Revolutionary Worker #1124, October 28, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
It's a warm afternoon in late September. A beat-up station wagon rolls by, eventually finding a parking spot on the busy main drag of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Danny hurries up the street, and as people in this city do these days with every friend they haven't seen since September 11, we look each other in the eyes and ask how are you making it through....
The occasion for the interview is the debut of Danny's new film Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, which opened on October 12 in New York City. This is the movie version of his one-man show by the same name--which has packed theaters coast to coast and around the world. But this is not just the "film of the play." Danny strikes out on a new road, telling his stories in three or four different settings that intercut throughout the film--on location, in a theater, and in jail itself. All of it tears along to a great hip-hop soundtrack by Mixmaster Mike.
RW: So, since we set up this interview, everything's changed.
DH: Yes, everything has changed.
RW: So I thought I should ask you about that.
DH: That's cool, that's okay, I've been thinking about it a lot. The whole thing is a wake-up call. Part of me feels that things haven't really changed, they've only changed for us personally--in our comfort. All this was going on before. It just wasn't happening right here. Even as activists we got used to being able to go out and have our avocado salads and our cucumber soups but yet still plan the revolution. We just didn't think we'd be planning it under this kind of duress and anxiety. So it's pretty disturbing.
We gained strength and confidence in being able to plan and work under this level of comfort and privilege or safety. We were completely aware of the atrocities that we were committing as a nation, but we were safe and we sort of took solace in that. It helped. It was like an asset to help us organize. We weren't organizing under indiscriminate fear, even though fear did exist. But now we really know that anything can happen at any time.
RW: Right, though for some people here and now, fear does exist all the time, like the mothers who don't know if their sons will come home, every night--
DH: Oh yeah. That was "discriminate fear." But now there is sort of the sense of "indiscriminate fear." So yeah. So here we are, in a new age that's not really new.
RW: When we sat down, you said, "Well, now's our time."
DH: Yeah, but I feel mixed about that. I think, is it only our time when we get bombed? I mean it should have been our time for some time, and it has been our time. But it's like, I guess, all the shit has come to the surface now, everybody's anxiety and fear and helplessness, collectively. So what my friend said was--she just told me this 20 minutes ago--"If we can't save the world now, when can we? Now is really the time to have our shit together." My opinion is that it's always been the time to have our shit together, but we didn't think that this would happen in our lifetime in this country in this way. I don't know, there are so many sides to it.... I haven't formulated it yet. I just know the anxiety is tremendous. And yeah, things are not gonna be the same.
RW: There's also the sense though that it binds people together across the planet in a way that has not been, at least in America, quite this visceral before.
DH: I know, we just have to be careful how we help shape the binding --- I mean the flag thing is very disturbing, very upsetting and disturbing. In a sense, you have this propaganda symbol which is binding people. People think they're bound by that. That's not what's binding them, they're being bound together by "wake up and smell the fucking coffee"--this is the reality, this is what we've been doing to everybody forever.
So I guess we as artists on the left [laughter] for lack of a better term need to counter that. And that really happened the other night at this event we did at Joe's Pub. I was really glad about it, I was really glad I participated in it. It was really powerful. Like I didn't know three-quarters of the artists who came out, and the energy was so powerful, so positive, so constructive too--I was blown away. I don't know why, I was feeling really shitty and fucked up and pessimistic before it--but I didn't think we had it in us to do that--to be that profound that quickly. Because we were so shocked, and we're still shocked. But we learned. We were deft and profound and powerful and loud and fearless, too. So I was really happy and proud.
RW: Tell me about the piece you did.
DH: [laughs] I'd just been in all these conversations and I'd also been having all these conversations with my head. Many of us have been on the verge of tears, but the verge of tears is also the verge of tremendous laughter, not in a joyful way but in a helpless way, and also in a very liberating way. And I felt like, shit, we needed to laugh in that way, in a liberating way. So I took these little bits and pieces of conversations in my head and conversations I had heard about people's fear, and tried to turn it into what we can do now, which is not forget what we were doing before this happened.
