The success of last year’s hip-hop festival, Breakin’ Convention, demonstrated to Tom Gabbard one important thing, he says: This community was ready for it.
Gabbard, president and CEO of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, thought it would take years for a wide Charlotte audience to acquire a taste for hip-hop. Instead, he found people had been waiting for it: “In its first year, we were thrilled to see the large, multi-generational, multi-race audience we thought might take time to build.”
If you’ve never thought “grandfather” and “graffiti” could be used in the same sentence, you weren’t at last year’s festival.
And Charlotte is leading the way at a national level in promoting hip-hop in this way, he said: Other cities are now hoping to host Breakin’ Convention, and he expects to demonstrate how it’s done this week to colleagues from Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland and Denver.
Jonzi D, a hip-hop legend from contemporary dance center Sadler’s Wells in London, founded Breakin’ Convention in 2004, and still serves as artistic director. He said via email that Charlotte’s reaction to the first convention was “very, very dope!”
And though the form dates back to the disco era (and maybe further, depending on who you’re talking with), the genre unquestionably encompasses a lot more than music: deejaying, painting graffiti, emceeing/rapping and b-boying (break dancing) were elemental early on.
Now, it’s so mainstream that classes on its history are taught at Duke University and the Ivy Leagues.
The success of the first Breakin’ Convention allowed organizers the luxury of not tinkering with the formula. But this year won’t be a repeat of 2015. Several new acts are headed to Charlotte for the second of three annual conventions. Gabbard is particularly excited about the b-boy group Just Dance, from Korea: “This American-birthed art form is hot in Korea.”
Other acts coming from all parts of the globe include Canada’s Tentacle Tribe (a dance duo), South Africa’s Jane Sekonya (dance) and Pro Motion from the U.K. (animation dance concept). Jonzi D will be back and will perform this year.
Local acts – some well-known, some yet-to-be discovered – will also take part.
Bluz, perhaps the city’s best-known spoken word poet, will perform what’s tentatively titled “Go Back.” He said, “The context of the work is simply me reminiscing about the early days of hip-hop and how my youth and experiences were tied to some of the milestones that occurred in the culture. It’s a new work that seems to get a new edit every two or three days.” Here’s a snippet of the work in progress:
“the dual cassette tape boom box weighs more than me when I was kid
before cross fit and trendy gyms
hip-hop calisthenics like luggage a giant music machine is what we did
the constant movement of music kept us from getting winded
so that we could windmill so hard on hard wood or cardboard
we could wear a hole in it …”
While the evening events are ticketed, daytime events for families are free. Jonzi D paints a picture of a hodgepodge of activity. There will be, he said, “DJs spinning for freestyle dance cyphers and performances from emcees and poets … and workshops from international artists across the disciplines of hip-hop dance, graffiti art, DJing and emceeing.”
Unfamiliar with the term “cypher”? That’s when dancers hold a space open on the floor for people to step into, usually one at a time, and dance. Cyphers are one of the most electric parts of the festival: Feel moved by the music? Join in. Hip-hop welcomes all. Including – and maybe even especially – kids.
“Saturday’s Street Jam at Spirit Square offers families loads of free activities during the day,” Gabbard said. “But part of how we ‘break the convention’ of a typical show is to have free activities at the Knight Theater that begin 2 1/2 hours prior to each show.”
Part of what Charlotte’s doing is showing people how broad hip-hop’s appeal is. Bluz hopes even those who don’t think they’re fans of the genre turn out. “Whatever notions you have about hip-hop, leave them at home,” he said. “Come with a completely open mind as to what hip-hop is ... how it can inspire you, break your heart, make you fall in love again, free your body and voice or just plain … entertain you.”
What would Jonzi D tell someone who’s never experienced hip-hop? “Take your head from underneath the rock and come to Breakin’ Convention. The only way to understand hip-hop’s peace, love, unity and creativity is to experience it yourself.”
Hop to it
Some of the biggest names in hip-hop, and local talent too, head to the Knight Theater Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 for Breakin’ Convention, the festival of hip-hop dance theater created by London’s Sadler’s Wells. Daytime events are free. Tickets for nighttime performances are available through Carolina Tix at 704.372.1000 or through Blumenthalarts.org.