Interview with Flow Director Psalmayene 24

Artistic Apprentice Jada Boggs sat down with Psalmayene 24,  Flow director and Studio’s Doris Duke Artist in Residence, for insight regarding the upcoming production, as well as Psalm’s introduction to and impact on the hip-hop theatre.

Jada Boggs: We’re speaking in April 2021, about a week before you film the production. How has the process been so far?

Psalm: The process has been thrilling. I’ve only created a bit of filmed theatre, and it's a process that I've come to enjoy.  

But honestly, I have to keep reminding myself to think of this project as a film. There are certain freedoms that we have in terms of editing and how we're going to capture the production—we can stop, adjust, and pivot creatively.

One cool aspect is that we have a whole treasure trove of inspiration to pull from in terms of hip-hop videos and the aesthetics and conventions of rap in the music video form. That's been eye-opening, just knowing that hip-hop is the gift that keeps on giving.

Let's talk about hip-hop theatre. What was your introduction to the genre?

This form is home for me. Hip-hop theatre is an aesthetic that I helped to co-create with a cohort of other artists. In many ways, this is like returning to myself and working in a familiar form that has a lot of room for growth.

My introduction into the genre was as a dancer. Before anything else, I consider myself a dancer, and that's how I also approach a lot of my theatre work in terms of movement, shape, and rhythm. That certainly is still very much a part of my DNA.

Back when I was growing up in Brooklyn, dancing was my primary form of hip-hop. I would be one of the kids who would dance at block parties and, for a little while, a friend and I had a two-man dance crew, and we would go to parties and clubs and dance. I also had a hip-hop-based dance company where we mixed modern dance, African, street dance, and club dance with hip-hop.

While I wasn't thinking of what I was doing back then as theatre, there was a theatrical element to it. And when I was at Howard University, I was the choreographer for Rhyme Deferred, which was one of the early hip-hop theatre pieces that thought of itself in those terms: A form that was deliberately creating art that existed at the intersection of theatre and hip-hop.

I just happened to be alive and creating in the hip-hop form when many artists immersed in hip-hop culture were also interested in doing theatre. All of those experiences were bits and pieces of a mosaic that would eventually become the beginnings of my career in hip-hop theatre.

You've had a few conversations with hip-hop theatre pioneer and Flow  playwright Will Power regarding the play. What have those conversations illuminated for you?

I'd seen the production when Will did it at Studio the first time, but, wow, that was back in the early 2000s. I talked to him primarily about rhythmic moments in the play because you see words on the page, and some of the rhythms you can understand in writing and then some you cannot. Many of my questions had to do with clarifying specific rhythmic patterns in the text and specific references that are West Coast-based.  

More than anything, it's connecting with Will and hearing from him about the genesis of the piece, which has helped me understand the piece as a spiritual work of art that I think will resonate with folks during this time.

What do you to want to do this production?

One was the opportunity to continue to experiment with the form. And second, this idea of legacy and tradition and the function of storytelling in the health of a community. Those ideas drew and attracted me to the piece. It’s something that I think about in terms of being an artist and the people whose shoulders I stand on. How do I pass on the legacy that's been passed on to me? How do stories operate and function within that tradition of storytelling and legacy? 

A prominent theme in Flow  is community. What's the importance of telling this story to this community right now?

Well, aside from giving people a respite and mental escape from the pandemic, I think it gives people the opportunity to learn that the power to heal is in your own hands, and that's through story. You can do that by journaling. You can do that by writing a poem. You can do that by writing a rap. You can do that by having a conversation with somebody. There are these varying opportunities for storytelling that I think has the ability to heal on macro and micro levels too.