Chesney Snow was getting off the T when he took my phone call. It was a shaky and noisy connection even without the crowds of people I heard milling about him, and part way through the conversation, Snow had to run for cover from a sudden downpour of rain. Snow is an award-winning actor, beatboxer, poet, musician, producer and songwriter, and, as a result, he is hair-raisingly busy. And yet we chatted for almost an hour about his career, his film American Beatboxer (which will be screened Oct. 24 at Askwith Lecture Hall at Harvard) and a beatboxing workshop (Oct. 25 at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute). Both events are offered through the Office for the Arts Learning From Performers program. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
First encounters with beatboxing:
When I was about 11 or 12, I lived in Mississippi. My cousins and I used to make rhymes and beat on buckets, and get anything we could to make a beat. We would write rhymes and raps to it, and so I ended up emulating the old school rappers. That’s how I started, with my cousin Bobby, who would really encourage me to do the impossible. That was, in one sense, the beginning of me exploring what I could do with my creativity whether that be with my voice or any aspect of my artistry.
Sources of inspiration:
I try to observe people or observe animals or nature and how they interact. So, if you listen, you can hear intense rhythm in raindrops. You can really find a music that is happening naturally. If I’m doing a play and my character is supposed to embody the heartbeat of a neighborhood or a city, I’ll go to that neighborhood and city and just listen, just listen for hours.
Beatboxing and empowerment:
I had the opportunity to do a collaboration with Zap Mama, and she said something to me that really got at the core of what I believe. She said: “Music is made to heal.” And so every time she goes to work on an album or craft a song, her actions are very intentional: She creates these songs sonically to heal. With beatboxing, there is a similar current to its purpose in that when someone sees beatboxing, it’s inspirational. Audience members are watching someone do something vocally that they couldn’t even imagine a human voice doing. It taps into this idea of human potential. Someone needs only their voice to show how powerful and versatile one can be. And so even the act of watching someone beatbox, and even more the act of performing, proves to even people who don’t have instruments, who might think they don’t have talent or potential, that they can make something from nothing.
Bettering the community and world with art:
My ultimate goal for beatboxing is to take it from performing for entertainment into a practical setting. What beatboxers do is we practice and explore phonetic sounds a human can make so much that we become experts at using our articulators and voices. If we were, for example, to use this musical art to teach young kids how to develop and explore their powers of speech, maybe we could close our language gap with our young kids so our young kids can wrestle with speaking multiple languages, public speaking, enunciation. There’s a lot of application for what beatboxing can do. I’ve been piecing together how we can use this art form in elementary schools and schools for the blind to enhance language skills. I really feel like I have something that can be very powerful.
Chesney Snow’s movie American Beatboxer will be screened 5:30 p.m. Friday, October 24 at Askwith Lecture Hall. The film’s director Manauvaskar (Manny) Kublall and producer Rich McKeown will join Snow for a post-screening discussion. Snow will hold a workshop 2 p.m. Saturday, October 25 at Harvard’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute. Space for the workshop is limited; RSVP to email@example.com.