Twice the First Time, a contemporary fusion of hip hop, visual art and performance

Twice the First Time was not the performance I expected. Sitting down in the darkened room of the Black Box Theater, I thought I knew what this was going to be. I had been anticipating this performance since I heard about it months ago. Napoleon Maddox performs the story of his great grand aunts, Mille-Christine, twins born into slavery and conjoined at the waist. I expected a grueling portrayal of the ruthlessness of man and the strength of the human spirit. A play of sorts, laying out their struggles and playing on the extremes of their circumstances; the big top tent of the circus unto which they were sold and reenactments of their journey. What I saw was something different, something more complex and something that kept me thinking long after it was over.

Twice the First Time is not a play, nor is it a one man show. It was not a piece of performance art that I knew how to define when I walked out of the theater. Maddox performs a fusion of his own that is part concert, part poetry reading, and part narrative. It is a series of moving images, physical expressions, immersive sounds and words. Maddox drenches the audience in his words. The performance is a string of poems, rapped to music and tied together with a narrative exploring the dual roles black americans are forced to play- as both examined and exhibited.

Maddox’s background as a singer and musician in the band ISWHAT?!, makes it no surprise that this performance went the way of music and rhythm. Maddox has been in the Cincinnati Hip Hop and Jazz communities for years, carving out his own groove in the local music scene. This performance, commissioned by the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, gave Maddox an opportunity to explore a new approach to his art making. Drawing from his family history, Maddox takes the story of his aunts and expands it into a metaphor for the treatment of slaves and black americans from the Pre-Civil War era to the present.

Maddox tells us the story of these women through the eyes of the men around them. He jumps from role to role. He starts as a slave, then as an expectant father; later, he becomes the ring leader of the circus they were sold into. His clothing and delivery changes with the shifting roles and marks the passage of time in this story. Beyond the subtle costume changes and visual projections, the narrative passes in and out of main focus. Lyrics and themes tackle both that of the story as well as current and continued struggles for people of color.

The performance is rich with visual stimulation. There was never a moment I was bored. Bouncing from Maddox’s wide movements to the backdrop of mirrored projections and then to the array of musicians lined up on stage, my eye was always finding something new to notice. Maddox assembled an impressive lineup of players to work alongside him. Amongst were numerous DJs, My Cincinnati Youth Ambassadors, and an array of other musicians on the drums, saxophone and guitar who create the musical landscape for Maddox’s words.

The performance is being created in front you the entire time by a team on stage. Artist Mike Fleisch drew for the length of the performance creating a huge improvised mural on plywood. He responded to Maddoxs words, outlining a map of the United States, scrawling images and phrases from California to New York. Fleisch stops periodically to grab Napoleon by the face, taking on the role of oppressive white hands and violently scrawls a word across his skull, like the carving of text into stone. By the end of the performance Maddox’s head is marked with labels deliniating the burdens and dualities of his existence in the United States.

Maddox moves, sings and raps across the stage with few moments of rest. He is jumping and falling, using his body to express the raw emotion present in these poems. He alternates between loosely acting out the narrative and standing center stage as if at concert- rapping with his entire body into the microphone. His physical commitment to the delivery gave his words significant weight and pushed the piece past concert and into performance.

Although Twice the First Time was not what I expected, I appreciated it more because it delivered something I had not experienced before. In many ways, this was a live performance of a concept album. Recently Hip Hop artists have been exploring the world of contemporary art more and more. Artists like Kanye West and Beyonce are beginning to create work that is shown in prestigious galleries and museums. Musical artists are collaborating with visual artists to deliver fully formed conceptual pieces. Beyonce’s release of Lemonade in 2016 has had an impact on both the music and art worlds, and is already redefining how we think of ‘albums’. These artists are creating multi-faceted art experiences that stimulate multiple senses and convey a clear and often political statement. Like Lemonade, Twice the First Time gives the audience rich visuals to tie to the message and drive home more complex themes than any one song could deliver. It is an fascinating frontier to explore and it was exciting to see how Maddox interpreted this fusion of mediums.

After the performance ended, Maddox offered his thanks to the many collaborators who made this show happen. It became clear that many hands and minds contributed to this larger vision. This story was about many more voices then just Millie-Christines’. Many of the songs were crowd sourced through Chase Public and other youth writing workshops not only in Cincinnati but nationally. Music was written and performed in collaboration with Sorg, Eddy Kwon and the My Cincinnati Youth Ambassadors. Visuals were collected using Maddox’s own family members as subjects, and sets and props were painted by local artists.

This performance was a powerful and a thought provoking piece of art. Once I let go of my expectations, I was able to appreciate the delicate line Maddox walked in creating this work. The lives these women were forced into were built on the exploitation of their bodies. To tell their story Maddox could not rely on the shock factor of their lived experiences. To tell this story Maddox had to create from his own experiences. His is the most present voice in the narrative. He is the vehicle for their story but also the continuation of it. A living, breathing, extension of their blood line that is creating boldly and persevering onward. He is the living testament of their strength and the next chapter in their their story.

-Chelsea Borgman is an artist and writing living in Cincinnati. She is the gallery director of C-LINK Gallery at Brazee Street Studios

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