Rennie Harris Puremovement photo by Bob Emmott
In The Omni-Americans, his classic work delineating the Black experience in America, the distinguished novelist and essayist Albert Murray defines art as a stylization of experience that summarizes a community’s sense of life. Every community finds rituals that celebrate its core values and invoke its guiding spirit. But even more than that, Murray adds, art is “a way of sizing up the world, and so, ultimately, and beyond all else, a mode and medium of survival.” In the inhospitable soil of the Diaspora on which they were born, African-American art forms have always aimed at transmitting techniques for coping with a harsh world, and have offered strategies for thriving inside difficulties. Often, they have focused on finding ways to celebrate small victories, and to wrest triumph from the lunar landscape of violence and oppression on which African Americans found themselves stranded.
Hip hop has been widely misunderstood in mainstream America as being merely an exciting form of entertainment that exists to provide visceral thrills. Within its own culture, however, authentic hip hop is recognized as a deeply spiritual practice—one that offers its own survival mechanism in linking its performers to traditional African culture, in providing communion with the ancestors, and, ultimately, in creating a bridge to a spiritual condition. As does the blues in Murray’s analysis, hip hop teaches its practitioners to meet discontinuities with inventiveness. The flexibility of this improvisatory response provides practice in keeping one’s footing in an unstable environment, and in keeping one’s cool amid upheaval. Working in the smallest of spaces with only a piece of cardboard as equipment, b-boys and b-girls have called up out of thin air some of the most witty, virtuosic, and resonant art that exists today. The result is that, along with Murray’s bluesmen, hip hoppers have devised a way of insisting upon a meaningful existence in the face of social conditions that have conspired against them to assert otherwise.
Rennie Harris is a contemporary urban griot who has made hip hop gesture his language of story-telling and conjuring. He formed his company, PureMovement in 1993, as a place where he could explore hip hop without concession to commercial interests. In the name of the company was embedded a philosophy: “Pure” movement refers to Harris’s self-imposed mandate to explore movement that embodies his aesthetic and thematic concerns. It seems also, of course, a reference to Harris’s conviction that dance is not only a physical experience, but one that also embodies a moral universe.
Harris continually reminds his audience that hip hop is an extension of traditional African dance and culture, the latest in the succession of American vernacular forms including the cakewalk, animal dances, the Charleston, the lindy hop, rhythm tap, bop, funk, and disco, that are derived from an African aesthetic. As such, hip hop must be regarded as a spiritual endeavor. In Africa, dance is the medium through which human beings communicate with the gods. Movement is directed earthward, in acknowledgment of the life force that links the spirit world with the world of the living. In fact, it is the dancing body itself that brings the gods to earth through ceremonies of possession. In Western Africa, there is a saying that goes “Without dance, there would be no gods.”
Harris himself claims dance as his “spiritual house, his church.” He recognizes its centrality to spiritual practice. He reminds us that, in its vernacular form, hip hop takes place in the sacred circle of community, affirming the place for each person in the chain of life. Other characteristics of hip hop that link to African cultural traditions offer opportunities for asserting fundamental values. The call-and-response structure of the dancing is the heart of hip hop, affirming the form’s affinity with communality rather than with an individualized ethos. Likewise, improvisation, which is at the heart of hip hop—as it is of all African-derived dance and music forms—by its very nature puts demands on the performer to continually push the self to places that it has never been before. It is the means for journeying toward the sources of creation, exhorting the performer past the physical and toward the spiritual.
Harris’s hip hop specialty is popping, a dance form that he describes as “internal pantomime,” in which the flow of movement is shattered by the illusion of stopped time, as in a series of Edweard Muybridge photographs. When it is done properly, popping transforms dancers who truly believe in the illusions they create, so that they enter a kind of entrancement. This is, of course, a link to the African possession ceremonies, where an alternate world is made real by means of the flesh. Boogaloo, a form of popping, acknowledges this phenomenon in its very name: when you dance a certain way, you are, as Harris has pointed out, entered by the spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Bogeyman. Harris’s interest in popping is of a piece with his absorption with time, a preoccupation evident in all of his work. Clearly, the practice of popping seems to deny that time is the linear and continuous phenomenon that we perceive it to be in our day-to-day experience. As popping breaks time into shards, it reveals physical existence as an illusion and awakens the performer and viewer to another state of perception, a window into an alternate universe. Harris has declared himself to be fascinated by the idea that the passage of time creates a kind of dream-state: that even as we are conscious of the present moment, it is already a memory. In order to capture this sense of time as illusory, Harris employs cinematic techniques such as slow motion, frozen tableaux, and fragmented linearity in his choreography. It seems another link to the African understanding of time which tends toward a more permeable conception of past, present, and future, as the ancestors are regarded as still with the living.
