The Ethics of Living a Double Life: Rethinking Ownership, Authenticity, and Identity in Hip Hop Culture
Rachael ‘Raygun’ Gunn and Feras ‘Fez’ Shaheen
Belonging has always been intertwined with the cultural experience of Hip Hop. That feeling of togetherness when you’re getting down in the cyphers, throwing your hands in the air, recognising a tag on a wall, watching a room of people vibe to your music, or meeting new friends in a foreign city, Hip Hop offers endless ways for people all around the world to come together, share in art and culture, and create new communities of belonging.
Brian Toh’s essay titled This Dance Is Not Our Own is centred on notions of belonging, and raises important questions around identity, authenticity, and ownership. How do we understand our place in this culture? What do we need to prove, or how can we be ‘real’, in order to feel like this dance is our ‘own’? To really feel like we belong?
But belonging is a fraught terrain. Sometimes the desire to belong can overwhelm any desire for community, where self-interests are prioritised over community well-being. Here, parameters for belonging can be contingent upon the exclusion of others, and this exclusion is often veiled through discourses of authenticity. That is, how ‘real’ someone is, how well they know ‘what’s up’, versus those that don’t demonstrate these preconditions. Debates and ideas about authenticity permeate the scene, and in this essay we will begin by elaborating on our understanding of authenticity, and its possible connection to privilege, before we embark on our own personal reflections in response to Brian Toh’s essay.
While we might like to think there are universal signifiers of ‘authenticity’, this understanding is part of the construct of belonging - a shared sense of identity, even if it is only tentative. In fact, discussions of authenticity are fraught, highly subjective, and politically loaded. And in debates of authenticity there’s a temptation to subscribe to a model that privileges one’s own position. We can’t help but be biased in what we think is important. And so understandings of authenticity - on who is the most ‘authentic’ - become inscribed with geographical, historical, relational, skills-based, or knowledge-based requirements. Phrases such as ‘you’re not a real Bboy/Emcee/Writer/Deejay/Hip Hopper if you don’t x, y, or z’ work to hierarchise modes of engagement.
Generally, the model of authenticity seen as the least exclusive, ‘the fairest’ way to ascend Hip Hop’s subcultural hierarchy, is based on participation. Hip Hop culture is a ‘meritocracy’, where you must ‘show and prove’ your skills/style/knowledge to develop a name for yourself and gain respect. Consequently, the more you participate the more likely you are to be considered ‘authentic’ and win events and gain respect and authority within the scene. This authority transpires through legitimised teaching and performing, invitations to judge, and also getting put down in high profile crews. What might begin as outcomes of respect could then move into positions of authority. Thus commitment is often used as a barometer of authenticity (as well as sometimes a tool to police others). How much do you live and breathe Hip Hop? How many jams have you entered? How many nights do you train? How well do you know your foundation? How many cyphers do you get down in? How many scenes have you repped in? How many workshops have you taken?
The problem emerges when the answer is not enough (but what is enough?). For Brian, that resulted in feelings of imposter syndrome and isolation from the scene, and similar experiences echo throughout the community. As people get older and their lives fill up with other responsibilities, they become sidelined from the scene they once belonged to.
And so Brian Toh’s essay uses personal reflection to shed light on how notions of belonging, authenticity, and identity can be experienced in breaking. In this response piece, we want to build upon Brian’s work and use our personal reflections as a platform to ask larger questions about community, inclusion, and ethics. A personal reflection will help us to understand our place in the culture, the culture’s place in our lives, and our broader experiences and positionalities that shape our relationships and practice.
