On the Record: Adenike Sharpley on Dance, Feminism and the Demise of Hip-Hop


Courtesy of John Seyfried

Essence and Dance Diaspora members rehearse an energetic moment from dance performance Queens Rule, which will play this Friday and Saturday in Warner Main Space. From left, performers are College sophomore Donnay Edmund, College senior Koryn Lockett, College sophomore Mark Sikorski, College junior Aldrumesia Baker, College junior Kara Mahon, guest dancer Tiachelle “Ty” Clifford, College junior Gifty Dominah and College sophomore Sophie Umazi Mvurya.

Nora Kipnis, Arts Editor

This Friday and Saturday, Essence will present Queens Rule, a dance performance that tells the story of hip-hop music and dance, from its roots in West African beats, through its activist beginnings, to the genre’s current commercialization. The show is particularly aimed at questioning how women’s bodies are portrayed in hip-hop, and how this objectification came about in a genre that at first was aimed at breaking down binaries of power and privilege. Adenike Sharpley, an artist in residence in the Africana Studies and Theater and Dance departments, and the artistic director of the performance. On Wednesday night, Sharpley took time out of rehearsal to tell the Review about how the show examines social, historical, and class dynamics in rap and hip-hop.

Can you tell me about Essence’s history?

Essence probably started in the 1970s. At that time, [students] did their own choreography, and most of the performances were in Afrikan Heritage House. And then when I came, the department thought … I might be able to give more of a professional background to students who were doing their own work and eventually developed to where it is now — it’s here in Warner Center, and it’s a class. Essence was to showcase Africana or African diasporic art. Students from the Caribbean, students from Africa, African-American, [and] Afro-Latino [students] … wanted to see their particular genre done in the academy, because it was not here.

What initially drew you to the subject of questioning hip-hop’s objectification of women, particularly through dance?

Well, it’s not hard to hear it. It’s in most of the music. It’s either negative or positive. They’re either talking about the body type, or the hips or the lips or the color. … For especially a lot of the latest hip-hop and gangster rap, women are part of the power of men. They’re considered an object. [Male hip-hop artists] get money, they get cars, they get women. It’s like one, two, three. These are the prerequisites of stardom or being powerful.

What role do female hip-hop artists play in that dynamic?

There aren’t that many now. … There never were that many. Some of the older ones were a lot clearer about the objectivity and how they wanted to portray themselves. The reason we picked Queen [ for the show’s name] was for Queen Latifah, because Queen Latifah carried herself in a certain manner. … The newer ones seem to be quite okay with some of the objectivity. They’re actually portraying it themselves. I think Nicki Minaj got butt implants.

Given how huge this genre has become, how did you decide what music to use in the show?

We listened to what was playing on the radio now, and we also remembered in our years growing up hip-hop and rap music that we liked, that women liked. We had a positive and a negative list. We generally start with the negative and go to the positive, so throughout the show, we’ll deal with certain themes. … There’s more than one way to look at the way [the genre has] been tweaked. The women are given a chance in the troupe to answer that. The song may say one thing, but we’ve juxtaposed it either with women being in the power position or women having a response to what’s being said. There are two stories, and we’re trying to add at least one view of what women could say about that. I’m sure there are thousands.

How do you think that the West African influence on the choreography adds to the message of subverting hip-hop stereotypes?

It connects it. A lot of people think African Americans were dropped someplace. People say, “You don’t have anything. You were stripped from everything.” But we have our memory and it’s there. Because I teach West African dance, I put the South African boot dance in there, the challenge dances that are done in West Africa where women and men dance usually against the same sex. … We [also] juxtaposed it for the new world, where women are dancing with men. [The challenge dance is] definitely traditional. It happens all the time in the villages and ceremonies and parties that are done in traditional settings, weddings and child naming ceremonies. …

Also, there is a correlation between what is called the beat in hip-hop and the beat of the drum. That bass line, in some instances, was very easy for me to superimpose a West African [choreography on to] rap or hip-hop because it’s there. Some of the beats are the same beats, the same rhythms, from people who really are “supposed” to not know. But they do, it’s there and you know it, and they do.

So this female response is going on in a broader cultural arena too. What’s unique to Oberlin about this response?

They have a hip-hop group that was at one time mostly Africana, but it isn’t now. That’s the evolution of the times. So this is probably, in years, the first Africana response to hip-hop. It has been commodified, it’s American, so everybody uses it, everybody does it. A lot of the Africana community is starting to say it’s dead. Hip-hop and rap is dead. It’s not any longer coming from the group that it did originally, and it’s moved away from it. … That happens a lot of times with culture. Once it moves into the general society, or is done for years and years, people forget why they first did it this way. … They’re not using it as a protest for the most part any more.

If what hip-hop has become is dead, what do you think might replace it?

Who knows? A lot of times it is the disenfranchised that come up with fantastic art. So who knows what’s going on in the minds of young folks coming up now, what they’d like to see, what they like to do. Now in the Africana community there’s lots of different kinds of music going on. They have a new name for the smooth R&B, they’re going back to a lot of the R&B, so those kinds of ballads, the hand dancing, dancing with a partner is coming back. Who knows what you may see?