Marjani Forté-Saunders’ Unicorns and the Act of Becoming

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate, Co-Founder of LOVE|FORTÉ A COLLECTIVE and Co-Director of Alkebulon Cultural Center, Marjani Fortè-Saunders offers insight into the intentions and influences behind the performance installation "Memoirs of a ... Unicorn: The Act of Becoming" and how the project is evolving. This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

Photo Credit: Maria Baranova


Energy & Timelessness

“Once the energy body is within a certain range, which varies for each of us individually, anyone, through discipline, can forge it into the exact replica of their physical body; that is to say, a three-dimensional, solid being. Hence the sorcerers' idea of the other or the double. 

By the same token, through the same processes of discipline, anyone can forge their three-dimensional, solid physical body to be a perfect replica of their energy body; that is to say, an ethereal change of energy invisible to the human eye, as all energy is.” - don Juan Matus       

― Carlos Castaneda, The Eagle’s Gift

For me, this is performance. It is the act of becoming two, both earthly or organic, and ethereal or inorganic. In its otherness, its sacredness, the performance is (among many things) revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, and fresh. Beyond time.



“How did we come here, after all? Not with upturned chins and bright eyes but rather in chains, across a chasm. But what did we do? We built a nation, and we built its art.”

― Elizabeth AlexanderThe Light of the World

As I prepare to present Memoirs of a … Unicorn: The Act of Becoming, a work almost too close to my heart to perform, I wonder how it might show up in the conversations of its viewers.  Unicorn weaves personal narratives, collective memories, and historical fragments into an embodied tale of spiritual exploration, unabated love, and metaphysical warriorship.  The work continues to evolve and has landed as a performed non-linear installation, describing the celestial ecliptic journeys of folks identifying with—and building legacies within—the spectrums of blackness, maleness, and womb-ness.

I will feel successful if folks fail to come up with the right words to describe what they experience when they see this work. In that case, perhaps I should consider the aggressive imitation of a dance review by NY Times writer Alistair MacCauley a compliment (read more about this in Movement Research Critical Correspondence with Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Ali Rosa-Salas and Nia Love). Perhaps the empty, unimaginative, impersonal bottomlessness in the tone of his writing, reflected his utter incapacity to find himself reflected in a work about Gods.

Sankofa, looking back to move forward, I bring together ancestral memories, fevered dreams, and mystical visions, in a lofty attempt to describe the insurmountable awe I have for the Unicorns in my life, occupying roles like Father, Husband, Brother, Son, Uncle, Cousin, Homie, Pahtna, and Fam.  These powerful male figures merge with images of the magical creature that has always been shrouded in mystery.  Unicorns are full of mercurial passion, timeless purity, and unpredictable wildness.  But, they can only be approached by kindred spirits.  You can only see one if you know how to see it.

In the crafting of Memoirs of a … Unicorn, I found myself foraging and dwelling in spaces where the English language—at least in its common form—was insufficient. Fortunately, I’m a Black girl, steeped in the infinite fortuity and ingenuity of Blackness. I am in love with the way Black Folks have bent the English Language, and turned inside-out the Cultural Untruths that shape our reality. We take seemingly flat, linear binaries and flex them to hold the expansive conical and often contradictory reality of nature and our existence. I’m convinced we are Aliens, AT THE LEAST—defined and sustained by the cosmos, and the essence of energy itself.  

So, note to the reader:

In the few places I drop into Black-Speak, I am accessing a Divine Vernacular.

I spend a large part of Unicorn taking my own stab at this bend, twisting text from don Juan Matus’ lessons on Warriorship, from legible sentence structures to illegible exclamations. I start with the act of twisting language, as I begin my labyrinth walk. With witnesses in tow, the combination of the walk, the mental effort of twisting language, and the witnesses’ efforts to decipher, become energetic forces I need to conjure my energetic body forward.

In Memoirs of a … Unicorn, and perhaps from now on, I craft and regard performance as:  the act of becoming earthly AND organic, ethereal AND inorganic.

In its otherness, its “sacredness”, the performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh and (in the tradition of Blackness) Un-nameable.



"I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist. I'm forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive." 

— James Baldwin

My father—one of my central Unicorns—has lived his life in a way that reflects the words of James Baldwin.  He had to stop pursuing his formal education at an early age, but he persistently found alternative ways to accumulate knowledge.  He read obsessively; and he was the one who introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan Matus. His love of science-fiction led him to authors like Octavia Butler, whose books he shared with me.  My father also deems himself an architect of his reality, and that led to his penchant for building things.  In Unicorn I draw on the mystical knowledge he shared with me; and I draw on his crafting of both structures and realities.  He constructed my central set-piece, a rough-hewn pyramid with all of its associations of celestial ancestry and immortality.

But what if we aren’t aliens? What if we are merely humans subjected to the baneful and worst of human existence FOR GENERATIONS!? What if Virginia Hamilton’s “The People Who Could Fly” was only a Folktale, and not the history lesson I took it to be when I first read it as a child? What if Octavia Butler’s Doro and Anyanwu weren’t the original X-Men, having pre-dated Stan Lee’s imagination, with only Butler to finally transcribe the story of their lives?  And what if Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan Matus is in fact a figment of Castaneda’s imagination, not the Shaman-like Transcendental Warrior, Man of Knowledge, Teacher I’ve studied from through Castaneda’s Eagle’s Gift and Teachings of Don Juan?  What if EZ Rawlins never had to check his murderous friend/alter ego Mouse, and if Tananarive Due’s David (Daweed) had never drank Christ’s blood and lived among a colony of African Immortals?

If so, I want nothing to do with that reality. I’ll live in the world of my art, where there is space for my wings in all their girth and might. Where the Sun doesn't wither in my Moonlight and in the place where our majesty and earthliness collide. My Daddy introduced me to this place when he shared the amazing beauty of his Unicorn-nature, showed me Kirikou, put Octavia Butler in my hand, and scared the shit out of my dreams with Freddy Kreuger. My Mommy showed it to me everyday, when she created mosaic murals from her shattered panes of family and partnership.  They, too, were illuminated from within by beauty. 

Sci-Fi is my map, and portal. It has given me permission to BEND time, to explore inter-dimensional occurrences. Such that in my storytelling a pyramid structure can live among a 10ft Unicorn Horn, made of chicken wire fastened to a red naked body.  With breasts flapping and ass clapping, in Memoirs of a Unicorn, I imagine I have a scrotum, and then… the story begins.

In a millennial time of hard-earned resurgence and renewal, in collective imaginings of liberation, Unicorn invites its audience to bend, flex, squint, and most of all, ACCEPT, that in the dimension of this performance, all are not always invited nor will all “relate”— as within the construct of race-based thinking and imprisonment, some simply will not and cannot find themselves reflected in this work. I’m okay with that.

Because performance is the act of becoming earthly AND organic ethereal AND inorganic. In its otherness, its “sacredness”, performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh. It is Dimensionation.



I am a student. I study the occurrence of magic and the bizarre in seemingly mundane circumstances and concepts. I believe the infinite formulas for our elevation (of the human consciousness) are within our capacities to be both independent and deeply inter-connected.

That is the work of one of my richest collaborations, LOVE|FORTÉ, a creative partnership between, myself, and choreographer Nia Love. Our work oscillates between our individual and collective practices, moving through time as interconnected beings tethered by an intentional and metaphysical promise to be “Both, And”.

So the gathering of collaborators for Memoirs of a … Unicorn (Set Designer Mimi Lien, Installation Artist Peiyi Wong, Lighting Designer Tuce Yasak) adhered to the promise; that whatever we made or contributed would reflect the majestic, the mundane, and the mystical. That was our rubric, our measure for worthy content. Among those collaborations were also two thought partners, Unicorn’s media designer Meena Murugesan and composer/sound designer Everett Saunders (my partner). Each of these artists, their ideas and impulses became as integral to the development of the work, as they were to its performance. While Everett had long been a chief consultant in my work, I found, in Meena, a friendship that would keep me from being protective with the personal content that informed my choreographic choices. I believe these relationships emboldened my honesty and supported my sense of abandon in performance.

