Written by: Tiisetso Tlelima
Watching 28-year-old wordsmith Ewok a.k.a Creamy Ewok Baggends kick ass on stage with his compelling poetry and conscious hip-hop it’s hard to imagine when he was a child all he wanted to be was a Disney Animator or a US Marine. Sure he was verbose and artistically-inclined, but he was also a loud, hyperactive, adventurous and naughty little boy whose head was filled with Disneyland fantasies and tales of superheroes. But when he got to Grade four life took a different turn when he appeared on stage for the first time: he developed a passion for performing arts. Since then he’s performed impeccable theatre shows across the country, released a hip-hop album and wrote a book. He’s not only a hip-hop artist, but is also an actor, a graffiti artist, a writer, a poet and an activist. He is highly respected for his renowned hip-hop theatre show SPITFIRE which, fortunately for fans, returns to the National Arts Festival for a second run this year! We caught up with Ewok to chat more about SPITFIRE, hip-hop theatre, his upbringing, being the ‘white boy’ in hip-hop and more.
Watch him live on the SPITFIRE video promo below or continue reading the interview.
SPITFIRE is returning for a second run at the National Arts Festival this year. Wow! People must really love the show! What is it about and what are you hoping to achieve with the piece?
Initially my close friend and director Libby and I, were building on discoveries made through the first show we created together One Mind, One Mouth, One Mic in 2006. We were expanding those ideas and refining that performance. Now I think, as my ideologies have grown and shifted, the show is more about trying to kick start in other people the quest for self-worth. As I grow more confident with the show and its performance I also give myself more room to really focus on the message which I believe to be simply “I have value, I am worth more, I am not just a cog in a machine, my eyes are open and my voice can be heard.”
So is this the underlying message for all your work?
My work is about finding balance in all things. On one side it’s about a personal mission to make sense of society and humanity’s madness, for myself, and on the other side it’s about either communicating my discoveries to people on a similar mission or introducing them to the quest. Hip-hop philosophy says “From Knowledge comes Wisdom comes Understanding” and I’m trying to live that equation through my work.
SPITFIRE combines elements of hip-hop and theatre to create something that has been termed hip-hop theatre. What is hip-hop theatre exactly?
Hip-hop theatre describes a type of performance that shares similarities with hip-hop culture. For example, hip-hop is a street culture born from a disenfranchised poor people and this translates into a type of minimalist theatre with little to no special effects or advanced technical staging: a more simplified or bare performance that relies heavily on the body and voice. Another example would be the social consciousness and awareness that true hip-hop culture champions and how this can be discovered in the content and language of hip-hop theatre. There is also the ego of hip-hop culture – the take-it-or-leave it confidence that comes from a culture designed to promote individuality and self-worth through self-knowledge – and this is evident in the performance of hip-hop theatre.
When I first saw you perform, my friend and I were blown away. But we kept wondering what kind of upbringing you had because it’s not often that we see white South Africans doing hip-hop let alone conscious hip-hop. Do you often get this kind of reaction from people? How does this make you feel?
I used to get quite defensive about it when I was younger. In all honesty, it would be stupid of me not to expect that kind of reaction to me and my work. The truth is that people who judge me based on that kind of criteria don’t really know much about hip-hop culture and so it has become easier to deal with that level of misunderstanding. I have learned to see it as an avenue through which to educate. It actually works to my advantage in terms of getting people’s attention. It also stands as testament to my upbringing by two open minded and unprejudiced individuals who taught me and my sister to think first before we moved, make our own discoveries and follow our own paths without being manipulated by social segregation.
Cool, so tell us about your upbringing. Where did you grow up?
I was born in the Eastern Cape into a family of educators. My father is a lecturer in Jazz and Music Education, and my mother, after years of being a house wife and then a hairdresser, studied teaching and started her own pre-primary school. My father is an American and my mother is a Kenyan. They met in Nairobi, married and moved to South Africa and then we moved to the States for a few years when we were kids. We came back in ‘89 as South Africa was starting its initial steps towards freedom from oppression and have never left since.
Where you born into a family of writers?
There are no professional writers in my family but my grandmother on my dad’s side was a prolific letter writer. My parents and my grandparents all promoted the arts and literature in our lives. We didn’t have a TV so we learned to read very quickly and spent a lot of time outdoors. Entertainment came in the form of music, especially musical theatre. My parents had an incredible Vinyl collection - plenty of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice. That is probably where I first engaged with the concept of lyricism in song writing.
No TV? Really? What were you reading or listening to at the time?
Musical theatre (Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Super Star etc.), Jazz, Classical, Paul Simon are a few genres I recall. I read pretty much whatever would hold my attention. I learnt to read with comics like Asterix, Tintin and all the usual superhero and science fiction type adventure stories.
Speaking about books, tell us about your book “Word: Customized Hype”.
“Word: Customized Hype” was published in 2007 in response to people’s constant requests for written versions of the work I was performing, and also to satisfy the shared mission of the publisher, Jim Phelps, and myself. We want to reintroduce the book back into popular youth culture. We want more kids to be reading, to counter the negative effects of the media that are consistently advanced in the digital realm.
You’re also a budding hip-hop muso, amongst other things. Tell us about your debut album, Higher Flyer For Hire. How did that come about?
I want to be a recording artist as well as a performance artist and this takes time and practice, just like anything else. The album was my way of creating a blueprint for future work, of setting a standard for me that I could develop from. The album is really about beats and lyrics, there is no solid theme or story that it follows other than the idea of the independent “hustle”, the do-for-yourself work ethic that is defined by hip-hop artists around the world.
In another interview you were quoted saying you can perform anything from Shakespeare to hardcore hip-hop. I can’t imagine you doing a Shakespearean play! What is the connection between hip-hop and Shakespeare, if there is any?
Funny thing is there are people who know me ONLY for my acting Shakespeare. I have had the privilege of playing some of his greatest parts (Hamlet in 2008 and Iago from “Othello” in 2009). All in all I have performed in 5 of his works. I don’t think there is any direct connection, but I’m sure we could spin one! I always joke that he was the original “white rapper” because of his use of rhyme. The only similarity I can think of would probably be the use of language and lyricism to effectively communicate human themes and stories, the same way hip-hop music articulates the lives and lifestyles of its practitioners.
I hear graffiti writing is your first love. Can you remember the first time you tagged a wall?
The first time I ever tagged I sprayed BONE around Empangeni, my home town. It was a character from a book called “Rule of the Bone” that my father bought me and that became kind of a milestone in my life. I was in Grade 9, skateboarding and listening to punk and metal. An older friend introduced me to Graffiti Art.
How did hip-hop come about?
Graffiti Art introduced me to Rap and Rap introduced me to real hip-hop culture. By the time I left junior high school I was rhyming along to Rap the way other people sing to their favourite songs. By the time I got to varsity I was writing my own verses.
Ewok will be performing SPITFIRE at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown between 2 to 11 July. Check out the festival programme on www.nationalartsfestival.co.za for exact times.