Written by Interview, Performance, Reported

Call and Response

Bamuthi on the importance of art to community and the risks inherent in how we consume culture now.

The artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph is an omnivore. With a background in dance, theater, and spoken-word poetry, BAMUTHI, as he is known, has become a curator of words, ideas, and cultural examination. His calendar for autumn 2017 is a perfect illustration of his artistic life. BAMUTHI’s evening-length exploration of the racial politics of soccer, /peh-LO-tah/, will see its New York premiere at the BAM Next Wave Festival. The opera We Shall Not Be Moved, for which he wrote the libretto, will have its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia before moving to New York City’s Apollo Theater. BAMUTHI curates the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s TRANSFORM Festival and will facilitate a discussion at Create Justice: A National Discussion of Arts and Justice in Los Angeles. He curates the Life is Living Festival, which he founded, in Oakland, California, and he will speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The recipient of numerous awards and grants, BAMUTHI was named a 2017 Ted Global Fellow.

We talked to BAMUTHI about the importance of art to community and the risks inherent in how we consume culture now.

Critical Read: You have been described as an arts activist. Is that an accurate description of your work?

BAMUTHI: Yeah. I think that I’m an activist who uses art as an instrument to make platforms for inclusivity and inspiration. I seek to normalize and systematize inspiration in the world. Sometimes that means using a tutorial platform, sometimes that means designing and implementing curriculum, and sometimes it means organizing creative affirmations of black life in public spaces. And sometimes that means making dances, or making poems, or making opera. But the broad goal is to cultivate moments of understanding and cohesion. The creative realm is my tool for doing that. So what I make won’t look like a rally. But if I’m doing it well, it will give you the same kind of feeling and understanding.

CR: Your artistic outlook is inclusive, and global. Do you worry that creative work is becoming an exclusively elite vocation?

BAMUTHI: No. I mean, Jay-Z went platinum in two days. Beyonce puts her twins up on Instagram and seven million people like it within four hours [laughs] .

I mean, I think that the way that we think about art and the way in which the arts are kind of sabotaged or compartmentalized to elite vocation, that’s what I’m worried about. What I worry about is that when people think of art, they think, “That’s not for me.” Art itself is for everyone. When we think about compartmentalizing art as, “Well, art lives in a museum or lives in a symphony hall or art is the opera,” that’s when we have issues, I think. In the same way that people think politics aren’t for them or people think economic enfranchisement is not for them. Those are our issues. When I actually think about, for instance, in politics, what I think about the phrase, “We, the people,” and for however many years of patriarchy or white supremacy as we’ve endured in this country, for as many years as marginalized people have been further marginalized through ad hoc economic sanctioning or educational or geographic redlining. While all those systemic issues may indeed be true, that doesn’t mean that we can’t hack our own histories and involve ourselves, integrate ourselves, be present in new ways. So everyone, I think, from Jose Antonio Vargas with Define American or Patrisse [Cullors] and Alicia [Garza] with Black Lives Matter, or the 67 million people who involve themselves in podcasting, there are ways that we are ingesting news, politics, creativity, and culture, and all activating ourselves politically through those instruments. And I’m just one, I think, of many people who are working in this way.

Bamuthi performing at the Living Word Project at NYU’s Skirball Theater in 2009

CR: I’ve read also that you’re concerned with empathy in building community. Can you give us an example of how art does this, teaches empathy?

BAMUTHI: Yeah. That’s a great question. Now, most of the art that I make is performative or organizational. And by organizing, I mean like the Life of Giving Festival that I produced in Oakland. I think most of the culture that people consume happens in isolation. It either happens on your phone or on your laptop. Even the phenomenon of binge-watching television. You tend to do that alone or you and your partner, on the bed, on a Saturday. I think all those types of cultural consumption give us code to think about our lives outside of the immediate sphere, but I don’t think that there’s a better time to generate empathy than when you’re in church, or when you’re at the basketball game, or when you’re at a dance show. In other words, there’s still value and currency in coming together to consume culture together. When I go to see the Golden State Warriors, there are 20,000 people, 25,000 people, and we’re all in the same space, cheering on the same team, and we do not have the same politics. But there is something in common that we have. So the coming together around art and ideas, I think this is how we actually connect to one another in a visceral way. And so the pieces that I make, they’re not just constructed to present my ideas on stage. They’re also constructed, hopefully, to be a container for folks who share the same ideas and don’t share the same ideas to have an experience together. I think that’s how we make empathy possible, by actually drawing folks together in the same space to engage at the same time in a shared, emotional experience.

