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Hip hop course builds “performance muscle”

With the start of the Spring ’06 semester, hip hop became more than an art form, a culture, an attitude, or a state of mind – it’s now a class at Lehigh featuring the performances of undergraduate students from disciplines that span the university.

“Act Like You Know: Hip Hop Theatre,” is a theatre course (cross listed with Africana studies) that draws from the history and influence of hip hop. It will examine the art form not only as entertainment, but also as a form of self expression, says Kashi Johnson, the associate professor of theatre who developed the class and is offering it to Lehigh students for the first time this semester.

“I’m a product of hip hop’s second generation—not the pioneers who invented it, but the age bracket who shepherded the culture into global importance, political significance, and artistic richness,” Johnson says.

“I appreciate hip hop’s value, which is evident in the stories it tells, the wisdom it imparts, and the emotions it allows us to express. At its best, hip hop begs us to listen as it gives voice to the voiceless.”

Johnson's course follows a sociology course taught by Andrew McIntosh for several years: "Pass the Peas: Mapping the Blueprint of Hip Hop Culture," which traces the roots of the hip hop movement.

Johnson's ultimate goal with her new Lehigh course, she says, is to “empower Lehigh students to not only learn about hip hop music and culture, but to find their voice in doing so.”

Nurturing hip hop culture in the Lehigh Valley

Johnson will be aided by two assistant teachers: Teniece Johnson, a Pittsburgh native and a graduate student who earned her masters in sociology from Lehigh, and Meryl Glinton, a senior philosophy and psychology major who came to Lehigh from the Bahamas. The only prerequisite for the class, Johnson says, is that students remain open to the hip hop experience, and are daring enough to take risks as they create their own interpretations of the art form.

“The focus of the course isn’t solely to teach the history of hip hop,” she says. “While that is covered broadly, the aim of the course is to learn about the creative process as students create their own original work. By dissecting current lyrics and videos, as well as looking at the broader historical evolution of hip hop culture, students will develop a new perspective on the music and images that surround them. Simultaneously, I am calling on the expressive aspects of their personality, to build their performance muscle and strengthen their artistic voice.”

For those who may be somewhat reluctant or insecure performers, Johnson assures them that her classroom is a “safe space that gives people the security to speak their truth.

“I want students to know that what they have to say is important and valued,” she says. “I want them to know that they are amongst people who ‘have their back.’”

Watch a video interview with Kashi Johnson on theatre at Lehigh.

Johnson’s class is the latest in a series of her exploratory adventures in the process of nurturing the development of hip hop culture in the Lehigh Valley. She is also involved in the development of RedSun Productions, which describes itself as “a driven production company committed to developing and showcasing original, cutting-edge hip hop theatre artists for the stage.”

The production company’s intent, Johnson says, is to utilize hip hop theatre to inspire, cultivate, challenge, astonish, educate, and empower artists and audiences to explore new ideas and new forms of self-expression.

RedSun has been instrumental in staging “The HipHopCollective,” a part of South Side Bethlehem’s Touchstone Theatre Firehouse Friday series. The show provides Lehigh students, such as Brooklyn native and aspiring hip hop/spoken word artist Shaun Redwood ’07, and other fledgling artists an opportunity to join more accomplished and well-known performers on the stage.

Johnson is also in the planning stages of the “Say Word! Hip Hop Theatre Festival,” that will kick off the theatre department’s 10th anniversary season in September. The festival will feature established and emerging artists, joining together to celebrate hip hop and the power of the word. The festival will feature a revolving series format that will include cutting-edge drama, spoken word, music, dance, open mic performances, panels, workshops, and more.

“I am very excited about collaborating with the many academic departments and student organizations here at Lehigh, and other LVAIC colleges, to put together the best festival possible,” she says. “Thankfully, I will be working closely with theatre professors Drew Francis and Pam Pepper to garner support for the festival and help get the word out.”

Although university classes on hip hop have proliferated across the country over the past decade (there are now more than 100 being taught, she says), Johnson feels that the art form is still misunderstood by many.

“If you think hip hop is just bling bling, sex, and violence, you have a lot to learn,” she says. “Hip hop is a valid art that has been around for more than 30 years. It empowers artists to share their voice and their experiences, and I think that right here—at Lehigh and in the Lehigh Valley—we have important stories to tell.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, March 01, 2006

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