Hip-Hop Dance for Joy and Liberation
Art has always served as a powerful and influential medium for socio-political commentary. For generations, artists have found creative and powerful ways to use their medium of art to critically analyse society, community members' lived experiences, and the political climate. For example, in 2012, New York City artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh released her art project called Stop Telling Women to Smile. Fazlalizadeh created posters that were publicly displayed in the streets of New York City that promoted a message about street harassment, a gender injustice that women face regularly. The posters feature portraits of women, along with quotes that share their experiences of street harassment. Fazlalizadeh’s art critically addresses the societal challenge of street harassment that women face on a daily basis. Her hope is that publicly displaying her art speaks directly to offenders of street harassment. Art, through its various mediums, provides opportunities for anyone, specifically systemically oppressed groups, to challenge and critique social and political systems. For example, groups who faced oppression have been known to utilise dance as a form of resistance and liberation. The Bomba dance, originated in Puerto Rico as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Bomba was created by enslaved people from different groups who laboured on sugar plantations in Puerto Rico during the 1600s. Bomba drew from elements from African and Indigenous Taino culture and, through its performance, was a way for enslaved groups to reclaim and share their cultural traditions in the face of oppression. Traditional Puerto Rican culture rejected Bomba dancing because it was represented resistance through the celebration of diverse cultures, but the people have kept the tradition alive. We have even noticed a resurgence of bomba dancing at Black Lives Matters protest as a way of protesting against injustices that the Black community has faced.
Why Puerto Rican Bomba Music Is Resistance, published by Sound Field, 2020
In this article, I will draw connections between how hip-hop dance historically has been leveraged as an art form to counter negative social and political narratives by promoting joy and liberation, as well as draw connections to Virginia Fornillo’s article focused on How Young People In Argentina are Using Hip Hop Dance to Build Future Democracies. Before we can dive into how hip-hop dance is leveraged for joy and liberation, it’s important to understand the history of hip-hop and hip-hop dance.
History of Hip-Hop and Breakdancing
Hip-hop is a culture that was created organically by Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities in the Bronx during a socio-economic crisis during the 1970s. The birth of hip-hop was a response to the social injustices that Black and immigrant communities faced while living in urban centres in America. Hip-hop, to this day, continues to be innovated by Black and brown youth, particularly within urban centres, and is still used to promote the voice and experiences of Black communities. Hip-Hop has become the most consumed genre of music in the world. However, many consumers of hip-hop music fail to recognise the rich history behind the birth of an innovative and progressive culture. Like many genres of contemporary music, Hip-Hop has roots in other musical genres, such as Jazz, Blues, Rock, and Funk, to name a few.
In the 1960s, the Bronx began to deteriorate as a response to increased challenges, including a steady rise in crime, a struggling economy, budget cuts to key social services such as the fire and police departments, and construction projects that displaced thousands of Bronx residents. During the early 1900s, the Bronx was planned to be a suburban community in which people could conveniently travel a short distance to their jobs in Manhattan; however, during the 1950s and 1960s, crime across New York City rose dramatically, particularly in relation to drugs. Poverty was an underlying issue affecting many New Yorkers, but while the entire city experienced an increase in crime and poverty, the Bronx was hit the hardest. In the 1970s, the elders of the Bronx community recall a time when gang violence over turf reached its peak and poverty was catastrophic (Gonzalez, 2004). Gang violence between various crews became problematic, which encouraged the New York Police Department to launch efforts to penetrate local gangs that ultimately failed. The increased crime rate encouraged many community members to relocate, especially those who were affluent and had access to the resources to relocate, which caused a significant change in the community as many homes, buildings, and commercial property became vacant (Gonzalez, 2004).
