Urban Expressionism: The Roots and Influences of Modern Urban Rituals

Peace & Blessings Everybody,

ZYG 808 Rehearsing with Mwalim DaPhunkee Professor
(THIS IS A RE-PRINT of Article from ChickenBones:A Journal, published in Fall 2004)

To keep it in the New World Griot tradition, I summarize my thesis with the following:

Excuse me, pardon me, may I have your attention for a few moments. You see, I’m trying to find my brothers and sisters, and cousins. They have been scattered all over the place, but you can recognize us and tell that we’re family when you see us. You see my Daddies name is BAM and my Momma’s name is Hip-hop. So they say, BAM lived up in Harlem but liked to party in the Bronx, ‘cause the Bronx always threw the best parties. Well, one night at a party up on Sedgwick Ave., where god provides security, BAM met a sweet little thing called hip-hop. Hip-hop was a sexy, sassy, playful thing, part West Indian, and part Latina and a little American Black.

Well BAM and Hip-hop kicked it for a while and hip-hop even let BAM hide out at her spot, behind the black door, when things got bad for him. They had a long on again/off again relationship and had a whole lot of kids, including me. I was born in a warehouse on the lower east side; my sister was born in Brooklyn, after BAM had a weekend fling in the West Indies. We call her Dub Poetry. I also have a little brother who was conceived in a bar in midtown and born in a club in Chicago called House. To some folks, we looked a little like BAM had ladies all over the place you see. He used to get with a Hip-hop cousin, Dance Hall from Brooklyn and they’d chill together up in Boston, even had a thing with a queen called House out in Chicago, a sister named Go-Go in DC, an older sister (who still had style) out in California called Soul. BAM even has kids over in England with a younger sister called Acid Jazz. Yeah, you could say that BAM was a player and had babies all over the place.
Me? My name is Urban Expressionist and I’m trying to find my brothers and sisters. You can tell who we are when you see us and hear us. Some of us sound like our Grandma, Post Modernist or Great-Grandma, Harlem Renaissance. . . . Some of her folks came from down south and some were from the West Indies. . . . Of course, as far back as we can go, it all began way back with a cat in the Village named African Grove and went on from there.

Anyway, African Grove had a daughter with a sister named gris-gris, and they called her Black-Faced Minstrelsy. Black-face did what she had to do to keep her children alive. These same children would later make the family legitimate again through her daughter’s Karamu, Lafayette Player, and Frogs... I’ve taken enough of your time. My name is Urban Expressionist and I’m looking for my siblings….

Now, on with the essay…

It was November of 2001 at an artist’s round-table at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in Queens, NY that I heard poet/ author/ vocalist/ organizer/ educator, Ola Jendai describes the work of this generation of conscious Black artists as ‘Modern Urban Rituals’. It is the common aesthetic properties of this loosely associated school of contemporary, socially conscious Black spoken-word artists and dramatists (including Latino and Native American people of African ancestry) that I began referring to as Urban Expressionism in 1997. While critics treat the works of this era as if they are a disconnected, phenomenon of the hip-hop generation, it can be seen that Urban Expressionisms cultural ideologies, practices and socio-political philosophies are rooted in those of the Black Arts Movement (BAM).

In an article “Black Creativity: On the Cutting Edge” (Time October 1974) Henry Louis Gates dismissed BAM as the “shortest and least successful” movement in Black American cultural history. However, it can be demonstrated that Urban Expressionism is not only an expansion of the BAM, but dramatists and spoken-word artists of the Urban Expressionist School are in fact a new generation of BAM artists, with the aesthetic, cultural and ideological principles passed directly from one generation to the next.

BAM, which was primarily rooted in the Black communities of New York City, was the aesthetic companion to the Black Power Movement of the mid 1960s, where poetry, drama, music and visual arts were used to propagate the movement’s nationalistic social, political and economic agenda. According to Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, the Black Arts Movement distinguished itself from previous eras and movements in the arts of Black people in America, the Black Arts Movement came with a social agenda.

