LIVE DC: Black Girls Rock presents ROCK Like a Girl @ Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage
Marcus Dowling | Apr 7, 2014 | 2:00PM |

“Women are the vertebrae of life.” – Black Girls Rock mentee at Saturday night’s ROCK Like a Girl event 

Saturday evening’s music-as-empowerment organization Black Girls Rock-sponsored ROCK Like at Girl event at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage was one of those happy hip-hop moments wherein – as dark as the present may seem – having a glimpse of the past and future makes dealing with an unfortunate and difficult reality okay for just a few hours.

Hip-hop culture and progressive feminism have an intriguing (yet likely unintended) link in their lineage. Though not passed into law, the Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress in 1972. The groundbreaking law’s goal was to provide “Equality of rights under the law,” with those rights “not [being] denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Just one year later, in the Bronx, New York, DJ Kool Herc DJed a back-to-school party with his sister Cindy as the promoter. At this woman-promoted event, Herc extended the instrumental breaks of records like James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” and hip-hop culture was born.

Forty years later to be seated a mere three miles from the U.S. Capitol building at the Kennedy Center as one-time New York City based DJ/model and now Black Girls Rock CEO Beverly Bond DJ’ed a hip-hop based event, it felt like a synergy had been achieved. Progress and success now define both the aims of women and hip-hop as tools by which to create positive cultural progression in society had been reached. These are now the spaces for inspiration and celebration to occur.

MC Lyte and DJ Beverly Bond at Rock Like a Girl - April 5, 2014. Photo - Jati Lindsay

MC Lyte and DJ Beverly Bond at Rock Like a Girl in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on April 5, 2014. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

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Friday 02/24
Paul Zerdin WINNER of Americas Got Talent Live at Arlington Drafthouse @ Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse
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“Technically immaculate, it’s what he does with his slick talent that really sets him apart. His relationship with the characters has all the dramatic tension of a real life double act” – The Guardian Paul Zerdin has helped make ventriloquism cool again. From the Royal Variety Performance to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, to India’s comedy circuit, Montreal’s Just For Laughs and UK tours with his Sponge Fest show and forthcoming Puppet Master tour. Paul’s fresh twist on this traditional comedy art has impressed everyone from Her Majesty the Queen onwards. “It is Zerdin’s sharp script that is the heartbeat of the show” – The Times Crucially, Paul Zerdin appeals to both comedy club and mainstream audiences in equal measure. The UK’s number one ventriloquist’s career has included appearances on everything from the Royal Variety Performance, Paramount and Comedy Central’s, The World Stands Up to ITV Daybreak, BBC TV’s The One Show, Sky News and Jason Manford’s Comedy Rocks. **** "Pure audience gratifying magic” – Time Out With Paul’s winning combination of technical skill, hilarious ventriloquism, charm and impeccable comic timing, Paul Zerdin’s live shows see him bring to life several very different characters amongst whom are the cheeky pre-adolescent Sam, belligerent OAP Albert and precocious infant Baby and in 2012 on his Puppet Master live tour, Paul will be introducing a new character! “I see myself as a one man Muppet sitcom, reining the characters in” commented Zerdin. “The old man has a thing for the ladies and so does Sam who is about to become a teen and knows naughty words. Between the two of them they lead the baby astray and the baby, of course, wants to know everything. I think it is important to have characters that people can relate to rather than, say, talking sheep which are less believable”. Simply put, Zerdin is the man who can make ventriloquism look cool” – The Stage Zerdin, who got the ‘biggest laugh of the night’ at the Royal Variety Performance in 2009, according to audience members, also went on to get 5 star reviews at that year’s Edinburgh Festival. Paul returned to Edinburgh to sold-out houses in 2010 and made his debut at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival that year before embarking on a major UK tour with Sponge Fest in 2010/2011. That Paul Zerdin should make his career in show business is not entirely unexpected “my mother was a BBC Radio 2 presenter and my father worked for the BBC World Service, so my sister and I spent a lot of time in the studios”, he reveals. When Paul was 10, a family friend made him a puppet theatre which he used to put on shows. As he is the first to admit, his hobby quickly grew into an obsession. “The real turning point was when I was given a book on ventriloquism by the legendary Ray Alan. By the time I hit my teens I was spending half an hour a day in front of the mirror practising talking without moving my lips.” Having failed his GCSE’s in spectacular style, Zerdin got a job in a magic shop, developing his magic skills along the way. Simultaneously, he was also developing a sideline as a children’s entertainer. “Compared to my friends and their measly paper rounds, I was raking it in!” he laughs. Zerdin made his TV debut as a magician on the BBC’s Tricky Business and shortly afterwards, at the age of just 20, landed a two year contract presenting the Disney produced kids’ programme Rise and Shine for GMTV. In 1996, Paul was the first outright winner – by over 100,000 votes of LWT’s The Big Big Talent Show, hosted by Jonathan Ross. The experience not only raised his profile, but introduced him to Nigel Lythgoe, the man who would go on to create reality shows such as Popstars and American Idol. Lythgoe took the 22 year old Paul under his wing, paving the way for appearances on scores of shows, Tonight at the London Palladium, and Generation Game among them. It was Nigel who gave Paul his first brush with Royalty when he secured him a spot on the Prince’s Trust Gala Show in 1997. “That was a totally surreal experience”, he laughs. “I was sharing a dressing room with Julian Clary, Alan Davies and Frank Bruno with The Spice Girls next door”. By the late nineties it was obvious that traditional variety shows were losing their appeal and it was then that Zerdin decided to introduce stand-up into his routine, a decision that has paid off handsomely. From Ray Alan through to Keith Harris, ventriloquists have been a staple of UK entertainment for years, but it has taken Paul Zerdin to bring his mix of stand-up and ventriloquism to the forefront of contemporary entertainment to truly put ventriloquism on the comedy map.
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From hip-hop being in the blood of a teenage Jamaican immigrant to being a significant creative force behind four American female emcees, an all-female go-go band, an Israeli violinist, a Chilean rapper and a model-turned-DJ is amazing (and only scratches the surface). We’re at a place in society though, where a rapid acceptance of globalism is rapidly replacing an understanding of racial and cultural differences in American society. Hip-hop may indeed be global, but it is inherently American, and inherently created in the cultural space where black people were once second-class American citizens. Thus, events like ROCK Like a Girl are doubly empowering. When New York-based (and fiercely independent) emcee Jean Grae’s can use the term “fuck” while throwing up a middle finger roughly fifteen minutes into the proceedings, and rap music being heard in a space meant for operas, plays and philharmonic orchestras, both black people and women can exhale and celebrate an arrival as first-class citizens in America.

