“This Is America” Review: The G.O.A.T of Dance Art?

Donald Glover’s (aka Childish Gambino) “This is America” is one of the most genius works of contemporary art in the history of music videos. The piece’s balance between ambiguity, clarity and entertainment throughout its historic commentary on blackness in the United States is unrivaled.

tia3I have been seeing multiple responses to the video about how the dance is used to distract the audience from the “real issues” being portrayed. Claims have been as drastic as calling for an ignoring of the dance component altogether. Frankly, I have been perturbed by this separation of dance from serious issues. It shows the magnitude of disregard our society has towards the body’s capability to reflect and respond to these very issues that we face as a nation.

tia5
David Pilgram: Owner of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, MI

Even within the African-American community where dance is such a vibrant part of the culture, we have leaders minimizing dance by segregating it from issues in our society. An article from the Huffington Post [1] was recently published about David Pilgram, the owner of the Jim Crow museum, belittling dance through his interpretation of the “This Is America” music video, “You see children dying, parishioners dying, then we pause and go back to dancing,” as though dance is a lesser choice than any other response to the witnessing of death. Pilgram goes on to say, “…it seems to me that, from the minstrel period to the present, both the people being hurt and the people doing the hurting have often ignored the hurt by dancing.” The fact that we have an African-American historian dismissing the crucial intersectionality of hurt and dance is an exemplar of our society’s general lack of understanding when it comes to the body’s socio-political value.

There has been opposition to these commentaries from choreographers Sherrie Silver (This Is America) and Camille A. Brown (Jesus Christ Superstar). Silver, in a Pigeons and Planes [2] interview, has labeled the dance-as-distraction notion as “interesting,” suggesting that the dance was rather more of a contrast. Brown, in an interview with DANCE Magazine [3], has followed up by claiming, “If you ignore the movement, then you ignore the commentary in its entirety.” Both have spoken to the complexity of the viral dance phrases by offering an alternate suggestion that the movement was to foreground black joy in the midst of turmoil (I will provide my own suggestion in my next post, stay tuned).

tia6
Choreographer: Sherrie Silver (middle)

I respect both of these ladies for showing opposition to the dance-is-distraction theory. I desire to add on to their analysis by using Gambino’s work to serve as a moment of education for all you people who don’t see dance beyond the 5-6-7-8 and Gwara Gwara. As an African-American-Latino male dance professional and hip-hop scholar, I continuously study the significance of dance within the black and brown communities of the United States. As such, I feel a yearning to discuss how “This is America” is a dance piece, maybe the greatest mainstream dance pieces of all time.

The discussion must begin with the question, what is dance? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, dance is to move one’s body rhythmically, usually to music. However, as a dance professional— choreographer, videographer, scholar, performer, teacher— I feel that the definition misses key elements. I took the liberty of restructuring it a bit- dance is the art of using one’s body to express oneself, many times in conversation with music. I believe Merriam-Webster’s definition is what we often see within a typical music video; however, my definition is what creates a dance piece— a work of art that foregrounds the moving body as the primary source of content to make claims about our world.

tia4“This Is America” is human beings expressing themselves through their bodies in relation to music in order to frame the condition of blackness in America. Sometimes that looks like the viral dance move that we so often associate with the word “dance”. However, I encourage us to broaden our view and recognize, too, the dancing of the person who jumps off the balcony, the church choir, and the rioting individuals scattered throughout the piece. Gambino uses these people to kinesthetically and rhythmically emote with each other, the music, the concrete warehouse, the video camera, and more. tia7Ultimately, this creates a cohesive portrayal of Gambino’s messages through an intersectionality of art forms with dance as the center. It is worth noting that the video fails to exist without the use of expressive moving bodies. The dance aids in the reenactment of American history while simultaneously commenting on that history, all without saying a word (watch the video in silence and the video loses very little cultural relevance). Therefore, even if dance-as-distraction is a part of the video’s narrative, it is simply a piece to a greater puzzle.

In the next post, I want to use the viral dance scenes that the dance-as-distraction theory is based upon to showcase how much deeper the dance goes beyond the fifteen 8-counts shared between Childish and the children. Thanks for reading!

