UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE: Hip-Hop Dance Exchange, Part III

At Dupont Circle after a space activation workshop with Binahkaye Joy.


How many times have I waited for an arrival at the airport or mourned a departure?

Are Americans more fixated on the things we don’t have than on what we do?

What do we do with the momentum we’ve created through this universal language of hip-hop?

These are some of the questions that come to my mind now that the hip-hop dance exchange visitors are gone, hard at work already back home, and with much to digest about the experience. This is my third and final post about the Hip-Hop Dance Exchange, co-sponsored by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and The U.S. Department of State. You can read the first post here and the second here.

When I went to pick up the visitors at JFK Airport in late September, there was a woman there greeting her husband who, based on his military uniform, I can only assume had just come back from one of our wars. She held a baby in her arms and was convulsing with tears of joy and disbelief. The soldier said to her, “You’re so dramatic,” and then he smiled awkwardly, not knowing really what ‘home’ meant anymore. He hugged and kissed her and the baby. The wife couldn’t contain her tears. Another woman came over, called the scene “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” and offered to photograph the moment. The only visitor yet to have landed in New York then was Abdul Kinyenya Muyingo from The Breakdance Project Uganda, who turned and said to me, “It’s like a movie.”

And at that moment, the impact of hip-hop as a tool for cultural diplomacy shifted to the forefront of my mind. If instead of spending 15 days meeting hip-hop pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and Ken Swift, building with b-boys and b-girls like Kwikstep and Rockafella, among many others, and dancing at the Kennedy Center and The Schermerhorn in Brooklyn, these 8 individuals had simply come on a tourist visit to the U.S., what would their lasting impressions have been? The soldier and his wife reunited? “Lots of police everywhere in DC,” said one visitor to me. Fast food. Individualism. The suffocating vertical corridors of NYC skyscrapers. Beggars and thieves. The pristine symmetry of the National Mall.

B-boy Abdee and Amigo at the train station in Philly.

Instead, these 8 hip-hop dancers go back to their respective communities energized, as glad to have worked with their peers from around the globe as they were to have shared with American professionals. The future of hip-hop is with individuals like these, whose communities look to them for inspiration and guidance. Hasan Rizvi of Pakistan has already done an interview with The International Herald Tribune. Abdul Kinyenya Muyingo teamed up with local filmmaker, Magee McIlvaine of Nomadic Wax, to create a short video to offer some insight into his own story (shot on location in my ‘hood – see if you recognize it, DMV). And, for all the hip-hop ambassadors, the New York Daily News recently took note of this groundbreaking trip in an article about our collaboration with the Brooklyn Ballet, which I discussed in my first post. I love the “breaks dances” caption in that article.

Kadir Memis of Berlin, Germany, by way of Turkey, hit the ground running by leading a workshop the day he arrived home, starting work on a production at the national theatre, and planning/promo for Funkin’ Stylez, an international b-boy battle he’s jointly spearheaded for the last seven years. I imagine Abraham Pari Seis from La Paz, Bolivia, still b-boying at 4,000 metres above sea level, hitting the ground hard and even practicing some of the Bollywood moves his cheerful collaborator, Nonie Sachdeva of India, taught him. I know Hida Jama is diligently working on her b-girl freezes in Ecuador, as I frequently had to drag her out of late night rehearsals during the trip. Yeukai Zinyoro just graduated (shout out for everyone on they #gradgrind) with a degree in Library Information Science and is drilling her all-boy crew with new skills she quickly absorbed here, I’m sure.

And to my friend Min Min from Burma, I send many thanks. Yesterday, at an audition I read a poem called “Letters from Burma,” which has Burma’s heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, as its muse. I’ve read it dozens of times at open mics and features, but yesterday as I stood at 10:45 a.m. in front of a panel of strangers, I almost succumbed to tears. I felt Daw Suu Kyi with me as I read, “Every day, I tuck a tiny scented bouquet into my braid. At night, I pull flower corpses from my hair. A thousand seeds die there.” I heard Min Min calling me “sister,” reminded of his mystifying magic tricks and uncanny ability to pick up moves faster than most. I had finally become the poem. I owe that to this group of performers, community activists, educators and leaders who will no doubt be revolutionizing the global hip-hop culture movement for many years to come. I hope to see all of these dancers on their home turfs one day, and for their stories to be heard all over the world.

To best express the sentiment I hope we will all carry forward, I leave you with a quote from B-boy Crazy Mouse (a.k.a. Abraham) of Bolivia:

Creo en el Poder De La Musica y La Danza por que Cultiva El Autoestima La Dignidad y El respeto a todas las perzonas . Te llena de Energia y te hace Libree!! Ya se Hacerca el dia en que Los b-boys bolivianos Mostremos Lo nuestro Preparence que Alto Estilo Crew Se Biene Con todo para hacer quedar muy en Alto a bolivia Como tiene Que Ser Peace!

“I believe in the power of music and dance to cultivate self-esteem and dignity and respect for all people. It fills you with energy and frees you! The day Bolivian b-boys truly show our skillz is getting closer. Prepare for Alto Estilo Crew to leave it all on the floor and to make Bolivia stay elevated like it should be. Paz!”

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The Hip-Hop Ambassadors and me on the Hush Hip-Hop tour bus.


Since 2006, the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Visitors program, managed by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, has offered artistic development and cultural exchange experiences for artists and arts managers. The goal of this program is to energize the work of emerging international artists in their own countries by bringing them to the U.S. and providing them with instructive and informative experiences in their arts discipline, exposure to the creation and performance of world-class American art, and opportunities to develop relationships with U.S. arts professionals. Participants have come from more than 37 countries worldwide, including Azerbaijan, Bolivia, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, and Turkey. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, the Kennedy Center develops customized programs for each group. For more information visit the Kennedy Center website.