Burning Questions with Dahlak Brathwaite On performing, inspiration and the value of collaboration

Dahlak Brathwaite - Pyragraph

Photo courtesy of 516 ARTS.

Hip-hop artist Dahlak Brathwaite will be in Albuquerque, New Mexico this Saturday, December 10 to perform an excerpt from his one-man play, Spiritrials (more details at the end of the interview). 516 ARTS’ Exhibitions Manager Claude Smith asked Dahlak about his process and background. 

Claude Smith: Having had the opportunity to see you perform Spiritrials this last weekend in Austin, I was struck at how powerful it was; there were amazing moments of tension, humor and levity but it was also incredibly personal, timely and illuminating. Can you talk a little about how it came to fruition?

Dahlak Brathwaite: I started working on the piece in 2010 as an artist-in-residence at Ithaca College. I started working on the play and the accompanying soundtrack simultaneously during that concentrated period. In 2011, I focused all of my efforts into the Spiritrials album and released that as an individual project in 2012. In 2013, we were awarded the Creation Fund from NPN and in collaboration with my director/dramaturg Marc Bamuthi Joseph and production manager Joan Osato, we began to develop the performance. In January 2015, we premiered the play at Z Space in San Francisco.

I think this model of giving and, yet, giving space can be very helpful in all situations where people must work together.

What has the response been in your experience as you tour it across the country? Has your process of sharing your experience caused other people to share theirs?

Yes absolutely. Some crowds don’t laugh as much as other crowds. Some crowds are more adept at processing the rhythm and the poetry of the language. Some respond like a spoken word crowd, other crowds are more like traditional theater spectators. Still, in the end, after I talk to folks, people seem deeply moved. They are open as they share their personal stories or stories of loved ones. Performing this piece, I realize that I give people permission in a lot of ways—to laugh, to share, to be open.

As a National Performance Network-supported artist, and here in Albuquerque doing a residency at Outpost Performance Space (a NPN partner), can you talk a little bit about your experience working with various partners in NPN and how that expanded network has impacted your career as an artist? How did these opportunities come your way? Any advice to emerging artists looking to find similar opportunities?

NPN’s first goal is to support artists and it has supported me and this project in so many ways. I’ve had a career in performance for over a decade now, but being a part of NPN has helped jumpstart a new chapter in my performance life. For the first time, through NPN, I’m not just being paid for my performance—I’m being trusted as an artist. Because certain partners saw glimpses of my performance abilities, they were willing to invest in me and the idea that I had for this project. I would have only been introduced to this world through the mentorship of Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Joan Osato, and through the nonprofit literary arts organization Youth Speaks, where I started performing professionally.

So I would say mentorship is important. Community is important. Taking time to develop your skills is important. And when you’re ready and inspired, getting your community and your mentors excited about your idea is the first step to beginning a fruitful and collaborative creation process.

Just to remind folks here locally, you toured as a OneBeat Fellow back in 2014 and had the opportunity to collaborate with musicians from all over the world on new music and performances. Looking back on that now two years later, how generative was that for your creation process? Are there lessons there around collaboration and exchange that can be applied to other facets of contemporary culture? Do you still keep in touch with your fellow OneBeat alumni?

I tell the OneBeat organizers all the time that OneBeat 2014 really set me on a new path in terms of the way that I saw myself as an artist and culture maker. I learned to embrace the work that I do as an educator and social organizer. As a collaborator, I’ve learned to stay open and recognize where my skill set can be best applied. It’s great to have a vision—but I’ve learned and am learning how to limit how much I impose my vision upon any creative process. I’m conscious of leaving space for others to enter into the idea and provide what I wouldn’t have thought of. I think this model of giving and, yet, giving space can be very helpful in all situations where people must work together. I forever cherish that experience and the people in that group. I think most of us will always feel close to each other.

On more personal level, what kinds of things led you to be an artist/writer? Did you have any advocates early on that recognized your talent and encouraged you to pursue the arts?

I know there are many things and people that led me to be an artist. My mom instilled in me a deep sense of justice, which may have opened me up to my longtime admiration of Malcolm X and his power with language. My dad always encouraged me to write stories. My older brother introduced me to hip-hop and theater. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to be felt. I wanted to feel a sense of connection with the people around me and when they laughed or awed at something that I thought of, it let me know that my thoughts and feelings were valid and even useful.

I’ve had many mentors, most notably gospel singer Kevin Archie and performance artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who recognized something in me before I could recognize it in myself. I am forever grateful to them for that. Those folks inspired me to take my art to the next level and beyond.

How has your approach to writing and performing changed throughout the years?

I think performing throughout the country has made me stretch the idea of the audience I have in mind when I write. It helped me determine what things were universal regardless of region, background, race, class, etc. I always have to write with an audience in mind and so over the years that audience in my mind has grown. It makes me zone in on the parts of me that speak to all people. I’m still learning and growing and changing.

What kinds of advice do you give young people and students as you conduct workshops in all the cities you visit?

Anything embarrassing makes for a great story! Confront your shame. Investigate the things that keep coming back to you. Keep writing! Keep performing!

Dahlak will perform an excerpt from Spiritrials this Saturday, December 10 at 7:30pm at Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Spiritrials is a one-man play about “what happens when too many Saturday nights are blended seamlessly into Sunday morning. It’s for that time of the night when sobriety sets back in but the promise of salvation is still so far…’a dark gospel blue.'”

About Dahlak BrathwaiteDahlak is a multi-faceted hip-hop artist who draws upon his abilities as a musician, actor, and poet to create a dynamic, spellbinding performance. Since launching into the national spoken word scene by winning the Brave New Voices international Poetry Slam (as now seen on HBO), he has performed on the Tavis Smiley Radio show and the past two seasons of “Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry Jam.” This is the second time Dahlak has worked with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, writing and performing in Scourge—a play that the Boston Globe hailed as “explosive.” As a member of the group iLL-Literacy, Dahlak has showcased his seamless, blend of hip-hop, theater, and spoken word throughout the US and overseas. Dahlak is originally from Sacramento, and now based in Brooklyn.

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About 516 ARTS

516 ARTS is an independent, nonprofit arts venue located at 516 Central Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets in the center of Downtown Albuquerque. The 5,500 square foot, two-story gallery is a unique, hybrid venue somewhere between a gallery and museum. 516 ARTS offers adventurous programs that address current issues in world culture, presenting innovative and interdisciplinary exhibitions, events and educational activities in a variety of art forms, including visual and literary arts, film/video and music.

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