Thus the power of perhaps more than collaboration- but interconnectedness.

Moreover, after returning from a site visit in Chicago I was reminded that Memoirs of a … Unicorn, and the mounting of this work in various communities across the globe, would be an intentional, dedicated effort to be in alignment with local community organizers and organizations. Standing in solidarity and support of their work, while utilizing its platform as "guest/visitor" to echo the magic of our collective histories and the promise of our future. Unicorn, in its fullest execution, would not simply show up on stages and depart after closing night. Its collaborative nature and robust production grants us the opportunity to engage the local creative power and resources of the communities we visit. 

Aaaah! This light bulb of a thought was the confluence of my many hats as a community organizer, cultural worker, experimental artist, student, and partner! Touring Memoirs of a … Unicorn is a commitment to connect!

It is a commitment to performatively share the grandness, the majesty, of Black Fortitude and Vision through the embodied parceled story of my Father. And, to behind-the-scenes, garner institutional and organizational partnerships that affirm the important work of the local organizer/organization. It offers the larger institution an opportunity to deepen its resonance in often geographically distant and marginalized communities.

If the formulas for our elevation lie within our capacities to be both independent and collective,, and if performance is the act of becoming earthly AND organic, ethereal AND inorganic; then in its otherness, its “sacredness”, performance is revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, fresh. And as a platform for organizing, it is intricately interconnected.



“For me, Art is the restoration of order. It may discuss all sort of terrible things, but there must be satisfaction at the end. A little bit of hunger, but also satisfaction.” 

— Toni Morrison

The most Science Fictional, Alien-like, Divine shit I’ve ever seen or experienced – EVER! -- was my experience as a portal for Everett Nkosi Zaire Saunders’ entrance into this dimension. My son’s birth continues to be a deep well for me as I seek to tell my stories of past, present, and future.  His amazing presence reminds me of the historical lies and contemporary dangers that stalk black men, that hunt my Unicorns.  His amazing presence belies the fictions that characterize black boys as “less than.”  Through my art I can change the conversation from those negative images to the positive manifestations I see in my son, my father, my husband, and countless other black men.  And yes, in Unicorn I become them, donning a hat and a suit; because—in another instance of inter-dimensionality—my performance enables me to cross boundaries and transcend the fluid categories of gender. 

When legitimized audiences insist on their authority within the binaries of “good and bad art”, our collective commitment as artists and witnesses:

To become earthly AND organic ethereal AND inorganic.

To, in our otherness, in our sacredness, revolutionize, transform, be wild, ancient, and fresh

To be un-nameable

To surf dimensions

To Connect

And to Transcend

These actions, these mantras, render the authoritative limited supremacist view—USELESS.

Their voices become barren among the fruitful minds and hearts buzzing in the hot salty summer days and nights of protest. Tossed about, in the swift gripping winds of change. Winds that whisper #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #FuckYourPronoun, and #FUCKYOURPIPELINE! Winds that ROAR!

Memoirs of a … Unicorn is simply a chord, in a collective, timeless and timely ROAR.


Additional Resource Links:

Joy DeGruy Ph D, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

Bell Hooks, We Real Cool

The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond

Contact Marjani Forté & Works Admin Partner, Nadia Tykulsker at for more information and video excerpt of the work.


Special thanks to Dance Historian and Independent Scholar John Perpener for his dramaturgical support in helping craft this article.

Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

On Making My Way to the Middle... by Paloma McGregor

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate, Founder of Dancing While Black and Co-Founder of Angela's Pulse, Paloma McGregor offers insight into her iterative performance project "Building a Better Fishtrap". This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

 Photo by Whitney Browne

Photo by Whitney Browne

Artist’s Note: Since 2011, I’ve been working on Building a Better Fishtrap, an iterative performance project that explores questions that emerged for me more than two decades after leaving St. Croix, my ancestral home: What do you take with you? Leave behind? Return to reclaim? The project is rooted in my reclamation of my 93-year-old father’s vanishing fishing tradition. For the past seven years, through collaborative process and performance-making, I have been working to figure out the connections between my father’s practice of building fish traps - so rooted in culture and function - and my art, my organizing, my being.

This essay is a reflection of some discoveries so far. It is an iteration of my thinking for the right now. It is a window, a door, a a sea of possibility.


Start in the middle. It's the best advice my father has ever given me.

It was really more of a warning, delivered while teaching me and several of my collaborators how to build a fish trap in the living room of my Harlem home. Dad, then in his late 80s, had already criticized the thin chicken wire I'd gathered for the lesson - a fish could chew right through it - and wanted to make sure we at least didn't build a crooked trap.

In. The. Middle.

That stuck.

The Middle

in process, from somewhere, central/relevant/necessary

the middle


                grey areas...




the core / the crossroads / the nexus

These associations have transformed Dad’s simple instruction, intended to prevent us from messing up his design, into a guidepost for how I think about and make my work.

I am the middle. I start here. Anything else will end up crooked.

It is one example of how Building a Better Fishtrap - the project and the act of shepherding it - has transformed my practice, unearthing a newfound agency as a maker, performer, first generation American, girl child who has spent much of my mainland life trying to fit myself into molds that were not created with me, or my vision, in mind.



I wasn’t always funny. Most folks who know me now don’t believe that. My mind works fast; I spout clever synthesis with great ease. If I’m comin’ with it, which I enjoy doing, you are bound to chuckle.

If you look at my work over the years, though, I think it would become painfully clear that I was a serious child and have remained contemplative at my core. As a 22-year-old journalist, I became the youngest reporter at one of the largest newspapers in the country; I opted to cover crime because I wanted to ensure the old white guys in the business never questioned my capacity to do hard news, especially because I aspired to be their boss. I left my journalism career five years later to get my MFA in dance; I had spent most of my adolescence and 20s missing my first love and decided I didn’t want to live a life of regret. My thesis concert focused on works about race and matriarchy. My first major work in New York was about Hurricane Katrina, a collaboration with my director sister Patricia McGregor, based on an award-winning poetry collection by Patricia Smith.

Everything I have pursued has carried great weight and purpose. I have largely seen myself as a vessel for something that wants to become. But what did I want to become?

I started working on Fishtrap after telling some friends about the time, when I was 7 or so, that I built my own small trap, which Dad took out to Salt Pond. It caught dozens of shrimp and I fancied I’d provided the night’s dinner.

I do not know how much of that memory is fact. Just as I do not know precisely how or when I learned to build a trap.

But that’s not the point of this part. The point is that the origins of Fishtrap is childhood. And when I think of childhood I think of adventure, play, authenticity and a profound connection to nature - the sea, fruit trees, seasons.

Nature has a sense of humor, I imagine. And I wondered early in my process how I could allow my humor, from 6-year-old delight to 40-something sarcasm, to surface in the work.

It started with telling stories, and inviting my collaborators to do the same: What is your first or most significant memory of water? I tell a story of the time, before I can really remember, that I nearly drown in a pool; five minutes after I was pulled to safety I dove in again.

Not so funny.

But the invitation - both my overarching one for humor to surface and my specific one to tell whatever story came to mind - touched the funny bone of others. One woman, a beautiful actor with a wickedly sweet Southern tongue, told us about the time she was hosed down in an outhouse by her cousins - while pooping. Another dancer from New Orleans told a story I can’t remember, but its embodiment included these quirky, idiosyncratic back-scratching gestures.

We were getting there. But was I?

I wouldn’t fully know until my 2-year artist residency at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. There, at the strong urging of a couple cherished advisers, I challenged myself to do solo work.

By myself. ...Ugh. I am a collaborator by nature and practice. I do not like to play alone.


