Flexibility training portion of the class at H+ | Photography Credit AK47Division
Teachers must look at their students not as empty vessels to be filled with information, especially in this generation where a database of knowledge is at our fingertips, literally. That means teachers, from their real-time knowledge base, must instead interact with students from their real-time knowledge base, providing questions and information that will allow their students to expand upon this base. Ignoring that there is any base will only have the teacher in a false hierarchy that is top-down as opposed to a fruitful relationship that is mutually beneficial. Access where your students are at culturally, personally, generationally, experientially, not from an inaccurate assumption of their lack of intelligence, skill, etc. Tap into what they already have and guide them to locating, cultivating, and accentuating what was once a shadow, a background, or a small inkling. Mentor them to ascend in confidence, maturity, self-assurance, independence, and responsibility. The character built will permeate all areas of their lives from the social to the personal to the professional to the intellectual.
- Yvonne H. Chow for Women’s History Month
I remember the first time I heard the phrase “Hip-Hop Education.” As the Education Director of H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, I initially thought that this phrase must be very connected to my work! Then I remember attending the conference and being sorely mistaken as I sat in a student desk listening to some man overanalyze the lyrics of Wu-Tang Clan. Definitely not what I expected.
So what then, exactly, was Hip-Hop Education?
“Hip-Hop Education” can be perceived as a redundant phrase, sort of like the phrase “cultural arts” (all art emanates from culture…). Hip-Hop in and of itself IS education. The one element we rarely mention in the diaspora’s complex is “knowledge.” Our godfather, Afrika Bambaataa, said knowledge is the element which feeds the ability to participate in the rest: DJing, MCing, Graffiti, and Hip-Hop Dance.
After attending “Legacy Building: Hip-Hop Education Think Tank III” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture created by the illustrious Martha Diaz and staff of NYU’s Hip-Hop Education Center, I was delighted to now see the full expanse of the concept, Hip-Hop Education. This 2-day conference from Saturday, November 9th - Sunday, November 10th, 2013, was a jam-packed event that hosted amazing speakers such as Jeff Chang (author of arguably Hip-Hop’s most comprehensive history book, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop”), Dr. Shakti Butler of World Trust Educational Services (who led an interactive screening experience) as well as Hip-Hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Caz and Marley Marl! The intellectual and emotional stimulation in that theater was buzzing with heated questions, challenging notions, and good-hearted, warm social justice talk. What I appreciated the most about this conference was its commitment to the spirit of a think tank, in which this community was ready to ask questions, to question itself, to question others, in an effort to begin clarifying Hip-Hop’s role in the pedagogical field.
Needless to say, with over 100 speakers, all of whom united under this one cause, it is evident that the term, “Hip-Hop Education” is here to stay. If this is the case then the questions that must be answered are: What exactly is Hip-Hop Education? What is Hip-Hop Education’s function and relevance? How does Hip-Hop Education enhance and not detract from the educational nature already embedded within Hip-Hop to begin with?
The cultural invention of Hip-Hop, though not a direct, calculated, methodical response, was a pure reaction to the injustices and civic negligence of the early 70s in the South Bronx. The youth of this time were failed by many institutions and services (the educational system being a very significant infrastructure) either via poor service or just overall abandonment. This being the case, why then would we insert Hip-Hop into the very same educational system born of the industrial complex, that did very little for the originators and creators of the cultural invention? Why not build a new infrastructure when at Hip-Hop’s core is an energy that beckons something new that could potentially replace the system?
A new mode of education calls for us as educators to not prescribe to the traditional systems of operation. Many of our modes for challenging the system are still within the same infrastructure of the system. Creating after-school programs or visiting schools still surrounds the institution of the school. Yes we are interrupting the “arguably dysfunctional system” (Defining the Field, TRACK LIST OF TERMS AND CONCEPTS: PEDAGOGY QUESTIONS) for a brief moment to really “stimulate” the kids but the truth still remains that the construct of the school continues to be the primary effector.
If the school is a tree, at the root of this tree is the Industrial revolution, which implanted within the generations to follow, is the spirit of education for the purposes of building workers. However, education’s purpose is not to solely nor even primarily to build a worker. Education’s purpose is to as its latin root says, pull out from within. If Hip-Hop is not aiding in the eradication of the old operating system for a new operating system, then we are using this revolutionary form ironically, and thus, ineffectively. It is like working to put out a fire by adding more wood to the flames.
