, that’s trapped within it, that’s encircled. And in my mind, dance is one of the last frontiers of that kind of thought… It not only engages intellectual capacity, but because it’s in the body, also the performance of celebration. And labor. And ultimately, the kind of tool we’re going to need to sustain ourselves. Not just these next four years, but until we’re all free.
SFS: That’s really interesting. That makes me think about one of the silver linings of the Trump era—and I really hate having to say that—but one of the silver linings may be this outpouring, and I think we’re seeing it already, of really defiant, revolutionary art. I just saw the Dance Brigade 40th anniversary performance, and Krissy Keefer was saying, ‘oh well, I wasn’t going to do anything political this time, but then Trump got elected.’ And it’s like, oh, ok, here we go. It’s the same thing, we’ve talked about the 90s as a hip hop era, and even go into the 80s before that, these were the Reagan and Bush years. They were terrible for a lot of people, black people in particular, and yet, some of the best, most revolutionary art came out of that time period.
MBJ: Yeah. It makes a lot of sense within the context of the Black Choreographers’ Festival, if we think of jazz coming out of forced labor, and if we think of the blues as coming out of a discriminatory and inhumanely underpaid labor. If we think about the blues coming out of sharecropping, and think of jazz coming out of slavery, if we think about hip hop coming out of post-war depression and COINTELPRO attacks on the black community, then we see that this pattern comes out of tension. And I think we know that from our personal lives. The only time, I feel like, in my personal life, that I’ve ever really truly grown, is out of tension and conflict. It’s very difficult to be in a great place and meditate yourself to a higher place. Uh, whether it’s our parents or the four walls that we live in, we are shaped by the boundaries around us. And so, as the boundaries kind of close in, and get tighter, as there are fewer resources, accompanied by a statistical and predatory tone, we don’t have much of a choice but to squeeze up beyond that, or get squeezed out altogether.
SFS: That also goes back to the nature of these arts that are created by communities of color. They tend to have a very strong aspect of cultural resilience. That’s like a thread that runs through all of it. It’s a defining characteristic of communities of struggle. We see that through the entire range of artistic expression, and of course, we’re seeing that here, in the Black Choreographers’ Festival.
MBJ: The theme of resilience, even when I think about literacy, we’re talking about literary legacy. In terms of hip hop, or hip hop culture, hip hop is a literate culture. It’s about language. And, the sheer depth of the language that’s produced by a people who, 200 years ago, could have been killed for the sin of reading, if that doesn’t speak to resiliency, and evolution, and innovation, I don’t know what does. And the lens of the Black Choreographers Festival, kinda takes that resilience and channels it through the body. When you have that, you’re kind of responding to multiple tenets of education. And a kind of canonical response. I’m talking to you about NWA and Chuck D, but Gregory Dawson might talk to you about Balanchine or Martha Graham. That too is part of our toolkit for resilience. In a capacity to adapt all these different elements of the canon. All these traditions from the African continent, to the Caribbean, to the South[ern US]and Western and European traditions, to be able to adapt at all, and make up something new, that is legible within the context of a black community, because it innovates on from everywhere that we’ve been. This is a uniquely special skill in the black community. And it’s come out of necessity. That to me is what we mean by resilience. When there are these tensions, when there are these boundaries, to take what we have and innovate a pathway to survival.
SFS: Right. I get that. That’s absolutely correct. But I’m also thinking about resiliency in a cultural format, where we’re really talking about cultural expression being rooted in resilience, where you can’t really separate the resilience from the culture.
MBJ: So like resilience embedded in the culture, like post-Middle Passage resilience, post-fire burning resilience, is that what you mean?
SFS: Exactly. It’s like, our whole history is one of resistance, but it’s also one of resilience. And then, how we express ourselves culturally, the resilience is embedded in there. That particularly comes up in dance, also in song and music, but with dance in particular, the entire struggle can be illustrated in three simple movements.
