Ason of Haitian immigrants, born in New York City and currently living in California, Marc Bamuthi Joseph has traveled the world with his art, including Broadway gigs and spots on HBO's Def Poetry. His Word Becomes Flesh deals with the longest and hardest road he's traveled: his unplanned journey into fatherhood. It's a powerful and fluent mix of hip hop, theater, political commentary and performance art.
Metro Times: How accurate is it to say that spoken word is the foundation of your work?
Marc Bamuthi Joseph: The narrative for me begins in verse. Being a student of the literary work of Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, this is how my tongue was liberated.
MT: What inspired Word Becomes Flesh?
Joseph: Inspiration came in three ways. The most obvious was the birth of my son, the pieces about pregnancy from a father's perspective. It's written as an elegy to him.
It was also inspired by the record number of homicides in Oakland the year after he was born. Most were perpetrated against black youth. Few of them ended in any indictments or convictions. So, black male life was ignored by the system. A critical point for me as a young father was seeing how many of those youths left children behind.
The third point of inspiration is in my own life, going through this nine-month period of pregnancy, and feeling the transformation or evolution happening in me, but not having a paradigm to talk about it. There's not a lot out there, and maybe this is what's missing in the cycle to talk about fatherhood. Much to the detriment of our community, there's ways fathers can leave and not be held accountable. In our music, there's a lot about sexuality without consequence. Have this sex, do this girl. But there's a lot in the interim.
MT: What is your method?
Joseph: It's Socratic, I guess. I start with questions. A lot of my work gets worked out in classroom and workshop situations where I really listen to the young people around me. They're often reacting to subject matter in the classroom, but as the teacher and facilitator of dialogues, if thoughts are on my mind, I bring them in. It's like saying, if you ain't learning, you ain't teaching.
I'm careful not to make pronouncements where I say what it is. That's something I learned from the poetry slam because artists have a limited time to make a declaration.
In the slam, at the end of the poem, the poet on stage has to be right. That's the game. You do your poem, and judges score you according to how right they think you are. Given time, an artist can subject himself to more inquiry and discussion. I don't have to be right at end of three minutes, because I have another scene.
MT: Do you get different reactions from different audiences?
Joseph: It changes, because we do. We first did Word Becomes Flesh three years ago. We've been performing it all over the country at this point. The piece and I have evolved since. My son is now 4, and my relationship with him has changed.
The work is always resonant with audiences. It's easy to connect to this examination of the crossroads of life and death. We've all experienced birth, life, death. At some point, I intuitively feel folks hop on and get ready for the ride. That's always shared, whether in Maine or Seattle. At the end, it's about humanity.
MT: Establishing a career as a spoken word artist isn't easy. What kind of support system did it take to get you to this point?
Joseph: The first point of support was an organization called the National Performance Network, which is a consortium of 50 different community centers and theaters throughout the country. They're engaged systematically in helping one another. I was performing in Massachusetts. An artist gets to create a work, and then commissioning organizations have to present that work. For me that means I got money to create the project, and then I got to tour that project. And when you tour, on NPN sites, those organizations are crazy supportive.
MT: What do you expect from your upcoming University of Michigan performance?
Joseph: I'm loving coming to Ann Arbor. I've been there off and on for five years, beginning with the National Youth Poetry Slam in 2001. And I did some teaching. I have a great relationship with Jeff Kass through the Brave New Voices Network. And I'm hoping for the best, for an open audience. The Power Center is an amazing venue. I'm hoping the kids can break from Big Ten basketball and check out some theater. And I'm hoping some folks from Detroit will make it over and see what we have to say. I truly think there's something of value.
8 p.m., Friday, March 10, at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher, Ann Arbor, 734-764-2538 or www.ums.org.Khary Kimani Turner writes about arts and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]