When an all-star lineup of hip-hop dancers gathered in Columbia’s new Lenfest Center for the Arts, the Committee on Global Thought promised “a global conversation exploring hip-hop and social consciousness” in their “Fight the Power” event. The panel discussion, however, failed to live up to its name. While the performers adequately discussed their personal experiences with hip-hop, they and their moderator failed to properly discuss social consciousness and the dance genre’s ability to rebel.
The panel was led by Mamadou Diouf, the department chair of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS). Joining him were some big names in hip-hop dance, each of whom was accompanied in their introduction by a video. First up was Jonzi D, the founder and Artistic Director of Breakin’ Convention, an event which was heavily advertised at Wednesday night’s talk. Talking next was Salah, a “living legend in the world of hip-hop dance.” Multiple panelists pointed to Salah, the solo-performing French dancer, as an inspiration. Following Salah was Lanre Malaolu, co-founder of the competitive dance group and established theater company Protocol. Last to speak was another French performer, the founder of the dance group Yeah Yellow, Bee D. The panelists combined to provide a multitude of experiences on beginnings and success in hip-hop.
The panel got off on the wrong foot when Diouf’s first question became impossible to discern. He asked to “actually have a conversation around the creative tension between the very fact that hip-hop culture was born in a specific place, expanded all over the world, and has been shaped and reshaped by different places in history,” but proceeded to tack on a few more questions onto the already complex topic. By the time Diouf turned the mic over, Salah was visibly confused. When he asked what exactly to answer, Diouf responded, tongue-in-cheek, “You take them the way you dance. Improvise.” Most of the performers discussed their origins in hip-hop in response. Many admitted that they started off by copying other performers they saw, until the hip-hop community began to chastise them for “biting,” or plagiarizing. “We all do that [biting] at the start, because you have to,” explained Malaolu. “You have to peel through that to find who you are.”
Diouf’s second question was more straightforward: how did these performers choose to perform as soloists or in groups? Jonzi D started the conversation, admitting that he wasn’t very good at unison work, and that he couldn’t afford to pay other dancers when he began, hence his solo career. Salah disagreed with the question. Even as a solo performer, he needed the support of “The Family,” a group of b-boy dancers, to train his abilities and confidence. Malaolu then brought up the idea of trying to bring out pain in his dance, but also in balancing that pain with lightness and humor. Jonzi D jumped on that idea, positing that much of hip-hop looks painful and extreme. “In spite of that pain we experience in our lives… we can turn that into beauty, we can turn that into art.”
The panel left very little time for audience questions, which were submitted to Diouf via pieces of paper collected from the crowd. Among the topics quickly brushed over were hip-hops ability to capture the voices of marginalized groups, the focus of performers on audience feedback, and hip-hop’s function as a language of rebellion. It was a shame that these questions didn’t form more of the bulk of the event, which failed to hand the mic over to its panelists until over a half hour past the start time. Regardless of the structural issues, the four performers were able to provide some valuable insight into their individual experiences with the genre of hip-hop. However, referring to the event as “Fight the Power: a global conversation exploring hip-hop and social consciousness’ was a serious misnomer.
Official event image via Eventbrite