MBJ: Right! For sure. What that kind of raises for me is the prolonged systemic attack on black bodies. And how, in this moment, where there’s a heightened visibility around the Movement 4 Black Lives, we see when you and I as black men aren’t martyred any more or less than we have been in history, but are more likely to be martyred, quite frankly, because of the visibility… because of the documentation of the loss of life, within the broader global culture, there’s more of a spotlight on the attack on the bodies of black people. Men and women. And so, here you have a festival that actually celebrates the black body, in its aesthetic diversity, and in its creative positioning and choreography. It’s a really beautiful chamber of discourse for conversation around the possibility of the black body. Black body, yes, as emblem of our resilience; black body, yes, as a kind of trigger for possibilities outside the tech sector.
How many dances do black people make up a year? … I don’t know how many dances white people make up, but I know that right now, you could go into 30 cities around black America, and there are probably 10 dances per season that get made up in every city. You just don’t know. You go on the train, and the way cats are dancing on the BART is not the way they’re dancing on the subway system in New York City. There’s constant innovation and resilience that gets propagated by the moving black body. You put that against the landscape of a Lacroix McDonald or a Sandra Bland… we are able to be conversant with a lifeless black body, and [this festival]celebrates the vitality and joy.
SFS: I’m really glad you brought that up, actually, because it kind of riffs off of my notions of Black History Month, which is a good thing to have, but at the same time, it can be a limiting box. What are we celebrating? Are we celebrating the lifeless black body? Are we celebrating people who have died? Or are we celebrating a living history, and the living word?
MBJ: Yeah. Well, you know I believe deeply in this idea and this cosmology of a living word and a living history. I think that art provides us with a kind of infrastructure to mobilize the public imagination. You know, just coming off of the King holiday, we see how the broader culture would like to freeze in time, the most palatable, least-offensive, aspects of our resilience. The way that McDonald’s treats Black History Month, or the way that corporate culture interfaces with black history, is far different [from how black people interface with black history]. The corporate interface with black history is ultimately one of sterilization. The way that communities of resistance deal with our history is as a blueprint for something more. Including sacrifice.
I had this conversation with two of my kids a couple days ago about the bay bridge being shot down. My daughter said, ‘dad, if you had a plane to catch, and you believed in the same thing that the protestors believed in, you were just stuck there with everybody else. That seems unfair.’ And I was like, well, what’s unfair, babe, is Tamir Rice. What’s fair about that? He is as old as you are right now. He was playing in a park the same way that you do, on a Saturday. So, the way that we reflect off of black history in communities of resistance is kind of [an]embodied reminder of what it took to get this far, to remind us that social change is not easy. It never has been. But somebody else did it. I Don’t look at these historical figures in the same way. I look at them as teachers and reminders and because of the spiritual elements that we were talking about earlier, I don’t see them as only historical figures. I see them as present and living in the moment. And I understand why that debt [we owe them], and that debt has to be paid in the present tense. Which is why I think it’s as useful to talk about black future as it is about black history.
SFS: I also want to touch on the other work you’re presenting, which is not a premiere, but perhaps something certain audiences haven’t had the chance to see. Which is “/peh-LO-tah/.”
MBJ: Yeah, we premiered “/peh-LO-tah/” in November, right before Thanksgiving weekend, and had a great three-night run, and the piece now travels around the country, Chicago, New York, D.C. and other cities around the country. I anticipate that we probably won’t be bringing it back to the Bay Area for several years, if at all. So I’m really excited by this opportunity to share a little bit of that work with the BCF audience. “/peh-LO-tah/,” broadly speaking, is what I call a futbol-themed freedom suite. It uses soccer as metaphor to initiate a conversation about immigration, global economics, and the matter of black life. There’s pieces that I’ll be performing, solo exceprts that I’ll be performing, from “/peh-LO-tah/,” [which]begin to navigate those concepts and those elements and ultimately make the case for black joy in this hour of chaos.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph performs February 11-12 during the Black Chreographers Festival. For info and tickets, visit bcfhereandnow.com
Marc Bamuthi Joseph also performs with Shane Koyczan March 13 at The New Parish. For tickets, visit thenewparish.com