Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Stage, Page, Body, Mind
Poet, dancer, and playwright Marc Bamuthi Joseph, in concert and conversation with Jim Cotter.
Coming up, a conversation and performance with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a dancer, poet, playwright and curator. A polymath by any other name. In his 40 plus years as a performer, Joseph has achieved renown through his creative explorations of topics as far reaching as early hip-hop, masculinity, truancy, and even soccer.
That’s all ahead on this Articulate special with Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
Though his official title here at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is chief of program and pedagogy, a better description of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s role in the world is probably that of a curator of words, ideas and protagonists. The child of Haitian immigrants, he has approached the American experience with joy, bravery, and no shortage of artistry. Creating significant works for the stage, the page, the body and the mind.
AJC: So, please welcome to the stage the wonderful Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Thank you.
AJC: So, I used the R word in reference to you. A lot of people, the Renaissance man word. And the other word that gets used about you a lot is polymath. And are these compliments to somebody who works in words, who works in visuals, who works in dance?
MBJ: Sure, I like syllables as much as, you know, as much as the next guy. Renaissance, you know, I also am a kind of a thematic and aesthetic child of the Harlem Renaissance, for sure. But this idea of rebirth, I think that we’re always being reborn through creativity. I work at a space that holds as its mission the generation of culture. So, you know, I appreciate a kind of identification with multiple streams of thought, or multiple avenues of practice. But ultimately, I think I’m just an agent of culture. I make culture for a living. And if that means subscribing to different mediums in order to achieve that goal, ultimately of cultural progress, then whatever word describes that is cool with me.
AJC: Does it all come from the same place, does it all manifest itself in your mind and your body in the same way?
MBJ: Yeah, it all comes from a place of urgency. I think ultimately the ambition is to help stabilize an inspired environment for as many people as possible. And to create ideas and to normalize in poetic and beautiful ways a kind of world where inclusivity, the public imagination, love, are all things that we’re not afraid of. So yeah, all the work that I do comes from a place of trying to achieve that, of trying to get there. And also trying to decipher my own kind of troubled consciousness and immediate environment. But none of this is for play. And none of this is for pretty. All of this is about the hustle of making the planet better.
AJC: Have you ever strayed into pessimistic territory?
MBJ: Well, maybe not pessimistic.
AJC: I don’t ask you facetiously.
MBJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I mean, I can’t really do what I do and fall into a dystopia. My practice is in education and art and curation, all stem from the belief that another world is possible. If I can reference the great Saul Williams that, that it is a worthwhile pursuit to reach toward the impossible.
AJC: That is a place of great hope. Can I see what it says on your shirt?
MBJ: Yes. It says black joy.
AJC: I think that’s all the cue we need.
MBJ: Oh yeah, sure.
AJC: So you’re going to do a poem for us. Not coincidentally named…
MBJ: “Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos.”
AJC: Let’s hear it.
MBJ: Cool, let’s do that.
(performance of “Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos”)
Sing of black joy in an hour of chaos.
A Babel tower fallen, power failing to save us.
Frames us famous
Our lives matter then.
Sure yeah, man, all lives matter, man, but look at my skin.
My flesh a flag for the Sabbath.
Silver tongued tight like the snap of a noose.
Black joy is a serpent,
shedding is a habit.
Unskinned, pinned to the pulse of post-race, crossed twice,
hope to die,
hope when I do there is joy on my face.
like a Shepard Fairey portrait hanging on one nail in the back of the place,
backpack with the black bespoke Barack-era baroque raps, rocks, racks, ropes, brass tacks. A certain kind of truth
is marching on.
Glory to the kid on the other side of the scope.
The cop ain’t shooting at you,
he’s aiming at a trope.
He’s got a blind spot in his privileges shaped exactly like him.
He’s been training by naming large mountains after small men.
Paying no attention when the leaves change.
When the leaves fall,
when it freezes over,
when the season frees us all.
Somber is the sober,
a full-lipped smile in spring awakening, joy is a human right.
Spring is for the taking in, melanin baking in the solstice, shifting, framing of the sable-skinned.
Black satin, stuck in stunning beauty.
A culture of the songs of dislocation, of people of the water
singing to me, sing of joy.
Right now, before my small boy becomes scary.
While he’s still able to tell the dance, the story, without using his body.
Before he masters social forms in an age of technological norms,
before his default position is somebody else’s voice.
it is likely that the black psyche is a ventriloquist for American aggression.
A territory for transgression in these last flush days of Camelot.
These murdered boys are cultural events.
Scripts for the performance of outrage.
left to rot for hours in blood on the asphalt fields where they’re shot. So sing
assaults and mourn. Of brown and blue.
Of wanting one more day to get it right.
Of joy in the living black body and how that matters.
The matter of the beating heart.
The fact is sacrosanct in the scars a soul carves in heaven’s palms as it walks earth in heaven’s
shell. Skin the color of the other side of the stars.
like the dawn that swallowed Sean Bell.
And acceptance of our most excessive expectation, in expectation that our higher selves will
Make joy material, let the ceremony begin, let the sacks unmask the task of healing, open fists to
lift the unquenched thirst for grieving.
