the giant awakening on the west coast
Now that we know why a multibillion dollar Hip Hop industry isn’t solving the problem of poverty as it grows, we can also answer why a popular California city with a $14 billion dollar budget has yet to solve its own problems by elevating the global impact of its inner-city culture…which is even bigger than Hip Hop knows.
The Bay Area’s inner-city dancers of the 1960’s and ’70’s known as Boogaloos, Robotters and Strutters were an established tradition before corporate media began showcasing derivatives of their style to the mainstream public. Michael Jackson gave credit to “these beautiful children from the ghettos” for originating his moves, but TV shows like Soul Train were crediting their own featured dancers as pioneers while Hollywood ignored the street reality of their mentors who were engaged in battling police brutality and incarceration. Many dancers, like Lonnie “PopTart” Green, were so dynamic in the streets they were able to perform while incarcerated because their raw talent kept the peace better than law enforcement.
This pioneering generation of competitive street dancers throughout California’s Bay Area in the 1970’s carried the spirit of revolutionary love in their bodies. They were raised by families who migrated from the South in the 1940’s to work in the shipyards, who met a different type of racism in an industrial city that was hiding the fact that it was secretly using the redlined Hunter’s Point neighborhood as a toxic waste dump site for decades. After WWII ended jobs became scarce and urban renewal projects saw Black neighborhoods like The Fillmore getting demolished to make room for new project housing. In the 1963 documentary “Take This Hammer” James Baldwin described it as “the San Francisco that America pretends does not exist.”
Black San Franciscans had every ethical reason to find their own ways of resisting this new type of economic racism that Maya Angelou wrote about in her 1969 autobiography “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. The spirit of resistance was strong enough for California Governor to call the national guard during the uprising that occurred after a white police officer shot and killed Matthew Johnson, an unarmed black teenager in 1966. The citywide rebellion caused The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to announce its formation just weeks later in Oakland.
That revolutionary energy was naturally channeled into the competitive dance movements of kids who were literally fed by the Free Breakfast for Children program. Throughout the 1970’s, these BRS styles spread throughout Northern & Southern California through family gatherings, talent shows, intramural school events, and the state penitentiary system, eventually reaching inner-city movers in Los Angeles who blended it with their style of Locking that later became known as “Poppin” or “Poplockin”. Oakland Boogaloo even spread beyond California through the military service of dancers like Jerry Rentie, who brought the Boogaloo style to the East Coast, inspiring a young dancer named Lockatron John, who would later introduce the style at the high school of two teenagers who would become some of New York’s most respected Hip Hop dancers, Mr. Wiggles and Popmaster Fabel.
By the time national television caught on to the inner-city movement and announced the emergence of New York’s own brand of project culture with its message of “Peace, Love, Unity and Having Fun”, the media adopted the term “Hip Hop” as the template for all street expression, using the South Bronx’s Universal Zulu Nation elements of “DJing”, “MCing”, “Breaking” and “Graffiti”. Hip Hop music videos like “The Message” showed an East Coast style of expression and the parallels with California were uncanny, yet distinct. It may not have been understood then, but the Fillmore District in San Francisco — known as “The Harlem of the West” in the 1940’s and 50’s — was producing the most competitive dance groups on the West Coast and could have just as easily been dubbed “The South Bronx of the West” in the 1970’s.
Tragically, the Bay Area’s origin story was erased from the West Coast’s historical narrative with Hip Hop movies like Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, whose casting process intentionally avoided and even stole from street dancers who were too street. Instead, Hollywood producers elevated a particular network of Southern California dancers — even ignoring the stories of their own inner-city mentors like Diane Williams, aka Queen Boogaloo, and countless others — so much so that Hip Hop transplants from New York thought Los Angeles represented the entirety of California. The street dance industry was and still is an appropriative force established on 2nd & 3rd generation information intentionally disconnected from its inner-city roots on the West Coast. Hollywood shut the majority of the streets out of the Hip Hop industry from jump.