As we started discussing our ideas for this piece, we talked about our lives in and outside of Hip Hop. Feras - an Australian Hip Hop dancer with Palestinian background, an artist and choreographer interested in the increased accessibility and expansion of Street Dance  to the general public. Rachael - a white Australian Bgirl, an academic researching Breaking and Street Dance culture. We also situated our lives in a broader historical context. Feras - who started learning the Palestinian dance ‘Dabke’ after he was already an established Hip Hop dancer. What does it mean for one cultural form to be studied in place of another in the development of identity, and how do they now interact? Rachael - a white woman learning a dance form developed by African-American and Puerto-Rican youth in a disenfranchised socio-political context, with her every performance situated in a larger history of white appropriation of Black forms. Is Rachael’s very presence whitening the form and culture? What does it mean for us to participate? Here, our reflections reside within the complex landscapes of localisation, cultural appropriation, ethics, and inclusion.
As we discussed our lives in Sydney’s Street Dance scene, a scene where organised competitions are increasingly prevalent, where Hip Hop theatre is still emerging, where most dancers have to support themselves with other jobs/careers (either full-time or multiple casual jobs), where our geographic isolation impacts our ability to represent and connect with other scenes/dancers, where the broader Australian public seemed to unite in laugh or scorn at Breaking’s inclusion in the Olympics, and in a culture where sport is cherished while art is vain (and increasingly underfunded), we began to notice some new insights around identity emerge, and decided to make a confession.
We confessed what is subculturally considered a shameful secret: that Hip Hop is only part of our lives. We are not always and forever the Hip Hopper Fez or the Bgirl Raygun in every second of every day, but these are merely part of our lives that we move in and out of. We recalibrate our bodies, our habitus, to move across different social spheres - our work, our family, our non-Hip Hop friends.
Why would we make such a confession? Acknowledge the elephant in the room? Such a confession goes against our understanding of the living and breathing of Hip Hop. It affects our ‘cred’, our ‘rep’. One might be tempted to position our double lives within Hip Hop’s long history of creating characters and personas to tell a story or make an artistic statement. Are Hip Hopper ‘Fez’ and Bgirl ‘Raygun’ merely characters we’re creating and playing?
But what are the consequences of such a confession? Are we voyeurs? Are we culturally appropriating Hip Hop? Do we exploit Hip Hop for our own personal pleasure? Conversely, does this confession make us more ‘real’? As speaking our ‘truth’? Or is our double life a necessity because in Australia, outside of the scene, Street Dance is not well understood by the general public?
By reflecting upon our relationships and work outside Hip Hop, we see how we experience the resources and ability to move between and across different social spheres. This mobility informs the work that we both do, to help translate and situate Breaking and Street Dance to broader audiences.
We see how our ‘other life’ is functional in that it provides us with the economic capital needed for a deeper understanding and appreciation of Hip Hop history and practices. In short, we have the time and resources to commit to learning, training, and studying Hip Hop.
Our confession, then, opens up the space to consider the ethics of who can access and traverse Hip Hop’s hierarchies of authority. Because if we break down this model of authenticity further, this meritocratic model based on participation and the development of knowledge/skills, we see that it too becomes exclusionary. While the mere existence of our double life should reduce our authenticity, paradoxically our jobs allow us to invest more time and energy into Hip Hop. It gives us more opportunities to develop a ‘rep’.
To gain respect and eventually a position of authority in the scene, you need to spend years representing, you need to know your history, you need to meet and learn from the right people, you need to be in the right places. This is not to say we disagree with these conventions, it is important to recognise those that have come before us, but how accessible is it? Much of Rachael’s work has examined how Hip Hop spaces, specifically Breaking spaces, are inscribed with masculinity and privilege men’s entry into the scene. From the crews that are like boys clubs, to the male gatekeepers of knowledge, to the Bgirls being hit on, and the women lost to history, Rachael’s work has looked at the problems with the meritocratic model, and more work is needed on issues to do with LGBTIQ+ and disability.
In this essay, however, our discussion is centred more on class and geography. How accessible is it to gain respect without the means to participate? Who does it privilege, and what are the consequences of that? The space to ‘represent’ has expanded globally, with more opportunities and expectations to travel internationally to build your name. However, workshops, travel, jams all cost time and money, even more time and money if, like us, you’re from an expansive island-continent in the Southern Hemisphere. Our flights to the US and Europe can take around 24 hours of flying and cost $2000AUD, and even flights to Asia can cost between $500-$1000. On top of time and money, there are also visa barriers to consider. Of course the islands across Oceania are not the only ones disadvantaged, and one need only look at the list of countries represented at the 2021 World Breaking Championships or BC One to see what regions have the best means to participate. For some dancers, opportunities to represent, learn, network, and build with other dancers from around the world are difficult to come by.