Harris’s most recent project is Rome and Jewels, a hip hop opera, which is the first full-length work of his career. In various incarnations, the project has percolated with him for years. As a kid, Harris was enamored of Jerome Robbin’s film version of West Side Story (1961), which is, of course, an updating of Romeo and Juliet . Even then, it struck Harris that it would be fabulous to bring the gang story to the forefront in a funkier version with hip hop dancers crystallized when Harris saw yet another film, Baz Luhrmann’s futuristic Romeo + Juliet (1996). Harris was intrigued by the way that Luhrmann was able to set the film outside of time. The aesthetic seemed, at once, wholly contemporary in the way that the characters spoke and behaved, yet at the same time suffused with the archaic quality of Shakespeare’s language.
While Shakespeare and hip hop culture might seem odd bedfellows, Harris observes that there are actually strong links between them. Shakespeare was a poet of the people, Harris reminds us, writing for an audience that he characterizes as “the scourge of the earth.” Shakespeare knew that the way to captivate the hoi polloi was through rhyme, and rap employs a similar technique for a similar audience. Both hip hop and Shakespeare, Harris points out, “are about tragedy, love, and death.” And even as Shakespeare was telling stories that would have been topical for his contemporaries, Harris has grafted contemporary social and political issues onto the basic love story.
Rome and Jewels is concerned with love and how that is expressed through violence. Harris’s original plot angle dictates that we see love only through the perspective of the man. In fact, Jewels is not even a physical presence here; Rome “conjures” her. With this device, Harris is invoking another Africanism: conjuring is an invocation of spirit through vodun or other ritual. (In slave times, the church was often called a “conjuring lodge.”) In this story, the magic of the conjure, which is the redemptive power of love, transforms Rome from a hardened and self-absorbed gang member—“on the mack,” in Harris’s words—to a man who recognizes and responds to humanity.
The differences in the gangs are expressed through competing dance styles: the Capulets (aka Caps)are b-boys and b-girls and the Montegues (aka Monster Q’s) are hip hoppers. B-boying and b-girling is often referred to as “break dancing” (a term which Harris considers a misnomer). The style involves acrobatic floorwork done on bodily supports other than the feet, and has been developing in this country since the ‘60s. Hip hop, consisting of stylized social dances, was popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s as rap groups such as Public Enemy, MC Hammer, and Bobby Brown began to tour with backup singers. Harris points out that while hip hoppers are more verbal and political, b-boyers are more dynamic; meshing together in this work, they seem equally matched.
While Harris had originally intended to bypass the text for a fully gestural version of the story, he was intrigued by the possibilities of transcending time that could be achieved by blending Shakespeare’s words with the body language of hip hop. In addition, he was able to bring together two forms of poetry, Elizabethan verse and rap, that have been thought of as antithetical—each paradigms for high and low art, respectively. In fact, Harris is again providing an historical lesson, here elevating our understanding of the sophistication of verbal creativity in African culture. While we think of African music as centered in percussion, dance historian Jacqui Malone has pointed out that the human voice is actually the most common African instrument. In Africa, the voice is used quite differently than in European traditions of bel canto, which value an artificially extended voice. Instead, in Africa, song often consists of speech that is characterized by rapidity, improvisational skill, and virtuosic wordplay—puns, jests, derision, and sheer delight in language that could be compared with Shakespeare’s. This tradition of spoken song was carried into the Diaspora, where, for hundreds of years, various versions of this verbal dexterity have developed among Africans in America—which, in its hip hop manifestation, has emerged as rap.
With this ambitious work, Harris has taken a gigantic stride forward in his choreographic development. He has demonstrated unequivocally that hip hop is profoundly expressive—that it is, in fact, a remarkably eloquent medium for carrying a sustained and complex narrative. Harris has pushed even further at testing the limits of the form, loading the piece with subtext and undercurrent, stretching Shakespeare’s plot with underlying motivations and plot twists to explain the characters’ actions. While using the original story as a guide, Harris has chosen to expand the tale from his own perspective, asking himself what the story, situations, and characters mean to him, an African-American man, at the turn of the millennium. The result is a work that speaks to us with an immediacy that addresses who we are at this time and in this place. In boldly crossing cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries in creating Rome and Jewels, Harris not only shows us who we are today, he is also able to reveal that our ties with the past are deep and profound—that across time and place, there are human concerns that speak to all of us.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 1999
For further reading:
Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Jacqui Malone, Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. Da Capo, 1970. And The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and Culture. Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1970.
Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Random House, 1983.