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Hip Hop Theater Rocks the Inland Empire

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By Jose A Mendoza and Dominique Jean-Marie Contributing Writer
Reprinted from the Highlander

Day One

Before going to this well-planned event, I did not know a thing about hip-hop. I cannot say I was interested in the latest trends or whatever pertains to the genre, but the Hip-Hop Theater Festival was a stunning eye-opener that not only broadened my interest in the subject, but gained my respect.
Right from the start, I was transfixed with every bit of information that flowed from Rickerby Hinds' mouth, though he was constantly stating how he was the least interesting aspect of the entire venue. This was perplexing, due to the fact that he presented the information about hip-hop culture with amazing clarity, and it never lagged. Such content involved the four elements of hip-hop: break dancing, MCs, graffiti and DJs along with the critical importance of hip-hop culture and its growing influence on society.

After the hour-long lecture, Hinds dismissed the audience for a long intermission until the next segment.
Outside Watkins 1000, the true spirit of the festival began to flow. Audience members Keith Allen McKinney II (Dharc Angel), Ruel Asuncion (Write Words), Roland Tonery III (Ryme Cre8tor), Adrian Jazquex (Sinister XL) and Jon Jacobs (WB) participated in a freestyling session that was nothing short of mind-blowing.
The strings of lyrical content varied in tempo, taking the audience on a humorous journey that was truly a pleasure to hear and behold. It was amazing to see the level of talent in young individuals who partake in free styling as a hobby. It would not be if one of these lyrical wizards hit the mainstream or experienced some form of major musical exposure.
Later, I had the chance to speak to Hinds, and he explained how he decided to bring the art of hip-hop theater to UCR. He said that theater these days does not speak the language of the present-day youth. The hip-hop culture does speak that tongue, and the Hip-Hop Theater Festival is an event that exposes the hip-hop generation to real-life issues in an interestingly accessible fashion.
Upon re-entering the room, I decided to sit up front. The lights dimmed and Aya De Leon and Elaine Chao performed their play "Thieves in the Temple." The play was impacting, and slammed the audience with a brutal honesty that caused me to shudder. It explores the history of hip-hop and how its treatment of women is a barbaric atrocity that needs serious change.
Aya's powerful lyrical messages were supported with the beat box master Chao. She produced beats so complex and intricate that my mind was pushed to the boundaries of instrumental sanity. Chao had her own feature that proved she could hold her own with her exotic, acid-like beats that never ceased to amuse. In the end, the dynamics between these two women produced a solid theatrical presentation that was honest, engaging, painful and humorous.
Ranging from a painful presentation of a woman who is enslaved in the tainted world of present-day hip-hop to an absurd, but hilarious, fantasy-like enactment of how the world of hip-hop would function if women ruled, "Thieves in the Temple" was absolutely brilliant. The first night of the three-day festival concluded on a positive note, with several questions from the audience to Aya and Elaine. In the end, it was an excellent opening to a breathtaking event.

Day Two

There is an old saying--things get better with time--and this held true the second day of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. The second night was brimming with amplified emotions fused with heartfelt lyrics, poetry and intricate beats. The night started with the ingenious work from the Hip-Hop All Stars.

Composed of three members-- Jonzi-D, Danny Hoch and Will Power--they entranced the audience with various forms of artistic expression that were laced with political messages, tragic stories and entertaining content.
Jonzi-D opened his act with complex movements, including a touch of break dancing. When we repeated the process, he added a flow of lyrics that told a story--and it all made sense.
After the laughter died down, Jonzi-D opened the second portion of his performance with a scene that depicted a tragic time in his life. He played a black man who traveled from England, to Jamaica, to Grenada, to the United States and finally to Africa in search of his identity--only to find that the effects of colonization had robbed him of his name. The result was an honest performance composed of well-timed jokes along with agonizing cries of inner turmoil as he ran from place to place in search of his past.
Afterwards, Hoch entered the stage and opened as a Cuban clave salesman talking to a citizen from the United States. He attacked the general ignorance of the American population and how Americans laugh at the way Cubans speak. In the end, the Cuban laughs at the United States and its ideals.
The second part thrust viewers into the home of a young white boy from Montana who aspires to be a big-baller and have ladies lined up by his side. It plays out as a comical yet dismal portrayal of how this boy is lost in a dream that ultimately alters his perception of reality.
Hoch closed with an attack on high maintenance rappers from the perspective of an executive producer/director. The overall message centered on hip-hop being more about money and the demands of the artists than the music itself.
Later, Power appeared and opened with the story of hip-hop through the eyes of people across various points in hip-hop history. He portrayed the roles of an old man, a man who sings like a preacher, the MC of old school and the defender of new school hip-hop. The concept was about passing down the story of hip-hop before it was destroyed by its oppressors. Using his alluring voice and complex, dexterous movements, he accomplished his vision.
The night continued with the mind-jarring power of the poets that slammed the audience with intense political messages about the hypocrisy of America, racism, the need for peace, love and brotherhood along with hilarious rhymes about women, make-up and condoms. There was also some ingenious poetry and amazing beats supplied by the cadre of performers. Words cannot express the last two hours, for the variety of emotions was mind-bending.
The entire festival broke down the stereotypical ethnic barriers. People of all races joined under the passion of one amazing art form, sending positive messages and talking about life honestly, clearly. The fact that one festival could bring so many together is not only a stunning feat, but it speaks of the accomplishment of this fresh, thriving art form that will undoubtedly catch America by surprise. It is only a matter of time.

