New York City in Makhanda, courtesy Malik Work.
He was born when hip hop was born, in the city it was born. He’s been penning verses since he was a school kid. Now he’s bringing it to the National Arts Festival, on the Fringe.
It’s developed a bad rap, hip hop, but Malik’s on top of all that. At its roots, hip hop is about telling a story, in rhyme, from the streets. That’s been going on since we figured verses rhymes with curses. Way back to the griots, and before that. What happened in New York in the Seventies was that the availability of electronic reproduction allowed that story to be amplified, recorded, spread out.
When the underground got assimilated into the mainstream, that’s “when capitalism took it over and it started to become part of the prison industrial system in America”, says Malik. All that consumerism – the girls, the bling, the fast cars and the champagne. But there have always been storytellers who focus on the core.
“The press focuses on the gangsterising of hip hop. Me and my friends were scholars, not gangsters and drug dealers,” says the dreadlocked scribe.
Social issues, consciousness, these are things that form part of what Malik has to say.
“I am who I am and write whatever I think is important to say. It is ridiculous not to be socially conscious.”
Which is why the vulnerability of the stage, rather than the production of the music industry, is where he has gravitated.
Verses @ Work, is about that. About moving out of the music machine, the night life, the “temptations, demons, darkness”.
“The music industry is full of crazy characters and there’s a lot of crazy energy.” He was in the thick of the intersection of jazz and hip hop in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. Branford Marsalis’s bassist, Eric Revis, was with Malik in his band The Real Live Show, and the guy he started The Real Live Show with, Dana Murray, played with Wynton Marsalis beforehand. Malik also hung out with Roy Hargrove (RIP).
But he had to take a break. Verses @ Work covers that ground. It’s a break that happened in about 2012, and Malik, who graduated in theatre, has been crafting his lines for the stage ever since.
“I talk about my career making hip hop music and the way I write is in verse. Shakespeare is also in verse. All of my verse is in rhyme. I’m playing with language. A lot of my verses are autobiographical telling of my relationship with music and what happened to me in my band.” But it’s not just much about him; life is a universal struggle, it’s just site specific.
Like he found the keys to marry hip hop and jazz, he’s been crafting the links between hip hop and theatre. Man’s a teacher. Teaches acting and Shakespeare at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Centre in Connecticut. Commutes by train from NY.
“I’ve always wanted to bring the hip hop lexicon to the stage and have the writing be respected on the level of the great verse writers the griots, Shakespeare, Homer. The custodians of the culture, of information, of history.”
He’s done a bit of teaching in SA too. This is his first visit to the National Arts Festival, but he workshopped with students at the Market Theatre Laboratory last year. Then he bypassed Makhanda and performed in East London at the Umtiza festival, thanks to Amanda Bothma, who he met while she was studying in New York.
“Everyone kept telling me, ‘you have to perform in Grahamstown’.”
He listened, and he’s back.
Catch him at the B2 Arena in the Monument from 27 June to 1 July. Check the programme for times and other deets.