The first year of the residency, I had a baby. Among other things, parenthood has taught me that I will never be alone again - not in the bathroom, while on the phone, or in my own bed. After having a child, solo work didn’t seem so daunting.

In year two of the residency, I realized that making solo work doesn’t mean being alone at all. I invited folks I trust into the space in new ways: a fellow dancer helped me by moving through scores I’d been working with; a colleague who had performed in the work came in as a dramaturg; a visual artist whose work also tangles in themes of family and migration began visioning a huge paper ocean.

Still, the freedom to joke didn’t come until the week of my culminating performance. And it came because of fear, largely. I’d carefully crafted three worlds on three separate floors of BAX, including the roof. But while sections two and three seemed well attended to choreographically, the opening section - a world full of mason jar time capsules filled with thread and pop rocks, rice and barrettes - was brand new.

I was afraid I wouldn’t really know what I was doing. Rather than scrap the idea and just go with the two floors that felt more finished, I trusted that I could discover something by crossing this uncertain threshold. Or at least I hoped so.

On opening night, I was put to the test. Early on in the section, I accidentally tried to plug in the wrong side of a power chord...then shot the object side eye as though it intended to baffle me. Later, I discovered a jar of red pop rocks, poured some in my mouth, opened it wide so folks could hear the sound then offered bits of it to the audience. At some point, an audience member laughed a little extra loud at something I did and I dashed to a deck of cards I’d shuffled earlier and swiftly delivered them a “Joker.” None of these actions were scripted, but the framework of letting these significant objects drive me unlocked my spontaneous brand of humor.

And it taught me about trusting my own process, in the way that collaborators have trusted me. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but that was an important threshold crossed, one that brings me closer to fashioning a better fishtrap.



How to build a Fishtrap in Harlem.

How to take a Fishtrap home.

I am standing in the shallow, transparent waters of Gallows Bay, pouring a libation with a group of two dozen folks who have followed me here from my family’s abandoned land in town. My young daughter, not yet 2, is helping me tilt the fat mason jar at the shoreline.  

Just an hour before, I was sweeping the stone staircase of my great-godparent’s home - the only part of the two story abode that is structurally sound after it burned down in 2005. I had spent the morning raking trash from a shady section of the yard, preparing it for guests. A choreographed reclamation. A meditation. A memory.

I lived here when I was 5 or so - Oshun’s number. Some of clearest memories of this place are from that time:

  • Germinating a lizard egg in a cup in my bedroom window

  • Watching my grey tomcat Smokey walk across the street, never to return

  • Feeling scared of Flying Monkeys after seeing The Wizard of Oz on TV for the first time

The home that held these memories is gone now. But they have a home in my body.

So what to do with a longing for what my body doesn’t hold?

I will never know what it would be like to go fishing with my father. I will never sit with him at the calm waters of Gallows Bay, slowly crafting each trap. Nor do I have any of the last set of traps he built before his hands, now feeling this dry earth for 92 years,  got too shaky.

But I do have this kaleidoscope of memories - some experienced, some passed down, some imagined.

From this, I will have to build my own Fishtraps…

I doubt they will be better than his, but they will be mine.

 Photo by Charles R. Berenguer Jr.

Photo by Charles R. Berenguer Jr.

The Evolution of "My Story" by Francesca Harper

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Francesca Harper offers insights into her artistic trajectory through personal narrative and in conversation with dance journalist Zita Allen.  This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

 Photo Credit Richard Termine

Photo Credit Richard Termine


"Like Euridyce, I think I have reached a point in my life that I have to look back to make sense of moving forward.  Both of my parents have passed, I have become a mother, and am living a life that is very different to decades of my life as an independent artist, touring the world with Ballet Frankfurt or performing on Broadway.  Now, my choices from day to day constantly affect others.  It has prompted a period of deep reflection.  In this new phase, I feel like I am constantly contemplating mortality and what I want to do with the rest of my life.  I have also uncovered a deep need to document my experiences in various ways so my daughter, the younger generation, and aspiring artists can have more information.  I don't know why I was born to two people who gave themselves over to civil rights, feminism, and community work, but I do know that the work they did in their lives, has given me a deep sense of purpose and reinforces this feeling of belonging.  Memories of our intersectionality have soothed my heart as I look back to move forward into this a new chapter in life.

As a little girl I fell in love with ballet, a world of fairies and sylphs. But a world that celebrated traditional white culture.  I saw very few other African American girls that wanted to pursue ballet, and very few African American women in New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre.  I found this disheartening.  However, my mother shared a story that inspired me.  Her dance teacher, Edna McRae, told her she was extremely talented and could become a professional dancer.  But she’d have to fight because there were no principal ballerinas of color in any of the major ballet companies.  This story, drenched in racial injustice, fueled my passion to become a ballerina.  An infinite number of plies, tendus, and pirouettes became my armor.  Growing up as a woman of color in the ballet world was a challenge.  I was lucky enough to have support from mentors who instilled a strong work ethic and sense of determination, and guided me towards communicating truthful emotions through my dance.

I studied at the Joffrey Ballet School and The School of American Ballet, but my most influential teachers were my godfather Walter Raines, Director of The Dance Theatre of Harlem School and my mother Denise Jefferson, Director of the Alvin Ailey School.

My senior year of high school I auditioned for the Ailey Company in my deshanked pointe shoes.  I highlight that because Ailey was a Modern / Jazz Company.  After the audition Mr. Ailey, who had known me since I was three, took me in his office, looked me in the eye and asked “didn’t I want to be a ballerina?”.  I started crying and a sense of relief overtook my body, because he was right.  I went to Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) the next week and received a contract with their Junior Company, quickly became an apprentice with the main company, and traveled to Paris and Russia my first year there.

When DTH was having financial difficulties, we were laid off for eight months and I freelanced, traveled to Europe, saw William Forsythe’s choreography in Frankfurt, Germany and instantaneously knew I wanted to perform with Ballet Frankfurt.  I joined his company in 1991, became a Principal dancer in 1994, and was constantly stimulated by the spectrum of artistic opportunities I was given.  I danced en pointe in one piece, would recite text in the next, and sing in another.

I started choreographing while working collaboratively with Bill Forsythe and choreographed my first full evening work for the Korzo Theater in Den Haag, while I was still dancing in Ballet Frankfurt.

I moved back to New York and with the taste for acting I’d developed in Frankfurt, thought Broadway would be a good place to explore next.  I performed in Fosse, All Shook Up, The Frogs, and The Color Purple.  I performed in the national tour of The Producers, and took on leading roles in Sweet Charity and Sophisticated Ladies.  In 2005 I started my own company The Francesca Harper Project (FHP).  We’ve been touring internationally for over ten years now.

Besides FHP, I have choreographed on the Ailey Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dallas Black Dance Theater, for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Harvard University, Barnard College, Princeton University and many more.

While developing my new piece, (y)ourstory, a participatory work exploring autobiographies (which had a work-in-progress showing at Harlem Stage this spring), I had a visceral realization: I need to clearly tell my own story.  This work will integrate both my ballet training and my contemporary training; my love of the dance-theater that I became fluent in while working with Forsythe; and the acting and singing I did both with Bill and the work I continue to do in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.  My Story will stretch my voice in every way.  Needless to say, this will be a journey, but one I need to, and am ready to make.  Another idea I’m ruminating on is less formed, but has just as strong a hold on me is I want to explore my language of contemporary ballet, research how to make ballet more accessible, to bring this art form closer to the people, to being for everyone, as I felt Ballet Frankfurt did.


I reached out to writer and scholar Zita Allen whose work I admire greatly to interview me and delve more deeply into what my current artistic research is:"



ZDA: What are you working on and planning on researching in the next two years?

 FH: Currently I am researching and developing the dramatic components of my work.  While most of my professional experience has been in dance, acting has become a significant in my life.  It allows me to delve deeper into intentionality and the process of personalizing movement.  What’s the connection?  What are the collaborative truths that are being shared from my point of view as the griot/translator, designer/choreographer and/or the dancer/actor/artist?

