Reclaiming hip hop

This Sadler's Wells show saves the genre from itself.

I now realise (what took me so long?) that the perfect medium for expressing despair, desire, joy, friendship and the feminist credo is undoubtedly hip hop. Nothing quite says I love you like a spot of locking and popping. Krumping is the new iambic pentameter! Such is the eye-opening evidence of Some Like It Hip Hop, currently playing at Sadler’s Wells.

Fittingly, given hip hop’s frisky bricoleur tendencies, dance company ZooNation have taken two existing classics of cross-dressing, Some Like It Hot and Twelfth Night, and parlayed these into something rich, strange and very street.

The bare bones of the story articulate an admittedly crude parable, teaching the kids that books are cool and misogyny ain’t (but then plotting wasn’t Shakespeare’s strong suit, either). We are transported - arguably not very far - to a land where books are burned, or banned, and women demeaned and subjugated. It’s Riyadh, with drum ‘n’ bass. To take on and take down this benighted, boys-own city state our two girl heroes Jo-Jo and Kerri must don Groucho Marx moustaches, and enter the citadel disguised as chaps.

In the show’s final “battle”, the regime’s goons busts some impressive moves but it’s a one nil victory as the girls and the wonks stick it to the patriarchy. It’s not made wholly clear how the girls link to the books, or the books link to the wellbeing of the state, but dance is a mode that laughs in the face of the non sequitur.

This is a show in which everything flips: bodies, beats, texts and genders. Inverting the Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis axis is a stroke of genius. This time it’s the women’s turn to ogle the men (dressed, at one point, in cursory boxers for the night). The way the two performers (Lizzie Gough and Teneisha Bonner) ape a blokeish physicality is an utter joy. The brilliance of their forgeries is that they don’t just look like women pretending to be men. They look like women pretending to be men pretending to be men - exposing posturing masculinity in all its crotch-grabbing nullity.

Bonner is a fabulous dancer, and an even better comedian. As she mans up and gets her swag on, only the slightly wild and shifty eyes give away anxieties about being unmasked. And what real boy doesn’t have these same anxieties?

There are two love stories played out in Some Like It Hip Hop, one of which is between the only bookish guy in town (a charming Tommy Franzén) and Gough, as the cross-dressed Jo-Jo. The lovers perform a delightfully goofy his ‘n’ hers routine: a hip hop pas de deux. Franzén, in his dapper checks and swotty bow tie, dances with the nonchalant grace of an Astaire and a Chaplin. Who wouldn’t fall in love with him?  

Meanwhile the repressive Governor of the mini-kingdom (Duwayne Taylor: sultry, sulky) has demons of his own. In flashback mode, we watch his tyranny take root in the death of his beloved wife. During this vignette, the dancers’ movements start to judder and stutter; glitches appear in the scene, as if it were a video tape degraded in the replaying. It is up to the magnificent Kerri to redeem the bereaved despot, burned up by such memories.

The original score (by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde), which includes some terrific live singing, rips from jazz, funk, blues, rock and rap. Walde himself surfaces benignly in umpteen scenes, singing, chorusing, playing the guitar. Arguably no-one’s more ubiquitous, however, than the unseen Katie Prince, who’s director, writer, choreographer and lyricist. Her physical style is an ebullient and witty mash of moves, as she appropriates everything from cheesy-licious dancehall to acrobatic breakdance. It’s choreography that makes the rest of the West End look old. Her biggest move is the reclamation of hip hop itself, not to mention its vile “bros before hoes” canon. In this land-grab, it’s annexed as a feminist form. Prince’s genre-bender pulls hip hop away from narcissistic, belligerent machismo and re-imagines it as co-operative, romantic and feminine. Some teeny bopper elements in the stalls screamed for the virtuoso (male) dancers like they were rock gods - but time and again the narrative carefully reels them back from such fetishisation.

Marvellously, the audience could not have been - rare in theatreland - culturally more multi, or generationally more mixed (a few, surely, more at the hip op stage?).

Some Like It Hip Hop? Surely All Like It Hip Hop.

A scene from Some Like It Hip Hop (Photograph: Simon Prince)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era