Anyone that wants to work within Hip-Hop must first cultivate a foundational understanding of the complex cultural invention and take steps towards being an active participant in its art forms. Therefore, in moving forward with this term, there are three intrinsic prongs that must be recognized under the umbrella in order to ensure that there is clear definition, purpose, and foundation to Hip-Hop Education’s conceptual identity: 1) Learning and theorizing ABOUT Hip-Hop 2) Learning/Teaching HOW to engage in the elements of Hip-Hop (MCing, DJing, Graffiti, Hip-Hop Dance) 3) Learning/Teaching USING the elements of Hip-Hop as a tool
Because of Western society, we are quick to perceive three manifestations as being separate: the first usually reserved for the astute academics (ivory tower) the second for those learning Hip-Hop art forms (Hip-Hop community)and the third for the K-12 educators (school system). However, Hip-Hop Education cannot be just theorizing without practice, nor practicing without theorizing. The theory feeds the practice which then loops back to the theory. Otherwise, we are left with intellectual masturbators or kinesthetic fiends with no public voice. We cannot have the “talkers” be disconnected from the doing. Likewise, we cannot have the “doers” be disconnected from the talking. Although in our society we find this acceptable due to our penchant for specialities, this only enlarges the disparity between the culture of Hip-Hop and the culture of the educational/academic world. What spawns then, is this incongruous, inorganic creature, neither here nor there, wading in half-baked knowledge. The last thing we need is for Hip-Hop to become yet another White-washed, anesthetized, exploited, commercialized pop cultural phenomenon.
And if we respect the authenticity of Hip-Hop, and do not want it to continue down this road, then we recognize that we cannot hide in completeness with our external (if I just wear my fresh kicks then I’ll be “real”). Rather, we must cultivate our internal connection to a very raw, visceral expression by a people that were oppressed, neglected, and treated as “lesser than.” If we want to BE Hip-Hop then 1. We must cultivate empathy to comprehend the foundation of Hip-Hop. Empathy requires honesty and a willingness to see from another persons’ perspective how their experiences and history have shaped their current views and actions. 2. We must cultivate creativity and innovation to contribute to Hip-Hop’s evolution founded in the foundation of the art forms and the spirit of “peace, love, unity and having fun”, as opposed to a death state of repeating tired, irrelevant tradition.
As a community leader of and pedagogue/student in Hip-Hop Dance, I am simultaneously involved in all three prongs of Hip-Hop Education. I write and speak about Hip-Hop Dance, I teach Hip-Hop Dance, and I use Hip-Hop Dance as a way of learning/teaching about ourselves, the world we live in, etc. This is all due to the brilliance of my mentor, H+ | Artistic Director Safi A. Thomas. Let’s just say he is not one for limits nor separation nor categorization. And it is through his ethos that I have been honorably invited into Hip-Hop to be an advocate, a face, and a leader for the community.
Finding balance is key to positively and productively contributing to Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop does not need validation or legitimization from Hip-Hop academics or scholars. Hip-Hop does not need to be used in the school system. However, if we are opening the doors for access to the diaspora then there must be rules laid down so that the foundation is preserved, not lost within other parallel universes (Cultural Studies, Metropolitan Studies, Black Studies, Youth Culture, Popular Culture, Arts, Music, Dance, etc.) Hip-Hop is all encompassing and its complexity cannot be denied, ignored, or dimmed. If we are not brave enough to embrace Hip-Hop wholeheartedly then we place our preconceived notion of self in front of one of America’s most brilliant inventions. To be integrous to the conservation, preservation, and proliferation of Hip-Hop, we cannot put our ego first. As Michale Benitez, the Dean of Diversity and Inclusion of the University of Puget Sound so poignantly asked, “Are we meeting the need of White discomfort or meeting the needs of the community?” I do so profoundly hope you join me in the latter.
H+ | Education Director Yvonne Chow
So even though I said that Decadance was a way to end my Women’s History Month, April still continued on this theme of women in Hip-Hop! I was thus, joyously allowed to continue my thoughts in a public space through the forum so fittingly titled, “Women in Hip-Hop,” at the 10th Annual Bronx African American History Project at Fordham University on Saturday, April 5, 2013.
The speakers were Imani Kai Johnson who read a passage of her dissertation on “bad ass feminity” of b-girls who defied public spaces with stereotypically male bravados and roles. Dr. Oneka LaBennett answered her questions regarding the marginalization of women in Hip-Hop narratives. And Elizabeth Mendez Berry spoke to her experiences as a music journalist covering the personal lives of many rappers and their engagement in domestic abuse with their loved ones.
There were two points that really struck me from the lecture. Dr. LaBennet stated that she had invited Jeff Chang, author of “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” to speak about women in Hip-Hop. Chang replied that he would not be fit for this and suggested another women do the job. Later, Elizabeth Mendez Berry would remind us of the Spelman College incident in which Nelly was to come for an event but ended up cancelling when the students asked him to speak at a forum about his degrading music videos (i.e. “Tip Drill” among many others).
