ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: THE SPIRITRIALS OF DAHLAK
POSTED AUG. 23RD, 2017 | BY TONI POSTELL
Dahlak is a multi-faceted hip-hop artist that maximizes his abilities as musician, actor, poet, and educator within the transformational space of the theatre. Since launching into the national spoken word scene by winning the Brave New Voices international poetry slam (as now seen on HBO), Dahlak has been featured on media outlets such as Upworthy, 2DopeBoyz, and Pitchfork. He has appeared on the Tavis Smiley Radio show, various NPR member stations, and the last two seasons of HBO’s Russell Simmons’ presents Def Poetry Jam.
Dahlak has worked closely with Broadway veteran and Rockefeller fellow, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, pioneering the emerging genre of “hip-hop theater”. Dahlak has written and performed in several of Joseph’s critically acclaimed plays, including Word Becomes Flesh – produced at The Public Theater and The Lincoln Center. As a member of the artist collective iLL-Literacy, Dahlak has showcased his seamless blend of hip-hop, theatre, and spoken word at over 200 colleges and universities throughout the United States and Europe.
From 2007 to 2012, Dahlak has released five musical projects, which includes the album Spiritrials that served as a soundtrack to his solo play. In 2014, Dahlak was selected as a musician for a U.S. State Department International Exchange Fellowship called 1Beat. Through this fellowship, Dahlak was invited to the White House for the SXSL event in 2016 - a meeting of innovators in the arts, sciences and technology – championed and hosted by President Barack Obama.
Spiritrials, the solo play written, performed and scored by Dahlak, is currently on tour. The play was commissioned by several theaters around the U.S. and given support through the Columbia and Zellerbach Foundations, as well as the National Performance Network. Since the premiere in 2015, Spiritrials has been performed at 11 cities around the country, including two notable presentations at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C.
Currently, Dahlak is collaborating with director Roberta Uno in order to adapt Spiritrials into an ensemble musical. Development of the work has been supported by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is being supported by California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) through a series of residencies.
Dahlak earned his B.A. degree from the University of California, Davis, where he studied English and Dramatic Studies.
TONI POSTELL: What inspired you to become a writer? From iLL-Literacy to now?
DAHLAK: I've been drawn to writing stories since I was 6 years old. I remember writing stories on my Dad's typewriter and he would always encourage it. I think what really pushed me towards writing was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was about 11 or 12 years old. At the same time, my brother was introducing me to hip-hop - not just the music that was played on the radio but the true culture and traditions they sprung from. I think the combination of admiring the way that Malcolm X was a voice of truth to so many people back then and the way that 2Pac, for instance, was speaking for my generation at the moment, challenged me to see if I could use the word to be a powerful force as well.
Who is your inspiration?
From earliest to latest inspirations: Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, 2Pac, Biggie, Ras Kass, Jay-Z, Nas, Andre 3000, The O'Jays, The Temptations, Lauryn Hill, Denzel Washington, Little Brother, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Chris Rock, Kanye West, Marvin Gaye, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Anna Deveare Smith, George Bernard Shaw, Aaron McGruder, Tony Kushner, Suzan Lori Parks, Karl Marx, Lupe Fiasco, Common, Christopher Nolan, Fela Kuti, Charlie Kaufman, Kat Williams, Dave Chapelle, Drake, Barack Obama, Quentin Tarantino, Kendrick Lamar, Woody Allen, Marc Maron, Kurt Vonnegut, Banks, Donald Glover
Tell me the background of how you started Spiritrials from the album in 2012 to now the recent theatrical performance.
I actually started both in the fall of 2010 during an artist residency in upstate New York at Ithaca College. The idea was always to create a play along with the soundtrack for it. I wrote about 50 pages and made 8 or 9 songs during my 6 week residency. I then put the writing of the play to the side while I focused on the soundtrack. Also, during that time, I got other partners involved in the project who would eventually help me produce the play. I released the album at the end of 2012 and then I premiered the play in the beginning of 2015. This is something I never really seen anyone else do so I really had no guidepost to follow. I spent those 4 and a half years of creating, producing, promoting, and presenting just making up the rules as I went along. The play has been touring for about 2 and a half years now and I'm really proud of it. It's opened a lot of doors for me.
What is your overall goal you want your fans to see in your work with Spiritrials?
I want the people who follow me and believe in me to see and feel that the work I'm creating is being crafted with care and grand vision. I spent a lot of time creating a world with this project and I just hope that people who come across the work really feel that and also take the time get as much from it as I've put into it. In a climate where quantity of production is demanded, I'm not really rewarded for taking my time with a single idea. But as an artist, I recognize that the ability to take my time, to focus, to craft, and take a vision to its maximum potential is one of my strengths. I want to inspire people to feel like that's okay - that it's more than okay actually: that it's worth it!
With albums like Kendrick's DAMN to Jay-Z's 4:44, how would you define "Black Male Ego"?
Personally, I think there is a lot of pressures on the male ego, in general. I've become a certain person and projected a sort of persona because I felt I had to live up to societal ideas of what a man is suppose to be. I still do it. Those albums really highlight the extra pressures that are put on Black males, and the increased vulnerability that results when it's confronted by characters such as Jay-Z, who usually personify the bravado, detachment, and resilience that is expected of Black males.
What is one of your favorite projects you have done?
Spiritrials was really the first time that I maximized my artistic potential so it's still my favorite at this point. I'm more than just a rapper or just a poet or just an actor and the world of Spiritrials is the first (of many, I hope) to exemplify that.
Who is your favorite artist?
Kanye West still holds the mantle for me. Late Registration really changed my life and still shocks me how good it sounds even today. I really admire the way he has taken big risks as an artist, evolving but still capable of retaining an essence and quality throughout all his music. His mental health has been concerning lately and his materialism seems to have engulfed his soul but still, I have hope for him. My experience tells me don't count out Mr. West.
How do you feel about the current events that are occurring in politics?
I have been feeling depressed lately. It feels like what I have been fighting for through my art has been in vein and that it's not enough. The election and presidency of Barack Obama made me feel in tune with my generation. The election of Trump, the uprising of White nationalists movements, the country's blatant disregard for Black life in order to refute responsibility makes me feel disconnected. At these moments, I have to remind myself that what I do, at the most basic level, is to energize the people fighting the good fight against ignorance and greed. I could see it as preaching to the choir but instead, I have to believe that I'm giving the choir the strength to sing to the congregation giving them the reason to be a light in this world. At these times, I got to humble myself and know that the best I can do is enough.
What advice would you give to the new generation of artists?
Be specific about your goals. Define success for yourself. Dream specifically and dream big. Make sure what you're doing is for you. Make sure you have protocol for feeding your soul and as you work to feed your stomach and always go back to the former when the latter is no longer enough.