Episode 7 | April 21, 2021 | Length: 48:29
What happens when society celebrates art while overlooking communities who created it? Angela Fitzgerald hosts dance artist Papa-Kobina Brewoo as they discuss issues around cultural appropriation and how Black artists are underrepresented within the creative and artistic spaces they helped forge.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo was born and raised in Accra, Ghana, and moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 2001 with his family. In 8th grade, he found his love for dance after watching the TV show America’s Best Dance Crew. Inspired by the movement, he began watching YouTube videos as a start on his journey to becoming a hip-hop dancer. Since then, he’s appeared on MTV’s Made and auditioned for America’s Best Dance Crew and America’s Got Talent.
Speaker: The following program is a PBS Wisconsin original production.
Angela Fitzgerald: Hi. I’m Angela Fitzgerald, and this is Why Race Matters. Black artists have been the driving force behind popular trends worldwide for decades. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Forbes magazine reported that R&B and hip-hop could generate a total of 130 billion dollars in profit by the year 2030. But what happens when society supports the art, but not the communities responsible for creating it. On this episode of Why Race Matters, I’ll talk with Papa-Kobina Brewoo, a local dance artist and instructor about their experience as a Black artist. We’ll discuss art exploitation, cultural appropriation, and how art helps shape our lives. So join me as we explore Why Race Matters when it comes to art.
Angela Fitzgerald: Thank you for joining us today, Papa-Kobina.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Thank you for having me.
Angela Fitzgerald: Can you tell us your story. What has brought you to this place where you now identify as an artist and the work that you do?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: My story started back home in West Africa. Born and raised in Accra. About seven years old was when my mom or parents, specifically more so my mom made the decision to bring me and my siblings, the rest of the family over here, mainly due to the idea that… Well originally, I didn’t actually know this myself, but my dad was in Madison, in the U.S., going to school, pursuing his passion, pursuing his career, and it was that idea where my mom wanted to have more support for him and provide more of that for him, where it took that opportunity to bring us to a whole different country, continent. so, that in itself is where it kind of started. Throughout the years upon moving here, going into the cultural change-
Angela Fitzgerald: I was going to ask, what was that like?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That was-
Angela Fitzgerald: It’s like climate change, a demographic change-
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Climate change-
Angela Fitzgerald: Lots of changes.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: A lot of changes. At first, it was… I don’t want to say it was too difficult. It was just different. It was just getting accustomed to the weather, of course, was the hardest part. I actually remember crying.
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh wow.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: My first snowfall. The first snowfall that we had, I cried because I didn’t… Our parents didn’t warn us about-
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh, you didn’t know what it was?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I had no idea what snow was.
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh wow.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: When it snowed, I was crying. I literally remember tears coming down my eyes because it was so cold when I touched the snow. I was like, “Why is… What is this white wet stuff? Why is it so cold? Why is it so… What? Why are people throwing it at people and stuff like that?” Eventually, our parents told us that the seasons change and this is the… what to expect when it comes around this time a year, around September, going into November time. Weather, getting used to that. I’m so not used to Madison weather.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow. You’ve been here since-
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I’ve been here since 2001.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow. Almost-
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Almost 20 years. I’m still not used to this.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I don’t think I will get used to it mainly just because it’s always fluctuating. You have an idea and the concept of how the weather’s going to be for the four seasons, but you never know. Wisconsin’s like a hit or miss or something like that.
Angela Fitzgerald: I can relate. That’s why I’m wearing a scarf now. Some people are wearing t-shirts. I have not yet acclimated myself.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I see people wearing shorts, I’m like, “How? How are you wearing shorts right now? It’s snowing. No. No. I’m good. I’m not doing that.” Accustomed to the weather was different. It took time. Still not used to it but I’m getting used to it. The cultural experience, very different, of how… well big thing, a parent to child concept. In middle school, I remember a moment. I had a friend, a couple of friends where I would go to a friend’s house, for example, for homework or just for a gathering or what not. I remember kind of like a weird disrespect between the parent and the child where, I mean, if you talk to your parents… Back home you talk to your parents, you get in trouble for that. Here, it kind of seems like it’s okay to do that.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That cultural, that scene, that was weird to me where it didn’t make sense. That’s your mom. Why are you talking to your mom or your dad like that?
Angela Fitzgerald: When you went home it was like-
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Oh no.