This is particularly important at this point in my life as most of my professional experience has been that of an African American woman in the predominantly white world of ballet and Broadway.  Lately, my work has traveled through the acting and dance worlds as I’ve begun to use both the voice and music to personalize my work while shaping (y)ourstory.  What I want to do now is allow My Story, to be incorporated into (y)ourstory.

ZDA: Given that creativity is an organic process that can result in the transformative evolution of the initial vision into something new and unexpected, can you describe a rough sketch of the work you currently have in mind?

 FH: I envision My Story (my autobiography) as a component of a larger immersive work that interconnects with the autobiographies of others.  I want to create a full-length and immersive work that utilizes dance, music, and narrative in a non-traditional setting.  It dives into our autobiographies and discovers intersections, and connections with others.

 ZDA: Based on your description of the shape and scope of the work it sounds like it’s not only an immersive work but one that relies on collaborative process.

 FH: That’s true.  There was a moment, as I started working on the stories of the dancers in (y)ourstory, when I realized they were giving me their lives and I felt they had to be managed with real care.  Their stories and experiences impacted me deeply.  I sat there and had to really…it slowed me down.  I needed to consider where I was taking the work and to make sure I was taking care of them.  They were revealing secrets and some of them were deeply personal.  The truthful human story behind all it is really what touches others.

 ZDA What are some of your influences in developing this work?

 FH: Bill Forsythe, Anna Deavere Smith, Susan Batson, Alvin Ailey and my mother, Denise Jefferson.  As you know, I for years I danced with William Forsythe and I grew up at the Ailey School beginning at three years old through my high school years.  My mother was both a dancer and head of the Ailey School and a key architect of the School’s curriculum.

As a child I was able to watch Alvin at work.  As a student, he used to come into our lounge in his socks and ask how our grades were.  He knew each of us by name. Bill Forsythe was very similar.  He would come into the studio in his socks and sit down with us and we would share our personal stories with him and he with us.

With the two of them, for me, there was this relaxed personal connection that was at the root of the work.  I think many successful creative people understand that the creative process is really all about the sharing…  Now, for me, too, it is about this sharing this personal connection with each dancer.  It is actually part of my process, to sit down and talk.

 ZDA: What drives you to create works with a narrative thread?  Are there particular messages you feel driven to communicate to your audience or that you want to prod them into discovering for themselves?

 FH: Working on My Story, has made me think about myself as an African American woman with all this training in the world of ballet.  My mother’s story is my primary inspiration as I look at this world from her point of view and share the experience of what prevented her from pursuing dance as a ballet dancer.  Yet, it also allows me to acknowledge her strength.  She became a modern dancer and later head of The Ailey School and an architect of a program that today trains thousands of dancers of color to be more than proficient in ballet.  I think she poured her frustration into the work and translated it into productive energy.  My mother’s story inspired me to become this strong, well-trained ballet dancer in a world that historically was not open to her or, years later, not totally open to me.  Driven by my mom’s experience of racism in ballet, I worked extra hard to be taken seriously in that world and had a wonderful time becoming a Principal Contemporary Ballet Dancer in Ballet Frankfurt.

In many ways, I am an heir to this countercultural movement in ballet that includes dancers being both diverse and empowering their personal voice.


When I was a little girl in the children’s program at the Ailey School, although I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I remember taking an African dance class and the feeling an innate connection to it.  It felt so natural and organic that I really felt like it was in my DNA.  On the other hand, I had to do battle in the world of ballet.  I remember having to straighten my hair and put it up in the bun in order to make sure I looked like all of the other girls.  I think that’s what I’m coming to terms with in My Story.  It wasn’t until years later while doing a play in Atlanta about a Black dance company, that I realized how much assimilating I had done as a child in the predominantly white institutions and how much of my own kind of groundedness I had been willing to relinquish to fit in.  This is also at the heart of what drew me to William Forsythe’s work and why I worked with him for eight years in Germany.

 ZDA: What was it about William Forsythe that attracted you to him as a choreographer?

 FH: When I saw the piece, Limbs Theorem, a ballet designed to Thom Willem’s electronic music with its almost African rhythms.  I was blown away. In addition, I felt he shared a deep connection to African American culture. When I saw Ballet Frankfurt, I immediately thought, that’s what I want to do.  That was it! I had never seen anything like his work and the fact that Forsythe took that chance to create this hybrid language was amazing.  What’s also so interesting is the culture he fostered at the Frankfurt Ballet.  After a rigorous classical ballet class we would put on Misty Elliot and Busta Rhymes and we would jam in the studio to that music en pointe.  Through that simple gesture he was telling us how important our culture was to him, and how much it inspired him.

My mission is simple – I want to take the time to examine my personal story and document my experience in contemporary ballet.  Because I do feel in our current society, we have very little sense of ownership as African Americans when it comes to ballet.  For example, it is not commonly known in the ballet world that at one point a third of the Ballet Frankfurt’s Company consisted of people of color.  If we don’t have documentation of the change that has already been established, we will get looked over again and I feel very strongly that this cannot and should not happen.

ZDA: Explain how this ties into the a longer term vision for the work you wish to do in the coming years.  It seems to grow organically out of the work you’re doing in your first year developing My Story.

FH: You know, I think spending time researching My Story will, on an intimate personal level, bring me closer to defining contemporary ballet and my mission moving forward, while also helping me understand my history and why I’m so passionate about it.  What is really at the root of this is the passionate desire to make sure that there is a seat at the table for African American dancers in the ballet world. In that respect it’s a natural outgrowth of being the daughter of my mother – a woman who helped shape the dance world as it is today and a father who as a Civil Rights lawyer helped make the world a more inviting place for people of color.  What I feel is important is to redefine the world of ballet to inspire systemic change and for people to feel comfortable in their skin.


Zita Allen, the first African American dance critic for Dance Magazine, has written for the Amsterdam News, New York Times, Village Voice, Essence and others. Her works also include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 25th Anniversary Souvenir book, the Kennedy Center’s "Masters of African American Choreography" booklet, the American Dance Festival/PBS documentary Free to Dance website, the book Black Women Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (Scholastic) and several chapters in the Smithsonian’s book Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theatre Shaped American Entertainment (Random House). Ms. Allen holds a Masters Degree in Dance History from New York University.

Conversations with Amara Tabor Smith

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Amara Tabor Smith is interviewed by Tonika Sealy Thompson as a part of UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 



Note from Tonika Sealy Thompson (TST): The text below is an assembly of extracts from a series of conversations that took place over the course of a month (July 2017), starting in United States and traveling from San Francisco to Cachoeira, in Salvador do Bahia where Amara Tabor Smith (ATS) and I attended a workshop on Decolonial Black Feminisms with Angela Davis. The interview is a part of longer conversation that will continue into the coming months and years as we continue to document Amara’s work and process.


The Work : Ritual Work - “I am a vessel”


ATS: I don't see the work I get to do as mine…it is always in collaboration – with the Ancestors, with the other artists I work with, with the landscapes where the work manifests itself and is performed. My job is to be a vessel, an open portal so that that Spirit of the work can come through. I see myself as part of the African-diaspora tradition in which ancestral spirits and universal forces become manifested through the power of human bodies dancing. This phenomenon has always been a part of the ritual practices of black people in Africa, the West Indies, and the Americas; and it is also a major part of my spiritual and artistic practices. In this sense, I am continuing the work of the Ancestors.

The Work - Solo but not Individual


Most of my work is about cultivating community-healing and action, and it is largely situated or performed in public sites and spaces. An example of this is my current project, “House/Full of Blackwomen" which is a multi-year, multi-site-specific, ritual performance project addressing the displacement, well-being and sex-trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. It is a collaboration with Oakland-based performers, sex-trafficking abolitionists, housing-rights activists, and community members to create performance rituals in public sites throughout Oakland with the express intent of changing how people can engage with these issues to promote healing among oppressed women. The project is driven by a core question: “How can we as black women find space to rest, breathe, and call home?”

