The bond between cannabis and entertainment, namely music, has been linked for quite some time now. However, the link between marijuana and its education has not been as profound thanks to prohibition and scare tactics used in the past several decades. Over the years, and especially in the last few, with legalization gaining traction across the country, a number of shows have taken up the charge to educate the public.

In New York City, the HERE Artist Residency Program (HARP) is home to one such show. At its annual multi-day live arts program, Culturemart, cannabis took the stage in one such show. Cannabis! A theatrical concert comes from the Bronx’s Baba Israel and his band Soul Inscribed.

Israel is a world touring hip-hop emcee, poet and beatboxer who has performed with acts including Outkast, The Roots, Afrika Bambaataa and many others. Much of the band has played together for over four years with others rounding out the group a year and a half ago.

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Image Credit: Paula Court

Israel told The Marijuana Times that the show came about after he read Smoke Signals by author and Executive Director of Project CBD Martin Lee. Israel explained how he went from reading the book to bringing elements of it to the stage.

“When I read the book, I started imagining a performance, because [Lee] basically follows the history of the plant and explores it from medical, political, cultural, all kinds of different angles. He kind of followed the journey of the plant through different political movements and also different cultural and musical movements and musical icons…I approached Martin, he was into the idea and, and we’ve been working on it.”

Soul Inscribed’s residency at Here has the band doing several performances each year to test material and refine it off feedback. After doing the show at various locations, including the Seattle HempFest, this iteration expanded to focus on a more immersive experience, including video design.

“Making a show like this, it takes time. We’re talking about complex ideas, complex history. We’re going from hip-hop to reggae to funk to jazz to blues. So, there’s so many, and we’re often trying to mash up those styles and mix them up in one song.”

He expanded on this current run and the future of the show. “We’re excited to develop this show in front of an audience because the show ultimately wants to be interactive. The audience is not going to be a seated theater audience. We’re going to have people up on their feet so they can dance and really enjoy the music. We’re excited to do our next stage of development and then we’re going to keep growing the show. We keep developing the show and then hopefully in a year or two we’ll do an off-Broadway run.”

In this show, the audience will learn about some prominent names in the history of the plant, as well as lesser discussed activists and other prominent figures. They include Mary Jane Rathbun, better known as Brownie Mary, who is regarded for her medical edibles in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic.

“There’s a shift, there’s excitement. There’s entrepreneurial energy. There’s new money. There’s health, there’s well-being. Then there’s also still institutional racism, and they’re still these major challenges.” He added, “So I think the show is wrestling with all those ideas. I hope people just come across celebrating great music, having a great time, having fun, enjoying a live band and having that experience. But also learning some stories about the history of cannabis: Why it became illegal? What are the things that are playing out now? What are the contradictions now?Overall, the show aims to inform and hopefully motivate viewers to get involved in the movement if they haven’t already.”

The show played over two days of Cultremart at Here’s venue located on Spring Street in Manhattan. The intimate venue filled with smoke – not of the cannabis variety, but a smoke machine – in the lead up to the show. Once the crowd had made its way in, Israel appeared from the audience to introduce the show and guide the room into an evening of love and positivity despite some genuinely tragic stories in the history of cannabis. 

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Image Credit: Paula Court

The night featured covers from the likes of the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan and others. The vocals of Israel, Grace Galu and Jonathan “Duv” Zaragoza played off each other seamlessly and cohesively as the band explored a variety of genres and eras of music. The band, featuring Yako 440, Sean Nowell and Doron Lev, had audiences moving from the earliest moments on the show – weaving in powerful slower tracks with other danceable tracks that ooze with the cannabis spirit. The show was also surrounded by new visual elements that helped tell the tale while adding faces to some of the lesser known names in the crowd.

In a testament to the communal spirit, the one-hour show closed with a cipher featuring freestyling and breakdancing from audience members that had this writer wishing the show could go on for another hour or so.

Whether the show eventually reaches an off-Broadway run is uncertain. That said, its future appears bright with this iteration positively captivating audiences with a mix of fun, education, and some pain to remind us of this amazing plant’s polarizing history. With the evening closing on a positive, communal note, Cannabis! and Soul Inscribed left audiences with a vision of how this industry should always operate.

The cast of Cannabis! A theatrical concert is:

Writer, Co-Director, and Performer: Baba Israel

Performer, Deviser, and Composer: Grace Galu

Co-Director and Dramaturg: Talvin Wilks

Multi-Instrumentalist, Producer, and Visual Artist: Yako 440

Composer and Sax/Flute/Fx: Sean Nowell

Drummer, Vocals, and Emcee: Doron Lev

Vocalist and Performer: Jonathan “Duv” Zaragoza

Scenic Design: Nick Benacerraf

Video Projection: Kate Freer

Sound Design: Asa Wember

Lighting Design: Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa

Stage Manager: Alex West

Dramaturgical Support: Peter McCabe