Leave it to Oakland wordslinger Azeem to come up with one of the most interesting phrases in recent memory: "I'm a thug-buddhafarian." The statement, which happens during a hilarious outburst of colorful epithets reminiscent of early Spike Lee, comes near the beginning of Azeem's one-man show Rude Boy, a theater performance piece that elevates the rapper from his perennial underground hip-hop niche to a new artistic plateau.
The ninety-minute show, which played as part of the Marsh's Festival of New Voices and other events, was at times intense, revelatory, transcendent, brilliant, poignant, and tragic. Azeem portrays Johnny Burke, a Jamaican-American manchild who is very much a product of the inner-city streets, prisons, and asylums he has inhabited. The system has let him down, but he also has let himself down.
Thematic qualities from both Native Son and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest appear in Rude Boy, and the entire show takes place in a sort of dream state. The character's past and present seem to have merged as Burke struggles with the weight of his own actions. Surreal moments when he articulates poetic visions, insightful commentary, and crystal-clear perceptions contrast with his clouded, confused reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these revelations incorporate previously released Azeem songs like "God's Rolex" and "Organic Food Revolutionaries," which shine when given an entirely new context. The rapper's mix of metaphysics, sociopolitics, and wordplay can go over the heads of rap fans interested in simple party tunes, so it's refreshing to hear lyrics such as There are no visible screws, no glues, strings, or clues to how everything spins and moves in a live setting without the club distractions.
After four critically acclaimed yet underappreciated albums, Azeem's articulate rapping and spoken-word skills are well known, but what's surprising is how well he adapts to the demands of the theater genre. Facial expressions, tonal variances, even body language is spot-on. "To me, the stage is the stage, whether you're rapping, singing, or doing comedy," he says. The pacing, especially in the first half, is relentless; blink and you might miss something. Several vignettes bring a dose of humor to the proceedings. There's an "abducted by aliens" skit, a fun-with-anagrams routine involving the "alphabet police," and a drug-induced trance wherein Tupac and Biggie are sighted playing chess. The humor makes the somber, serious parts more effective and, most impressively, Azeem makes the violent, unstable Burke seem likable. "In a place where the police are robbers, can you imagine what the criminals are like?" he says at one point.
In creating the character, Azeem says his aim was to challenge stereotypes and turn them upside down. It blows people's minds, he says, to see a thuggish guy suddenly start dropping knowledge. With Rude Boy, Azeem claims he's "repping for brothers who know what the street life is, but are way more intelligent" than they're often given credit for.
The hardest part for Azeem was showing the audience his character's emotional process rather than just telling it. He says he mainly drew on life experiences for the play, saying that it's about 60 percent autobiographical, with the rest coming from his cousins. He's proud of Rude Boy, saying it's "the best thing I've ever done." A little fine tuning here and there is all it would take to mention him in the same breath as hip-hop theater icons like Sarah Jones, Danny Hoch, Aya de León, and Marc Bamuthi Jacobs.
For now, Azeem plans to continue performing Rude Boy for the next year or two, touring and doing artist-in-residencies as opportunities arise. He'll perform a truncated version Sunday, July 23, at the SF Theater Festival in Yerba Buena Gardens (SFTheaterFestival.org) and a DVD will soon be available on his Web site, CrowdedCastle.com. His ultimate dream involves Broadway, although he realizes "that's shooting high."
In the meantime, however, Azeem hasn't quit his day job making dope hip-hop albums. His experimental Air Cartoons comes out this fall on Oaklyn Records, and next spring should see the release of Rise Up, his long-awaited Om Records debut with DJ Zeph. "I think it's the first one of my albums that's gonna be handled properly in terms of promotion," he says excitedly.
Hey, even thug-buddhafarians need some decent PR.
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