Ice-T and Ron McCurdy review – a raging, inspired revival that would make Langston Hughes proud

Barbican, London
The thinking man’s gangsta rapper and jazz trumpeter prove that the poet’s performance piece Ask Your Mama is as relevant today as it was in 1960

For a while in the early 1990s, the rapper Ice-T was deemed the most dangerous man in America. Dan Quayle called his song Cop Killer “obscene”, George Bush condemned him, while Tipper Gore described the single as a “misuse of first amendment rights”.

Tonight, the thinking man’s gangsta rapper looks a rather decorous figure. Bespectacled and shaven-headed, he stands at a lectern-cum-pulpit reading the poetry of Langston Hughes, accompanied by a jazz quartet.

Hughes was black, gay and communist – an incendiary combination in postwar US. His performance piece Ask Your Mama, from 1960, is an ambitious work that united the embryonic civil rights movement with global liberation campaigns around the world. Oddly, it is more optimistic than angry. The third world liberationists mentioned – Castro, Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Nasser, Lumumba – seemed untainted at the time, the horrors of the Vietnam war yet to wreak havoc on young Americans. And the piece buzzes with a strong and confident négritude, with homages to African-American sportsmen, writers, civil rights leaders and jazz musicians.

Ron McCurdy performing The Langston Hughes Project: Ask Your Mama at the Barbican, London.
Ron McCurdy performing The Langston Hughes Project: Ask Your Mama at the Barbican, London. Photograph: Phil Bourne/Redferns

Hughes composed it during 1960 while he was poet-in-residence at the Newport jazz festival, and a jazz sensibility is written into each verse. (A musical co-production of the poem with Charles Mingus and Randy Weston was planned before Hughes’s death in 1967.) The piece was revived a few years ago in Los Angeles for a rather confused project that featured soprano Jessye Norman and hip-hop group the Roots. The production tonight, by academic and trumpeter Ron McCurdy, is a more linear affair. McCurdy’s Anglo-American quartet stick to the soul jazz, swing and gospel of the early 60s, while New York pianist Yuma Sung plays nimble stride and ragtime solos.

McCurdy trades verses with Ice-T, serving as the ebullient Baptist preacher to the rapper’s deadpan lecturer. There are lines that chime with Ice-T at his most militant, and he adds some much needed vitriol to Hughes’s genteel wit. “My white neighbours rang my bell to ask me, could I recommend a maid?” Ice-T spits. “I said yes: your mama.” Elsewhere, he wearily attacks the painfully slow move towards civil rights: “How long must I wait / Can I get it now? Or must I hesitate?”

Ice-T, who has always had a gleeful disregard for genre divisions, ends with an attack on the segregation and cultural barriers in music. Ask Your Mama certainly helps to dismantle these blockades. Langston Hughes would have been proud.


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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