As the creativity of the ghetto was being put into the public spotlight in the 1980’s, Hip Hop entertainment had children all over the world saying “I want to do that too”. Unfortunately, the solidarity of a new generation of “Hip Hop dancers” was already lost through the industry’s merging of aesthetic appeal and the corporate erasure of its inner-city Black sociopolitical origins. For example, talent pipelines like The Gong Show were forcing pioneering Boogaloo groups like “The Black Messengers” to change their name so as not to offend a larger, whiter audience, while Strutting groups like “Granny & Robotroid Inc.” were asked to change their choreographed routines for TV cameras, further removing the genre’s creators from authentically representing themselves.
The erasure of cultural contribution within mainstream American consciousness is once again the product of corporate-controlled interests attempting to manufacture inner-city resilience for mass consumption. The revolutionary consciousness it keeps out of the spotlight allows subsequent generations to pursue individual success over the prioritization of communal solidarity, which prevents inner-city culture from achieving its ultimate organizational potential. That potential is untapped to this day because our “educated perspective” of the historical narrative is incomplete.
California cannot be defined by East Coast standards, just like the Bay Area cannot be defined by Los Angeles, San Francisco by Oakland, nor Fillmore by Hunter’s Point. Pretending otherwise fails to capture the depth of the Black experience in America. The inner-city response across the country to the 1950's and ‘60’s failed federal urban renewal policies connects all inner-cities politically, but without the context of the West Coast’s unique response to the nationwide socio-economic injustice, Hip Hop’s unifying potential is critically limited.
This is why in 2019, a network of artists, organizers, educators and activists in California launched the first statewide Hip Hop education initiative in the country called H2E2, the Hip Hop Education & Equity Initiative, to help youth in public schools not only find their voice but reconnect to their local history and learn how inner-city cultures developed after the 1960’s. Hip Hop education is an emerging professional field and it is important that its resources cover what the entertainment industry never accessed. Hip Hop went on a global mission to unify the world, but the Bay Area’s inner-city culture remains a world unto itself.
“The Day Before Hip Hop” — which deserves to be fully documented by today’s academic scholars & curators — is a term coined by the community-proclaimed cultural hero and international icon of San Francisco’s Strutting, Lonnie “PopTart” Green. Born in 1967 at St. Mary’s hospital and raised in both the Hunter’s Point and Fillmore communities, PopTart was adopted by San Francisco’s top-tier dancers as a child, and dubbed “The Fillmore Kid” by the inner-city’s most-feared personalities. An original Strutter whose dancing skill and choreography swept some of the biggest stages in Hip Hop, his understanding of both the entertainment industry and street politics over the course of 40+ years is unparalleled. What’s more remarkable is that his love for his community has always taken precedent over elevating his own name or fame. He never sold out and the streets know it. Now Lonnie Green is building with dancers, teachers and students from all over the world, educating them about the lost art of California’s inner-city Black dance culture, beginning with his own hometown of San Francisco. As CEO of Tart Productions International LLC, National Education Director for Hip Hop Congress, Inc., and founder of The Strutter’s Room, Lonnie’s lifelong mission is finally coming into recognition as he approaches the seasoned age of 55.
The road hasn’t been easy. Lonnie grew up not being able to read, write or spell before dyslexia was a diagnosed learning disability, so he had to become resourceful in other ways. We now know the correlation between academic reading levels and the criminal justice system, because there is funding to test anyone for dyslexia in prison for free. As a community problem-solver, Lonnie grew up a fierce protector of people who are victims of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the SF police who were notorious for kidnapping and institutionalizing youth from their families while he was growing up. Today, Senate Bill SB 237 advocates for K-2 universal screening for dyslexia for which Lonnie is an outspoken spokesperson.
