Wednesday, June 12, 2024

BAM’s ‘Word. Sound. Power.’ program highlights the storytelling tradition from the African griots to the hip-hop MCs

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) annually hosts “Word. Sound. Power., ” a multi-disciplinary amalgamation of hip-hop, spoken word, dancing and theatrics. This year’s series theme, “Word: The New Storytellers,” emphasizes the MC and history of storytelling over generations. 

Co-curated by Mikal Amin Lee, BAM’s education manager and musical artist Baba Israel, “Word. Sound. Power.” will feature music from Helixx C. Armageddon and Pri the Honey Dark, members of The Anomalies. Silent Night, DJ Reborn, and spoken word artist Dahlak Brathwaite will also perform, accompanied by dancers, and choreography from Jade Charon.

“Word. Sound. Power.” started in 2005 under its original title, BAM Poetry Presents. After Lee joined, BAM changed the title, and the emphasis on hip-hop increased to put rap and spoken word on equal tiers. Lee, an MC himself, broke down the significance of the show’s title.

Dizzy Senze performs at BAM’s “Word. Sound. Power. 2022” show in 2022 at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Ellen Qbertplaya)

“‘Word’ basically representing, obviously, the lyrics and the craft of poetry and emceeing,” Lee told theGrio. “‘Sound’ being the celebration and the understanding of music and rhythm. ‘Power’ is about the content in the cultural and political context that you utilize to bring together. So we had words, sounds, and power; these were pillars that I recognized in the actual artistic, creative practice of hip-hop.” 

Lee explained that the multi-disciplinary execution of the show comes from the foundation of both the original BAM Poetry Presents template and hip-hop’s five elements: emceeing, graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and knowledge. 

“Building on that foundation, what I chose to do, with Baba Israel as co-curator, was to use this show to even further celebrate the culture of hip-hop, not just the MCs, but also the dancers as well as the DJ,” Lee said. “Using the stage is like the fourth element of visual aesthetics. And obviously because we’re working with young people and introducing them to the art of spoken word and poetry, there’s knowledge.”

Israel, who also hosts and directs the program, is a a rapper and musician with extensive theatrical experience as a performer and educator. He states that hip-hop’s early performance days give cues to the format of “Word. Sound. Power.” 

“If you look at the early days of hip-hop, if you look at the early concerts, people were in costumes, people had routines, people had lighting. Sometimes people had DJs on platforms,” Israel told theGrio. “I think of Doug E. Fresh’s early concerts, Soul Sonic Force, the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers. It was very theatrical.”

This year is the first of a three-year arc that focuses on three themes: “WORD: The New Storyteller (2023),” “SOUND: Rhythm is Rhythm (2024),” and “POWER: The Power of Protest (2025).” For Helixx, one of this year’s performers, storytelling is a hallmark of hip-hop that is one of its most important pillars. 

Helixx C. Armageddon, performer at BAM’s “Word. Sound. Power.” show in 2023. (Photo provided by Helixx C. Armageddon)

The art of storytelling is such an important aspect of sharing culture, sharing pain, sharing love, sharing narratives,” Helixx told theGrio. “The emphasis on story is an important aspect of hip-hop culture. I think that’s how we shared the news. I think that that’s how we share the struggle of people, and that’s how we communicate. It really brings together community and connection.

BAM is leaning heavily into narration in this year’s show, connecting West African storytellers to today’s rappers. 

“The idea is that we know that the griot in Western African culture was the keeper of the community’s history, of the stories of particular families, and a way to maintain the heritage and the tradition and the ideas of a particular place and region through these individuals,” Lee said, explaining the lineage passed down through generations and how hip-hop was birthed through many poets and spoken word.

“When you think about the African American community’s tradition, we’ve always had individuals that have been the storytellers, whether it be in the family or in the church, as ways to maintain the understanding of the people who those storytellers were connected to,” Lee continued.

“You saw that carried on through spoken word artists, individuals like the Last Poets, Lost Prophets, Sonia Sanchez, and so on. ‘The New Storytellers’ is really saying to the MC, ‘Is this the latest iteration of that tradition.’”

This iteration of “Word. Sound. Power.” couldn’t have arrived at a better time. It comes toward the climax of National Poetry Month and amid the 50th anniversary of hip-hop

The climactic performance of “Word. Sound. Power. 2023 – WORD: The New Storyteller” plays at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 28, at BAM Fisher in Brooklyn. Tickets are available at

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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