If we’re going to write, write to inspire. If we’re going to write, write to educate. If we’re going to write, write to inform. All of these must be done with a clear heart and pure intentions though. Education is a form of love. If we are doing so with the intention of debasement, invalidation, or embarrassment, we have failed to provide any form of true elucidation.
The hip-hop industry is the deliberate and systematic perpetuation of inequality, sexism, misogyny and cultural disenfranchisement via the socio-economic and political paradigm instituted by the dominant culture. It is no longer representative of the struggles or voice of an oppressed people. What once was a reflection of our plight and a stance against the inherent city, state and governmental fascism being inflicted upon us, has been co-opted by those outside of our culture for the purposes of profiteering. Our true essence has been relegated to the “underground” and is no longer at the forefront of our movement. Our progeny have been robbed of their cultural identity and are unaware of the true nature of hip-hop. They are enamored by Lil Wayne, Wocka Flocka, and others not recognizing that this buffoonery is not reflective of their cultural heritage, but an image being perpetuated by those outside of their culture. For an art-form to be representative of the culture which sparked it, it must be driven by those who created it. We do not control our image. What we have right now are financed charlatans who represent the dominant culture’s view of our people. That false image is being inculcated into our children and eventually perpetuated by them of their own volition.
Everyday, crimes against our culture and art are committed via the unscrupulous initiative of a few individuals, and amid the passive acquiescence of all. The media and entertainment industry take advantage of our disunity and lack of true community activism. Our proclivity for palaver as a hip-hop dance community feeds our debacle. In short, speak up and take an “active” role in your art and its representation.
Hip-Hop Dance is Only for Black People?
There are those who take offense to people of other cultures doing hip-hop dance (popping, locking, boogaloo, breaking, rocking and party dances.) They feel that they are “stealing” or misappropriating the dance. They say that these people need “Black Soul” in order to truly do the dance and that anything outside of that is just a bad facsimile or straight theft. Stories of cultural destruction begin to emerge, and then slavery, and then the Indigenous Americans.
What many people are conflating though, are cultural origins and cultural diffusion.
Yes, as African Americans, our progenitors were uprooted from their home and we as a result are disconnected from our heritage. We were robbed of our family name (Thomas is the slave owners name not my people’s name), our religions (christianity is not a part of our heritage), our culture (which varied dependent on which region of Africa one was taken from) and our Gods (the “savage” Africans were “civilized” by Catholicism and monotheism.)
As we know, the modus operandi for invading a land for its resources is to wipe out the indigenous population. The indigenous population of the Americas was decimated as a result of what is called FORCED DIFFUSION, where a culture subjugated the indigenous culture by erasing their belief system and traditions while inculcating their own system.
This is a worldwide epidemic and is not isolated to just America. We are also not the only race to be uprooted to a different location via slavery nor the only ones to be robbed of our cultural heritage in the process. There are the Germans, Thracians, Guals, Jews, Russians, Persians, the Fulanis, the Hausas and many more.
The origins of hip-hop dance are African American and Latino. The soul and groove of the dance have been disseminated worldwide via cultural diffusion.
What has happened with the various dance forms that blacks and latinos on both coasts created is dissimilar to what happened with Jazz, Blues, Rock and Rhythm & Blues music. You see, those art-forms were misappropriated via a conscious effort to disenfranchise blacks in this country. White men would sit in Jazz clubs and speakeasies and copy the music down. They had the advantage for two reasons, they had the education and understood how to transcribe music and they were a card carrying member of the dominant culture.
The same happened with many of the social dances in the sixties. White kids in LA would go to black parties and then go on American Bandstand and say they made up the dance! The Red Skeleton Show did the same thing! It was the deliberate and systematic disenfranchisement of the creators of the dance.
However, this is not what has happened with popping or other arts, this is cultural diffusion. Now, cultural diffusion has a variety of components. I will explain them all because I believe it will bring context to the conundrum people are facing:
There are four main influences of cultural diffusion: contagious, relocation, expansion and hierarchal.
CONTAGIOUS means a concept that is transmitted via individual personal contact.
RELOCATION is where a concept travels from its area of origin to a new area. (i.e. a popper from Oakland moves to Ohio)
EXPANSION is when an innovation is nurtured, honed and preserved at it’s point of origin, remains stable there but also simultaneously begins to expand into other areas. (this happened via movies and dance shows from the late 60s to 80s)
HIERARCHAL is where an innovation is disseminated via a large distribution point into “smaller” areas without distance being a mitigating factor and is usually perpetuated by the social elites. (the commercial industry getting a hold of the art and using it without regard for those who created the art)
We (the hip-hop community) are most impacted by EXPANSION and HIERARCHAL, yet because of the nature of American society, all four have had direct impacts on the diffusion of the various cultural inventions of the black and latino communities.
