You may not have known the University of Wisconsin campus is home to an internationally recognized spoken word poet who has been featured on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.”

His name is Rafael Casal, and he is the creative director at the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI). He provides guidance on campus to students enrolled in First Wave, a program that provides a dynamic environment where artists of hip-hop theater (including spoken word and hip-hop performance in a theatrical setting) learn how to viably produce their art.

Casal is highly invested and dedicated to the program — which is only in its second year — and sat down with The Badger Herald to speak of its importance to the local and national hip-hop community, as well as his role in Madison and in the hip-hop movement as a whole.

In person, Casal speaks as a man with clear goals who knows he has his fair share of work cut out for him. He also has a positive affirmation behind the statements he makes that is indicative of progress already made. It is easy to see how much conviction he has in his beliefs, and that conviction has paid off in real advancement on this campus and within the movement itself.

“I’m a writer first and foremost, and everything starts with good writing,” Casal said.

Casal’s relationship to his craft is akin to an explorer on an unknown quest. He doesn’t claim to or even have an interest in defining the movement holistically nor does he wish to know its endgame. He makes a concerted effort to position himself against any controlling mandate on subjects he clearly has expertise in. In the context of hip-hop and hip-hop theater, this makes perfect sense.

“I try to stay away from the word ‘teach’ because you can’t really teach hip-hop as an authority figure. The movement itself has anti-establishment roots. So, there can’t really be an authority on hip-hop,” Casal said.

This reveals an interesting paradigm in the First Wave program. It possesses a legitimacy that stems from the professors on campus loyal to its progress, but the curriculum strives to push the boundaries of its own form. The program culminates each year with a week of programming that gives students a chance to show what they have been working on all year.

“It’s about bringing the right professors in to inform the movement, while bringing nationally recognized people at the forefront of the movement to inspire artists here,” Casal said.

Line Breaks — the umbrella title of the week of events coordinated by Casal — does just this. All of the events were centered on hip-hop theatre and brought talent from across the nation to discuss the future of the movement and the progress already made.

“What’s cool is that Madison is becoming a hub of hip-hop theater. I talk to people who go to Line Breaks and want to come [to school] here because of what they saw,” Casal said.

Casal has a confidence that at once exudes the knowledge he possesses of his craft while his cool demeanor conveys wisdom beyond his years. Learning more seems to enable his teaching, and this prescription seems to work for Casal, whose experiences in touring, producing and recording are brought to the First Wave class to help them in their future endeavors. His first album, As Good as Your Word, was entirely produced by the artist, and was a learning experience as well.

“It all needs to be catchy enough for people to come back to it, while still being entertaining and relevant,” Casal said.

This is just another feather in the performer’s proverbially ostentatious cap, and it helps the album captures some slick beats that complement tight lyrics. The album includes some production effects that can really only be done in-studio, and this makes the recorded tracks play a bit differently than what one would hear at a live show. Casal prefers to play with a live band, too, which makes for a high-energy show that is raw and compelling.

“Listening to a song in a car and going to a live show are two different things. Making sure the production is cohesive is important,” Casal said.

Casal was initially interested in spoken word poetry and developed his style in a Youth Speaks program under Marc Bamuthi Joseph in his hometown of San Francisco. There he flourished and ended up in the spotlight as a national Slam Poet champion and a three-time def poet on HBO’s “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.”

As a lyricist, he is versatile in his pace and rhythm and clever in the formation of his phrases. Lines that rapidly relate attention deficit disorder to “the band-aid on a mystery they wish to de-complicate, then medicate to accommodate the commonness of why he can’t concentrate” show off his verbal prowess in performance, while another slam like “fuck Barbie and Ken, they’re the reason 15-year-old girls arms are slit and the reason 12-year-olds think skinny is a compliment” highlights the extent to which the poet and musician rejects the status quo by delivering a biting view of the realities most people accept. As an artist, his rhetoric is dead-on for a man who belongs to a movement that challenges a style of expression controversial by its very nature.

“What are we as artists, if we don’t say these things to people that don’t want to hear it but need to?” Casal said.

The artist continues to work and live in Madison while he finishes an undergraduate degree in sociology and is putting work outside of his staff duties at the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives into producing a second album. The album, titled Monster, drops in June.

Casal is also working to produce a one-man show and constantly pushes the boundaries of hip-hop theater by writing plays (one of which has been produced in San Francisco’s Theatre Artaud) and branching out into film and other mediums. He has also collaborated as a writer with renowned tap dancer Jason Samuel Smith and director Marc Bamuthi Joseph to produce “One Drop Rule,” a hip-hop theater piece that premiered at the Living Word Festival in San Francisco in 2008. Casal also tours regularly, performing pieces of spoken word poetry to college campuses nationwide.

“I always have projects in the works, but often times the projects just become the practice,” Casal said. “The best opportunities I’ve had were never planned or anticipated, so I just keep myself focused and prepared to take advantage of the next unexpected great opportunity to grow as an artist.”

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