Referenced Articles
1. Huffington Post Article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-glover-this-is-america-jim-crow-history_us_5af31588e4b00a3224efcc40?utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=hp_fb_pages&ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000047&utm_source=bv_fb


2. Pigeons and Planes Interview: https://pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2018/05/childish-gambino-this-is-america-dance-choreographer-sherrie-silver-interview

3. DANCE Magazine Interview: https://www.dancemagazine.com/this-is-america-dance-2567663747.amp.html?__twitter_impression=true

Dance Debate: 3 Reasons Why Grooving Is A Technique

About a month ago a dance acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook, “Grooving is suppose to be natural, it’s not a technique. Listen to the music.” When she posted it, I don’t believe she thought it would ignite a significant debate amongst dance practitioners, but that is exactly what it did. The foundation of the debate was predicated on the question of, “is grooving itself a technique?”

dance technique 2I believe this is an important topic that needs more discussion amongst social dance practitioners, specifically because dance practitioners within ballet, modern, theatrical jazz, etc. often use the word technique to describe valuable characteristics solely within their own genres; thus, marginalizing the valuable techniques within forms outside of the euro-centric paradigm (I just went to an audition where the choreographer said, “We’re going to learn hip-hop and some technique”…WHAT!?) 

 

In regards to vernacular/street dance, notions of “ease” and “anyone can do it” from inside-and-outside the community create a fallacy that technique is non-existent within these genres (I talked about this before in a previous post, The Technical Dancer: Perception of Beauty Through the World of Dance).

dance technique 3As a result of this false ownership over the word technique (the T-word for short), I speculate that there is a repulsion towards the T-word from vernacular dance practitioners within the United States, especially amongst hip-hoppers. We as a community have subconsciously associated the T-word with euro-centrism, and thus exiled it from our vocabulary. What have we come up with instead? The G-word— groove. Groove seems to be the antonym of technique, the yin to technique’s yang. Since euro-centric dance forms want to claim technique, we claim groove. Here are some quotes from that debate I had with dancers on Facebook:

“the groove itself is just a feeling… there’s 0 techniques to just groove”

“you can do the exact same everything as another person, but you will look different, because of your body structure, natural energy level, rhythmic anticipation, etc. Such factors are too subjective and inconsistent to be considered technique… Groove is just not technical, that’s all.” Note that “body structure, energy level, rhythmic anticipation” are used here to describe idiosyncrasies of an individual that inform their groove, and thus their groove cannot be technical.

dance techniqueMany within the culture have established that groove and technique are two completely different things. However, it’s more complicated than that. In our attempt to dichotomize groove and technique, we perpetuate the euro-centric ownership over the latter. It’s important for hip-hop practitioners, and vernacular dance practitioners in general, to take ownership of the T-word as we legitimize our own art forms within our society.dance technique 4 You know what, forget legitimization. We deserve to take ownership of the word because we have worked our asses off for it. We know what we do isn’t easy. We understand the hours-upon-hours of sessioning, cyphering, practicing alone, taking classes, battling, sweating, crying, bleeding, bruising, and all the other “-ing’s”. We’ve put the work in just like any other form to say that what we do is technical. Show up and own that!

So, is grooving natural and/or is grooving technical? To me, the answer is yes to both. Here are some definitions from Mirriam-Webster and three reasons why:

Groove: a pronounced enjoyable rhythm; an established routine or habit

Natural: coming instinctively to a person

Technique: a way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.

1. Something that is natural can also be technical

I feel like this is obvious, but still needs to be mentioned. We walk. It’s natural… now. There was a certain time it wasn’t, but we learned techniques in order to accomplish walking. If you want to walk backwards, you’re going to walk toe-to-heel instead of heel-to-toe. Walking regular, backwards, sideways, or on your hands may feel more natural than it is for others, but that doesn’t expel the fact that there is still a technique to it.

2. We are unique, but we’re also the same

Scientists have established that on a molecular level human beings are 99% the same. As unique and precious as you are, you’re also very much the same as everyone else.

