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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 82.0° F  Overcast
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Talking the talk
The UW's Line Breaks series showcases hip-hop's brave new voices
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Bamuthi bridges the gap between the hip-hop community and the rest of us.
Bamuthi bridges the gap between the hip-hop community and the rest of us.

What's hip-hop to you? If it's just police incidents outside Club Majestic and songs with vile lyrics set to pounding bass beats, you'll be surprised to learn that the UW Arts Institute's artist in residence this spring is Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a leader in the field of hip-hop theater.

In three decades, hip-hop's grown way beyond its origins as the sound of rebellious black youth. Among its diverse legions are, yes, macho thugs touting guns and drugs, but also social activists and multi-genre artists bearing transformative messages.

Like Bamuthi. His interdisciplinary undergraduate course, housed in the Afro-American Studies department, is a big, bold leap to the top of the ivory tower's diversity initiatives. The course is the kickoff for UW-Madison's First Wave Spoken Word and Urban Arts Learning Community ' the first college program of its kind ' which opens this fall and puts hip-hop-oriented undergrads on track for success, says Willie Ney, director of the UW Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives. The new program is built on a network of supportive faculty teaching classes in relevant fields like the performing arts, journalism, communications industries and law.

'By the time First Wavers graduate they'll have the education and connections they need to produce whatever they want,' Ney says.

First Wave is the logical outgrowth of Youth Speaks Wisconsin, a teen poetry-slam program administered under the auspices of Ney's office since 2003. It's the state chapter of a national movement founded in San Francisco by UW-Madison alum James Kass. Youth Speaks works like a miracle, turning potentially problematic high school kids into artist/activists.

Bamuthi, director of Youth Speaks San Francisco's Living Word Project, is a perfect fit for First Wave. He's a quintessential intellectual who bears no resemblance to trash-talking teens in baggy pants and bling. Born in Queens, N.Y., in '75, he starred in TV commercials as a kid.

'I fell flat on my face at an audition that involved choreography,' he says. 'So my mom stuck me in dance class.'

At 10 he auditioned for Broadway's Tap Dance Kid and got in as Savion Glover's understudy. Glover, 12 at the time, is still an unreconstructed hip-hop kid. But Bamuthi went to Morehouse, the black college in Atlanta, to study literature and secondary education.

'Young people are the reason I went back to performance,' he says. 'I came to California to teach on a fellowship and thought I'd continue that route. But while I was teaching high school English, I found out that when I used hip-hop vernacular the students got more out of whatever we were reading.'

In '99 Bamuthi took his students to a poetry slam, where they encouraged him to perform. He's been on a fast track ever since ' from slam champ to creator of award-winning hip-hop theater works (he just received a United States Artists Fellowship) to residencies at prestigious universities, including ours. Through all of that runs the desire to educate, he says.

In keeping with the UW Arts Institute's mission, Bamuthi's residency includes a free public lecture/performance series, Line Breaks. The artists on this bill step into the First Wave network, providing mentorship and professional connections for the program's students over the long haul. For Youth Speaks Wisconsin, they'll be absolutely inspirational. But Line Breaks also bridges gaps between the hip-hop community and the rest of us.

'People need to understand hip-hop as a vital force in American culture,' Ney says. 'It's the jazz of the 21st century.'

You can't fail to learn something new from the cultural leaders of Gens X and Y in the Line Breaks lineup. Here it is, in a nutshell. Tickets for the three pay-up events are available from the Wisconsin Union Theater box office.

Youth Speaks Wisconsin Spoken Word Finals/Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Feb. 24, Wisconsin Union Theater, 7 p.m., tickets

Bamuthi hosts this year's state-level competition. (The winners go on to the Brave New Voices nationals in San Jose in July.) After the slam he does excerpts from his full-length choreo-poem Word Becomes Flesh and premieres some bits from his new multimedia work, The Breaks, set to open in Oakland later this year.

Rennie Harris and Jeff Chang
Feb. 26, Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, 7 p.m., free

Here's a whopping combo to launch a series of free Monday night events at the Wisconsin Historical Society, featuring excerpts from artists' repertories and dialogue that contextualizes the works within the hip-hop canon.

Choreographer Harris, 42, a first-wave b-boy from the City of Brotherly Love, got discovered by talent scouts from the Philadelphia Dance Projects when he was just a kid breakin' at block parties. Today he's the undisputed boss of hip-hop dance performance. He won a 2001 Bessie (New York's highest dance award) for his hip-hop opera Rome and Jewels. His company tours the world and celebrated its 15-year retrospective at Philly's posh Kimmel Center earlier this month.

Like Harris, Bay Area journalist Chang, 39, has been influencing post-boomer culture for at least 15 years. After a late-'80s stint spinning discs for college radio while he was a student at UC-Berkeley, Chang founded an indie record label and started writing for straight-up hip-hop mags. He still writes for Urb, but also dishes up critiques on race, politics and culture in mainstream lit like The Village Voice, The Nation and Mother Jones. He reaped an American Book Award for Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005), and his edited volume Total Chaos, featuring 50 essays on the hip-hop arts, was just released.

'Hip-hop's transformed every aspect of culture,' says Chang. 'What's amazing about the hip-hop arts movement is that it's raised questions around race, gender and poverty, keeping those discussions in the forefront while mainstream pols go the other direction, destroying welfare and cutting taxes for the rich. But culture isn't enough. The big issue now is how to convert cultural capital to political capital.'

Dancefest '07
March 3, Great Hall in the UW Memorial Union, 8 p.m., tickets; a benefit for First Wave scholarships

Put on your boogie shoes. Dane Dances and the Office of Multicultural Arts bring in Milwaukee reggae rock 'n' soul band In Black n' White and SambaDÃ, Afro-Brazilian samba funk Mardi Gras music from Santa Cruz, Calif.

