Photo by Rachel Serna Brown. Associate Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Justin Emeka conducts the hoda.

Don’t Overlook Grandma’s Recipe

“You can get new tools from different places, but don’t overlook them tools that your ancestors left for you — not too quickly. There’s also a unique Ashé in those tools that the new tools don’t have. It’s just the energy of those who came before you. And the tools can be a recipe that you might change a bit, but don’t overlook that. Don’t overlook grandma’s recipe. That’s food that kept you alive, that kept them alive to pass on to you. A song that your mother sang that gets you through or an artist that inspired your father. Listen to those songs. There’s something in there. ”

– Justin Emeka, associate professor of Theater and Africana Studies


 Justin Emeka, associate professor of Theater and Africana Studies has been a practitioner of the Brazilian art form, Capoeira, for over twenty-five years. Enough time and dedication for him to choose if he wanted to use the fluid title of mistré, Emeka has taught Capoeira here at Oberlin for 14 years and is the advisor for Oberlin Capoeira Angola. In that time he’s shaped a strong alumni network of Capoistas, which include his son Jabir Emeka, who currently co-instructs Capoeira I at Oberlin. 


How has Capoeira helped create the connection between your mind, body, and spirit?

Jabir Emeka: Capoeira was always my safe space growing up. It was always that one space where regardless of what anyone thought of me, I would always feel free — open to everyone and everything around me. I would always be 100 times more social playing Capoeira than anywhere else. I have tons of college student friends because of helping my Dad teach. That social aspect, in a sense, saved me from an isolation that I had either created for myself or was outcast because of my personality or the things I was interested in growing up in Oberlin. Capoeira is a space that I use to connect to the world around me and not remain isolated. 


Has the movement deepened your connection with your family?

Jabir Emeka: Oh, 100 percent! Everyone in my family does something. My mom does West Afrikan dance, my brother raps, and us with Capoeira. Having that connection of us all doing something that roots us back to our ancestors and history allows us to relate differently as a family. It’s a relationship to each other that I feel like most families don’t have, and I’m very grateful for that relationship. I’m super lucky to be born into and have the family that I have and maintain a freedom to express myself — even though originally I didn’t notice it. Like my father says, Capoeira, for me, was just something for dinner. It was always there and I might have resented it, but as I look back on it and understand why. He made me do Capoeira and I want to continue doing Capoeira because it allows me to form a deeper bond with my family. 


How has Capoeira aided in the connection between your mind, body, and spirit?

Justin Emeka: It kind of gives me a vocabulary and a method or system to actually engage with who I am in ways a lot of us, as Afrikan Americans, cannot. A lot of us don’t have the best tools to figure out who we are. For instance, I’m a very spiritual person, but I’ve never found a religion in the new world I feel allows me to feel, express, and explore my spirituality. And so I have to kind of wonder on my own in that regard, but Capoeira is a form that I can engage in. Capoeira is a system or path that strengthens my mind-body-soul connection, so I don’t have to invent one. So often, Black people in the new world keep having to invent something, because we’ve been cut off from the source. Capoeira is a connection to the past and a form from the past that allows me to sync mind-body-soul.


I noticed that you, Jabir, use Capoeira as a tool for syncing with the world around you, while Justin, you sync with the world within you. I notice sometimes I do things, and it feels like something in my soul, my grandmother, makes the decision. She passed around 2008 but saw Obama get in office, so that was really special. Her influence in my life is outstanding.


I am curious if it was even a conscious decision to integrate Capoeira into your family, or was it second nature to your path at the point you were becoming a parent? 

Justin Emeka: A little of both I guess. It was a deliberate choice, but also a natural choice. I felt like, when I came into Capoeira, it felt like I was reconnecting with an old family member. I grew up breakdancing, and so a lot of the movements were reminiscent — a lot of the style and feeling. I was introduced to Capoeira by older Black men. So seeing older Black men still doing a form that they were still getting better at in their 50s and 60s allowed me to see myself in that space for longer than breaking. For breaking it’s like cats that are 18 and 19, and they go off and do something else. So to see a dance form where you have older Black men, you see that you could spend a lifetime doing it. It made me make the decision of “I’m going to do Capoeira for the rest of my life, because I know I can now.” I’ve seen the old masters. They showed me that in your late 80s and early 90s you could keep going, and it made it possible for me. 

When I first went home, I showed my older brother everything I knew, and he got interested. Capoeira then strengthened our bond. I am the “Capolista” that I am because I had a brother who did Capoeira. My first four or five years of Capoeira were defined by my relationship with my brother in addition to my relationship with my teacher — my mestre. We’d play every day. We’d go to the gym, shoot hoops, and go over in the corner to play Capoeira. 

It’s just become a family tradition in my household and some may take it up or not. The same way my wife, Faara, was literally born dancing. And so that’s another family tradition in our house. You’d see many a Friday night where me and Faara just be dancing in the kitchen shouting “Come here Jabir, come on! Let’s turn up the music!” You know, we’re just dancing, but that’s how we express our love for ourselves and our love for each other — moving and dancing.


You make me wanna live life, man! That’s incredible. You make me just wanna live! 

Justin Emeka: Our family is a product of the function of this artform. I have not used my art or maximized it in monetary terms. That could have been, but there’s something about making a life out of art. Really trying to use your art to live better, to love better, to feel better, to mourn better. It’s less glamorous, and people may not know it, and it’s also not that unique. 

