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, LifeIsLiving.org, you're quoted as saying, "My work changes, but philosophically my goals do not." What are your goals for Life Is Living?

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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.

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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?

MBJ: Love sustains me. Particularly, care of family. I think the main way I've been changed by this festival is that in the act of producing the festival, I seek and incorporate the ideas and practices of others.

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TR: You're calling your forthcoming performance piece red, black and GREEN: a blues. What makes it "a blues"?

MBJ: The form makes it a blues. A blues has thematic unity, and it also has structural unity. The piece is about seasonal cycles and coming back to refrains. "Red, black and green" obviously references [Marcus] Garvey's flag and the notion of a nascent Pan-Africanism, or more specifically a nascent Pan-African Americanism. The blues refers to a cultural structure and a modality that's persistent in African-American arts aesthetics.

TR: During your recent performance at Dance Place in Washington, D.C., you referenced the uncomfortable issue of your own "whiteness." Which artists are "keeping it real" on race and pushing the conversation forward?

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MBJ: In the United States, our racial history makes it impossible not to deal with race, either in an implicit or explicit way. My favorite play about race was written by a young woman named Chinaka Hodge, whose play, Mirrors in Every Corner, I directed. At the center of the play is a black family in Oakland, a mother who has three kids — an older son, a set of twins — and then [she] gives birth to a daughter who is white.

It's kind of like Octavia Butler, sci-fi style, but not. The folks who are doing the most innovative work on race aren't naming it as such, or aren't dealing with binary or niche structures. They're really acknowledging all the in-betweens we're dealing with.

TR: Let's say you can reserve the whole front row of the audience for rbGb, and whoever you invite is definitely coming. Who absolutely has to see this work?

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MBJ: Michelle Obama, for sure. Not only because she is an amazing first lady and super fly and I love her, but also because of her emphasis on national health. Spike Lee because I think that he is currently the Ken Burns of African America. I don't think in the last 15 years there's been a documentarian as agile and as capable of emotional resonance as Spike. I would say the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

The rest of the folks — outside of my artistic heroes, like Bill T. Jones and Nikki Giovanni — would be the men and women who frequent the parks that hosted Life Is Living. You know, the folks playing bones in Oakland. The kids playing baseball in Harlem. The men playing bid whist in Houston.

Simone Jacobson is managing editor at Words. Beats. Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture and founder of Sulu DC. A performer, curator and scholar, her master's thesis, "America's Cultural Illiteracy: Is Hip-Hop the Best Tutor?" addressed U.S. and global hip-hop history and culture, cultural diplomacy and the overlap of the two: hip-hop diplomacy.