Alix Olson
March 5, Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, 7 p.m., free

Olson, 32, uses poetry to tear up the status quo. The daughter of white lefty academics, she took a black theater course at Wesleyan University in '98 and ended up winning slams at the Nuyorican Poets Cafà in Manhattan's East Village. Today Olson zaps audiences from New York to New Zealand with her rebellious, rock-star performances. Left Lane, a documentary about her career on the road, has won tons of awards. She's shared the stage with luminaries like Michael Moore, Amy Goodman and Ntozake Shange; eminent historian Howard Zinn calls her a serious thinker and a funny person.

'I have a lot of anger at capitalism, sexism, homophobia and other systems of oppression,' Olson says. 'That comes out in my show, but my favorite moments are when the audience and I can laugh together.'

Want an example? In her merch kit there's a T-shirt that's worth a grin. It says 'No Divorce for Straights.'

Kamilah Forbes
March 12, Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, 7 p.m., free

Forbes, 29, a Chicago native of Jamaican heritage, studied theater at Howard University in D.C. and at the British-American Drama Academy at Oxford, England. Her acting experience includes TV, film and traditional theater, but her heart's in hip-hop. Deep into the D.C. scene, she wrote her first play for the fledgling Hip-Hop Theater Festival in '99.

Forbes currently directs Bamuthi's full-length touring work Scourge, a collaboration with Rennie Harris, Latin jazz composer/educator John Santos (a UW Arts Institute artist in residence in 2002) and other artists.

'I love the stage,' Forbes says, 'but institutions are important in growing the hip-hop esthetic, and I'm just as excited to play the producer role.'

She's now the artistic director of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival as well as executive producer of Def Poetry Jam, the late-night HBO series hosted by visionary rapper Mos Def, who helped break the grip of gangsta rap by putting socially conscious slam poetry on TV.

Danny Hoch
March 19, Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, 7 p.m., free

Hoch, 36, a Jewish hip-hop kid from Queens, founded the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. He's acted in some 20 movies, counting Hollywood and indie flicks. He's won Obies (Village Voice's off-Broadway theater awards) for his one-man shows, in which he plays a pack of multicultural, multilingual hip-hop characters. He's especially proud of doing theater in jails. And he's a senior fellow at New York's New School for Social Research Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

All of that puts Hoch on the frontlines of hip-hop cultural resistance, from which he peers into the future. 'The new generations are still dealing with the long-term effects of Reaganomics, which is at the roots of original hip-hop,' he says. 'These kids don't even know how to dial a rotary phone, but in the new technological age their major form of communication is the Internet ' it's sites like myspace.com. That spreads hip-hop way beyond urban areas. Ultimately, how will younger generations use technology as a tool for resistance?'

Dennis Kim (a.k.a. Denizen Kane) and Mayda del Valle
March 26, Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, 7 p.m., free

Korean American word wizard Kim, 27, is the lead MC with underground hip-hop group Typical Cats and a founding member of the pan-Asian spoken-word collective I Was Born With Two Tongues, both Chicago-based. Kim's done three Def Poetry seasons, has two solo albums out, and is known for slipping jazz and Korean chants into his hip-hop beats.

Del Valle, 28, Puerto Rican sista from Chicago, has a growing local following since she performed at the Wisconsin Book Festival last fall and at Latina sorority Lambda Theta Alpha's Words of Fine gig at Great Hall earlier this month. She takes inspirations from jazz and salsa as well as hip-hop, a spunky mix that made her a Nuyorican Poets Cafà slam champ in 2000. She shot to the top in national competitions, got a slot on HBO's Def Poetry Jam in its first season and got picked to perform in Def Poetry's Tony-winning Broadway production in '03. In '04 she signed on to Norman Lear's Declare Yourself tour, a nonprofit get-out-the-vote effort. Today she lives in L.A., where she works for Lear and does college tours on her own. She's working on an album and plans to expand into acting and screenwriting.

Lauren Whitehead
April 9, Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, 7 p.m., free

Whitehead's a senior at the University of Michigan, a poetry-slam champ, a Sonnet Slam winner in a Royal Shakespeare Company contest, and co-director of her school's women-of-color-only production of The Vagina Monologues.

Rafael Casal and Dahlak Brathwaite
April 16, Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, 7 p.m., free

This won't be the first time these two young poets have performed together. They're both 21 and from northern California. Their spoken-word works range from highly personal to staggeringly political.

Brathwaite, who's touring with Scourge this spring, is also a member of the hot new Bay Area spoken-word/hip-hop fusion troupe iLL-Literacy. Recently he released a solo CD, Dual Consciousness. In hip-hop slang, 'ill' is synonymous with 'awesome' or 'phat.' If the audio clips on Brathwaite's Web site are a clue, he's all of that.

Berkeley-born Casal, 21, says he was saved by Youth Speaks a few years back. 'I was failing my English class. My teacher said I could get extra credit if I did the slam and workshop series at my high school. I really liked being onstage and being good at something.'

As a junior Casal won the area slam and went to the nationals. After he graduated he got on the Youth Speaks staff as a mentor and peer educator, plugged into Bamuthi's Living Word Project, and got on Def Poetry Jam. 'That changed everything. The exposure lets me make a living off my art.'

Omar Sosa and His Africanos Quartet
April 26, UW Music Hall, 8 p.m., tickets; a benefit for First Wave scholarships

Sosa, orisha of the keyboard, returns to town after four years to channel the global spirits of the new millennium plus the African ancestors with his current quartet of genius expats: Julio Barreto (Havana) on drums, Childo Tomas (Mozambique) on bass and jazz vocalist Mola Sylla (Senegal).

For a phat series, that's a wicked wrap.

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