Hip-hop Hamlet

2008-01-25 00:00

HIS given name is Iain Gregory Robinson, but if that gets you a blank stare, try Ewok, Creamy Ewok, or even Creamy Ewok Bag-gends. Then people in and around the KwaZulu-Natal theatre, literary, art and music scene will know exactly who you are talking about.

It all began in Standard 6. “I was a chunky dude with curly hair and glasses, and I still had an American accent [Ewok’s father is American and the family lived there for five years]. So I got nicknamed American Cream Puff — and used to hate it. Then we were mucking around in an English class, and the teacher said, ‘You look like an Ewok’. That led to Creamy Ewok.”

As a Star Wars fanatic, he didn’t mind the Ewok tag, and when in Standard 7 he moved schools from Northwood in Durban to Uthongathi and took up graffiti writing, he chose the name Ewok. Graffiti writers usually pick a name based on letters they like to draw and Ewok decided that from then on, that’s who he would be. The Creamy part came back when a couple of boys from Northwood joined him at Uthongathi a year later, but by then, Ewok was happy with it.

From graffiti writing, Ewok’s interest in hip-hop culture grew and while he was still at school, he started emceeing and rapping, and became MC Ewok, or Creamy Ewok Baggends. Baggends, explains Ewok, should really have been Baggins, from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but that could have led to copyright issues. “And Baggend has references to weed — the last little bit at the end of the bag; the best part of the bag coming through when you need it. But it can be any bag, anything.”

And it all means that Durban is about to see what must be the first Hamlet played by an actor called Ewok (or any of the rest of it) when Ewok takes the lead role in Think Theatre’s production of Hamlet, presented in association with the Playhouse Company. Clare Mortimer directs and there will be both schools and public performances from February 4 to March 7 at the Playhouse, and later in March at the Hilton College Theatre. It’s a huge role, and it is a sign that Ewok is taken seriously in acting circles. “Initially I was really excited, then daunted by it,” he says. He sees parallels in the gloomy Dane’s soliloquys with slam poetry. “It’s all about using performance to bring attention to the words,” he says.

Performing for inattentive, giggling school audiences — something many actors dread — doesn’t worry Ewok. He regularly performs slam poetry at schools. “I know what they’re like — I know what I was like — and I know how to handle a school audience. I’m more daunted by the public performances.”

Ask Ewok which is most important to him: his acting, his poetry — Echoing Green Press have already published a collection of his poems entitled Word: Customised Hype — his emceeing, or his involvement with hip-hop culture and there is no hesitation. “At least 50% of my life is hip-hop. It is my life. It informs everything from politics to the way you dress and talk. It’s about self-growth. It gives you a way to present yourself to the rest of the world.

“People think of rap and rap music and call that hip-hop, but it’s more. It’s a philosophy and a culture. Rap is something you do and hip-hop is something you live. It has four elements — graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and rapping or emceeing. That’s four different ways to express yourself. If you are physical, it’s breakdancing; if artistic, graffiti.”

For Ewok, rapping is how he can make a living, through performance. But he says that first and foremost he is a graffiti artist. He started off painting illegally, on walls and other surfaces. “But now, I’m like any artist, except that my medium is a can.” And his art gets serious recognition — at the KZNSA’s annual exhibition which opened at its gallery in Durban this week, Ewok has been given a wall for his graffiti.

But despite all the energy and activity, Ewok is a stay-at-home kind of guy. His favourite place is his home, surrounded by his own things. “If you know you have nothing to do for a while, you can just be there.” There are places he wants to see — Kenya, where his mother comes from, is high on the list, along with South America and New York. “But for work, not on holiday,” he says. “What I do is all there.

“But I’ll always live here, in Durban. There’s something cool about knowing you’re going to be here for-ever. I’m a guy who likes to know how something or some place works. In 15 years from now, I’ll really know this city.”

And in those rare moments when he has nothing to do, Ewok reads. He’s an avid Terry Pratchett fan, although he also has a more serious side, reading Noam Chomsky and everything on hip-hop culture he can get his hands on. He loves movies — war films, historical epics and animation. “An animated war film would be the best,” he says, although he also enjoys documentaries. Just as well, as his fiancée is a documentary film maker. And he has a couple of very unusual hobbies. He claims he loves tidying up, washing the dishes and cleaning his shoes, although when I sneak a look under the table, I’m not so sure. “Not these — I’ve been painting,” he says. Is he sending me up? Maybe, but somehow I don’t think so.

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