Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice

Hip-Hop Theater and Literary Arts

Fresh ideas take classic forms


Theater and Literary Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of Hip-Hop theater and literary arts include:

choreography arrangement of dance moves
collaboration working together
content subject or information
genre category of literature, such as fairy tales or historic fiction
lyricism poetic or musical style
metaphor symbolic figure of speech
scenery backdrop for a theater production
stakeholder someone who shares interest or responsibility

“Be warned, this is theater—but it’s hip-hop theater,” a loud voice booms before the curtain rises for Into the Hoods. This show has been blowing away London audiences since 2008. It is an urban re-visioning of the fairy tale-genre, following a pair of school kids into a tough part of town instead of a haunted forest. But as with all fairy tales, not everything or everyone is what they seem. Ultimately the stage blazes with wild style art, DJ voiceovers, beats from multiple musical styles, b-boys and b-girls breaking in high-flying choreography, and fresh takes on familiar characters. (DJ Spinderella or Rap-On-Zel ring a bell?)

More and more, the stage has been welcoming Hip-Hop’s elements, energy, and world view. Graffiti writing may splash across the scenery. DJing, rapping, and breaking are likely to take turns in the spotlight. Some shows, like Into the Hoods, tell their tales mainly through dance and music, while others lay Hip-Hop style over more traditional scripts. Hip-Hop artists are tackling drama, comedy, and tragedy, and some classic material is getting the Hip-Hop makeover. Will Power’s The Seven, for example, retells the ancient Greek tragedy Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus using a DJ and rapping cast.

Collaboration and Content

Collaboration is a core ingredient for most Hip-Hop theater groups. In the tradition of the culture, producers, directors, and playwrights stress input and participation by stakeholders—the very people the play is intended to speak to and entertain. Long-time Hip-Hop theater writer/actor/director Danny Hoch says it this way: “Hip-hop theatre… must be by, about and for the hip-hop generation, participants in hip-hop culture, or both.”

This collaborative process clearly informs the content in Hip-Hop plays and musicals. Plots often tackle current social issues, especially as they relate to urban communities, with characters exploring the strengths and limits of activism and empowerment. Questions of identity are often front and center, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and anything regarded as “different.” The struggle between the individual and society is a central theme as characters seek to create meaning in their lives while struggling to claim their place in the world.

Hip-Hop in Prose and Poetry

MCs tell complex stories in rhythm and rhyme. Rappers write and polish their lyrics before delivering them in raps. The secret is out: Hip-Hop poets love words. “The toughest, coolest, most dangerous-seeming MCs are, at heart, basically just enormous language dorks,” cracks music critic Sam Anderson. “They love puns and rhymes and slang and extended metaphors ….” These skills can translate smoothly into literary forms—short stories, novels, scripts, poetry, and comic book-style graphic novels. Some works relate the gritty realities of poverty or inner-city living; others find the humor there and wherever; all describe trying to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Rapped aloud or published on paper, Hip-Hop-influenced literary forms have roots in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. BAM inspired a generation of African American, Latino, and feminist writers, including Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets, and many others, to share stories and views often overlooked or outright rejected by mainstream America. Along the way, spoken word—a forerunner of rap—injected energy into performance. Through poetry slams, it has developed its own fans with its forceful, fun wordplay.

As in theater, the literary world is making more space for Hip-Hop style, subjects, and themes. Scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley recently edited and published The Anthology of Rap, a huge collection of lyrics. Says Bradley: “[R]appers are perhaps our greatest public poets, extending a tradition of lyricism that spans continents and stretches back thousands of years…. They expand our understanding of human experience by telling stories we might not otherwise hear.”

Some Hip-Hop-savvy teachers are bringing the best of Hip-Hop literature into their classrooms. And writers for kids, teens, and young adults are telling Hip-Hop tales in books like Think Again by Doug E. Fresh, Debbie Allen’s Brothers of the Knight, and the Hip-Hop Kidz series by Jasmine Bellar.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Creative Commons; flickr.com user Elvert Barnes

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