Life is Living: A conversation with Marc Bamuthi Joseph

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Youth show off their decorated bicycle wheels in front of a painted graffiti wall at a Life is Living festival in Oakland, California.

Photo by Scott La Rockwell

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a National Poetry Slam champion, Broadway veteran, featured artist on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry on HBO and a recipient of 2002 and 2004 National Performance Network Creation commissions. Joseph begins a two-year long residency with University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, which will culminate in a new performance work, red, black, and GREEN, a blues. The project kicks off with the Life is Living festival at Discovery Green on November 7th. Life Is Living is a national campaign that generates partnerships between diverse and underserved communities, green action agencies, local community groups, urban environmental activists, and the contemporary arts world. Joseph fills us in below.

Dance Source Houston: Talk about some of the thinking behind Life is Living.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Before action there’s thought and conversation to spur thought. As our vocabularies change and we focus on less global and more specific and local efforts, it’s an easier mountain to climb. What happens in environmentalism is that it feels above us, often monumental and external. We think about the plight of polar bears and the rainforest, and other things that lay way outside of our preview. Also, Life is Living is not a 100% green event. We don’t generate more energy more than we consume. We connect the environmental movement to the urban environment through the arts.

DSH: In addition to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center, Life is Living is partnering with Houston Arts Alliance, the Office of Texas Senator Rodney Ellis, Meta-Four Houston, Aerosol Warfare, The Last Organic Outpost, Project Row Houses, Workshop Houston, DiverseWorks and the University of Houston College of Architecture. Is connecting to the people in the host city a key part of your mission?

MBJ: I rely on the local folks, as it should be. It would be less than strategic if I came and dictated the pathway to success. It’s important to illuminate the environmental work that folks are already doing. Life is Living connects the dots.

DSH: So far, you have done Life is Living festivals in Oakland, Chicago, and San Francisco. I imagine each city is different.

MBJ: Absolutely. The festival takes on the character of the city. Part of our plan enables participants to connect environmentalism to what’s important to them. For example. in Chicago there was an emphasis on celebrating young people’s lives. They had just experienced a year where 36 public school children had been murdered. We held a celebration of life with marching bands and mothers who had lost their children. We planted trees to honor the children. Karen Farber, director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center came to that festival. That’s another thing we do, we invite curators to come see what we are doing, so there’s some cross pollination happening.

DSH: I am curious about your background. You were a child tap star and understudied Savion Glover in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show, The Tap Dance Kid. Your style of spoken word seems rooted in dance. Like any hip hop artist, you easily slide between categories. Do you see yourself as still rooted in dance/movement?

MBJ: It’s a large part of what I do. I very connected to poetry, and using the body as metaphor. But I don’t necessarily adhere to a particular school of movement thought. It’s organic to me in terms of communication. I use the body as a means of figuratively complementing the literal speech. I am interested in communicating a narrative. The best way to do that is to be holistic about it, to use everything I have available, which includes a ritual and spiritual grounding in the body as an instrument.

DSH: Describe your training.

MBJ: I studied tap, jazz and ballet. As I got older, I added west African Afro-Cuban. But it wasn’t so linear. When I was tapping I was working with Savion Glover; he introduced me to hip-hop, although it was more social than structural.

DSH: The event on November 7th is the kick off for your two-year residency, which will culminate in the development of your new work red, black, and GREEN, a blues.

MBJ: The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center is a commissioning pillar for us. I will be collecting interviews, photographs, murals and doing some film work. There’s a narrative spine and a figurative spine. The narrative spine focuses on two brothers, Potter and Pocket. Potter fashions miracles, while Pocket hustles miracles. The piece highlights folks’ relationships with life itself and the global environment.

DSH: What will you be performing on Nov 7th Discovery Green?

MBJ: I will be performing one or two straight poems and a text and movement piece.

DSH: Describe the day.

MBJ: There’s participation and an opportunity to watch. The day is grounded in MC Lyte’s performance. She’s a pioneering figure in hip hop culture and one of the first women to push forward positive ideas. Aerosol Warfare will be creating live murals, an exhibition of graffiti murals from “Life is Living” festivals in Oakland, Harlem and Chicago, and an open air green market. It will be a day to activate the imagination.

The University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts in partnership with the Living Word Project and Youth Speaks, Inc. will host a “Life is Living” Sustainable Survival Eco-Empowerment Festival on Saturday, November 7th , 11am-3pm, at Discovery Green. Free. Visit www.lifeisliving.org or www.mitchellcenterforarts.org.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

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