The new mission of Black theatre came with three basic objectives: 1) Creating institutions within the Black community, for the development and presentation of theatre artists as well as works in drama and literature, by, for, and about Black people. 2) Creating a composite cultural language, rooted in an Afrocentric perspective (i.e., the Black Aesthetic) of Black people in America, speaking to the social and political realities of Black people in America, as opposed to creating works according to the Eurocentric values as with previous movements and eras. 3) Creating works that would impact the social and political perspectives of future generations of Black people in America. While the movement itself may have only lasted from 1965 to 1975, the influence of the agenda articulated within this movement on subsequent artistic movements within the tradition of Black Theatre and oral traditions is apparent and indelible.

Although BAM involved a canon of middle-class, mostly male, English speaking African American artists and intellectuals based in New York City, and Urban Expressionism encompasses a wider representation of post African Diaspora cultures, languages and dialects based in several cities throughout the USA, much of the common ideological, stylistic and thematic structure and content of Urban Expressionism has evolved from those identified by such Black Arts Movement scholars and critics as Kalamu ya Salaam,Amiri BarakaLarry Neal and Askia Muhammad Touré. The Black Arts Movement in particular was the era of “A New Breed” (Neal, “Visions”, p. 20) of Black artists, who rejected European American standards and aesthetic values in favor of a more Afrocentric celebration of their African heritage and Black American experiences and culture.

Previous to the BAM, most theatre in the Black community consisted of white plays with all Black casts, or plays about Black people written for white audiences, produced under the auspices of white patrons. As a grass-roots movement, BAM artists were behind the continuation of existing Black theatres and institutions in the Black community, such as the Hadley Players in New York and the Karamu Theatre in Cincinnati; as well as the formation of many new organizations, such as the National Black Theatre, Negro Ensemble Company, Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop and New Federal Theatre in New York, New African Company in Boston, Kuntu Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh, and the Arena Players in Washington DC.

Whereas the average life of a theatre company is three years, over 30 years later, all of the aforementioned organizations and institutions still exist, and are responsible for the initial training and professional experiences of approximately 80% of the Black theatre, television and film artists in the industry today, including the writers of the Urban Expressionist’ school. Hence, BAM’s first objective was met.

While some critics have dismissed the work of dramatists and spoken-word artists as ‘Agit Prop’ (agitation propaganda), closer examination reveals that dramatists, poets and theater artists of the BAM began experimenting with rituals, festivals, languages, clothing, music, social customs, and approaches from various African cultures, combining them with Black American folk traditions and eastern European influences, created a new paradigm. Through allegory, metaphor and African influenced performance-rituals, Black dramatists and spoken-word artists explore and support the social, political, economic, and cultural experiences and ideologies of their times.

It can be seen that those movements are more empirical outgrowths of previous landmark eras. African ritual, folklore and storytelling styles are also staples in cultural language of Urban Expressionism. Terms, concepts and traditions used today in Black theatre and literature, such as griot, Kwanzaa, the Nguzo Saba, the invoking of ancestors and pouring libations at the opening of a show, the inclusion of African-influenced dance, music, and rituals in plays that are not musicals were all introduced during BAM. Thus, the second objective was reached.

As BAM artists moved out of New York and settled in other urban areas around the country, the new breed that Neal speaks of are the present day elders, teachers, legends and influences of this generation. BAM artists and intellectuals became the faculty of Black Studies programs throughout the country, directors, artists and instructors in their own arts institutions. BAM artists also allied themselves with socially conscious dramatists and poets of Africa, the Caribbean and South America as well, deepening the Pan African link. It was the BAM era that gave the arts and literature of Black people in America an otherwise nonexistent legitimacy among Black artists and intellectuals of other countries. As a result, the philosophies, and practices of BAM artists were passed on to a new generation, including Black people of other countries and cultures, thus reaching the movement’s third objective.