Hip-Hop dance now belongs to the world, not just our small communities anymore.
Our cultural grooves have been studied and assimilated by a variety of populations. The younger they are, the more disconnected they are from the root origins. If I’m white and growing up in Cardiff and see popping, I think that it in fact comes from Cardiff! Until I get older and research and find out different. Does that mean that this young white boy from Cardiff has no right to do the dance? NO! Does it mean he doesn’t have groove because he’s not black? NO! Does it mean that he can’t take ownership over the dance? NO! It means that due to cultural diffusion he now shares in our art. He loves it, respects it, admires it, and wants to spread it too! That is a good thing not a bad one.
Now of course our groove is unique to our cultural heritage. Yet Japanese, Serbian, German, Korean, Chinese etc. have their own cultural groove! Once this groove starts to meet with ours, at first it clashes as I’ve seen happen with my own students from other countries. But then over time they establish a synchronicity between the origin groove and their own and that’s what creates their individual “swagger!”
As long as they are educated and pay homage to the roots of this dance and are clear on it’s cultural lineage, I say let them be. Let them explore. Let them revel in the glory that is our cultural invention. Not excoriate them for not being black.
"Black Soul" as some call it is everywhere. It is the universal membrane of our collective consciousness. It is readily accessible for anyone who is humble enough to acknowledge it, reach for it and own it.
I believe that there should not be a disconnect between the choreographer and the social/cultural heritage from which their gift is granted. When that disconnect is present, they make choices which do not benefit the art-form nor contribute positively to its evolution. Too many choreographers supplant the cultural heritage of hip-hop dance with their industry pursuits not recognizing their complicity in its extirpation.
My Two Cents (on art, culture, hip-hop dance, women, male choreographers)
If you pay close attention to the history of African and Latino culture before the disintegrous impact of European expansion into their lands, you will recognize that the matriarchs were the linchpin of the culture. As more Eurocentric ideologies were inculcated into those cultures via incursion, villenage, Catholicism and subjugation, a respect for women within these various cultures was lost.
Now fast forward to hip-hop the cultural invention, hip-hop dance and commercialism. What we generalize as commercialism are the advertising stratagems that drive our nation’s economy. The baseline theorem that manifests more often than not is “sex sells.” Why? Because men are at the helm. As hip-hop picked up more commercial recognition, the same advertising stratagem was applied to the various parts of the art-form including Dance.
There is a constant, deliberate and surreptitious sexism that exists within our country and our industry that is spearheaded by the men at the helm. Often women contribute to it’s perpetuation by acquiescing to the demands of male choreographers, most of whom just reinforce society’s patriarchal construct through their “work.” I say “work,” because most of what we see on television can hardly be defined as such. Our standards for dance have declined to a farce of creativity. We rest on the paleolithic mindsets of the producers, directors, choreographers and their “vision” instead of recognizing and asserting our power as true artists.
As artists we have a responsibility to create trends not to follow them. It is our duty to push the envelope of perception and expose our audience to what the world can be. There are elements of composition that are integral to the development of a piece. It goes beyond just the “theme.” There must be a motif, and subtleties of choreographic intent which supersede the musical accompaniment. Showing the true beauty of the art without relying on the music or the influence of other art-forms. Hip-hop dance has a myriad of complex continuities that are often missed or trivialized by mixing it with classical dance. The art can survive on it’s own.
Yet if women are ever going to have positions of power and control over their own image, they must step out from the shadows of male induced obscurity and be the powerful b-girls, poppers, lockers, etc. that they are. If all we ever keep seeing is men doing the dynamic and complex movement qualities, then that’s what society begins to adopt; this idea that women are incapable of such athleticism, grace or dexterity, and that ignorance will spread. Then little girls will not aspire for more than a background position in someone’s piece instead of seeking a more empowered trajectory towards financial and pedagogical independence.
From my conversations with other male choreographers, they do not see the far reaching impact of their choreographic choices and the gender roles they cultivate through every performance. Male choreographers have a responsibility to defy the gender roles and present all dancers in the same light and capability. This is something I have always taken seriously and I wish more men were attuned to that sentiment. Yet since most men in this industry are avaricious in nature, I do not foresee a change on the horizon unless the women wake up and demand more from them.
