Our website is undergoing maintenance to improve your online experience with TCG! If you encounter any issues during this time, please contact us at info@tcg.org or (212) 609-5900.

Are We Dancing to Our Own Beat?

How hip-hop theatre conforms to catgories—including race

by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas

"...one of our basic political tasks lies precisely in the ceaseless effort to remind the American public of the radical difference of other national situations." —Fredric Jameson

"I write about race in the hope of undermining the notion of race in America." Richard Rodriguez

In this country, discussion of race stresses people out. The grievances are many, the stakes high, the terrain complex. And when people are stressed they retreat into reductive thinking. They look for labels and categories that will fix everything. Too often, artists of color are complicit in this one-dimensional thinking. We want to retreat into an identity marker that will protect us from the homogenizing influence of dominant culture. We should be careful what we wish for.

I have watched with curiosity the inauguration of the term "hip-hop theatre." Like many people, I wondered what in the world that was. For some time now I have watched as the term quickly came into vogue. On occasion I have had reason to cringe at some of the more flatfooted ways the term is bandied about.

Let me leave aside for a moment the obvious question of what hip-hop theatre is and begin instead with an anecdote. Whenever I conduct creative writing workshops with teenagers I begin by trying to get them to forget about hip-hop. In my experience, both as an artist and a teacher, to begin an artistic process by worrying about your fidelity to fashion is to tie both your hands. There is one young man in particular whom, under the auspices of New WORLD Theater of Amherst, Mass., I have been lucky enough to work with for several years. His name is Gabriel González, and the first piece of writing he ever shared with me recounted the exploits of a protagonist who drove a Jaguar and was friends with Pablo Escobar. There were a lot of AK-47s involved, and Gabriel delivered the piece accompanied by a tight staccato beat that he drummed out with his fingers. There was a degree of cleverness present (Jaguar rhymed with Escobar), but ultimately I knew Gabriel could do better then churn out a simulacrum of the conventional hip-hop he was hearing on the radio. And, more crucially, while I recognize that our culture doesn't present young men of color with many models for what they might grow up to be, I knew Gabriel was a more complex artist than hip-hop would probably give him room for. Like any other orthodoxy, hip-hop wasn't aiding this artist—it was hindering him.

Since that first meeting Gabriel and I have gone on to work on several projects together. Our latest collaboration is an account of a real-life altercation Gabriel had with a group of white college students. During the fight, Gabriel was outnumbered and desperate, so he pulled out a box cutter and, in defending himself, he wounded somebody. The account of that night, and Gabriel's resulting legal troubles, are the basis of the narrative for the new show. We could have staged the piece in rhymed verse, perhaps delivered it in the singsong voice that has become the dreaded cliché of the spoken-word scene. We could have played up Gabriel's masculinist swagger. We didn't. Instead Gabriel staged a puppet show using a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle as a stand-in for himself, and a Ken doll as a stand-in for the white college students. The piece found a fresh way of speaking to Gabriel's experience of growing up Puerto Rican in central Massachusetts—his experience of being different. The show is unmistakably grounded in the 21st century; it's political, funny, original—and it looks and sounds nothing like hip-hop.

Is this just a matter of personal taste? Do I just not like hip-hop? Actually, I am as steeped in hip-hop's rhythms as anyone else of my generation, and take the presence of hip-hop in my life for granted the same way I do the presence of video games, AIDS and bottled water. But I want to resist the simple cheerleading that accompanies discussion of hip-hop and look dispassionately at what we are actually talking about. I want to ask why we are putting the burden of a political task on hip-hop that we haven't put on other musical genres. And, certainly, hopes that hip-hop will end segregation in our theatrical bureaucracies and serve as the Trojan horse that smuggles us into the long-pined-for multicultural future seem overblown. In fact, available evidence suggests that hip-hop won't do this, shouldn't have to—and can't.

