red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb) was recently performed in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center. While they were in town, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Theaster Gates sat down for an interview with artist Susy Bielak to share the history of their intent, not only for rbGb, but throughout the timeline of their individual and interrelated disciplines. The conversation offers rare insight into how Theaster’s practice became embedded in the work of rbGb.
Bamuthi on Theaster:
[I]n the beginning, I knew Theaster as a craftsman who also had mad swag. That’s important. Of nine elements that I could name in hip-hop, style is paramount. He was someone who was classically trained and was revisiting all of these traditions in both performance and in materials—sometimes clay, sometimes paper, various textiles. I saw him as a person who was changing the trajectory and also inspiring other performers with how they get down. And I think what keeps us together are not only these shared interests, but Theaster’s particular leadership in pushing the whole art world more toward a holistic center that embodies all these different values, while also lifting up this style portion at the same time. It’s pretty extraordinary.
Theaster on activism:
I don’t use the word activism. My dad was kind of an anti-activist. He had nine children, so when people were protesting, he went to work. For him and the survival of his family, labor felt like the most active duty that he could participate in. I grew up thinking that my politics would be more in my hand and in my body and in labor. It was late that I came to the idea that a political voice could create change. These days, I’m trying to leverage both my hand and political voice, and gain an understanding of how systems and structures work and what’s needed. Is my hand needed more in this situation, or my voice?
My voice. That’s my angle. Eight years ago, Bamuthi asked me to “bust beats in a show I’m doing” (that’s almost a quote). I thought he meant playing drums. He was thinking more about beat boxing. Although I did play drums in Scourge, it was the beat box alongside the instrumentation that was something special and different. For me, that experience started a new way of thinking about music in general, and specifically about how to tell a story with note progressions, key changes, and soundscapes. Most of this is done live with our hands and mouths and little live instrumentation. That’s part of what I think the hip-hop aesthetic is. We use what we have to create what we need. That’s personally my whole steez.
I am connected to the concept of making something out of nothing. I haven’t been more aware of that than with red, black and GREEN: a blues. On stage, we are able to embody real people, who are seemingly nothing to this world, and share their “something” with multiple communities who wouldn’t have been the wiser. That is pretty special. It’s evidence of hope. To me, Traci Tolmaire, Theaster Gates, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and myself, creating at least four genres of music with our voices and a shotgun house repurposed as a drum set is the freshest ever. I was hyped upon being asked to compose this piece, because I was into making music with a computer program. I thought this would be my chance to flex some beat-producing skills.
Our director kept ever so gently pushing me to create things organically, which, frankly, I resisted at first. I soon realized that what I was being asked to do was very challenging. We musically went green. Reduced the use of samples. Reused and recycled the music and melodies that impacted us as artists.
Click on the image below to watch a video clip of Shepherd and his signature interactive beat boxing.
red, black and GREEN: a blues has been a blessing in my life because it has caused me to look at myself, family, community, art, and “going green” in unexpected ways. I now know that art is everywhere and in everyone, community is alive, family is more than your blood, and people are recycling and reusing without even knowing it. rbGb opened my eyes to new people and new art. For example, Cleveland “The Flower Man” Turner lived on the streets of Houston’s Third Ward for seventeen years before getting sober, riding on a bicycle decorated with flowers, and getting a house and decorating it with other people’s “junk.” The Flower Man is himself both a work of art and a leader in the green movement. As an added bonus, the rbGb cast and crew have become a family during our residencies. As we travel together we share creative ideas, personal stories, and do our best to perform a piece that honors the people and cities we represent.
Speaking of representing, as the only female performer in rbGb I am lucky to be able to rep the ladies and to show that a woman can play a man in an unexpected way—no wigs, props, or costume changes. I play men (artist/activist Rick Lowe and The Flower Man) and women who are physically the opposite of me in terms of gender, age, and race. The goal was to portray their essence with a few of the mannerisms I learned by watching video interviews of them during the Life is Living festivals on which rbGb is based. Initially, I wanted to add props or at least one costume piece to show that I was becoming each character, but we decided not to and it challenged me to rethink my approach to character development. Thankfully, I had the support of my rbGb family. So far, I have not yet been asked why I play two men when there are three male cast members. In this piece, you don’t have to be a replica of someone in order to tell his or her story. (Now that’s nontraditional casting.)
Having the opportunity to hone my craft is a welcome result of being the only female cast member. (Along with getting my own dressing room . . . talk about a blessing!) But perhaps the biggest blessing of all is being able to perform in my hometown, a city that is also a key player in rbGb. I’m a proud Chicagoan, a south side girl, and a Whitney Young High School graduate. My love for dance began in this city. I see Chicago in all of its fullness and beauty. Despite this, rbGb reminds me of Chicago’s tragedy. We have lost and are losing scores of our children, teenagers, and young adults to gun violence. Recently, two “Chicago sons,” whom I grew up with, were shot to death. Every show, I think of them—Thomas Wortham (Tommy), Lenwood Cameron Hearon (Cam), and all of those who have been gunned down. I think about their mothers who, like the Sudanese mother I portray in rbGb, are trying to renew themselves and their communities after the indescribable pain and heartache of having your child, your beloved, your baby, murdered. They know that we are all connected and that we are all family needing support, encouragement, respect, and love from one another. I have the honor of dedicating this show to them and to all of those who are doing their part to “go green”—to preserve the value of human life and their environment. They embody red, black and GREEN: a blues.
