On that particular day, as students entered the Black Box Theatre in the Zoellner Arts Center to the sounds of master artist DJ Cap Cee, they embraced each other in high-energy greeting.
“This class has a church kind of feeling,” said Johnson, associate professor of theatre, to her students. “Everybody walks in, gives each other hugs… I didn’t tell you that you had to do that—that’s just happening nicely. I hope it continues."
Hip Hop Theatre: Act Like You Know is a challenging four-credit course that combines Johnson’s two passions: theatre and hip hop. The class, which requires student auditions for admission, introduces participants to the history and legacy of hip hop culture while guiding them through the process of creating their own original art.
In an effort to further enrich the student experience, Johnson received a Core Competency Grant from Lehigh’s Office of Student Affairs to bring four master teaching artists to Lehigh. During individual weeklong residences, these master artists teach students about the founding elements of hip hop: the DJ, breakdancing, the MC and graffiti art.
“I wanted to bring in people who can not only show the artistry as artists themselves, but also educate a bit about the history of hip hop as they see it, as they learned it, as they received it,” said Johnson.
Introducing DJ Cap Cee, the first of the four scheduled master artists, Johnson described her motivation.
“I want to bring the real elements of hip hop to my hip hop theatre class. And so we had to start with the DJ. Period. There’s no other element to begin with. The music starts the story [of the culture] off in so many ways.”
On Feb. 19, students learned about graffiti art from master artist Max Meano and even got to try their hand at making some of their own.
“I’m having a fantastic time. This class is a hands-on class so I wanted to bring in the teaching artists to do hands-on types of experiences and that’s what students have been getting and I think they really appreciate it. It’s not just reading about it or watching a documentary but applying it. It’s a lot of fun,” said Johnson.
The course delves far deeper than a listen-and-learn education on hip hop culture. Each student is required to reach within to find his or her own artistic voice. The class’ final exam, a live show performed for a large invited audience, is, as Johnson described in a 2013 TEDx talk, “a rite of passage, a definitive moment for students to declare who they are.”
“A lot of people are looking forward to going through the process of going from feeling like they want to be shy and holding the wall to finally coming center stage and claiming it as theirs. They’re not sure how they’re going to get there—neither am I!—but we’ll get there. We always do,” said Johnson.
Josiah Murrell ’18 described the class as “an opportunity to really explore our creativity as artists because everyone here is an artist in some fashion—we just don’t know it yet. I like how Kashi is pushing us to push our creativity to its limit and go beyond it. I really love this class for that.”
The love, it turns out, is mutual.
“I love hip hop, I love Lehigh, and I love my students,” said Johnson.