When SF Mayor London Breed went on record in 2020 to thank Lonnie and declare Strutting a San Francisco treasure that is internationally recognized by some of the best dancers in the world, it became clear that SF’s Black community now has all the cultural positioning it needs to solve its most critical and visible problems — from homelessness to youth violence. But that doesn’t mean the financial resources of San Francisco are easy to access, even an international star like PopTart has to navigate a bureaucratic ocean of competitive organizations vying for equal attention.
Lonnie is not alone. There are many like him, like Carlos Levexier, a former Strutter-turned champion wrestler who knows the importance of solidarity and whose transformational work in youth violence-prevention needs to be fully-funded, elevated and supported. Or Andre Dow, aka Mac Minister, who has served 16 years of a quadruple life sentence but is now set to receive a new hearing after the lead witness in his trial recanted their entire testimony. Figures like these are heroes in the community and threats to corrupt city politics. At one point, Lonnie himself faced a public smear-campaign labeling him a terrorist simply because of his influence in the streets, due largely to his Strutting ability. Less publicized is how Green used his influence to end the SF Turf wars between the Hunter’s Point and Fillmore communities in the 1990’s.
The trauma in the SF Black community runs deeper than most can comprehend, narrated by a rap scene that speaks a language the city doesn’t permit in public venues. The effect of local corruption since the 1940’s on behalf of politicians, corporations and lawmakers has caused too many wrongful deaths and convictions over the years and is not going to fade away. Those who have not been affected by these injustices are in no position to solve them. There are many community leaders who hold positions of access who did not grow up in San Francisco, so their stake in the community is different. This means important inner-city voices often fall on deaf ears instead of being actively sought after for inclusion, which is the opposite of democracy. With collaborative efforts between yearly events like the Juneteenth Festival and the Annual International Strutter’s Room Master Camp which attracts dance students and teachers from all over the world to learn from SF’s inner-city culture, the resources to bring all of this information into light should automatically align, and not show up as an afterthought.
We can learn from Breakin’ In The Olympics how organizing street culture is no small task, especially if you are not working from within the community that cares most about it. Individuals attached to external funding sources are likely to put their own power and positions over others, which breaks up solidarity and prevents important voices of the community from getting recognized properly. Lack of education leads to poor organizing which leads to a younger generation missing the chance to see their own cultural heritage supported by their current favorite artists on the main stage of every local event representing Black excellence in SF. When a city’s own community leaves its most important voices to fend for themselves, a walk-in-the-park turns into uphill battle. San Francisco has a golden opportunity to learn from those who have been systematically pushed out of the spotlight and into the margins. This story will remain tragic until we align our personal roles and goals in changing the narrative.
There is a giant awakening on the West Coast with creativity that was born to entertain the entertainers, knowledge that was held to educate the educators, and the power to provide youth with timeless experience for reinventing the way they use their own resilience and natural intelligence. Hip Hop never died, half of its body has just been in sleep paralysis for almost 40 years waiting for the rest of the world to wake up and get it moving again. Unlike the Olympics, this West Coast game isn’t something that you can beat or join. It’s been waiting for its time to return, and is either going to beat, or join you.
Hijacking Freedom in a Post-Covid World
As we begin to understand corporate tactics and their immediate effect on people and culture, we can unearth exactly why a $15 billion dollar industry thriving off the creativity of poor people isn’t eradicating poverty as it grows. The answer is simple: creative energy requires solidarity to benefit everyone. Building solidarity takes time. A corporate-run society keeps people engaged in the idea that time is scarce by selling us a false narrative… solidarity? Ain’t nobody got time for that. This is a Catch-22.
The flawed logic of time-scarcity was exposed when the COVID pandemic hit, forcing schools to close, work schedules to pause, and the masses to quarantine themselves pending further instructions. Navigating our mental health was challenging across the spectrum, from feeling isolated to somehow feeling connected through the common experience of isolation. Quarantining gave some of us time to think outside the box of our daily grind and open a window of clarity on how we should return to our lives. Others were desperate to return to business as usual. Whichever the case, our free will is now at stake like never before. Why?
