VIDEO PREMIERE: Hip-hop Orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj Draws Inspiration from Hermann Hesse with “Who Would Be Born”

Death Become Life, the forthcoming album from acclaimed Oakland-based hip-hop orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj, is slated for release on March 19. Death Become Life consists of ten tracks and five accompanying live performance videos. Three of the compositions—together known as the Fountainheads Suite—are a direct response to COVID-19 and its disproportionate effects on marginalized communities, meditating on concepts such as finding peace in conflict, joy in sadness and freedom in confinement and aiming to help audiences from all walks of life heal from the trauma of the pandemic. The Suite’s three compositions deconstruct classic works of Mozart (“Mozart on Joy”), Beethoven (“Beethoven on Struggle”) and Bach (“Bach on Transcendence”), and each corresponds with a principle of Greek philosophy: Ataraxia (freedom from fear of death), Apatheia (freedom from violent emotions) and Eudaimonia (blessedness).

Among the album’s other tracks are pieces about the passing of Kim’s mother and a longtime family friend in 2014, an apocalyptic rap-score on the destruction of the world and three selections from the group’s multidisciplinary theater and dance project, Death Become Life, through which they collaborate with region-specific artists to render variations in live performances. The accompanying five performance videos are co-sponsored by Asian Art Museum and Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj is led by artistic director and classically trained South Korean composer JooWan Kim, who became increasingly disillusioned with Eurocentric concert aesthetics while studying music composition at Berklee College of Music in his 20s. Eventually, Kim found the missing ingredient and his ultimate inspiration in hip-hop, describing the epiphany he had upon hearing N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton for the first time. “I knew at that moment, I had to examine the underlying structures of hip-hop and create concert music with them,” Kim says. Ever since, Kim has been making music with his own multiracial and multi-genre crew—consisting of classical musicians like flute, clarinet, violin, cello, bass, soprano, a hip-hop MC (Sandman) and a Turf dancer—to bridge the gap between tradition and the modern day.

Today Glide is excited to premiere the video for “Who Would Be Born,” an apocalyptic rap-score inspired by Hermann Hesse’s Demian on the destruction of the world and Gnostic god, Abraxas. The song is definitely one of the most enchanting and anthemic songs on the album, striking you with a dramatic force. MC Sandman flows with an aggression that captures the spirit of a Hesse quote from Demian: “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”

MC Sandman drops his verses with a loose, poetic cadence that at times borders on spoken word performance. His lyrics and vocals are amplified and dramatized by the lush instrumentation and sweeping urgency of the orchestra, which takes the listener on a wild ride. What is fascinating is how much the orchestra and Sandman work off one another, and we get a sense of their symbiotic relationship with the video that contrasts studio footage and dance footage. 

JooWan Kim describes the inspiration and process behind the song:

Always loved the passage in Demian and after discovering more on Abraxas for being such a rich and ambiguous character within the canon of Gnosticism, I thought it really fit into the mythos of Mik Nawooj we have been developing for a bigger theatrical work called the Great Integration. When we first began EMN, we started with programmatic pieces with a loose storyline, simply because the MC at the time wanted me to be the one who decided the subject of the piece. After several pieces and assigning certain episodes as well as moods, the character Mik Nawooj was formed. The whispers at the end of this piece are magical syllables within the Mik Nawooj universe called “Syllables of Transmutation”, which allow the user to open up all five energies of internal organs and transform into a god.

The general idea of this piece was to portray the end of the old and beginning of the new. Quite often these great changes are violent.

MC Sandman adds his own perspective:

Prior to writing the lyrics JooWan introduced me to the [Demian] quote. What resonated with me was the importance of abstracting oneself from their surroundings while maintaining the ability to interact, effect, and actualize. I tried to capture this with the line, “…every showdown I’m showing them up.” Of course there is the obvious word play, but it’s meant to indicate that I’m in the world but not of it. For me to cultivate toward my individual potentials I have to deconstruct models of behavior.

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