Angela Fitzgerald: “I don’t care that we’re in Madison now. This is still how our dynamic is going to be.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: “This is what it’s going to be. You’re going to listen, you’re going to pay attention, or you want a spanking? Okay, because you can talk to me like that then.” That in itself. Was also one experience that kind of took time getting used to because back home you have to have the utmost respect for the elders. That’s just a culture thing that you have, but I feel like that also in a way can limit sometimes, because then it puts the perspective that the parent is the all knowing, and that they’re never wrong, which isn’t always right. That perspective, in that sense, balancing that out within my own self, in my own experiences, and seeing that with other experiences was something I had to get used to.
Culture, in the sense of arts was a little bit different here. Even getting into the arts as how I am now was also in its own way kinda it’s own journey. I wasn’t into arts until high school. I wasn’t into dancing specifically until high school. When I moved here, I was one of those quiet kids. I was a shy kid. I barely had any friends, barely talked to that many people. I stuck to myself and my siblings. It was actually through dance around my middle school year, 8th grade year… I actually remember this. Eight grade year, around May, June, before school was ending, I remember after school, my friends and I would usually be… we had this hang out spot after class that we would hang out in the hallways. I remember one of my friends showing me these dances, because he just got back from dance practice.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: They were showing me these moves, or they were practicing these moves, and I was asking them like, “Yo… what is… What is that? What are you doing?” They’re like, “Oh, this is the heel toe.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh. I remember that.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: “Or like this is the Batman.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: It was like a trendy move or a trendy dance that was going on around that time. I was asking all these questions. I was like, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Little history before that, I used to do African dance. A lot of tribal dances, before actually going into the depths of what the different dance styles I could learn here like hip hop, krump, breaking, popping, locking, light feet, and et cetera, et cetera, before I even got into that world of opportunities of different movements. It was more just tribal African dances. So, fast forward 8th grade, one of my friends showed me those moves, I was like, “Whoa… What is… I’ve never seen this before, but it looks familiar.”
Angela Fitzgerald: A different style of dance.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: In a way, just because of the movement. Of the body language of what they’re using. The hips and their knees and what not, because-
Angela Fitzgerald: There’s still some origins back to forms of dance that you had done before.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Exactly. That’s actually one of the things I teach now where I try to bring the idea of history and culture where these… History and culture is very important to move forward and prepare for the future. If you don’t know the history you can’t prepare for… At least for me. It’s hard to prepare and move forward if you don’t know what happened, or you don’t know where you come from. When you know where you come from it allows you to stay present so you can push forward and make the right decisions, even if they are decisions that bring you back, you’re still making decisions to learn, to get to the point where you need to get to.
Fast forward, and I… it’s one of those things where I teach about where these body awareness are coming from. What the movement is. Why are you using your hips? Why are you using your knees? Why are you incorporating your torso and your head to make this specific motion, this move, and that all ties to African movement in the different tribes on the Western and Southern area. You have the Akan people and Agbor and some of the South African tribes that contribute to those type of movements to dance. Watching that I was like, “Yo. I’ve seen this before.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. This is familiar.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: “This is familiar.” It’s a different…
Angela Fitzgerald: It’s different.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Modernization of it. Learning those moves, it just intrigues me. I was just like, “Oh, this is just something cool I could add to my artillery or my repertoire of movements I can do.” They taught me the heel toe, I learned the Batman, I learned the crimp walk. I learned a couple moves. I learned the top rock. Ever since that day, ever since going to that summer, my life changed.
Angela Fitzgerald: This was 8th grade, you were saying.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: 8th grade.
Angela Fitzgerald: Is when your life changed.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: 8th grade, summer, going into my freshmen year. That completely changed my whole life. It opened me up, it turned me from that shy introverted kid into that extrovert kid.
Angela Fitzgerald: You tapped into the dance.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I tapped into something that allowed me to speak in multiple different ways, whether is was vocally, physically, even mentally, in a way, for myself or for others, to be able to… Mentally going here but, oh, what do I actually want to say? What am I feeling? And say the right thing I need to say. Before, I wouldn’t say anything. I would just be quiet because I didn’t feel like I needed to say anything because I was just a quiet kid. It was through that allowed me to open up, allowed me to make more friends, or make friends, in general, allowed me to find an outlet, a resource, or something to utilize and build and grow, and it’s completely changed my life.