I believe the spiritual nature of groove is completely unique. However the way it manifests is unique on a level, and then it’s also shared on another level because of the similar DNA that resides in each of us. That shared commonality, again, is the technical aspect to me.

In hip-hop social dance, the shared commonality is the bounce of the body. Each individual’s unique characteristics falls underneath a certain type of bounce. If you’re finding your natural groove, but not finding a bounce within your dance, then you’re not carrying out the communal technique.

2b. Case and Point: Babies

Grooving to music is a feeling, a natural response to the auditory impulses that converse with one’s soul. The most quintessential groove exists within babies (for your viewing entertainment, here’s a great compilation of dancing babies…). Every baby has their own unique synchronicity with the music they’re listening to.

Each baby also has technique. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that there are similarities in the way each of these miniature human beings accomplish the task of interacting with the music. The groove and the technique are both present, and both are natural.

My last thought is that hip-hop culture has a tendency to glorify the individual above all else. As beautiful as this mindset is, hip-hop will never reach it’s fullest potential with it. The glorification of groove over technique is the foregrounding of the individual over the community. It is not until we embrace our technique— our shared experiences of accomplishing things— that we will unlock the true impact we can have on each other and our world.

The Hip-hop Generation Gap: How Black Creations Lose Their Black Face

I think that we, as the African-American men in hip-hop, have a greater responsibility because we have the ears of so many millions of our young people. And they listenin’.”- Steve Harvey

I truly believe that hip-hop dance culture is at a critical juncture in this day in time. As Steve Harvey said, hip-hop has a massive influence on young African-Americans. However, in addition to the ears, we also have the eyes. The dance is arguably an equal contributor to hip-hop’s influence on the younger generation.

The responsibility to make that influence as positive as possible falls upon every individual in the community— it takes a community to raise a child, as they say. Additionally, the responsibility lies upon the pioneers of hip-hop dance culture the most.

Dance Fusion Japan
Dance Fusion 2017 Japan with NYC OG’s

Pioneers are now in there 40’s- 60’s, and have numerous generations of hip-hop practitioners behind them. Thus, they are the elders of our community who have gone through the gamut of experiences from the birth of hip-hop to its existence as a global phenomenon. They understand first-hand the magic of the block parties where all of the elements existed in a blast of black and brown expression. Recognition of their creation from mainstream America through media-hype set them on a high of celebrity lifestyle. They quickly felt the fall of a labeled “irrelevant has-been” as the same industry stripped them from their creation in order to create its own money-making machine. The pioneers have witnessed the birth and evolution of 40-plus years of black and brown movement: b-boying, popping, locking, house, vogue, waacking, hip-hop social dance, lite feet, jitting, jookin, flexin, krump, and more. I can go on for a while, but the point is these pioneers are filled with knowledge and experiences that, if shared, can educate younger generations on how to navigate our world as a hip-hop dance practitioner; ultimately, creating a stronger foundation for hip-hop dance to stand on and grow from.

 

taiwan tony 3
Dance Class w/NYC OG Tony McGregor in Taiwan

Have the pioneers been living up to their responsibility? Is the wisdom being passed down? It’s hard to say. I’m thinking of a way to measure that. One thing I can say with more certainty is that the knowledge passed down to African-Americans in the states pales in comparison to the knowledge that Asians and Europeans are experiencing. In my own experience, after a year of consistently attending a NYC institutional hip-hop hub in Exile Professional Gym (EXPG), my interaction with NYC pioneers (OG’s as we call them) has been minimal. That is the admission of a 26-year old who is hungry for the knowledge that the OG’s have to offer.

The black and brown adolescents— the heirs to the hip-hop throne—are not. Why would they be hungry for the knowledge of absent elders? Why would a child obey their father when he has been previously obsolete in their lives? I empathize with the young hip-hop generation, and saddened for the culture, when they express complete ignorance about their predecessors. It’s no surprise considering the elders are still busy trailblazing around the world providing their crucial kinesthetic and philosophical knowledge to hip-hop dance practitioners within other countries.

