Afrikan Dancers
As Embodied Archives

JC Niala

Afrikan communication has community at its centre. When an Afrikan person speaks or dances, they are doing so as an individual but also as part of a wider conversation. This is most seen through the well-known technique of call and response. At the end of her essay From Scarification to Krump, Temitayo Ince issues a call. She writes, ‘we have a collective responsibility to confront our beliefs, seeking new perspectives on hip hop.’ This essay is my response to her call, an invitation to participate in and carry on the conversation.

 

I partly grew up in Côte d’Ivoire and in the 1990s seeing people every day who still wore hââbré (a type of scarification) on their faces was routine. Going through a market felt like walking in a library with tables full of open books. Reading the lines on people’s faces told you if they were descended from royalty or which community they belonged to; there was so much their bodies communicated before they even opened their mouths. Hââbré, like so many Afrikan traditions is disappearing and without getting into the politics of that change, Ince’s essay spoke to me about why it is important to describe some of the processes in which Afrikan bodies participate and how they sustain our cultures. I hope by highlighting how they work I can join in the actions that aim to remind us of their relevance even as they take on new forms. I see Afrikan dancers’ bodies as a moving form of scarification. One that at once shapes the body of the dancer while working with and through the community that surrounds it.

 

Where Ince’s essay talks about scarification and the identities that get performed by what people use to adorn their bodies – this essay takes it a step further. It explores the knowledge that is encoded in Krump and delves into why Krump is a contemporary example of a long standing Afrikan practice where the body is understood to be an archive. An archive that is both a repository for personal feelings but also one that tells the story of the time and place from which it came. Or as Tight Eyez a co-creator of Krump says right at the end of the film Raised by Krump, ‘It’s intimidating because we came from an intimidating time, it was just a time period, but Krump is an expression past your emotions, it has your emotions in it, and it has who you are, and it has who you want to be in the future. So Krump is all those things and yes it was born out of South Central, but it doesn’t stop there.’

I argue that what Tight Eyez is describing is the way in which the practice of Krump turns dancers’ bodies into an archive, a repository or place where knowledge that is born out of an exact time and place is stored. What matters is that even though it is specific knowledge, it is a knowledge that speaks to wider issues that affect people all over the world and can be referenced as such. The injustices that young Afrikan peoples experience in inner city USA are at once particular to them, but are also unfortunately familiar to many inner city residents in cities across the globe from Sao Paolo to Soweto. This is what archives do – they hold the information in a way that it can be read by many different people bringing meaning to each. Krump as an archive travels the globe drawing participants from a wide range of countries because they are able to recognise the universal struggles encoded within the moves. What they bring to the form is their own particular local and personal flava or a move that might represent their peeps and their own personal creativity. This combination works like a palimpsest with the overall performance bearing its own unique form yet embedded within it is the imprint of the dancer’s teachers, community and life experiences. For the people watching, those most intimate to the dancer will be able to see all of the messages. Others may take in only the artistry, but everyone will gain something from the experience.

 

So, what is the history of Krump and how does it relate to the wider history of the practice of dance and movement being central to Afrikan bodies that function as archives? Krump evolved out of clowning which itself was a dance form created by Tommy the Clown in LA in 1992 as Ince writes to, ‘make positive change in the community.’ Dancers that practiced clowning adorned their bodies and performed in ways that entertained children and the public. This type of ‘masking’ or putting on of a persona to create performances is practised by a wide range of Afrikan peoples. Often coupled with humour, it allows the dancers to subvert their situation by turning something awful into a dance that can be delighted in. Afrikan bodies have certain threads of their histories that have been intertwined with oppression; one of the features is their oppressors’ seeking ways in which to hamper or limit their communication, often to stop them from organising. A tough example of this is from mining in South Africa where during the apartheid era black miners were forbidden from speaking by their white bosses. Working hunched over in cramped and treacherous conditions, they developed a sophisticated form of communication that later travelled the world as Gumboot dancing. In South Central LA, Afrikans faced economic and geographical oppression from the surrounding city – clowning offered respite and positive communication within the communities it served.

However, the putting on of a mask, the wearing of it, and the performing of it, all require a huge amount of energy and Maceo Frost’s film Raised by Krump opens with this acknowledgement. The dancers who were clowning, ‘grew tired of putting up a happy façade. Instead, they wanted to use dance to express their everyday struggles growing up in their neighbourhoods.’ They found this expression through the practice of Krump.