So it was just really different voices on a corner, [one of them] saying, "Yo, did you hear George Bush"--he's quoting Bruce Willis from the movie, The Siege. You need to rent that shit, I swear to god. In the movie, when they were rounding up Arab Americans and putting them in internment camps in Brooklyn, Bruce Willis plays the head of the military, which is essentially all Bush is good for--warring. Bruce Willis' character says, "Make no mistake, we will hunt them down, we will find them, and we will wipe out evil in the world." And for the first four days after the World Trade Center, Bush said that at least 15 times!
And another kid is saying that his ex-girlfriend was on the 90th floor. He was supposed to marry her, and there's this other kid saying, "How were you gonna marry her, if she's your ex." [laughs] And he's saying, "Well, when we were together I was supposed to marry her and then we broke up, but still." That kid, he lives two blocks away from here and his ex was the valedictorian of El Puente [alternative high school in Williamsburg] in 1998--Marlyn Garcia. She was 21 years old when she got a job at Cantor Fitzgerald. It's hard, it's hard.... I'm not saying one life is more valuable than another but this girl was--very special....
Just all these conversations out of fear and loss and mourning, but yet they're just so basically human they bring you back to reality.
Then, there's this other kid. "Let me tell you how scared people are, kid. I got one of those Stop Bush from bombing the world emails, and 60,000 people had signed it by the time it got to me and 40,000 had signed it 'anonymous.' That's how scared people are, they don't even want to put their name on a petition to say no to war in 2001. I don't know whether to be scared that I'm gonna be bombed on the subway tomorrow or that people in this country are gonna bomb me for speaking my mind.
"Everybody's all patriotic and flag-waving, but you weren't patriotic when they were shooting Amadou Diallo 41 times...or were you? You weren't patriotic when they were choking Anthony Baez to death...or were you? Or when they were bombing Vieques, or when they were shooting Aníbal Carrasquillo in the back on the floor, or were you, or were you? Or were you just..."shook?"
It was that sort of back and forth, serious but you have to laugh, and think, and not be dead, in this moment....
And so I just wasn't sure if this was gonna work. But people needed to laugh. People really thanked me afterwards, so I felt good. Cuz it's not just about the comedy of it. So often when we laugh when we watch art or entertainment, we just want to be in a comedic state because--we're trained to think comedy is comedy and seriousness is seriousness, and drama is drama. But to me, the very serious can be very hysterical, and the very funny can be extremely serious.
RW: Well, laughter can be about a revelation.
DH: Yeah, self-revelation, collective revelation. Recognition.
RW: Recognition, and somehow getting to understand the contradiction.
DH: Yeah. So that's what happened the other night, and I was really happy that happened. It was so amazing. People were like hugging each other left and right, out of fear, out of support, people who don't normally hug each other at these events. And I shouldn't even say "these events" because this wasn't even one of "those events."
This evening happened inadvertently--nine Cuban hip-hop artists were supposed to be here Saturday morning and we were gonna have a welcome party for them Saturday evening at Joe's Pub. But apparently their visas were indefinitely suspended because of this war against any country that is not down with the U.S. plan. So we came up with this thing sort of impromptu.
I know we're supposed to be talking about the film, but that's also what we're trying to accomplish with the film--the sense of this back-and-forth of seriousness and laughter, seriousness and laughter, to get you to have recognition, revelation. Open your eyes about all the issues.
RW: The title of the film--Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop--it seems to me like it's about the places where a lot of youth end up.
DH: It is. I don't think it was intentional, it just sort of happened. I was focusing on untold stories that I felt needed to be centerstage. One being jail stories, the prison-industrial complex--what are the human stories we're not hearing? And the other one was--not necessarily hospitals as institutions because I didn't really focus on that--but the people who are in them. And hip-hop, which has not only shaped my worldview since childhood but has shaped the view of an entire generation. And it's even shaping the view of other generations, older and younger.
