Napoleon Maddox’s Annual Festival Amplifies Black Art Traditions

The multidisciplinary performer reps for the culture with four-day UnderWorld Black Arts Festival.


Artistically, Napoleon Maddox is as malleable as a Stretch Armstrong action figure—shapeshifting from beatboxer and emcee at one venue to deejay, playwright/composer, or a theatrical performer at others. When he’s not in Cincinnati, his second home and artist residency in Besançon, France, has him performing musical theatre and hip-hop throughout the region. Being sheltered-in-place in France for 10 months during the early days of the pandemic afforded him time to delve into painting and host an online radio show. In other words, Maddox always taps into his own creative vessel.

He’s also always itching to get his collab on. Locally, Maddox’s roots sprouted in the mid-’90s as the frontman of hip-hop/jazz band ISWHAT?!, and throughout his career, he’s cultivated global relationships among underground jazz and hip-hop communities. Through his associations with influential musicians, which have included Burnt Sugar Arkestra, Archie Shepp & Phat Jam, and the French electronic producer Sorg, Maddox’s collective reach helped inspire him founding Underworld Jazz Festival in 2018.

Now in its fourth year and curated with the assist of his partner Kimberly Gory and members of ISWHAT?!, the festival continues to explore a continuum of African diasporic history and music through film, visual art, and live performances. On a video call from Lausanne, Switzerland, Maddox spoke about what to expect from this year’s events, and why he omitted the word “jazz” from the festival’s name.

“My decision to go ahead and change it was really prompted by conversations that I would have with people of our generation,” he says. “For them, the gentrification of [jazz], the re-appropriation of our intellectual property—collectively of jazz, blues, rock and roll, like so many other things—has been so effective that we don’t even identify with our own culture. A brother literally told me when I asked him what he thought about the promotion that we were getting ready to roll out and what we were planning. He was like, ‘Yeah, I would see that, and I would probably be like, ‘No, I’m good’ because of that word right there,’ and he pointed to the word ‘jazz’ on the flyer.”

Semantics aside, there’s a whole spectrum of creativity happening this weekend. In keeping with the spirit of UnderWorld Jazz Festival, this year’s events celebrate Black history, culture, and creativity at venues throughout the city tonight, Oct. 20, through Sunday, Oct. 23.

Festivities include a keynote address by artivist Halima Taha, a DJ set by Jarobi of A Tribe Called Quest with Afrofuturistic digital art projections by Vince Fraser of London (whose work appeared at BLINK last weekend), a musical tribute to general and leader of the Haitian revolution, Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, and a jam session hosted by the Burnt Sugar Arkestra.

“The continual theme of the festival that I’ve been wanting is to have a diasporic perspective looking at all of what we do,” Maddox says. “Obviously, we—you and I, and most of the people that will be performing have a uniquely African American story—even though we’re a part of the diaspora, there’s something specific that we have to share that we have to say. But I think it’s important for us specifically as Black people around the world, to realize the connectedness of our stories.”

This connectedness is why the performer thinks that a story like that of Toussaint Louverture is important not only to Haitian people but to those across the African diaspora. “He’s so underappreciated and underacknowledged, as are the Haitian people,” he added.


The multimedia performance of L’OUVERTURE DE TOUSSAINT features bassist, Brent Olds’ band, Stockboy Brent, and Burnt Sugar Arkestra will accompany students from Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy in collaboration with charity organization, Cincinnati-Nancy France Sister City Association. The students of C.C.P.A. have been in workshops with Maddox and other artists from UWBAF learning techniques of writing, improvisation, and performance.

“We have a really great relationship with that school because when we created Millie-Christine: Twice the First Time [in 2017], they came to see the performance, and I did some workshops at the school talking about the text,” Maddox shares. “Over time, any time I would have a creative experience to share with them, I would contact a teacher down there, Stephanie Grimes, who is phenomenal for her willingness to stretch beyond the confines of what should be happening in the classroom to offer rich experiences to the students. It’s a lot of work, but I’m enthusiastic about the impact we’re able to have by just applying ideas and being able to add to the kinds of experiences these students have.”

The UnderWorld Black Arts Festival is sponsored by Common Good Alliance, ArtsWave, BLINK, Black Spirits Legacy, Cincinnati Arts Association, and Trinity Films Entertainment Group. For more information and tickets, visit

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