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Marc Bamuthi Joseph Past, Present, Future: An Interview

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a thinking man’s activist, and to have a conversation with him is to walk away with the conviction that— as he says— “there’s something about the world of ideas that needs nurturing and help.” Starting with his grounding in hip-hop, this interview proceeds to his new directions — career and performance […]

Marc Bamuthi Joseph (center). Photo: Bethanie Hines

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a thinking man’s activist, and to have a conversation with him is to walk away with the conviction that— as he says— “there’s something about the world of ideas that needs nurturing and help.” Starting with his grounding in hip-hop, this interview proceeds to his new directions — career and performance work-wise— including curatorial intentions at his new post at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, how his current roles at Youth Speaks and Living Word Project are changing, and concluding with general thoughts on institutions/institutionality. Definitely an interview for MBJ fans, arts administrators, and the performing arts-heads!

Jesse Leaneagh:

I feel like your interest and grounding in hip-hop is well known, with your piece the break/s based on Jeff Chang’s history of hip-hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Chang has said that “hip-hop is a medium …rooted in the idea of movement.” Can you talk about how hip-hop as movement has influenced your work? Or is that idea inseparable from hip-hop as music?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph:

Unfortunately, it’s getting easier and easier to make the division between movement and music, as corporate culture enacts greater influence over how people make the music, or what dominant culture hears. At the same time, that doesn’t obscure the logical connection between what we do and the kind of music that we make. So in terms of the social trajectory and social history, there’s no denying that hip-hop was important in defining an aesthetic of both youth and political vocabulary for a generation coming of age during AIDS and Reaganomics, during the abolition of Apartheid, during the fall of the Berlin Wall. I would even include President Clinton’s administration, out of that 12 years of “culture war.” So it’s impossible to strip away that history from the world events, knowing that this is the music that provided the soundtrack for urban America and multicultural America… this music that soundtracked an awakening of these folks. And physiologically, I think that the low-end theory, the way that the body responds to the low-end of the frequency, the low-end of the register, the way that the body responds to bass, is undeniable. So between the social history and the physics of the body’s reaction to the low-end, there’s no denying that there is movement in hip-hop.

Leaneagh:

Right. I’m intrigued by your idea of “energetic reciprocity,” which you’ve said is an element of the hip-hop generation. I’m wondering if there are other places, sources of inspiration, or forms of artistic practice besides hip-hop that you see “energetic reciprocity” in action?

Joseph:

I think you see it in the martial art of Tai Chi. I think you get it in the best educational practices, in terms of populist education — made most famous perhaps in Paulo Freire’s work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I think when democracy is working well it’s a product of energetic reciprocity. I think good romantic relationships have a high quotient of energetic reciprocity present. So there’s something about the “yes, yes, y’all ”— the call and response ethic in hip-hop — that is both metaphysical and formulaic, in terms of the cultural instruction. I think we see these things in nature, the give and take of nature. My son told me last night about a presentation he did about volcanoes, and he was really enthusiastic about geothermal energy, and how the same warming-up of gases below the earth is the phenomenon that triggers earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, you know what I mean? [Laughs]. All these things are present in our ecosystem, in nature, that also exist in the physical manifestations of the martial arts — tai chi — and in academia; it’s just that hip-hop does it with more flavor.

Leaneagh:

Switching topics, I’m also interested in the many hats you wear — the modalities within which you operate — among them now a very high-profile curator position as Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to YBCA? I mean, I personally think it is one of the most exciting arts centers in the country, but I’d love to hear your perspective and first impressions of being there. You started in February?

Joseph:

I did. I basically have Philip Bither’s job but at Yerba Buena Center. Philip Bither, very honestly, along with Mark Russell [PS122‘s first artistic director], is one of my heroes in the world of curation. I think that he is one of the most dynamic and innovative and imaginative and knowledgeable curators that we have in the Unites States of America, for sure. Getting the opportunity to work with him as an artist has been one of the inspirations behind my pursuing the job as an administrator at Yerba Buena, simply because watching what he’d done in the Twin Cities with the McGuire [Theater] and at the Walker — those things are truly foundational in terms of my thinking and the kind of curator I’d like to be. So I can’t give him enough praise for what he’s meant to me.

Leaneagh:

He’s definitely an inspiring person to work with.

Joseph:

I believe it. And I think one of the things that he does very well, that I’d like to emulate, is reflecting his local environment back to itself through a local prism of performance. I’m living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most diverse and politically progressive sectors of the country… For example, any time Newt Gingrich wants to make a point, he invokes Nancy Pelosi, who is our congresswoman. Nancy Pelosi represents Yerba Buena Center; literally, we’re in her congressional district. And Barbara Lee, who is the one congressperson that opposed unilateral powers in Iraq, she’s my congressperson. So that’s where I live. So reflecting those politics back but also the elegy of a time gone by, a projection of what our dissident futures may be like, an understanding of soul as reflective of intellect and not just blood and marrow: these are the things that I’m charged to do with this building, to reflect the community back to itself and also continue to make San Francisco a destination place for thought leaders across the planet. The last thing is that this too is part of my arts practice, not just putting theories on stage but creating environments; intentional community design is my arts practice, and so I look forward to making that happen at Yerba Buena.

