The Necessity of Care:
A Guide to Radical Accessibility Within Hip Hop
The Care Collective’s ‘Care Manifesto’ on the politics of interdependence, defines ‘care’ as “our individual and common ability to provide the material, social, political, and emotional conditions, allowing the vast majority of people and living creatures on this planet to thrive.” In this essay I want to use this definition in its expansiveness to explore how each of the above conditions could be met to champion radical accessibility within hip hop dance.
I feel as though hip hop has always viewed itself as radically accessible. Of course there’s always gatekeepers as soon as anything rises to acclaim. However, the starting point of most street styles is a marginalised community, creating a safe space to express away from prying eyes, prejudice and oppression.
Whether that be Punking created by the Queer community in underground clubs in LA to the formation of Clowning and Krump in the late 90’s-00’s to get kids off the street and onto the dance floor. From the jump, these styles have meant freedom, resistance and hope for inclusivity. All except for one marginalised group. Admittedly, until I was directly affected, I didn’t see a problem with the way things were set up. When I heard phrases like: “Go hard or go home” I would nod along and smile - of course I would give all of myself to the styles that gave everything to me.
Although as they’ve been translated to the stage into Hip Hop theatre in a way that Isaac described in his essay as “dark, physically draining and impactful” up until recently, there has been little to no questioning of the process of using hip hop as a tool in a way that requires extreme self-sacrifice as well as the excavation and exploitation of the artist’s pain and suffering to produce work.
I want to respond to both of Isaac’s articles on the duty of care and commodification of trauma within hip hop, as I deeply relate to both. But I’m also responding because I was mentioned in both articles and whilst I agree with many of his points, I feel my own story is misrepresented and there are key stepping stones missed.
Isaac said: “Since then (2019..Saskia) has either not performed the work or developed it since, or moved on to focus on other things.“ And that isn’t my truth. I tried every year to finish my work, persevering through a pandemic, relapses and a disability. And despite that, completed it. ‘Where does the violence go?’ (the piece in question) ended up being a reflection on barriers faced in the industry not just by myself, but by my collaborators also. Questioning, ‘Where does the violence go', when we make art to resist violence or consume art made in reaction to oppression? - a central tenet of Isaac’s essay exploring the ‘Duty of Care’ between artists, organisations and audiences. So I told Isaac: “It’s ironic, you mentioning me in your article, because I feel invisible in the face of this industry now. And yet the duty of care or lack thereof that you speak about are very reasons I became disabled or invisible in the first place.“
The first pillar that should be met under the definition of care from the Care Manifesto is the material - ‘Meeting basic needs’. We cannot thrive or survive if our biological requirements of air, food, drink and shelter are not met. And so many within hip hop dance fall at the first hurdle, we cannot eat and breathe dance. And as much as the anarchists, socialists and radical leftists amongst us do not want to buy into capitalism, we cannot deny that money makes the world go round, (for now). So, for now, DJs, dancers, hip-hop choreographers, and artists within the scene need to get paid.
Hip hop is a global phenomenon. The music industry alone, boasts billions of dollars in revenue annually with millions of music fans worldwide. It is a precious, quantifiable commodity pumped for profit by conglomerates and communities alike. So even if you don’t agree with the system you cannot negate that what we do as hip hop artists has value - monetary value. We don’t necessarily have to exploit ourselves, but we can stand to gain from asking for a little more money every now and then. We should get paid, our friends should get paid. Our communities should be invested in for the unilateral organising, socially unifying, and spiritually uplifting work they do. And I argue it is by recognising the inherent value and worth of hip hop that we can raise the cultural currency of our art-form & thus begin “Meeting basic needs” of hip hop dancers. As Isaac puts it in his essay “I think this is a hip hop mentality issue. Its foundations are based in the idea of making the most out of the little we’re afforded by society.”
Someone who is changing the conversation around this is choreographer Dylan Mayoral, whose exploration into the world of NFTs has led him to discover a different way of putting dance on the market. He speaks eloquently to the devaluation of dance as a form in comparison to the more established high art world for example. And although I’m quite ignorant to the method, I admire his tenacity and drive to reinstate hip hop dancers as benefactors of our art.
