Hip-Hop Theatre: Traversing Commercialization and Culture

The term “hip-hop theatre” emerged in the early 1990s from Jonzi D, a London-based dancer and emcee. He sought to describe a performance style that encompassed a fusion of hip-hop dance and theatre. Over the 1990s, this definition expanded to include theater works that incorporate graffiti, DJ'ing, breakdancing, emceeing, beatboxing, and/or rap. Will Power described hip-hop theatre as "theatre artists exploring their relationship to hip-hop, focusing on content, form, or content and form." Although the genre was first named overseas, American artists such as Will Power, Psalmayene 24, and Kamilah Forbes actively shaped and created the form through their work in the United States.

In the summer of 2000, the first two hip-hop theatre festivals were founded: In Washington, DC Jennifer Nelson, then the Artistic Director of the African Continuum Theatre, produced the Hip-Hop Theater Fest at the Kennedy Center, bringing together audience members new to hip-hop and audience members familiar with hip-hop and new to The Kennedy Center. Later the same year, playwright/director Danny Hoch and playwright/director Kamilah Forbes co-founded the New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival (now known as HiARTS). In 2002, artist Rickerby Hinds produced Califest in Riverside, California. These festivals came to be year-round events, drawing artists from across genres and sparking discussions of form and its possibilities.

Hip-hop itself transcends music, art, or dance, existing wholly as culture. Developed in the Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop emerged as a blend of multi-cultural musical influences and became a uniting force predominately of African Americans and Caribbean immigrants. Over time hip-hop has evolved to represent the voices of numerous marginalized people and communities.

Alongside the spread of hip-hop came complexities of its commercialization: Much of early hip-hop was intercultural, challenged power structures, and its culture of creation was simultaneously competitive and loving. When corporate music business came to hip-hop, the record industry promoted a primarily hypermasculine and hypersexualized imagery, primarily of Black youth. Some artists have reclaimed these images and questioned the music industry’s attempts to narrowly define what rap or hip-hop can be. Some artists have found commercial success with music that calls out racist and classist assumptions about who they sing about and for. But the fact remains that hip-hop has been appropriated and commodified to profit corporations and a few individual artists, and has largely left the originating communities to fend for themselves. Much like theatre, although the art itself is progressive, the capitalist systems that use and promote the art inhibit the change that the work itself is trying to do. Hip-hop is inherently political, championing a shift in power distribution, but it is also produced by a majority-white industry, whom it enriches, is appropriated by celebrity influencers, and is often produced in environmentally devastating festivals on Native land.

The hesitations of some hip-hop theatre artists about the commercialization of the artform stem from these dynamics. With commercialization comes the theatrical white power structures that inhibit experimentation—institutions want reliability, a predictable success—which is at cross purposes from the spirit of hip-hop itself. The critically acclaimed hip-hop musical Hamilton stands as an example: The play made space for people of color on stage, but the theatres that house these productions have yet to fully acknowledge or reconcile their racist structures and practices. 

Hip-hop encompasses freedom, expression, justice, resistance, community, and autonomy over narrative. It looks to overcome obstacles to justice in race, gender, class, society, and culture. Taking hip-hop into theatre means wrestling with the specifics of institutional theatres, institutions whose leadership and audiences are predominantly white, whose hiring and casting practices can be racist and classist—all of which threatens to diminish the values hip-hop upholds.

But hip-hop is resilient. It has prevailed over the colonialist practices that threaten to silence artists of color time and time again. It has evolved and developed generation to generation, gaining traction, and with it, new voices and movements to unite behind. Alongside this are the artists whose voices have transcended time, such as those mentioned within Flow; Melle Mel, Doug E. Fresh, dead prez, Common, The Roots, Nas, OutKast, Mos Def, and Jay-Z. As hip-hop theatre expands into new institutions, it carries the opportunity to encourage new generations, reach new audiences, and supplement the power hip-hop holds, recognizing the artists who have come before them. Flow is a part of this hopeful perspective, and reminds us of the power our stories and art hold as intergenerational agents of change within our communities.

—Jada Boggs