The Scarcity of Information Within Hip Hop Culture and the Neglect of Notorious Knowledge
supported by Jeovana Dutra
I’ve asked myself many times, why in breaking and battles am I seen and recognised as someone who is talented, but in elementary school I was flunking most of the time? I’m Itsa, a non-binary artist from Brazil who started breaking on weekends at school when I was 11 years old and who is now the first non-binary breaker sponsored by Red Bull. After 3 months of practicing I had my first battle experience and got invited to be a member of Skeleton Breakers Crew (traditional crew of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, in Brazil since 1999); it was here I went deeper in my breaking research and tasted what Hip Hop culture meant in my town. School wasn't ready to understand and develop young people like me. But fortunately, my crew leader (Bboy Ge) told me I could learn from anywhere, so I understood how to transform Hip Hop - specifically breaking - in my school and I began to understand that knowledge is something that goes beyond certificates and books. In Hip Hop we have something called Notorious Knowledge and this is my journey in pursuit of that.
For years, Hip Hop was seen and judged as a marginalised, violent and criminal culture. The 1960s were marked by the anti-racist movement, the Stone Wall rebellion and the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; beyond that other Artivists such as Nina Simone had to flee the “land of freedom” because they were being threatened for their opinions and position. Despite so much direct repression against minorities and the poorest communities, the Ghetto Brothers, Black Spades, the Afro-American and Latin communities took a moment to stop this war and started to develop a new pacifist movement which built the essence of Hip Hop culture. This essence started with the need for change. If you don't have the money to buy books, take a look at the rubble. If you don't have dance or music classes and there’s no way to go to school, build your own. As much as the government repressed specific communities, new critical thinking strategies were developed and transformed violent NY gangs into groups that - rather than fighting each other - united to fight against the system that was marginalising them. That strategy resulted in a revolution through music, dance and culture, where everyone understood that Peace, Love, Unity, and having Fun was an act of resistance.
When you recognise that someone has a history and a life where they’ve absorbed learning from different types of experiences, this delivers subliminal messages in their music, movement, speech and actions. You not only see, but you can feel the realness of Notorious Knowledge; this is the great gift that I saw Hip Hop giving to many of my friends and OG’s around the world. However, this knowledge is not respected or validated in some areas. If you think in Hip Hop you’re just gonna learn how to make rhymes or scratch vinyl's...I invite you to go on this reading trip with me to feel and understand the depth of Hip Hop and how it is connected with the different realities and areas of our life.
Despite the revolutions that Hip Hop created across the globe, the systems still manage to keep our ambassadors of this culture in a specific place – leaving an impression that power and recognition has been achieved – but not repairing the damage of the historical, racist, hierarchical and sexist behaviours against those in our community. Before the system pays attention to the community, we need to raise awareness of those around us and stimulate the critical thinking of the less empowered; this starts with the community exercising exchanges of knowledge, apprenticeships of learning and recognising that every single one of us has something to share - cultural, academic or social - if you’re an elder, younger or OG.
For this to happen, Hip Hop needs to rescue the habit of dialogue that was very strong in the beginning - where knowledge was something beyond how many battles you won - but now, the focus is small and it feels like it doesn't have the space for everybody. This essay is my response to Our Aging Elders: The Vanishing of Our Living Libraries & The Erasure of Cultural & Intellectual Hip Hop/Street Dance Codes by Natasha "Tash" Jean-Bart and this quote in particular: "Unfortunately, we are repeating history without learning the lessons it should teach us." If we as the Hip Hop community do not exercise the education and knowledge between us, how hard will it be to share and learn with people on the other side of the bridge?
Hip Hop has histories, foundations, methodologies and etiquette as well as socio-political and socio-economic importance. However, it is rare to find someone that will tell you that they went to school and learned the history of Hip Hop, how to backspin or all the names of the steps. We have many people inside the scene that have knowledge of Hip Hop histories but don’t have a university degree – so, how do we transform Hip Hop into a sustainable and efficient education and information system for all? How can we validate the Notorious Knowledge of our Hip Hop elders, not only for the Hip Hop community but for the wider public? How can we create a bridge between scholarly knowledge and cultural knowledge? Who is going to explain to college students the science of a head spin? Or the philosophy behind the moves? The histories behind the creation of specific crews? We need to demonstrate how Hip Hop is interconnected with politics, society, education and culture.
Believe it or not, the person who is writing this essay barely completed High School. My knowledge was stimulated through songs, movies and discussions at events. When I watch a battle I try to catch something that goes beyond who’s gonna win and lose. If you ask Bboys and Bgirls they will tell you about their crews or someone influential that taught them. Most competitors, judges and OG’s have gained knowledge through their journey and a single encounter at a battle will never be enough to learn it all. I wish breaking events could last forever, because every time there's an event it feels like how school could be. If I now have the discipline, perspective, critical thinking and determination to achieve my goals that were acquired and honed from battles and events why can’t Hip Hop be recognised as an alternative way to build knowledge, self esteem and identity?
