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Holler If Ya Hear Me Adds to the Legacy of Tupac Shakur

It’s official kids… the force of nature that is hip hop has crashed down on the Great White Way.  The music and culture that was created in the Bronx has changed the course of music and pop culture and influenced the world.  Hip hop and I grew up together.  When it was still a burgeoning form of music, hip hop served as a medium to convey the joys and sorrows of one’s neighborhood.  It was through hip hop that I learned how folks got down in Cali, of Bloods and Crips and low riders.  I learned what it meant to be chopped and screwed.  Through the vivid stories of MCs nationwide, I got to see what made all impoverished areas different and the same.   No MC reported the tales of the streets and the ills of society more poetically than Tupac Shakur.  When Tupac passed away on September 13, 1996 of respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest in connection with multiple gunshot wounds, a part of my heart and youth died.  Since his untimely death at the age of 25, Tupac rose to the heights of icon status.  His lyrics and life inspired college courses and he is considered one of the greatest artists and MCs of all time.  Now the music of Tupac Shakur is the driving force of a new musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, playing at the Palace Theatre.

5.201699Holler If Ya Hear Me uses Pac’s music to tell the story of urban plight, love and change.  John, played by the Saul Williams, has just returned to the neighborhood after serving a stint in prison.  With his hustling days behind him, he is hell-bent on changing his life for the better, but it’s hard to find change when the cycle of poverty keeps circling.  John’s friend Benny is murdered by a rival gang and the neighborhood is reeling.  Revenge weighs heavy on the heart of his brother Vertus and the homies that are left behind.  Violence seems imminent.  Even John has appeared to have discarded his plan of peace, until he is reminded there is a better way.  As John and Vertus decide to abandon any notions of retaliation, the neighborhood is rocked by another senseless death, which proves how the cycle of violence will only continue if strides aren’t made to break it.

5.201697The jukebox musical is a sure fire way of guaranteeing a successful theatre production.  The music and lyrics already have a legion of dedicated listeners, which promises at the very least the ability to recoup the monies invested in bringing a production to a Broadway stage.  One can almost argue that a jukebox musical is cheating because half the work has already been done.  The struggles of inner-city life and the desire to break away from its hopelessness isn’t a new theme.  In fact, one the most brilliant productions to ever explore this topic, A Raisin in the Sun, is currently enjoying another revival on Broadway.  Even the idea of hip hop isn’t entirely new.  Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced elements of the musical genre to the stage in In the Heights. But what is new is a jukebox musical based off of hip hop, and now rap has one with Holler If Ya Hear Me.

5.201700With the music of Tupac Shakur fueling this production, Holler If Ya Hear Me was poised to blow the roof off of the Palace Theatre.  However, there was one thing that stopped this production from rocketing off into the stratosphere, the book.   The neighborhood, which is set in the present day, could be any ghetto USA.  I’m in total agreement that Tupac’s lyrics are timeless, but the story could’ve benefitted by setting it in a specific city or region of the country.   One can argue that the story is clichéd taking cues from Menace to Society and Boyz in the Hood as well as West Side Story.  Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s just challenging to create an original story in this century, but the book didn’t deliver on the dynamism reflected in Pac’s music making the production unbalanced.    The choreography wasn’t as explosive as I had hoped and the lack of a set left the actors drowning in on a half empty stage.  But even with these flaws, Holler If Ya Hear Me still shines because of Tupac’s music and the ability of Saul Williams to transcend past an overdone story to deliver a powerful performance.  Williams is no stranger to exuding passion on stage, after all he is one of the world’s most well-known slam poets.  Williams rage, sensitivity, charisma and presence were felt in every corner of the audience.

5.201701When it is all said and done, Holler If Ya Hear Me will join the long list of musical productions made during this millennium that teeters somewhere in the middle, not disastrous but not reaching the glorious spectacle of what musical theater used to be.  But I know very well that the people won’t come to this musical because they love musicals or Broadway.  They will come to pay homage to Tupac Shakur – a man who indeed was like a spark and through his ignition he succeeded in changing the face of hip hop and the world.  If nothing else this production shows how relevant Tupac still is. Holler If Ya Hear Me roars and I holler back, “Viva Tupac Amaru Shakur!”

