REVIEW: Yusef Shelton’s IGNITE
Review: Ambition and Purpose are an Effective Match in YS1 Yusef Shelton Da First’s Hip-Hop Show “Ignite”
By Vanessa Reseland
Photos be Renee Rosensteel
Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2022–23 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series.
Musical artist known as, YS1 Yusef Shelton Da First, billed his show, Ignite, as “95% hip-hop and 5% documentary film/other musical-elements.” His debut performance at the New Hazlett Theater fulfilled these promises while supplying plenty of unexpected surprises. Ignite delivered high quality, high energy hip-hop performance, yes, but it unmasked the traditional concert experience by delving deeply into the life and process of YS1 himself. The performance involved a cast of musicians, dancers, singers, motivational speakers, and flashbacks of YS1 before he was YS1, turning it from large-scale concert to autobiography to included-with-the-price-of-admission life coaching seminar to intimate acoustic night. The fourth wall was dismantled in order to meaningfully involve the audience, and the elements were all pulled together to captivate and inspire.
For a show billed as a YS1 hip-hop performance, Ignite immediately surprised its audience with the entrance of Marcell Johnson, the evening’s apparent host and hype-man. In a moment that felt slightly off-track from the casually anticipatory pre-show energy flow, he introduced himself as a “Motivational Speaker” and promoted “Back 2 Purpose,” the SEL (Social Emotional Learning) program he and Yusef bring to schools throughout the Pittsburgh area, specifically (but not exclusively) aiming to reach young Black and Brown students who may not have access to these resources otherwise. Johnson’s speech was complete with a slide featuring his social media handles and an offer for us to subscribe. He welcomed the packed theater with a disarmingly informal and grounded tone as he roused enthusiasm for YS1 and the impending performance. Johnson spoke so confidently and with such ease and charm that the surprise marketing pitch was largely taken in stride.
After the SEL promo, which set the tone for upcoming moments with Johnson throughout the show, the room dimmed to show lighting designer Broughton Ganaway’s flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder over projected, dark clouds on minimalist, separated screens, informing us that the show was about to begin. For real.
From the moment he shot out of a metaphorical cannon and onto the stage, YS1 Yusef Shelton Da First was an energetic and magnetic force. In a reflective blue track suit and slick shades, sporting a “Da First” t-shirt underneath, YS1 made the 500-seat New Hazlett Theater feel like an intimate venue for such a sweeping performance. Dancers Kontara Morphis (choreographer) and Rickia Davenport exploded on both sides of Yusef, complimenting and emphasizing the lyrics with electric dance moves and hyping the audience with no-nonsense, intoxicating stare-downs. Also wearing “Da First” sweatshirts, the unification of the message and branding was clear immediately. No one on stage came here to mess around.
The music was wide-ranging, veering from cool and dancey beats to smooth Rhodes piano tones to soaring 80s guitar solos from music director Drew Bayura, all anchored by drum prodigy RJ Williams. There were even folky, acoustic ballads backed by singers Aris Ross and Stacia Vonn. Bayura created a strong foundation for YS1’s lyrics to float throughout the theatre and reach the listener effectively. The variation tickled the senses, tugged at heartstrings, and made it hard to sit still, often feeling like more of a dance party than the theatrical setting allowed.
Spirited and playful rhymes about painful subjects documented his early life in Homewood without parental support. YS1 got personal about the struggles that ultimately led him to his salvation. At age 16, he discovered the positive pathways he lacked in childhood after discovering the unconditional love he received from God.
During a short documentary with the hallmark quick-edits of the TikTok generation, YS1 narrates the difficulties of his life before finding his faith and his purpose as we see clips and photographs of a younger Yusef, before finding the moniker, YS1. The savvy use of media ingratiates himself to the audience, taking us on the journey toward his motivation in life before encouraging the audience to find their inspiration as well. His faith is the cornerstone of his story, this production, and the message, but it is more testimonial than evangelism. Leadership by example, not a step towards indoctrination.
There are a number of moments between songs where YS1 or Johnson directly address the audience. These moments reveal details about their personalities and strengthen the bond between performer and audience. During one of the intervening speeches, YS1 references a Tupac Shakur quote he’d heard as an impressionable young rapper. He paraphrases the quote, “I’m not saying I’m the one, but I’m gonna spark the one that will start a wildfire.” A concept like this, from such a raw and influential young poet, called to him, inspiring YS1 to be “the one” and “live a life passionately on fire.”
