Sunday, April 25, 2010

First We Take Manhattan...

Dear Friends with Friends in New York,

Because let’s face it, everyone knows someone who lives or recently lived in New York. In less than two weeks The Rap Guide to Evolution will be doing its first off-Broadway run at the Bleecker Street Theatre, with performances May 4, 6, 7 & 8. The venue is large and the city is bustling, so our challenge is to get the word out to all and sundry, especially theatre people, science people, education people, and hip-hop people. I say “especially” because those are the people most likely to pass on the invitation to their networks as well, even though the show really is for everyone with opposable thumbs, bipedal locomotion, language use, an enlarged cranium, African ancestors, a sense of humour, or any number of other traits that unite us as Homo sapiens.

The New Yorker recently emailed me asking for an exclusive quote to add to their listing (apparently they don’t stoop to quoting press releases) and I gave them this:
“Having performed The Rap Guide to Evolution in England, Scotland, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and the USA, I’ve decided I need to focus my efforts on performing in the States. Why? Because it seems like everywhere else I’m preaching to the converted, but in America evolution is – bafflingly – still controversial. We’ll see how they feel when I get through with them.”
Hubris aside, my aim is to use this off-Broadway run as a showcase to attract a professional booking agent who will help me set up a major tour of the USA in 2011, because I do sincerely feel like that’s where the show will have the greatest impact and get the most passionate response, positive or negative. So I would be sincerely grateful if you would pass on the invitation to anyone you know who might like to come see it, or who might know someone who might like to come see it, since this is something of a make-or-break endeavor! The e-flyer is attached, and here’s the event listing on Facebook.

And what else have I been up to? I’ve been in England doing some gigs and also writing and recording lyrics for my two (count them!) new shows/albums which I’m currently writing for Edinburgh this year. The first is a sequel show entitled “The Rap Guide to Human Nature” about the scientific study of human behaviour, and the second is a follow up to the Chaucer show, which I’m calling “Rapconteur”. So far I have written and recorded rap adaptations of the Finnish Kalevala and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and I will be adding several more oral epics to the collection over the next few months (my end target is five in total). So get set for some seriously mind-blowing scientific and literary comedy rap this summer (oops, there’s that hubris again, just think of it as the cerebral equivalent of hip-hop swagger).

For those of you in London, I’ll be performing the Rap Guide to Evolution at the Greenwich Theatre Monday April 26th, so please come see the show if you can (we’ll be filming it for the Wellcome Trust videos). Here’s the link.

Or if you’re not on Facebook here’s the venue link.

And for those of you in Devon (South West England), I’ll be performing there this week as well. Click here for the listing.

And for those of you thinking: “yeah, great, but what about your trip to the Middle East?!?”, well, Egypt and Palestine really were the most exhilarating and challenging places we’ve performed the Rebel Cell to date, and I have written a few blog entries about it and will write more when I have a moment. Suffice to say, doing a politically-themed show for politically-engaged audiences in a politically-tumultuous part of the world is bound to be a complicated experience. Here’s what I’ve written so far, and bear with me for the rest.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Rebel Cell in the Middle East (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

We arrived in Cairo a few days before our show and took some time to check out the city and go over our material. We were staying in a hotel just a few blocks from the Culturewheel venue, which was built in the concrete space beneath an overpass (what the British call a “flyover”) leading to a nearby bridge over the Nile. Large posters adorned the pillars and walls around the venue with our pictures and the heading: “Rebell Cell – British Hip-hop Band”. This may have been a “lost in translation” moment or it may have been a deliberate strategy by the venue to try to pull a crowd with the promise of a concert, but either way the result was misleading since the Rebel Cell is definitely a theatrical performance.
Rehearsing the show in our hotel room the day before the gig with the Islamic call to prayer lilting through the window, the familiar material we had performed so many times in England and Scotland felt freshly provocative and alien, the outcome uncertain.

The Rebel Cell is a kaleidoscope of satirical Anglocentric cultural references, complex lyricism, and overt calls for political and creative freedom. Its political debate is not left vs right, more like left vs further left, liberal vs libertarian. How would it be received in an Arabic-speaking country with a record of dodgy democracy and human rights abuses and a socially conservative Muslim population?
Our anxieties turned out to be misplaced, for the most part. At the request of venue management we had to make several adjustments including censoring the (two) curse words in the script, and Dizraeli’s freedom-invoking naked dance was done in a t-shirt and shorts instead of his usual birthday suit. This was yet another example of “phenotypic plasticity”, or the necessity of adapting to one’s environment (see my previous post about performing The Rap Guide to Evolution in the American South). It felt ironic that the political content turned out to be less controversial than the profanity and Dizraeli’s naked torso, but it also felt like an apt compromise, since swearing and stripping are luxuries when compared to voting and speaking your mind. Or, to put it another way, government oppression is a more pernicious problem in the world than simple prudishness.

