Movement Through MUSIC: Symbols of Black Identity

Photos by Jan T. Trembley '75

The 2001 Sisterhood Culture Show

From the Bi-Co, Bryn Mawr-Haverford Bi-College News February 20, 2001

By An Ngo '02

From the Harlem renaissance to the present day, from storytelling in an African village to double-dutch on a colorful city block, the Sisterhood Culture Show celebrated the rich traditions of African-American expression. Thaly Germain '01 organized the show, which was emceed by her sister Audrey and Rafik (who is self-employed artisan of handcrafted jewelry). It blended the art, music, dance, work and song that are and have been "symbols of black identity" throughout history and around the world.

"Africa to the South Bronx" highlighted the importance of story telling, and the significance of the oral tradition, in hip hop and West African culture. Lisette Suxo '01 played the griotte, telling a story of "salt, sauce, drippings, onion leaves, ad pepper" whose moral was that "it is from common things that our most blessed foods are made. If a man is poor, do not despise him, for one day he may be better than you." The absolutely adorable first-grader Dechan-quesha "Que" Stein provided instrumental accompaniment while Isabelle Equae-Obazee '03 performed an interpretative dance along with the story. Germain and Rafik, on the opposite end of the stage, played the emcees. Germain's rhyme brought in elements of Bryn Mawr life, telling the audience, "you know these walls are made for you, so get up and raise your hand."

Her second poem, "they got us colonized, we hypnotized by their eyes" was performed at the Poetry Slam earlier this year - Rafik jumped in with an amazing beatbox to jog Germain's memory when he "lost her rhyme."

Tanya Cooper '04 and Michelle Mathews '03 next performed a fiery Latin-influenced dance to "Fruta Fresca" by Carlos Vives. Along with the Indo Hip Hop dance performed later in the show by Germain and Anjali Alimchandani '01, these dances highlighted the contributions of many cultures to black identity, and the influence of African American dance forms on dances abroad. Essentially, hip hop is greater than the music alone. It represents the use of marginality as a productive space, with music and dance as grounds of resistance. An example can be found in the definition of a 'griot.'

The griot advises, performs, creates verbal art in the form of epics and tales. while the emcee is a storyteller, spokesperson, perform in his or her own right. Introduction to "Africa to the South Bronx"

Traci Williams-Riles (Hfd '01), also of the Looney Tunes, performed two songs delivered in rich powerful tones. Both highlighted the power of spirituals and gospel as psychological resistance and affirmation of identity in the face of oppression. "Swing low, Sweet Chariot" invited audience participation in 'call-and-response' style, with Ray providing the first line of each verse and the audience joining in with "comin' for to carry me home." A spiritual solo by Ray, expressed joy in Jesus' love, as Ray sang, "I sing because I'm free/His eye is on the sparrow/And I know He watches me."

Sisterhood's performance of excerpts from "Fires in the Mirror," by Anna Deavere Smith deserves a review all its own. Alisa Alexander '01, Thaly Germain '01, KaSandra Rogiers'02, Ricki Tripp '02, and Kayan Clarke '02 all had different stories to tell as community members reflecting on the August 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, New York.

A drunken Hasidic Jewish rabbi had run his car into another, which struck 7-year-old Galvin Cato and his young cousin, both Caribbean immigrant children, as they played on the sidewalk. The Hasidic-run ambulance had helped the rabbi, but not the children. Shortly thereafter, a 29-year-old Hasidic Jewish scholar was stabbed to death by a group of black youths in retaliation for "what they did to the kid."

Both communities involved were especially vulnerable populations in New York. The Caribbean community, "mostly immigrants without citizenship, discriminated against on the basis of both their color and their national origin," and the Hasidic Jewish (Lubavitcher) community, who were the most frequent targets of anti-Semitism because of their religious practices and insularity.

The monologues illustrated the role of media bias and the dominant (white) culture's racism in exacerbating old stereotypes and contributing to the tensions. As we began to see, an incident such as this is never cut-and-dried, and the interpretations were as varied as the people delivering them. Kayan Clarke '02 especially shone as the grief-stricken yet proud mother of Galvin Cato, while Alisa Alexander '02 provided a lighter touch as a Lubavitcher women (with a beautiful Brooklyn accent) describing the Sabbath Slides accented the atmosphere of each monologue, particularly during Ricki Tripp's reciting the words of young Galvin Cato's mother as his body appeared in black-and-white on the screen behind her.