The post BAM, multi-award-winning dramatist August Wilson, co-founder of the Kuntu Writer’s Workshop, has consistently exemplified answering these objectives in the development of his plays, providing opportunities for many black theatre professionals, as well as his late 1990s proposal for an African Grove Theatre Institute, dedicated to the preservation, continuation, development and presentation of the Black Theatre tradition. His detailing of this agenda included the aforementioned objectives. This initiative on Wilson’s part was mainstream Black artist’s demonstrated commitment to the BAM agenda.

While the era of Urban Expressionism began in 1993, when a new generation of Black spoken-word artists and dramatists, disenfranchised from mainstream opportunities to develop and present their work, began to develop their own small-scale productions in community spaces, lofts, coffeehouses, bars and underground clubs in major urban areas of America. This emergence of what arts critic Nelson George refers to as Boho, Afroccentric Bohemians and creative intellectuals whose works were fueled by the socially conscious hip-hop of such groups as Public Enemy, X-Clan, Boogie Down Productions and the Native Tongue Posse.

Another root of Urban Expressionism was Hip-hop Street Theatre, similar to the invisible theater of Augusto Boal. Teams of young performers would stage arguments, fights, humorous and loud conversations and seemingly impromptu song and dance musicals (complete with choreography) on subways, street corners, and shopping centers for unsuspecting audiences. A lot of these performances ended in the performers running from the police. Another influence on this generation were such post-BAM Black dramatists as George Wolfe, Lynda Patton, Ntozake Shange, P.J. Gibson, Leslie Lee, Miguel Pinero, August Wilson, and NGoma.

With the Urban Expressionist, also known as Keepers of the New World Griot tradition, as dubbed by BAM architect, poet and historian, Askia Toure, this generation of artists, are the Black counter-parts of Generation X, where the concept of Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Sabba always existed, where Afros or Naturals and dashikis are childhood memories and photographs. Likewise, the Urban Expressionists tend to take certain Africanisms as norms, whereby such concepts had to be consciously engrained in the works and rhetoric of BAM artists and critics. The rituals and symbols of Black folklore, and the perspective of the Afrocentric intellectual tradition, Urban Expressionist’s theater incorporates street and environmental theater, rhyming verse, and musical forms from the Black arts traditions, with an economy of sets, props, and characters.

Unlike previous eras, the Urban Expressionists school grew out of a time when funding and resources for the arts were seriously limited. The basis for the creation and development of the majority of these works relies completely on the passion and dedication of the artists involved; following the concept of Kuumba, creativity, where one’s creative talents and gifts are used to make our communities a more beautiful place then we found them.

As with BAM, the Urban Expressionists tend to produce works that explore, annotate, and depict to the social, cultural, political and economic realities, philosophies and experiences of Black people living in America. A strikingly consistent feature in the dramatic work of Urban Expressionism is its portable nature, and minimal use of sets and props and minimal lighting requirements. As with the Black Arts Movement, the dramatists of the Urban Expressionist school generally evolved from spoken-word artists and a wave of aspiring, independent filmmakers workshopping screenplays as live performance pieces.

The poetic form remained intact in some pieces, such as Slanguage by the spoken-word performance troupe Universes; whereby they recreate the experience of traveling through the South Bronx on a summer day, juxtaposing poetic verses as monologues and dialogues of the myriad of characters you’ll encounter on the trip. This is similar to the monologue driven, environmental plays and choreo-poems, such as “Street Sounds" by Ed Bullins or “Spell Number 7”, or “For Colored Girls…” by Ntozake Shange.

The continuation of any movement is based in its ability to adapt to the social and political landscape of society. While social and economic racism and discrimination are alive and well, the environment of post Civil Rights, post Affirmative Action, post Reganomics Black America is markedly different from that of the BAM era. Therefore the exact subjects and experiences depicted in the work of Urban Expressionists are markedly different as well. The modern age is more socially similar to the conservatism of the 1950s. Therefore, the need for Black people to maintain their own cultural, economic, and political institutions is recognized by a new generation.