Day Three

Some say it started in 1978 in the South Bronx with Afrika Bambaataa and Zulu Nation. It may be argued that it started long before that, in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement. What is it, pray tell? Hip-hop.
On the third day of the festival, in Humanities 1500, Danny Hoch, a globally acclaimed actor, writer and solo performer, led a discussion on the real meaning of the genre; where it is, where it may be going and how it can be made better?
Perhaps hip-hop really did start back in the 60s, with the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets. The Black Aesthetic found its birthplace there--hip-hop must have been a part of that as well.
According to The Source magazine, hip-hop is made up of four elements: The Graffiti artist, the DJ, the Dancer (Breaking, Popping, Locking, Up-Rocking) and the MC (or the Rapper). The rapper is the youngest of the four elements.
Graffiti was first used between 1966 and 1971 by political activists to make statements and by the street gangs to mark territory. According to Hoch, young people from the poor, marginalized neighborhoods owned nothing. Graffiti came about because of that lack of ownership. When their name was on something, they could say "hey that's my train, or building or wall."

“The New York public school system presented inferior education to its kids. I know, I went through that system," Hoch said.
However, it was the poor school system that believed its students to be inferior.
Break dancing found its roots in Caupurera, Kung Fu (which were extremely popular at the time) and Cuban Rumba. The sanitation was bad in the poor neighborhoods, and trash was not being picked up by the city.
"You would see cardboard boxes everywhere," Hoch said. "So the breakers would put the cardboard on the ground and as if in a metaphor in it of itself they would defy the ground, gravity even by spinning on the ground."
To better understand hip-hop, Hoch had the audience define the word "theater;" they came up with "a form of storytelling in the form of an artistic expression." From there, the audience began brainstorming and defined hip-hop as performance, storytelling, poetry, spirituality and education. They essentially made it intrinsically theater.
"Hip-hop will never make as much money as movies and other art forms, but if we keep looking at hip-hop through the lens of rap music, (hip-hop) will surely be doomed," Hoch said.
Will Power gave everyone a chance to experience hip-hop. Taking the audience outside, he had them do a series of exercises. As the crowd stood in a circle, they each took turns throwing a ball of energy around, changing the shape and size as they threw the imaginary object.
They progressed to adding sound and noise, later becoming objects themselves. Some of the characters were everything from angry, impatient cars to crying babies. They took those characters and expressed themselves, speaking in the same cadence as the noise that their character made; this included honking cars, crying babies and giggling school girls.
The event came to an end with an activity led by Christian "Archer" Lucero, a graffiti artist. Taking the audience outside of the Humanities building, Lucero let everyone witness the often-misunderstood art form. As photographers and video cameras surrounded the artist, younger kids from surrounding high schools asked him questions about how he got started and where he got the inspiration for his magnificent pieces.
"I've been drawing since kindergarten," Lucero said. "The other kids would line up and ask me to draw something and I would do it. I like (my art) to have a little meaning. I get my inspiration from the people."
The event didn't end with a discussion panel as previously planned, but Rickerby Hinds, visiting assistant professor and the organizer of the event, led a short feedback session.
The event attracted not only UCR's student body, but high school students as well. Everyone seemed to find a new understanding of hip-hop as an art form. Time restraints prevented many discussions from being fully developed, but the event gave many people the opportunity to start thinking of the musical style in new ways.
This event was sponsored by The Center for Ideas and Society through a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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