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Big Piph takes 'The Glow' to ACANSA

Inspired by Hasan Minhaj and Michael Jordan.

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FLEXING A DIFFERENT MUSCLE: Big Piph follows up 2017's "Celebrate" with a one-man stage show -- "The Glow." - TATJANA RING
  • Tatjana Ring
  • FLEXING A DIFFERENT MUSCLE: Big Piph follows up 2017's "Celebrate" with a one-man stage show -- "The Glow."

About 20 minutes into watching comedian Hasan Minhaj's Peabody Award-winning 2017 stand-up special "Homecoming King," Epiphany Morrow began to sweat. The feeling wasn't entirely unfamiliar; Morrow — a Stanford-educated emcee who's spent the last several years globetrotting to teach hip-hop fundamentals to students across the world — had experienced it when he'd seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton," for example. He'd felt something akin to it when Michael Jordan landed a jump shot in the sixth game of the 1998 NBA Finals with 5.2 seconds left in the game, securing a championship over the Utah Jazz by a single point. Morrow — better known by his stage name, "Big Piph" — channeled that good fear into a one-man show called "The Glow." It's both a departure from and a follow-up to the rapper's 2017 album "Celebrate," and it's built around those moments in which witnessing someone doing something incredible inspires an unshakable awe, perhaps even inspiring the observer to create something incredible in turn. "The Glow" premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub as part of the 2018 ACANSA Arts Festival. We talked with Piph ahead of the premiere.

Since we last caught up with you, you've spent some time in Winston-Salem [N.C.] and in Toronto with a group called Beats2Borders. You've talked about that experience on social media, referencing first-time emcees and how they grappled with their "fears, trash bars and other obstacles to pull off a pretty cool-like public performance." What do you do on a daily basis when you do these hip-hop workshops? What does the work look like?

The last one I did — Beats2Borders — is kind of a spinoff of the one I did in Myanmar, and what they did is they bring in a group of hip-hop artists. ... One amazing part of the program is that we work in underserved areas, with underserved youth, and we get to order up to a certain budget amount of equipment. So each time I was coming in with, like, a mobile studio in tow — the mikes, the computer, everything like that. We get our equipment, go to the spot, go to the location, survey it, kinda like break down our stations and so on and so forth. The very first day the students come, we do some intro material and then break 'em into different groups. My thing is — since I know a lot of them won't stick with hip hop — is to try to get them to take away, for use in schoolwork and life. So, I use the basic aspects of hip-hop — emcee, B-Boy/B-Girl, DJ and graffiti — and teach the students aspects of confidence, discipline, communication and creativity.

There was a student this particular time [in the Toronto program] from Vietnam. His name was Will, and he had only been here [in North America] for two, three months. ... And he was just, like, ridiculously intelligent with math. Once he understood the counts and stuff like that, he asked what he could write about. I asked him what he cared about, and he said, "Magic: The Gathering." So I was like, "You can write about that."

Also very logic-based.

Exactly. It didn't even cross his mind that that was something he could write about. So here's this kid, 11 years old, riding his bike to class every day. Rapping wasn't even his first choice [of study]. By the end of the class, I asked him, "Hey, would you like to perform your song?" He memorized it in about 20 minutes, and when it was time for him to perform — keep in mind: big stage, about 100 people out there and whatnot — he came up more fearless than the other kids. Came up, did his rap, did his little punch to the sky. Killed it. Same dude who wouldn't look me in the eye and was scared to talk at first. And now he's rapping about "Magic: The Gathering" in front of 100-plus people.

How do you approach this work differently when you're working abroad and there's a language barrier? Like, how do you coach students in Myanmar about counts and bars when the language they're rapping in has a rhythm that's totally different from English?

Sometimes I have a translator. And you have the lyrics, but you also have cadence, form, flow, breathing, performance, delivery. All of that stuff has nothing to do with understanding the words. The only thing I don't get is what you're actually saying. But I can tell when your flow is sloppy. It's very much a pocket. You're one with the beat. Regardless of whether you're speaking English or not, you can tell and I can tell when it's not working.

Let's talk about "The Glow." Can you talk a little about the title and the tagline: "The Hopes and Ambitions of a Rhymer?"

"The Glow" as I define it — and I define it at the beginning of the show, it's on the screen for everybody to see — is "an occurrence by an entity that changes those who absorb and accept it." So, it's normally [done] by celebrities. I go through one that's Michael Jordan's game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz. Forever changed my life. And I talk about these moments and how I absorb them, how they created me, and how I wanna create one of those moments to actually change the world. Within, there are stories and montages that lead this character — this person who thinks he understands it — to his end goal.

The way it started was: After I finish a project, I ask myself, "If you could do anything next, what would it be?" Normally the answer has been: an album. An album app. This time, it was way different. Like, I had no desire to create another album. I had a desire to create more scripted content — serial scripted content. ... I kept hearing about a stand-up special by Hasan Minhaj, who was a correspondent on "The Daily Show." But when I saw it, it wasn't a stand-up comedy show. It was really a one-man show. It wasn't like "mike here, stand here," it was really him talking about his heritage and his culture. And about 20 minutes in, I started sweating at the palms, because I saw what that would be for myself. It sounds weird, but I, like, get scared — scared when I see somebody do something that I don't understand how they did it, but I'm inspired to do it. Sat up for a long time, wrestling with my thoughts, whatever. Woke up the next morning with the same thoughts running through my head.

I have these little tests to make sure I'm not trippin', and one of them is to contact certain people to see if they get it. So I shot it to Corey Harris, who's my bassist and MD [musical director] and he was like, "I get it. I'm down. When are we gonna do this?"

Second test is: If I can't shake it in a week's time, then I gotta make it. Or if I can't find it anywhere else in the world. If someone else has done it and it's better, it's like, "Ah, cool. You did that." But if I can see my version and it doesn't exist, I can't shake it and I have to do it.

Because you're a person who thinks a lot about technology across mediums, and because your work is so geared to the idea of breaking out of boxes that keep us from communicating openly and honestly: What do you think is the best possible scenario that could happen with technology over the next, say, 50 years?

Interacting with diverse crowds. Right? With social media, you gravitate to what you're used to. It's just like real life. Social media seems huge, but still, we just communicate in our own boxes, more so than asking, "How can I engage more in that community?"

Another one for me is to be open to have your opinions challenged, and even more importantly, to act on that if you feel you were in the wrong. Most of the time what I see on social media is "I got my opinion; you got yours. 'Mortal Kombat.' " Very rarely is it that someone — and I'm including myself — says, "Man, that was a good point. Let me think about it and respond." That's problematic. That's not a battle. That's just two monologues.

Past, that is: actually acting on it. Make a post to your friends saying, "I learned this was wrong. Does anybody have any book recs on this? Anybody wanna converse further?" People may try to belittle it, but that's an act. That's communication.

See the full ACANSA festival schedule at acansa.org, and find more of Big Piph's hip-hop chronicles at bigpiph.com.

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