Photos: Joan Marcus

To Be Real

The first time I met Skot Foreman was during a Purvis Young exhibit at Gallery Bar in 2008.  I was pulled in Purvis’ world of struggle and redemption. I spoke with Skot briefly that evening and left thinking how Purvis Young had a real champion in Skot Foreman; he was someone that would fight to ensure the legacy of this artist (who was in failing health) would be properly maintained and not exploited.  But as I got to know Skot I came to the conclusion that it was not just Purvis that made him zealous.  Skot Foreman is passionate about three things: his two dogs Cassie and Reva and art.  Another thing I learned after getting to know him over the past two years is that Skot is a rebel.

Unlike the famed General Sherman, Skot made his march in reverse conquering one city at a time.  He opened Skot Foreman Fine Art in 1994 using various locations within the greater Miami area.  In 2001, he moved to Atlanta opening up a space in Castleberry Hill, the city’s gallery district.  Skot moved to Manhattan in 2004 and opened a gallery first on the upper eastside.  Currently, he is settled in Tribeca.  “I always had a connection to New York,” he states.  He admits that his journey to “the hub of the international art market” was one filled with baby steps.  Originally wanting to migrate to New York after 9/11, Skot re-thought the notion and moved three years later.   “I have always been one to swim upstream,” he states.  Skot called his initial move to the upper eastside “strategic,” and feels that living downtown is more indicative to his personality.  “It’s more creative and laid back…more on the DL,” he says, “There is a new discovery around every corner.” 

One of those discoveries happened to be situated underneath Skot’s Tribeca home and would eventually lead to an innovative union between Skot Foreman Fine Art and fashion brand Grown and Sewn.  Skot was introduced to Grown and Sewn’s founder and head designer Rob Magness through Rob’s wife Sara, an award- winning interior designer.  Over a glass of wine they discussed the space that would become Grown and Sewn’s home, 184 Duane Street.  Both had the desire to use the space for their creative endeavors and Sara suggested collaborating.  “Rob and I looked at each other and you could see the light going off in one another’s head,” he says.  Skot believes the synergy between he and Rob created magic.  “The word that keeps coming back to me is authentic because so many people that do walk in the space seem to respond to the fact that we’ve combined art and craft, which is truly a human thing but I think it’s probably been lost through the later half of the twentieth century and we wanted to rediscover that.”

Skot Foreman Fine Art amasses contemporary art of the 20th and 21st centuries and features the works of prominent artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Purvis Young, Keith Haring, M.C. Escher and many others.  “I try not to show artists that are the flavor of the day,” he asserts, “I try to show artists that have stood the test of time.  It starts with a chord that artist may have struck with me so it’s hard to remove any personal bias because if I don’t believe in it, if I don’t have conviction, then how can I share it with a friend or turn a collector on if I’m not passionately behind the work.”  Skot believes his penchant for pop art stems from his surroundings growing up in Florida and recalls being cognizant of signs, billboards and other media.  He also has a deep appreciation for artists that can take a sheet of paper and illustrate.  “I’m a little bit old fashioned in that regard,” he shares, “I like [artists] who have got some chops, knows how to draw, came up through the ranks and paid their dues.” 

Skot understands that artists are the visionaries of their times, no matter what genre one may choose t, which brings me full circle to how Skot and I met:  a showing of Purvis Young’s work.  Skot loves to “turn people on” to his work.  He describes Purvis’ art as shamanistic; indeed there is an other-worldly aesthetic to his pieces.  Skot and Purvis (who died in April) shared a friendship that spanned over 20 years.  One of Skot’s favorite stories about Purvis Young involves another shaman of sorts, the late rapper Tupac Shakur.  “I sent Tupac a portfolio of Purvis’ work to look at.  I wasn’t there; it was through a third party.  Tupac opens it up, starts looking at it, eyes start bugging, closes the portfolio up and says, this shit is fucking dope,” he recalls as we both begin to laugh.  It is no surprise to me that kismet made Skot Foreman one of the preeminent collectors of Purvis Young’s work. Besides both men being Floridians, Purvis’ work projects a naked genuineness that obviously comes from within.   It is that same frank verisimilitude that resonates from Skot’s demeanor and is the reason why they were kindred entities.

When it comes to the art that has been reflected during first decade of this millennium, Skot discloses that he has not been a fan of the new conceptual, instillation media that is meaningless but relies on the story behind it or the process of creation to hold its validity.  He is not concerned with the back-story of a work of art, and would like to see a renaissance of the fundamentals of drawing and painting develop.  “Everything is so media or marketing driven, and I think that’s probably why one day there is going to be a return back towards things that are authentic and accessible.   Things that are real.  People can see through all the smoke and mirrors.”

Photos courtesy of Skot Foreman