Excerpt from Extending the Breaks

Excerpt from Extending the Breaks

Excerpt from "Extending the Breaks: Fires in the Mirror in the Context of Hip-Hop Structure, Style and Culture"


In New York City in the late-eighties and early-nineties, hip-hop music not only expressed some of the tensions that existed between Jews and African-Americans, but it was characterized in the media as part of the problem. Most of this media attention was focused around charges of anti-Semitism that were being leveled against the hip-hop group Public Enemy, who at the time were among the most popular and critically acclaimed hip-hop artists. In their 1988 song “Bring the Noise,” from the It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album, Public Enemy's leader Chuck D rapped that Louis Farrakhan was “a prophet” and someone “to listen to” and “follow for now,” at a time when Farrakhan was coming under media scrutiny for comments he had made in regard to the Jews. A year later, Professor Griff, Public Enemy's “minister of information,” implicated the Jews for “the majority of wickedness that went on across the globe.” In 1990, Public Enemy revived the controversies over anti-Semitism in their 1990 song “Welcome to the Terrordome,” from the Fear of a Black Planet album by referring to the Jews as the “so-called chosen frozen,” and rapping that the “crucifixion ain't no fiction.” At the same time, a number of Jewish leaders, and television and radio personalities were using the media to speak out against hip-hop and Public Enemy by claiming that hip-hop was not music, and did not deserve the critical attention that it was receiving. By the fall of 1991 when tensions between Jews and African-Americans exploded into the Crown Heights riots, hip-hop culture hardly seemed the artistic site to explore relations between the two groups in an inclusive and productive manner.

Yet, a number of people interviewed by Anne Deavere Smith, and later performed for her one-woman play Fires in the Mirror asserted that hip-hop was absolutely the place to attempt an intercultural dialogue. In the Fires in the Mirror monologue entitled “Rhythm and Poetry” rapper Big Mo suggests that with hip-hop rhymes:

You have to be def, / […] /Def is dope, def is live/when you say somethin's dope/it means it is the epitome of the experience/and you have to be def by your very presence/because you have to make people happy. /And we are living a society where people are not happy/with their everyday lives. (39)

In this monologue, Big Mo imagines a new vision of community through the powerful form of hip-hop poetic expression. Later in Smith's performance, the activist Henry Rice speaks of his efforts to stop the Crown Heights riots, as Public Enemy plays prominently and suggestively in the background. And most explicitly, and perhaps most importantly, the activist Sonny Carson feels that hip-hop has “mesmerized” him and America, and he hears in its rhythm, chords, and most importantly its discord, “a whole new sound” (106). He concludes by telling Smith, albeit in reference to the musical West Side Story , that perhaps the answer to society's ills “should be a musical” (107).

Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror shares with hip-hop culture certain thematic, stylistic, and structural concerns that are deeply related to how Smith explores, envisions, and performs an approach to race and community in America. At the core of both hip-hop music and Anna Deavere Smith's thematic vision is the idea of “the break.” Smith uses “the break” structurally in Fires to develop her themes in much the same manner as hip-hop music. Like hip-hop, Smith uses new artistic techniques, such as a form of verbal sampling and recombination, born out of technology, to explore and assert a new model for social change. Moreover, Fires in the Mirror anticipates what will become a highly productive relationship between theater and hip-hop music that has yielded a proliferation of hip-hop/theater hybrids, including a number of productions of hip-hop Shakespeare and a yearly New York hip-hop theater festival.

Fires in the Mirror (1992) is a performance piece about the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that is part of Anna Deavere Smith's ongoing project, On the Road: In Search of the American Character. Other works in this series include Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), about the Rodney King verdict and subsequent civil unrest; and House Arrest (1997), a piece about the American presidency. Smith, an African-American woman, began her project in the early 1980s when she was a theater professor. She would ask people on her campus to provide her an hour of their time, in return for an invitation to see themselves performed onstage. Smith would then interview these people, and using their exact words, perform them onstage during the course of an evening of monologues. For Smith, this project became about the relationship between identity and language. Smith felt that if she “listened carefully to people's words, and particularly to their rhythms, that [she] could use language to learn about [her] own time. . . . [She] could learn about the spirit, the imagination, and the challenges of [her] time, firsthand.” Her goal was to enact another person by saying something exactly as they said it. In this way she felt that her work could make literal the advice she received from her grandfather --“if you say a word often enough it becomes you” [emphasis in the original].

Smith says that the primary theme of her work is that the “American character,” her term for a distinctly American self-identity, is constantly in motion, and that this motion is the tension created through the negotiation between the self and an other. As a performing artist, Smith felt that she could best represent the idea of this negotiation by exploring and “measuring” the distance between herself and those who she played through replicating their patterns of language. Smith's work eventually led her to Crown Heights, where she witnessed the most graphic display she had ever experienced of how identity is negotiated. This view of the American character as “identity in motion” was particularly vivid for Smith after the tensions in that community between Jews and Blacks exploded into conflict and violence.

Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, is a neighborhood where a large Hasidic, or ultra-orthodox Jewish population, lives side by side, with an African-American and Caribbean-American community, and in which a major conflict had been stewing for years. On August 19, 1991in Crown Heights, one of the cars in a caravan escorting the spiritual leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, a large group of ultra-orthodox Jews, ran a red light and swerved onto the sidewalk, killing Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Caribbean-American boy and injuring Angela, his young sister. As rumors spread about the incident, members of the black community reacted with violence against the police and the Lubavitchers. Later that evening a group of young black men murdered Yankel Rosenbaum, a twenty-nine year old Hasidic scholar from Australia. The conflict reflected long-standing tensions between Crown Heights's blacks and Jews, as well as the pain, oppression and discrimination that these groups felt within their own communities, particularly at the hands of the police and elected officials. Additionally, media coverage intensified the misunderstanding between the two groups by sensationalizing many aspects of the conflict and some of its participants.