21317455_10203211811733995_1805522149549747448_n
Dream Works Dance Japan 2017 with NYC OG Cebo Terry Carr 

I am not claiming that there is something wrong with sharing information outside of New York City or the United States. I also understand that the pioneers have to make their own living, which I will leave for another post. My point is that the issue lies in the magnitude of the imbalance. It is strange to me that black and brown hip-hoppers from New York City are sharing knowledge within foreign lands such as Japan and countries in Europe, yet the only hip-hop centric dance studio in all of New York City— the birthplace of hip-hop— is run by a Japanese company.

That is why we are at a critical juncture. I do believe Steve Harvey’s quote still holds true— the young African Americans ARE still listening. There is still hope and time to connect the gap between what was and what is, but that time is shortening. Unless OG’s understand that they must filter their knowledge to their own people as much as they do abroad, hip-hop will be no different than jazz and rock’n’roll—the future will once again have Caucasian-Americans, Europeans, or Asians as the face of a beautiful black creation.

“STOP IT!” How MADTV Made Me Sane

Link to MADTV skit:

“Stop it!” – Bob Newhart (link to skit: https://youtu.be/h046gFGGZkU)


Somebody once described depression to me as a heavy, wet long sleeve shirt. The more you struggle to get it off, the tighter it clings to your skin. You’re able to squirm your head out of the top hole just to lose yourself within the darkness of the soaked fabric weighing against your soul. I would not go as far to say that I understand depression, but I know that feeling. Just this weekend I had fallen into a lackadaisical state due to a fun, but busy, week. Looking upon yet another hectic week in front of me, I had one free day to prepare myself for it. I didn’t. My lazy behind Netflixed and chilled all day long. And the next day, the thoughts that woke me up were ones that I fight so hard to stay away from: you idiot, you’re a waste, what the hell are you doing, shit, you might as well quit, why do you try, etc.

The negative voices bashing in my head had me jolting from squirming in my bed to blankly staring at the ceiling for minutes on end, dreading the thought of living through my responsibilities. I wanted to escape and stay hidden from the world knowing that, at the end of the day, it would all lead to me bashing myself even more for being a coward.

In the midst of the cerebral chaos, two words broke through my consciousness— STOP IT! Stop mentally choking yourself. Stop the negativity. Stop the voices. Stop it stop it stop it. And then my dad’s words came into my head, “all you have to do, is get out of bed… one accomplishment at a time.” And so I did, and I had a great day.

I am sharing this to say that if you’re struggling at all with pushing through the negative mental voices in your head, you’re not alone. For me, I could say, “stop it” because I was able to remember that I have people who care about me, who depend on me, and who have sacrificed for my success. Understanding that I am surrounded by love informs my ability to shut those voices down, if only for a moment, in order to get out of that soaked shirt and move on in my narrow path. You’re also loved. You’re also supported. Don’t let your mind shun you from the greatness that you’re meant to bestow upon this world. 

I Hate Me: 2 Ways to Shift from Selfish to Selfless Love

I hate me.

I hate a part of me.

I hate the me that selfishly loves. The hidden figure who does seemingly selfless actions in order to get something in return. I hate the shadow in my soul that will cut a person off because they’re not reciprocating the love I give them. I hate the me who cannot be vulnerable without a guarantee of reciprocated ego-stroking…”good job Quilan, you’re SO generous, thank you for being amazing.” I hate the me who serves others in order to be recognized, rather than because it is the right thing to do.

I was reading my Dad’s book, “The Second Shift” and it touches upon this part of ourselves as the “shadow-self” of your passion (shout out to the pops, waddup baby BABY! *B.I.G voice*). The part of you that does things for selfish gain, rather than selfless love. We all have it.

I have been faced with my shadow-self more than I’d like to admit since I entered the professional world in August of 2016. I came out of school feeling passionate about spreading the side of Hip-hop culture that opposed the mysogonistic, materialistic, violent, drug-centric Hip-hop that too many people think they know. I believe that this loving, positive side of Hip-hop can change lives if only more Hip-hop practitioners would gain and maintain the platform to represent its message. I have been hype to fulfill this mission through onC.U.E dance classes; foregrounding the message of create, unite, and empower through movement. I faced the inevitable reality of one-two people coming to class, and then sometimes nobody, week after week. I felt the frustration building inside of me. My mind couldn’t help but to question the validity of my purpose, and therefore the value of myself as a person.