During the Q&A after the show, YS1 cites rapper and producer J. Cole as an inspiration. It’s an apt comparison — like J. Cole, YS1’s flow is versatile, his storytelling contains layers, and he pulls from many musical genres. When he sings, he has a smooth and easy tone, and his subject matter is poetically anecdotal while holding a mirror to his own behavior. But YS1 has a point of view and a purpose that is possibly more akin to Socrates.
He raps “to ignite purpose.” Ignite’s story is his quest for redemption, hope, self-love, and soul-healing, but its purpose is to send the audience on the same journey within themselves. The messages are clear: DON’T LET YOUR SITUATION DEFINE YOU. FIND YOUR INDIVIDUAL PURPOSE. BE “DA FIRST” YOU THAT THERE IS. The “Da First” brand is not only a reference to “YS1 Yusef Shelton Da First,” it’s a possible philosophy for any of us.
Yusef is the preacher, and we can feel he is preaching to more than just the people present at the New Hazlett. His social media is a presence in and of itself. His posts are highlighted in the documentary footage shown during non-musical intervals, and the audience felt encouraged to take photos and videos during the show — this is usually prohibited in the theatre — and post them online, tagging YS1. He seems to harness the power of marketing in the modern age as he weaves it into the performance, making the show simultaneously art and promotion for the art. It is an oddly charming commercialism sprouting from an underdog you want to win. Where someone less generous or genuinely enthusiastic may come across as self-absorbed or opportunistic, YS1 seems to be seizing a moment he deserves. Social media handles are the way of the modern world, like it or not, and online culture can spark legitimate careers. YS1 took moments to speak to the crowd so forthrightly about his business strategy and desire to blow up that it became endearing when it could have easily been offputting.
“I made myself a brand, now the brand’s in demand, like the span of an eagle where I’m starting to expand.”
He is so committed, squeezing the most he can from this opportunity that the audience pulls for him, wanting him to gain fans — is there a distinction between a “fan” and a “follower” in 2023? — make money, and take over the world. Despite the initial jarringness of this show’s blatant self-promotion — we’d already bought our tickets !— YS1 and his crew give back as much as they request.
Motivational moments with Marcell Johnson occur throughout the show. The hip-hop rock star vibe slows at one point to settle us into an SEL/Transformational moment. Johnson focuses the audience on group breathing exercises (slightly scary in a COVID world) and positive affirmations. The self-consciousness one may feel when they hear the words “audience participation” mostly fades away when met with the “give it all you got” spirit of the night and the beaming smile of our new, unexpected life coach. The power of a theatre full of people cheering, “I believe in myself!” and “I will fulfill my purpose!” is palpable. It’s hard to argue with the power of positivity; it’s easier to let it wash over you. In a world constantly encountering anger and division, it was a relief to sit in a room that felt safe and deeply optimistic.
After the transformational session with Johnson and a YS1 costume change into a less flashy cream turtleneck and orange cargo pants with a matching vest, the room settles into a more intimate vibe. There’s a distinction between humility and playing yourself right out of an opportunity, and YS1 and his crew take total advantage of the moment while keeping the credit in a heavenly realm instead of taking it for themselves. “Let your light shine.” Yusef is a flood light, and he shines that light on his company. Talking up his fellow artists, Yusef is generous and earnest with his praise, using effusive adjectives to introduce his band, dancers, and host.
YS1 invites vocalist Dejah Monea to perform “Love Yourself,” her inspirational song with a sensual R&B beat reminiscent of the early 2000s. Monea’s silky smooth, sometimes breathy timbre and buttery riffs enwraps her audience.
A moving violin solo by Tomi Adebayo brings the drama into the literal spotlight with self-described “super villain music mode.” Adebayo also features on a sweet, folky love song, a duet by YS1 and Monae.
The second half of the show dips into calmer waters with YS1 and the band indulging in a number of ballads. These songs are beautiful but the number of songs in this section tends to drag the pacing of the show. Luckily, we’re treated to another round of high-energy hip-hop that bring the crowd to their feet for a vigorous standing ovation.
YS1’s talent and persistence is undeniably intoxicating. His ability to surround himself with top-notch artists sharing an aligned vision is stirring. Watching him on stage, it seems he could conquer the world. But, first, you need to follow him at @yusefsheltondafirst. Like and subscribe.