Female dancers, sitting on the fence is not neutrality, it is cowardice. It feeds the pusillanimous male ego and reinforces his delusions of superiority over the female dancer. There is a sense of culpability that comes with being a woman and an artist. You are not just a representative of your own talents and skill, you are a representative of all women. Therefore all roles you accept within someone’s choreography serve to send a message to other young women looking to establish their careers. There are very few men who will ever help you. Their nature is often to disenfranchise and demoralize because that is what society teaches men to do.
Women who have made it, assert your power and your authority. Preserve and reinvigorate the art for the next seven generations of women who wish to be artists themselves. This will break the recidivism.
Safi A. Thomas
Hey Hip-Hop? Your Skirt’s Up, Fag!
Hip-Hop dance has never been truly accepting of women and the gay community. We are tolerant of them. Tolerance is not acceptance, nor is it respect. We throw around emasculating & virulent words all the time. Words that are aimed at attacking one’s “manhood” by portraying them as feminine or gay. These misogynistic homophobes permeate hip-hop with their vitriol. We must change our perceptions in hip-hop of gender and sexuality in order to foster a paradigm shift of positivity as well as inclusiveness of all people. The hip-hop dance cultural invention is a microcosm of society: a patriarchal construct with female inequality, racial prejudice, segregation, a disdain for higher learning and homophobic tendencies. We are not a counterculture. We are very much a reflection of the society we are looking to detach from. The same society we deride for dehumanizing, disenfranchising, exploiting, disrespecting and misappropriating our art-form. What would truly make us heterodox would be for us to be inclusive of other cultures (not by happenstance, but by choice,) treat women equally (them having input in the direction of our art without being denounced or cajoled,) be accepting (not just tolerant) of the gay community, see the value of pedagogy in relation to our art (seeing higher education as an enhancement not a detriment to the pursuit of our art,) and finally, not segregating ourselves by styles nor race. By doing these things we would be able to glean a multitude of benefits and truly be a counterculture. There must be a shift in our social consciousness towards accountability, equality, education & acceptance. Safi A. Thomas Artistic Director
Hip-Hop dance has never been truly accepting of women and the gay community. We are tolerant of them. Tolerance is not acceptance, nor is it respect.
We throw around emasculating & virulent words all the time. Words that are aimed at attacking one’s “manhood” by portraying them as feminine or gay. These misogynistic homophobes permeate hip-hop with their vitriol. We must change our perceptions in hip-hop of gender and sexuality in order to foster a paradigm shift of positivity as well as inclusiveness of all people.
The hip-hop dance cultural invention is a microcosm of society: a patriarchal construct with female inequality, racial prejudice, segregation, a disdain for higher learning and homophobic tendencies.
We are not a counterculture. We are very much a reflection of the society we are looking to detach from. The same society we deride for dehumanizing, disenfranchising, exploiting, disrespecting and misappropriating our art-form.
What would truly make us heterodox would be for us to be inclusive of other cultures (not by happenstance, but by choice,) treat women equally (them having input in the direction of our art without being denounced or cajoled,) be accepting (not just tolerant) of the gay community, see the value of pedagogy in relation to our art (seeing higher education as an enhancement not a detriment to the pursuit of our art,) and finally, not segregating ourselves by styles nor race.
By doing these things we would be able to glean a multitude of benefits and truly be a counterculture. There must be a shift in our social consciousness towards accountability, equality, education & acceptance.
Safi A. Thomas
I do not expect a society that is centered on serial and social monogamy to embrace freedom of choice. However I can educate as many people as possible. Especially since I was once confined by the same trappings as a young adult. I understand where they’re coming from. Our thoughts should mature as we gain further knowledge even if said knowledge confutes current societal norms.
Dear OGs: All of the complaints, vitriol, backbiting, name calling and invalidating of eachother does nothing to help the millions of dancers trying to be part of the art. This egocentric modus operandi of just wanting to be right, or have your old deeds recognized denies the current and following generations a chance at growth because they don’t know who to listen to. So now they listen to no one.
Safi A. Thomas
Taken from his Facebook status.
Behind the Times
As a Western society, we are inundated with a variety of outmoded systems of thought. This is a reflection of our inability, or rather our unwillingness as a society to change our approach to correlate with the times. Our laws, our politics, our education system, our financial system are all examples of antiquated modes of thought which manifest themselves in areas of our lives.