In both instances men “felt” as though they could not speak about a women’s experiences or WITH women about their experiences. So then if it is always men speaking about men and women speaking about women, how will we ever establish empathy between our genders? How will we open ourselves to the vulnerability of sharing what we have come to understand about the opposite gender and also what we are ignorant of? It’s especially important in situations where one gender asks for dialogue that the other reciprocate, otherwise, we continue to misunderstand and also continue living misinformed.
And though each scholar shared extensively regarding misogyny and women’s occupation of space or lack thereof in Hip-Hop, I found that the big bad “P” word was missing from the entire panel. And no…it’s not “penis” (lol). Patriarchy!
My generation and the generation before view this word as some archaic 4-syllable word that no one ever uses anymore the way NO ONE is named Bartholomew now. However, in extracting ourselves from the root of our inequality, we only speak around the subject of its byproducts (homophobia, misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc.) and will then never find a resolution. Now in academia, we talk strictly of women, as though they live in some incubated waiting room that men peer into and sometimes walk into. The women are very successful in this box of patriarchy but what they don’t realize is that they have still not liberated via men’s release of privilege/false power and so continue “feeling free” within these confines.
We cannot continue to theorize our empowerment but fall short in recognizing what withholds us from it. Patriarchy is a societal construct that has by no means left us. It is what looms over our every action as women and men. It hovers at a far distance so long as we fall for benevolent sexism, the impracticality of chivalry, etc. When will we learn that we have not necessarily progressed? It is not merely enough for men to “act” as though they love and respect women, but actually BELIEVE that they love and respect women and thus take critical actions against what they and other men have done that holds women from rising in their exercise of power.
So I suggest we say the “P” word more often and bring it into our dialogues regarding women especially. Let’s confront reality and build from there. Anything else is just an exercise in futility wrapped in a bow tie of ego-celebration.
It’s been a whirlwind of events this month celebrating the XX chromosomes! So I thought what better way to end the festivities than with Decadance, the Brooklyn-based all female Hip-Hop Crew, for their 336 Residency Show at 3LD (3 Legged Dog) Art and Technology Center! The aesthetic feel of the building could be likened to a space portal of sorts; the white, plastic, sanitized interior design transported me to a futuristic dimension. In entering the theater itself, I was pleasantly surprised by the layout. The space was a circular arena where the panel (where light designs would appear) was one part of the semi-circle and the audience made up the other. Jennifer Weber, the Artistic Director opened the show introducing the two pieces for the night: “4” described as a Hip-Hop Ballet, and their popular piece, “Light Suits”.
"4" followed the movements of this very well-known classical piece, "Four Seasons" by Vivaldi. Each season was embodied by a duet. The dancers carved through space with clean lines and shapes like a torrent of weather, bringing us on their journey of joy, boredom, love, and curiosity.
The most finely executed of the seasons was winter, performed by B-Boy, Sammy “Samo” Soto, and a B-Girl, Lucille “Frak” Graciano. They entered the scene shivering in the snow bundled in sweaters and vests. Each went through a patterned series of movements portraying the connection or lack thereof between the couple. I sensed their pain, their wonderment, their passivity, the highs and lows of their relationship as they flew through the air and slid on the ground in a synchronicity of intention.
Neither dancer tried to overpower one another as both understood their interconnectedness to the story being told. It was a beautiful experience to witness their body collaboration. Later, in the Q&A, Lucile would talk about her experiences working with her performance partner and how exciting it was to come into the rehearsal with new kinesthetic discoveries, bouncing ideas off of one another. Their willingness to build with one another was definitely demonstrated in the final product.
What continued to be reiterated for me was the harmoniously-built sculptural creations between the two dancers’ bodies in each season. What I think would be interesting to explore is a theater-in-the-round set up where the audiences could witness this orchestra of contact work from all angles. I believe this may heighten a more immersive experience in which space is manipulated in emphasis of the three-dimensions.
The next piece “Light Suit” was a piece I had seen at City Center during a Career Transitions for Dancers event. The scene opened with Megan “Megz” Alfonso in the center, the intensity of the lights highlighting her succinct movements. Electronic music blasted as the rest of the dancers eventually joined her, their lights flashing on and off to give the illusion of appearance and dissappearance. The element of surprise as well as the idea of dance transforming into a lightshow of sorts was an interesting concept to revisit. I think that what could enhance this dynamic piece would be thicker strips of light so that the sharp articulation and clarity of the dancers can be seen better by the audience.
Overall I appreciated being a part of the experience witnessing a team of women working together in their “emotional storytelling” (as Weber called it). Though dance is meant to unite communities, it is rare to find a legion of women in a male-dominated art form holding their ground. It is even rarer to find women of Hip-Hop who work together successfully. So to find both on this Saturday evening in the depths of Manhattan (the Financial District) was thrilling and refreshing! What a way to end women’s history month! Congratulations, ladies.
Education Director Yvonne H. Chow