Wednesday, March 9, 2011

For All Those Waiting for Hip Hop, She’s Here” Akua Naru’s show at Rodrigue’s Café
Shows We Are Not Prisoners of Hip Hop’s Conventions and Cliches”

Last night, poet and rapper Akua Naru gave a lecture and performance in an intimate club setting on Fordham University’s Bronx Campus. The club, Rodrigue’s café, is set up like a living room, with couches and lounge chairs and enough floor space so maybe forty or fifty people could sit with their legs crossed. An unusual place for a hip hop performance, but then again Akua Naru is not your ordinary hip hop performer. Part poet (think Sonia Sanchez), part novelist ( think ToniMorrison) part jazz singer( think Billie Holliday) and part battle rapper ( think Lady of Rage) this artist kept an audience of 70 Fordham students mesmerized with stories told in prose and rhyme. In all my years at Fordham, I have only heard one other person combine lecture and performance that way without missing a beat –literally- and that was the great jazz percussionist and composer Bobby Sanabria.

But this was hip hop, not jazz. And hip hop as we know, is responsible for dumbing down and corrupting the great musical and poetic traditions of the African Diaspora, for privileging acquisitive individualism over communal solidarity, for sanctioning violence against women and reducing the metaphorical richness of African American speech to the mindless repetition of race and gender based epithets.

But when it comes to hip hop stereotypes, Akua Naru breaks the mold. Slim, dark skinned, with long dreads and a funky style of dress that more befits a doctoral student in American studies- which she is- than a stage performer, Naru draws in her audience through the richness of her imagery, the dexterity and speed of her rhymes, and her sly but infectious sense of humor. You have to listen pretty carefully to capture all the literary references and plays on words, but the subjects, whether they be drive by shootings, backyard barbecues, or slave auctions are so vividly rendered that you find yourself transported into different places and times. But those moments of reverie are short lived because you find your shoulders moving and your feet tapping to the beat. Naru is more like a sorcerer than a preacher. She takes you to the strangest places and reaches into corners where you worked hard to keep your emotions hidden, and by the end you are totally in her power, but she never raises her voice. You have been mesmerized by poetry set to rhythm. Think Billie Holliday; think Sam Cooke, think Ibrahim Ferrer ( Buena Vista Social Club) think the Odyssey. Different worlds open up to you, separated by space and time, and different emotions, too. No matter who you are, if you have an imagination and a heart, you become part of Black Women’s Historic Journey.

So this is hip hop, you say. It will never get on BET. It will never be on stage at Yankee Stadium. It will never be the sound track of the dance party or the strip club. You won’t hear it in Las Vegas, or when jeeps cruise the strip with the music on at top volume

But this night at Fordham University, in this small club, it is everything people ever dreamed of when they thought of what art can do to enhance the richness of human experience and expand the boundaries of imagination.

Or as Arkua Naru put it, in a song from her new album “For all those waiting for Hip Hop- She’s Here”

Mark Naison
March 9, 2011
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