Hip-hop and classical music don’t cross paths too often, but when they do, their alchemy is powerful. The rising tension of a string section or a timpani’s thunderclap can lend a larger-than-life gravitas to a rapper’s storytelling about struggle and triumph. Just take Rick Ross’ emotional performance with Orchestra Noir in Atlanta this past weekend, or Nas’ landmark National Symphony Orchestra concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of Illmatic.
Here in the Bay Area, Ensemble Mik Nawooj has been holding down the hip-hop and classical connection since 2010. Led by composer-pianist and artistic director JooWan Kim, executive director Christopher Nicholas and rapper Unity Lewis, the genre-bending orchestra has attracted an international following, most recently at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland in August.
Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s sound bridges cultures and time periods, remixing Bach and Mozart with dexterous verses and contemporary drum beats. And in the dark time of the pandemic, the brooding, original compositions their 2021 album Death Become Life offered catharsis and hope, transmuting the pain of grief into a prayer.
After their time abroad in Scotland, Ensemble Mik Nawooj returns for a hometown show in San Francisco this Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Asian Art Museum. The concert will feature rhymes from Lewis and Kirby Dominant; a dance accompaniment from turf dancer Yung Phil; and a full string section, woodwinds, French horn and other instruments. Fans are invited to stroll the exhibition halls before the show, where a retrospective of San Francisco abstract painter Bernice Bing’s work is currently on view. And on Nov. 19, the group has an East Bay concert at the Diablo Valley College Performing Arts Center in Pleasant Hill.