Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the influential spoken word and hip-hop theater artist, is certain that hip-hop has matured over the last four decades. While still sharply attuned to contemporary culture and driven by insightful social commentary, the movement that began in the South Bronx with an anti-violence cohort of kids is now an internationally-utilized tool for connecting people.
"The culture has widened, not become more diffuse," said Joseph. "Hip-hop is a conduit for how it is that we're networked. The potency is that it's movement-driven in all senses of the word and it's an aggregating force. It's broadly diplomatic and exciting in terms of its intellect."
Joseph is the chief of program and pedagogy at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and founder of the national spoken-word organization YouthSpeaks. His autobiographical performance piece, /peh-LO-tah/, will have its world premier on November 18 at YBCA. The three-night run will kick off his national tour, which includes appearances at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The theatrical production is a mix of live music, dance, video, and spoken-word poetry. The project began in 2012 as a "travelogue" that documented soccer culture — from kids competing on dirt fields in Haiti to World Cup games in South Africa and Brazil. Joseph intended the project to form into a conceptual piece where acts such as running and passing the ball could be read as expressions of global sociopolitical commentary. But, to his surprise, the finished product took on added meaning.
"In 2016, it's impossible not to be thinking about Black life in an urgent way," he said. "My son is fourteen and I'm forty-one." Giving his son "the talk" meant explaining civil rights, but also telling him, "I need you to get home to me. I need you to be safe." Instead of drawing parallels between soccer, microeconomics, and social interconnectedness, /peh-LO-tah/ became an extended metaphor for how Black bodies live in the world today. "Moving without the ball is the immigrant story. Learning how to pass is all the complicated ways we pass in the United States. Running is running from race. These skills correspond to strategies for navigating through American promise as a Black male body."
Joseph said he's "never not Black" while moving through society. His Haitian ancestry and personal encounters with racism and white supremacy are ever-present in his work. His expressions are shaped by the tenor and timbre of his voice, the vitality and legibility of his Black skin, and the rhythm of his poetry. For Joseph, dance embodies allegorical dimensions while words communicate the literal. Together, they create something intangible, yet visceral. The dramaturgical currency of labor, sweat, and physical rigorousness lends gravity to the sterility of words hanging in the air. But words do have potency. And Joseph said it's imperative that Black men speak out to define themselves, despite "a cultural predisposition in the DNA of our country to disavow the intellectual contributions of the Black body."
Instead of allowing non-Black voices to craft a landscape that organizes Black lives around chaos, Joseph asserts Black joy. "I'm investigating where freedom lives in my body," he said. "For many years, this game, soccer, is where it dwelt." He's observed that the gentleness and intellect of Black men gets "escorted out" amid the noise of media. By becoming a poet who dances, releasing spoken word on an operatic scale, using multiple perceptions to communicate emotion and operating more by intuition than dogma, he's able to investigate ways to move beyond trauma. Joseph acknowledges that /peh-LO-tah/ will ask hard questions, but insists that there is more than grief, rage, and loss to Black lives and his art; there is a spectrum of joy. "As a dad, my daughter is juiced to go Trick-or-Treating. I live in that place, too."
A video of the work in progress leaves impressions of supple torsos, lyrical-but-not-light movement, luminous declarations of spiritedness, and kids at play — a spectrum of joy. Soccer as a game provides language, both literal and allegorical, but the narrative that surfaces is a canon of love, eroticism, cooperation, and exchange — underlined by open-eyed honesty. Joseph said the "seventy-minute ride" shows how "Black lives might be seen if we just open our eyes."
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Marc Bamuthi Joseph is of South-African ancestry. In fact, he is of Haitian ancestry.