Beatboxing a Path to the Sound Arts with Joshua Silverstein

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Joshua Silverstein is an award-winning actor, comic, writer, beatboxer, and educator. This interview with him from December of 2020 focuses on his career as a beatboxer which he began doing at age 5. Joshua’s various performances and productions have received admiration from creative geniuses ranging from Norman Lear to Prince. He has collaborated with artists such as Slash from Guns and Roses, poet Ursula Rucker, and Improv legend Wayne Brady. Joshua has also dropped beats for Drop The Mic, a segment of The Late Late Show with James Corden on TNT/TBS. 

Beatboxing and Many Other Performing Arts

I’ve been a Joshua fan since I met him! In this interview we talk about his journey as a sound creator and his early roots in the performing arts and how beatboxing was a way (as he battled a speech impediment) he could be where he loved–on stage. With his talents and imagination, he is now a professional with a range of performing skills and creativity that he brings to audience and to his students.

With a breadth of talents that spreads across many kinds of performance, including: actor, comedian, storyteller, beatboxer educator, partner, and father of three, Joshua is a pillar of many different arts communities. This also includes one we share:  Cazadero Performing Arts Family Camp.

Liner Notes graphic

2:02 Idolizing Bobby McFerrin. Childhood career aspirations:  a doctor or a clown. A growing reputation as a beatboxer with near-endless breath.

  • Fun word trivia:  a group rap/beatbox session is called a cypher.

6:37 Developing a speech impediment. Beatboxing to the rescue. Becoming “known” in L.A.

8:05 On being discovered by Norman Lear, aided by poets. L.A.’s spoken word art scene.

11:12 First teaching gig. Helping his students express their emotions.

14:32 Communicating feelings in today’s society. Writing as catharsis. The art of expression versus creation.

17:00 The arts as a place to heal the self and the world. What “being the best” meant to Joshua when he was young vs. as his career progressed.

23:56 The Silverstein Show and talking about world issues through his own experience.

Cinthya and Joshua Silverstein & their youngest son, Shel

Cinthya, Joshua & Shel Silverstein

24:33 On Trevor Noah and living in the Coronavirus-impacted, world versus observing it.

27:42 On the his Jewish upbringing and faith, then and now. Plus, raising Jewish kids.

29:43 Unplanned improv:  Joshua’s Soundscape for the Year ahead (2021).

Related Notes

If you enjoyed this, I’d love for you to share it with those who’d also love it. So would Joshua, by the way. Don’t forget, you can subscribe to hear more Agile Vocalist in your email. Yes, email, that tight little space that keeps pushing your Google drive limits, yeah. That thing.

Episode Transcript

Narrator/Rachel intro:  Joshua Ruben Silverstein is an award-winning actor, writer writer beat boxer an educator. This interview with him for December 2020 focuses on His career as a beat boxer which she began doing at the age of five. Joshua’s various performances And productions have received admiration from creative geniuses ranging from Norman Lear to prince. He’s collaborated with artists such as slash from guns, poet Ursula Rucker and improv legend Wayne Brady. Joshua has also dropped beats for Drop the Mic, a segment of the Late Show with James Corden on TNT TBS. And now, here’s my conversation with Joshua.

Joshua:  My name is Joshua Reuben Silverstein. I have been a professional beat boxer for, ima say over 20 something years. And really what that means is I’ve crossed the threshold from doing it at home in the shower to someone who actually gets paid to do it. And that really is the qualifier for professional. If you get paid to do it you’re a professional.

Professional does not mean great, it doesn’t mean good, it just means someone has given you money to do it. There are a lot of beat boxers who are professionals that are aren’t very good. I happen to be very fortunate to be a good one I think- At least my experiences have led me to believe so.

So my story starts back when I was five, and I am an only child and my parents were married at the time took me to see Bobby McFerrin in concert. He has since become my musical idol.

They took me to see him and I was five and I had grown up listening to don’t worry be happy in that whole album and I didn’t know he was doing it by himself. I thought this was music like anything else which was recorded with a full band and other people so my parents didn’t really I didn’t really hit me that this was one guy alone and so when he walked on stage with no shirt on I was like “Wait a minute, this is just him!” And so I was an only child and I spent a lot of time alone in my room and the very first thing I ever wanted to be when I grow up was a doctor and a clown.  