In the Urban Expressionist’s drama “Smoke & Potatoes” by Yesi Mills, a righteous, West Indian street corner incense salesman, and a recently released from prison, Latino street corner weed dealer clash over territory, only to discover that they have more in common than a street corner. The incense man was a former weed dealer who decides to be a legitimate businessman, representing the ideals of legal, grassroots economic self-sufficiency. The food from his own culture that he cooks for his lunch, as opposed to the weed dealer's desires to get a slice of pizza from the local pizza shop, represents the incense man’s embracing of his values and self-sufficiency.

The weed dealer tries the incense man’s food and is disgusted to find potatoes and yams in the food, emblematical of his rejection of the roots of his own Caribbean culture. We discover that the incense dealer works this corner because his daughter’s school bus stops there and he can collect her after school. However, we also learn that the weed dealer has a daughter on the same bus, which he has never gotten to meet because he was in jail since she was an infant and her mother banished him from her life. Incense is used to remove evil spirits and smells from the air and bring clarity to thought and spirit. With the words and smells of the incense dealer, the weed dealer finds a new clarity for changes in his own life.

The allegorical elements of “Smoke” are similar to those used in such BAM plays as “The First Militant” minister by Ben Caldwell (A Black Quartet, 29-36), where we find a thief breaking into a Black minister’s house, full of lots of good stuff to steal. The minister comes home, causing the thief to hide. The minister begins to pray to God for an end to the riots, praying for the people of his community to submit to the higher authority and keep things status quo as opposed to rioting and rebelling. While the thief is hiding from the preacher and listening to the preachers prayer in disgust until he’s moved to answer the preacher’s plea, “Aw, Man. Get Up Off Yo’ Mother Fuckin’ Knees!”
The Thief/God then lays out a plan of rebellion for the preacher to lead his people through. The minister removes a gun from his desk draw and places it upon his bible. The final scene is the minister giving a sermon to his followers about his conversation with God, where God told him that the time has come to stop being passive and peaceful and take their liberation into their own hands. The other thing to note is that this is a play that can be performed in just about any setting, including a Bronx street corner.

As Urban Expressionism approaches its second decade, it is quite clear that if it is not a continuation of the Black Arts Movement, it is a direct result of the three main objectives of BAM. Urban Expressionism continues as a movement dedicated to preserving and establishing cultural institutions that support the development and presentation of Black artists and works, by, for and about Black people; it is a movement steeped in the cultural language and traditions of BAM; and is a movement that was directly influenced and mentored into existence by BAM artists and intellectuals.

Urban Expressionists are still mostly middle-class, like the BAM artists; however, they are a much more culturally and linguistically diverse group of young men and women. While the social, political and economic environment of Urban Expressionism differs from those of BAM, the cultural aesthetics and ideologies are identical, thus the ‘Modern Urban Ritual’ era it a continuation of BAM, making it a 40 year-old movement. The Harlem Renaissance lasted only 15 years, Afro Post-Modernism only 10. Therefore, it is highly questionable that BAM was either short lived or unsuccessful.
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Works Cited & Consulted
Ahearn, Charlie (ed) & Fricke, Jim (ed). Yes, Yes, Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip Hop's First Decade. New York: De Capo, 2002
Baraka, I. Amiri. Raise, Race, Rays, Raze. New York: Vintage, 1972
Bullins, Ed; Caldwell, Ben; Jones, Leroi; Milner, Ronald. A Black Quartet. New York: Mentor Books/ New American Library, 1970
Chuck D; Jah, Yusef; Lee, Spike. Fight the Power: Rap, Race & Reality. New York: Delta, 1998
Cruse, Harold. Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Quill, 1984
Draper, Theodore. The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism. New York: Viking, 1970
George, Nelson. Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos. New York: De Capo, 2001
Holloway, Joseph. Africanisms in American Culture. Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991
King, Martin Luther. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon, 1968
Neal, Larry. Visions of a Liberated Future. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1989
Salaam, Kalamu ya"Historical Overviews of The Black Arts Movement.” The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995
Tate, Greg. Flyboy in the Buttermilk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
Wimsatt, William Upski. Bomb the Suburbs. New York: Soft Skull, 2001
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