For Marc Bamuthi Joseph, KRS-One is Sophocles, is folklore. The rapper and MC helped inspire a culture, a set of stories linking people together. Similarly, Joseph shares personal stories with African American histories, weaving slavery and tap dancing, race and international identities. In “the break/s,” a work in progress that is part of the Living Word Project, Joseph appeals through his dramatic intensity, storytelling charm, dance facility, and musical energy.
Early in the piece, he discusses his boyhood and his father’s disappointment when Joseph took up tap dancing at age nine. Then, Joseph links tap with revolution and liberation, tracing its evolution from black codes which forbade slaves from owning instruments to tap dancing as a way for slaves to preserve rhythm and music subversively. Tap worked in a similar way for Joseph, and in this sense, the Nicholas Brothers and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson are as much his ancestors as his own father.
Throughout the piece, Joseph talks about the strange twists of the postmodern age, of globalization and upset expectations. He speaks with grace and wisdom, self-awareness and self-criticism. Many of his stories begin “half way around the world… was I dreaming?” For example, one narrative begins in New York, where Joseph meets the first African American he has ever known: a white woman from Lubbock, Texas. She married a Senegalese man, and the people in Queens referred to her as African American, and Joseph as Black American. Later, the story picks up with Joseph visiting her in Senegal. He was robbed and looking for help, now finding his naive sense of African-ness a mere illusion. She took him in and made him work with her against female genital mutilation; he learned that is not as African as he is American.
In another story, he visits Japan thinking that his status as the only black man in the club would provoke dancers to mob him as the embodiment of hip hop. Instead, they ignore him, and he becomes the “wrong man at the right party.” The Japanese, in this story, are interested in the music and how it affects their scene, not in questions of authenticity or celebrity. Similarly, in yet another story, Joseph watches a dance performance in Paris where a black African woman dances some awkward modern dance in a tutu, playing to European tastes against her native culture in order to land a spot in a Paris theatre. Then again, Joseph remarks that it was the Europeans who first really embraced jazz culture in America, who in essence helped create jazz. The ties that bind are shifting and shuffling, recoiling and unraveling.
Joseph revisits the title and theme of “Strange Fruit” throughout “the break/s.” The classic Billy Holiday song evokes the image of African Americans strung up on branches, lynched. For Joseph, it also becomes a metaphor for deep roots, for forgetting our past, for improvisation and change, for the unexpected.
Posted by Dusty Hoesly