A doctor because my of health stuff I was always in the hospital and I became very comfortable with doctors and the idea of it. I fantasize what that was like. And a clown because I loved comedy and I loved cartoons and I loved laughter. And so one of the things I always did to be funny was to mimic animation. I would mini cartoons and pretend I was a cartoon character after and make sound effects and watch a lot of Tom and Jerry and all the bangs and zaps. So when I found out that Bob Macfarren was doing stuff it kind of blew my mind as to what was possible. So I became a  very “sound effectsy” kind of kid very interested in what sounds could I create. I wasn’t even in music yet, it was just funny and fun.

So then when I was in elementary school and I was becoming more familiar with hip-hop, the kids in my class would like bang on desks and make beats and kids would rap to them and there was this one kid who would beatbox. And I kind of knew who Doug E. Fresh was, but I wasn’t really familiar with him enough to know that what he was doing was stuff that was made out of his mouth.

So I saw this kid doing it and I thought oh well I kinda do that. By the time I got the time I got to junior high and was fully immersed into hip-hop, another guy I knew beatboxed and we would have these things called syphers which were circles where everyone was standing around rapping and there would be one guy making a beat with his mouth.

I thought, OK I want to do that. I wasn’t good with my hands, I wasn’t a natural drummer but I was percussive with my body and so I began to mimic what I saw other guys do but also I began to do what I thought Bobby McFerrin was doing. I was beatboxing but I also being vocally percussive at the same time- vocal percussion. And so by the time I go to high school, I was this guy who just did that. I was the guy who was beatboxing and that was the thing I did and so I had friends that knew Whenever they wanted a beat they would get me. And this was at high school lunch and that was what I did. And this was one the things I became known for; I was the only guy who could do it for a long time. A lot of these guys would do it and get tired and run out of breath but I could sustain my breath and go for like a half an hour or for a full hour nonstop. And so guys would be like “Oh my God, the beat’s not stopping.”

All this is in the L.A. area, I’m at Hamilton High School. This is like the early ’90s mid-90s and I wanna be an actor, I wanna do theater but my drama teacher is like “naw.”. And one of the parts of the story that I don’t talk a lot about is between junior high and high school I became really insecure. And all I wanted to be was cool. And so I was trying to emulate anything I thought it was cool for the purpose of being accepted by my peers. And so at the same time, I developed a speech impediment.

So ninth grade I’m in theater, I’m insecure and I’m stuttering and mumbling. So my theater teacher doesn’t see that I love this and thinks I don’t want to do it when really I’m just insecure. So he discourages me and so I get really tongue-tied even more than I already am at the time. Now I’m feeling down on myself that I can’t do what I love to do which is acting and performing. So beatboxing becomes the one thing I can do really well in front of an audience that doesn’t require me to speak. And so I’m getting all the attention that I want is a performer without having the anxiety of saying lines. So I get really good at it. And I all I wanna do is perform so I am nursing it.

Even though I’m pursuing visual art and animation as a career, I’m also doing this beatboxing stuff hard-core and I’m doing it in church shows that my spiritual center at Agape. I’m doing it at school productions. I’m becoming the beat boxer within my community.

Norman Lear has discovered a copy of the declaration of independence. He finds it in a painting it a piece purchased at an auction randomly. He stumbles upon the actual document signed and everything and at this time you’ve got a death poetry jam and so I had been beatboxing with musicians and then poets whoever see me we’re asking me to accompany them with her poems so I became a member of the spoken word art scene in LA there’s a beat boxer backing up poets. And these poets didn’t know that I wrote and I was still battling my speech stuff, so I wasn’t reading my poems out loud to these people.

And so Norman Lear looks at the copy of the declaration of independence and says this document was designed to be read out loud, I should have poets perform this document as part of his voter registration tour. So he starts to tour and goes on a nationwide scout looking for poets and he stumbles upon me Performing with a friend of my name Bridget Gray, who is this amazing female poet.

And he’s [Lear is] like what is this beatboxing thing? I didn’t know this was a thing, do any other people do what this guys doing? So he got he goes on a nationwide scout for bed boxers, brings me in and some other guys and I kick them out. I immediately outshine them. I win this tour and all of a sudden all of these beat boxes are like who is this Joshua Silverstein guy? So then he got people like Doug E. Fresh who also knows who I am and Rahzel is a big boxer and they begin to hear my name. And so all of a sudden I become a name that’s familiarized with other beatbox greats and I do this tour with Norman Lear and I am part of the store for three years. During that time I become like L.A.’s is most sought after beat boxer, but I also become known amongst poets. And so now nationwide I have known by poets because I got this tour they all want to be a part of. So we do that for three years and then [laughs] Bush wins. And we’re all like ughhhhhh. It’s funny because he won and it was a higher voter turnout, so we were like…did we ruin this election?