Dance, for me, is life, and life is dance. From dance, I learned many lessons and many experiences. The many experiences helped me in life. Through dance, I don’t think I would have traveled as much as I’ve traveled. I’ve been able to travel to California, New York, Texas, all around the Midwest, down south and soon, hopefully, across the country. I started my own business. I teach on a regional basis throughout Dane County. I perform almost everywhere in Madison. What really did it after that was the TV show, America’s Best Dance Crew. I’m not sure if you-
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh. Is that still come on?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: They actually don’t. They recalled that I want to say four years ago. Had their last season finale and they haven’t had it anymore ever since after that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay. Yeah. I do remember that show.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: It was that show that I was like, “Whoa. What? What is this? This is a whole… Wait. People do this here?”
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Back home you’re either… the main goals are… you have your standard stereotypical, you become a doctor, become an engineer. Nothing really art focused in the sense where, oh, become a dancer, become a entrepreneur and then make your own living from there. It wasn’t an ideal there.
Angela Fitzgerald: I will say I feel like there’s parallels to what you just described here in terms of… and I will say because we’re talking about the Black community, and we’re talking about the diaspora right now, talking about comparing the United States, Black community, and African community in Ghana, I think sometimes there are limitations placed on what’s possible simply because you have not necessarily seen the other possibilities modeled for you.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Thinking about students that may graduate in high school and thinking about what to do it’s like, “Oh, there’s you can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer, you can be a this, you can be a that.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: All of those other things.
Angela Fitzgerald: To say you want to be a dancer…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Right.
Angela Fitzgerald: Somebody be like, “How you going to make money from that? How is that a real quote unquote… a job?”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: “How is that a job?”
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: How’s that a career?
Angela Fitzgerald: Right, but it could be. I think there are so many artistic lanes that when you think about the education, are not invested into, are not elevated as possibilities. Then you have these artistically inclined people who feel like they have to fit themselves…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Into a box.
Angela Fitzgerald: Into a box…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Or a bubble.
Angela Fitzgerald: Because that’s what’s presented as optional.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Right.
Angela Fitzgerald: When you think about the Black community specifically, there may be other economic factors where you’re like, “You better make money because you have to do boom, boom, boom. Absolutely further limitations may be applied.” I think it’s… you uplifting that in Ghana, I’m like, the same thing I have seen played out here. It’s so, to me, that empowering, to hear your story that you’ve been able to carve a lane for yourself…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Thank you.
Angela Fitzgerald: Where possibly one didn’t exist.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Right. Right, right. You hit a lot of stuff right there because first, representation is key. In most of the studios that I’ve taught, and just had the opportunity or experience to be in, there’s not that representation there. It’s not present where a young four year African American child is not going to go to a studio and be like… or look at somebody, “Oh, I’m going to become a dance teacher,” because it’s not there. You’re not going to see that many African American instructors in these spaces just because of the system and how that goes about that. That’s tough. That makes it really tough because art is life.
We make our living, everything that we do is art. Everything is art. This language we’re speaking is art. This chair that we’re sitting on is make out of art. This shirt that I’m wearing, this scarf. Everything is art. The fact that we don’t put that much importance to it just blows my mind because instead we’ll put more importance on… Even on food, we don’t even put that much importance on food. The health… See, that’s a whole nother thing that is as well too where you’re purposely feeding poison to people to keep them down. You’re not providing the opportunities for right supplements or right tools to be placed where you can actually reach that potential, or see that potential. It’s not even able to be reached out from because that’s like, no. That’s not an option. You can either do this or do that. You can’t do this. Why would you? What is that? No. You can’t do that.
Angela Fitzgerald: That might be by design. Right? The system is doing exactly what it what intended to do until there are people like you that are like, “Nope.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: No.
Angela Fitzgerald: That might have been the path that I was supposed to have taken, but actually I’m going to this.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I’m going to do that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Instead. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: At this point, I guess, we have to be the ones to push ourselves to change that, because the system’s not going to do that. Having more individuals that are pushing that agenda saying, “Hey, okay. You want to be a musician. What does that look like? What do you have to do? Where do you have to go? Who do you need to meet? Who do you need to be around? The environment.” I have this philosophy that the environment is very, very important. For specifically anybody, anybody, growing up specifically, with the right environment, that individual can amount to so much. The system is made, makes the environment difficult to unlock that potential, or give you those keys to unlock that potential, because they don’t want you to do that. That’s a problem. That makes it so tough for people of color to even want to become a dance, or do anything that has to do with entrepreneurship in the art field.
It takes that idea out of the picture because then you have to think about only becoming a doctor. There’s nothing wrong with those things.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. We need medical professionals…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: We need doctors, we need nurses, we need engineers. Everyone has a role that they can play, or that they should be playing. That you’re supposed to play. We all have a role that we’re supposed to play. You just have to find that. To find it, you need the right guidance, the right environment. Those build your perspective and your mindset, which goes into your experiences. If you don’t have the right environment and guidance, you’re going to be lost.