As an artist and citizen, I am inspired to address issues in my work that are important to the communities and landscapes that I am a part of. I am conscious that all of the issues presented in my work affect me personally in some way either directly or indirectly. Moreover, I am not trying to tell stories that I am not affected by. If I feel that I am outside of an issue, then it is not my story to tell. I would rather work to support someone else in the telling of that story. I am able to engage the community in my work because there is very little separation between my art practice and my involvement with my community. My art-making “agenda” does not take precedence over my community activist work.

Within the artistic trajectory of my career, I find that I have been much less engaged in solo work or small collaborative projects that involve a few people. These are areas where I would like to continue my emphasis on ritual practice and spiritual investigation, and they also require a great deal of solitude. Engaging in these areas will be very different than the larger-scale works that I am accustomed to creating.

TST : Solitude without Separability?

ATS: Right…. This includes many aspects of my personal life, my spiritual study and research, and my artistic study and research. These are all processes that are inseparable from each other. As I mentioned before, I have primarily been engaged in larger-scale collaborative projects that involve community healing. “House Full” is an example of that type of work; but, recently, I have found myself drawn toward solo work.

The Work : Upcoming Projects


A few years ago, I made an evening-length work titled, “EarthBodyHome” which was inspired by the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. When I started working on that piece, I intended for it to be a solo for myself. But in the end, it didn’t want to be that. However, the time I spent alone in the early phase of EBH was cruciaI for me and made me realize how little time I spend alone in my creative processes. And by alone I am referring to the absence of other people in the studio, because I never feel completely alone. I am always aware of the presence of spirit in the creative process. I have a strange relationship with solo work because I am at the center of the process. That is generally uncomfortable for me. I feel like I want to investigate this problem further. It is time. It is a conversation with spirit that needs my singular body and senses. It’s like that sit-down conversation where everything else around you is slowed down and quieted. I am eager to delve into this terrain.

I experimented with a solo this past January titled, “Black/TIME” which I performed at the FRESH Festival in San Francisco. This work was the beginning of an investigation I am doing around the concept of time and how our experience of it is gendered and racialized. I want to deepen my investigation of this work and begin to understand how solo choreography can fit into my artistic trajectory. My participation in the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative is an enormous gift to me at this juncture in my career. I also know that I won’t be moving into solo work exclusively. I will no doubt work simultaneously on my group work as well, because I am deeply fed by the exchanges I have with other artists and my community in the creative process. They inspire me and hold me accountable and I need that. Especially in our individualist culture, it is important for me to always be in relationship with, and accountable to my village.

It has occurred to me that there is a parallel between the forms of participation in religious rituals and the forms of participation I am talking about in my creative process. In religious rituals, there are times when the group—the whole community—works together to express their spirituality; and at other times individuals function alone, as when a single worshipper becomes possessed during a Vaudun or Santeria ritual. Maybe, the same is true with the creative processes I am discussing. My group works function in a certain way; but I need to explore the ways in which I as an individual function in the overlapping artistic and spiritual realms.

The Work - Future Work in Brazil


TST: I ask Amara on the bus from Cachoeira back to Salvador if she had any plans to make work in Brazil. I knew she had made work in Brazil before and that she has been coming here for more than 20 years…

ATS: The work we do through House/Full is not a product that can be ‘adapted’ for exportation under some kind of capitalist rubric. So, as is, House/Full cannot be done in Bahia… Bahia, Brazil needs its own thing. And what Bahia needs cannot be imposed by me, I would need to be invited in to do that work. This is a tenet I learned through my time as a member of UBW and doing community-engaged work with the company. Every community has their own answers, so whatever I bring to the table has to be something that the community has deemed as useful; and by community I mean the people and not just the arts presenters, unless those presenters have been in deep partnership with and held accountable by the community they are in.

Now, having said all of that, I am also interested in investigating how my work can travel. I have made few performance pieces lately that could travel and be performed in other communities effectively. Most of my recent work has been created specifically for and about my Bay Area community. During my time with the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative, I want to grapple with the problem of creating community-oriented work that is not solely relevant to my specific community. How can I create work that can be meaningfully performed in diverse communities and locations?

The Work - How: Incubation Process / Content Development / Audience / Community / Production Components / Key Collaborators


My process is really driven by extensive research and an embodied practice rooted in improvisation…I don't initially spend much time in the studio. In fact studio practice is not where I find my greatest inspiration. I am much more likely to explore movement in public spaces. I have been finding that the dance studio creates the feeling of an expectation to ‘produce’. And when I am in the early exploratory phases of my research, I want and need more freedom that the four walls of the studio allow. I need a site, an open site, to speak to me. Dance studios for me tend to be void of that thing that I need. It’s not that I don't work in a studio at all, that is just not where I find my greatest inspiration early on. If I am working on a piece that focuses on a specific issue or story, I do a lot of reading, I spend a lot of time talking to folks, going on line listening to music, traveling to places and sites that are relevant to my topic.

Since most of my work herstorically involves engaging with community partners/collaborators, those relationships seem to evolve naturally for me. It is not something I know how to describe. My life revolves around my community, I have multiple communities that I am involved in, accountable to, and supported by. How I engage with community is my life. Since my engagement with community has always been such a complex and important part of my creative process, and it has entailed working closely with many people, my attempts at creating solos and smaller group works have been an ongoing challenge for me. I look forward to having the time to reflect on this challenge at the Choreographic Center, and I also look forward to the feedback that will help me address my hesitance regarding solo work.

I have a long time collaborative partner who I refer to as my ‘Art-Wife’ Ellen Sebastian Chang. Even when we are not in direct creative collaboration, she often functions as a set of eyes/director/mid-wife to my work. We have known each other for such a long time - she knows me artistically better than almost anyone.

On my current project House Full of Black Women”, I am working with a video artist, Alexa Burrell, who I want to continue to work with and deepen our collaborative connection. I also have been working on the past few projects with a costume designer /set designer Dana Kawano, and more recently with a set designer, Shelly Davis Roberts; these are collaborations with artists who I will continue to work with.

Driving Thoughts/Philosophies Resistance to Language and Explanation


When I am working on projects, I find that I resist using language to explain my work. However, I don’t feel that I am totally opposed to the specificity and codification that language can bring to my process. I believe it is possible for me to clearly state the underlying methodology of my work which is a marriage between my spiritual practice, my community activism, and my artistic practice. At this point, I am using the term “Conjure Art” to describe my genre of work. I am still in the process of defining the term. I am endlessly questioning it; and in my questioning, I have found that I always need to hold myself accountable to Spirit …. to make sure that I am not following cultural trends that depend on catchy “sound bites” and shallow narratives that attract attentions. I also stay away from the pseudo-intellectual explanations that I find so many artists using today in their attempts to legitimize their work. I am trying to remain in touch with something more elemental than that.

TST: So, how can we keep our research from destroying our creativity and our spirituality?

Academia tends to have its own rituals that it forces on those who are outside of the academy. The written word becomes the ultimate authority. How can we as artists develop perspectives from outside—and from above—academia that emphatically value more than the written word (while not discarding the written word)? How can we perceive, experience, write, and make work in a holistic way that does not separate art from academia; in a way that explores new approaches that blend and balance the spiritual, the artistic, and the intellectual. In this respect, the creation of art can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. 

The work needs the time to unfold. The Oracles of Ifa—those prescient spirits of traditional Yoruba religion—are hard to understand at first. It takes years of study before one can understand their meanings, and even then there is always more there that you must learn with time, study and experience… We can end up rushing to create work when our creative processes are dominated by the politics of capitalist culture that emphasize things like fundraising, marketing, and publicity. I need to keep checking myself, so that I don’t let this “drive to produce” undermine my work. I find myself slowing down, re-ordering my priorities, and remembering why I am an artist. This brings me back to “Conjure Art,” that term that I am still in the process of defining. I know that it will slowly reveal its meaning.

This is all a part of the process of the Divine Feminine… a dedication to moving slowly and allowing for the time the work needs for its own gestation, for the idea to be born in whatever way it wants to articulate itself.

I also realize that there is the possibility that at the end of the gestation period what might be revealed to me doesn't want to be articulated. I have to be trusting enough of the process to accept the outcome if that is how it should turn out. It means that I always just have to cross that bridge when I get to it. I believe that there is a spiritual grace within my process that will allow my work to resolve itself.   

Performing the Sacred - “Sometimes the Book is just the Book”


TST: I ask Amara about ‘preciousness’, recalling a time when I was helping her to collect costumes after an event at Counterpulse in San Francisco. I was carefully folding all the materials, you know like on my knees and trying to be ‘reverent’. The materials had been used to build an altar. She told me there was no need to be ‘precious’ with the objects…

ATS: You know, there is a way of crossing the borders between Ritual work and Performance work. Everything is purposeful. Some things require honoring and some things just build up the landscape of the performance world. You know(,) like sometimes the book is just the book. Sometimes the book is “The Book, and its endowed with something else… you know what I mean? I resist that Christian colonial, patriarchal notion of reverence that promotes the idea that only certain people can have a right to Spirit or The Divine. This hierarchical notion of ‘access’ separates us and the divine, and asks us to accept that separation as normal; whereas, in my spiritual practice, what is normal is our inherent connection to the Divine. The idea of the divine being so precious and untouchable that it cannot be accessed by the average person needs to be debunked. Spirit/the Divine for me is always everywhere; therefore everything, every moment should be treated as sacred.…

Acting Spiritual vs Being Spiritual


When one is acting spiritual there is a perfection in it. One attempts to present a kind of pristine version of spirituality that represents purity. Being spiritual embraces the mess, the struggle, the contradictions, the rage, the knowing and then the forgetting and the knowing again. The spiritual is a complex and enigmatic process. It is not a linear, accumulative process, moving towards some designated destination. I believe that those who have a “holier than thou” attitude are performing their beliefs in a very negative and superficial way. That is why I love both Buddhist and Orisha stories, because they bring the spiritual right down earth.

Technologies of Knowing - Yoruba Spiritual


TST: I say to Amara that I am interested in alternative technologies of learning and being… like the Sisterhood of Good Death, the Boa Morte Technique… like Sankofa, and Ancestral Black Feminism…finding ways to always stay faithful to spirit while using the structures of resourcefulness to free the unfree, including ourselves…

ATS: That word technology doesn't resonate with me at all. It doesn’t allow for intuition, for the abstract. Language is super important, I get that. The challenge of using language and the challenge of understanding language is something that we really have to pay attention to. But, sometimes you just have to be instead of speaking. Our spiritual practice in the Yoruba tradition emphasizes the experience, the embodied practice. It is a practice that is kinesthetic. Though written information and even visual media are useful tools for our studies and practices, it is embodied practice that teaches us how to live fully in the world; and that cannot be reduced to language. So, again, we come to the idea of the Spirit being expressed through the dancing human body as a key component in African-diaspora religions. The Sisterhood of Good Death—a female religious society in Brazil—is a striking example of how this type of spirituality is manifested. It is also an example of a woman-centered spiritual practice that focuses on the welfare of the community. So, it is an aspect of my research that has been very important to my creative work.

Many aspects of my research are still a mystery to me and much of it resides in DARKNESS from a black feminist/womanist perspective of darkness. I don't mean darkness in the European colonial sense of darkness with all of its negative connotations. For me, this darkness is a place of infinite possibility. In this regard, I see myself as an artist who is perpetually emerging. I know the distinctions between an “emerging” artist and an “established” artist, as defined by the arts establishment, I get that. But my work has not arrived yet. It is not complete. Maybe it never will be. I am more interested in the journey and the questions than where I arrive at the end of my process. This is where I am. Barefoot on the dirt path.


Tonika Sealy Thompson is a PhD student in Performance Studies at UC Berkley who is concerned with Caribbean cultural and political thought, multilingual/hemispheric Black diaspora studies, Gender Womens and Sexuality studies and Afro Asian connections. She grew up in Barbados and has been living and working globally as a curator, festival director and cultural consultant on projects in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and the Asia Pacific regions. She has served as artistic coordinator of the Africa Caribbean and Pacific Arts Festival, and is the founder of the Fish and Dragon Festival a platform for creative exchange between the Caribbean and China.

To the study of the moment: ‘we free’, traps, and other philosophies

2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Marguerite Hemmings takes us on a journey into her current work and research.  This article is the first in a five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today. 

 Photo: ‘we free’ at Gibney Dance Credit: Scott Shaw Pictured: Courtney Cook, Italy Welton, and Marguerite Hemmings

Photo: ‘we free’ at Gibney Dance
Credit: Scott Shaw
Pictured: Courtney Cook, Italy Welton, and Marguerite Hemmings

We free is applied freedom. It is active liberation. It is a practice of trusting the unseen, undocumented, the unwritten.

We free is a multimedia endeavor that first and foremost concerns itself with the reparation of the African Diaspora. And secondly concerns itself with this very instance. We free wonders how this millennial generation is living its freedom, right now. Having begun as solo dance performance and video collage (big ups to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for your curation and Gibney Dance’s Double Plus Series for holding space for that first iteration), we free now moves deeper into the social.  

The methodology of we free rests inside of improvisation — cyphers, labs, freestyle, jams, parties, sessions in living rooms, community centers, clubs, backyards. It pulls heavily from living inside of the work and voice of young people, womyn, and gender non- conforming peoples. It studies street styles across the African Diaspora. It side eyes methods of ethnographic research while still using many of them. It’s group work. We’re recovering, remembering, imagining, un-loosing, changing. Changing. The process of decolonizing, of getting natural, of making ready again, is utter change. And with this surrendering to change, a belief in deeper and higher communication comes up, a different way of communicating with one another comes through. And this way, of communicating, or relating, that is coming up, that comes up inside of this process, is lit.

And what’s coming up is multiple. Is layering. Is looking laterally. Is lateral supports. Coexisting. Co-living. Riffing.

To the study of the moment: (this reads like a dj set where the selecta keeps talking over the riddim, so it’s kind of annoying, but you still get your life in the in betweens)

First and foremost. Take a look at this playlist to get your mind right for this piece [1]

First and for real foremost. This one goes out to all the yute dem.

we free.

Thank you for living in this moment and being such brilliant vessels and maps and windows to freedom. We protect you, we serve you, we listen to you, we know you enough to remind you, please remind us. Lead us, we will follow.

A study of this moment. A close read on millennial blackness. A decoding of our song and dance. De-colonizing how we listen to and ascribe meaning to millennial music and dance. Connecting this, rightly, to its lineage of liberating black genius. To Makeda, to Celia Cruz, to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Katherine Dunham, dun dun, rock steady, mbalax, talking drums, dub, nyabinghi chant and…

A close reading of our freedom, as it has happened, and as it is happening, now. This rests on a belief that we are already free(ing).

Ok, so if this is the belief, wtf is going on?

Going in and back back back back back and between, to the vibe. To the feeling. The beat. The rhythm. Riddim, before tongue. Re-membering, timing, time traveling, inside of time. What’s that beat again?

If nothing changed. If everything remained exactly the same, who would we be? How could we still be free?

Freedom is inside the time.

Time, riddim.

I started with rap music. This, conscious, decoding of popular songs started with rap music [2]. I started with ‘Jigga What’ by Jay Z. Then went into a lot of Ludacris. And more recently, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Future, Migos, Desiigner, Gucci Mane. Then (right now) I noticed a pattern. These are all songs by black men. It’s not as if I wasn’t entirely obsessed with music and lyrics by women. Come through Lauryn Hill- Miseducation, Erykah Badu- Baduizm, EVE, Missy…but this didn’t feel like a decoding, or digging for something, I already felt free, listening to them. But with the music by the men, there was a process, a getting free that came with listening to them speak. Maybe my obsession to study and listen and dance to the ins and outs of music by these men was low key a survival strategy? A map to surviving patriarchy? Or a map to get closer to my father? Now I see that a large part of practicing freedom for me has been going into the places of cognitive dissonance. Where you ask, wait, why am I here again? Hearing those words is absolutely terrible for my subconscious mind! Why am I doing this to myself? Trap. Omg I am trapped. That beat though. Why is it making me make this face? And my body do these things? (shmoney, nae nae, reverse, whip, dab, hit the folks, milly, hit the quan, Bernie, floss, and unnamed). What is this feeling? I am trapped! Or free? K, I think I’m here because I have to re-member something.

(But is the beat enough to save us?)

When I say close reading, I do not mean of the words. — the words, that’s the trap, relying on the words is a trap.

Ok? Language…English ain’t our mother tongue.  But we use it. And I listen to these songs, I dance to these songs, I close read these songs hoping that it’s really those other things that are sinking in, those riddims, those patterns, that connection to lineage. And we pray that those riddims are it. We pray that love is the message. Getting beyond the words is the beginning of the decoding, the decolonizing. Cuz why are those words being said? Why are those the words being said? Why are these the words being said? Why would they be said?

Dance and music work directly with the unseen. It’s important to go beyond what is being said, or written, it’s important to go beyond words, or even trying to put it into words. It’s hopeful.

First read. Migos:

Bad and Boujee

Raindrops, drop tops (drop top)
  Smokin' on cookie in the hotbox (cookie)
  Fuckin' on your bitch she a thot, thot (Thot)
  Cookin' up dope in the crockpot, (pot)
  We came from nothin' to somethin' nigga (hey)
  I don't trust nobody, grip the trigger (nobody)
  Call up the gang, and they come and get you (gang)
  Cry me a river, give you a tissue (hey)
  My bitch is bad and boujee (bad)
  Cookin' up dope with a Uzi (blaow)
  My niggas is savage, ruthless (savage)
  We got 30's and 100 rounds too (grrah)
  My bitch is bad and boujee (bad)
  Cookin' up dope with a Uzi (dope)
  My niggas is savage, ruthless (hey)                                                                      

words=terrible. But that’s the trap, the words. Now, how the rest of this will be read, must be in tandem with sound, and the unseen undocumented unwritten, or else it won’t make sense. Or it will make sense, in terrible ways. Please listen to this song right now and listen beyond meaning. Beyond reason. Do not continue without listening. Matter fact, dance to it. Because “dancing is an intense listening state”[3].

Do you hear that call and response?

Do you hear the dialect? The lilt?

Do you see the patterning? The repetition?

Do your shoulders or head or hands or chest want to do anything?

Do you hear that riddim? That polyrhythm?

(But can the (has the) polyrhythm save(d) us?—is it enough to save us?)

It’s enough to make my mind bend back. Look at Kida the Great, 15 year old mover, time traveler, and interpreter, interpret another Migos song, Slippery, (what’s up with Migos? What’s up with Atlanta? What is up with the South?) a song that uses rhythms and cadences that did not make any sense to me at first. A literal riddle. I had to listen to it 1,000 times to hear it and finally ‘understand’ the time signature to feel any sense of peace. Then you look at Kida and his sisters and they just… get it… they are inside of time. look:

Kida dancing to Slippery [4]

Now just Slippery the song





ta, ta — drop — pop tha perky just to start up (pop it) ba, ba, Pa! pop 2 …Ayye!

Young people are lit. Trap is lit. Rhythm is being played with. Through production of the actual beat and then through the cadence and way of the tongue, the word. There is surprise, syncopation, chant. An understanding of time that allows for time travel, for freedom. Improvisation inside of pattern. Moments go on longer than you think is logical, repetition is done more times than you think makes sense.

Now listen to Versace by Migos.

From the dawn of jazz until about 1960, African-American popular music was based on an eighth note pulse. The advent of funk brought with it a shift to the sixteenth note pulse. Now we’re undergoing another shift, as Southern hip-hop is moving the rest of popular music over to a 32nd note pulse. The tempos have been slowing down as the beat subdivisions get finer.” Trap beats don’t use swing. Instead, they create rhythmic interest through syncopation, accenting unexpected weak beats….. Afro-Cuban music is a good source of syncopated patterns. The snare pattern in the last quarter of my beat is a rotation of son clave, and the kick pattern is somewhat clave-like as well.
— Ethan Heim

There is surprise, syncopation, chant.

Speaking of chant. Speaking of not being understood. Desiigner. Ok. I love this dude. Desiigner is an artist from Brooklyn, that everyone thought was from the South because of how he rapped. He came out with that extremely popular song ‘Panda’. The joke with this song, and this artist being, you can’t understand a word he is saying. But dancers went offffff on thissss songggg! Listen:

Hip hop is moving from a focus on lyrical content and lyrical legibility/meaning to rhythm, cadence, and pattern. So then how do we look at meaning? How do we look at time?

Time riddim pattern system ritual

—how do you approach what you do not understand?—

Time riddim pattern system ritual

I think of talking drums. I think of another way of communicating.

Something, else, happening! Illegibility. Maroon. Elusive.

NOT UNDERSTANDING DESIIGNER FORCES US TO LISTEN IN A DIFFERENT WAY. Trap music forces you to listen in a different way. It forces you to adopt a different way of listening.

When panda came out? Listen!

Another example of Desiigner being African diasporic, time transcendent af:

Watching this brings so much to mind, so much connection so much memory is inside of this.

Whatever. (HEART EYES)

I’m just trying to situate our moment inside of and with all the other moments of African diasporic genius and liberation. So when youth provide a sort of map to all of us by simply being, we can offer another type of mapping, an affirmation, a head nod saying we see you. And you are riiiight…here. Next to Queen Nanny, adjacent to Prince Rogers Nelson (points at map). You are a part of it. You are connected. The book Rebel Dance Renegade Stance: Timba Music and Black Identity is an incredible example of this type of mapping work. One connection it makes is between a popular music and dance of Cuba, timba, to maroon history in the Caribbean. This quote shows a similar relationship to time, language, and identity that I am drawing within my observations of trap music for this millennial generation.

Both timba and maroon life in the Caribbean colonial period are based on “outsider identity,” unique language, “raiding”, and the use of old principles to improvise new styles in emergent social circumstances, which Amiri Baraka calls “the changing same”. (Vaughan, 3)

But there’s more…

”While sociocultural “marronage” certainly entails transforming the anguish of the black condition and the status of servitude through “creative explosion”, the relationship between maroon communities and the dominant society remains complex and at times contradictory. In fact, the maroons who had been the “chief opponents” of slave society, at times became its main props.
— (Vaughan, 4)

Yehhhh. There is more. So much more. I’m realizing in doing this kind of work, it’s less about the actual genres of music and dance and more about the decoonizing process, whoa, I mean decolonizing, but I will keep that mistake right there lol, yes… it’s about the process of looking at ourselves and one another, differently.

How can this kind of decolonized way of working with, educating, and listening to young people, to the music and dance of now, free us all? (this reads like it’s at the end of a dub reggae song when the artist is basically chanting over the beat)

Because systems = pattern = ritual. An oppressive system is made up of oppressive patterns is made up of oppressive rituals. Also inside of oppressive systems is a constant practice of self-liberation. What are these practices? It forces you to study both the role of oppressed and of oppressor. What patterns are we creating. What are our rituals. What systems are we creating and how do we fit in and innovate inside of the systems/rituals that we find ourselves in as both oppressor and oppressed (this is trap. Innovation inside of oppression). With a deeper decolonized detached analysis we can then see where we, ourselves, are oppressive, and also where we are oppressed and need to use liberatory practices to move around said oppression. And maybe the more we see how we are oppressing, we can start to not, then those most vulnerable to that oppression can freely go head and create those new systems they were brought here to create instead of just creating ways of navigating around and inside of them.

Because the most vulnerable to an oppressive system, are the ones who have a constant practice and ritual of self-liberation and can – and do – create the most, lit, systems.

If we even attempt to play with playing the whole Oppression Olympics game, youth are 100% the winners. Why?- I define oppression as the active crushing of spirit. Cardinal sinning. Engaging in ritual that suppresses another’s ability to live or connect with/be led by/walk with their spirit. The act of acclimating a child to this dream reality we’re all ritualizing is mad soul crushing. I.e. the trauma of disconnecting, of separating, of identifying, – then the concrete facts – of being the most susceptible demographic to all forms of abuse, at the whim of hierarchy and authority 100% of the time. So my main investigation is wtf are they doing? HOW tf are they innovating inside of that? That’s the map to freedom. And the map to stop oppressing them. And instead 1) protecting and 2) deeply listening and 3) being affected by. The youth.

Looking at myself, the situations where I am most consistently oppressive of others, are those where I teach young people. I have to constantly fight a terrifying impulse to colonize young people, teach using fear and threat of violence, and recreate systems of complete control that make existing very hard for them.

Time riddim pattern system ritual

Questions that come up in this looking to millennial music—specifically trap– as a map that situates the movement to liberation:

Why is trap music so void of (visibly) the empowered femme? And what lineage(s) is that a part of?

What do these musical phrases mean, if I’m arguing that it is language? What is it communicating? What’s the vibration?

Where do the tonalities, lilts, and cadences come from? Any connections to specific music and dance and language lineages on the continent?

What do the social dances say about this generation?

Who’s naming these dances, giving tutorials, teaching classes? What will studying them and intellectualizing them and overly naming the unnamable do to them, its liberatory connections, its origins and its Africanness?


This one goes out to all di yute dem

Lead us, we will follow!


And then

a black womanist close reading : why we absolutely cannot get behind trap music


The thing with identifying with an oppressed group, of being a part of an oppressed group is that it makes peculiar things happen. One being, settling. Brilliantly tho.  But settling. Taking what you can get.

lemons —> lemonade. And then feeling ever-filled with bitter, bitter rage.

Feeling that in order to get or experience aaanything good, you gotta take some bad/terrible/soul crushing/abuse. So we’re less likely to ever, rightfully, admonish and banish. Ever write off or cut off or let go or say no. Because of a belief that we cannot be members of wholly loving environments. We cannot feel completely all the way good. So let’s make that feel good. Let’s make not feeling good feel goooood

Exploitation feels bad, misrepresentation feels bad, being used feels bad, wasting time and powers feels bad, performing can even feel bad, being watched sometimes feels bad, being directed can kinda feel bad, it all feels bad when it’s invisible parts of, representations of, degrees of, abuse and guilt and shame and abuse

The brilliant part =

This ability is magic. It is alchemy. It is a superpower.

It forces you to see everyone and everything as whole and complicated and forgivable. It creates a higher way of engaging with humanity. When abuse is all around you, you become an expert, a supreme diamond in the ruff spotter.

But what if? Ya know? What, if?

So I listen to a song, oneoftheones I was highlighting the genius of up there, and I have to shut down parts of myself, numb parts of myself to survive it; to continue engaging with the good parts. Cuz we will get to the good part, right? I feel it…’s close…

But what if? There’s a place? Somewhere? Where? We forgave ourselves? And where there are nothing but good parts? Where you don’t have to dig for millennia to find them? (and by good parts I don’t mean just one type a’ good, that one way we think of good, I mean goddess god good, I mean it all, transcendence, I mean love first.) What if we poured energy into that notion? And gave a hard pass to anything that demeaned us, even just for 7 seconds?

Is an example of an exercise of imagination we could do.

So much energy going into justifying something not being enough. It’s not enough. The polyrhythm is not enough. It didn’t save us.

And I don’t wanna waste more time squeezing out the last remains of this damn lemon.

-But, if my idea of freedom is about de-colonizing, maybe we cannot avoid these spaces.
-It’s like wanting to un-earth something but not wanting to be on planet earth.
-It’s just that in those spaces we feel torn apart.
-So in digging there, we rely on a belief and faith that we are all one, for real for real.
-Like, FOR REAL. It relies on a belief and faith that it’s worth it.
-That what lies beyond and behind the colonized is worth it.
Plus, I’m colonized. 
-The whole reason we free was conceived was to deal with my own decolonizing.
-So maybe it’s also an argument that I am worth it? I am worth digging deeper into too.
-Ok, fine it’s worth it.
-Let’s study trap music and the brilliance of the African Diaspora while not creating this myth thateverything is cool just because we hear a cute beat

Ok now let’s talk about that other violence and oppression that this piece lives awkwardly inside of.

Radical blackness and the academy, and the institution. Institutionalizing radical blackness. Or having the terrible soul sucking job, grossly underpaid job of radicalizing, blackifying, the institution. And by institution I mean white space. And by white space I mean materially resourced space, mainstream, connected, promoted, ‘visible’, ‘public’ space. My definition of white space is kind of wacky…because yes, it is literal in many cases – spaces with lots of white people – but sometimes there are lots of people of color there, sometimes it even seems to cater to people of color. Yeh, it’s wacky!

But as wacky and in development as this definition is right now, it would be sad if I didn’t mention it. This thing, this attempt to define that thing, that force, this dynamic that works and has worked as a sort of undertow or vacuum for this work, we free. What does it mean, how does it feel to institutionalize radical blackness? How does it feel to ask these questions? How do I even feel rn?

Annoyed and fearful. And chill, and cool, too.

But like, how do you feel? Are you afraid of getting sucked up and away?

This article, when I was writing it, had myself and my tribes in mind. My interests. But that changes with audience. It always changes with audience. Where an exploration of self…where a riddim a ritual, suddenly becomes a defending, an explanation, a pulling of teeth, a plea, to be seen, a begging, to be valued, a begging, for this to feel easy for two seconds, a prayer that if I stopped pulling for those 2 seconds it wouldn’t mean I’d be disappeared. What is that? Is all I’m saying.

It is murderous. It is exhausting. It is distracting [5]. And is exploiting all our fears of our ideas of our deaths, our specific deaths. Down with that othering idea of death.

And, also, this sucky vacuum thing is the innate, inherent, founded dynamic of race [6]. And the struggle of the black radical artist who lives in public. [7]

How does one fly in these spaces? How does time fly, can time fly in these spaces? And if the answer is no……

Yute dem?

[1] Playlist Songs


[2] The way I decoded back then was standing in my childhood bathroom playing a song on repeat and making up moves to every single sound I heard.

[3] Sublette, Cuba and Its Music

[4] And if you want to watch a beautiful collage of Kida and his 2 sisters messing with time some more:




*Special thanks to Em Rose, Deema Nagib, and Solo Woods for their precious editing time.

Marguerite Hemmings is Jamaican born, raised in New Jersey, and has been living in NYC for the past 12 years. She graduated from Columbia University receiving her BA in Education and Urban Studies. As a dancer, Marguerite specializes in street styles, social dances, hip hop, and dancehall. She currently teaches Experimental Dancehall, a class that looks at the power of African diasporan social dance through a lens of dancehall/reggae culture and music. As for her latest projects, she has been working on a multimedia endeavor called ‘we free’ that explores the millennial generation’s take on liberation. Iterations of 'we free' have been shown at Brooklyn Museum, BRIC Arts Media, Gibney, JACK, and MoCada and will be shown in New Orleans this summer.

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Photos by Julieta Cervantes unless otherwise noted.