Ever since he attended his first open mike in a squalid basement of his Washington, D.C., high school, Josh Healey says he's known hip-hop "is what I want to be part of."
"My parents lived on two different sides of town," says Healey. "My mom lived in a 90% white neighborhood, and my dad lived in a 90% black neighborhood. Whenever I would take the train to get from one of their houses to the other, the racism of Washington was very obvious."
As program director for UW-Madison's Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI), Healey, 23, organizes events that use hip-hop music, spoken-word poetry, dance and theater to make sense of the world we live in.
One such event is "Line Breaks: The Remix" (April 22-25), a series of performances and discussions featuring world-renowned hip-hop artists and scholars like Public Enemy's Chuck D., performance poets Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Staceyann Chin, and dancers Rennie Harris, Rokafella and Kwikstep.
The showcase performance for "Line Breaks" takes place at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, April 24, at 7 pm. It's one of many events that make up the UW's "Hip Hop as a Movement Week."
Now in its second year, "Line Breaks" began as a lecture and performance series that gathered a cross-section of Madisonians in the Historical Society Auditorium for 10 Monday nights last spring.
"The auditorium was packed for those events," says Healey.
"Line Breaks" was also a component of Marc Bamuthi Joseph's 2007 residency in the UW's Afro-American Studies and Dance programs.
Bamuthi is a hip-hop theater artist who incorporates West African, tap and modern dance, spoken-word poetry and live music into his performances. He's been featured on HBO's Def Poetry and is a National Poetry Slam champion.
Healey says that "Line Breaks: The Remix" condenses last year's program into four days and involves a wider group of artists and scholars.
The artists featured in the April 24 showcase come with formidable credentials.
Ana "Rokafella" Garcia is a B-girl who has danced in videos for Mariah Carey and KRS-One. Gabriel "Kwikstep" Dionisio was a member of the dance company GhettOriginal and has performed in commercials for Dr. Pepper and Nike.
Rennie Harris is a faculty member at the Broadway Dance Center in New York. Staceyann Chin is a Jamaican-born poet and political activist whose work has been featured on 60 Minutes.
The April 24 event also presents the First Wave Hip Hop Theater Ensemble from right here in Madison. The group includes members of UW's First Wave, a spoken-word and urban arts learning community that's the first of its kind in the nation.
First Wave is an OMAI program coordinated by Healey and OMAI executive director Willie Ney.
"First Wave admits 15 students from across the country to live together and participate in a four-year program at UW," Healey told me over hot tea on a cold rainy afternoon last week. "Some of the students are singers, dancers and musicians, but First Wave isn't just for artists. We want to bring together educators and doctors and lawyers. The program is about building off hip-hop to break down our understanding of the world.
"I came to Madison because of the progressive and activist reputation of UW," says Healey. "I think programs like First Wave prove that there's still room for innovation at UW, despite our campus struggles."
For some in Madison, hip-hop is associated with bar-time fights at venues like the former Club Majestic on King Street. It's an association Healey finds unfair.
"That's about alcohol, not hip-hop," he says. "There are just as many fights that happen in the college bars downtown."
For Healey, hip-hop is a canvas for social and artistic expression that provides a rare chance for dialogue on race, class and personal identity.
"I'm a white, middle-class Jewish kid from D.C.," says Healey. "Hip-hop is about representing yourself - keeping it real. If you're not honest, you'll be called out.
"This movement grew out of poverty and displacement, but it's been around for 33 years now, and kids who grew up on hip-hop music are becoming professors."
For four days next week, "Line Breaks: The Remix" will reflect on that phenomenon and, as Healey says, try to discern what's next for "the culture and the art form and the politics of hip-hop."