Bringing together a diverse group of young performers and teaming them with a world class symphony orchestra, Power Hip Hop 's first incarnation was three shows at the Peacock Theatre in December 2009. It returned for three matinees and one evening performance last week, having moved into the much larger venue of the Theatre Royal.
The Theatre Royal is not the obvious venue for this kind of show but lends a sense of occasion to proceedings from which the young performers seemed to take inspiration. The audience was as enthusiastic, with pockets of vocal fans coming out to support some of the individual artists.
Power Hip Hop is the brainchild of Jami Bladel of Kickstart Arts, and features ten young hip hop artists from diverse backgrounds. Working under the mentorship of musical director Donald Bate and composer Simon Reid, the ten had a year in which to develop a composition for a 12-piece incarnation of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Bate, as well as being a jazz musician, is principal trombonist with the TSO.
According to Bate the project's long gestation period allowed a genuine and personal collaboration to take place, resulting in something more interesting than the ubiquitous, "Let's throw some strings behind it" approach to mixing classical and hip hop styles. Certainly, the orchestral component to the show, surprisingly juxtaposed with the often raw quality of the hip hop performances, never seemed anything less than integral to this experience. The young artists learnt how to score music for the project, and it is evident that they are all working at a sophisticated level of expression.
The format of the show is simple: each artist gives us their best shot, a burst of hip hop - their way - with the musical backing of the TSO…. then they all come back on stage for a collaborative finale. The show is called Power Hip Hop ostensibly because the notion of power is the conceptual thread that unites it, with the artist being asked to respond to this theme from a personal perspecitve.
Born in Ethiopia, Jima Wech (aka Sunnyman) has been in Ausralia since 2005 had has been performing regularly around Hobart. Here he performs All Over The World, with backup from Jorge Burgess Lowe, Max Bladel and sixteen-year-old Fatoamata Sow (who moved to Hobart from Sierra Leone four years ago).
Appropriately enough given his chosen moniker, Sunnyman, this song is uplifting and infectious. Wech's backup singers carry a melody that won't quit, while he takes centre stage; a tall, gangly figure, curiously elegant in an orange T-shirt and oversized tracksuit.
"Hey people of the world
you know I'm praying and praying we have to unite all over the world
If we just believe we going to have brighter days all the over the world
Is just us as a big family, nobody can stop us...."
He takes a few moments to reflect:
"But just for the record things aint been great, my life is on the line, my brother’s life is on the line
The Judge is really at that door..."
But he's not letting him get him down, "I aint going in, I am flying high." It's uplifting in the most genuine sense.
Max Bladel, meanwhile, is from a background that couldn't be more different. In YouTube Troubadour he talks about being raised by "bohemians" who would only let him watch the ABC and sent him to school "tahini and honey on rye." Things get heavier as he powers on through a torrent of words, explaining to kids that "adults tell fibs and lies," before concluding that "generations have faced no future before" but "now the first babies are being born that know for sure."
It's pretty pessimistic stuff, with an angry riff on Bob Dylan's The Times They are A-Changin' thrown in for good measure, but the passion that Bladel brings to the stage makes him a compelling performer, and darkly witty asides like "Nah, don't even pass me your stupid torch" mitigate what could have been all doom and gloom.
Lawrence Gito (aka Big Money) and Steve Letiko (aka XT) are described by the program notes as "active in the Tasmanian hip hop scene performing around Hobart and promoting contemporary South Sudanese cultural issues." They gives us a track called You and I Stand Up and make no bones about telling their audience:
"This music is not your entertainment
It is a message, so take the detail
And pass to all the nations, to your neighbours, to your friends, let them know this story."
They talk about corruption, the need to "stand up," and "all the shit that creates war." This is a bitter reflection on what these performers have seen and how they view the world, but the music itself is upbeat and complex, with the duo working in complete sync with each other and with their audience.
"Now days it’s just a bullet flying around the world, it takes a dollar to make it.
One bullet. One life."
Like Wech, Gito and Letiko come down on the side of hope and the power of the individual, or many individuals united, to change the world.
Seamus Lonergan (aka Paddles) offers something rather mysterious with Rock the Boat. The combination of his hypnotic style of rapping and the lushness of the accompanying music creates a unique soundscape and lyrics like "you rock the boat and the boat rocks back" intrigue, being the most direct statement in what is a subtle and poetic piece.
Jorge Burgess Lowe, on the other hand, is more from Bladel's school of angry hip hop, and in At Odds With Gods he talks about similar ideas, like growing up under oppressive and hypocritcal authority. But Lowe's stage persona is very different to Bladel's straight down the line sincerity, he's more of a trickster, a comic. He really enjoys being up there, you can tell, and the 'character' he creates communicates more on the level that an actor might, as he tells us about his younger days:
"Rewind to junior school - I am defiant!
Before compulsory chapel - I want to start a riot
'Stop it Jorge. Be quiet!'"
He's a charismatic performer, and one that would be great to see more of. Well, what am I saying? There's no performer in Power Hip Hop whose work I wouldn't like to see more of. This is a group of talented and disciplined young artists. It's not only the diverse backgrounds that these performers come from that makes Power Hip Hop a valuable experience, it's the very different ways that they approach the project.
Some, like Guot Guot (aka Lil Shao) and Akuei Makuer Guot (aka Cool Boy), who rap in their own language (Dinka), are more about engaging with an audience through rhythm and the sheer joy of musical communion, some, like Bladel and Lowe, are outspoken rabble-rousers in the tradition of folk, others, like Lonergan and DJ Dameza are visionaries, channelling strange dreams for our enjoyment.
Power HIp Hop gives these artists a broader canvas than they might otherwise have had, an incredible tool box to play with. Truly, this project has the power to "kick start" careers, just by giving them a taste, at this early stage in their artistic lives, of what's possible.
But it's not just about hip hop, and it's not even just about music ... it's about connecting and saying something, and saying it in your own way.
Kickstart Arts Inc and The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra present
POWER HIP HOP
Venue: Theatre Royal, Hobart
Dates/Times: 6th July 1.30pm and 7th of July 10am, 11:30am and 8pm
Tickets: $22.50 or $10 Concession | Primary and High School groups $6.50p.p.
Bookings: Theatre Royal Box Office | www.theatreroyal.com.au | (03) 6233 2299