The recent closing of Holler If You Hear Me, the Broadway jukebox musical based on the music of Tupac Shakur, has triggered some fascinating conversations and questions. Why didn’t it work? Was it that they couldn’t attract a younger Hip-Hop loving audience due to their steep ticket prices? Was it that the older, whiter Broadway-going audience simply ain’t got no love for rap and black folks on stage? Was it that people were confused; thinking they were going to see a musical about the enigmatic rap legend as opposed to a fictional story featuring his songs? Or was it just quite frankly not any good? Was it the book? Was it the songs?
Well, you won’t get any answers here. I never saw it. But, to my defense, it wasn’t up long enough for me to get a chance to. Also, I don’t live in New York City. Unless a Broadway show tours, or Spike Lee films a performance, chances are I will only have the pleasure of reading about it or listening to the CD.
So what the hell am I doing here? Well, as a diehard Hip-Hop enthusiast and theatremaker, I followed the trajectory of Holler If You Hear Me as closely as I could from afar. As Hip-Hop culture, in it’s various co-opted iterations, becomes further embedded into the American tapestry of expression we will continue to see it in places we never expected. I keep an antenna up for what works and what doesn’t.
I was curious as to how the show would be received. And though I hoped to be dead wrong, I am frankly not surprised by its early closing. This is, of course, in no way taking shots at it. Like I said, I never got to see it. From accounts of those I know who did and the varied reviews, the cast was strong and the adaptation of the music onto the big stage was well done. My question is: can Hip-Hop-oriented drama be financially and critically successful on Broadway?
My mind immediately goes to two plays. They were not marketed using the term Hip-Hop because it had yet to be coined. Nonetheless, I believe the aesthetics of both shows come from the same trunk from which Hip-Hop would branch.
Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death enjoyed 325 performances on Broadway. Van Peebles, a filmmaker, musician, and father to Mario was a major contributor to a black creative renaissance of the late sixties and early seventies. His independently financed film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song became the blueprint for an entire canon of “blaxploitation” films.
Based on one of his own recordings, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is a series of dark comic vignettes set in a low income black neighborhood. Much like the DJs of Hip- Hop who came after him, Van Peebles sonic landscape drew from soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. There wasn’t much singing, but rather Van Peebles’ strange howling, chant-talk style over repetitive loops.
Just five years later Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf premiered on Broadway. Shange, a child of the Black Arts movement, presents an all female cast of women of color performing a series of poetic monologues accentuated by choreography. It told heartbreaking and riveting stories, examining the post civil rights movement state of black womanhood. Truly groundbreaking, it continues to be performed, taught, and adored in communities the world over.
Both of these shows, by the way, are in desperate need of revival!
Now, why do I consider these Hip-Hop plays? Is it because they feature casts of color? is it because they tell stories from “the hood?” Is it because they are overtly sociopolitical? By this same logic plays like Raisin in the Sun and Fences are Hip-Hop. They’re not. They are awesome but not Hip-Hop. The reason I put Peebles’s and Shange’s works into my canon of Hip-Hop-on-the-Broadway-stage is that they operate formally on their own merits presenting a specific largely misrepresented cultural point of view via the rhythmic traditions of the African Diaspora.
Raisin, Fences, many of our revered black American classics, are written in the fourth wall, two to four act dramatic form North American playwrights inherited from Europe. They are “plays” in the most traditional sense; infused with a specific cultural perspective. Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and for colored girls who have considered suicide do not formally aspire to be “plays” in the traditional American sense. They certainly do not appear to aspire to be Broadway shows. They function based on the context of their origin. Much like Stew and Heidi’s Passing Strange or Def Poetry on Broadway. They walk the line between what we consider a “play” with other forms of “performance.” Plays that seek to borrow from other oratorical forms should consider the performance context from which they were conceived.
Imagine if Tupac had written the book and lyrics for Holler If You Hear Me? Imagine his point of view and diverse background as a politically minded, art school trained, street-raised child of Black Panthers rendered into dramatic text.
I do believe and eagerly await the day that a multitude of Hip-Hop oriented dramas and spectacles, comedies and tragedies “gentrify the Great White Way” to quote Holler star Saul Williams. Is a successful jukebox musical featuring rap music possible? I think it’s inevitable, but not without a certain amount of consideration towards rap’s unique and specific position in the music sphere. Also, I am doubtful of its ability to be successful using the same formulas of other more successful jukebox musicals.
The same equation used for Motown or Memphis just won’t do. Rock, rhythm and blues, soul, pop, etc. and so on, share a foundational music language. Keys, chords, melodies—and a stripped down, universal approach to lyrics. Rap is coded, dense, purposefully irreverent, often raunchy, and incredibly specific. It requires footnotes. I have listened to the music my whole life. I teach it at the college level. I have made music of my own. To this day, I still stumble upon and uncover the meaning behind certain lyrics.
There is too much work to be done to shrink the chasm of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and ignorance between cultures before the masses unanimously adore rap as much as the sounds of Motown. Berry Gordy designed that music to be unanimously loved. By and large, rap is not designed to be adored by the masses. This doesn’t lessen rap’s value. It’s just a difference of intentions. Theatre is a niche market to begin with, so to put a subcultural precursor to it only further “niche-ifies” it. To focus on the music of just one rapper limits things further.
The chasm is too wide between the rap fluent and those who quite simply don’t know how to listen to it for it to be a mass appeal hit. I have read some reviews of Holler If You Hear Me that pinpoint the book as the problem, and other have lamented that the lyrics are “too dense,” which I find puzzling. You telling me Shakespeare ain’t dense?
While many musicals are allowed kind of a grace period, a rap show has to deliver right away or else the audience’s suspicions will only be confirmed. And the immediate conclusion is that it’s the fault of the content not the execution. On the other side of the coin, Hip-Hop fans like me are always suspicious of any attempt at co-opting and can be equally close minded.
One of the phrases within the clamor is “attracting a younger audience.” Phrases like this are only uttered whenever a show has Hip-Hop in it and fails to bring masses of twenty- and thirty-somethings into the lobby. There is this silly notion that “if you rap it they will come.” The idea that a new audience can be built merely by creating a play with rap in it, even the music of an icon, is naïve. No matter how cheap you make the ticket or how many tickets you give away. It is arrogant and unrealistic to assume that the children of the information age are clawing and fighting and lining up around the corner in droves to see any play.
Some years back the makers of the insanely popular Guitar Hero game made DJ Hero and it totally flopped. Why? Rap is maybe not as unanimously revered as we think? Or perhaps rap has yet to reach a point where it can be accepted outside of its intended context?
A few rap songs may dominate radio from time to time, but generally it occupies a particular ghetto in the realm of art. With the exception of hardcore Hip-Hop fans such as myself, rap is there for times people want to cut loose and dance at a party or club. Or when they want catharsis after a rough day at work. Rap is escapism for many. Even I, Hip-Hop till I die, can’t play it around the house as much as I’d like to. I got a two- year-old. I do play a lot of Motown though.
Much like for colored girls, a rap jukebox musical is probably better suited to build its legs off-Broadway for a while first. Building an audience, fine-tuning, and making its mistakes. Rap’s success is dependent on its context and the willingness of the audience to listen in a new way. Moreover, we of the Hip-Hop generation who work in the theatre industry must continue to explore innovative approaches in fusing the aesthetics of both. The context is imperative, the point of view is essential, and the margin for error is minuscule.