Tag Archives: Hip Hop

The Moving Blog

Material Men: (un)making history through dance: Ananya Kabir

‘Grandparents’. ‘Suriname’. ‘Malaya’. ‘Rubber Plantations’. ‘Migrated’. ‘India’. ‘Australia’. ‘Utrecht’. These were the words that announced the presence on stage of two young men half hidden in the shadows—words that were fragments of two fragmented histories now sedimented in their bodies- their dancing bodies. Wrapped in an orange-gold silk sari that was at once placenta, straitjacket, security blanket, and creative inspiration, these Siamese twins conjoined by history now leapt, struggled, and contorted their bodies in a confrontation with themselves, their ancestors, their pasts, presents and futures—indeed time itself. When they broke free of this material, it was to initiate a movement-dialogue using their respective dance styles—bharatanatyam for Sooraj Subramaniam, and hip-hop for Shailesh Bahoran.


This was Material Men, Sooraj and Shailesh’s inspired collaboration for the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, unfolding before my stunned (and tear-filled) eyes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London’s Southbank Centre.

Earlier this year, I had already enjoyed Lalla RookhShailesh’s inspired intervention into the history of Indian migration using a moving combination of Afro-diasporic street dance styles and Indic ritual. That experience had convinced me that through dance there is indeed a way to link the African and Indian diasporas that empire and capitalism had triggered in waves— the diasporas from the African continent instigated by slavery, and the subsequent diasporas from the Indian subcontinent instigated by indentured labour. Shailesh revealed the universal address of the language of hip-hop and created new solidarities between diasporic cultures which, even though embedded in the same national and transnational spaces, don’t often collaborate or dialogue—except through dance. With Material Men, we went a step further in this use of dance to effect a meeting of histories, diasporas, and the oceans.

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While Shailesh’s ancestors had migrated to Suriname from eastern India to work on the sugarcane plantations after the abolition of slavery, Sooraj’s grandparents had been part of the Indian diaspora that answered Malaya’s need for labour on the British Empire’s rubber plantations. They are the inheritors, therefore, of migrations across the Western and Eastern paths of the Indian Ocean and—in the case of the Indo-Caribbean diasporas, further across the Atlantic. Material Men’s use of Sooraj’s dance repertoire alongside Shailesh’s highlights two possible embodied responses to dance as liberation from this history.


While Sooraj chose to train in the ‘classical’ styles of India, Shailesh took to an African-diasporic style. In Material Men, their dance styles bend, flex, and gesticulate like their bodies to respond to each other’s life path in dance. Bharatanatyam and hip-hop bleed into each other to create a new thing without a name, yet another witness to the continuous production of newness that ‘creolization’ indicates.

Of course, each dancer had already ‘creolized’ his chosen dance style through personal twists and interpretations before meeting each other. Shailesh has been using hip-hop to reproduce the robotic machine-metronome of Plantation time, while Sooraj’s pairing of traditional gold necklace with grey trousers and orange belt attested to his own creative take on a classical dance. Now, each with his own vocabulary struggled to make sense of history on a shared stage but in the process freed each other from their individual oppression by that history.


As the agility of Shailesh’s hip-hop met the raised palms, mudras, and stately postures of Sooraj’s bharatanatyam, the difficulty and exhilaration of the experiment was apparent. Starting out as antagonistic, ending up supporting each other, their sweating, breathing, and panting bodies embraced and intertwined and strained to converse while retaining individuality.


Different ancestral histories and dance trajectories notwithstanding, Material Men is the process whereby two dancers recognise and celebrate (not just mourn) their similarities grounded in modernity’s collective traumas of displacement and deracination. The sari that opens the show is the ‘material’ of histories of the heart — difficult loves and private domains that lurk beneath official narratives and their deafening silences.


The sari is the mother– ‘mother India’ with its heavy demand of fidelity to an idea of ‘home’ left far behind. Where and how does the diasporic subject find a toehold in that material/maternal vastness, always just out of reach? How does one acknowledge the caste-based oppression, collusions between colonisers and elites, and poverty that one’s ancestors would have fled, or indeed the adventure of new lives across the oceans (as is the story of Sooraj’s grandparents, who left India of their own volition to seek work)? Is turning to ‘Indian’ dance the answer, or adopting the styles forged by another diaspora?


Dance allows all answers to be right answers. The point about dance is that it allows a non-narrative freeing of histories that imprison. We talk of provincializing Europe but the need of the hour, which Material Men recognises, is to universalize Asia. The intimate chamber music composed by Elena Kats-Chernin that formed its score enabled this universalizing process, especially when, at a climactic moment, it was punctuated by the vocables of Indic dance. The heaving ribcages exposed by the dancers’ bare torsos, which radiated masculinity, fragility, labour, and beauty in equal measure, paid homage to another universal truth of modernity: the human body and its capacity to extract enjoyment and transcendence through labour and exhaustion. In Sooraj’s words, ‘there are moments in the striving for perfection that we forget to enjoy. In enjoying we get to just be, to embody, which is the true meaning of bhava. Shailesh and I were discussing recently that it is in enjoyment that the spirit of the dance is finally revealed. It is in that enjoyment that perfection, ananda, is attained.’

