Our Aging Elders: The Vanishing of Our Living Libraries & The Erasure of Cultural & Intellectual Hip Hop/Street Dance Codes.
Natasha "Tash" Jean-Bart
The Future is Here! Looking for Modern Oracles... says the billboard sign on the road to success. But no one sees the small print that says you will not live in the future and will ONLY serve the past. Are you willing to veer off the road and leave everything behind? If yes, your cave awaits.
For most of our lives, street dancers passed this metaphorical billboard without noticing it. Our eyes were on the prize, narrowed and focused far into the distance, looking for shortcuts while riding into the sunset. Most of us were aiming for the Hollywood hills. On the path, we had to burn a few bridges, if not many. We had to acquire the secret scrolls and break the elusive codes to be noticed or even part of the race. Or so we were told. But where to start?
Straight roads are built for those who wish to get ahead while speeding.
A highway's speed limit increases because it runs straight for miles. But you still have to slow down to merge into the passing lane. You can always speed again, but all destinations demand you take an exit. There are no maps, no treasures, just you and your willingness to take an untrodden path. Untrodden because the keys you seek are precious relics kept by the elders who've stopped travelling. Only those willing to veer off the single road and commit to the swervy uneven paths of discipline may be received by a few demanding gatekeepers — our aging elders. This article is my attempt to demystify those paths using the written word instead of the dancing body. I hope to lead you as close as I can to finding the keys and retrieving the knowledge, and in the same token, inspire you to invest early towards your artistic retirement. I promise it will still be colourful and exciting. Before you know it, you will take your seat amongst other elders, at peace, knowing your stories are in great hands and their penmanship is written solely from trustworthy oracles.
As a youth living in Montreal, Canada, I wanted to be one of these larger-than-life idols — those wiggling black bodies inside the television set, in a TRAIN they called SOUL, a gathering of love, happiness, and youthful folly emerging at the brink of a new era. Hip Hop was but a tiny seed quietly taking root in the heart of America — The United States of America to be precise — New York and Los Angeles to zoom in a little closer. Many other cities would be revealed in time, but all eyes were on the East, and for me, mainly on the West Coast.
"Back in the day," NYC and LA were two of the major hubs and sources sending the 'call to action' to all youngsters via that wooden box with a metal knob — I received mine in the mid 70s. I wanted to be like those tiny figures grooving to my parents' music, move like them, talk like them (English), but Montreal was only a small island on the other edge of the continent. It was only in my mid-twenties that I realized what was possible during Hip Hop's Golden Age. The pursuit of an ideal was on the menu and shaped by artists like James Brown, Kool & The Gang, The Gap Band, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Prince. It wasn't until music videos and street dance cult movies were the big craze that the seeker was jolted into action. As beginners, we were more interested in the "how" than in the "why." Hence, we started our dream journals, beginning with a pilgrimage to an unknown foreign land without a clear plan or map. "If only I'd been born in the United States," I remember saying.
Most of us had missed that first train. In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise. The original train had left the station in such a hurry that its early passengers were served a new dream they weren't ready, nor prepared for. Some even lost their souls, and most got off at different stations, which opened up way too many destinations for all beginner seekers on the path. Luckily for some of us, the methods of reaching these destinations were similar to our elders. We had to travel far using these slightly upgraded vessels to seek the teachers who were willing to teach us the secret codes. Even if we had missed that first train, we could still feel its steam.
There was also something else lurking on the path — a sense of déjà vu — a creative model that magically rewired our DNA. Although far from their norms, our elders showed us what it meant to resist and rebel. Our eyes and ears downloaded every broadcast. Inspired, we followed in their footsteps and did everything in our power to narrow the distance. All we wanted was to be like them. But without connectors leading us to other shores, finding the elusive paths leading to "The American Dream" often seemed impossible. Most of us had to take that leap of faith and hope to land on the big stages of life.
