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Man of His Words
One spoken-word artist uses his gifts as a dancer, actor, and teacher to inspire young people. He integrates a hip-hop philosophy to promote change and incite action
Marc Bamuthi Joseph stands center stage at Iowa City's West High School and recites his poem about a festival of young, African choreographers in Paris. Wearing a yellow baseball cap, a brown, long-sleeved t-shirt with a pair of loose-fitting blue jeans and green sneakers, Joseph walks and sometimes jogs swiftly from one side of the stage to the other. He slowly incorporates movement, even acrobatic elements, into his performance. This unique style of turning words into motion sets him apart from other spoken-word artists.

People know his name from Oakland, where he resides, to New York, where he was born. At age 10, he worked as an understudy for Savion Glover on Broadway in the Tony Award winning play, Tap Dance Kid, and at 14 served as an understudy in Stand-up Tragedy. HBO's Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry featured Joseph, a National Poetry Slam Champion. The 32-year-old boasts street-cred and an academic standing—Stanford University, Brown University, and U.C. Berkeley each commissioned Joseph either to lecture or work as an artist-in-residence. But for his regular gig, Joseph motivates teens for a living as the artistic director of the Living Word Project, the resident theater company at Youth Speaks in San Francisco. He also serves as curator for the Living Word Festival for Literary Arts Project, the organization's resident theater company.

"I believe that collectively we can do better," Joseph says. "Socially, the more expansive our dialogue is, the more inclusive our society will be. And I think part of that expansion is the ability to cultivate language, listen to one another, and to be open to community dialogue."

Rob Bailis, of ODC Theater in San Francisco, remembers seeing Joseph perform his piece Word Becomes Flesh about seven years ago. "I think his work is unbelievably poignant. It's beautiful. His craft as a creative artist is equal to his capacity as a performing artist, which is very rare," Bailis says, the theater's director. "What's amazing about him is unlike a lot of writers, directors, and performers, he is going to leave a body of work that isn't truly bound to him. It's actually greater than him in a way."

In Word Becomes Flesh, Joseph wears a black t-shirt, brown cargo pants, and brown shoes. African drums rumble in the background. He leaps across the stage and repeatedly moves from a seated position to a standing position. Then he spins while his arms rest perpendicular to his body. His movements incorporate traditional African dance and American ballet as he recites a series of letters addressing dreams he had about his then unborn son, M'Kai.

Beyond his duties as a single dad and a resident at the ODC, Joseph helps 13- to 19-year-old writers just discovering their political or poetic voices. The playwright and choreographer also created a curriculum that encourages students to develop original ideas. He wants to provide them with a platform to express themselves. "The more we affirm all language the more confident our young people are," Joseph says. "School is not so much about speaking your mind, but finding 'the right answer.' Spoken-word poetry is about finding a voice, developing answers, developing a vision—ultimately a personal and social vision," he adds. "The more folk that enter into that dialogue, I think the stronger our society becomes, which is why I continue to do this work."

Early on, Joseph realized his desire to spread that vision. He taught high school after he graduated from Morehouse College. To keep his students interested in language, he searched for new ways to present literature. His students could relate the stories and messages in hip-hop music to their lives, and so he used that poetic structure to make the English classroom environment more exciting.

"It's what I know," Joseph says. "It would be real foul of me to come into the classroom on some feng shui shit. That would be whack because I don't know that. I am of the hip-hop generation. I know hip-hop. It informs how I teach."

Joseph also uses hip-hop to sell environmentalism. The Living Word Project's Red, Black, and Green is a movement for energy and sustainability in black communities across the country. In Houston, three row houses in the Third Ward received solar panels. In Oakland, graffiti artists drew murals in particular sites where spoken-word artists will recite a commercial about environmental responsibility and accountability in the black community. "The next four or five years for me is going to be making green living and ideology a visual element in major cities across America in black America," Joseph says, with a little more pitch. "That's my shit."

Kari Fulton, the campus campaign coordinator for Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, thinks others should follow Joseph's lead. "If we can get these artists together to really take a stand for a better environment then we could make a huge statement," she says. "We could have the potential to really make a great difference on a national and international scale." Fulton believes the sustainability of urban communities greatly depends on these programs. "I think it's important because we're working to save lives here," Fulton says.

Joseph's work might not save lives in the literal sense, but his activism expresses the human condition, Bailis says. "He is literally about straight-up human rights," he says. Joseph knows one thing for sure: "I ride for the future. Activism means inciting inspiration."

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