We already know that in Brazil the educational system is facing the problem of young people on the edge of society abandoning it before they reach High School. The economic and social situations of those lives is still so precarious and crime often looks more attractive than graduation. The government could invest in social and cultural projects and job opportunities and then this scenario could change, instead, we have a government who chose to reduce funding for public education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when all the teaching was virtual – this was a big struggle for students from peripheral areas to access classes – most of those students were trying to focus inside a very messy and conturbated space. This is part of a scenario where those who haven't received a full education are vulnerable to inferior opportunities, which leads to poorer job conditions, unemployment or crime. These are people without access to money, health and education, and the government keeps these communities in a place of vulnerability, making this a generational cycle of inferior social status.
In my town the breaking scene is not too accessible; there are some things that stunt the growth of the scene - such as a low investment in alternative culture, a scarcity of information and little cultural stimulation from government - but the scene is alive and strong, we’re trying to occupy spaces, create events through small applications and organise between elders and youngers. Our scene has faced a huge invisibilisation with COVID-19 because we’ve lost the public spaces where people used to practice. Even adapting our practice sessions to sports courts, heavy rains led to massive flooding which caused a landslide destroying part of the court. It was 1 year and 10 months before we could return to the usual cultural centre in our neighbourhood for practice. According to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freely take part in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to participate in scientific progress and the benefits resulting therefrom. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests linked to any scientific, literary or artistic production of their own.” In Brazil, it is a constitutional law that everyone has access to education, health, work, leisure and security, but in reality - inside the periphery - all those things don’t happen if we don’t do them ourselves.
Even knowing that Hip Hop can make a change in society, most of the time, it creates a product and we often see multinational companies taking and appropriating that same product. So, who has money, is still with money and who created it is still looking for money. Entrepreneurship in Hip Hop is when our own members make the economics work between ourselves without any interference; this economy is realistic and it keeps the money in the community. The way a company works with big brands, is totally different to the way that it works inside the favelas and peripheries. This doesn't mean that Hip Hop entrepreneurship has less value or their products have less quality, it’s just made by the people who live in this reality for the people that live there too. Understanding the importance of this knowledge and financial system enables us to reach different communities. Do you think the economists who understand the Stock Exchange understand the Hip Hop economy? When people from the favelas have great ideas for starting their business, do you think they will easily find financial information and support? We have people that are not part of the culture that want to contribute with it and we have people inside the culture with great ideas, who don’t know how to structure or communicate their ideas. Here’s two amazing examples of Hip Hop entrepreneurship in Brazil:
Fabiana Balduína - aka Fab*Girl - is a Bgirl, an Angolan capoeirista, researcher of the breaking since 2001 and the founder of the first hybrid school of breaking in Brazil called Drop Education. They seek to disseminate the knowledge accumulated from these cultures through virtual and physical platforms (online and offline) and have done so for many years. Drop Education has collaborations with breakers all over the country and it references from the “matrix” (aka USA), as well as our own Brazilianness.
Thiago Alves - aka Bboy Xuxão - is a Bboy since 2003, founder of Freestyle Break and Laup Crew - one of the most important crews in Ibirité City, especially in the Barreiro region. Bboy Xuxão was one of the first to develop Hip Hop entrepreneurship in his neighborhood when he started making shirts for crew members. He developed his own brand using silk screen printing to sell clothes with an underground style for dancers at events and after 15 years he created Conceito Santo, a brand that aims to provide the experience of dressing well and creating your look for the day-to-day of a Hip Hop lifestyle. It’s about causes, emotions, feelings, ideas, vision, delivery and value - without ceasing to be comfortable, timeless and essential.
In 2019 during a Ted Talk, Ian Lawrence mentioned that “Hip Hop was found to have an average of 478 unique words per song and the only genre that comes close is Pop with 302.” The name Hip Hop received a re-meaning by Professor Griff - a member of Public Enemy - giving it the acronym, High Infinite Power (Hip) Healing Our People (Hop). By the end of the 16th century, steps similar to some breaking movements were already in use in capoeira in Brazil. Afro-Brazilian dance emerged as a form of fighting, art and resistance from enslaved black communities. Whether capoeira is the mother or distant cousin of breaking - history cannot confirm either way – it’s the African roots which contribute to the similarity of the two practices, like capoeira and other black manifestations in the diaspora. Hip Hop did not invent anything, it reinvented it. Everyone inside Hip Hop culture agrees that Hip Hop is a school, it’s a place where you learn how to deal with the people around you and yourself. If you’re not open, listening and unable to exchange feelings, ideas or your own Notorious Knowledge – then you don’t understand what Hip Hop really is.
