This post is pretty long, so if you’re more in for a shorter read, start at the asterisks below.
Yoooo…I’m headed into my last year as a graduate student at Ohio State! I am pumped, but the idea of delving into the professional world after years of anticipation is tripping me up. As the time approaches for me to graduate, I’ve been thinking a lot about where it is I want to reside and what exactly it is I want to do. Just a year ago that would have been an easy answer- Los Angeles, California to become a commercial Hiphop dancer. However, with the education I’ve been receiving in school, the answer is becoming less clear. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a value in delving deeply into the culture and the history of Hiphop in order to inform my dance, my creativity, and my life. Reflecting on the benefit of swimming within a sea of Hiphop knowledge, I now question whether I want to stand on the shore and simply let my feet get wet through dancing in the commercial world.
For right now, though, I still feel as though I owe it to myself to try out the mainstream scene before I put judgment on it. However, my skepticism about the mainstream culture has encouraged me to take a more critical look at it. I’ve found that my desire to gain cultural, historical, and social knowledge through dance is not the only thing holding me back from fledging fully into my once romanticized dream. I’ve now come to question whether the mainstream Hiphop dance culture represents themes that I even want to support. What I mean is that a massive amount of commercial dancers express themselves through movement by imitating and assimilating a certain rap culture that I cannot get down with.
Since 1979 with Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang, the musical branch of Hiphop culture has been popularized by the commercial world to the general American population more than any other element. With this massive explosion came a popularity of Hiphop that was never dreamed of by the founders of the culture. However, what also came was the general notion that Hiphop is music rather than a culture. Just last night, I was in conversation with a roommate of mine at the Bates Dance Festival and he asked me, “What is Hiphop?” And being me, I challenged him, “What do you think Hiphop is?” He went to say he believes Hiphop is a construction of certain sequencing and sounds that create beats…aka music.
From around mid-80’s to late-90’s (also considered the Golden Age of Hiphop), Hiphop musical artists were controlling a lot of the content that was being produced. As a result there were a vast array of styles and messages, good and bad, that Hiphop artists were portraying to the world; therefore, they were representing the true, complex nature of the culture itself through music.
Throughout the 21st century however, music corporations have stripped that power from the artists and have taken it upon themselves to repackage and redefine what Hiphop represents. Now, it’s to the point where too many Hip-Pop songs (mainstream Hiphop music) represent mainstream hegemonic themes—sex, drugs, violence, materialism, money— behind the mask of a stereotype of colored people.
I have always admired— and continue to do so— the commercial Hiphop dance scene for its intricate and virtuosic aesthetic. Again, as I think about entering into this world soon myself, I have taken a closer look at the culture and what it represents. What I have concluded is disturbing to me…and it is, in many ways, that the mainstream Hiphop dance scene, because of a certain ignorance of its choreographers and dancers, is a system conducive to the act of reverse minstrelsy.
(Gasp!) Now let me explain…
I’m not going to go deeply into the history, but ultimately minstrelsy was the act of white performers entertaining audiences through the dancing/mocking of African-American stereotypes during the 19th century. One way they did this was to paint their faces black and exaggerate typical facial features of the African-American such as the lips and the eyes. Eventually, in order to be recognized for their performance abilities and to take ownership of a degrading system, African-American themselves went under the blackface and participated in minstrel shows as well. Essentially, African-Americans imitated an imitation in order to get recognized for their craft- an act that I’ll call reverse minstrelsy.
Over a century later, as I mentioned above, American corporations are continuing this feeding of negative stereotypes of African-Americans to the masses through mainstream Hiphop music and music videos. However, this blame doesn’t simply belong to the money-hungry industries… it’s also on all the rappers who subjugate themselves to this role in their quest for the American dream. (It’s also the fault of the consumer who supports the music as well but I’ll leave that alone for now). These rappers are supporting this fallacious portrayal of African-Americans in order to be recognized for their craft and to support their family, which to me, falls under this definition of reverse minstrelsy.
Last of all, I blame the Hiphop dance community. As artists, we have a duty to be knowledgeable about the art and the culture behind the art. Why? Because if you knew the history of Hiphop culture and the African-American history behind that, I doubt you would be so eager to embody movement that imitates the lyrics that degrades the integrity of African-American people.
I specifically want to call-out all of the Hiphop choreographers who use these songs in their work, whether it be choreography in class or a dance video. With the dancers, one may argue that, especially with this generation, it’s just not that deep. Students simply come in to have fun, move, listen to hot beats, get their stank face on, and be out. But, Hiphop choreographers …we’re consciously listening to this music over and over again in order to replicate these songs in movement form; therefore, we’re engraining these negative messages into our soul, not only by listening, but by embodying. Then we go out and spread these messages, like a disease, to massive amounts of students as we teach all over the world. Then, to top it all off, we go and record this choreography for the world to see again and again online. But we don’t stop by simply recording the combination. Nah, that’s too easy. We have to go out and appropriate the themes within these songs by flashing our own fancy materialistic possessions, and dressing like we’re about to rob a bank…
What. the. hell, man. To me, we– as dancers, choreographers, and artists– cannot continue to consciously or unconsciously, imitate a false, negative imitation of what it means to be black in America. We need to realize the power and influence we have as we represent the future of Hiphop in America and do-away with this reverse minstrelsy mentality.
If you want to see a few examples of what I’m discussing here, click the links below:
1. U Mad- Ian Eastwood
- Bitch Better Have My Money- Tricia Miranda
- I Don’t Fuck With You- Janelle Ginestra
So many things to think about here! There’s a lot of complicated variables going on, not least of which, as you mentioned, is gaining access to the market. Whether you like her lyrics or lifestyle, in many ways Rihanna’s public claim to money owed to her is a political act–the revolutionary assertion of her cultural capital and a demand for its fair compensation, where historically the bodily labor of black women has been stolen or vastly undercompensated.
I’m also really interested in the connection you’re making specifically to the lyric-based music interpretation of commercial Hip-Hop. Like, if there were a world where that weren’t the main compositional trope (although it basically always has been for music video/commercial choreography) do you think you would have the same problem? Or is it specifically because this kind of choreography so directly and specifically relies on the music as its inspiration that it ends up glorifying it?
I think that’s dope what Rihanna has done in stepping up to make her claim for her money known and public. It’s definitely a political step forward and her status gives her a platform to really make noise. I’m curious as to the arguable subjugation she has had to go through in order to claim that platform. How much do you sell yourself for influence? It’s all subjective I guess.
My response to your last question is two-fold. One, in my opinion, choreographing in general to these songs without an intent beyond “just dancing” is going to glorify the song and the lyrics within it. Two, I do think it’s another step over the line when you are choreographing so literally to the lyrics because you are encouraging students to truly listen and embody the words and the intent of the words.
Thanks for postiing this
you’re welcome, thanks for reading!