Rachel: What I hear in your story is a lot of someone who has moved through his own hesitation and is now helping other people with their issues. I’m curious can you speak a little bit to that?

Joshua: Yeah. So I remember my first teaching gig and I’m about 19 years old. One of the kids that I’m working with is this kid named Christopher and Christopher is this kid who will just swear. He’s about nine or 10.

And he’s got a mouth and he obviously learned it from his parents or whatever and he has a temper. And when he thinks things are unfair, or he feels kids are messing with him or he’s not getting his way he starts cursing out loud. And I think it’s funny but it’s not because He’s obviously not supposed to be using language like that and it makes other kids cry. And he’s really violent with his language. So, he’s one of those kids who we talk to his parents we say hey Chris has this problem. His parents were like ‘Oh my God.’ I don’t know, nothing changes. And he’s got a sister who’s great. His sister is the polar opposite- she’s sweet and clearly Chris has got something going on. And I go you need an outlet, like you need to you need somewhere to release this frustration so I buy him a journal.

And I go look man, whenever you wanna say these terrible things just write it down. And this is just for you. This Isn’t for me, this isn’t for your parents, this is just your place just to be you where you feel better and so you’re not cursing out other kids and getting in trouble. And he goes “OK” And for a month he’s great. Like he’s not cursing anybody out, he’s not getting in fights he’s doing his homework, he’s exemplary for like a good month.

So then what happens is the dad finds the journal, like, under his bed. Then he’s like what is this?! and it’s filled with the worst stuff you could ever imagine a kid could say. And then he’s like ‘Mr. Joshua told me to do this.’ And it’s like no no I didn’t say write a book of swear words. So the dad comes to me with my boss, and says “What is this, what did you do?!”

So I said, “Your son had a problem. I tried to fix it, he was great for this month when he was filling this book out and I got in trouble. The way it looked was that I was giving him permission, when really I was trying to find an outlet for it. So I got in trouble and I felt awful. I was like man, the thing I wanted to do worked and I realize that like people need that.

We’re not a society that thrives on mental health issues, we’re just really stunted as a species because we don’t know how to communicate our feelings in a way that is understood and we don’t know how to relate all the time either. And so we walk through this life experiencing things, experiencing shame, picking up traumas and we never deal with. So this kid’s experience it’s something I thought he had no outlet for it at all, because where can you go be like that? Everyone’s going to say don’t do it and so you just suppress it. And so I gave him a book and he got to write in his own way who he wanted to be and as a result he showed up differently. 

And I have a voice. Just taking that as writing as yourself on page is so cathartic and so releasing. And then when I began to share my own work, I also learned that sometimes the words we write is only cathartic it’s not about the other person. And I was writing things that I thought was brilliant, but I hadn’t shared it and I would read it out loud and I cry. And I’d go oh well this isn’t really well written, this is just emotion.

So for me as a teacher, I became more interested in the art of expression versus the art of creation. And I think for me on top of the fact that I feel that that’s a need that we just need a place to be creative without fear of what it sounds like, you just need to be able to feel heard and feel like it’s OK to be expressive. I also feel like I’m trying to be the teacher that I didn’t get as a kid–which is giving people permission to be themselves. So part of my writing technique as an instructor is:  who are you and how do I get you to feel like it’s OK to be you whatever that is, wherever that is? And so a lot of my journey has been about just wanting to feel safe. And wanting to feel safe in who I am and learning how to accept where I am and who I am.

Rachel:  So let’s talk about healing the planet a little bit. One of the areas of the planet that I have spent a lot of time in in my life is corporate America of all sizes and shapes, organizations nonprofit organizations. Can you talk about any overlap or where – I find is a largely divided world completely unaware of the arts. One of the things that I see especially in our lifetimes is corporate America shows up when there’s a crisis. The whole tipping point, the racial pandemic over the last 400 years, it’s really starting to culminate. All of a sudden showing up with money and words and maybe actions, right? We hope, right? I’ve loved watching your journey with the Silverstein Show and current events and politics. Can you tell me about that show and also about where do you think you touch people who… maybe they go to movies or go to a play they go to a concert but that’s all they do with the arts and they don’t see the arts is a place to heal.

Joshua: So I’ll tie this into the beatboxing thing. I was just telling the story today actually. So, when I became “a famous beatboxer” quote/unquote and I started taking it seriously I was young. So one of the things that young people do is I got to be the best. And the ego takes a hold of it. If you do anything and people start giving you rewards for it and then you’re like OK. I’m onto something here. And the ego is like ‘mine! Best beatboxer in the world.’ 