In the midst of this social and economic crisis that plagued the Bronx, hip-hop was created as a social and therapeutic outlet by and for Black and Latino youth, many of whom were either immigrants and first-generation Americans, in response to the effects of industrialisation in the Bronx (Chang, 2007; Rose, 1994). Cindy Campbell, the mother of hip-hop, and Clive Campbell, who is better known as DJ Kool Herc, the father of hip-hop, were siblings and migrants from the island of Jamaica who hosted a back-to-school party as a means to generate income. Young people and adults from the community all attended this party, where DJ Kool Herc served as the DJ. Block parties like the one hosted by DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Ghetto Brothers (a hip-hop crew) created a space for young people in the Bronx to celebrate being young and free. The power of music, dance, and camaraderie united Bronx youth, and “for the youth, the block party was the space of possibility (Chang, 2007).” The block party was an outlet that countered the oppressive realities that were faced by community members. The block party became the space where community members gathered to experience joy, fellowship, and liberation. It was a space where the hip-hop breakers (a common term for breakdancers) would demonstrate their complex skills, battle one another, and put on a show for the community.
Breakdancing began as a direct response to the social factors that urban youth experienced in the late 1960s and during the 1970s in the South Bronx. Instead of fighting, gangs formed breakdancing crews where their best breakers would battle one another on the dance floor. Breakers would dance to the rhythm of the beat played by the neighbourhood DJ. Youth at the time saw breaking as an alternative to violence and thrived from the competitive aspect and community notoriety that the best breakers claimed. Breaking became an outlet for youth to resist the oppressive social conditions that existed in the Bronx and encouraged youth to contort their bodies as a radical act of joy and liberation. Breaking was birthed out of a desire for Bronx youth to experience joy, as a response to the distress experienced as a result from poor social conditions. As time progressed, breakers took the art of dancing more seriously and always strived to perfect their moves as they incorporated moves from various sources, including the Brazilian martial arts capoeira and gymnastics (Dossar, 1991; Gogerly, 2011). They danced faster, developed more complex moves, and improved their form. Breakers emphasise their use of energy, movement, creativity, and humour in their routines. Breakdancing received its name because breakers would dance during the breakbeat of a song. Since its inception in the late 1960s, breaking has gained global popularity as it was included as a professional sport in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires and is set to make its Olympic Games debut in Paris in 2024. While breaking isn't as commonly practiced in inner cities and amongst youth, I argue that this style of dancing has influenced contemporary hip-hop dance, which continues to be a pivotal part of hip-hop culture. The intricate, well-thought-out, and well-performed dances that hip-hop dancers perform demonstrate a kinaesthetic aspect of hip-hop culture.
Since its conception, hip-hop culture continues to be used as a tool to promote social justice and advocate for the needs of historically marginalised communities. Hip-hop centres the community and provides opportunities for young people, adults, and elders to gather, dance, and ultimately enjoy life regardless of the harsh realities people in The Bronx face. At its core, hip-hop is a culture that promotes social justice and provides an outlet for youth who have been systemically marginalised to experience joy and share their stories and realities with the world.
Hip-Hop Dance for Joy and Liberation
In the present day, Black people and people of colour continue to experience oppression by systems and institutions across the globe. In the United States, racial disparities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and countless acts of fatal police violence caused communities across America and the world to organise demonstrations in support of Black lives in 2020. People of all generations, races, and ethnic backgrounds took to the streets to protest police brutality and structural racism. It is no surprise that hip-hop became the soundtrack to protests. Hip-hop as the soundtrack for protest created the context for protestors to engage and enact hip-hop dance during demonstrations. Similar to the social climate in the Bronx, which contributed to the conception of breaking, youth were looking for an outlet to gather as a community without violence and protesters found joy and liberation in dance. Protesters gathered to share their disdain for police brutality and structural racism, but also created opportunities to manipulate their bodies to the sounds of hip-hop drums and beats as acts of joy and liberation in the face of oppression.