 

The jerky, seemingly uncontrolled and raw movements that make up Krumping are far more than an expression of everyday struggles. They are a record of them, and they offer transformation and transcendence. Or to quote Willie C ‘Fudd’ Hodge who also appears in the film, ‘You can see art and energy from it.’ There is a powerful truth within this deceptively simple statement. The art relates to the archive of information that is held in the Afrikan bodies that dance Krump, and the energy to the initiatory process that Krump dancers go through that as Tight Eyez says in the film – literally turned him into a different man. This energy is spiritual and in the way than an archive is a direct link to the past, the energy directly links Tight Eyez to his ancestors through his elders who carry out the initiation. His use of the word man speaks directly to the process of initiation which is traditionally universal to African cultures and which children have to go through in order to become adults. It is a process which is usually carried out by people other than the children’s parents (although their parents prepare them for it) and marks the point at which the children become responsible adults with key roles in their society. Archives – whether of the embodied kind or even those that are full of documents offer initiation. In archives encased in buildings – students go in and emerge as researchers when they have learned to work with them. Krump (as taught by elders, the community and the dance itself) is one of the tools in the archive of Afrikan dance. Krump takes the body through an initiatory process and turns it into an archive; it is the teacher and the energy that carries out the initiation that turns Krump dancers’ bodies into archives. Christopher ‘Worm’ Lewis clearly states this in the film when he says that ‘Krump raised me and it literally took off where my father left off.’ A critical aspect of initiation is exposing children to the choices that they are making about their lives and encourages them to make positive ones. Initiation shows that (as Lewis says) ‘you can be a regular product of your environment’ or you can instead be the kind of person as Tight Eyez says who knows ‘how to do something.’ This doing/dancing brings about a profound knowledge, a spiritual knowledge which all Krump dancers are aware contains the truth about life and death. A historical example from the African continent of this initiation process was amongst Maasai peoples in which young men in order to become warriors used to have kill a lion. In facing and learning how to overcome danger and death, they were acknowledged as people of value by their communities. In South Central LA, the gun is like the lion and the practice of Krump is a route to choosing life. Krump dancers like Miss Prissy recognise that, ‘the biggest opponent we have is ourselves’ and so instead of having to overcome an external challenge like a lion, in its place they repeatedly make the choice not to take up the gun. This is a choice that is appreciated by their communities. Tight Eyez notes that his friends tell him, ‘you gotta life ahead of you’ which separates him from their lives in which they die young.

 

Moreover, his friends are more than just aware of his positive life choice and his dancing skills, they actively protect and shield him from possible danger. This is because the knowledge that is encoded in his body is a precious archive. Krump dancers’ bodies contain within them (to mention just a few examples) the memories of people in their community who have been brutalised. Their bodies bear their frustrations and holds their societies’ griefs. Tight Eyez underscores this when he says, ‘I wear my life on my face.’

 

Societies all over the world take care of their archives because the information that is stored within them matters. However, there are striking differences between Euro-American and Afrikan archives. Traditional Euro-American archives are static places. They often comprise snapshots of information – photographs, documents and other artefacts which are locked away in buildings carefully managed by gatekeepers. They were initially set up with the intention to hoard information and actively control who has access to it. Many university libraries and archives work in this way with only students or those who have been able to obtain coveted passes being able to access them. This is thankfully changing with information held in archives being increasingly made available to the wider public (particularly through digitisation). Public libraries like the British Library have activated projects to make their collections more accessible but there is still a long way to go. By contrast, Afrikan dancer’s bodies lay their knowledge bare. Anyone can watch a Krump dance either live or on a video, but it is only those who know how to read it that will be able to derive all the layers of information from it. When I watch Krumping I am interested in the interplay between the carefully planned and executed moves and the times when it is as though something else has taken over the dancer’s body. It can be fleeting but a tiny look of surprise on the dancer’s face, or the audience surging forward together showing up the spiritual encased within the art, though this may seem esoteric and not be of interest to those watching for purely technical skills and abilities. Still, all of us are gaining something from it and so the onus remains with the public as to the level of engagement they wish to have with it. There is always the possibility of learning more, taking up the invitation – responding to the call.

