Walker Art Center
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Content, Context, and Cultural Commitment: Curating the Performing Arts


PB: It seems that the hip-hop movement might offer some examples and even some inspiration in terms of how these artists think and work globally. I'm thinking specifically of the form's DIY aesthetic, its natural cross-disciplinary hybridity (mixing movement, music, text), and how the meaning and relevance of an essentially local/regional phenomenon has been effectively rearticulated through the cultural perspectives of artists around the globe. Are there other ways that you see hip hop pointing to new alternatives?

BS: First of all, I'm not in a position to speak for hip hop. That question needs to be addressed to folks who are immersed in the culture, such as Danny Hoch or Will Power or Kevin Powell. What I can speak about is this notion of hybridity, which is a word I don't really care for but I can't come up with a better one. Hybridity, cross-culturalization, transmutation … these are all words I have heard applied to art forms that bring together various aesthetics, media, cultures. A few decades ago we called it fusion and performance art. Whether it was Miles Davis, Pat Matheny, Ntozake Shange, or Karen Finley, we all thought it was pretty radical and revolutionary stuff, just as we think hip hop is today. A few centuries ago, people considered opera a radical hybrid form. The difference with the current generation is that they have managed to create a global culture and community within the span of twenty years. Hip hop has been embraced not only locally and nationally but globally.

The origin of hip hop has little or nothing to do with aesthetics or art forms as we use those terms in the performing arts world. It was about creating something out of nothing. When you have nothing (no instruments, no after-school music programs, no dance classes), you create with what you have. You use your body on a cement sidewalk (breakdancing). You make rhythms with your mouth (beatboxing). When you don't have a canvas or paints, you create with some spray paint and a brick wall (graffiti). When you can't get your poetry published or a reading at Barnes and Noble (or aren't interested in going that route), you become an MC, a rapper, or a spoken-word artist. Transferring hip-hop culture from the street and the underground to the performing arts stage is a relatively new phenomenon. Actually, some of the hip-hop heads I've been working with in Newark are worried that hip hop is becoming "bohemian" rather than "keepin' it real." Some of them are suspicious of NJPAC and artists who want to "perform" here. They regard the hybridity or fusion of street and formal art structures with skepticism. I can appreciate their concern. I don't know if this is all good. During the past year, amidst the craziness of pulling together Planet Hip Hop, I have at times thought to myself or wanted to say to these young artists, "Turn back, it's a trap!"

PB: This is somewhat connected: How do you relate the work you bring in to local communities of color, local immigrant communities? How important is it for you to program work that is directly connected to people who share a heritage in, say, the Newark greater metro area? How does that relate to your general sense of global programming?

BS: Throughout my professional career I've been in major urban centers. The premise for creating the World Festival at NJPAC was that Newark is a microcosm of the world. What's interesting is that many people in Newark don't realize it. Just two months ago at my hip-hop advisory committee meeting, I tried to tell young hip-hop artists from Newark that their city was an international city and they exclaimed, "No, it's not!" Then I started naming all the populations that had attended events at NJPAC and all the artists that I had brought from other countries who connected to various local communities. Oftentimes, those communities found us. I remember the first time I presented Milton Nascimento at the Houston International Festival and I'm ashamed to say I didn't even know there was a local Brazilian community. Imagine my suprise when almost 5,000 Brazilians attended a free outdoor concert.

PB: Do you find there's a learning experience between the audiences who have a cultural tie to an artist from a different part of the world and those who are simply curious about that part of the world or about that particular artistic form? Do you do things to provide a larger cultural context, especially for the non-connected audience?

BS: We usually do that via the residency program, which then draws people into the main-stage presentation. To give you an example, we just completed a humanities program called "When Newark Had a Chinatown." I met a woman who ran a small community-based arts organization in Newark. She is part African American