Angela Fitzgerald: How did you navigate that space? It sounds like America’s Best Dance Crew…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Sparked something in you? I remember the dudes with the mask and the hoodies-
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: The JabbaWockeeZ.
Angela Fitzgerald: There we go. I was like, “What were they called?”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: The JabbaWockeeZ.
Angela Fitzgerald: Yes. I remember them from there. I follow them on Instagram now. That sparked something in you.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: You’re like, “I want to do this.” How did you navigate a space that you’ve acknowledged doesn’t necessarily have the guidance and the model laid out on how to do it, but you’ve managed to figure it out? What did that look like for you in carving out that lane for you?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That summer, going into my freshmen year in high school, when I watched that TV show, I saw the JabbaWockeeZ, Kaba Modern, Super Cr3w, and all these dance crews. I was just like, “Wow.”
Angela Fitzgerald: You’re like, “My people.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I want to meet you guys. I’m going to audition for this TV show one day.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: “I’m going to dance. I want to dance. I want to dance.” I started watching YouTube videos, tutorials, did what I could to try and start learning as many different dance styles. Just watching a bunch and a bunch of videos. I started teaching myself that way. This is where me going into this community and culture and life was like, “Whoa. This is also kind of messed up.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Really? Why’d you think that?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: You have this idea that industry is better than street dance, or studio is better than street dance.
Angela Fitzgerald: Like being professionally trained and going through certain pathways legitimizes you in this field.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Whereas if you teach yourself…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That’s not enough to a point. Cause you have these standards or these requirements that they say is what makes you, gets you to these opportunities to even teach, or get the opportunity to get paid and what not. Most of the time, they require more studio disciplines opposed to street disciplines, which in these studios they would say they teach hip hop, but not teaching hip hop.
Angela Fitzgerald: I could imagine… making some assumptions here, that there might be some disparities present in terms of who is in which lane, because the quote, unquote legitimate lane, requires resources. It requires things to be able to… you got to pay for studio time, you have to pay for classes, you have to pay for training, you have to pay for degrees and all of that, whereas if you’re just at home doing your thing…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That’s something that you just do on your own time. That’s for you, and that’s actually where I started also seeing the differences or understanding more about the culture around this… in the dance community, in the dance culture, where that’s also divided right there because you have the industry that pretty much says… It’s the same thing, dance, at the end of the dance, it’s just dance. It’s dance at the end of the day. That’s all it is. You have a lot of things you can do with it, what happened was with the culture of dance is that they set a standard saying that if you’re a choreographer, or you make choreography, that’s better than somebody that can freestyle, which makes no sense. If you’re freestyling, you’re making choreography. If you’re making choreography, you’re freestyling, because you have to freestyle to make the choreography.
Angela Fitzgerald: I was going to ask, what’s the difference? I get freestyle. You’re coming up with it, but as soon as you can replicate what you just came up with, doesn’t that then become choreography?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: The choreography. Cause Choreography, the definition of it, it’s just an eight count. It’s rhythmic eight count, and it’s more theatrical. Right. It’s more theatrical in the sense where it’s done with a group of people more than just one person. Then you have the idea of showing images and pictures that a larger group of body. You can see that clearer more than with the one individual, which I’m like, “Okay. Sure. Sometimes. I get that perspective, which can make sense.” I ran into a lot of issues with that after high school, where, okay, I’m like… I got all these opportunities to travel, perform, do this… I even got an opportunity to teach and stuff like that too, but when it got to the point where I was trying to teach in studios or trying to get… I wanted to make this a career, I wanted to make a job. It was tough to go and teach in the studios because they say that you don’t have any dance background. I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
Angela Fitzgerald: You’re like, “Yes, I do.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I’ve been dancing for four years, five years. I’ve been on America’s Got Talent, America’s Best… What are you talking about? It’s like, “Oh, you don’t have any ballet, jazz, contemporary experience. You don’t have any studio discipline.” That’s one thing that in the dance community I feel like now is growing and changing a little bit more where that bridge, it’s coming together, where people are starting to accept more on the other end, and offer those opportunities ’cause I remember in high school there was a time where they wouldn’t even allow… Or, not allow, but it was tough to even go and take classes as a African American or just a freestyle dancer.