There are many factors that went into my negative way of thinking, but the one I want to focus on is the fact that I was emphasizing what I didn’t have instead of the opportunities that presented themselves every time I had a class. Most weeks, there was at least one person who entered that space with me…and this would be me…

Shadow Self: Dang, nobody else cared to come. Why am I even doing this? I was blessed enough to get this platform, but clearly I don’t deserve it, so why did I get it in the first place?

However, there’s another side to that thought…

Ideal Self: Yo, this human being decided to MY class! With all of the things that they are going through in life, they took the time out to come and better themselves. I have an opportunity to pour light and love into their mind, body, and soul so that they can leave this place feeling refreshed, anew and ready to tackle the world with a positive lens. Let’s go!!

What side of yourself are you deciding to focus on? Here are some tips that people have instilled in me to help me combat my shadow-self daily.

    1. Be Patient

           We live in a world where we consume massive amounts of information quickly. We can order from Amazon, and our package arrives the next day. If you want to feel good about how much you hate Donald Trump, just get on your laptop and go to Facebook or Google…instant gratification within a minute (I truly wonder how many of y’all do that though lol). Anyways, my point is, we have the capability to get so much of what we want insanely fast.

           Obtaining the truly valuable things in life, however— relationships, happiness, love— tend to be a slow process. Yet, we treat them with the same consumeristic attitude…if it doesn’t spark and flare up by tomorrow, it must be a dud. Spreading your beliefs, no matter how beautiful they may be, takes time. Just because the world doesn’t flock to your beckoning light doesn’t mean that what you have to say isn’t valuable. More importantly, it doesn’t mean you as a person aren’t valuable. Stay the course, don’t quit, and you’ll see the momentum roll.

  1. Focus on the people, not yourself

         My professor and mentor at Ohio State, Mitchell, said, “If you’re feeling nervous about performing, think about your audience and how you are there to instill love into their life from the stage.” Mitchell’s words run through my mind whenever I’m taking a step into a vulnerable role: performing, teaching, dancing in the cypher, etc. It calms me down as I shift from thinking about myself to thinking about others. When we realize that our passions’ purpose is to make others better, we create an escape for the pressures we place on ourselves. If we think about the people we serve, there’s no room to think about you, and thus the nerves don’t have room to effect you as much.

         My old roommate Sarah once said, “Love is about constantly showing up.” Her words struck me because it convicted me on the responsibility that comes with loving someone/people. We toss the word “love” around in our society to the point where it loses its impact. However, when you substantiate the word with constantly showing up, I believe it re-solidifies the importance the word has in our lives. That’s all to say that selflessness, kindness, compassion— all the things that love encompasses— are not easy. It’s a heavy duty job to love hard, and love daily. These past few months in the real world have shown me it’s worth the work though. Because at the end of the day I want to like me. Constantly showing up for others, and myself, is the main way I know how to do that right now.

Meeting Me: Moving Past What You Do To See Who You Are

A couple weeks ago I traveled to Atlantic City to see an old friend, Tracey, perform in one of those celebrity impersonation concerts. I arrived late (fashionably, of course) to the performance venue, and received my ticket. As I entered into the auditorium packed with people, I was surrounded by the booming voice of my friend. Tracey was sitting at the piano, her fingers prancing and pouncing along the keys as she filled our ears with a beautiful rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” She held the audience’s undivided attention. She was confident, sassy, and seemingly larger than life as people usually are when they exist within their passions. I swelled with pride as she finished her number and said, “Thank you! Don’t ever stop reaching for your dreams, I love you!” before strutting off the stage. It was dope to see hundreds of people introduced to the same shining spirit that has captivated me for years. My fascination with Tracey went beyond her talent though. Sure, I traveled to Atlantic City to support her in what she does, but I more-so traveled there to better understand who she is.

After the show Tracey and I had dinner. We talked for a while, but most of the conversation consisted of what we’re doing, the things we’re accomplishing, etc. It was cool conversation, but one of the first things most people ask when you first meet them is, “what is it that you do?” And there I was, after a decade long friendship, having a drawn out conversation regarding that same question. It made me wonder, why are so many conversations like this? Why do we talk about what we do as though that is what defines us?

