Theory Teacher's Blog

Jessye Norman, The Roots, and Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama

Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman

After we read a couple of Langston Hughes’s poems in class last week, one of my students told me about this project to musically perform Hughes’s book Ask Your Mama, and it looked pretty cool, so I thought I’d post it up on my blog and say a few words. Hughes always meant this poem to be performed with music and even provided musical directions, but he died before it could happen. This year, opera singer Jessye Norman teamed up with composer Laura Karpman to do it. Among many others, they invited members from the hip hop group The Roots, whose artistry is well-known for pushing hip hop to higher aesthetic, musical, and intellectual levels. This website here that my student e-mailed me includes some of the recordings along with several interviews — one with Roots’s drummer Questlove — that you can listen to. And here’s a promotional video:


Questlove of The Roots

As Questlove points out, this project reminds us of something that hip hop has always foregrounded — the fact that literature, music, pop culture, political activism, and community are not so distinct as we often imagine them. Especially in the literature classroom, students seem to expect literature to be a purely textual and serious thing, no matter how much I try to insert music, pop culture, politics, and community, and — most importantly — laughter into the curriculum (as I did [here] in my blog on the hip hop canon last fall, as well is in my many blogs on pop music [here] and on performative poetry [here].)

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

But of course, the literary text’s intimate relationship with its performance and its cultural context is something I struggle with too. It’s not that easy to bring all this together in the sterile setting of the classroom. Moreover, text has the advantage of seeming solid, permanent, and immutable, in contrast to the fleeting nature of individual performances and timely articulations in specific political contexts.  The internet definitely helps return the text to its performative dimension or at least makes that performative dimension more accessible. I say “helps,” because I know we could have a long conversation about whether the internet successfully does return it home to its performative originality or whether the internet form somehow changes the performative text.


September 2, 2009 - Posted by | music, poetry, race

1 Comment »

  1. I saw this performed at the Hollywood Bowl, a few weeks ago. I went without much idea what it would look or sound like…in some ways the performance itself was a 3-D hyperlinking: the band played, 3 singers sang, sometimes dancers marched across the stage–while the voice of Hughes himself read the work, and video screens further illustrated–literally, here was Bojangles Robinson, there was Dinah Washington, sometimes it was more abstract than that. There’s something strange about this almost-illustration of the poems, even a static pattern to illustrate “snow” on the TV.

    The show was incredible, bending time like that…it was really a “hypertext,” a gigantic web page of sorts. Of course, it’s better when your web pages take place outdoors, etc.

    Some of Hughes’s themes sounded of-their-times; others sounded all to contemporary. A riff about being the first black man to own a home in a Long Island suburb made me think about the Henry Louis Gates affair of this summer.

    Random fact: Hughes has an album–reading over a Mingus-led band. It’s worth a listen or more…

    Comment by Spiff | September 14, 2009 | Reply

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