Hip-hop is an African-American cultural phenomenon. It continues to be read (fairly or unfairly) as a point of entry into the African-American experience. Hip-hop theatre ensembles and festivals, even those that tout their multiracial credentials, continue to draw their moral force—the base of their outlaw appeal, their aura of freshness—from their association with African-American urban culture. Even as hip-hop music dominates the airwaves and record charts, it still adopts an oppositionist stance vis-à-vis white, suburban culture. In certain hip-hop circles you will hear that hip-hop isn't at all about race, but this is usually coming from the mouth of somebody white and remains a profoundly disingenuous claim. Half a century after Norman Mailer's unpacking of "the white negro," hip-hop continues to draw its potency and credibility from its African-American base. Of course some theatres are excited: The way hip-hop is racialized gives it a political relevancy most of our theatres sorely lack. And who wouldn't want to cash in on hip-hop's financial cachet? The very term "hip-hop theatre" seems to white producers to have an almost totemic power to draw in young and nonwhite audiences. But hip-hop theatre's strength is also its limitation because the genre always brings us back to a reactive, North American–centric, black-white bifurcation that is ill-suited to deal with the complexity of our transnational, multilingual 21st century.

The timing of this newfound enthusiasm for hip-hop theatre is instructive. It is precisely when there are the first signs that the North American racial taxonomy is not universal, precisely when talk of multiracial identities and the browning of America begins to make inroads into the popular discourse—precisely when, for example, more fluid Latin-American nomenclatures of race begin to gain currency in the United States—that suddenly the predominant metaphor for nonwhite performance becomes (made in the U.S.A.) hip-hop.

For some time, ever-increasing numbers of Latin Americans who immigrated to this country have struggled to make sense of the anxiously bifurcated notion of race utilized here. Latin-American categories of mestizo, cabriso or jabao, for example, simply have no translation into a strict black-white paradigm most succinctly espoused by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. If Plessy had immigrated (much) further southward, he would have found a different set of racist expectations, where even one drop of white blood made you not black. Not that it made you white, but in Latin America it has long been possible to be neither black nor white. Because of this, Latin-American racial taxonomies have endured the ridicule of even the most progressive North Americans. One is reminded of the Richard Pryor sendup of the man who insists, "I'm not black, I'm Cuban." The audience cackles, because, of course, they know better. But recently the demographics of the audience have begun to shift. The joke has taken on new meanings.

A spate of newspaper and magazine articles on the issue reached a crescendo with the results of the 2000 census. Could it be, commentators asked, that North American racial designations are somewhat arbitrary? Culturally determined? And if so, might identity be something that is open to flux or negotiation?

An entire generation of public intellectuals began to panic; their bedrock analytical assumptions were being pulled out from under their feet. Joel Perlmann, co-editor of The New Race Question, (Russell Sage Foundation, 2002) summed up nicely the anxiety that Latino-thinking on race was causing the North American imaginary: "Where do these categories come from? What are their justifications? It helps delegitimize race."

If (a now emboldened) Latin-American culture is increasingly challenging North American habits, Latino artists pronounce this challenge. Not only do Latino artists inhabit a sense of racial and ethnic identity that remains literally untranslatable into North American English, they are grounded in a Latin-American literary and artistic canon to which most monolingual North Americans do not have, and often cannot have, access. It is hard to imagine a deeper challenge to theatre bureaucrats. How do we read Latino work if we know so little of the legacy that spawned it? How do elites maintain their identity as literate when they have not read Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or José Triana, even when the third-world intellectual with whom they are dealing is perfectly capable of discussing William Shakespeare and Arthur Miller? How, in the face of this cultural chasm, do experts retain their identity as experts—and, more important, as progressives?