My guess would be that we don’t want to talk about what defines us. Talking about that would mean foregrounding the fluctuating thoughts that bombard us every day— and who has time to hear about that? I think we reject being real with ourselves, about what defines us, because what defines us consistently changes every day. We’re up, then we’re down; we go to sleep one way, wake up another; we look at ourselves in the mirror, and notice there’s a grey hair that we swore was not there yesterday. It’s too much energy to keep up with! So, we make it easier on ourselves and stick to what we already know and understand…our jobs, our hobbies, and our 10-year relationships where we enjoy different versions of the same conversation.

The reason I love dance is because it gives me the chance to consistently meet me, and all the changes that come with that. One day my right hip is crazy tight. Then the next, ouch, the bottom of my spine really hurts. And the next, yo…I’m feeling pretty freakin’ good! No matter where I’m at, dancing forces me to be aware of myself in that moment. It encourages a kinesthetic curiosity within me. I ask myself how I’m doing: what can I do today, what can’t I do, and how am I negotiating the two so that I can be better than I was yesterday? When I take that time to meet myself, I find that I’m better able to meet and connect with others as well. As Gabë and I mentioned in our previous posts, I think that’s ultimately what it’s all about.

So I encourage you, as tiring as it might be, to use your resources to check in with who you are every day. There will be aspects about yourself that disappoint you, but with that comes the characteristics that get you excited and joyful. Yes, events will happen that get you down— be down. Sit in it. Come to terms with it, and understand who you are within that moment. Then, find it in yourself to get out of it. Just do it. You’ll find you’re greater than your situation. When you’re not, trust in others to help you push through. Talk to them. Be vulnerable. They say it takes a community to raise a child. Well, we don’t stop needing help to grow as we age into adulthood. Embrace community, depend on others to make you strong, and move on.

“Negus” Dance Film

Negus- noun: Kingship, royalty.

Inspired by the works of artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Kehinde Wiley, I wanted to explore different levels of identity and representation of the black male in the United States. “Negus” is a Hip-hop work that asks African-American males, where do we come from, who are we now, what values do we uphold, what obstacles do we face in this society, and how do we overcome them?

In asking these questions, “Negus” seeks to use Hip-hop as a way to portray the humanity of the black male figure. In doing so, it directly opposes the commercial rap world– a primary source for the portrayal of the stereotypical black man–and delves deeply into some complications about certain aspects of the African-American experience.

“Negus” premiered at Urban Art Space in Columbus, OH in January of 2016. This film both captures the essence of the original work and completely wrecks it simultaneously. Within the film aspects of controversy between who we are and who we could/should be are portrayed as well as lighter themes such as rhythm, fun, etc. I hope this helps give you a way into viewing the film and I hope you enjoy!

Put Your Hands Up: Hip-hop, Incarceration, and the Fate of the Black Male pt 4

As much as the prison complex and the rap industry affect the livelihood of black males in society, they also affect the way in which black males are seen in this society. Again, the understanding of how a criminal label can affect how you are seen is fairly simple, but the role of the commercial rap industry is more complicated and subdued. If the prison complex is used to label African American males as criminals, then the commercial rap industry substantiates that labeling by portraying an enjoyment of the lifestyle that leads to prison. Take the industry’s use of Travis Scott, for example. Scott is a contemporary rapper worth 2.5 million dollars whose most recent song, Antidote, has been on Billboard’s Top 15 rap songs for weeks. Here is an excerpt from Antidote, “I might do it all again / I just hit a three peat / fucked three hoes I met this week / I don’t do no old hoes / my nigga that’s a no-no / she just want the coco / I just want dinero / who that at the front door? /if it’s the feds oh-no-no” (Travis). Travis Scott grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas in a two-parent home with his father running a business and his mother working for Apple. He went to college, but dropped out. Travis Scott lived in a socio-economic status that is less likely to be influenced by gang culture and criminal behavior yet, his counter-cultural lyrics still portray a blatant and monotonous display of criminality while rejecting the idea of instilling value through socially conscious poetry.