It’s the acceptance of globalism and diversity of expression that needs to happen next for hip-hop that is at the core of the event’s ever so slight disconnect from a rabid crowd that was ready to party. Jamla Records-signed and top producer 9th Wonder-cosigned artist Rapsody’s butter-smooth flows were appreciated, but appeared to underwhelm. In a room filled with people wanting to exalt in praise of themselves and their culture, boisterous shouters like Jean Grae and special guests Nonchalant (DC-based heroine of 90s rap era one-hit wonder “5 O’Clock” fame) and throaty Grammy-nominated soul siren/rapper Maimouna Youssef (also DC based) shone. Rapsody’s gifted. At an event where the diversity of women in hip-hop culture is being celebrated, she should be there. But her style certainly did not fit what was the prevalent vibe.

Maimouna Youssef at Rock Like a Girl - April 5, 2014. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Maimouna Youssef performs at Rock Like a Girl in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on April 5, 2014. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Also notable was indie-beloved Chilean emcee Ana Tijoux representing for Latinos, who may be the least-remembered piece of the African-American, Carribean and Latino triumvirate that created hip-hop culture. Latinos are also on the cusp of being the most populous minority group in America, thus having a Latin emcee onstage at a Black Girls Rock event was wonderful. However, for as many Americans now are bi-lingual, the language barrier presented in hearing a Latina emcee is still tough terrain to traverse. Though her material is strong and flow is undeniable (by any ear, any where) we’re still at the cusp of what is a story that is merely at the beginning of the arc of the likely next evolution in hip-hop as a culture.

Now, let’s answer the question that you likely clicked on this article needing to know. Yes, Lauryn Hill performed, and yes, it was incredible. It’s an easy-to-argue point that Lauryn Hill is the grandmother of modern hip-hop culture. For as much as Beyonce and Rihanna are the twin mothers of the culture’s progression into pop music and mainstream notoriety, somewhere between belting Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and delivering bars of universal female empowerment on “That Thing,” Lauryn assumed a role that was started twenty years prior to her by Kool Herc’s sister Cindy. 20 years later, just like event host MC Lyte and Black Girls Rock founder Beverly Bond (and so many others), she’s a survivor not just of the music industry, but the women’s movement, too. Thus, in deciding to perform free jazz meets reggae arrangements of all of her popular songs, it’s time that we stop berating this woman in the media and give her a break. Just like every great progressive black woman from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, to Rosa Parks and Shirley Chisholm got tired, L. Boogie’s tired, too. We witnessed her musical relaxation.

Ms. Lauryn Hill at Rock Like a Girl - April 5, 2014. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Ms. Lauryn Hill performs at Rock Like a Girl in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on April 5, 2014. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Lauryn Hill’s performance aspired to be a unique expression of everything that proceeded and inspired hip-hop culture. Her set took hip-hop culture all the way back to Robert Johnson’s devil blues meandering through styles similar to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Lyn Collins and Bob Marley back to herself.  On Saturday night, Lauryn again jumped off the cliff and went a whole lot crazy. However, with what appears to be a tightening grip on a semblance of sanity, she made her classic songs not so much into something more, but something comfortable.

At a time when women in hip-hop are still dealing with issues of sexuality, perception and freedom, watching an ascendant and dominant group of female performers relax and be empowering made for a truly incredible night.

Miri Ben-Ari at Rock Like a Girl - April 5, 2014. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Miri Ben-Ari performs at Rock Like a Girl in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on April 5, 2014. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

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