Because time doesn’t actually exist. Objectively speaking, that is. Time is a subjective experience that we are taught is something to follow externally, not something we create and follow inside of ourselves. It’s not our fault. We’ve been conditioned by other people’s schedules since we were born, from our parents, through school, and by the time we reach voting age (more on that later), we are primed to fully depend on our work schedules for physical survival.
Corporate strategists know and exploit this for all its worth, controlling communal solidarity through our personal decisions on both an individual and collective level by incentivizing our sense of reason between short-term and long term solutions. Short-term answers are an easy temporary solution because they give us emotional gratification. We will pay money for convenience even if that means accepting harmful side-effects. Just think if we’re willing to ignore the long term consequence for a quick fix, how much easier is it for corporations to employ their vast resources to exploit our comfort-addictions?
The tech industry is the latest corporate force wreaking havoc on our sense of time. Just like a slow-loading website or (ahem) virus can throw our whole equilibrium off, attention spans are getting progressively shorter with each successive generation, making it all the more reasonable for us to pay more for faster returns…and the algorithms know it. Corporate logic pays people to leverage the profit-motive, reinforcing time-scarcity to normalize a transnational corporate agenda across all classes of people.
So it’s a no-brainer why short-term reasoning is normalized throughout our daily lives via entertainment, education, economy, etc. — because thinking this way actually requires no brain — er, processing power. If the standards for intelligence remain technologically-based, computers will outperform humans every time and the tech companies will be the only ones who profit. It’s already happening. The Bill Gates Foundation started investing in the digital automation of education back in 2012, and the pandemic gave corporations all the more reason to keep the trend going. Look no further than the closure of public schools and the rise of charter schools using public funds while making deals with private interests to fund their technology. We are forging ahead in the market at the expense of our ability to think critically about where we are heading.
When emotional gratification is valued more than emotional literacy we have a major system-bug in the works. STEM vs. STEAM discussions illustrate this bug and who has the foresight to include Art (and Humanities) as an essential subject to balance the current academic curricular shift towards Science, Tech, Engineering and Math. If we do not learn how to navigate our internal processes with critical thought and expression, and we simply accept the corporate agenda-narrative we are being sold, we will have willingly given up our power to change it. Act now. Think later. That’s the American hustle.
How about we think first. Our individual lack of attention to the long term effects of our choices leads to every social crisis that remains — racism, classism, nationalism, elitism, etc. — and it is the sole obstacle to attaining solidarity. It’s how a community as strong as Breakin’ can be “broken” into factions so an outside corporation can misinform the public long enough to siphon money away from the families who created and invest in it.
It’s not just about Hip Hop and the Olympics. Any power structure that elevates a select few holds the key to dismantling its democracy. If those selected are easily persuaded by their belief in scarcity — whether it be time, money, power, or just plain love — they can be manipulated. This same logic employed in corporate boardrooms is used to corner markets, divide cultures, and topple governments. And when the public has been misinformed to the point that it accepts its own futility in reasserting its own power, democracy is lost.
Back to voting. 18 years of experiencing time as a tool of conformity is enough for anyone to feel disempowered if you were never taught differently. It is easy to look at recent history and feel like electoral politics is a joke. What’s not funny is that corporate interests across the nation are drafting voter suppression legislation in hopes that the morale of free thinking individuals remains low enough to be edged out democratically. They are counting on people not to count, and if we don’t, it won’t be their fault.
Back to time. We are told that voting is the key to democracy, which isn’t true. Local organizing, political education, civic action, and constant pressure holding our representatives accountable to public demands — plus voting — is the key to democracy. But all that takes time, which nobody thinks they have enough of until they are shown otherwise.
