By Julia Fritz
A quiet crowd. A man sits on the ledge of the stage, lips brushing the microphone in his hand. He runs a hand over his face and mouth. Heavy breathing. Panting, like he just ran a race. Panting turns into primal sounds: sneezes, coughs, cries. A symphony of bodily noises crash together, creating a beat unlike any other. The alphabet follows. Consonants and vowels clash and clang together until meshing into a path of spoken word and rhythm.
On Nov. 16, Muhlenberg College hosted a panel discussion with three hip-hop artists who break the narrow-minded view that Hamilton the musical is what constitutes hip-hop theatre. “Hamilton made hip-hop theatre acceptable in the mainstream world. Five years ago, it was frustrating,” Dreamscape Performer John “Faahz” Merchant said.
The discussion was held in conjunction with the performance of “Dreamscape,” a piece created by Rickerby Hinds, that centers around situations of police brutality and communities of color. Before the talk began, Merchant approached the curved seats filling the wide space of Miller Forum in Moyer Hall and instructed the audience to stand to their feet. Loud music pulsated through speakers while the crowd clapped their hands and shook their limbs to the beats only hip-hop could offer. He was joined by Natali Micciche, actress and dancer, and Kashi Johnson, pedagogy pioneer of hip-hop theatre at Lehigh University.
Over the course of more than an hour, the energy remained vibrant as the discussion explored issues of race, identity and performance. Hip-hop theatre has evolved into a mass communication for all ages and races. Merchant, Micciche and Johnson grew up with hip-hop and agreed on its impact on their lives and the complexity of the genre itself. “It is a way for me to understand my community and where I come from,” Merchant said. “I began [beatboxing] when I was six-years-old. It became more serious as I grew up and experienced life. All of the anger and the emotions and the pain I was dealing with ultimately got driven into my beatboxing.”
Hip-hop theatre is a gateway for self-exploration, allowing those who participate to find themselves through the art. “Hip-hop theatre is about finding your voice and speaking truth live on stage. It was created by black and brown youth in New York City who were marginalized,” Johnson said. “It allows a form of expression that is so far beyond all other things.”
So what exactly is hip-hop theatre? It is not rap, but rather uses elements of an MC or spoken word, dance, graffiti, and beatboxing as narrative tools to tell a story. Merchant used his abilities with spoken word and beatboxing to perform “Amplified Fidelity,” a piece that explored humanity. “We all started out the same,” Merchant said. “We argue but end up saying the same thing.” The performance utilized the use of bodily sounds and language to explore the idea of value placed on what we say as humans. It is overwhelming and genius, using simple word structures to unify an idea that we are all not as different as we think.
With the exploration hip-hop theatre allows, artists are able to discover old or new qualities that further strengthen their identities. “Wherever I go, however I act, it doesn’t change. [Hip-hop theatre] allows me to be who I am in the midst of performing,” Micciche said. “I am able to take from experience and create [interpretation] on my own.”
Hip-hop allows for freedom of expression, as well as an exploration of tough issues like identity. “It’s culturally ingrained in us on some level how we perceive,” Johnson said. The artists talked about their own incidents of persecution and the notion that society has molded its people to perceive someone based on one look. While it is easy to classify someone as “black” or “white,” many times it is never that simple.
“Yeah, I can break it down,” Merchant said in his explantation that while he had Native American roots, “I just made it simple to say I’m black.”
What’s running through my veins is different from my experience socially and culturally within America. And when it comes to hip-hop, to be able to say I’m black means something within itself because I can identify with the style of dress and style of talk.”
Hip-hop theatre is not just rapping words or dancing to a beat. It opens up conversation and dialogue that isn’t being held in the first place. The issues of relationships and identities, of race and power, can all be flushed out through this genre. Through their performance, artists can engage in questions: What am I? How do I identify myself? These emotions can then spark a flame in the audience, perpetuating future conversation so important topics like police brutality and racial injustice are not forgotten or pushed aside.
At the climax of the “Amplified Fidelity” performance, Merchant, standing center of the floor, becomes a blur of words. The beats smack together until they are indescribable. Then, the flurry of sound begins to slows down. And then the noise reverses, the letters disappear, the sneezes subside, until he sits on the ledge, breathing quietly. The audience explodes into applause. The energy is palpable. This is hip-hop theatre.