Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Sustaining Life Is Going Green

The Root talks to performing artist and educator Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who takes a different, more inclusive approach to promoting the environment in urban communities.

John Coyne

When we think of the green movement, using hip-hop theater as a community-organizing tool may be the last thing to come to mind. But after the EPA struck down a California law raising statewide emissions standards in 2007, Bay Area performer, director and educator Marc Bamuthi Joseph was moved to action.

Frustrated by the lack of brown voices in the sustainable-energy struggle, he launched a series of eco-festivals, called Life Is Living, in urban parks around the U.S. The recipient of the Rockefeller Fellowship, recognizing the country's 50 "greatest living artists," Bamuthi was also recently named one of America's Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences by Smithsonian magazine.

Bamuthi says that "going green" is a phrase abused by corporations, whereas "sustaining life" is universally accessible. That's the theory behind Life Is Living: Pair under-resourced communities with green-action agencies to create dialogue around living healthier lives. The result? red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb), a multimedia ensemble performance incorporating the voices of hundreds of community members, which will premiere in San Francisco in October and then tour throughout the U.S. in 2012.

Between meetings and dropping his son off at school, Bamuthi chatted with The Root. We challenged him to explain why Michelle Obama, Spike Lee and the EPA should see his show, and asked about the dreaded "r" word: race.

The Root: On your site,, you're quoted as saying, "My work changes, but philosophically my goals do not." What are your goals for Life Is Living?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: At heart I'm a 10th-grade English teacher. Inside the classroom, our primary purpose isn't to force-feed information or to manufacture a certain kind of human being. It's to be expansive and to create as many different points of access as possible. So the ultimate goal of [my approach to] the arts is to create and foster environments for social change. More than learning, the goal is to create and conduct safe spaces for growth.

MBJ: The "aha moment" came in December of 2007. The EPA, as a proxy for the Bush administration, struck down a California law that raised emission standards for cars in the state. I remember sitting and grieving that this was happening. I thought [that something that] was missing in terms of the environmental conversation was a proper integration of all communities. I thought that the more segregated the environmental movement, the less powerful it was. So I endeavored to put on an environmental concert in an under-resourced park.

It ended up being a transposition of my values in the public space. What we did from that point forward was to have a much more inclusive methodology to develop these shows. So the methodology changed from throwing a concert in the park to thinking about environment as a community-organizing model.

That became a message by which we entertained strategic partners in key cities and invited them to host, at first small committees, and then ever growing community partners that all had a stake inside of the question, "What sustains life in your community?" Consequently, the level of investment was much higher than when we were just putting on a show in the park.

TR: How has the project changed how you live, and what sustains life for you?