Lehigh to Host Say Word! Hip-Hop Theatre Festival

by Linda Herbrecht

Lehigh’s theatre department will host the university’s first hip hop theatre festival beginning in mid-September and running through the end of the month. The event, which officially kicks off on Monday, Sept. 18th, will combine world-renowned hip hop artists and Lehigh students in performances that include spoken word, emceeing, break dance, beat box, dramatic performance and more.
Slated to appear are hip hop legend MC Lyte, one of the first female rappers to spotlight what she sees as rampant sexism and misogyny in hip hop; Maya Azucena, independent neo-soul/R&B artist whose vocal style has been favorably compared with “old-school divas like Chaka Khan and Roberta Flack;” Joe Hernandez-Kolski of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam; Yuri Lane, who bills his act as a “hip-hop travelogue of peace;” and Bakari Kitwana, co-founder of the first-ever National Hip Hop Political Convention.

“I am proud of this entire event, which will be a synthesis of internationally and nationally acclaimed artists alongside Lehigh students and local artists,” says Kashi Johnson, the associate professor of theatre who organized the festival. “It will be hip hop at its best: the artful blend of the stories and experiences of many people.”

Scheduled throughout the 13-day festival, which concludes on Sept. 30, will be panels, workshops, discussions, and performances—two of which will feature Lehigh students. English major Shaun Redwood, a two-time New York City Teen Poetry Slam finalist, will join several other Lehigh students, including Uhuru Aseto’08, Melodie Kent’05 ’10, Christopher Kim’08, Teniece Johnson’04 ’05G and Josh Senior’08. Two members of the cast were from Johnson’s “Act Like You Know: Hip Hop Theatre” class, which was introduced in the Spring ’06 semester.
“We had 30 students in that class last spring, which is an insane number for a performance class,” she says. “But it was well worth it. These students not only immersed themselves in the subject matter but now have a continuing interest in hip hop theatre and being a part of it. With this festival, we’re definitely reaping the benefits of that class.”

Lehigh students will perform in a double bill on the festival that will include “He Speaks So Well,” which stars Redwood, and a new theatrical piece titled “Live On Stage,” which will feature students who auditioned for the opportunity to be cast in the play. Those students will also collaborate with professional hip hop artist J.Q., the composer and DJ for the off-Broadway smash hit musical comedy, The Bomb-itty of Errors, and the composer and co-star of the MTV show Scratch and Burn.

The two final days of Lehigh’s Say Word! Hip Hop Theatre Festival will be presented in association with an extension of the national Hip Hop Theater Festival that supports the development of new venues for hip hop poets, playwrights, dancers and performers by formalizing and implementing a touring package called HHTF On-Tour. 

The association with HHTF On Tour, Johnson says, helps place Lehigh’s hip hop festival in the company of larger, more established festivals, as it offers both accomplished and fledging artists with an exciting new venue to showcase their talent.

“The hope,” she says, “is that artists from all over the country can see Lehigh as a place for incubating new work and supporting the art form. It’s a great way for us to form alliances and real partnerships.”

Support for the Say Word! Hip Hop Theatre Festival spans a number of offices, clubs and departments, including Africana Studies, the Black Students Union, the Women’s Center, the Chaplains Office, ArtsLehigh, the Mustard & Cheese Drama Society, Women’s Studies, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Dean of Students office, and the staff of Lehigh Late Night.

“The level of cooperation and support from across the campus has been extraordinary,” Johnson says. 

The first hip hop theatre festival is the latest in a series of exploratory adventures in introducing the Lehigh community to the art form. In addition to her class, Johnson is also the co-founder of Red Sun Productions, a Lehigh Valley-based production company that nurtures budding hip hop artists and provides venues for more established acts to polish their performances.

“Hip hop is everywhere,” says Johnson. “Its appeal cuts across geographic, race and class boundaries. It has evolved from a musical form into a total lifestyle expression--a culture unto itself. There is no reason that can't be reflected here at Lehigh as well.”

Kashi Johnson