But yeah, it occurred to me after a while that these are the places where youth wind up, either in positive or negative ways. So, if there's anybody that I'm really dying for to see this film, it's young people, because I feel that this film is about young people, it's about this young generation, and movies that are made for young people in this country don't discuss these issues, they don't even cover the dimensions of humanity that are in the film.
RW: Let's talk about some of the characters--like Bronx, the guy who gets busted selling Bart Simpson and OJ Simpson T-shirts on the street. Where did he come from, where are you going with him?
DH: Part of what Bronx is about is the irony, the hypocrisy, the contradiction really, in what this country says it is and what it really is--economically and opportunity-wise. How the rules are different if you've been to jail, or depending on what neighborhood you live in, or depending not even necessarily on what you look like but what you seem like. So, here's this character, he's trying to be a good capitalist American [laughs] with a dream, an entrepreneur.
RW: Right, "learn from the lemonade-stand girl."
DH: Yes, learn from the lemonade girl on TV, on the commercial, you can do it yourself, you can have self-determination and succeed. Bronx has a run-in with a cop and winds up in jail, and he's not been charged, and he's got a prior felony so who knows if he's on some three strikes and you're out shit. He's just one of the many people in jail who are in limbo, they're just kind of invisible. Invisible on the street, invisible on TV, and the system would rather have this character in jail than trying to show self-determination or really be an entrepreneur, or really distribute opportunity and wealth equally.
RW: Or sell Bart Simpson and OJ Simpson T-shirts....
DH: Yes, exactly. So, that's what that character is about. But it's also about the behavior that goes on in jail and how society puts people in jail for many reasons--including a sense of security because there are no jobs for these people, but also so they're out of sight, and out of mind, lest we be distracted by them.
RW: Then there's the character of Sam, the corrections officer, who gets treated differently. By the end of his bit, you know about the journey he took but, unlike with your other characters, you don't love him, you can't love him. Or I can't.
DH: It's hard, it's hard to love him. That was a struggle for me because I had the responsibility to the humanity of each of these characters. But at the same time, I also had the responsibility to the imbalance of whose stories are being told and how, and at the point when I was creating that piece I was really in fear of the Fraternal Order of Police and the Corrections Association of America and the people I was exposing on other levels, not even in that piece, but in Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop.
I think the bolder thing to have done would have been to make him more human, or I should say, lovable, still lovable at the end. And he almost is in the play version, when you get to hear him struggle through the joke that he was telling about the chickens. But we couldn't keep that piece in the film because it was really long, he's already long to begin with. And I was upset that we couldn't keep it because we see his struggle and his frustration and he's just trying to get through the day, and he's in this position. This is where he is.
He could have been an apple farmer, and we wouldn't have necessarily been angry with him. And those moments of sort of dragging out the humanity of someone in the middle of indicting them are important.
You decide, as the movie watcher, who do I side with, who do I identify with, and no one really wants to identify with him. But you'd be surprised, a lot of people do anyway, who are watching--silently identifying with him. Not all the people who are watching this film know about the prison-industrial complex.
RW: Then there's Victor, who is paralyzed because he was shot by the police, and part of what he is struggling with is: Did this even happen to me, what was the story, do I believe the New York Post lies about what actually happened to me? That's deep.
DH: Yeah, it goes to show how powerful the powers that be are in convincing people that reality is not really reality. I equate this with what you're talking about--Victor's believing the New York Post before he believes how he got shot. And he's paralyzed!
My next door neighbor tells me the other day she's Puerto Rican--that her cousin got chased by some people because they thought he was Arab. This is not the first case I've heard of this. I just heard of another guy who got beaten up in New Jersey who's Puerto Rican. And my friend got stopped in a bank who's Puerto Rican also--all this craziness is happening.
So my neighbor's dealing with that reality, and she's also dealing with the reality of being poor and Puerto Rican in New York City. And then she says to me, "Can you believe this, what happened. I can't believe that we let these people in here. We just let anybody in, and then they come and set up whatever they're gonna do, their plots. This is why we have to be like stricter about who we let in."