And the political content of the play was very well received. The turnout was low, about 40 or so people in a venue that held over 200, but the comments afterwards revealed an engaged and politically astute audience, keenly interested in the different strategies of resistance articulated by the play. One woman said she loved our arguments but couldn’t bear to watch Dizraeli’s character limping around the stage after being beaten by police for his political activism, since she had experienced that herself. It was clear from their restlessness (and garish hip-hop attire) that some people sitting in the audience had come expecting a rap concert only to find a couple of white guys on stage having a Socratic debate in rhyme, but at least one of them stepped to us after the show (yo!) and said he was really disappointed at first but that we won him over and he really loved it by the end.

With a free day the next day we went to see the pyramids (complete with sphinx-side cypher) and the plan was to leave the following morning for Israel by bus in order to be in Tel Aviv that night for the Seder, the Jewish feast marking the first day of Passover. Noa was in Tel Aviv for the holiday and had invited us to stay at her mother’s place and join the ritual family feed, but Dizraeli and Billy (his documentary-making companion) had dropped their laundry off at a local place without checking when it opened the next morning, and it soon became clear that they would either have to ditch their clothes or miss the bus and spend an extra day in Cairo (they chose the latter).

Even though I had done all of my travel by air up until that point, I was intending to join in the overland adventure just for the Egypt/Israel portion of the trip. This was partly out of team solidarity with Dizraeli and partly to get a different view of the terrain and partly for the adventure but definitely not because I think consumer boycotts of air travel offer a viable solution to climate change. I agree that flying should be avoided when overland travel is a proportionate option, but in this case I was utterly unwilling to be held hostage and miss the Seder feast because of their laundry cock-up, so when the reality of the situation sank in I explained my position to Dizraeli and Billy (with regrets to the loss of solidarity) and hastily booked a plane, arriving in Tel Aviv the next day in time for lunch.
In the spirit of his unplaned project, Dizraeli pointed out later that I wasn't really hostage to his laundry, that I could have taken the bus on my own and still made it there by dinner, and he's right. So the bottom line is that I flew for the same reason everyone does: because it was easier and faster and I didn't need the hassle.

Next: I get stuffed at the Seder feast and do my one performance in Israel, and we experience both Israeli and Palestinian hip-hop, float in the Dead Sea, and perform the Rebel Cell in the West Bank.

To be continued…

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Rebel Cell in the Middle East (Part 1)


Two weeks ago I touched down in the UK after twelve days in the Middle East, including Rebel Cell performances in Egypt and Palestine, and a visit to Tel Aviv, and my impressions of the trip have been percolating constantly ever since, trying to find a smooth exit, but it's mostly been gridlock. However, the further I get from the experience the less of it I am likely to capture with any lucidity, so I'm going to try to piece it together.

The trip was originally initiated by a grant from the UK Economic and Social Research Council, which has a fund for promoting cultural exchanges with Egypt, especially ones with a political or democratic slant, and the play Dizraeli and I co-wrote in 2008 apparently qualifies. The play is about the politics of resistance and progressive change, set in a totalitarian future dystopia, and it takes the form of a Socratic dialogue between two ideological adversaries. Dizraeli’s character argues for the collectivist anarchist model of direct action and my character argues for participatory democracy and the social contract. At the root of this debate is the question of whether “the system” (ie capitalism and liberal democracy) is inherently exploitive and requires an overhaul (or overthrow), or whether it provides collective net benefits and only needs to be regulated and fine-tuned to correct specific abuses and injustices. This question is largely academic in England and Canada, since there are very few people here who would endorse an armed revolution (hence the dystopian future setting), but in Egypt and Palestine, where the right to vote, freely travel, peaceably assemble, and speak your mind are routinely suppressed with state violence, the question of “revolution vs reform” weighs much more heavily.

We were booked to perform the Rebel Cell at the El Sawy Culturewheel in Cairo on March 27th and had our travel and fees covered from the UK and back by the ESRC, just for a single performance, so naturally we decided to cast our net a bit wider. We reached out to contacts in both Israel and Palestine, hoping we could arrange performances of the Rebel Cell on “both sides of the fence”. Our rationale was that the subject matter of the play is highly relevant to both Palestinians under occupation and conscientious Israelis who oppose the occupation, and it would foster dialogue and possibly provide a small means to “reach across the divide”, etc, since that is essentially what the play is about: the importance of respectful debate and of friendships that cross ideological boundaries. If our motives sound na├»ve, I should add that Dizraeli and I are not particularly well versed in the politics of the region, nor did we really do our homework before embarking on this trip. My only excuse is that I’ve been too busy over the past few months, but busy is always relative. In retrospect I feel a bit like a kid who has been skipping through a field, oblivious to the sign nearby that says “Danger! Landmines!” Why does the child miss the sign, because he is merely engrossed in his thoughts, or because he has a psychological incentive to overlook it? And why do I suspect there is something quintessentially Canadian about this feeling? In the case of this trip, the sign said: “Danger! Cultural Boycott!”