In the wind, a word winds itself into the drawl of a blind wind. Open, vibrant, half of prayer, an
Arctic blast of free at last.
Cast in the case of living joy while black.
MBJ: Thanks man.
AJC: Something we didn’t mention at the top, we talked about you as a dancer, we talked about you as a performer, as a playwright, as a curator. But at heart, you’re an educator.
AJC: Today, when we almost expect all education to be performance, and a lot of good performance to be education, is there any difference between the two endeavors for you?
MBJ: Between performance and education?
MBJ: Yeah, you know, my favorite part of performance isn’t actually being onstage, it’s being in rehearsal. The laboratory, the place where one, there’s freedom to fail, and two, there aren’t really a lot of right answers. You’re still in search. The laboratory aspect of education is undervalued. My take on education, and you know, my mother’s an educator. My maternal grandmother was an educator. My paternal grandfather was an educator. My wife is an educator, we actually met in a grad school circumstance. My graduate degree is also in education. You know, I think all of us believe in process. All of us, I think channel that belief of our process, in not only the work that we do directly with students, but also how we think about parenting. You know, just enough latitude I think to embrace the fall. To think of the fall not as failing, but as movement towards somewhere, and also.
AJC: Making better mistakes.
MBJ: Yeah, over time, over time. So, you make those mistakes, and maybe the question is, are you abandoned in the realm of your mistake, or are you picked up, loved, affirmed and encouraged to keep going?
AJC: There are two different versions of what immigrant parents tell their children. One is the, ‘you’re free, go be an American.’ The other is, ‘we sacrificed a lot for you to be born here, don’t waste our sacrifice.’ Which version or combination of those two ideas were you fed as a child?
MBJ: I probably had a hybrid version of that. You know, I think one of the things that was happening in my household was my parents themselves were trying to figure out how to be American. And there wasn’t so much an articulation of a thing that I had to be. In fact, probably the spirit that I am, and the being that I am, is because there wasn’t as much of a prescribed, you know, way of behaving. Except I had to behave, like I had to act right. Don’t get me wrong, I had to act right. But relative to American dream and American promise, my parents showed me a lot more by their actions then necessarily any kind of, kind of didactic, you know, or dogmatic relationship to what America was or what it should be for me. Their sacrifice was clear to me. You know, the long hours, the time spent away. But there was also, in my childhood, a clear yearning for home. You know, as you probably know, Haiti was the first independent black nation in this hemisphere, the creation of the country itself was the result of a successful revolution, like a revolution and slave revolt on a national scale. And Haiti was then ostracized, both economically and socially from the global community as a result. And I think a lot of that has carried over in a neo-colonial and kind of post-colonial reality. And certainly, growing up in the late 1970s and the 80s and 90s, that was also a part of, about reality.
AJC: What age were you when you became aware of this idea?
MBJ: Like immediately. Yeah, you know, because growing up in New York, there’s the West Indian parade that goes down, what is it, Flatbush, it goes down Atlantic, you know, something like that. And it’s, you know, it’s clear, like the Jamaicans, the Trinis, you know what I mean, the Bahamians, like, it was clear that there was this hierarchy. I would say that, that perception has shifted somewhat, really in the last 10 or 15 years, a kind of agency and pride. I feel like there’s a new wave of Haitians, and Haitian-Americans that are centering the beauty of you know, of my people in a different kind of way, and normalizing our beauty. But certainly, when I was growing up, that was kind of put to the side and deeply marginalized. And I say all of these things relative to your question to say that for my parents, there was definitely a yearning for home. There was a kind of further marginalization from West Indian and immigrant communities. There was the new home that they were building with other expats in New York, and then there was this America. And how to get there. And certainly, when I was younger, I did television commercials when I was a kid. I was on Broadway when I was a kid. And somehow, my kind of entrance into commercial art, for them, was another pathway to a self-identification, within an American paradigm. It’s really complex.
AJC: Right, but that’s also one of the great exports from America, is cultural identity. And to be the first generation, and to be absorbed into that must have been quite a thrill for them.
MBJ: Definitely a thrill, definitely a source of pride. And I mean, I think our children hold our hopes, or personify our hopes in many ways. And I wasn’t any different. I think as a five year-old, or as a 10 year-old, I didn’t have the acuity or the maturity to understand exactly how I was holding kind of ‘Americanness’ because I cracked the code. For not only my nuclear family, but for my cousins, my uncles, you know, my aunties, my grandparents, et cetera. And so now, living in California, and you know, there’s, my son’s mom is from Taiwan. My wife is African-American and Hawaiian. My daughter’s dad is from the Philippines, which means that everybody in my family is Asian but me. And we’re all black. And so, we’re having this thing of kind of new Americanness. My family having gone west now represents a new paradigm of what America means, and what blackness means. The connection to our original island nations. All these things are complex, as my family travels both across land and across time. And a lot of my work is trying to reconcile all of that.
AJC: What your parents also, or also your dad at least had in common, and I guess all of us who are not born in America is fútbol.
AJC: And it’s not just for you a passing interest in a game.
AJC: It has become integral to your identity as an artist.