And I was like "Whoa!" The contradiction is right there, next door. You can't get any clearer contradiction than that. I was like "It's not that simple.... " And she was like "No, I know, I know, I'm just saying we let anybody in here." The sense of who is this "we," and who "they" are gets defined for us every day by this media machine, so those contradictions are important to illustrate in film and theater and art.
RW: Definitely. Another important theme running through this film and a lot of the things you're doing right now concerns where hip-hop is headed.
DH: Well, my opinion is that hip-hop is the current culture of resistance of young people, the current mass culture of resistance.... But at the same time, this culture of resistance is also being sabotaged by corporate America, by the government, by the media. It's being sabotaged for the purpose of neutralizing it so that it will not be a force of resistance. And that issue needs to be dealt with. If the loudest voices in hip-hop that we hear are about materialism and wealth and greed, then the saboteurs have won. So, even though hip-hop itself criticizes the system, hip-hop itself needs constructive criticism that will keep it alive really, because otherwise it's not hip-hop.
It's like what happened with my Nike thing. The whole thing originated when Nike wanted me to use my shoes that I referred to in the Seinfeld story to do this sneaker campaign. And the question comes up, well, if you use resistance to sell sneakers, is it still resistance?
So if hip-hop is resistance, if hip-hop is rebellion, if hip-hop is the voice of marginalized youth in--not just the United States now but across the globe --- then if we use hip-hop to buy cars and jewelry and throw parties, is it still resistance? If we use it to sell Sprite and Hersheys and Coca Cola, is it still resistance?
And I see hip-hop going back and forth. Some people say that there's the left progressive hip-hop, intellectual hip-hop and then there's the capitalist-embracing desperate hip-hop. You know? It's a true force of desperation, I mean, that's essentially where that embracing of capitalism is coming from. It's coming from a place of desperation and destitution. So, each side, if there are these two hip-hops, argues that they are the real hip-hop. And they both are. The desperation and destitution is real. The fear of being killed by the police is real. The need to feel ownership of something even if it's an overpriced car or a house in the Hamptons.
RW: Or a pair of Nikes.
DH: Or a pair of Nikes. It's real. So that is hip-hop. But at the same time, hip-hop is also revolutionaries, I should say, groomed and sharpened revolutionaries, you know, who can articulate what the revolution is. So I think they're both hip-hop, and hip-hop needs its own cultural criticism, and I don't feel like we're seeing that, especially in films.
You go see a hip-hop film, the hip-hop films don't deal with the struggles in hip-hop, not even as a culture of resistance, but as culture period. It's not about struggle, it's about parody and that's it, one dimension. Or it's about distraction again, or it's about embracing capitalism and that's it. So, I'm just trying to add dimensionality to whatever the conversational struggle is, or the struggling conversation in hip-hop.
RW: It stuck me when you're talking about hip-hop, that when reggae first started out, it was the voice of resistance and revolution, and it was the expression of a people who had just come from the countryside into the cities, and they had no music that could really express what they were going through, and what they wanted and could speak to this opening to the rest of the world that was becoming radicalized in the '60s, and was beginning to come in through the transistor radios, and so on.
Reggae was the new expression the youth developed out of that. And all those old Wailers records would have covers picturing them with the tam and the revolver--a lot of that early reggae music was very radical because it was invented by these youth who weren't satisfied and who saw maybe an opening. And, as with most forms of art, it has come to have these two dimensions. I mean there's still some good reggae but a lot of it has just become appropriated into the mainstream as love songs or some other bullshit, right. And I was curious, are you thinking of something different from this process when you're thinking about hip-hop? Are you thinking about something more broad, more encompassing, do you think of it as something more than--
DH: More than music.
RW: And something unique to this generation--
DH: Absolutely. I mean, Chimurenga is the reggae and the hip-hop of Zimbabwe. It came out of the resistance there. Every country and culture has their resistance culture. But hip-hop developed as a culture of resistance in the most powerful country in the world, and there's something very rippling about that--not only the most powerful country in the world, because rock came from there too, and so did jazz. But it comes from the poorest neighborhoods in the most powerful country in the world in its most powerful time. So it resonates so powerfully across so many lives.