Leaneagh:

In looking at the Life is Living festival, which brings contemporary art, performance, ecology, and community events together in public parks, you’ve said that “presenting can actually happen anywhere; we can take our ideologies and aesthetics and locate them where people are, without undermining the aesthetic quality of what we choose to present.” Are you interested in exploring something similar with Yerba Buena, in regards to off-site work?

Joseph:

Absolutely. I’m instituting a program called YBCAway, which is essentially is a micro-granting, micro-commissioning program where we seed 25 projects around the Bay Area that were going to happen anyway; small amounts of money, or relatively small amounts of money—somewhere between five hundred to one thousand dollars—pay for a week of rehearsal, or a week of studio rental for rehearsals, or one dancer, twenty hours of musicians’ time, etc. So part of the responsibility and accountability of the cultural ethic I’d like to institute at Yerba Buena is going to be setting aside a fairly large pool of money to make sure that the work that happens outside of our walls also gets supported: sometimes on small levels, sometimes on big levels.

Leaneagh:

That’s awesome.

Joseph:

The other thing too, which I’ve learned from when I do residency work in a city, is that I’m also looking for artists to have more protracted and deeper relationships with social services, youth services, and political agencies around the city. So that I think that is a self-imposed mandate as well.

Leaneagh:

Have your roles with Youth Speaks, the Living Word Project, or the Life is Living Festival changed at all now that you are full-time at YBCA? Or will they be changing?

Joseph:

They will be changing. I’m going to be a consultant with Youth Speaks, maybe for the next three or four months until they finish their strategic plan, but my art lives at the Living Word Project, so when I choose — and I believe it will be some years — when I choose to create a piece of scale again, it will be with the Living Word Project. And in the meantime, there are young playwrights: Rafael Casal, Dahlak Brathwaite, Chinaka Hodge, Dennis Kim, whose work I’m still interested in nurturing through the Living Word Project. And then Life is Living Festival is my baby and means probably more in the city of Oakland than it ever has, it’s on the rise, and so as much as I can contribute formally and informally I will. I won’t be at the center of the project, but I’ll offer as much as I can.

Leaneagh:

I think Life is Living is such a powerful idea; I would love to attend one of the festivals sometime because—even just from what I’ve heard about it at Walker—it’s been a reminder that there are so many different ways to approach the “environmental question.” I know I’ve sometimes felt personally disqualified to participate in environmental activism or activism in general because of the ways that it seems to require a special knowledge. It doesn’t seem allow for much on-the-job-learning. I know you’ve said part of your “message” with Life is Living and the new piece red, black & GREEN: a blues (rbGb) “is about creating a safe space for learning, which has been a problem for the Green movement.” So I was wondering if you could talk about whether you see the initial half hour of rbGb as a pedagogical moment, when you invite the audience onstage, or moreover what you’re hoping to create for your audiences at that moment or perhaps with the piece in general?

Joseph:

I think part of what I’m hoping to achieve with the first half hour relates to a visual art sensibility, what happens to the body and how we are prepared for viewing and absorbing in a visual art space. In a theater, you walk in and sit in the audience and find yourself in the dark until the performance is over, and it’s much more about the content, whereas I feel in the visual arts world the experience is relative and multivalent and you come into the gallery at your leisure. Maybe one object really piques your interest and that’s it; you keep going from there. So I wanted to create that kind of viewing sensibility that is present in the visual art world and take that as the softening, or preparatory agent, for getting involved or invested in the performance in a different kind of way. Also, demystifying the process of the physical architecture of performance by gaining a closer proximity: eliminating the fourth wall immediately by giving our entire audience access to it. These are things that I think make the performance that much richer.

Leaneagh:

Last question: I feel like you’re an artist with a unique relationship to institutions and the concept of institutionality because you’re invested in institutions but you also do larger work outside of them. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what you think the role of arts institutions are and what you believe is the most or best that they can hope to accomplish?

Joseph:

Well, I still believe in the ritual of people gathering, in both well-lit and dark spaces, to share thoughts. Part of what you see being shared in the Republican primary season is this crazy anti-intellectual fervor. You have someone like Rick Perry or Rick Santorum or even Mitt Romney refuting the reality of climate change, the climate crisis.

When you can come this close to being the most powerful person in the world and you deny the most basic and agreed-upon science, the most critical and climactic scientific moment of our time, then really there’s something about the world of ideas that needs nurturing and help. And I think that’s what art centers do; they promote the creative intellect and the world of thought in a way that certainly isn’t being shared on the level of presidential discourse, so it has to happen somewhere.