Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Less About Green, More About Life

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Forget about the green movement; environmentalism is a social movement that impacts us all. So says Bay Area spoken-word and hip-hop theater artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who aims to integrate environmentalism and sustainability into all communities–urban and suburban, poor and privileged.

Green supporters are lucky to have the dynamic and dedicated Bamuthi in their corner. The New York native and former English teacher is a recipient of the Rockefeller Fellowship, which recognizes the country’s 50 greatest living artists, and was named one of America’s Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences by Smithsonian magazine. This week, we sat down at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to talk about his efforts to start a conversation between underserved communities, green-action agencies, and the arts world.

“I want to engage the question of environment, specifically in black and brown communities, in a different kind of way,” Bamuthi explains. “The process of working in environment really illuminates how isolated and compartmentalized the green sector is, specifically in its messaging.”  He continues:

The idea is that environmentalism is a social movement; we’re all impacted by it. The question is, how do we shift messaging? How do we create as many different points of access as possible to enter into the question of sustainability?

Our movement has to be less about “green” and more about a shared value–life. But in some cases life isn’t a shared value. In some cases when you’re dealing with communities with crazy dropout rates, high infant mortality rates, high murder rates, life is not necessarily a practiced value. So, how do you create opportunities for folks to recognize the value of life through everyday activity?

Bamuthi answered this question by organizing the urban eco-festival Life Is Living, which incorporates urban performance, intergenerational health, and environmental action. So far, the festival has visited Oakland, Houston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. 

Inspired by Life Is Living, the Walker Art Center invited Bamuthi to join their ongoing Open Field project to create an event called The Living Classroom–an outdoor commons of local and national artists exploring the question, “What sustains life in your community?”

The Living Classroom is a perfect anecdote to what Bamuthi calls our “intellectually risk-averse society,” mixing art and sustainability issues in accessible ways. Photographer Wing Young Huie, for example, coordinates a ping-pong tournament on the Walker lawn and encourages passersby to participate in communal karaoke. Spoken-word artist Desdamona works with others on a collective collage made up of magazine cut-outs, notes, and sketches. Artist and urban designer Rick Lowe plays dominoes with strangers at a picnic table and chats about healthy living. Later, there are hip-hop performances, Puerto Rican dancing, and a sneak preview of Bamuthi’s new work red, black and GREEN: a blues

A ping-pong ball bounces over to the shady spot where Bamuthi and I are sitting. “And so you see,” he says, gesturing to the eclectic activities happening around us, “life includes drawing and dominoes and rolling down hills, and it also involves alternative energy and conservation and food activism and poetry and art. The idea is to place all these things on the same continuum so that there’s less isolation and a greater emphasis on interdependence–socially, intellectually, and practically.”

Image by Bethanie Hines, courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

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