EPISTOLARY EPIGRAPHS: Brooklyn-based rapper Dyalekt explores the misuse of language through theatrical hip-hop at Wabi Sabi Warehouse
The word “hypocrite” is etched onto wall of Wabi Sabi Warehouse, atypically bare considering this is supposed to be an art exhibit. A cursory glance around the warehouse reveals other words similarly imprinted across the interior. “Racism,” “bias” and eight other seemingly mundane words that proliferate newspapers, blogs, Facebook posts, and Youtube comments make up the display of “The Museum of Dead Words.” With the entrance of the tour guide come emcee, Dyalekt—a sharply dressed man with a markedly articulate flair about him—it becomes evident that this is no mere exhibit, but rather a linguistic eulogy for words that have died in our contemporary parlance.
Dyalekt is no stranger to the intricacies of language, having cut his teeth performing the roles of both rapper and actor at New York City’s The Nuyorican Poets Cafe and Hip Hop Theatre Festival in the early 2000s. His previous work in law firms found him at odds with civil injustices he witnessed, and his exodus led him to the performing arts. However, everything changed when he first worked with America Scores, a service learning program aimed at encouraging literacy and fitness in urban schoolchildren. From then on, Dyalekt sought to merge the roles of educator and entertainer. His debut album “Square Peg Syndrome” was written in 2009 as an accompaniment to a six-week curriculum about identity and literacy he developed to reach out to distressed youth.
“I found that people were able to create and able to learn based on a paradigm of the understanding they had of themselves and their abilities,” he elaborates. “So, if we can be construct through art with students, and break down what they thought of themselves, what they thought they could do, and what they knew they could do, then we could figure out what to do next. This is where I think that I can be helpful.”
Stemming from Dyalekt’s focus on education, his interest in descriptive linguistics piqued as the 2016 presidential elections approached. In his struggles to discuss race relations with others, conversations became heated and devolved into personal attacks. He discovered that the problem lies in numerous interpersonal definitions of terms like “racism” that may not align with his own understanding of the term.
“I talked to people who have a more personal definition of racism, which then means you have hate in your heart for another person,” he explains. “So, I realized it’s because we didn’t share the definition. The way that I grew up with the word ‘racism’ is that it’s about a system of enacting power through prejudice. Racism is mostly an impersonal thing, a money thing, or an oppression thing. Then when we’re trying to talk about stuff—whether about personal things or institutional things—we can’t have a good conversation.”
Whereas “racism” died of good intent in stripping objective meaning from the word, other words have died long ago from misuse. Dyalekt asserts that one such word, ‘hypocrite,’ has been meaningless since its inception. Latin terms “ad hominem” and “to quoque” date back to the 1500s in describing the fallacy of using hypocrisy as the basis for arguments.
“If you’re calling someone a hypocrite, you’re basically calling someone a dick,” Dyalekt summarizes. “The problem with a lot of these words is that they create a vaguery that makes someone a jerk without providing the context to actually have an understanding that is useful for anything. If I’m a hypocrite because I did something yesterday and did something different today, did I change my mind? Did I grow? Am I lying? Was I faking? There are so many of these different things that are worth exploring and getting to the point of what’s been said, and what we’re creating in this dialogue is completely lost. It becomes ‘you’re a jerk.'”
But this isn’t to imply Dyalekt avoids arguments. He maintains an important aspect of discourse is to argue in the hopes of reaching an understanding between conflicting viewpoints. However, the problem lies not with arguing itself but deep in the subtext.
“I think arguments are ways for us to suss out what our language means,” he elaborates. “But these conversations or arguments would just become fights. They would become arguments about semantics and move over into other destinations, and we wouldn’t know what we were talking about anymore. A lot of these words I found turn into fighting words. These words make it so that there’s no more conversation, there’s no more understanding, it just blanks people’s minds and it kind of feels like their amygdala pops, but textually.”
“The Museum of Dead Words” will stop in the Port City for two days en route to London’s Mozilla Festival at the end of October. Co-producer Kristen Crouch, who also performs the role of a mysterious, furtive character in the theatrical aspect of the exhibit, is eager to participate in the hopes of working with others toward a common cause on such a large scale.
“It’s for advocates of a healthy internet,” she describes. “There are speakers, installations, and presentations all working toward that cause, but our show is really exciting because they’ve not had anything like this before. We’re going to be set up in their largest speaker stage and we’ll be running shows throughout the entire festival.”
Funds from the performances will support free workshops in hip-hop-based education as well as finance courses for performing artists in each city in the tour. All of this is part of Dyalekt’s goal to teach and entertain in the same motion, returning to the communities that support him.
“My whole thing has always been to come into your town, and in the morning hang out with the kids in your school, in the evening go to your theatre and put on a play, and in the night-time party with you at the bar,” he offers. “Then we’ll move on to the next place and continue the cycle.”