And I got invited to the National Beatbox Convention and the guy that used to put the stuff on was the name of the Kid Lucky and he was a friend of mine he passed away this year. He was beatboxing. Like, that was it for him, there was no other thing. He would talk about how beatboxing was the hidden link between humans and dolphins, like he was that guy. He was like beatboxing is this thing and we were like ‘all right sure whatever you want- dolphins’. So he had this national convention and he flew me up from L.A. to New York and he flew up the people that were like worldwide. People from Europe people from China and there were the people who are like doing it for real putting it on the map. So I get there and there’s about 60 of us. There’s 60 of us total at the convention and then the audience that kind of comes in and watches. And then a few of us are doing classes or talks and classes or whatever. There were boxers that were like sharing what it was like to do commercials and stuff, so there’s a showcase and it’s the opening night and you get there and you can sign up where you wanna go. 

So from 1 to 60, where do you want to go? People are putting the name up second and first and I was like:  “I’m going 60th!” And that was my thought. I’m gonna let everyone embarrass themselves and then 60 is when the show starts! Now a couple things that I hadn’t thought of which was:  one what time does 60 mean? And 60th meant 4 in the morning at the Bowery Poetry Club. 

And number two, who are these guys who are going to go before me? And so by the time we got to 40, I could care less about beatboxing. I was like I don’t wanna do it anymore, I’ve seen 40 people do things that I hadn’t imagined could be done. I saw people doing stuff that I thought I was the only one doing, that they were doing better than me. And I was like I’m the last- like who’s gonna want to see me after any of these people? And so we get to me and it’s there’s maybe 20 people in this club now and they’ve seen people beatbox out of their assholes, and I got nothing here.

I pull up my harmonica and I do whatever I can. And I don’t even care what I do at this point I just wanna go home, I’m tired. And I don’t even know what I did – I’m sure it was whatever, but it became apparent to me that someone’s always going to be better than me. Like someone’s always going to be better than me, from someone else’s perspective. Someone’s going to either want it more or be doing it more often. And then you got kids were coming up with music being different and the way their internalizing sound is different than my odd butt was. And so I was like, I can’t compete with all these 13-year-olds who are listening to EDM all day doing these super fast beats. I was like, I’m old-school so I was like very clear that I may not be the best, but I’m gonna be the best version of myself.

So, I became very interested in what is it that is my lane and what is it that I do? So I got all these tell him I’m a writer an actor performing a beatboxing, what am I doing with it I don’t want to stand on stage and just do a beat for 10 minutes, that’s not fun anymore. So all of a sudden I became very interested in storytelling, And I begin to combine it with everything and so my brand became whatever the best version of the story is. So however if I want to tell a story about my first girlfriend, maybe it’s a poem, maybe it’s a scene maybe it’s all through sound and beatboxing. For me it became clear that I wasn’t interested in the specific skill, I only was interested in how can I tell the best story.

So what I found in regards to the Silverstein show was:  the intention was (originally it was just myself) and Cinthya was behind the scenes and I was like no no she’s smart I want her to speak. It was how do I talk about stuff from my own experience, that’s worldly, but through my own experience and perspective because I’m still what people consider middle class. And like, last of a dying breed. So one of the things that, like Trevor Noah has gotten a lot better, is he’s great but he’s not in it because he’s got affluence and he’s got access. And so he’s talking about it and he saying a lot of smart things and he’s being really clever and he came from apartheid so he’s got a very clear perspective but currently, he’s not living in it he’s kind of observing.

So Cinthya and I are in it. Like…we are walking through the need for unemployment. We are artists walking through friends that need homes. We are walking through like food shortages and the fear of ‘Oh my God everyone went crazy and got all the TP we don’t have any toilet paper.’ And we walk through all that and so we’re not hearing people talk about it from living in it. So we were like how can we talk about that but also make it digestible? And so one of the things I think comedy does is comedy makes things more comfortable to take in. 

Rachel: Right.

Joshua:  Because you’re laughing and then you’re swallowing it easier and then you’re breathing also and so there was the need for me to use whatever this is that I am to talk about stuff that was important to me and create space to go “Hey we need to have a conversation about these things that are important to me.” I don’t want to say don’t laugh. And I want to make it interesting. All those muscles I think I was using originally when we started the show. The need for laughter, the silliness, the lightheartedness, but also here is some stuff that is really important and serious stuff that might not be funny, but we should talk about too. But I want you to be in the room with me first. 

