In the second interview I conducted for “Raising the Roof: Black Women’s Voices in Hip Hop,” I interviewed Nicole Hodges Persley. Persley is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Kansas. She teaches courses on hip-hop, acting, African American theater, race and performance and improvisation theory. Her research and performance works address the impact of racial, ethnic and national identity on performance practices in theatre, television and film. She has published articles on Jay-Z and Suzan-Lori Parks with forthcoming work on Nikki S. Lee and Jean Genet.
Her research on performance culture provides new insight for how we think about women’s roles in hip-hop culture.
Griffin: How does Hip Hop relate to your scholarly research?
Persley: My book project is on Hip-hop Theater and performance in the United States and England. I examine the influence of African American expressions of blackness on non-African American performers in theater, conceptual art and dance. I also teach a course on Hip-hop’s influence in popular culture here at KU.
Griffin: What intrigues you most about Hip Hop, particularly women in Hip Hop?
Persley: What intrigues me most about Hip-hop is the ways that the music borrows from earlier African American music and oratorical traditions. My research engages sampling as a process of creating cross-racial and ethnic exchange. We see that sampling is integral to defining Hip-hop aesthetics and the ways that Hip-hop incorporates performance practices that find their history in Black (specifically African American) aesthetic practices. Hip-hop’s rejection, exploitation and resistance to the power of Black women’s voices reflects an ongoing feminist struggles in African Diaspora. As important cultural producers in Hip-hop music and culture, Black women have and continue to assert themselves in subversive acts of resistance in every elements of Hip-hop culture from MCing to Turntabalism.
Griffin: Has Hip Hop asserted itself into African American theater traditions? If so, in what ways?
Persely: Hip-hop Theater is inspired by Hip-hop music and culture. Hip-hop begins as music that responds to social and economic struggles for empowerment in NYC by people of the African and Latino Diasporas living in and around NYC. Their struggles to create Hip-hop as a response to social, cultural, economic and political marginalization builds on previous struggles for freedom fought for by Black people during the Black Arts movement—even the Harlem Renaissance. A predominantly black music form influencing theater practices is not new in the United States (i.e. ragtime, blues, jazz etc.) so Hip-hop Theater is building on an African continuum, yet invites people across racial, ethnic and class lines to create work under its sign. We see Hip-hop inspired performance really start to surface in the early 1990s emerging out of work by Hip-hop dance crews such as the Rock Steady Crew in NYC—a predominantly black and brown group of b-boys and B-girls. So it makes sense that Hip-hop Theater emerges then as an art from that engages an identifiable black performance aesthetic, yet, both non-African American and African American artists create it. I would argue that Hip-hop Theater is a facet of African American theater in that it is rooted in the call and response traditions of Black Theater and takes up many social and cultural issues that are part of struggles Black Theater’s historical struggle for freedom. Hip-hop Theater is written for an audience that is committed to those struggles for equality fought for across categories of difference. The tenets of Hip-hop Theater’s are defined as theater “by, about, for and near the Hip-hop generation” (Hoch 2002). Danny Hoch, a Jewish American performer and one of the pioneers of Hip-hop Theater in the United States, samples from W.E.B. Dubois’s quote in The Crisis in 1926 about what black theater should be, theater “about, by, for and near, Negro people.” (Dubois 1926). There’s one of several connections right there.