For many the trajectory is unavoidably bleak, but there is a constituency of people who are successfully navigating these shifting paradigms by applying a timely formula of art, education and activism where the value of the product is exponentially greater than its factors. This formula is creating a new economic class of people able to sustain themselves by informing each other about working solutions for our most fundamental problems.
It is how assessments of the challenges around Hip Hop in the Olympics can be shared in real-time before any official decisions are made. It is the sharing of critical information that allows the pillars of democracy to re-emerge. Without information there is no voice. Without a voice, freedom has no power. Our corporate source(s) of information are masquerading as public services, making its strength also its greatest weakness. Since there is no corporate interest in changing a trajectory that takes power away from the people, it is the power of the people telling a fuller truth that will reveal the cause of its own short-sighted agenda.
If you took the time to read this, you’ll be ready for “Part 3: The Awakening Giant on the West Coast” in no time.
BREAKING IN THE OLYMPICS
The following information provided through the network of Hip Hop Congress, Inc. is being submitted to the public for scrutiny, in light of:
For competitive dance, the announcement of Breaking as an official medal event in the world’s most prestigious athletic contest is significant to say the least. It represents elite professional recognition and the global endorsement of a distinct cultural art form that rose out of poverty in the 1970’s and has continued to evolve our definitions of athleticism ever since.
“Hip Hop” is a multi-faceted term associated with both low-income communities and a $15 billion-dollar industry. Dance, in general, is a culture-specific expression with the ability to merge the professional lines between art and sport. “Street dance” — which Hip Hop culture has come to be associated with — has always held physical competition in high-esteem, so what’s the problem with it finally “breaking” into the world’s largest organized international platform?
Before we can answer that, it would serve us well to know that Breaking is the first competitive dance category to be actively sought by the Olympics. Like any Olympic sport, qualifying events are required to narrow down the pool of talent that will determine exactly who will represent their country in competition. The Breaking community in the United States occupies a unique position of navigating both the representation and preservation of an American-born art form where corporations such as Red Bull have become major investors. So again, what’s the problem?
By 2024, Hip Hop and its cultural dance, Breaking, will have turned 50 years old, still young enough for its pioneering generation to witness the global impact of its labor. Will the introduction of an elite platform for today’s generation of Breakers respect the historical development of the craft? Or will athleticism outshine creativity in the eyes of Olympic judges? Most importantly, how will this get determined? These questions point to a complex problem when you consider that the campaign for competitive dance getting into the Olympics began with ballroom dance organizations under the authority of the World Dance Sport Federation (WDSF).
Competitive dance — or Dance Sport — has never been an Olympic medaling event, but the WDSF established subsidiaries in 92 countries for the purpose of hosting qualifying events for Olympic competition should the day ever arrive. In the United States, the WDSF subsidiary is called USA Dance, Inc., and until recently the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) recognized it as the official national organizing body for qualifying potential Olympic competitors in dance. That changed in 2018, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) set its sights on Breaking; USA Dance, Inc. added “Breaking” to its list of programs; and the Hip Hop community in the United States had to face the reality that they were about to be represented by a ballroom dance organization with zero authority in street-born culture. The solution for Breakers? Get organized enough to beat them, or join them.
Organizing the Breakin community required experienced leadership in community outreach, PR, and communications. A handful of U.S. Breakers created a 501c3 called USA Breakin’ to help create a pathway to the Olympics informed by the Competitive Breakin League (CBL) standards. A group of first-generation Breakers, Hip Hop historians and early promoters stepped in to help the process, calling themselves the United Hip Hop Vanguard. Union-minded organizers were even brought to the table to discuss Breakers receiving health benefits, insurance, and a sustainable wage.
