Turning hip-hop on its head

Rap and hip-hop are as much about image as they are about music. Artists wax lyrical about their ghetto beginnings, their love for the streets, the glory of making it big and then the diamond studded, blingy aftermath — oh, and keeping it real, of course.

Its the selfsame formula of poverty to excess, a world of inflated egos, ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’. Iain Ewok Robinson doesn’t follow that formula. He doesn’t fit into the box of bombastic reactionary hip-hop artists espousing the thug life. Robinson’s one man show, Seriously?, which premiered on the Arena of the National Arts Festival, weaves rap, spoken word and multimedia into an autobiographical narrative performance.

It breaks the mould and gives an honest glimpse behind the pretense of hip-hop, offering a closer look into the progression of a South African artist.

“The foundational idea is that this is a journey of self-discovery,” said Robinson, explaining the concept behind his show. A well-established spoken word artist and lyricist, Robinson wrote the script for Seriously?, but he credits his wife and director, Karen Logan (Tin Bucket Drum) for the show’s more theatrical strains. “When I gave into the idea that she was director, that’s when the thing really took off,” said Robinson who remarked on how different the show was from last year’s more instillation-style work.

Seriously? uses a mixture of animation, puppetry and video art to paint a humorous and nuanced picture of how a too-clever fat white kid from Empangeni developed a love for hip-hop culture and eventually became the revolutionary rhymer he is today.

“Everything develops throughout the show,” said Robinson, explaining that from the gradual increase of complex language to the eventual use of digital media, each element mirrors his own progression.

Getting beyond the raging rapper image may cause the genre to lose its mystique, but it also may win it back some much deserved street cred. Robinson explores everything from identity and not fitting in, to global politics. Far from a self-absorbed spew, the show is a genuine social commentary. The final scene culminates in the artist expressing himself in full, rhyming and rapping and “breaking down the parts” which have confined and undermined him and his craft.

Robinson hopes to liberate himself and his genre, inviting people to see through the white rapper exterior and beyond the stereotypes to connect to the content of his rhymes. “That’s when people stop being scared of hip-hop,” said Robinson, “when it’s stuff people can relate to.”

For more from the National Arts Festival, see our special report.

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