Black Lives Matter dance: Protest performances spring up, published by Al Jazeera English, 2020
Krumping is another style of hip-hop dance that was popularised in South Los Angeles and is known to reference African dance forms. Krumping is characterised by its expressive, exaggerated, and high energetic moves that are intended as positive expression of frustration or pent-up emotion (Kafai & Peppler, 2008). Like breaking, krumping was created as a form "to express raw emotions in a powerful but non-violent way (LaChapelle, 2005)." Krumping offered an opportunity to battle, compete and express emotion in a non-violent way. Like other hip-hop dance forms, through the expression of krumping community is nurtured and there are opportunities for individuals who identify with the subculture of krumping to gather, express and experience joy through krumping. Additionally, twerking is another example of the expression of joy through hip-hop dance. Twerking is performed by an individual who throws and thrusts their hips to popular music, such as hip-hop. Twerking has roots in Africa as it is derived from the mapouka dance, an Ivorian dance that originated in the 1990s. Often considered by mainstream society as a dance that is inappropriate and sexually proactive, twerking is “a way for people living in the ghettos to appropriate the clichés that racist whites attributed to them, such as being hyper-sexualised, being savages”, she says in her book (Bruyere, 2018). Twerking is liberating as it has empowered people to reappropriate their bodies and their sexuality. Across cultures, dance has provided a powerful form of human expression. The body is one thing that everyone, regardless of social status, has control over. Individuals leverage dance as a form of communication which allows them to speak with their bodies and to create embodied spaces of joy. Dancing during demonstrations in some ways may be protestors approach to spread their desire for joy and liberation in the face and to counter structural racism.
Mapouka à Dabou, published by Coach PLACIDE AMANI, 2019
In response to Virginia Fornillo’s article focused on How Young People In Argentina are Using Hip Hop Dance to Build Future Democracies, I support her articulation of Present Bodies, “which refers to those who find in this path of activism a way of positioning Voguing and hip-hop/Urban Dances as socially legitimate channels to echo and articulate the democratic problems.” I see a correlation between the youth in Buenos Aires who utilise dance as a form of activism and a way to respond to democratic problems and those who protest structural racism through dance across the United States with hip-hop music as the backdrop. Often, we view those pushing against social and economic inequities as frustrated and furious, which is true in many instances. But there are also individuals to respond to democratic problems through a means that highlights joy and liberation. Hip-hop dance such as breaking, krumping and twerking are examples of how individuals experience joy and liberation through dance. When systemically oppressed groups experience joy in the face of oppression, it is an act of reclamation and self-preservation. To reclaim our joy is to reclaim our humanity which is continuously under attack. To reclaim our joy is a form of resistance. Joy is not the narrative that society is used to witnessing, but it exists and is a precursor to liberation. We need to consider and create more opportunities for systemically marginalised groups to experience joy and for society to witness.
Bruyere, A. (2018). Bootyzine. A. Bruyere.
Chang, J. (2007). Can't stop won't stop: A history of the hip-hop generation. St. Martin's Press.
Dossar, K. (1991). Capoeira: An African-based Tradition in the United States. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 62(2), 42-44.
Gonzalez, D. (2004). Lost and found: An era in the bronx. New York Times, C9.
Gogerly, L. (2011). Street Dance. Lerner Publications.
LaChapelle, D. (Director) (2005). Rize (Documentary). Lion’s Gate Films.
Kafai, Y., & Peppler, K. (2008). Learning from krumping: Collective agency in dance performance cultures.
Rose, T., & McClary, S. (1994). Black noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America (Vol. 6). Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to Democracy On The Move by Virginia Fornillo
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Dr. Edmund Adjapong, a native of the Bronx, NY, is an associate professor in the Educational Studies Department at Seton Hall University. Dr. Adjapong, a former middle school science educator, is also a faculty fellow at the Institute of Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the editor of #HipHopEd: The Compilation on Hip-Hop Education Series. He is the director of the Science Genius Program, a program that engages youth in the sciences through Hip-Hop. Dr. Adjapong is a STEM and Urban Education advocate whose work and research address issues of race, class, inequities in education, and misperceptions of urban youth. His current focus is on how to incorporate youth culture into educational spaces, specifically on utilizing hip-hop culture and sensibilities as an approach to teaching and learning.