A year and a half process of internal organizing saw Hip Hop “Legacy Advisors” educating a newer generation of Breakers who were less attached to its cultural roots and less concerned on the risks of their art form’s history getting erased by corporate endorsement. These initial conversations were crucial and necessary, cradled during a national moment of racial reckoning and social activism that brought to the surface the reality of corporate responsibility and cultural appropriation. Red Bull, for example, was being publicly criticized for being unwilling to issue a statement to the Breakin community about their own company stance on race, culture, gender and equity. And no one was feeling the idea of being forced to work with an older, white institution like USA Dance just to be a part of Breaking in the Olympics.
A memorandum of understanding was drafted between USA Dance, Inc. and USA Breakin’ in hopes that it would allow both organizations to work together to inform the process of paving the Olympic road for Breakers in the United States. However, communications between the organizations fell apart over transparency issues and relationship dynamics. In light of the controversy, the USOPC refused to make any decision on who would become the official representative body for Olympic Breaking and told USA Dance, USA Breakin’, and a third candidate called Child of This Culture to resolve the issues among themselves. With no promises made, organizers went back to their respective camps to figure it out.
USA Dance’s Breaking committee, rebranding as Breaking 4 Gold USA, set its sights on maintaining the exclusive representational rights from the USOPC. USA Breakin’ continued their work as a national dance league, sports organization and educational body, and had started working with local chapters of Breaking 4 Gold USA on national qualifying events for athletes training for the Olympics. Breaking 4 Gold USA recruited 15 athletes from USA Breakin’ to form USA Dance’s Breaking committee.
But when the president of USA Dance Inc., Ken Richards, learned of collaborative efforts going on “under his radar” between the LA chapter of Breaking 4 Gold USA and USA Breakin‘, he nationally declared that no one affiliated with USA Dance, Inc. was permitted to work with USA Breakin’. This was a corporate hijacking move that baffled many, but surprised few. Two years ago, the Hip Hop community might have seen this divide-and-conquer graffiti on the wall. It remains in place to this day.
The former USA Breakin’ athletes, now representing Breaking 4 Gold USA, are still moving forward with hosting “qualifying events” which, according to some, are reflective of the corporate-sponsored competitions that attract a younger generation disconnected from its heritage. The selection of music, for example, is a critical element of the dance that millennial-aged organizers can easily take for granted. Records themselves carry historical information that goes beyond one’s athletic ability and reveal each dancer’s physical knowledge of their craft. Music — the cultural contribution of the DJ — cannot be understated without the dance itself losing integrity.
Olympic judgment of Breaking would be much easier if performances were choreographed to predetermined music and scored like ice dancing or gymnastic floor routines. But the freestyle battling aspect brings a new element to Olympic competition that is unique to Hip Hop. Without these and other considerations, how do Athletic Artists get fairly qualified? In spite of USA Dance’s national prohibitive measures, the United Hip Hop Vanguard is offering its educational services in support of local Breakin scenes at national events that welcome their presence, with a focus on strengthening local economies to make sure Hip Hop roots stay represented regardless of the Olympic oversight.
Evidently, the USOPC will not guarantee anyone the official representative position until 2023, but have communicated that USA Dance is still their top choice. When USA Breakin’ announced transparency about their events not being tied to the Olympics, they were actually advised by the USOPC to avoid telling the public that their events are not affiliated. The narrative is being controlled by top officials who do not want to tell the hundreds of families seeking an Olympic shot that none of the preliminary events they pay for and attend guarantee anyone a chance at participating in the games, and is perhaps the biggest violation of community trust that has yet to go public.
What we can be sure of is that the incorporation of Hip Hop culture into the athletic spotlight is manifesting the same cultural divide around social responsibility as it did with the recording industry. What can we learn from this? Without a culturally-relevant educational foundation, corporate interests always stand to leverage human creativity away from its original purpose in order to remain relevant in the eyes of a consumer-base that cannot tell the difference between entertainment and authenticity.
Therein lies the problem. So how does this relate to the current state of American democracy?
Read on for PSA: Hip Hop & the Corporate Thievery of Democracy, Part II— Hijacking Freedom in a Post-COVID World.