FROM SCARIFICATION TO KRUMP - how body adornment has transformed dance across the diaspora
The body has always been a site for transformation. It is in many ways a skin, something that we change, put on and shed, and which in the process changes the way we see and interact with ourselves, and the way others interact with us.
Skin acts as a boundary between the self and the environment, and as put so well by Akweke Emezi “Fashion is a game of skins I can play with, because the body is the first masquerade. Think about it, what do spirits need to move into this world? A skin, whether it's made from raffia, wood, fabric, mirrors or flesh. With fashion, I get to customize the skins to reflect the spirit within, and that often means extravagant, bright colours and textures bursting across me.” Our bodies can be used not just to reflect our spirit and identity, as Emezi says, but also to facilitate ritual, and through this to construct our realities.
Body adornment is an ancient practice involving decoration of the body or physical appearance through scarification, face or body paint, tattoo, costume or jewellery. It is practiced all over the world, but I will be focusing on the history of body adornment and its relation to hip hop and traditional dance forms in West Africa.
I started this journey watching Rize by David LaChapelle. It follows the lives of the forefathers of clowning and krumping and we get to see the landscape and environment that the styles developed in. It was a great visual introduction to the history krump, and it's emergence from clowning. Watching this documentary I saw the raw emotion in the dance, the stories of the artists and how krump seemed to give people the chance to express the pain and sadness they had been holding in. It was a ritual to mourn death and life.
Clowning - and by association krump - came out of Los Angeles in the efforts to make positive change in the community. Early clown dancers used face paint mirroring clown makeup in an act to transform themselves, hide their identity, and move uninhibitedly. Clowning eventually developed into krump, a harder more aggressive style that allowed dancers to confront and work through difficult emotions and struggles they were going through as predominantly young black people in a racist America. The playful face paint used in clowning as a means of escapism became a more serious warrior like form of adornment, with crews using krump to settle territory disputes and resist the attacks on youth culture from the Los Angeles Police Department.
Watching Rize there was one scene that made visual reference to the use of face paint for krumpers, and for what seemed to be West African people adorning their bodies and faces. Although I wish the director had referenced where the footage was from, there was a beautiful moment where we were shown a montage of the similarities in the expansive freeing movements, jerky releases and spine undulations of krumpers and indigenous African dancers. I was immediately drawn in.
It wasn't until I started thinking about this piece that I realised that I and the people around me had been adorning our bodies much longer than I had been aware. That tattoo after a loved one dies, the jewellery you put on for confidence, the matching tattoos between friends or in gangs, the intricate hand and foot henna and the clothes we buy.
West Africa is home to many of my ancestors, some who remained in Nigeria, and others who were enslaved and later travelled to Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. It is a region made of numerous cultures, practices and languages, and is a beautifully rich source of knowledge for us in the diaspora. It’s culture is dynamic, travelling and constantly transforming with influences seen in the Caribbean, North and South America, and of course my home, the UK. Shout out West Africa, you the baddest.
Although adornment typically refers to the process of making something more beautiful or attractive, for many in West Africa (and her diaspora) this practice serves a much wider function. Adornment has been used in Africa for hundreds of years to build community, facilitate spiritual connection, and heal and protect the sick. In central Niger the Fulani use jewellery and tattoos to show clan origin and as their own kind of facial map, with tattoos showing the location of family pastures. In Togo scarification marks on the forehead are used to treat epilepsy, and in Yorubaland, are used by some to protect twins or abiku children from spirits. Body adornment takes many forms and functions and the Igbo of South East Nigeria, my grandad’s people, use Uli, a particular body and wall painting technique to temporarily dye skin. Techniques are passed from mother to daughter using the body as a site of generational sharing.
Our bodies are corporeal gateways that allow us to access new sources of knowledge and understanding. Before entering this state of creativity, body adornment prepares us for this journey. We see this in festivals such as the Egungun festival of South West Nigeria, where costume and dance are used to transform members of the community into the spirits of ancestors. Dancers wear costumes with body and face panels decorated with cowrie shells, beads and coins and dance to drums revealing colourful layers of costume. Through adornment, the Egungun assume the role of mediators between families and their departed loved ones and cleanse the community giving messages, warnings and blessings to those who have stopped to watch them.
