Women and Performance in Hip Hop: An Interview with Dr. Nicole Hodges Persley Part I

[By Alysha Griffin]

 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.