And so has our demand for a more informed engagement with Hip Hop consequently sidelined those Hip Hop originally set out to reach? Hip Hop has always been a space for young people, particularly those experiencing disadvantage, to express themselves and gain a new reputation outside of how they’ve been described. However, if commitment is a key contributor to authenticity, do those with the greatest privilege, education, and mobility have an easier means to be considered the most ‘authentic’?
Keeping in mind the problems we’ve identified with ‘authenticity’, we suggest that rather than focusing on what an ‘authentic’ engagement with Hip Hop might look like, we ask what an ‘ethical’ engagement might look like. In doing so, we reduce the subjective, the personal desire, and the appeal of what is ‘cool’. By prioritising ethics, we are forced to honestly consider our own positionalities, and think about what is best for the broader community and culture, such as: How does our participation impact others? Those that we participate alongside, those that have come before us, and those that are yet to come?
Personal reflection can help us think through larger ethical considerations. A few years ago, Feras made the conscious decision to refer to what he does as ‘Street Dance’. He wanted to avoid potential confusion for people that were starting to learn about Hip Hop and steer away from any possibility that he, a young Australian/Palestinian adult born in Dubai, represents or speaks for Hip Hop. Likewise, Rachael refers to what she does as ‘Breaking’ and not Hip Hop to also avoid any possibility that people might consider she - a white Australian academic - speaks for or represents Hip Hop culture in any way. By placing our Street Dance and Breaking practice within and under Hip Hop Culture, we hope to create a relationship of respect. And so, by confessing that Hip Hop is only part of our lives, we are also ensuring that we are not the gatekeepers of Hip Hop.
Rather than focusing on authenticity, ownership, and identity, what if we then reframed our relationship to the dance to be one of collaboration and community? To contribute something of ourselves to this now globalised cultural bricolage? In our engagement, we both try to lean into the individuality of our personal expressions of Hip Hop community members, and pay attention to the interaction of our practice, identity, experience, and ethics.
For many of us, Street Dance is a community we can feel safe in, a culture we can appreciate, an art form we can admire. While we’re both practitioners, we could also view ourselves as fans. As Feras would say in his sporting language, another social sphere he belongs to, we are fans, big fans. Not the club owners or coaches - sometimes not even the players, just the hardcore, flag flying, horn playing, drum beating, smoke raising fans. But we’re not just fans of specific dancers, we’re fans of the movement - the characteristics of the dance, the way people find new ways to express themselves, the history embedded in the movement, we’re fans of the way people gather and train and cypher and battle, we’re fans of the music, of the history, and of the culture. Hip Hop and Street Dance has such a strong foundation where people have found unlimited ways in which to expand from in their self-expression. Therefore, we see Hip Hop and Street Dance as not one thing that any one person can represent - it’s not static nor homogenous, it is open and fluid and forever being actualised in the moment of each body’s movement.
The term ‘fans’, then, might give us the space to disrupt the logics of authenticity that inform the scene’s subcultural hierarchies - perhaps we don’t have to show and prove anything, now we are free to simply engage with and enjoy Hip Hop and Street Dance as we wish. But why are we so quick to disregard fans in Street Dance? (The insult of ‘e-boy’ comes to mind.) And why is there a distinction between fan and practitioner? Is there not room to be both?
And so one ethical shift might see a greater acceptance of different modes of engagement in Street Dance, as not only a space for practitioners, but also for fans. For people with different levels of knowledge and commitment. It might be a separate category, or also a blurring of these categories.
Another would put greater demands on those with privilege to help support others in the scene - using that time and money to create more opportunities for practice, learning, and representing. Even simple steps from creating introductions to amplifying marginalised voices. And larger steps such as sponsorship, grants, and tiered pricing for increased accessibility to events.