Body adornment in hip hop dance isn’t quite as literal. Instead of adorning ourselves using paint and specific tattoos this ritual may lie in the ways we choose to decorate ourselves before dance; the clothes and jewellery we wear, the makeup and costume that helps us prepare to channel, experience or feel something new. Dress is a way that social identities are performed, a kind of social skin. For many hip hop dancers, adorning the body before dance provides infinite possibilities to recreate our identities, and enables a sense of power and control over our bodies. Black style, and by extension hip hop has been an expression of controlling the extremes throughout history: Harlem jazz musicians mastered the tightest of the tight with their slim-cuffed zoot suits, and now, hip hop artists turn to baggy clothes to master the loosest of the loose.
There is so much beauty and crossover between hip hop and West African dance styles. The Hausa of Cameroon dance with their loose energetic footwork and relaxed body groove that immediately made me think of jacking in house dance. Bruk up, a dance style coming from West Africa’s diaspora in Jamaica uses bone breaking, gliding and waving, and directly influenced the flexing style. The poly rhythms in the drum and beats we dance to, the community of the cypher, the use of the spine and legs; Africa has influenced hip hop dance immeasurably, and just as body adornment continues to be a transforming act in West African dance and ceremony, it may also be present in hip hop dance.
Body adornment as a practice in West Africa and across her diaspora is slowly fading. We are seeing the demonisation and slow disappearance of traditions and cultures that use adornment. Colonisation, globalisation, and the rise of Islam and Christianity in West Africa have led to the rejection of many practises including scarification, tattoo and ceremonial costume. Scarification in particular is a love hate issue in society, and perspectives towards it are complex and layered. Senator Dino Melaye of Nigeria is currently leading the motion of a bill to criminalise and end scarification in Nigeria, arguing that it is barbaric and violates the rights of the vulnerable. While there is a place for the preservation of cultural practices, I personally see the value in encouraging people to wait until they are old enough to decide for themselves. It is important however to remember that scarification encompasses a range of invasive and non invasive practices, and each should be treated individually (after all many of us pierce our newborns ears without their consent).
Both of my great great grandmothers had markings on their backs and told my grandmother stories of how still they sat being adorned. Whilst my grandmother, born in Lagos, Nigeria has no markings, we spoke for a long time about the traditions behind the practice, especially during the slave trade where West Africans used their face markings to trace their histories and find their ancestral homes. Although slavery is arguably over, it may be the case that as my grandmother said “people still do it in case it happens again.” We have all seen the revolting entrapment of African migrants in Libya.
Body adornment and indigenous practices seem to polarise, with some arguing for the preservation of tradition, and others for choice. Much like adornment, hip hop dance and views on it’s evolution are polarising, with some arguing for the preservation of original forms, while others push for the development of new ways of moving. Going back to early clowning and krump and the use of face and body adornment as a ritual, hip hop can be seen as a living example of the ways that body adornment is and may be continued in the diaspora. Just like the moko jumbie stilt walkers of Trinidad or the shortknee dancers of Grenada, the way we move our bodies in hip hop dance also relies on lessons learnt from West Africa.
As a woman from the African diaspora it’s impossible to imagine a life without movement. Dance forms the colour, complexity and substance by which I engage with the world. It is the foundation of parties and ceremonies from the beginning to the end of life, and is a tool for self and collective discovery. Although hip hop has progressed and evolved into a vibrant and inclusive scene, it is important to remind ourselves of the originators of many hip hop styles, people from the African diaspora. In a time where African culture is being stolen or misunderstood it is important that we celebrate and raise the voices, cultures and people of Africa. From scarification to krumping, the ritual of adorning our bodies for dance remains largely untold, and we have a collective responsibility to confront our beliefs, seeking new perspectives on hip hop.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Temitayo Ince is a London based writer, dancer and activist.
She is interested in sharing stories from the African Diaspora and immerses herself in the realms of mythology, spirituality and mental health. She is passionate about decolonisation, and through her work attempts to question the indoctrination of western ideologies and practices.
Temitayo is fascinated with language and the power of words to shape the world around us. Her interest in movement has led her to study a foundation in dance movement therapy at Goldsmiths University, as well as to engage with styles such as breakdance, contemporary and traditional West African indigenous dance forms.
Temitayo is passionate about providing equal access to art and has worked and volunteered in a range of settings with young people in London. She predominantly uses movement and writing, but continues to explore new mediums.
Temitayo Ince, Credit Colin Ince