That's why Flip-Dog [a character in Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop] is affected, that's why kids in Indonesia are affected, that's why the most famous African-American in the African continent is Tupac Shakur. He's a god. You go to Cuba, Tupac Shakur is a god. You go to Brazil and it's the same. And that's really powerful, more even than Mohammed Ali was in the 1970s. So that sort of sense of resonance. That sense of a rippling powerful effect. And the speed at which it's moving....
RW: Making it all the more important for the powers to shape it--
DH: Yeah. Or strangle it....
RW: Or use it.
DH: Yeah. So that's why it's so crucial. It's crucial for both sides. But I don't mean it just as music, but reggae wasn't just about music either. Reggae was about the affirmation of how you wear your hair, how you dress, your language. And hip-hop exists in all those forms as well. I'm one of these people who campaigns against the idea that hip-hop is just music. We know hip-hop is theater, hip-hop is activism, hip-hop is education. Hip-hop is dance obviously, hip-hop is other forms of music besides rap. So this culture of resistance that exists in all these different forms and shapes is what I guess I mean as hip-hop.
RW: Getting back to the film, the play it's based on has been incredibly successful, artistically, critically, and loads of people have seen it as a theater piece, many more than once. But you wanted to make it into a film. What made you do that?
DH: I looked at what I did with my last solo show which was made into an HBO special, and I wanted to do something that was cinematic. The HBO special did resonate and people were affected by it, but I wanted to make a movie, and I felt like, why can't this be a film, and I didn't know how, I didn't know what I was really trying to create. I had to ask myself, well, what was the origin of this, where did this come from? We went back to a jail and I performed it for inmates and corrections officers, and also to a theater and I performed in front of a theater audience. But those two elements ended up being small chunks of what the film is. The majority of the film is each of these characters on location.
The other thing is how many people am I reaching. So, although I absolutely love making theater more than I do film, the reality is that more people will see this film. More people will see a movie than will see a play.
RW: It's not easy to create powerful, provocative and beautiful art that tells the truth and inspires people to resist. But you have found ways to make such art. How do you do it?
DH: The problem of how do we make outspoken or critical art successful? I don't know, I don't know what the answer is to that. Part of it is remembering at the end of the day you're making art in the ancient sense. And I think a lot of times when artists attempt to say something political they wind up attempting to be a politician, or when they try to say something social they end up being a sociologist.
We forget what the elements of art are and why they're important. You can make the political points all day but they will not resonate and will not be as profound as art can be.... Before there were politicians or sociologists or teachers, there were artists who did all of this. But somehow we got fragmented. Politicians became specialists, and teachers became specialists, and artists even became specialists. The ancestors combined those things in one. So to me it's not about how can I make my art more political. Politicians should be asking themselves how can I make my politics more artful! Ancient art dealt with what was happening in the here and now, and the history, including the contemporary history. I don't really have any tips for how to do this well. Because it's still a struggle for me.
RW: The world is changing fast and furious these days. And art is often a harbinger of the new. What do you think the people need from our artists now?
DH: Well, hmmmm. What I need from my artists is a sense of urgency. I don't feel this in most of the art I see now. And I need a sense of collective responsibility, not just where the artist feels this, but where the artist makes the whole audience feel a collective responsibility sitting there together, even if we don't know each other.
Since September 11, everyone feels a sense of urgency.... We have never seen people here feel such a sense of urgency and responsibility in the collective sense. Not even in World War 2. They felt it in the '60s maybe. Why do 5,000 people have to get killed for us to feel that sense of urgency? That's what I meant when we first sat down, that we have to figure out this shit now, we may not resolve it all, but we have to begin to figure it out--now.
More on Danny Hoch and Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop can be found at www.jailshospitalsandhip-hop.com. An earlier RW interview (1997) with Danny is on our website at rwor.org.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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