Hip Hop Artist John Berkavitch (@berkavitch) Talks ‘Shame’ With I Am Hip Hop

‘Shame’ is a new work of spoken word hip hop theatre by John Berkavitch who is joined by some of the country’s most innov­at­ive break-dan­cers as he explores the feel­ing of shame through a com­bin­a­tion of nar­rat­ive spoken-word, hip-hop and con­tem­por­ary dance, illus­tra­tion, anim­a­tion and music. ‘Shame’ opens at the Round­house from 8th May, we catch up with John Berkavitch to find out more!

Q. How did you start as a spoken word artist?

I star­ted rap­ping when I was about 12 years old after dis­cov­er­ing hiphop through steal­ing tapes out of my older brother’s ste­reo. By the time I was 19 I was going to a lot of open mic nights and jump­ing into cyphers where ever I could, but always felt like it wasn’t quite right for the kind of lyr­ics I was writ­ing.

A friend of mine got hold of a VHS copy of a film called “SLAM” by Saul Wil­li­ams and after see­ing it I real­ised that I should be doing Slam Poetry.

The first time I per­formed at a poetry night I just spat some rap bars accapella and a woman came up to me after ask­ing if I had a book of my poetry for sale. At the time I didn’t even really read books so it blew me away that someone thought I might have writ­ten one.

Anoth­er guy came up and imme­di­ately booked me for a gig at anoth­er poetry night and it all star­ted from there.

Q. Storytelling through spoken word was a way to give a voice to the voice­less through art. Was there a par­tic­u­lar issue that made you want to be that voice?

It wasn’t really a par­tic­u­lar issue that star­ted it but I’ve always loved and enjoyed telling stor­ies so it felt like the right thing for me to be doing.

Q. Poetry is a huge part of the Hip Hop cul­ture, and over the years this has been lost in main­stream Hip Hop. How import­ant do you feel it is for Hip Hop artists to engage their listen­ers with thought pro­vok­ing con­tent and lyr­ics? 

I think con­tent is the most import­ant thing in lyr­ics. The hiphop that I relate to has always been primar­ily focused on lyr­ic­al con­tent. For me the idea of “keep­ing it real”, as in telling your story/opinion, is what makes hiphop import­ant. Find­ing things that I can identi­fy with­in the lyr­ics of rap­pers whose lives and upbring­ings are vastly dif­fer­ent to my own has always made me appre­ci­ate how sim­il­ar we humans all are.

Q. As well as spoken word, you also break­dance. Which came first? And how have you used dance as a means of expres­sion?

I star­ted out as a Graf­fiti artist. Then I star­ted rap­ping and beat­box­ing, and then moved into break­ing a few years later. For me all the ele­ments are linked. I heard a story that said the first bboys were graf­fiti writers who were try­ing to make their let­ter shapes with their bod­ies on the dance floor and it made com­plete sense. Your foot­work is your tag and you’ve got to get it up as much as you can.

Com­ing from the graf­fiti eth­os I’ve always been quick to jump into a cypher or throw down in a circle and essen­tially it’s all bomb­ing.

Q. You have worked in edu­ca­tion; tell us a bit about your work with young people? How import­ant is it for us to under­stand the mind and views of young people in today’s soci­ety?

Again one of the early ideas of how I under­stood hiphop was the “each one teach one” philo­sophy. Work­ing as a poet in edu­ca­tion means you have the chance to help future gen­er­a­tions find their voice and express opin­ions and tell their stor­ies in a way that’s rel­ev­ant and relat­able to them. A lot of young people have a pre­con­ceived idea of what a poem is and how that dif­fers from what rap­ping is without see­ing how the two things are essen­tially the same.

I think the main dif­fer­ence is that a cer­tain part of soci­ety (espe­cially some of the older gen­er­a­tion), are much more will­ing to listen to some­thing described as a poem than they are to listen to someone rap.

I think spoken word gives these kids a chance to be heard by people that wouldn’t be reached through rap.

Q. You have per­formed at a num­ber of pres­ti­gi­ous ven­ues which we can ima­gine also means dif­fer­ent audi­ences. Has this lead to dif­fer­ent reac­tions to your per­form­ances?

I think I’ve prob­ably had pretty much every reac­tion to my per­form­ance. Gen­er­ally my favour­ite reac­tion is when I have someone who I’d prob­ably nev­er have had a con­ver­sa­tion with tell me that it made them think about some­thing they’ve nev­er con­sidered.

Q. Tell us a bit about your pro­duc­tion ‘Shame’?  How did the idea devel­op and evolve into what it is today? 

So, the idea was born out of me try­ing to come up with a list of all the worst things I’d ever done. It was quite a long list.

There were a few things on the list that I’d told a lot of people about and quite a lot of things that I was either proud of or def­in­itely didn’t regret. And then there were a few things that I thought I could nev­er tell any­one about. Some of them weren’t neces­sar­ily things that oth­er people would see as that “bad” but I’d still nev­er told any­one about them and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to turn them into poems as I wouldn’t feel com­fort­able con­front­ing the shame attached.

How­ever the more I thought about my list the more it became obvi­ous that these were the import­ant things to talk about. Not just the things them­selves but the feel­ing attached. The shame.

I figured that every­one must have these secrets. Things that still haunt them years after the event. Things that they can remem­ber in expli­cit detail that have been bur­ied deep down with no hope for redemp­tion. I real­ised that by cre­at­ing a piece based on this I could poten­tially take all these moments of shame and trans­fer them into some­thing I could be proud of.

The idea to rep­res­ent the story through hiphop theatre was the nat­ur­al next step and through dis­cus­sion and col­lab­or­a­tion with some incred­ibly tal­en­ted people I’ve man­aged to reach the point of real­ising this idea.

Shame Roundhouse I am hip hop magazine

Q. Hip Hop theatre is a power­ful way to con­vey a mes­sage, what do you want the audi­ence to take away from the pro­duc­tion?

I want the audi­ence to feel like they were part of some­thing rather than they were watch­ing some­thing. I want them to con­sider their own lives in the same way that hiphop made me con­sider my life. The audio/visual lan­guage of hiphop is a truly uni­ver­sal one that has seeped into every aspect of mod­ern life and I feel that it is the per­fect tool for mak­ing ser­i­ous works of theatre. I’d like to hope that this show helps bring hiphop heads into the idea that theatre is a place they could express them­selves whilst mak­ing reg­u­lar theatre­go­ers see hiphop and its ele­ments as ser­i­ous and power­ful tools for mak­ing works of art.

Q. What oth­er pro­jects have you got com­ing up?

A com­ic, a few col­lab­or­at­ive anim­a­tion pro­jects and an even­tu­al plan to take over the world. Check Berkavitch.com for more info or to get involved.


Catch ‘Shame’ at the Round­house from 8th May — 10th May! For fur­ther inform­a­tion and tick­ets vis­it: http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/spoken-word-theatre-and-storytelling/shame/ 

Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhali­w­al

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Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rishma Dhali­w­al has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal
Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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