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

1,2,3,4,5,6

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10

1,2,3,4,5,6

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10

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?

Conclusion

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

STOP SAYING SUCH TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT US/IGNORING US/EXPLOITING US AND JUST EMBRACE THE FEMININE INSIDE OF YOU ALREADY, YOU ARE MAKING ART, THAT’S VENUS BABY, THAT’S SHAKTI BABY, UGH, THE CHILDREN ARE LISTENING!

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…..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

screen-shot-2017-08-10-at-11-27-15-pm.png

[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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6CxzkWiOgU

[5] TONI MORRISON.

[6] ROBIN KELLEY.

[7] JAMES BALDWIN. DAVE CHAPELLE. JEAN BASQUIAT. LAURYN HILL. NINA SIMONE. EVERYONE WHO TRIES.

*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.

138 South Oxford Street, 4B Brooklyn, NY 11217
Copyright Urban Bush Women © 2015
Photos by Julieta Cervantes unless otherwise noted.