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bamuthi black and white portrait

Photo © Pak Han Foto

I am a seeker.
by Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Identity is a hunger game I’ve been playing with a beckoning world for the last 13 years. In the summer of 1999, I announced to my father that I was neither keeping my post as an English teacher at a California independent school, nor resuming my doctoral studies at UC Berkeley.

“So then Marc, what are you going to do for money?” my Dad asks.

I casually explain that I’ve just won the National Poetry Slam and returned from Bosnia where I taught teenage war refugees to find healing through oral poetry, and I really liked throwing hip hop open mics in college, remember dad, I showed you the pictures with all the people crowded into the campus center, and I think maybe dad, between those things I can find a living in organizing shows, teaching dance classes, performing poetry, and facilitating workshops…

Over the phone, my Dad’s grimace makes a sound like a butterfly crashing to its death on a typewriter keyboard, barely audible, colorfully violent…

Poet-dancer-choreographer-afterschool workshop teacher-open mic host-not for profit organizer-social butterfly doesn’t roll off the tongue like “lawyer.”

My dad needs me to alleviate two basic needs, one deeply seated and the other completely cosmetic. First, he needs to know that whatever kinda crazy granola I’m eating out there in California isn’t making me so delusional that I actually think I can sustain myself on poems. Secondly, I’ve gotta give him some kind of response he can use when he’s with his family (think of your grandma!), and they ask what I’m doing with my life.

on the street dancing

red, black & GREEN: a blues (rbG:b) is a performance work designed to jumpstart a conversation about environmental justice, social ecology, and collective responsibility in the climate change era. Joseph raised funds for rbG:b on USA Projects, with matching support from the East Bay Community Foundation. Photo © Bethanie Hines

Until two months ago, I needed at least that many hyphens to describe what I “do” and miraculously, it’s been working. Working so well in fact, that as of this writing my multi-hyphen, multivalent approach to vocation has landed me three of the most prestigious awards in the independent arts: an Alpert Award, a Doris Duke Artist Award, and an inaugural USA Rockefeller Fellowship. Success not withstanding, I think it was still a relief for my father when I accepted the position of Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco this year. Ever left-brained, he prefers evocative titles to adjectival sentences. And while I’m thrilled that I’ve found a descriptor that adequately mollifies my Dad’s quest for clarity, it still doesn’t begin to address the more systemic issue of nomenclature that most hybrid artists face in succinctly presenting our craft and its labyrinthine web of overlapping missions.

Poet-dancer-choreographer-afterschool workshop teacher-open mic host-not for profit organizer-social butterfly doesn't roll off the tongue like “lawyer.” Doesn't sound as functional as “dentist.” Isn't as practical as “bartender.” And yet…

Bamuthi set

Photo © Bethanie Hines

For the hybrid artist, there is a nebulous space between integrity, innovation, and paying the rent…

This game we play, this ongoing naming ceremony, is an aberrant comedy of errors on a micro level, but it speaks to the macro economics of a market-driven society increasingly obsessed with brand and acutely funneled demographic audiences. For the hybrid artist there is a nebulous space between integrity, innovation, and paying the rent that is directly tied to one’s capacity to ‘sell’ our wares. If I make verse-based theater that incorporates film, dance, and social organizing around environmental literacy, under what section of the newspaper do you list my show? What foundation grants am I eligible for? How do I adequately pitch my work to TV producers who are always fishing for a feel good story in the arts?

It’s this last question that kept me on the phone with Thuy Tran, from United States Artists. Thuy, who is also a hybridist, was pitching the new USA Projects initiative to local and national television affiliates, and was eager to include me on a short list of USA Fellows that producers might profile. The problem was she needed a one- or two-word descriptor, a title to fit under my name, that would neatly tell producers and their audiences about the scope of my work. She needed it pretty quickly, and needed it said in less than the length of a breath…

My craft is intentionally layered in a pastiche of disciplines that strive towards a cohesive whole.

To which I replied, “uhhhhh…I dunno.” My art isn’t an eharmony exercise and my craft is intentionally layered in a pastiche of disciplines that strive towards a cohesive whole. Since taking my current position at YBCA, the question of codification has been further complicated by the role of artistic curation in art practice. I believe that in my field, at the end of the day, there is cultural intelligence and there is animal intelligence...the reaction to proximity and scent...the access and opportunity to perform gaze...the gathering of bodies in dark places to commune around ideas...to see oneself borne out in flesh and blood metaphor...human impulse...animal intellect…

I think audience is always subject, the performed object ultimately less interesting than what the people do with it. My curatorial practice is dedicated as much to contextual questions as it is to formal cultural content…

How do we manage the economics of cultural discontent?

Photo © Joan Osato

To what and to whom do we bear witness? What are we listening to, what are we feeding ourselves…. How do we manage the economics of cultural discontent? The ephemeral?….The moment…. How do we sustain a multi literate and empathic audience? How are we the home for collective thought, and for risk?...

And so though I’m not performing, I am still in the dance, notably selecting art and developing community through the same series of questions that I ask myself before making dances or poems.

This, in the end, is the final barometer, I think for all of us hybridists: to be judged not so much by the way we appear in space, but by the questions we ask of ourselves before the craft is made manifest. We wish to transfer our value out of the marketplace of antiquated code and more solidly into the realm of culturally driven strategies.... To fight for the day when a journalist asks me what I do, and without thinking about either Harry Potter or the Buddha, they know exactly how I make my living when I respond, "I am a seeker."

.... To fight for the day when a journalist asks me what I do, and without thinking about either Harry Potter or the Buddha, they know exactly how I make my living when I respond, “I am a seeker.”