Hip Hop was the dynamo and the voice that led new generations out of the ghettos. It still is. Styles, fashion, trends, dances are piled atop each other like wounds marking both bodies and territories. Our elders lived a powerful manifestation of what it meant to be in the driver's seat of a new vessel. Although plagued by trial and error, that train was unstoppable. At the height of their physicality, they were too busy fussing or bickering with each other. All were trying to achieve stardom and conquer more kingdoms. When these trains lost steam, some elders became tyrants and removed transparency, while others just bought a return ticket and jumped on the last train home. Many gave up their dreams or just lost the spark. All the while, trends faded, and Hip Hop became disembodied. No one could claim it, but all tried.
The Vanishing of Our Living Libraries
"We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects." Albert Einstein
When our elders began transitioning to a place of no returns, they also rose to an unreachable dimension. We have nothing to share with the new generation without truthful records of their legendary feats and faults and no legacy to uphold their teachings. Just like Jesus leaving footprints on the sand of our memories, our elders barely left ink prints in the books sitting on the empty shelves of our lost libraries. Everything is now On-Demand, digitized — press a key on your cell phone screen, and you get a pop-up image of a once important street culture figure edited by people who have never walked behind or next to these giants. No one needs to take a train, plane, or drive on the aimless roads anymore. Everyone gets the embellished stories edited into snapshots, packed into compressed documentaries that bypass factual information. They only want the nuggets of gold, not how these tiny nuggets were once a whole work of art. The real story won't sell, they say (while these artists are still alive). They prefer their legends dead. The whole world mourns on FB and IG for a day and then moves on.
The last year and a half has hit the community hard as we lost the creator of "Campbellocking” aka “Locking" Don "Campbellock" Campbell. We also lost a Waacking pioneer: Tyrone Proctor. Soon afterward, we lost another member of "The Lockers," Adolfo Quinones aka “Shabba Doo" aka Ozone, and many more Hip Hop legends. In the last decade, we’ve lost most of our elders, often due to illnesses resulting from this normalized fast-paced lifestyle.
The Hip Hop Paradox
Hip Hop culture is quickly metabolised because of its urgency to transform each generation; this urgency is both the creator and the destroyer of knowledge. The culture needs its agents of change. They are the explorers and seekers, they are impatient, tireless, with an unquenchable thirst to enter the ciphers. Their impulsive nature is the spark needed to kindle a flame. Because they have no rituals, discipline, books, or elders to point the way, they are often the new heralds of our eternally repurposed inventory of old trends. Let's make sure we embrace them so they don't burn the village. Let the TikTok fans know that the 3-step was initially named the Camel Walk, then let them decide what to do with this information.
My generation (GEN X) is already dying too early from exposure and proximity to these often destructive annexed lifestyles — because clubs, alcohol, drugs, gangs, ghettos were some of the ingredients that composed these Hip Hop fusion recipes. It was the melting pot that fuelled our elders. Hence it was also the generational and genetic baggage that slowly seeped and clawed their hooves into us.
I remember Shock G's fans (Gregory Edward Jacobs from Digital Underground) rehashing his interview about Tupac, which made me dig up more interviews from this wise rapper who inspired us to do the Humpty Hump for decades. I remember thinking, "If only I could sit with him and retrieve more of his memories." He was taken too soon, and all I have are these old recordings. All I want is to scream to all Hip Hop artists to put health over success first because reverse-engineering is impossible for the aging artist following the famed path.
I also feel an urgency to do the work and archive the tales — the good, the great, the bad, and the ugly. The treasures can't be under lock, and the keys cannot be guarded only by unhealthy gatekeepers and successful promoters of the culture. Nevertheless, some gatekeeping is essential to a healthy transmission of Hip Hop cultural codes. Who then will carry and safeguard the healthy and more aligned genetic material? Today's artist must be willing to cultivate the ancient ingredients without reaping a bountiful harvest. It is the passionate artists that have the patience to uphold such an undertaking. The task is grand because passion cannot be passed on without a healthy and compassionate carrier.
"Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher." — JAPANESE PROVERB.
Today, few are called to preserve the memories of our elders. I call them Oracles. We should be grateful that they have forged the beaten path for all of us. Not everyone had the patience to accompany or slow the pace to aid the elders and the knowledge to be transmitted, filtered, and transcoded into new vessels. It took a few oracles and countless bridge builders to help the future adepts run towards their wildest dreams. Together they helped students find the elusive maps leading to these mystery schools. It's mostly thanks to them that I can write this article.
When it comes to our elders' memories, most children and grandchildren can become their carriers. Stories are always lost in translation when speaking of cultural and sub-cultural artistic rituals, traditions, and techniques. The written word isn't good enough. Although they are recounted by people close enough to their source, the distortion is bound to seep into each story. We know it too well; the telephone game rings truer today than ever before.
Don "Campbellock" Campbell, the creator of Locking, often did not want to break down "The Campbellock" or “Campbellocking” (better known as Locking) in an intellectual manner because his creation defied all logic. All of his students — adepts and disciples alike heard him recount the story of his dance creation without ever missing a word; "It was a gift from GOD!" he kept repeating for all the years we've known him. He didn't want his dance to be dissected and taught using techniques. What mattered was the gift — the design. He was the 'Designer' and the essence. But in the absence of this essence, a distortion began to spread like wildfire. And yet, he never stopped saying, "Take my dance and make it yours!" which often contributed to the belief that one could remove the very quintessence of the artform; Don's spirit.
On the other hand, Shabba Doo was tough. I remember him saying that none of his teachers were nice, that even Bruce Lee was tough on his students. Therefore he believed his school of hard knocks ways were the ideal instructional method — an iron will, without the velvet gloves. I have to admit that this statement of his was partly true. During my early classical training years, my dance teachers were rigid in their pedagogy. You couldn't sit, yawn, sigh, nor wiggle when listening. If you did, you'd be kicked out of the class. Each teacher had their own methods, and if you were lucky, you'd survive the exhausting trials long enough to willingly attend and record all future teachings. Over the years, it became easy for me to retain the good and discard the bad pedagogy. I was resilient and wasn't easily swayed by the heavy-handed teachers and elders. After decades of initiation, only the most enlightened teachers were able to pass on the truth or the real… what we called ESSENCE. By that time, most students and adepts had lost the desire and drive to seek.
Design vs Fine Tuning
The "Why" vs The "How"
Essence is often unseen by the intellectual mind. Most adepts want to access the codes quickly and accept the information without digesting it. All techniques detached from the source are invariably distorted by the hand of the disciples. In their desperation to learn the secrets, dancers were blinded by their own ignorance. The codes were never hidden; they were as clear as day. What happens when you receive your teachings from the source last is, as we know, destabilising. It is more difficult to unlearn what's been conditioned in us than to start fresh with a beginner's mind. The artist's ego refuses to begin again. Still, upon reaching the top of the mountain, we often realise that the voice we were following was simply an echo of our own ego, and no one is found but yourself, alone, isolated, and confused. It's the famed plateau all artists and athletes know so well. All you can do is retrace your steps, get off the mountain, and begin again. In seeking the designer of each art form, we inadvertently trap ourselves in their fine tunings. We zoom in on all the small parts. The "how-to" turns us away from asking the "why" questions which contributes to the corruption of the art forms sought out. When you understand the why (the history), the how becomes clear.
The Erasure of Cultural & Intellectual Hip Hop/Street Dance Codes.
We can't blame the modern world for being in a rush to climb and be remembered. Our elders did the same. They set the stage for their past memories to be locked into these inaccessible caves far below. Most of them fulfilled their ideals strictly using their bodies, and by the time these bodies were worn, their minds were raging at all the adepts trying to steal their keys without proper instructions.