Material Men premiered at Queen Elizabeth Hall (Southbank Centre, London), on the 17th of September 2015, as part of a double bill by the Shobhana Jeyasingh Company. It continues on a UK-wide tour. Many thanks as always to Shailesh Bahoran whose work always inspires me to write, think, and feel better, and to Sooraj Subramaniam for making me appreciate the true beauty of bharatanatyam after a lifetime of being exposed to the dance.

All photos by Ananya Kabir (except feature image, taken from the event programme)


The Moving Blog

Why I’m Still Rooting For Azealia Banks

In the fall of 2011 a super hip student taking a seminar I was teaching on nightlife culture in New York City brought the song “212” to class by a then little known Harlem-bred rapper named Azealia Banks. We’d been talking about underground music and culture and he wanted to use this song as an example of the creativity of the underground scene. Because Ms. Banks was unsigned at the time, “212” was as good a case study of the underground as any.

Of course, she wouldn’t stay unsigned for much longer.

Everyone loved the hip-house track on first play. It’s foul-mouthed, fast and furious. What’s not to love about a song where the main punchline goes, “I guess that **** getting eaten,” which is repeated over and over in case you missed it the first time. What a fun thing to sing along to!

Before I could blink my eyes the track spread like wildfire. Suddenly it was played at parties all over New York, and when I heard it out the first couple of times I remember people being excited because I already knew all the words but other people still didn’t know who she was. “212” was written about on all the music and fashion blogs, in part because of that simple, black and white video that probably did a lot to make Micky Mouse relevant in fashion again.


Everyone loved Azealia Banks. She was signed, and her debut record Broke With Expensive Taste was to come out “soon.” I pitched a story about her to a fashion and culture magazine I wrote for and my editor pretty much told me that, “Yeah, everyone knows about Azealia Banks. No one knows when her record is coming out.”

The more I researched Azealia the more I realized she was a talented rapper with a troubled past in the music industry, a small world if there was one. Young and immature, her foul mouth and somewhat annoying antics got her dropped from XL Records. No worries, though, because after the enormous viral success of “212,” Banks got signed to Interscope Records, the same label as Lady Gaga, released 1991, an impeccable four-song EP that stepped up her rap game and followed that with a 19-track mix tape and a series of highly stylized music videos.

But there was still no album.

Like a lot of other gay guys I was drawn to Azealia Banks because her music felt fun and catchy while still feeling underground. She was a more street-wise version of Nicki Minaj. Her raps were on point. On “Fuck Up The Fun,” for instance, she spits at lightening speed, my favorite line being “I’d hate to have to blow your lil wig all back / I mean, I’d hate to have to see you with your wig off bitch,” the idea that being seen without your wig is sort of like getting caught leaving the restroom with toilet paper on your shoes.

Most interestingly of all is that at the time her music borrowed from voguing and house ball culture, but not in that gross appropriationist type of way. She threw a “ball” in New York, and you get the sense that she kikis with her gay male friends. “Fierce” and “I’ma Read,” two tracks from her Fantasea mixtape, point and wink directly to black gay culture. So it was easy to feel like she was a rapper that gay people could get behind because she was talking to us.

Then things took a sour turn, as in, she sort of became a hot mess. She had Twitter beefs with literally everyone, leading some people to wonder why she wasted so much time on Twitter fueling mindless beefs instead of dropping sickening beats.

At one point things turned so sour for Azealia that she sent out a Tweet begging to be dropped from Interscope records. There’s no better way to get fired than to beg to be fired, I guess. But the request didn’t come without a reason. A few weeks prior to this deadly Tweet she went on a Twitter rampage about how she was tired of talking to old white dudes about her “black girl shit,” the old white dudes presumably being the people at her record label and trying to manage her career.

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You get what you ask for, and Azealia Banks was released from her contract in July.

“I’ve literally just been sitting here waiting to get off the label,” Banks recently told Buzzfeed.

“Now that I’m off the label it’s a bit of a shock, because now it’s like, ‘Oh shit, it’s real now.’ I mean, even though I’ve been doing it myself the whole time anyway, now it’s gonna be more pressure,” she said. “I have to do it myself, I have to hire all the people, I have to find all the stuff, I have to pay all the producers, I have to do everything. It’s fine, I actually don’t mind. I have a good team, lawyer, manager,” she said.

In pop music you have to act fast and stay hot while you can. With nothing to hold on to, and with all the Twitter beefs, a career that looked like it was going nowhere and an album that didn’t seem like it would ever make it to radio, lots of people lost hope in Azealia Banks’ musical career. So many people that no one showed up to one of her performances in Norway, allegedly.

So how did she celebrate her release from Interscope? By releasing a brand new music video, “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” what plays out a kidnapping scene that’s supposed to mirror her release from Interscope.

She might be immature at times. She might get too hot about silly things. But none of us knows what it was like for her at Interscope — how her own artistic vision differed from what Interscope was prepared to do for her. Now that she’s a free agent she’ll be able to do what she wants to do. And the whole thing makes so much more sense when we think about it in light of her comments that these old white dudes don’t get her black girl shit.

How many other artists have had the balls to stand up to the hand that feeds them the way she has?

Besides, it’s not like she’s talentless and washed up. She’s given us tons of great music, with videos to boot, and everything she’s done has been full of promise.