The second condition to be met under the Manifesto’s definition of care is the social and what social aspects of care allow us to thrive. An important social aspect of this is ‘Boundaries’.
Many people in our industry consider themselves ‘YES people’, saying “yes” to everything, for many reasons: trying to stay afloat in the survival-of-the-fittest capitalist system, the addictive need to strive for greater material wealth to acquire greater material possessions or the people-pleasing trauma response of feeling like you’d rather die than let people down. This is compounded by the fact that conventional schooling teaches us how to be good “workers” as opposed to thriving as human beings, so we are not taught how to advocate for our needs in the workplace.
Boundaries are essential. Boundaries help us know our limits: when we need to stop, breathe and let go. How much mining our trauma is too much and causes us to relive our pain as opposed to healing through creative processes. Establishing boundaries so that we are not triggered or controlled by employers, so that rehearsal times don’t change last minute, so that contracts are provided. Things that would honestly be expected in a 9-5 job are often abandoned in the hip hop artist’s workplace.
My lack of boundaries is something that directly triggered the onset of my chronic illness. I said ‘yes’ to everything, I was severely underpaid for jobs and my trauma was mined for profit. I was not credited and my well-being was never considered. As Isaac states in his essay “In the eyes of the choreographer, you are no longer an artist but the tool to execute the artistic work.” So, boundaries are not only the responsibility of the artist but also of the employer. Hip hop celebrates the epitaph ‘Each one teach one’ suggesting that all of us have something to give. So if we consider the power we have as teachers, givers and leaders it can be extremely empowering to ask people what their needs are and how you can meet them. Art grows within restriction and if you lean into your collaborators limits the art you make can be all the more fruitful. Whether that be self-imposed restriction - such as in Botis Seva’s early work Reck which sees the dancers sitting cross-legged on the floor, with their backs to us for first 10 minutes, creating intense intimacy and intricacy with the subtle movements of back muscles. Or disabled choreographers like Claire Cunningham who explores choreographic development of her every day movement on crutches which to some may seem a restriction. To her, her mobility aids extend the lines of the body, becomes another person that supports her and creates narratives you could never achieve with a non-disabled body.
Being a disabled artist has given me a unique perspective on this. My body has been extremely restricted and this forced slowness has led me to appreciate a wider spectrum of movement and expression than I had ever considered before. All of which lies within restriction. What does it mean to dance lying down or slowly because of chronic fatigue? Or leaning into neurodivergent practices of stimming - repetitive movement to self-soothe? Instead of ‘othering’ disabled bodies how could hip hop grow by welcoming us into spaces and seeing strength in diverse ways of experiencing the world? As Emily Tisshaw states in her essay - Where is Disability in Hip Hop Dance? “What message could we portray if we started to not only include hip hop dancers with disabilities, but showcase disability as a main component of our hip hop routines? This links to both the advocacy and the political choices of providing care. Not only do we need to educate ourselves on the paradigms of patriarchy, colonialism and constructs such as race and gender, but we need to dismantle systems of ableism within dance. Starting with the difference between the social and medical models of disability.
“The medical model of disability says people are disabled by their impairments or differences whereas the social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised.”
When you become disabled you very quickly learn that you are not a different person, or are you any less valuable because you lost some ability or sense. But humanity’s inherent fear of sickness and death coupled with the demonising of disabled individuals via media representation for over a century is important to acknowledge in the conversation around humanising people with diverse needs and abilities. Dying is a part of life, being sick is a part of life.
It is deeply unfair that when you become disabled or sick you get immediately relegated to some invisible sideline where you are expected to live out the rest of your life, submissive, silent and separate from society. As Isaac states in his essay “This speaks of a wider issue of ableism, enabled by a cycle made for the non-disabled body and neurotypical mind, focused on the idea of individualism” It also speaks to a clear issue with “binaries'' in hip hop - from gender segregated categories (bboy/bgirl,) to misogyny and transmisogyny - due to the sexism perforated throughout hip hop music history as well as the unconscious exclusion of disabled bodies from hip hop. So advocacy by disabled people for disabled people as well as by able-bodied people for disabled people is incredibly important. Understanding - like many things - that disability exists on a spectrum and can fluctuate not just day-to-day, but over the course of one’s life is fundamentally necessary to communicate the nuance of being disabled.
