The global power of hip-hop and its capability to uplift those marginalized in society was spotlighted at a conversation featuring four internationally acclaimed hip-hop dancers on Wednesday at the Lenfest Center for the Arts.
The panel, hosted by the Committee on Global Thought, sought to fulfill the group’s mission of engaging the University with issues of global significance. The panel, which was supported by the Apollo Theater in Harlem, included world-renowned hip-hop dancers and directors Jonzi D, Lanre Malaolu, Salah, and Bee D.
The conversation was chaired by Mamadou Diouf, Leitner Family professor of African studies at Columbia, and before the panel began, he explained that dance is a conversation of movement and a silent expression of the voice.
For French dancer Salah, hip-hop holds its power in its bodily expression.
“Without speaking we can say so many things,” Salah said. “With emotion, with our eyes, with movement, and this for me can change the world.”
In Paris, performing hip-hop carries the same social discrimination as being a criminal, according to Bee D, the founder of the French dance group Yeah Yellow. Drawing on his personal experience, Bee D explained that after growing up around the stereotype, he sought to change it through his work. The color yellow in the name of his group symbolises the joie de vivre, the “joy of living,” he hopes to inspire through hip-hop.
The panel, made up of two French and two British nationals brought together by an American university, underscored the difference in how French and American cultures view hip-hop. According to Bee D, in French culture, hip-hop appeals to counterculture groups and those with a lower socioeconomic status. Through these connections, he said, it has unfortunately gained a criminal reputation.
Similar to Bee D, Jonzi D, founder of the Breakin’ Convention dance competition, sees hip-hop as a way to find beauty in pain. He described his first experience with hip-hop dance as an “alchemy of pain” that led to joy.
“People were twisting themselves into weird shapes and spinning on their heads. They would then get up and smile,” Jonzi said. “In spite of the pain we can experience in our life, we can turn it into art.”
Malaolu also commented on the catharsis that hip-hop offers, describing it as a “type of healing.” Malaolu’s own dance career began during acting school. After rehearsals, Malaolu and a friend would release pent-up emotions through an hour of hip-hop dance. His current dance crew, Protocol, focuses on similarly intense expressions of emotion through movement.
In order for hip-hop to become a medium for change, audiences need to view it as such. Malaolu, Bee D, and Jonzi D all commented on the power of hip-hop to touch those who may be suffering. However, the harder task of convincing all audiences that this art form can truly influence social consciousness still exists.
“For me, the audience is the real trophy,” Salah said. “My success comes through the audience accepting who I am.”