Q&A with “Sampling and Remixing Blackness in Hip-hop Theater and Performance” Author, Nicole Hodges Persley

by Briana Johnson on October 26, 2021

How do the topics in Sampling and Remixing Blackness expand on current research in Blackness and theater? How does it expand upon the performance of Blackness in digital spaces? 

These are great questions. I think the book seeks to complicate Blackness as a site of identity formation and creative inspiration for Black and non-Black artists, consumers, scholars, etc. The act of sampling itself suggests an opportunity to reference and recontextualize a piece of music, art, movement, etc. I really am interested in a multi-centered, transnational, and intersectional experience of Blackness that is not conflated uniquely with African American particularity as it pertains to Hip-hop music and culture.

As far as how the topics expand upon the performance of Blackness in digital spaces, I think that’s a complicated question. If you’re talking about non-Black people performing Blackness through acts of aesthetic borrowing, I do talk about that in the book. Still, my focus is really on the liberation struggles of Black people, and how our art forms need to be respected, and our struggles for equity joined by those who love our art, but may get weary in our struggle. We don’t have time to be tired because we are busy fighting to stay alive…fighting to stay visible and audible in our communities and our families. Our art is valuable. Our lives are valuable. Our creative contributions should not be taken for granted and discredited as something that “belongs” to everyone. It’s ours and we are glad that our art inspires creativity and ingenuity…but that’s not all. We need the same folks who know every word to Kendrick Lamar’s music to also be the same folks fighting to dismantle structural racism.

How does your scholarship challenge the status quo in theater research?

I challenge the Eurocentricity of American and British theater and the co-optation of Hip-hop by the mainstream media, theater and entertainment industry. 

You are both a theater scholar and theater artist. How did your experience as a performer and director inform your book?

I am a theater and film director. I am also an actor, though I primarily direct almost exclusively now. I experience racism and sexism daily as I work in the theater and film world. Many of the artists in this book are social activists who identify with the freedom struggles of African American people. Many are Black artists who have never received the same level of recognition of their non-Black peers. I used my biographical narrative and experiences with Hip-hop and my work as a performer to connect the reader with the personal nature of Hip-hop as a world-view and way of seeing things, not just a music genre. Hip-hop is a culture that is produced by and through very specific socio-political circumstances that are rooted in a culture of anti-blackness. Hip-hop is part of an African American musical continuum that uses music to speak truth to power. Ultimately, as Greg Tate noted many years ago, the mainstream art world wants everything but the burden of Blackness. You can’t love our art and not love us, and if you do separate the art from the people, you have to think about why society makes it so easy to siphon off our creative output from our bodies, minds, and quests for justice.

Your book includes an excellent chapter on the Hip Hop musical Hamilton. What do you think accounts for the musical’s phenomenal popularity?

I would probably make millions if I had the answer to that question. I think Hamilton is a beautiful piece of art, but like any theater piece, it should be open for critique. I think people were really afraid to say anything “negative” about Hamilton for a long time. The chapter is really about mediating the pain and trauma from watching Hamilton as a Black woman. Watching these amazingly talented global majority artists tell a story that ghosted them out of history was painful for me. Do I appreciate the creativity of the work? Absolutely. Using Hip-hop to tell a story about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and other “Founding Fathers” that whitewashes the trauma of slavery using Black and Brown actors is painful.  I think it depicts an “America” that mainstream Broadway audiences wish was true, but ultimately, is not at all even close to reality.

What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading your book? 

I hope people will be inspired to think about the rich cultural contributions that African American artists make to global popular culture. I hope that people will think critically about African American quests for freedom and our use of creative platforms to tell our stories.  I hope that readers will be inspired to think critically about performative activism and acknowledge the freedom struggles embedded in Black art forms like Hip-hop are real. Black people die daily as a result of systemic racism and climates of anti-blackness. Our art forms allow us to reimagine ourselves as we resist commodification. We’re not out here “performing” our Blackness. We live it. If you want to help, stand in solidarity with our quests for justice. This book is really asking are you for us? Do you stand with us? If you do, as Rihanna said in the NAACP Image Awards in 2020  “pull up…” Don’t just sing our stories, wear our fashions, dance our dances or copy our aesthetic practices, stand for our living and thriving. Stand for our freedom.

Anything else you’d like to include? 

Thanks so much! I hope people enjoy the book and pay it forward to friends and colleagues. 

I wrote a book that I wished was out there because it documents things that I was feeling and seeing around me for the past ten years as a part of Hip-hop culture and the theater world. I hope that the book opens up critical discussions about how multiple racial and ethnic communities inspired by African American culture and Hip-hop will also choose to take action to support Black fights against white supremacy and systemic inequality. That’s the remix of American identity that Hip-hop can enable.

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