Our first clear glimpse of the danger sign came when we were planning the dates of our trip: should we try to go to Israel/Palestine before Egypt or after? When we floated this idea to Dr. Caroline Rooney, the Zimbabwean professor of post-colonial studies who secured the funds and coordinated everything for us, she said it wouldn’t be possible to get us flights to Israel because of the cultural and academic boycott (ie: as an academic she would play no part in arranging this or funding it). So we had to get our flights in and out of Cairo and travel to Israel in between. Actually at this point I should mention that when I say “our flights into and out of Cairo” I am only referring to myself and the Rebel Cell DJ, but not Dizraeli. This is because Dizraeli undertook his journey to the Middle East entirely overland with a documentary filmmaker in tow, taking trains and buses from England through Europe, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and finally to Egypt, ten days in each direction, as a form of climate change activism. The concordance between our travel decisions and the arguments of our characters in the play is uncanny and could inspire an entire doctoral thesis, but for now I will treat this as a tangent, since the bottom line is that we had to arrange to be in the same place at the same time, one way or another, in order to do the play. If you want to learn more about Dizraeli’s overland adventure and its purported political significance, check out

So what to do about this boycott question? When we heard the news from Dr. Rooney about our travel funding restrictions Dizraeli and I had a conversation: should we perform in Israel? What if we get offered gigs in Israel but not Palestine? What if we get offered gigs in both, by a peace-building NGO, but the funding all comes from Israel? What if the Palestinian venues won’t host us after playing in Israel? The two closest friends I have who are knowledgeable about the area are Daniel, a British MC living in Israel, who is also one-half of a Jewish/Muslim hip-hop group (the Jewish half), and Noa, an Israeli living in England, and both of them advised us to play both sides, essentially to ignore the boycott for the reasons cited above, ie to “keep artistic dialogue open despite possible disagreements”. Let's call this the "Leonard Cohen approach", since he recently played a concert near Tel Aviv, and answered the boycott call by attempting to set up a gig in Ramallah to "balance" the Israeli one (sound familiar?), which fell through in the face of strong opposition from the boycott campaign. He then offered the proceeds from his Israel concert to support peace-building efforts through a fund that was to be administered by Amnesty International, but Amnesty also divested in the face of boycott pressure, so the funds instead went to a charity called Parents Circle. However, Daniel was at the concert and he tells me Leonard Cohen made repeated calls for peace from the stage, calls for both Palestinians and Israelis to respect the suffering and humanity of the other side, and in his view this was a positive event that brought peace closer.

Noa and Daniel also both pointed out that when it comes to boycotting oppressive regimes, it would be pretty inconsistent to play Egypt (a politically-closed society with widespread censorship) but not Israel (a politically-open and self-critical society). So we decided to keep our options open and see whether any offers came through, but to use our discretion in terms of who was funding the gigs, venues, etc.

When the British film director Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) pulled his most recent film out of the Melbourne Film Festival because the festival was partially funded by the Israeli government, he and his co-producers defended their decision in the Guardian by saying “Israeli film-makers are not the target. State involvement is”. This was essentially our position as well: how could we reach out to individual Israeli citizens without providing support in any way for the state of Israel?

However, with our Cairo performance only ten days away we still hadn’t been offered any gigs in either Israel or Palestine, so the entire debate was beginning to look, once again, academic. Since we had already booked our trains and planes and committed to the dates it was starting to look like we would end up doing the tourist thing after all, visiting Israel and Palestine but not performing in either, and since you get to Palestine via Israel from Egypt anyway there seemed to be very little controversy. But then we got word from a contact of Dizraeli’s, Baha, that we would be performing the Rebel Cell at two different venues in the West Bank, in Beit Sahour (near Bethlehem) and Ramallah April 1st and 3rd.

I had read some arguments for and against the cultural boycott online in the run-up to our trip, but my instinct in such cases is to suspend judgment until I’ve seen for myself what is at stake. In the next installment, I’ll try to explain what I saw, and how it has affected my views on this quintessential question: what is the best way to promote justice?

To be continued...