At issue are entire aesthetic strategies, with long and rich traditions, that are considered a priori inappropriate by the rules of North American dramaturgy. Common ethnocentric objections to Latino plays, for example, might include judgments that the work is too poetic, allegorical, language-driven or overly sentimental. What a relief, then, for everyone, to be able to seize on hip-hop and watch all of this complexity evaporate under the weight of a preexisting North American cultural phenomenon. U.S. theatre bureaucrats can take comfort in the belief that Latinos are not so different, after all: They are a type of African American. Our vocabulary for racial difference thus remains limited to what Richard Rodriguez calls "the black analogy." Hip-hop theatre becomes a placeholder for race on the North American stage. It is the coating on the pill that makes Latino consumable. It is the box in which to toss, and be done with, all the exhausting pluralism of our polyglot cities.

This will to subsume complexity under the banner of hip-hop is a powerful one. In September 2003 the Ford Foundation conducted a two-day convening in San Francisco called "Future Aesthetics: Hip-Hop in Contemporary Performance Project." The event brought together 40 performance artists and writers from around the country, mostly artists under 35, and mostly of color. While hip-hop was enshrined in the title of the convening, it was soon obvious that the organizers (I was one of them) had been engaging in some genre projection. Once we arrived in San Francisco, it became clear that no one aesthetic strategy could suffice to subsume all of the diversity assembled there. Filipino-American writer Joel Barraquiel-Tan quipped that people mistakenly assume he writes in a hip-hop vernacular, because he is "big, brown, tattoed and bald." Mexican-born playwright and actress Tanya Saracho told me about how she and her Teatro Luna comrades were launching a Nalga Liberation Campaign in Chicago. Regie Cabico, another Filipino-American, did a heartbreaking imitation of Judy Garland showing up drunk at a spoken-word event. Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, the interdisciplinary performance artist of Filipino and Colombian descent, presented her kinetic video installation, Inverted Minstrel, which uses a barrel worth of monkeys to suggest the ways hip-hop sometimes operates as a new form of minstrelsy. This country is in the midst of a renaissance of performance by artists of color, and the work is bold and multidisciplinary, and the term hip-hop doesn't begin to cover it.

The work of these artists might be showing us the way forward, because instead of hitching themselves to the style and look of hip-hop, these artists are arguably treating hip-hop (and lots of other influences) as an open-ended artistic process, a way of consuming (and repackaging culture), and as a green light for articulating racialized discontent. Viewed this way, hip-hop becomes just one of many artistic movements of the late 20th century that is interested in pastiche, juxtaposition, the postcolonial viewpoint and the usurping of popular cultural forms. Work produced using a process similar to hip-hop can, therefore, end up sounding and looking nothing like hip-hop. The artists are a step ahead of the producers: Instead of establishing an orthodoxy, they are reveling in a diversity that the racial taxonomy of this country will always try to conceal.

So what in the world is hip-hop theatre? Turns out that underneath all the hype and the mislabeling, there is in fact such a thing. Briefly, you know it's hip-hop theatre when the performer is using one of the four elements of the genre (break dancing, rapping, graffiti or DJ'ing) as an integral part of the theatrical event. The irrepressible Will Power's Flow at the New York Theatre Workshop last year is a good example. Other performers argue that any show about hip-hop or hip-hop-influenced characters is hip-hop theatre, and while this seems more of a stretch (wouldn't that make Christopher Shinn a hip-hop playwright? Is "Law and Order" hip-hop TV?), I'll let those more invested in the genre than I sort out the definition.

If you go to a hip-hop theatre festival you will see these two ways of thinking about what constitutes hip-hop theatre very much in attendance. Some of the work is worthy of celebration. But every scene attracts its posers, and at these events some performers will be struggling very hard to impress you with their hip-hop credibility. It is heartbreaking to watch middle-class, Ivy League–educated intellectuals (of all races) strain to talk and dress like some younger, blacker, poorer version of themselves. These are the grown-up equivalents of the teenage writers I sometimes work with; they haven't quite figured out that there are other ways to be an artist of color than what they see on the BET (Black Entertainment Television) network.

This is the price of the ticket: amputation of cultural and aesthetic legacies that do not fit into North American paradigms of identity. Immigrants will not be surprised; the price of the ticket is what it has always been. Only now we risk making hip-hop the latest orthodoxy that artists of color are expected to conform to.

