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Hopped up on hip-hop

THE ASIAN AGE. | QUASAR THAKORE PADAMSEE
Published : Feb 22, 2017, 1:54 am IST
Updated : Feb 22, 2017, 6:31 am IST

Rap musical plays cater to our basest emotions with lyric, movement and fresh energy.

Stills from the play Brotherhood, which will be staged in Mumbai on Feb 24. (Photo: Dakot Arsenault)
 Stills from the play Brotherhood, which will be staged in Mumbai on Feb 24. (Photo: Dakot Arsenault)

The current toast of Broadway is a play called Hamilton, about the American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Queues for returns go round many blocks, and tickets (only available on the black market) are more expensive than airfares to Europe. There’s no denying that the show has struck a chord with the public; but that’s because of its form rather than its content. The play tells a historical story, using rap and hip-hop.

On the surface of it, this was inevitable. Every few decades, a ‘new’ kind of musical emerges. Rock music arrived to Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy in the 70s.

Pop music, appeared in the noughties with Mamma Mia, Avenue Q, and a host of others. So why not rap?

Rap music was born in the 80s; and slowly moved from cult status, to fringe, to mainstream. Part of its popularity is surely due to the fact that it is a democratic form, i.e. it doesn’t require any real training. The music usually comes out of a groove box, rather than an instrument; and the singing is more spoken than sung. There is also an emphasis on content: what is said is more important than how it’s said. In some way, it’s a western equivalent of an Indian ‘folk form’ — inclusive in participation and appreciation while telling stories through music and dance.

Rap music, both in lyric and movement, caters to our basest emotions: sex, violence, rage, anger, etc.; things that are suppressed in polite society. That is the generator of its energy, and why it is so identifiable. The tribal drum rhythms, the rat-a-tat of words and of course the direct story telling are universal traits, just like slums are universal. Therefore it is no surprise that from the favellas in Brazil, to the projects of Detroit, to the by-lanes of Dharavi, rap music is the chosen expression of their condition.

In India, hip-hop has been slowly permeating our world. And while the catchy song, “Hip-Hopper, Zara Nach ke Dikha” was anything but hip-hop, a lot of the modern Bollywood dance is inspired by hip-hop forms like locking and B-Boying; and so are a variety of film soundtracks. Perhaps the biggest recent revelation is Dharavi-based Urdu rapper Naezy, who was inspired by the superfast lyrics of Sean Paul. Similarly, the influence of Indian rhythms in western hip-hop is undeniable, all the way from Missy Elliott to Beyonce.

Hip-hop in theatre is a relatively new phenomenon. British rapper Akala shocked the world with his hip-hop Shakespeare, where at the beginning of the performance he raps a line and challenges the audience to guess whether the authorship is a hip-hop artist or Shakespeare. Eight times out of ten, audiences guess wrong. This is because there is a direct link from The Bard to Eminem. Shakespeare wrote in iambic, which is a similar structure to the Blues, which are the precursors of rap.

Bombay saw a sample of rap in theatre in the children’s play Special Bond III; done by the same team who went on to make the hugely popular Kohli Rap viral video about India’s cricket captain. Last week, Aadar Malik’s Stand Up Comedy Musical had a rap song about wrapping.  

Into this environment lands Sebastien Heins and his play Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera. It tells the story of two rapper brothers living the life of excess. The play is a wonderful piece of musical theatre, which uses all the craft of stage storytelling amplified by the raw energy of hip-hop. The play is making a whistle-stop tour of Bombay (February 24 to 26) and Bangalore (March 1), playing at Sitara Studios and Hummingtree respectively. Sebastien is half-Jamaican and half-German, but of Canadian nationality, making him a truly world citizen; which is probably why, the form attracted him so much. He was in India a couple of years ago to conduct a workshop on his unique style of theatre. Now audiences get to see it up close. Unlike normal rap songs, which tell you a story in four minutes, Sebastien’s full-length play takes you a wonderful journey into the fast paced world of the music business, racing cars and loose morals. Yet it is uplifting, nuanced and poignant, and full of stagecraft. It is a perfect amalgamation of two forms, resulting in a heightened experience for the audience.

After all, that’s why we all go to the theatre, isn’t it?

Quasar Thakore Padamsee is a Bombay based theatre-holic.

Tags: music, alexander hamilton, black market, rock music, hip hop