He was hit. I was standing right there. They cannot overpower me. Galvin Cato's mother.

Trudell Smith '03 performed body worship to the song "Let Us Worship Him." Body worship combines music, dance, and sign language in a unique form of tribute to the Christian Lord. Smith's serene expression and lyrical movements gained strength and spirit along with the song, transforming the words into dance down to every grace note and exclamation.


Double-dutch on a city block from "Music in Play."

"Music in Play" harkened back to city childhoods, with clapping games and double-dutch played in a lighthearted kaleidoscope of noise and color. Once again, first grader Que Stein played along with Sisterhood members in "Grandma, grandma, sick in bed," and showed off her double-dutch talent at the jump ropes, accompanied by Thaly Germain.

A raffle drawing for Phat Farm clothing preceded the intermission (the highly publicized Erykah Badu tickets had sold out). Unlike at the Radnor party, nearly every ticket holder was present. The highly pleased winners walked away with "baby phat" tops and Rawkus Records t-shirts.

The brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha from Rowan University in New Jersey presented a step show, combining movements such as the "cobra snake" and "train," (unique to Alpha Phi Alpha) with other step patterns universal to historically black fraternities.

Tanya Cooper '04 performed a "Hip Hop Medley" to music by Janet Jackson, exuding strength and sexiness in her interpretation of different hip hop dance styles.

"Reflections of the Renaissance" - a bar, a café table, and the gracious Kayan Clarke dressed in vintage clothing -- created the atmosphere of the literary salons and jazz clubs that were the heat of the Harlem Renaissance, the "center of African American culture" from the end of World War I to the 1930s. Excerpts were read/played/performed of works from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston and Jessie Fawcett.

No, I do not weep at the world... I am too busy sharpening my knife… I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. --Nora Neal Hurston

If I live I shall outlive-meanwhile I am barred from expression of my pain. Love is lost and - bitter truth - pride - is with me yet. --Jessie Fawcett.

"Indo Hip Hip" performed by Thaly Germain '01 and Anjali Alimchandani '01 combined elements of Indian folk dance with African American hip hop moves, showing how the two forms could blend and still retain their original character.

"The rose that Grew from the Concrete," poetry by Tupac Shakur, was read by Cambria Allen '04, Radiance Bucknor '04, and Kayan Clarke '02. Those of us not familiar with Tupac Shakur were struck by the beauty of his words.

Can you see the pride of the panther as she nurtures her young all alone…Can you see the pride of the panther as he glows with spendor and grace? … The seed must grow regardless of the fact that it's planted in stone.

Power, power, he said, power to the people. Love is people power when all else fails. Love is people power. -Tupac Shakur

"The Five Elements of Hip Hop," read by Rafik, illuminated the distinction between the art that is real hip hop, and the "popular, ignorant hip hop" heard on the radio. These five elements are: the mc, the dj, the graffiti, the beat-boxing, and the breakdancing. All are tied to African traditions of wordplay, hieroglyphics (graffiti), imitating the sounds of nature (beatboxing) and ritualized combat dancing (breakdancing). Rafik told the story of how, when hip hop was first starting, resourceful people hooked up microphones and turntables to unplugged streetlights and had parties outside, making use of the only available source of electricity. After presenting the five elements, Rafik and two colleagues closed the evening with rhythm and rhyme, bringing at least two elements together in a casual yet focused performance on the edge of the stage.

Culture shows are the heartbeat of the communities of color here at Bryn Mawr, and as much of a tradition as anything we do on May Day. Entirely student-run, they take incredible amounts of work, energy and time to put together. Organizer Thaly German and the women of the Sisterhood delivered an intense, moving, passionate celebration of African American culture in Thomas Great Hall that night, and deserved much praise for all their efforts.


Final bows

It's not all over yet though. Black History Month events are continuing up until Sunday the 25th, with Haverford's African-American History Show at 7 p.m. in Marshall. On Tuesday Feb 20, Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo, speaks at 7:30 p.m. in Thomas Great Hall, and a hip-hop spoken word performance hits the Bryn Mawr Campus center on Saturday, Feb. 24th at 8 p.m. Come on out and support these events that educate, commemorate and celebrate an integral part of American history, life and culture.

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