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.
Afrika Bambaataa, a founding figure of hip-hop culture, outlined the four pillars of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, B-boying, and graffiti writing. Graffiti remains arguably the most controversial of the four, prompting strong reactions on both sides—epitomized on one hand by the success of the landmark 1984 publication Subway Art, and on the other hand the $9 million spent in Chicago for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 2010 Graffiti Blasters initiative. American culture continues to struggle to find a place for graffiti within the history of art, free speech, and vandalism.
Through the creation of the Life is Living festivals, Marc Bamuthi Joseph found another way to frame the conversation around power, politics, and public space. The festivals, rich with collective energy, served as a means of conducting fieldwork for the text and design of red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb). One of the many axes of collaboration were the Estria Invitational Graffiti Battles hosted in Harlem, Chicago, and Oakland. Estria Miyashiro is a friend of Bamuthi and a veteran graffiti artist in the Bay Area art scene. Miyashiro and Bamuthi were motivated to collaborate by their shared desire to use their work in the hip-hop arts to empower local communities and encourage lasting systemic change.
Each battle challenged popular local graffiti artists to create work related to themes of sustainability. The theme for Chicago was “Earth,” and the murals created by the contestants were hung at different locations throughout the city with the hope of inspiring dialogue and imparting a sense of urgency around the importance of life in the midst of urban violence.
The picture below shows a portion of the group mural created at Chicago’s Clarendon Park. This highlights the opportunities for connection embedded in Bamuthi’s practice which, in turn, fed the creative process of rbGb.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s red, black and GREEN: a blues is the recipient of the 2011 America Project Commission, a MAPP International Productions program that supports the creation of new performing arts work that engages diverse citizens in an exploration of an important civic issue, and (and this is crucial) incorporates their voices into the creation of an artistic work. The America Project aims to keep alive the vision of powerful performance poet Sekou Sundiata, who passed away in 2007 and was a great influence on many artists, activists, and educators who are working today. Marc Bamuthi Joseph is, in many ways, a natural inheritor of Sekou’s mantle. Even before the commission, Bamuthi’s work lived and breathed ideas coming up from those communities that so often struggle to see the light of day in mainstream media.
A key tenet of Sekou’s work was the idea of “dialogue across difference”—both across discipline and departments in educational, artistic, or organizational settings, but also across differences of race, class, age, and opinion. Sekou used what he called “framing questions” to help instigate dialogue—central questions that become starting points for the larger investigation, and which demanded answers from a place of personal reflection, not dug in political stance (a revelation in these polarized times!). Sekou said “I knew I had a good question when it led to other questions . . . when it implicated me on a personal level.”
For Bamuthi, the framing question of red, black and GREEN: a blues became “what sustains life in your community?” As he freely acknowledges, he didn’t start there. He started just by wanting to make a piece about “black people and the environment” but quickly realized that even his own understanding of that issue was necessarily narrow and in order to address it fully, he needed to open up the process and listen to how others defined sustainability in their own words and worlds. And that process—of creating environments for people to dialogue across difference through a broad question that everyone has access to—was in itself LIFE sustaining.
Life is Living—the daylong eco-festivals that took place in Oakland, New York, Houston, and Chicago and became the inspiration for rbGb—functioned in the same way. It was a safe space for people to come together and offer answers to what sustains life in their community—whether that be healthy food, footwork, and hip-hop or memory, respect, and collaboration. By placing my answer next to yours, next to hers, each of ours is amplified and together we build something larger. Largely because of the fact that we each offer something different (and we choose to engage with each other across that divide), the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Watch Bamuthi at work in “Community,” the second video in a series documenting the creative process behind red, black and GREEN: a blues.
The first thing you notice is his skin.
If it were soil, his is the earth brown you’d want to sow in.
A Chicago son, hard times, he does not blink.
So think of this brother brown, now see this mother black.
See how dark the day becomes when you bury the son?
—Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Oakland-based spoken word and dance artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Chicago-based visual artist and activist Theaster Gates collaborate to create a multimedia performance and visual installation addressing environmental issues from the perspective of communities of color. The performance, red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb), is presented at MCA Stage, April 12–14. The visual installation, a stage set created by Gates titled The Colored Museum, will be open for museum visitors to explore during the performance week. Over the coming weeks, visit this blog to explore ideas of community, the environment, and art through interviews, videos, images, and interactions with Bamuthi and Gates.
We invite you to answer the questions Bamuthi raises in his work: “What sustains life in your community?” and “What is your relationship to life in Chicago?” Our guest bloggers will include Kate Dumbleton from Chicago Jazz Ensemble along with community partners Jacinda Bullie from Kuumba Lynx, Mike Hawkins from YOUmedia, and Robbie Q from Young Chicago Authors. Additional perspectives come from our presenting partner MAPP International’s Emily Harney in addition to MCA voices including Curator Naomi Beckwith; Curatorial Assistant Stephen Bridges; Performance Programs Intern Eboni Senai Hawkins; and Carron Little, one of the Lead Artists of the MCA’s teen program The Creative Agency.
In the meantime, enjoy this video introduction to the project by MAPP International Productions: