Hip-hop is just another subset of popular music, right? Wrong.
It’s inevitably puffed up, facile and obnoxious, right? Wrong again.
In any case, you know you want nothing to do with the stuff, right?
You could be proven wrong on that score as well according to a couple of the folks deeply involved with Canadian playwright Omari Newton’s Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of. The hip-hop-theatre crossover plays the National Arts Centre starting April 10.
Originally inspired by the 2008 police killing of Montreal teen Fredy Villanueva and the riot that followed – a pattern since repeated in other cities — the show tracks a hip-hop crew as they confront the aftermath of their own encounter with official violence: the police shooting of their DJ, Sammy.
Prejudice, homophobia and injustice are among the issues that arise as the crew wrestles with whether to seek revenge or go on making music.
The show’s characters include blacks, Southeast Asians, and Indigenous and trans people.
“This story is so universal yet uniquely Canadian in the way it’s being told,” says Tristan D. Lalla, who’s been playing the titular hip-hop character since the show debuted in 2013. “It’s the voice of Canadian youth, urban youth, black and youth of colour that’s so seldom seen on a stage, especially on a main stage, and in a piece that doesn’t subject the characters to just being tokens of the plot or supporting characters. You get to hear their thoughts and feel their angst and love.”
Hip-hop encapsulates all that and more, continues Lalla. He’s talking about the genuine stuff that continually evolves and that hasn’t been watered down and juiced up by commercial interests. And don’t think of it as merely another form of music, he cautions.
“Hip-hop is a culture. It’s not a music style or a dance style or a fashion style. The culture of hip-hop is a visceral thing and lives in your core. It teaches you how to listen, how to move, how to react. And when it’s not real, you just don’t want to be part of it. Real hip-hop, at its core, speaks to the people … and the essence of that is really alive in this (show).”
The problem is we often misunderstand hip-hop and its creators, says the show’s director Diane Roberts. Like Lalla, she’s been involved with Sal Capone since the early stages of its creation.
“(The play) tells the story of kids living in frustration and how the media gives us stories where people of colour have gang affiliations and hip hop is associated with drugs.”
She says the hip-hop of Sal Capone is, as Lalla explains, a deeper and richer culture than the mainstream version we see on TV.
Because it tells truths some audiences may not want to hear, the play can be a tough one for producers to take on, Roberts believes.
She says that although it was written well before the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, that movement has created pushback by some who respond to it by saying that all lives matter. “We’ve never said that all lives don’t matter, but I think some people still have blinders on,” says Roberts.
She thinks those blinders have, in turn, limited efforts to give the piece wider exposure.
Ironically, she didn’t like – or at least thought she didn’t like — hip-hop before getting onboard with the show. “But I love Omari and the play. He had something to say, so I learned.”
Lalla also believes Newton has something to say through characters like Sal.
Things that Sal has experienced, Lalla has as well. That includes profiling by police (Lalla, who’s 34, says that’s been going on in his hometown of Montreal since he was ten) as well as having friends and family become victims of gun violence.
Just as importantly, says Lalla, Sal learns over the course of the play what hip-hop actually is, its extraordinary power and value, and that he doesn’t need to be “gansta” to be himself.
“He realizes how he can use his voice that isn’t just commercial or what people might want to hear. It’s his truth, and that’s good enough.
“Mother Teresa was hip-hop because she spoke her truth. Gandhi was hip-hop. Hip-hop isn’t braggadocious, bravado, fake veneer. At its essence, it’s about letting out the truth of what’s going on inside of you.”
Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of is in the NAC’s Azrieli Studio. April 10-21 (previews April 10 and 11, opening night, April 12). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.