Of course, any aesthetic strategy carries within it the potential for ossification, the potential to become stereotype. But when an aesthetic strategy becomes synonymous with one's most cherished notion of identity, the effect can be particularly debilitating. White artists may leave modern dance for ballet without feeling they have betrayed their ancestors, alienated themselves from their family or made themselves an anomaly in their neighborhood. For artists of color, these vocational choices are more fraught; to make choices like these is to navigate deep psychic cleavages. These cleavages may be overcome—they often are—but the cleavages cannot be ignored. Remember: White producers and presenters still often hold the key to the stage door, so we will likely find ourselves in the position of having to conform to white expectations of who we should be when we get on stage. The concessions we make to these producers can quickly become our straitjackets. By this bitter calculus, the space between cultural identity and stereotype becomes razor thin. We may end up staging caricature instead of characters. Ethnicity may end up feeling more confining then enabling—the burden on our back instead of the voice in our throat.

A cautionary note: The more hip-hop theatre looks and sounds like hip-hop, the more it risks missing hip-hop's fundamental lesson—that art shows up everywhere, and (any of) the artistic canons of the dispossessed can be as powerful and affecting as what elite culture has to offer.

Thirty or so years ago in the ghettos of postindustrial New York City, young people from whom the U.S. expected silence began to make a lot of noise. The music, dance and visual style they inaugurated has since swept the planet. This is what North American cultural phenomena tend to do—they sweep the planet. Hollywood cinema did, rock-and-roll did. These unilateral processes of globalization are not entirely bad, but neither are they entirely good. That Algerian rai, Cuban timba and Indian bhangra remain regionally ensconced is testament not to some inherent superiority of North American beat-making, but to the radical asymmetry between the Northern and Southern hemispheres in terms of cultural and financial capital. A parallel process is at work domestically, where reductive ethnic identity boxes have made hip-hop, for some, synonymous with what it means to be young, poetic and not white. It's interesting to see the global marketplace and North American identity politics working in such synchronicity.

The literary critic Harold Bloom might have an aneurysm if he reads this, but I don't think you need to be a radical to recognize that performance grounded in hip-hop can be as vital and inspiring as that grounded in Shakespeare. And what a beautiful, enabling statement to have theatres like New York Theatre Workshop and funders like the Ford Foundation on board as recognizing the importance of this kind of work.

But we also need to look beyond hip-hop theatre. Because I want us all to make art as unique to our settings, and as transcendent of our settings, as what hip-hop was to the South Bronx. I want our art to be as unmistakably ours as hip-hop was to its creators.

When our society learns to value and celebrate aesthetic diversity, we will be well on our way to true civic diversity. Theatre artists can help by continuing to press for a reshaping of how cultural power is shared, how artistic funds are distributed and how producing decisions are made. If we strive to set up more responsive structures, structures that ensure greater community accountability, then we are more likely to recognize and respond to alternative aesthetic strategies—not just today, when the commercial profile of hip-hop makes it an obvious object of attention, but later, in the future, when new movements spring up that we won't be smart enough or plugged-in enough to recognize.

Diversity of the scale and depth I am interested in won't arrive by trumpeting any one particular style or genre, no matter how fashionable. Ultimately hip-hop theatre may fall to the wayside by the modesty of its demands. Is hip-hop really all we want? A particular way of syncopating beat? A particular style of dress? A certain swagger and mode of address? No. We want much more than that.

Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas is the author of the plays Sleepwalkers and Tight Embrace. He is currently a writing fellow at New York Theatre Workshop.


Related Stories in American Theatre

The 5th Element, by Roberta Uno, with additional material by Harry Elam Jr., Kamilah Forbes and Universes, April 2004

Tha Playz tha Thang, by Kim Euell, September 2002

Blowin' Up the Set, by Holly Bass, November 1999

Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, a play by Danny Hoch, July 1991

© - 2006 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.