CR: What do you want in an audience? What do you want an audience member to bring to your work?

BAMUTHI: That’s a great question. I don’t want to say that I want people to bring an open mind, although I do. I want folks to bring their whole selves. I think that while we’re thinking critically and bringing a critical capacity to the things that we engage in, one of the unfortunate side products of internet culture is that we often see ourselves solely as critics. And so I guess what I would want from audiences is for them to be engaged critically, but not to necessarily read with condemnation or being prepared to lead with kind of institutional critique of what they’re about to experience.

Now, I know that that’s a lot to ask in terms of our current cultural behavior, but what I hope to do with the work that I make is invite and welcome folks into a series of questions, less than a litany of answers. And those questions invite folks to engage without necessarily kind of undermining the intent or thinking about the intent of the ideas on their faces, without wanting to deconstruct or dismantle them before we’ve even begun.

“the two places on earth i actually feel free aren’t places, they’re moments.”

CR: How did you come to spoken word as an art form?

BAMUTHI: Well, I love hip-hop music and grew up in hip-hop culture. And when I think about the writers who have most informed me, they include Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, and Amiri Baraka. But they also include KRS-One, and Jay-Z, and Lauren Hill. So in terms of a black aesthetic, or just in terms of my aesthetic compasses, I’ve been shaped by folks who distill their intellect in rhyme and rhythm. I also have a musical theater background. Theater, writ large, from Broadway houses to more experimental stuff, is also part of my aesthetic fabric. Spoken word I think is a natural outgrowth of loving hip hip, loving performance, and also thinking about my body as a linguistic tool. So the kind of spoken word that I make is, I make poems for my body as much as I do for the spoken voice.

CR: I did not know that you were a child star.

BAMUTHI: [laughs] I was Savion Glover’s understudy in The Tap Dance Kid. And I was in a show called Stand Up Tragedy, which was written by Bill Cain, and was on Broadway. So The Tap Dance Kid, 10 or 11 years old, and then Stand Up Tragedy I was 15.

CR: Can you tell us what you’re doing with the TED Global fellowship in Tanzania?

BAMUTHI: It’s really exciting. It’s essentially a curated think tank of risk-takers and trouble-makers, many of whom in this cohort come from the African continent, but really come from all over the world. I want to say there are 21 fellows in total, and 10 of them live on the African continent, five or six of them live in places other than the United States, and four of us are based here. So I’ll be giving a TED talk at the conference in Arusha as a TED Global Fellow. And I’ll be focused on this idea of a freedom design.

CR: Freedom design?

BAMUTHI: Freedom design. The two places on Earth I actually feel free aren’t places, they’re moments. I feel free inside of dance, and I feel free when I’m on the soccer pitch. And my talk is about how I’ve brought those things together for young soccer players, particularly immigrants and first-generation Americans. For me freedom exists in the body, but we talk about it abstractly, we use it as this divisive tool, you know, “Protect our freedom! Build this wall! They hate us because of our freedom!” But for young people I want to track the idea back to something that exists inside, that no one can take away. So I’ll be talking about this project that I made called Moving and Passing, which intersects curriculum development, site-specific performance, and the politics of joy, while using soccer as a metaphor for the question of the enfranchisement among youth of color.

CR: So are you a risk-taker or a trouble-maker?

BAMUTHI: Oh, man [laughs]. Hopefully I’m a trouble-maker. That’s one of the higher compliments that we can make. Now, I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I am trying to stir it up.

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