The commercial rap industry has used African American males like Travis Scott to rid the diversification of Hip-hop’s counter-cultural mentality in order to display African American males as a demographic that embraces the lifestyle of a criminal. Therefore, the commercial rap industry is aiding in the dehumanization of African American males by portraying the notion that we as a community enjoy lifestyles that lead to second-class citizenship.

Using lyrics from the 7-grammy award winner Kendrick Lamar, the commercial rap industry is saying, “Fuck niggas’/No better than Samuel or Django/No better than a white man with slave boats” (Kendrick). Yet, Kendrick’s words can also be used to show the battle that Hip-hop culture is currently fighting against the criminalization of African American males:

“Retraced my steps on what they never taught me/Did my homework fast before government caught me…[this is] straight from Ethiopia/N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty- wait listen/N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish/The history books overlook the word and hide it/America tried to make it to a house divided/The homies don’t recognize we been using it wrong/So I’ma break it down and put my game in a song.” (Kendrick)

In showing the royal lineage of African Americans, Kendrick Lamar exemplifies Hip-hop culture’s resistance against the “second-class citizen” stigma of said demographic. However, the emcee element of Hip-hop is not the only one fighting this battle. Hip-hop dance, with its growing influence in American mainstream culture, can have a massive impact on the identity and perception of African American males in this country. As a Hip-hop choreographer and teacher in graduate school, I have studied the ways in which the values of Hip-hop culture—Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun—can be cultivated within a studio classroom and a concert stage environment (Chang 105). As a result I’ve created artistic works that use street dance styles to raise awareness on issues such as police brutality, and explore ideas of identity and representation in regards to African American males living in this society. I’ve also created weekly Hip-hop dance classes in the city of Columbus called “onCUE” where “CUE” is an acrostic for create, unite, and empower. These dance classes are for the entire community where students learn foundational street dance techniques in order to grasp a new way to connect with themselves and to converse with others; thus, encouraging the dissolution of social, economic, political, and criminal barriers.

By introducing a pro-cultural agenda through Hip-hop dance, I am combatting both the “second-class citizen” label brought on by mass incarceration and the criminalization of commercialized rap music. My efforts might not be enough to change the system, but I’ve witnessed the affects enough to know that it changes lives including my own. I’ve gone from seeing myself as solely a thief to proclaiming that I am a dancer. I am a teacher. I am an artist. I am a scholar. But most importantly, I am an embodiment of the positive influence that a criminal can have on this society through Hip-hop.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.

“Billboard Hot Rap Songs.” n.p. n.d. Web. 23 February 2016.

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.

Cummings, Pond. Andre Douglas. “Thug Life: Hip Hop’s Curious Relationship with Criminal Justice.” Social Science Research Network (2009): 19. Web. 23 February 2016.

Kendrick Lamar. “i.” Genius. 23 February 2016.

Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap. dir. Ice T. Indomina Releasing, 2012. DVD.

Travis Scott. “Antidote.” Genius. 23 February 2016.

Put Your Hands Up: Hip-hop, Incarceration, and The Fate of the Black Male pt 3

Part 3:

Ice Cube—previous member of the rap group, NWA—in The Art of Rap says, “What [street knowledge] means to me is letting the streets know what the politicians is trying to do to them and then letting the politicians know what the streets think of them, if they’re listening.” In the same interview, Ice T then responds with, “I wanted somebody to take my album, when they done, be more intelligent about the game than they were. Versus me saying that I’m tough…” (Something From Nothing). This insinuates that even the “gangsta’ rappers” of the 1980’s who dropped the F-bomb like it was a preposition had an intent to instill values into their hood and into the minds of anyone who would listen.

The rappers of today previously mentioned in the list of chart toppers don’t seem to have any similar kind of intent behind their music. Social conscious messaging is either completely void from these artists’ work or it exists and is swept under the rug by the rap industry. When you look at a rapper like Yo Gotti, his latest album The Art Of Hustle—which features a Billboard top 15 song, Down In The DM—begins with the track My City, which is an authentic reflection of life in Yo Gotti’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Yet, Down In The DM holds almost 11 million views on Youtube compared to My City’s 43,000 views, thus showing the disparity in the kinds of counter-cultural Hip-hop music that is played on a commercial level today.