Each new generation is fast-paced, action-packed, hero-driven, often unaware that culture has an original design. The 'original generation' often forgets that Hip Hop is also a living, breathing language that is constantly re-reinvented — one part ritual — two parts innovation, multiplied by decades of creative alchemy transcribing and transcending each culture into myriads of subcultures. A constant progression of ideals, dreams made and lost, all recycled into renewed energy. It's essential to remember that the original blueprint fades with each new trend. It may or may not be decodable when modern tongues attempt to decrypt the scriptures. Who will have the patience to decipher the archaic language? The erasure often starts as a way to preserve an art form by burying it into the ground, sometimes whitewashing the truth by disempowering its lineage through unverified texts. When the knowledge is dug up, no one understands the meaning inside the discarded dust-gathering books from disappearing libraries.
Unfortunately, we are repeating history without learning the lessons it should teach us. Humans have inherited this trait for eons — our collective memory remembers the rituals. We've hidden scrolls in ceramic pots filled with salt to preserve knowledge, often choosing unmarked caves in inaccessible locations. In ancient times, secret societies and mystery schools went to great lengths to protect the codes. All adepts had to go through gruelling initiations before opening the vaults of wisdom. Everything that fell under the spectrum of High Arts was only accessible by the high priests. Only those faithful disciples had direct access to these secrets.
In all honesty, the same codes of conduct are held within the Hip Hop and street dance scene today. Hip Hop is a lifestyle; it is lived and experienced. Very few have the keys that lead to the deciphering of hidden knowledge. Real Hip Hop is, for us, High Art. The urgency is to archive and preserve our elder's legacies before it's too late. That's the ultimate call. But only those who tread on their heels with grace and patience will receive the keys. Unfortunately, in the past battles over who should reign, the pioneers also divided their disciples into opposing cultural and subcultural views. The storyteller always has a biased opinion. But evolution and biology call for the survival of the fittest; it is also a Hip Hop mindset, the individuated artist runs towards the finish line carrying the least resistance. Hence the youth detach themselves from the archaic collective memory, which always becomes burdensome. Hip Hop is a mutant.
The Message: Lost & Found
"But now yeah, I sing the sad, sad song
Of how you live so fast and die so young" — Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five.
As 2020/2021 took many of our elders, we suddenly realised we had lost the most essential books in our grand wizard library. We watched the elders drive the narrative into oblivion mainly because they refused to acknowledge that Hip Hop had shapeshifted to serve a new and mutant generation. Instead of allowing the Hip Hop genes to diversify themselves, most elders became rigid and stubborn. Everyone wanted to write or record their memories, but no one was willing to pay for them. Books were written, and documentaries were made by entities with shady agendas. "You'll get great publicity!" they said.
I remember when Don "Campbellock" Campbell started to refuse to be interviewed for documentaries. The damage had already been done. His message had been distorted time and time again. Often, the stories were told to highlight the people behind the lens. Don became their validation ticket into the gated community of our Locking culture. This was when the message became many, and the many sound bites became small samples remixed into false narratives. It set the stage for the new generation to spread their wings and take off without being bogged down by the old kings and queens. Were our elders too slow in trusting and empowering their true disciples and too stuck in their egoic ways? Or they just remembered being young and knew there was no use forcing the hand of fate. As Greg Pope kept saying, "We need to spoon-feed the students."
Hip Hop DNA: Preserving our genetic codes
"A child that is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth" — African Proverb.
We are preserving the glamour, not the ardour nor the honour.
We need to gather all the stories from truth-seeking and transparent sources. Sources that don't seek empiredom, but seek to set Hip Hop free from empirical and cultural appropriation. As we are losing more elders and pioneers, we must erect new halls of knowledge. Not Halls of Fame — fame is too fleeting. Does the preserving and archiving belong in universities that only 'the 3%' can attend, access, and afford? Or should we band together to secure our voices using an open-source/time capsule?
