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Prophets of Doom and Hope

Midnight Voices
Midnight's Children: The members of Midnight Voices mix theater, hip-hop and dance to great effect in a new production titled "2017--Cure/No Cure."

Midnight Voices mix rap, theater and sci-fi to take on the AIDS epidemic

By Zack Stentz

Rap music, in Chuck D's words, may indeed be Black America's CNN, but Mohammed Bilal and Will Power are busy turning the form into a sample- and beat-heavy version of PBS, A&E and the Sci-Fi Channel as well.

Defying musical stereotypes and self-imposed genre boundaries alike, the two native San Franciscans, core members of the hip-hop music/theater group Midnight Voices, have blended rap, theater and science fiction into a theatrical piece about the AIDS epidemic titled 2017--Cure/No Cure. "We started this about two years ago, when Will and I were seeing statistics that showed three out of five new cases of AIDS were African Americans, and that AIDS was outpacing homicide as the leading killer of young African Americans," Bilal says of the genesis for the piece, which features five musicians and five actors playing a wide variety of roles.

Explaining the concept behind 2017, Power elaborates: "We look at different possibilities for the future. Half of it is set in the present, and half in 2017, where we see different views of what the future might bring.

"And one scenario is that there is a treatment," he adds, "but it's so expensive that only rich people can afford it. And they have segregated prisons for people with AIDS, where they receive treatment but have to work in prison sweatshops. So you have people who are infected actually committing crimes so they can go to prison and get treatment."

Actually, it sounds more like the bleak reality of 1997. Where does the science-fiction part come in? "Yeah, it's not far from the truth," Bilal laughs. "What we've done is to take things we see happening now and just turn them up some."

This sort of imaginative extrapolation from the present has long been a staple of written science fiction (and Power and Bilal cite author Octavia Butler as an influence), but still a relative rarity in rap music, as is incorporating the music into a narrative, theatrically coherent stage show. "There's always been a strong theatrical element in hip-hop, especially in the early days," Power says. "And we've just taken it to the next level, by working the music into a play."

Bilal, too, plays down the notion that Midnight Voices has somehow invented the distinctive blend of rap and theater they perform. "Hip-hop is the culture," he explains, "and rap is one form of the music of that culture. And by accepting jazz, blues and classical elements into our music, it's almost like we're returning to what was already there."

Whether a return to roots or artistic innovation, Midnight Voices' music seems to be reaching a wider audience. In 1996, the group embarked on a national college tour and collaborated with the Robert Henry Johnson Dance Company on the well-received music/dance piece BIO. "We're also working on a new album for 1997," Power says.

But despite their artistic eclecticism and cross-racial appeal, the group remains rooted in the local African American community from which they sprang. "We're premiering the show right here in the Western Addition," Power says. "And if it really works, then we'll take it to health centers in places like Hunter's Point, then to college campuses and places like that. It's important to reach both the African American and other audiences with the music and the message of 2017."

2017--Cure/No Cure plays Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at 8pm, and Feb. 2 at 2pm at Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton St.; 436-0447.

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From the January 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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