Michelle Alexander in the New Jim Crow established what the label of “second-class citizen” implies in this country: discrimination equal to the treatment of blacks during slavery and the Jim Crow era. However, how is commercialized Hip-hop related to this label of second-class citizenship? The number of incarcerated African American males is at an all time high in the United States. Simultaneously, the most influential medium for black men to be heard by a mainstream audience has shifted towards a counter-cultural movement that represents excessive sex, illegal drug use, and violence. I suggest that the combination of the two is a powerful force that negatively influences the ways in which African-American males identify themselves in this country and the ways in which others identify them.

When I was ten years old I moved to the edges of inner city Philadelphia. It was the first time I had been in an environment where the majority of people around me resembled my ethnicity and racial make-up on a daily basis. As a boy trying to fit in, I found myself listening to rap music and watching Hip-hop music videos through 106 and Park on BET (Black Entertainment Television) despite my parents’ strict opposition against such things. I was a part of a Christian home with both parents invested into my life, yet I remember how my mind solely desired the fruits of my Hip-hop influenced environment. I wanted to wear the baggie clothes of Puff Daddy, talk like 50 Cent, and get the girls like Nelly. Naturally, I started cursing whenever my parents were absent, I sagged my pants as soon as I left the embrace of my mother to go off to school, and I talked to females like they were meant for only one thing. The black males I looked up to in the media influenced the way in which I viewed the world, even in contest with my own parents’ teachings. If my ten-year-old mind was so influenced by the counter-culture of commercialized Hip-hop that my parents felt a need to move me from Philadelphia after 3 years, I can only imagine the magnitude of influence it has on young black boys whose fathers are in jail.

Put Your Hands Up: Hip-hop, Incarceration, and The Fate of the Black Male pt 2

Part 2:

Interestingly, there has been another movement, the Hip-hop movement, transpiring in urban environments, especially amongst African American males. Hip-hop’s music has always been used to represent a counter-cultural movement. However, the ways in which Hip-hop has accomplished this has shifted since it has become more commodified. In the 1980’s and 90’s Hip-hop was an amalgamation of messages and sounds as artists from all over the United States gained the access to rep their hood on a mainstream platform. Therefore, Hip-hop as a whole began to reject the norms of American culture by both positively empowering the black community and glorifying criminal behavior. Andre Douglas and Pond Cummings in Thug Life: Hip Hop’s Curious Relationship with Criminal Justice emphasize the latter part of this complex discourse in saying:

Hip-hop exposes the current punishment regime as profoundly unfair. It demonstrates this view by, if not glorifying lawbreakers, at least not viewing all criminals with disgust, which the law seeks to attach to them. Hip-hop points out the incoherence of the law’s construct of crime, and it attacks the legitimacy of the system. (19)

Songs such as Me So Horny by 2 Live Crew, Fuck The Police by Niggaz Wit Attidudes (NWA), and 6 In the Mornin’ by Ice T, which perpetuated violence and a gangsta lifestyle, stood in harmony with the socially conscious messages of My Philosophy by Boogie Down Productions, The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, and Fight The Power by Public Enemy. Ultimately, they all told their own story in their own way without apology, and it created a plethora of counter-cultural themes within the same genre.

This brought up the question for me, “Is the diversity of rap music still prevalent today on the commercial level?” I did an analysis of Billboard’s “Hot Rap Songs” of 2016 to explore this query. The top rap artists played through a commercial medium are Drake, Yo Gotti, Travis Scott, Future, Young Thug, Fetty Wap, and 2 Chainz. These rappers account for over 90% of the Billboard’s top 15 rap songs in 2016 (Billboard). I’ve listened to every song created by these artists that are posted on Billboard this month, and every single one falls into one or more of the counter-cultural themes of drugs, violence, or excessive sex while not one represents education or the exposing of issues within our government, our cities, or our country.

 

A Journey of Focus, Excellence, and Mastery.