Another interesting aspect of accessibility in hip hop is that many of the street styles that fall under the umbrella were created by those in their youth. And although hip hop is now 50 years old, the dominant techniques are extremely athletic, explosive, fast and sharp. So how can we begin to break these down into more accessible forms? The creators of the styles themselves in many instances are now at an age where these movements are less accessible to them. Why should they be ousted from the culture, simply due to ageism and ableism? So if any of us truly want Hip Hop to be accessible to us our whole lifetimes, we have to invest in radical accessibility. Hip Hop as an art form has always championed difference and the underdog. So it would be a direct contradiction with its philosophy for it not to evolve to accommodate disabled and physically restricted dancers.
So how do we make individual styles more accessible? Is it by harnessing the essential life force and energy of each? Extrapolate the essence from the dance - ‘Punk’ from Whacking, ‘Get-off’ from Krump, ‘Get down’ from Break, ‘The Funk’ from Locking and Popping?
By investigating into the heart of what these styles are really about we could explore new, bold and accessible ways of expressing them. Are they about revolution or community? Joy or anger? Being suave or showing off? Grounding or transcendence?
Do we need to restructure the technical systems altogether? Should we break down Uncle Sam Points, toprock and dime-stops completely? Or at the very least not hold ourselves to an account that is ableist. Instead of demanding more is more and better = harder, faster, stronger, why not try talking to and involving disabled dancers in the restructuring and re-teaching of these styles? In my mind, these conversations do not seek to dissolve or dilute hip hop but rather expand it, to be more far-reaching and inclusive. What if instead of focusing on speed, efficiency and perfectionism, we focused on slowness, sustainability and de-growth? What possibilities could this open up? What safe spaces could it create?
Someone who I deeply admire for the way in which they are creating safe spaces is Shanelle "Tali" Fergus. From working as an agent, an accountant, to choreographer and now facilitator of her own company ‘Identity. Ideas. Industry’, Tali supports dancers in finding their unique style, exploring new artistic ideas and advocating for themselves in the industry. My favourite thing about her though, is the way in which she has risen to acclaim by unabashedly being herself and committing to her paired-down, deeply chill, economic style of hip hop. Which she self-describes as not going above 40%, because “Why would I?”. (“I don’t want to”). It’s a take that’s so refreshing and rare in this fast paced world, I can scarcely believe it’s real. And there are many more like her: Rachel Kay (flight mode method and pioneer of Soundwaving), Ffion Campbell Davies and Julia Cheng (Qi gong practitioners and Choreographers) and many others committed to creating slowness and sustainability.
In my own interview with the Hip Hop Dance Almanac, I remarked that it might be naive to expect hip hop to slow down any time soon as it is very much in its adolescence (compared to forms like classical ballet & contemporary). I later remarked however, that any culture that has sustained itself for centuries has, at some point, invested in that idea of slowness and stillness, less is more. The only way to be heard is not to be bigger and louder. The only way to get things done is not ‘faster’. Often, in fact when we slow down we find greater clarity and in the silence of ourselves - true inspiration.
So what is a safe space? I would argue, it’s a space where people can be seen, heard and felt on the full spectrum of their emotionality as human beings. I pose that a safe space requires intensive and intentional listening. Someone to hold it- self-effacingly and non-judgmentally. People of all abilities, colours, creeds, religions, sexualities and gender expressions can be welcomed into them. As well as there being rules and parameters for respecting protected identities, or conversely practices of exclusion to create inclusion- see “Why people of Colour need spaces without white people'' by Kelsey Blackwell.
