It was a Tuesday evening in San Francisco about ten years ago when I first really witnessed the work of Marc Bamuthi Joseph. I owned a café/performance space called Café Royale, and Bamuthi was hosting the monthly Youth Speaks “Spoken City” poetry slam. Café Royale had one large room with a high ceiling, an open, wraparound balcony, and a small wooden stage. Most of the poets stood there, delivering their poems into a microphone. That was a constraint Bamuthi easily abandoned—animating the corners and heights of the whole room with storytelling using voice, body, space, light, and flow. Embodied word, embodied space—an emerging embodied practice.
Bamuthi had more in mind that evening than his own journey toward the dissolution of boundaries of a stage or recasting how audience and performers might engage. He knew who was in the room. At core a teacher, he offered a performance with a parallel narrative, one that posed a challenge to the younger poets in the room to imagine, engage, and recast the constraints of space, time, image, and resource in their work. It was an illumination of possibility; powerful stuff from an artist in his mid-twenties in a corner café on a Tuesday evening. Living Word, Life is Living, the break/s, and red, black and GREEN: a blues were still on the horizon.
It has been a while since that moment, and Bamuthi’s work has since emerged in the frame of the institutional performing arts world. His work is both evolution and revolution. He is continually exploding and challenging the performing arts narrative by pushing the field and intentionally provoking the need to self-generate, self-organize, and become functionally diverse. It is in this functional diversity that I find the core connectivity between his performances and a living ecosystem of culture, where spaces—parks, theaters, sets, cafés, cities—become characters in an interconnected story. Different embodied spaces create the same sense of community in different ways. These are big ideas, but what Bamuthi does is very personal—it’s risky to be the stone dropped to create ripples in the pond. Bamuthi knows this and he seems driven to play with intentionality and emergence.
The dialogue between intentionality and emergence is embedded in my jazz and improvised music work. I also see this mirrored in practices ranging from new media and human-centered design to urban planning. Through his work, Bamuthi provides ways to enter into important discourse about what cities should look like. This focus is something that resonates in Chicago, a city infused with the history of alternative infrastructures, such as the Hull House Settlement and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It’s hard to think of a more timely point of inquiry.
In this video, Bamuthi discusses the embodiment of the hip-hop aesthetic in his performances and the emergence of his interdisciplinary practice.