The Hip-Hop Orchestra Experience 

Reading Time: 3 minutes Artistic director JooWan Kim of Ensemble Mik Nawooj combines hip-hop and orchestra, showcasing a vibrant cultural experience with The Hip-Hop Orchestra Experience.

Photo by Makayla Morrison.
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Photo by Makayla Morrison.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

What would it sound or look like if hip-hop and orchestra were combined? The artistic director JooWan Kim of Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN) brought this fantasy to life with The Hip-Hop Orchestra Experience, which performed at the Noorda Center at UVU on Saturday, January 27.  

This vibrant cultural experience features many hard-working artists who have perfected their skills through the years, including Composer/pianist JooWan Kim, Master of Ceremonies (MC) Unity Lewis, Turf Dancer Yung Phil, as well as UVU’s own passionate student dancers, and finally the resident lyric soprano, woodwinds, French horns, strings, and drums.  

Kim refers to this striking fusion of hip-hop and classical music as ‘method sampling,’ which is taking two seemingly unrelated things and reframing them to create a relationship, fostering unity and understanding.  

On their website, EMN states, “We believe that the future must be built with people of various backgrounds, including the ones with ideologies that are seemingly incompatible with our own. Furthermore, we believe that if we sample and reframe differences, we can change everything.” Kim encourages others to find things outside of their field to generate an inclusive future and foster innovation.  

Artist Unity Lewis is the grandson of the late Dr. Samella Lewis, the artist, historian, author, and educator who is often referred to as the godmother of Black art. He is carrying on Dr. Lewis’s legend through different mediums of art.  

In Comstock’s Magazine Lewis states, “I’ve gotten to act as a connector of different people, ideas and opportunities for people in the hip-hop culture. I’ve also been a generational bridge between the elders who unknowingly gave birth to hip-hop, and between the youth that will take this into the future and create something new. Hip-hop is a part of my DNA, and that will never change. It will only evolve. I feel like hip-hop has had that effect on everything it has touched since its conception.” Kim chose the perfect person to help carry on this new project of innovation with hip-hop.  

The first half of the program builds up the listener, making them feel like they are at a dance party or nightclub. MC Unity Lewis raps about “Blacker than black,” showcasing the Black community in a positive light. He then jumps into the “Seasons of life,” showcasing the various periods in an individual’s life.  

Following was a three-part composition featuring works from Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach remastered and mixed with upbeat rhythms. Kim explains that this piece was written during the Covid pandemic, which includes three moments where the music goes quiet. He explains these quiet spaces are designed to make you feel better. Lewis brings meaning to the listener’s life with the lyrics, “divinity pouring out of me” and “I’m a student of life,” reminding listeners to not merely just live but to learn and progress.  

The next three pieces were a deconstruction of Bach about the theme of death, intending to make the listener feel as if life is crashing down. It was written after Kim’s father died to help him cope with the emotions he couldn’t express through words. It features lyrics such as, “…Dad incarcerated, wanted him to stay on earth much longer,” “gotta pay your dues,” and “need to listen to the spirit before you proceed,” expressing to the listener an owning up to deeds that were committed while once alive.  

The listener was then led down a hopeful path, being given a ‘lighter than air’ feeling. The Korean folk tune “Blue Bird,” written about a Japanese war, is reframed by Kim into a symbol of hope to rise against authoritarianism.  

Kim wrote the next passionate piece after his mother passed. He explained that the first time he performed this piece in Boston he felt a little piece of heaven and started ‘ugly’ crying. This features lyrics such as, “…spirit is breath right now,” “reap what you sew,” and “It’s time for unity.” This work brings freshness, like walking through a field of flowers.  

The final song says it all with its title, “Hope Springs Eternal.” It was written after Kim read a quote that said, “Beauty will save or change the world.” With skepticism after pondering over this quote, he concluded that it is true. He explained once you believe in something so fiercely that no one else’s opinion can shake that belief, you can go forward and proceed to put that belief into the world, and this is beauty. This song captures the theme that every little thing can be a blessing depending on how you look at it, featuring lyrics like, “It may be a little to you but it’s a lot to me” and “giving thanks for every day.” 

Altogether a work like this is a privilege to behold. See the Hip-Hop Orchestra Experience while EMN is still on tour by visiting ensemblemiknawooj.com.

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