 

The understanding of how serious this invitation to learn from and join in with the archive is seen through the fact that Afrikan dancers’ bodies are mobile. To have an archive which goes to the people instead of waiting for the people to come to it, democratises knowledge. To have an archive that moves is an archive that is alive or to use the words of Francis B. Nyamnjoh, ‘Everything moves – people, things and ideas.’ This movement is both through time and space. Nyamnjoh’s work draws from ancestor Chinua Achebe who wrote in his novel Arrow of God ‘The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.’ A Krump session embodies this understanding and develops it further. Krump dancers are routinely surrounded by their fellow dancers and people who are watching them. All the observers definitely ‘do not stand in one place.’ They move around, jump up and down, get close to the dancer, move back, vocalise and make noises. In other words, they participate. This is an active engagement with the archive – taking in the curation of new moves that the dancer displays and at the same time passing onto the dancer their own responses which will be incorporated into the repertoire/archive.
 

A powerful example of this can be seen in the EBS Krump World Championships of 2013 in the battle between Ruin and Monsta Ny aka Grichka. Comments in the YouTube video of the battle refer to the effect of this participation as one Michael McIntosh both appreciated and wished he could see more of what was filmed remarking, ‘I'd probably be more impressed if I could actually see their freestyle tho (thanks, crowd).’

 

Krump dancers are cognisant of the knowledge that they learn and pass onto others. Lynnden Hodge talks about how much his brother has educated him and in turn he, likes to dance because he gets ‘to teach people’ and he has carried out his performing/teaching all around the world. Krump is not merely an extension of the type of mask dancing that Ancestor Achebe wrote about, it is an intergenerational response that makes African traditions relevant to Afrikans in the diaspora. Miss Prissy reflects this even by how she chooses to adorn her home with ancestral African masks gracing the walls. In Krump the mask is dropped and the dancers grimace, contort their faces into silent screams bearing witness to the struggle it can be to stay alive.

 

As Krump is also a practice of the spirit, it does not stop with despair. Krump dancers know that they are using their bodies to birth something new. Initiatory processes are a type of birth, and it is no surprise that this is the way in which Miss Prissy refers to Krump. In an initiatory process – the child gives birth to the man or woman. She talks of Krump having been birthed from poverty and I would argue that she is speaking about a poverty of spirit, a place in which one feels crushed by the weight of oppression. Through this process of birth, Krump resolves conflict through dance. Yet, it is a dance that does not shy away from the gravity of the circumstances that brought it into being. At the end of the film Raised by Krump, the closing scene sees Lewis thrusting out his arm, holding it outstretched with his index and middle finger pointing. His thumb is bent on the top of his hand like an upside down v and his ring and little finger are folded into the inside of his palm. To the uninitiated, Lewis may look like a little child who is using his hand to imitate gun toting gangbangers. But to those who know how the archive works it documents and also offers some hope, Lewis may instead be pointing to a better future. A place that is currently beyond the camera’s gaze, a place where we can see by the question raised through the enquiry in Lewis’ eyes and tilt of his head. We are able to transform the knowledge we have gained into different possibilities and outcomes.

 

In this way, Lewis is using his body as a tool of communication to reference the past, engage with the present but also offer transformation to his community. In the oft repeated example of Ubuntu or the understanding that ‘I am because we are’, what is less referenced is ‘we are because I am.’ By Lewis communicating for, or on behalf of his community, he is both signalling and sustaining the idea that transformation is possible. Implicit in his krumping is if I can do it (transform) – so can you. In much the same way Ince’s essay encouraged me to write this piece.

I am a heritage professional, and my livelihood is based in static archives that I critique and work to improve. My quiet tracing of Hip Hop dance and its evolutions born from a childhood love and practice has until now sat separately to the research-based essays I usually produce. I know that Krump will continue to evolve, folding into itself the stories that emerge as it changes and grows. My archival work now will continue to publicly engage with the practice that is Hip Hop dance and the record and challenge that it draws us all into.

Raised by Krump by Maceo Frost. Directed by Maceo Frost. Uploaded to Vimeo May 2017.

Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022

A response to From Scarification To Krump by Temitayo Ince

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JC Niala

JC Niala is a writer, theatre maker and heritage professional with an interest in Afrikan archival practices. This includes the use of the body through dance and theatre. She is fascinated by both the movement of bodies in various styles of Hip Hop dance and the movement of these dance styles to and from the continent to the diaspora and back.

Working in academic and creative capacities, JC routinely facilitates workshops on African theatre and theatre making practices.

 

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JC Niala