Fires in the Mirror premiered May 12, 1992, at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater. During the course of the evening, Smith portrays through monologues twenty-five different people whom she interviewed in regards to the Crown Heights events. These interviews include those people who would appear to be most connected to the events surrounding the Crown Heights riots, such as Carmel Cato, Gavin Cato's father, and Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel Rosenbaum's brother. However, Smith's piece also includes her performances of those who at first glance might seem more peripheral to the event, such as the playwright Ntozake Shange, the author of for colored girls who considered suicide when the rainbow's not enuff , and the rapper Big Mo, one of Smith's students.

The importance of the cultural mix that is Crown Heights' most distinguishing feature cannot be overstated with regard to the issues of “identity in motion” that distinguishes Smith's primary thematic objectives. Fires in the Mirror shares this principal thematic concern for the relationship between identity and location with hip-hop. According to Tricia Rose:

Graffiti and rap were especially aggressive public displays of counterpresence and voice. Each asserted the right to write--to inscribe one's identity on an environment that seemed Teflon resistant to its young people of color; an environment that made legitimate avenues for material and social participation inaccessible.

However, Rose adds, “the setting for these expressions always suggested existing confinement.” For example, the appeal of tagging (spray painting one's street name) on a subway train, as opposed to a local park or handball court, was that the train then circulated the name throughout the city. Though the “tagger” may be confined by social structures to the South Bronx or Crown Heights, his or her identity could flow to parts of the city to which the writer had little access. In turn, the tag serves as a ghostly reminder to the city of the absent anonymous writer and this “other” place.

In Smith's performance, the relationship between identity and location is examined through a similarly aggressive assertion of absent voices on the “legitimate” theater and the public consciousness. Smith has said that her concern in developing Fires was primarily for Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum, the two lives that were lost. She believes that:

[T]he media, like the war tanks, just go over the rubble and whatever gets pushed in front of the wheels is what we see. I feel that my love for America and the time in which we live has to do with going over that rubble for what we have left behind while we've gone on to the next thing.

In addition, Smith feels that media's reliance on experts has silenced individual voices. People no longer feel the need to speak, because they believe that other more authoritative people will speak for them; Smith's performance brings to the stage many of the voices of Crown Heights that might never have been otherwise heard. However, her performance of these identities reminds the audience of their subjects' absences and confinement to the margins of the Crown Heights story. Smith hopes that by bringing a diverse group of voices to the stage, she can bring a more inclusive audience to the theater, and thus aggressively assert new identities on the stage.

At the core of both hip-hop music and Anna Deavere Smith's thematic vision of “identity in motion” is the idea of “the break.” Smith uses the words “break” or “gap” to describe her process as a performer, as well as how she re-envisions an approach to identity, community, and race in America. She uses “the break” structurally in Fires to develop her themes and imagine social change in much the same manner as hip-hop music.

Pioneering hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash has said that “the break” is the best part of the best songs. During the early 1970s in the South Bronx where hip-hop originated, dance hall DJs, such as Flash and Kool Herc, observed that when certain “breaks” in songs were played, the dancing became particularly furious and energetic. These breaks were essentially portions of popular songs, played on turntables at dances, and usually highly rhythmic sections that featured just the bass and drums. Typically popular “break” records included the dramatic stops and turn-arounds in the funk of James Brown, such as his tunes “Funky Drummer” or “Say it Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud.” DJ Kool Herc began to use two copies of the same record on two turntables that he “cut” (rhythmically switching back and forth between the two turntables with a single-pole double-switch) in order to extend the break beats, and thus the high level of energy. In contemporary hip-hop, electronic samplers digitally replicate or record the music and have the capacity to extend the breaks indefinitely. 

Works Cited

Public Enemy. It Take a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back . Def Jam, (1988). LP.

Professor Griff was more of a public relations person for Public Enemy, rather than an actual performing and recording member.

Public Enemy. Fear of a Black Planet . Def Jam, (1990). CD.

Public Enemy samples some of these media comments that were recorded off of New York radio on the songs “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “Contract on the World Love Jam” from Fear of a Black Planet .

For a detailed musical and sociological analysis of Public Enemy and the African-American/Jewish controversies of this period, please see Craig Werner's A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America , (New York: Plume, 1999), 284-289. His consideration of these events was invaluable in framing this introduction.

Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror (New York: Anchor, 1993); citations to this play are cited by page number(s) in parentheses in my text.

Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America . (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 60.

Anna Deavere Smith, “Interview with David Savran.” The Playwrights Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing and the Politics of Culture . New York: Theater Communications Group, 1999), 257.

Jim Fricke's Yes Yes, Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade provides an outstanding discography of early break records (Cambridge: Da Capo Music Press, 2002), 344. The list includes a musical range that extends from the previously mentioned James Brown breaks to the pop-metal of Thin Lizzy.

For a more detailed discussion of the early days of hip-hop and/or the development of “the break,” see David Toop's Rap Attack 3: African Rap to Global Hip-Hop (London: Serpent's Tail, 2000); Steven Hager's Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti (New York: St. Martin's, 1984); Alan Light's The Vibe History of Hip-Hop (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999); Jim Fricke's Yes Yes, Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade (Cambridge: Da Capo Music Press, 2002); Werner's A Change is Gonna Come and Rose's Black Noise(already cited).

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