A reflection based on ethics brings into consideration broader issues around culture, inequality, and identity. It gives us the space to ask: How can we experience and share Hip Hop in a way that is not exploitative or appropriative? How can we shape our Hip Hop spaces to be inclusive and collaborative rather than exclusive and insular? How can we ensure everyone has equal access to knowledge and opportunities for representation? And how might those of us leading a ‘double life’ use our skills, cultural practices, and education to inspire and benefit our local Hip Hop communities?
We suggest it starts with a confession of who we are and Hip Hop’s place in our lives.
See you on the floor… or the office?
Rachael Gunn > Raygun
Feras Shaheen > Fez
 We use ‘Street Dance’ as an umbrella term to refer to the dance styles created outside established dance institutions, and which emphasise freestyle and community.
We’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land in which we dance, practice, and learn: the Wattamattagal clan of the Darug nation, the Gadigal clan of the Eora nation, and the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal nation. We respect Elders, past, present, and future, and recognise the continuity of knowledge that nurtures Country and community. Sovereignty was never ceded – this was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to This Dance Is Not Our Own by Brian Toh
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Rachael Gunn (Raygun)
Rachael Gunn (Raygun) is a Breaker and researcher interested in the cultural politics of Breaking. Her research draws on autoethnography, cultural theory, dance studies, and popular music studies. She has a PhD in Cultural Studies and is a Lecturer in the department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Language, and Literature at Macquarie University.
In 2020 and 2021, Raygun was ranked as the number one Bgirl in Australia, and she has a slew of titles under her belt individually and with her crew, 143 Liverpool Street Familia. In 2021, Raygun represented Australia at the WDSF World Breaking Championships. Other than battling in the Bgirl or open Breaking comps, Raygun also emcees jams and organises workshops, training sessions, and events to help support women’s growth in Breaking.
Rachael Gunn (Raygun) Credit, Jason Lucas
Feras Shaheen (Fez)
Feras Shaheen’s art practice spans across performance, semiotics, street dance, readymade art and digital media. Shaheen was born in Dubai, to Palestinian parents, and moved to Sydney at the age of 11. Shaheen traverses different roles within the arts, working as a director, performer, teacher, choreographer and digital artist. He holds a Bachelor of Design from Western Sydney University (2014) and in addition to his artistic practice works as a freelance designer, photographer and filmmaker. Feras is currently a Casual Academic at WSU teaching the same course.
They call people like Feras multipotentialites—those whose interests and talents span multiple areas. What enables him to excel in these somewhat divergent fields, is his ability to problem solve, think creatively, and communicate visually. Working at the fulcrum of beauty and culture, Feras strives for logic rather than decoration, creating meaningful experiences for all involved.
Feras is currently working with Marrugeku presenting Jurrungu Ngan-ga, a collaborative production that addresses both local and global issues regarding the fear of cultural difference. In an ongoing capacity, Feras works on a duet titled ‘Klapping’ with Ahilan Ratnamohan, a contemporary project that consists of choreographic research into football, initially commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre (2017). Feras has exhibited a body of work titled ‘Cross Cultures’ at Pari Gallery, Parramatta (2020) and then at Carriageworks (early 2021). ‘Cross Cultures’ explores the fluid contemporary identities of ‘Generation Y’ and how street culture is heavily impacted by media culture, specifically where commercial and urban industries intersect and reconcile. Feras has also recently conceptualized and designed ‘Forum Q’ – a hybrid art form between public art installation and recreation space for the community in collaboration with CAC and Campbelltown Council. Feras has been awarded The Australian Ballet’s Telstra Emerging Choreographer (TEC) in 2021.
Feras is a member of Marrugeku (Dance Theatre Company), Arab Theatre Studio (Artist Collective), Buggy Bumpers (Street Dance Crew), Cultural Renegades (Street Dance Show) and Klappsquad (Klapping Group).
Feras Shaheen (Fez)