MBJ: Totally. And this is where I go back to hip-hop, maybe. As an artist, a lot of us are searching for the break. And what I mean by that is a realm of the transcendent. Where anything is possible. In hip-hop culture, you know, the break is, really, the foundation of the culture. As DJs beginning with Kool Herc stuck the break of one record, you know, looped them together with another, and extended an instrumental section of the record long enough for the dancers to hit the floor. The break is where the party happened. The break is kind of where the culture snapped. As an artist, I’m looking for the break in my own work. Which is to say that I am choreographing for myself a place of transcendence and transformation. The first time that I experienced transcendence and transformation was on the fútbol field. So those moments of using your body in order to leave it, for me, I find that in dance. Sometimes I find it in the dance of language. But I first found it on the soccer field. So, just all getting back to the source.
AJC: Well, you have a piece of art that is not unconnected to football slash soccer. Can you perform that for us?
MBJ: I can share with you, yes.
AJC: Thank you.
MBJ: Yeah, you’re cool. Thank you.
(performance of “/peh-LO-tah/”)
In my first memory of the game
we’re running uphill on limestone in bare feet.
Baby Doc Duvalier is chilling somewhere in his mansion in the distance. But here,
every boy on my grandpa’s block is chasing a tennis ball that’s bandaged in loose socks.
And we’re passing it with our feet.
In Haiti, the only time I fit in with the rest
is inside of the game.
I learned by listening.
We moved out of the studio apartment in Regal Park before I turned three.
Which means that my memory of dad listening to soccer on the radio
is some relatively primordial epoch origin type.
He’s smoking a square on the fire escape.
And the New York Cosmos is beating somebody.
It’s a radio play without commercial break.
Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Pele all on the same squad.
Some people remember the sound of lullaby music from their infancy,
I remember the sound of AM hiss being broken by fans’ screams when Pele scored.
I’m a player.
I’m wearing these brown sneakers.
Either ’cause my parents could not afford cleats,
or ’cause it seemed ridiculous to them for me to have special shoes to play a game you could just
as well rock uphill on limestone in bare feet.
My Afro in 1981 is haloriffic,
like The Commodores’ Afros had a baby with all the ballers on the White Shadows’ Afros,
and they laid it in angelic askance on my crown.
At five I’m the king of the rubble and dirt soccer field in Queens,
I’m one month shy of six,
and I’ll destruct this thing hard, focus and sweet.
When I’m older, this is how I prefer to make love.
This is how I learn about electricity in the body when Catholic mass started to lose me.
The only place I feel raceless is when the ball hits the back of the net,
the ball hits the back of the net,
I achieve gravitational singularity,
I’m prepared to be the Dalai Lama,
when the ball hits the back of the net,
I am one with everything.
And then I see my mommy.
And that gets me really hyped,
dizzy with joy, and focused only on the sensation of gravity cowering in confusion around me.
I run full speed toward my mom,
oblivious of my teammates who are trying to join in the celebration,
I belt out the George Benson tune that’s hot on the radio,
I am not a child of immigrants.
This is not hip hop under the watch of Ed Koch,
I am current.
My blood is goal scorer cold.
Like New York autumns used to be,
the hum of my own breathing in the wind is Hendrix ghost writing symphony,
in my Afro halo bliss, running full speed toward my mom singing so damn loud.
Like only a five year old goal scorer can.
What is more clear is
the faint signal being transmitted directly to your ear
from the end of your days.
I am gray in my beard.
It tells the truth.
My son is about the age to start playing the game of slow stroll patrolled and hunted.
He’s 14, there is no beard.
There is no man gate.
There’s a new shade of skin.
like reasonable doubt.
This is bug out tipping point for the first time in my black body’s existence
I’m less likely to get got by the police than by life.
Blood, bones, prostates, polyps,
Kobe Bryant is old as ****
And he’s three years younger
The end isn’t near.
But I can feel the chill turn of evening light.
So, after another black boy death,
it’s time for the talk.
His rites of passage.
And I have to ask myself.
Like, what keeps me alive?
At seven or eight,
there was church in a language that I don’t speak.
Sacred Heart in Queens Village,
where my parents were married and I was baptized.
The old women sing the ‘Our Father’ as a Creole hymn.
In my memory, church is all Haitian grandmothers, and small American-born children.
After church, soccer fields.
Beer and laughter,
men like my father.
Order in the new world.
Ties on Monday or gloves on Monday,
kitchen, factory, construction, doorman’s gloves.
Accents on Monday.
But on Sunday, the West Indians play.
Native tongue is center among the foreign born.
Immigrant labor built this country, and the itinerant immanent ignorance towards immigrants, it’s economic engine is evidence of the American pathology.
Everything that I learned about navigating America,
I picked up by playing this game.
Moving without the ball, that’s the immigrant’s story.
Never stop running.
Win by passing.
The ball is aloft.
Like the voices in my grandmother’s church.
I watch my father bring it down with a touch as elegant as the wind
off a moving dragonfly’s wing.
A touch soft like the surrender of a song, of hummingbird.
Curious to hear more poems from Marc Bamuthi Joseph? There’s exclusive performance extras at our website.