It’s hard to imagine hip hop poet/actress/playwright Sarah Jones ever not commanding the spotlight. She’s one of those people who dominates conversation, but for all the right reasons. Simply put, hearing words tumble out of her mouth is vastly enriching and enlightening. The product of a mixed race marriage, Jones grew up in urban hubs like New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., where a parade of varied faces and characters peppered her life. Though she had intended to be a lawyer, Jones saw the pages of her diary as being a more viable asset to happiness and began building a name on the slam poetry circuit. Her refreshingly conscious one-woman acts “Surface Transit” and “Women Can’t Wait” further established her reputation (the latter being premiered at the United Nations’ International Conference on Women’s Rights in 2000). She’s even been embroiled in a bit of controversy, after the Federal Communications Commission fined an Oregon radio station last year for playing her song, “Your Revolution (Will Not Happen Between These Thighs).” The song uses sexually explicit language to illustrate the blatant misogyny in mainstream rap, referencing artists like LL Cool J. Jones filed suit against the FCC charging that it had violated her First Amendment rights. Just recently, the FCC admitted its error and rescinded the censorship completely, meaning vindication for the talented and outspoken Ms. Jones.
Tonight, Jones will perform her newest one-woman act, “Waking the American Dream,” in which she portrays 10 varied immigrants to the United States as they struggle with identity in a nation stricken with fear. Some of the characters include a Chinese mother adjusting to her daughter’s lesbianism, a Mexican-American facing the tragedies of border deaths and a Pakistani emcee. Somewhere in the hurricane that is Jones, Artsweek corners this Jane-of-all-trades and sees the future of women and minority struggle in a new, media dominated era.
Artsweek: Tell us about the show tonight. How does it vary from your previous stage work?
Sarah Jones: The idea is to have a lot of diversity within the show, culturally, so that the show becomes a metaphor for the close proximity we all share. We’re in a moment here where people feel increasingly alienated from each other. There’s too much out there in television, in movies, even on the radio that doesn’t really ask questions or treat us like we’re very smart. Most of it is really kind of bubble gum or condescends to us. [It] doesn’t really encourage us to think for ourselves or to interrogate what we believe and why we believe it so that we could maybe develop positive ways of looking at the world that are rooted in reality. Escape is great, but why are we escaping? Why can’t we ever look at reality? I’m interested in the kind of work that lets us look at reality and enjoy; that lets us laugh at what I think is the funniest material there is, which is real life. I like to think of Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor. They were so funny and so engaging precisely because they used real life and they were unafraid to look at the reality around them, which wasn’t necessarily all sunshine and “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Osmonds.” It really was a lot more talking about, in Richard Pryor’s case, race relations. Or talking about, in Lily Tomlin’s case, women’s rights. They were activists through their art who people absolutely adored. I’m really interested in trying to create that.
How do you hone in on your characters, seeing as they’re so varied and multi-dimensional?
The process for me is pretty simple in many respects. I’m not a trained actor, [but] I’m self-taught in the way that I think all of us are. If you’ve ever called in sick to work, hung up and thought, “Wow! That was Oscar-worthy!” That’s the same kind of thing I try to do. When I was going to school there was an Indian woman who helped me model some of my current characters. (breaks out into perfect Indian accent) So, I love to explore all the different accents, explore the cultural traits or characteristics that make up who we all are as individuals. I think accuracy is the starting point from which anyone has to approach their work. Then you can make sure that not only your work will be of a high quality and will really resonate with people, but also that you won’t have to think, “Ohhh, am I gonna offend someone? You know, I’m a black woman, what am I doing portraying a Russian Jewish man?” Well, I’m confident that if I do that portrayal, people who are paying attention will not only be moved, I hope, but will see the care and attention and respect that I have put into creating [it].
It’s important to point out your embracing of hip hop and its culture, even though you see areas where it fails to properly depict women. Do you feel attitudes are changing?
I’m a hip hop head. Growing up at the time when hip hop was beginning taking shape and to have the earliest signs of the influence it would eventually have, it was incredible. This was an art form that grew up out of the creative ingenuity of young people who had very little to work with, specifically because of some of the political realities of the day, Reaganomics – the totally underfunded school that didn’t give them access to art classes and after-school music classes. Well, hey, if you’re not gonna make sure we get a decent education like the kids in the suburbs, then we’ll get out our own turntables and a microphone. We’ll get some cardboard if we don’t have dance classes and we’ll create our own movement. To me, that is the kind of thing America should be proudest of. It was flourishing in spite of a mainstream media that sought to downplay it and ridicule it at every turn. MTV at the time refused to play black artists at all except for Michael Jackson and Prince, and was open about that. To me, hip hop is intrinsically about a kind of political movement. The sad part is that people figured out they could make literally billions of dollars off of it [and] get to have the added convenient bonus of sort of criminalizing a whole group of people: mostly young, urban people of color. [They are] making it look like hip hop culture in its entirety is all about materialism and misogyny and drugs and crime. Now, that’s pretty convenient, isn’t it? But, I think there are a lot of people in the underground scene who are making it happen, finding their way to progressive radio, like Talib Kweli, Bahamadia, Dead Prez. I was lucky enough to do it. Increasingly, more voices will begin to emerge that poke holes in what I would call “hip pop,” which is, again, the folks who are sitting up in board rooms who are mostly not like you and me: really wealthy, white businessmen that are making the decisions that lead you then to have the only image of hip hop be some woman gyrating in a thong while a guy sprays her with champagne. You really wanna find who are the real blingers, I promise you Rolex does not stay in business because of rappers. There are plenty of other materialists in the world. But the only ones you see paraded out on TV to create this negative image of a whole culture of people are rappers. I think we need to begin to say, “Wait a minute. If we’re gonna talk about misogyny, let’s talk about the White House. Let’s talk about the abortion gag rule or the idea that Roe v. Wade might be pushed back. That’s the kind of misogyny we really need to be paying attention to, as well as taking these large corporations to task for only signing misogynist rappers.