When people think about people who are multi-racial or multi ethnic or however they identify, they always think traumatic experiences. And like I didn’t grow up with that. My mother is black, my dad’s white and Jewish and they were very clear about who I was a kid so I grew up without any sort of identity issues with regards to my race. Again, I wanted to be cool. I was just trying to be someone else other than who I was. For me it was like when I was a kid, Vanilla Ice was a cool. So I wanted to be Vanilla Ice. So when I got older it was Hammer. So, I wanted to be Hammer. Both are not cool people at all in anyway at any point in time, but I wanted to be cool regardless what the race was so I never associated culture with coolness. So I never had a who am I thing. So people don’t get to hear those stories. 

My grandparents were atheist Jews, and so the way they celebrated Hanukkah was sans any prayer. So I grew up not knowing there were prayers for Hanukkah. Not until I met Cinthya who converted to Judaism before she met me. 

Rachel: Oh wow. 

Joshua:  Ami our son who is now 12 he grew up in schul and he loves it– so he knows the prayers. So now we do the prayers for Hanukkah because our son wants to not because I want to and so we’ve combined traditions.

For Hanukia, we say one thing we’re grateful for each night, and that’s how I grew up doing it. So he’ll do the prayer I like the shumash and we’ll see what we’re grateful for. But the stories of intersectionality and culture are not told a lot. They’re not told including the Jewish experience which is very vast. So, as someone again who seeks to create content that creates conversation, part of that is identifying my experience as part of the Jewish narrative which may not fit in peoples sphere of what that narrative looks like. And so I like try to undo that. The same way that I do with being a black person which is, the way that identify as a black man may not be the way that people assume Black is. And so I try to open that up as well because the strange thing about us as a people is culture is ever-evolving and unfolding so whenever we try to pinpoint it and condense it, we actually eliminate the expression of it. Because you’re adding to it, you’re making it more than it is versus singling it down to something very minuscule and finite.

Rachel:  Alright, so Joshua is going to do a little improv here. He’s going to beatbox a soundscape for 2021 that is his take on culture, politics and where our world is headed. 

[Both laugh]

[Joshua performs a soundscape using a sound looping machine. Performance includes sounds of breathing, humming, bees buzzing, heartbeat sounds, snoring, compressed air being released through the mouth, whistling rustling air like the wings of birds, gunshots, muffled speech.]

Rachel:  I love it! 

Joshua:  Yeah, I don’t know [laughs].

Rachel:  My applause. I want to be respectful of your time. Got any closing things you want to add? 

Joshua:  One of the things I got real hip to years ago about anything with with regards to performance and sound is it’s all vibration which is why it touches us. I’ve got this lower resonant voice that I think people respond to a certain way. I so I try to be responsible with that. People walk away with that sound. For me, the vibration’s got to mean something. It’s got to mean something bigger than myself. Even if it’s about myself, it’s gotta be bigger than me. So yeah, i think that’s why it hits us. We all respond to vibration. Even people who are deaf respond to it- like they feel it. I got a friend who can’t hear low tones. And so she can only hear high tones. She would hear me beatbox and she didn’t know what I was doing she was like why are you just making little click noises? And I said, oh you can’t hear the bass so I had her put her hand on the speaker and she was like “Oh my God!” I don’t know. We all respond to it somehow. We sit in a theatre and you’ve got this audience with you and a microphone in your hand. It’s a weapon. It’s a weapon in your hand. What are you going to use it for, you know?

That’s kind of my thing. Even at Caz (Cazadero Performing Arts Family Camp), all that time on stage is very sacred to me. It’s very special, even if I’m doing goofy, silly things it’s still very special. It means something. It all matters. What are you gong to d

I got a friend who’s a poet and he’s gotten really popular. And he got to do this show at this beautiful theatre and 600 people showed up. And I was like, I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do! And he didn’t use that space for much. He kind of sat there and he told people what they wanted to hear and I was like ah, man. You know, go out there and break your neck. Like if you’re going to use that space, you gotta bear something. Leave something on that stage that does something. I don’t know. It’s gotta mean something. It’s got to be magical and transformative and reveal something somehow. I don’t know. 

Rachel:   I like it. That’s beautiful. Use your voice for something. That’s what I’m trying to do and that’s why I’m so interested in what you do. 

Joshua:  Yeah. Thank you.

Podcast outro:  That was inspiring, be sure to listen again soon!

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