As someone who has recently become disabled, I am still in the process of defining what is a safe space for me. Navigating not just chronic but also mental illness and Neurodivergence. I am exploring what forms of movement are not only soothing, safe and accessible, but what could be communally shared with others? And thus could be individually AND communally healing? Developing my show ‘Where does the violence go?’ was a first-seat rodeo to implement these safe-guarding measures in real-time. Interacting with the messiness, mistakes and humanness of confronting one’s limitations. I was often forcibly reminded by my own team, to lie down, take it slow and not be so hard on myself when I thought these were the values I walked in with in the first place. The Care Manifesto states that “Above all, to put care centre stage means recognising and embracing our interdependencies.” Therefore, I posit that it is only by creating flourishing interpersonal networks based on vulnerability and honesty about our states of being that we can truly create accessible spaces or as Isaac says, “(breaking)... the idea that we are individually responsible for our personal well-being.”
This brings me back to why I wanted to respond to Isaac’s article in the first place. He mentioned experiences of exploitation and lack of care whilst also referencing one instance of a true ‘safe space' that he experienced; Sharlene Carter’s 2018 production 13:60. Calling this a ‘saving grace’ he mentioned that producer Liza “had a chronic illness that affected her mental health, which she was upfront about at the start of the process” and that the piece itself was about Sharlene’s role “as a carer to her mom who struggled with Cerebellar Ataxia after a car accident”. He described the process as follows; “...(conducted) with care, trust, and autonomy, daily morning check-ins, frequent breaks scheduled into the day that didn’t come at the cost of rehearsing, trust placed in our decision making as independent performers, journaling each day to encourage letting emotions out. We were treated not as commodities or tools for the outcome of the work, but as individuals entrusted with Patricia’s story.”
And so here we see the different paradigms of care being met to form radical accessibility:
The material – meeting artists basic needs (breaks, pay, support)
The social – creating boundaries (timeouts, check-ins, rules of how to run a space)
The political – advocacy (around disability and difference in Liza and Sharlene’s attitude towards their own limitations)
The emotional – creating safe spaces for people to express their humanity (journaling, allowing people to express emotions/truths)
And I argue these were primarily able to be upheld due to Sharlene and Liza’s experience.
As chronically ill people we don’t have a choice but to prioritise our care. If we don’t take a break, we won’t be able to stand, if we don’t have a quiet breakout space, we get sensory overload, if we don’t have accessible transport to and from the venue we burn out before the process even starts. I have experienced all of the above because of accommodations not being made. And before I was diagnosed, I would self blame and shame myself before repeating the cycle all over again. Subconsciously upholding ableism within hip hop until I compromised my health and my work.
Boundaries serve all of us, safe spaces serve all of us, meeting basic needs serves all of us and the remit to be our full sentient selves serves all of us. We should care about accessibility because we all have needs to be met. The first sentence of the CARE manifesto, the politics of independence states “Our world is one in which carelessness reigns”. So in one word, what is my guide to radical accessibility within hip hop? To care.
To care. To care. To care.
The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence by The Care Collective
‘Why people of Color need spaces without white people’ by Kelsey Blackwell
‘THE CAPITALIST MYTH OF WORK-LIFE BALANCE’ by Ayesha Khan P.H.D
3000-Year old solutions to Modern Problems (Ted talk on Indigenous conservation practices) by Lyla June
HUMANITY IS NOT A PARASITE by Andrewism AKA Andrew Sage
If you value the work we're doing and are able to contribute, then please donate.
Saskia (she/they) is a multidisciplinary artist working across dance, music and spoken word. As a dancer, they have trained and competed internationally in the styles Krump and Whacking, working with multidisciplinary artists such as FKA Twigs and for brands; Nike, Dr.Martens and the BBC. She is a violinist & Composer, most recently arranging short orchestral score for Philharmonia's collaboration with House of Absolute (HOA) & pre-pandemic played on the underground music scene with 5-piece band Nihilism and Levitation Orchestra performing at; Jazz Cafe, Southbank and the London Jazz Festival & releasing 3 studio albums.
As a choreographer she co-created works Dedicated to Dizzy, Stardust & ICA Sonic Transmissions (with HOA). And in 2019 won the Startin’ Point Commission from The Place to develop her first choreographic work. Becoming disabled in her early 20's their focus has shifted towards inaccessibility in the arts, securing a grant to train in management & curation of accessible events for and by Disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent artists.
Photo by Duran 'Dee Dee' Abdullah