GBCR (Group of Consciousness Breaking of Rocinha) is a cultural movement in the heart of Rocinha; created in 1993 they are still a very respected group and were the first breaking crew from Rio de Janeiro to travel around Brazil participating in battles. They also made a tour to France (in partnership with a French crew) off their own back without any Brazilian financial support. In Rio they created the first course of graffiti in Rocinha - 59 students painted a graffiti wall when the first hospital in Rocinha was inaugurated and more than 20 graffiti artists told the story of Rocinha's health through graffiti (this episode was documented in “O Mega Muro”, in 2011). There was the Rocinha Hip Hop program that was broadcast on a TV Show, interviews, clips and various things about the Hip Hop scene as well as their anniversary - a partnership with “Trem do Soul” - that commemorated 29 years of action. GBCR created a documentary called “Sou Rocinha Hip Hop” which told their story and activities in Rocinha until 2004. These were several things that GBCR did in Rocinha without funding. They just had the community helping, giving support and things were happening - the culture was moving forwards. One of the GBCR founders - in an interview made exclusively for writing this article - said that “it was all for love, always was and still is.” Although Rocinha is still a violent place, with people involved in drug trafficking, the dealers have always respected GBCR because they saw them as a noble cause and understood that it was something to raise awareness, entertain and occupy the minds of children and young people. No matter if you have a high degree of scholarly repute or you are elderly and don’t know how to read, Hip Hop allows us to exercise our citizenship and create a space so that everyone has the chance to make positive contributions and sustainable evolutions to their space, neighbourhood, town and country.
That's why there’s not only one element in Hip Hop, but 9 elements in the culture that act as individual chapters in a book - each one contains a way to be, work, speak and express ourselves - that’s why this is a culture capable of modifying other human beings and the society around us, this is Notorious Knowledge in action. Other institutions specialise in particular fields of knowledge, developing and creating new revolutionary ways of thinking, why don’t we bring these people from other areas to contribute to our scene? Why not trade and exchange with people from science, philosophy, geography, finance, etc. How could that create new knowledge?
Hip Hop and breaking is a culture where we are extremely evolved beings - intellectually, physically and emotionally - it works holistically. “Look where breaking took me? I didn't go to a university, but if we're going to have a conversation about geography and history, I’m able to teach university students because I had this experience" says Bboy Neguin in an interview from January 2021. It’s crucial to have different types of knowledge from different people from different areas, because each country is deeply connected to Hip Hop. How enriching would it be for the most vulnerable people in our society to know the social and political situations in Africa and Europe and Asia before the rise of Hip Hop in the United States? How many people from our culture would love to know more about finance to structure their business and develop brands that move beyond the periphery? At the same time, it’d be super interesting for university students from different degrees to get to know and fill themselves up with lots of Hip Hop knowledge. We know there’s a lot of people inside and outside the culture that are thirsty for this Notorious Knowledge; it’s not just for our self esteem and ego but how can we use our knowledge to solve the many needs that exist in communities such as lawyers, teachers, doctors, physiotherapists? How can we exchange our knowledge?
We have a long way to go...but first the culture must organise and understand itself whilst formalising the knowledge it has to demonstrate the value it has so that it can be validated in formal educational and institutional systems. Tash discusses a lot about the importance of writing the history of the culture, doing it while the OG's are still alive, because they’re able to share their history, how they lived and what happened to them. Writing our own Hip Hop history means not letting the system or companies delete or distort it – we need to make and produce history through our own Notorious Knowledge. Breaking is an Olympic Sport because a group of breakers saw an opportunity, developed a judging system and wrote the rule-book for a formal breaking competition. In the cultural arena, we stage huge productions, battles and events that are in big demand - these are just two examples of one element that we could use to start build a Hip Hop school that could teach, prepare and qualify people in an exclusively Hip Hop curriculum. It is critical to create a space where people who are not from the Hip Hop community - groups and institutions and governments that are distant from our reality - have the chance to dialogue with those who live in our sometimes violent community, where the majority of us have no access to private education. Those groups who have the political decision-making powers that directly affect our culture and our community need to be aware of the reality inside the periphery and the culture so they can make better political decisions. Both groups have responsibility for their actions and behaviours which will affect all of us.
If education is something that we can only reach inside universities and schools with big walls, we’re never gonna have a society that is ready to receive systems of alternative knowledge; we need to create structures and dialogues where everyone has the capacity to grow and share what they know. If we open this space (cyber or physical) for people to develop education with Hip Hop - we can’t begin to imagine the benefits that it could bring.
Let’s rescue the essence of unity and listening in Hip Hop
Let’s show how rich in knowledge our culture is
Let’s occupy different places and have our ambassadors present in the corridors of power
Let’s find the energy to manifest educational change
Let’s exchange our treasures with other cultures and schools
Notorious Knowledge is available everywhere, we just need to be open and know where to look for it.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to Our Aging Elders: The Vanishing of Our Living Libraries & The Erasure of Cultural & Intellectual Hip Hop/Street Dance Codes by Natasha "Tash" Jean-Bart
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Itsa Gonçalves is a non-binary artist from Brazil (Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais). He has represented Brazil in 3 Breaking World Finals and traveled many countries dancing in the Cirque du Soleil Bazzar tour show since 2018. His formation in Breaking began with Crew Skeleton Breakers, and went through social projects such as Valores de Minas and Corpo Cidadão. He is currently part of Crew Tsunami ALL Stars and is the first Brazilian non-binary Breaker to have a sponsorship from Red Bull.
Itsa Gonçalves, Credit @tauanasofia
Jeovana Dutra, artist and bachelor in physical education. Works as a creative interpreter in contemporary dance projects and festivals, studies dance neurosciences and physical preparation for dancers.
Jeovana Dutra, Credit Mariana Magalhães