I witness schools and local government cutting arts programs because the arts are viewed as expendable. The creativity of a child is deemed collateral damage. As you follow this wave of destruction up the chain towards college, we witness the deleterious impact that decision has had on who are now grown men and women. People who are unable to think creatively, foster new modes of thought or envision a better future for our country. These proverbial zombies are then released into an ever changing workforce which they are ill equipped to adapt to. It started in grammar school when their arts programs were stripped in lieu of fighting for the arts to remain.
By decimating the arts and stripping away dance, music, drawing, and other vocations, our society suffers. You end up with adults who can’t think of creative ways to end a budget crisis, or save a hospital from shutting its doors, or save a school from closing, or protect the rights of those unjustly demonized in our society.
When you get rid of art you create apathetic individuals with no soul. Whose present hedonistic ethos is more powerful than the desire to help others. We are systematically destroying the future due to our ineptitude as a society.
To secure a better future, it is imperative that we begin to value the arts and their impact. The arts and sciences are the cornerstones of viable civilizations. The systematic destruction of arts programs in America is counterintuitive and lacks forward thinking. Our actions and lack of critical thought make us the Abecedarians of the world.
Safi A. Thomas
The hip-hop dance cultural invention is a microcosm of society: a patriarchal construct with female inequality, racial prejudice, segregation, a disdain for higher learning and homophobic tendencies. We are not a counterculture. We are very much a reflection of the society we are looking to detach from. The same society we deride for dehumanizing, exploiting, disrespecting and misappropriating our art-form. What would truly make us heterodox would be for us to be inclusive of other cultures (not by happenstance, but by choice,) treat women equally (them having input in the direction of our art without being denounced or cajoled,) be accepting (not just tolerant) of the gay community, see value in pedagogy in relation to our art, and finally, not segregating ourselves by style nor race. By doing these things we would be able to glean a multitude of benefits and truly be a counterculture. There must be a shift in our social consciousness towards accountability, equality, education & acceptance.
I teach dancers to be better people before teaching them to be better dancers. You cannot address the dancer without first addressing the person inside. Them having more knowledge of self, juxtaposed within integrity, honor, discipline, responsibility, accountability and comprehensive analysis, allows for more freedom of movement. I prefer long-term benefits over the avariciousness which plagues our art-form currently. Any pedagogical approach must be centered on dancer empowerment and edification, not “learn my hot moves.” That’s why we learn things like cultural & social anthropology, dance theory, music theory, kinesiology and the like; in order to provide empirical knowledge.
Open Letter to The New York Times
Although I definitely understand the need for new and innovative strategies to make your periodical viable into the future, as an educator I am concerned that limiting access will lend itself to a future form of cultural hegemony. As Arthur Sulzberger stated, the Times is uniquely positioned to keep us informed, and I agree.
One thing I have always told students is to keep themselves well informed by perusing a variety of periodicals that have cohesive balanced writing to increase their vocabulary as well as their understanding of the world. However with this new plan, those students will not have this form of access and will therefore be limited in their scope. What about students of low income families, or students in socio-economically deprived situations or schools who don’t receive a free subscription or where that subscription goes to the teachers and not the student population? What about students who use the Times as a method of increasing their chances of furthering their education outside of the inept education system here in the city?
Your decision will inadvertently cause a dichotomy to emerge between those who have access to information and those who —because of monetary constraints— do not have full access. This form of elitist exclusion from the information stream can have a long-term deleterious impact on the future of this city and dare I say, this nation.
Please do not dismiss this concern as magniloquence, but assess the long-term efficacy of your actions on the populace, not just your pocket.
Safi A. Thomas
He wrote this in response to the New York Times decision to begin charging for access on-line.
Games are at the very heart of disingenuous dialogue! It’s a horrid form of dishonesty that strikes at the core of unhealthy male & female discourse. Games are resorted to because the man or woman feels the need to obfuscate their true intentions. But you also can’t go all “scorched Earth” either. Because you’ll turn down someone who may not be a bad guy or woman. You just have to assess and be aware.
This ill conceived notion that as hip-hop dancers we don’t need to supplement our dancing with a flexibility, cardiovascular & strength training regimen is counterintuitive. DANCE IS NOT EXERCISE! We must train our bodies to handle the rigors of our art-form or the body will eventually succumb to the bombardment. Our diet, mentality & physicality are of tantamount importance!