A lot of Black artists are folks that just live in the community. They’re not on the cover of Time Magazine or selling such and such. [Studio Art and Africana Studies] Professor Johnny Coleman can introduce you to a lot of masters and they just work at the shop or are teachers and that’s a whole different relationship with the art — the pursuit of the craft. This isn’t meant to define better or worse. I have been sensitive, though, to making sure that art maintains that function. My main function with art is not to get rich and famous. I’ve always been a bit wary of that path, for me personally. I mean, I like it a little bit, but I remember the real function of the gifts that I have is to help me be a better father, is to help me be a better teacher, to help me be a better reference for other people. 


What other forms of expression do you incorporate into movement?

Jabir Emeka: I normally express myself with Capoeira outside of my home. Whenever someone asks me about who I am, I always bring up Capoeira. It’s not even something I do intentionally, it’s just ingrained in who I am. Everything I do, I see that Capoeira has influenced me — even something as trivial as falling down the stairs and catching myself. Or I’ll catch myself singing Capoeira songs in my head. I don’t really add too much to Capoeira; it’s more like Capoeira adds to everything that I do. 


It’s interesting for me to hear you express not really talking to people, because I didn’t have a friend my age or connect to anyone until the Foresight Prep at Oberlin summer program. The first person I really connected with is from Lahore, Pakistan. Growing up I only really connected to my elders. I don’t think it was necessarily because they even understood me, but rather they gave me the space to understand myself. It felt like an intentional reluctance to place me inside of a box or form. 


Who is the better dancer? 

Justin Emeka: No question, Jabir is. I mean his movements, he’s got a natural grace. He’s got a more natural sense of rhythm. That comes from his mama. I mean his mama is a dancer to the bone. I don’t have that in my family. He has his mother and also my coordination and athleticism, so he gets the best of both of us. At the same time, I don’t feel like he’s really tapped into his potential as a dancer. His mother always says like, “Jabir, you can really dance.” But if you see him Jenga, Jabir has really beautiful Jenga.


Talk about moving like water. It’s like watching a cloud move when I see you. I remember you asking a question like: “Am I going slow enough?” You were like, “No.” At that point I really started imitating you and the fluidity that you have within your body. It’s scary, because it’s just there. You look like you are Capoeira. What other forms of expression do you incorporate into dance?

Justin Emeka: I think, kind of what you’re doing naturally, the music that you love tends to make its way into your Jenga — into your game. I think it’s important to train and do Capoeira to music that you love, whether that’s BAM, Al Green, Kendrick Lamar, or XXXTentacion, and then each of the forms start to find each other. When you allow yourself to listen and move, it changes your Capoeira and how you play. However you move in life will inform how you play. When I used to play basketball more, it informed how I play Capoeira. 

It’s in the same sense of you asking Jabir a heavy question: “Who are you?” I mean, I don’t know who I am, and that’s part of life. That’s part of inspiration: Trying to always figure out who you are. And, the second you figure out who you are, you change. Tomorrow happens and something new happens to you and you become something else. It’s not static. We’re not trying to get to this one thing like, “Oh, I figured it out. I’m done, I know who I am and now I’m just this person for the rest of my life.” Because, you know, your body changes; your mind changes; everything about you changes, so as soon as you figure yourself out something about you changes, and now you gotta figure yourself out again. Capoeira, on one level, keeps you in constant relationship with yourself. How I play Capoeira today is different from how I played it 20 or 10 years ago. It lets me stay in conversation and constantly asking who I am. Because the second you get comfortable in figuring out who you are, it’s almost like a depression sits in. Something about life is a journey, a search, an expedition. 


Is it dance or is it life?

Justin Emeka: I mean you answered your own question in that! You know, if you change the “or” to “is,” you see that dance is the life.

Jabir Emeka: I was born doing Capoeira, so it’s definitely my life.


What does Capoeira mean to be taught at Oberlin College — a prestigious institution in the United States as a settler colonized land? What does Capoeira mean to be practiced to you in this diasporic context? 

Justin Emeka: One, it’s responsibility to have Capoeira in an institution and in a curriculum like this, knowing the history of Capoeira and that it was explicitly banned and barred from places like Oberlin. Black culture wasn’t allowed in the academy or in the curriculum, let alone seen as legitimate study or legitimate anything. So I don’t take it lightly that I have this opportunity to bring Capoeira into the academy. It’s gotta be very intentional and thoughtful. It’s a balance of being authentic too — authentic to who I am, to who we are, to who Oberlin is and not succumbing to a pressure of trying to be Brazil in Oberlin. Oftentimes, people who play Capoeira in [the U.S.] or throughout the world end up trying to be an imitation of Brazilian culture which, to me, feels inauthentic to Brazil. And I understand, in one way, that’s trying to honor Brazil and what Brazil means to the art form. I also recognize that I have my own culture that deserves, or rather, needs to be heard and uplifted. The way I engage with Capoeira is making sure it’s an authentic expression of Afrikan-American history, today.

That’s easier said than done. When I set out to do something, though, the goal is not to get there. The goal is to get me moving. People ask in theater, “What’s your favorite thing that you’ve done?” For me, it’s whatever I’m working on right now; that’s my favorite thing, and once it’s done then it’s done. I don’t want to say, “My favorite thing was that one I did 10 years ago.” No. I want to keep moving forward. Same with Capoeira. I don’t know if I’ll ever have it all the way figured out. I want to be forever striving to figure it out. That’s the inspiration.

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