It is up to the mid-generation — the bridge builders, to guide the path and enlist the On-Demand technology-savvy millennials/zoomers. They are the hosts and the future Hip Hop hybridised bodies that exist and navigate in both tangible and intangible worlds. They can help us serve and preserve the entire body of work Hip Hop has garnered for us. Without these two generations, we may turn back and watch Hip Hop burn — a reminder of the demise of a once beautiful, lively, yet lost culture erased by the children rejected by the village.
How do we preserve these compelling stories?
First, we must become life-long learners, seek and invite our elders to speak and inform our future by recounting the past stories and compensate them for their intellectual property.
Second, we must review and reframe all of the narratives taught. Document and map our entire experience from the early sources without corrupting its core.
Third, we must be willing to assist, lend our voices, and serve something higher. This is the mandate we shall all vow to uphold to avoid facing the erasure of our elders' incredible legends.
We must archive, archive, archive. We cannot only savour and relish the visual archives without context. We need to write, transcribe, research and question the tell-all stories, and remember that most documentaries today contribute to the erasure of the codes because they are owned by not-so transparent companies/agencies running in the background of these productions. We need to create our own avenues served by wise Oracles, built by disciplined bridge-builders, and fill our villages and towns with innkeepers, shopkeepers, truth-tellers, and a few healthy gatekeepers. More importantly, we need to be aware of our 'ownership' tendencies, as all of us are guilty of trying to own the very knowledge we wish to protect.
A Rooted Resting Place for our Transitioning Living Libraries.
We must cultivate our penmanship as well as our mental health. Without a clear mind, no memories can be remembered nor written. We need more conscious Hip Hop artists and leaders. More rooted spaces in service towards healing our minds. We need healthier hosts willing to write down the codes even though they may feel irrelevant today and forgotten tomorrow. Humans of the future would thank us for the gifts the same way we treasure the clues we receive from old books.
When our elders no longer have the clarity nor the ability to formulate their experiences and teachings into clear and concise sentences and texts, "Who passes the baton?" as Adolfo 'Shabba-Doo' Quinones used to say? And who speaks for them?
You are the seeker, the bridge builder, the oracle, and the aging elder.
Our voices are only valuable if we can nurture these bonds with our elders and pioneers without attempting to own or distort the information. I have spent over two decades collecting and connecting the dots while helping others discover the missing links that can lift the veil of mystery. I learn something new with each conversation. It is of utmost importance that I share my keys without having an ulterior motive but with clarity and wisdom. It isn't my ego that drives the narrative, but the high respect I have for my elders. We are the change we seek. Don't ask them to do your projects for free. They will choose who deserves their time.
The future demands that we build a bridge for the unbiased flow of information between the elders and the new generation while safeguarding our rich Hip Hop heritage. It's a big order, but I am up for the challenge. I saw the sign. I'm veering off the highway before spiralling into this unknown tunnel leading to the light. Who is with me?
"One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world."― MALALA YOUSAFZAI.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Natasha “Tash” Jean-Bart
Natasha “Tash” Jean-Bart's career spans over thirty years in the Performing Arts; she is a BIPOC artist, writer, dancer, and teacher. Her credits as a performer and choreographer have taken her to well-respected stages, including Cirque Du Soleil, and her expertise has garnered her numerous positions as a juror for elite dance competitions internationally. She is the co-founder of Wättssoul Inc, a US-based company dedicated to nurture and empower creativity, arts and culture awareness. In addition, she is invited to speak and lecture on various topics and uses her voice to assist and inspire artists from all walks of life in finding their purpose. She is presently in residence with Bboyizm dance company fulfilling her role as an interpret for the “In my Body” dance piece. A wife, mother of four beautiful children, and Nana to four lively grandchildren, Natasha divides her time between her home: Las Vegas, her home town, Canada, and the rest of the world.
Natasha “Tash” Jean-Bart