Here, trying to even get the opportunity to go take a… go into a studio, was just tough because you didn’t have money. The classes are expensive. If you don’t have the resources, how are you going to get the opportunity?
Angela Fitzgerald: Exactly.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Already that separated right off the bat.
Angela Fitzgerald: Who has access.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Who has access. Who can actually get these opportunities to do that. That was another avenue I wanted to change here, where I wanted to make it more accessible and more affordable for the youth and people in the community to actually get those opportunities to go learn and see and experience it as well. We’ve gotten better with doing that. Now, but before it was just tough where you just… I remember going to these studios seeing we were the only people of color at these studios. It was just like, oh.
Angela Fitzgerald: I have had that experience in Madison too, where I went to an African dance class, and I was the only Black person in the entire class and I was like…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: They’re teaching African dance.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. That’s what kind of threw me.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: You have a non-POC person-
Angela Fitzgerald: Teaching. Right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Teaching this. I’m like, “How would you know how to teach this?”
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay. I want to unpack that a little bit. That is… We’re stuck with the terrain of exploitation, but I don’t think that always reaches the levels that we might consider exploitative, right? There’s one thing to be globally connected. One form of dance is not held by a particular group. Especially when you think of apps like TikTok. Everybody’s doing everything.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Everyone’s doing everything. Yes, yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Then there’s exploitation, which is a step beyond that, where there is now ownership applied… You correct me if there’s a different definition that you’re aware of.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: No. No, no, no. You’re perfect words.
Angela Fitzgerald: There’s ownership applied to a form that did not originate with that group, and where credit is not given to the originators.
Angela Fitzgerald: Please tell me about what you’ve seen with that in the dance community, and maybe how you’ve actively tried to work against that, so that that credit is given where it is due.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: What I’ll say now, what trials and tribulations, it becomes cultural appropriation. That’s what it becomes. You appropriating a culture and not given credit due, and you’re skewing the idea of what this dancing culture is, and giving the wrong representation of it. I’ve had moments where I’ll have a dancer, a studio dancer, come up to me… or somebody that danced at the studio, and say that… or while they’re watching me dance, and they’re like, “What are you doing? What is that?” I’m like, “I’m doing hip hop.” It’s like, “No. That’s not hip hop.” I’m like, “What are you talking about this is not hip hop?” They were trying to show me a routine and I’m like, “But that’s just a routine. Where’s the hip hop founda- Where’s the foundation? Where’s the fundamentals? Where the style? Where’s you? You’re just showing me a routine, a move. You’re showing me a move. You’re not showing me the dance.”
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s tricky because in a sense, if other people are elevating your craft, it’s more visibility, more recognition, but then I think in doing that it loses…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: It takes away from that culture, because then people get confused of what is actually is. Until this day, until this day, when I teach hip hop… I still get this to this day, most of the parents, when they’re bringing their kids or when they’re coming to these hip hop classes, they’re expecting, assuming, a routing to a Britney Spears song.
Angela Fitzgerald: Ah. Okay, because that’s hip hop.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Because that’s hip hop.
Angela Fitzgerald: Since when is Britney Spears been classified-
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: As hip hop.
Angela Fitzgerald: A hip hop genre of music. Pop at best.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: The fact that that’s still going on now. It was worse before, but… It’s getting better. The fact that that’s just even a thing, right there, it’s like, yo, we need to fix that. Nobody wants to talk about it, because when it’s brought it they’re like, “No, we’re not trying to… We’re trying to help. We’re trying to push the agenda. We’re trying to get people to move and have fun and do this.” It’s like, “Yeah. Have fun. Do this, but educate them. If you’re not given the right education and the right tools and resources, you’re taking away from a culture. You’re ripping it apart and dividing it more than it already is.” If you think, and look in the industry standard, it already is divided. It’s divided saying that freestyle is not as good as choreography.
Automatically, most people want to become a choreographer, which is not even a style. It’s just a title, or thing, or tool that you can use to help your dance. It’s not a style, but they’ve made it into a style. They’re making it into a style. They’ll call it urban dance, for example, where it’s like, well, why is it urban? Why don’t you just call it what it is.
Angela Fitzgerald: I feel like that term urban is thrown around. We know what it’s supposed to mean but it’s like, but that completely denounces non-urban communities that still have a connection to that culture that is embedded within that form of dance.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: It makes it cultural appropriation, right away.
Angela Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: When you say urban, that tells me that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: You don’t know what you’re talking about. Automatically. You’re going to call this urban dance. Why are you teaching this in the first place? It goes back to that representation, that environment. If you don’t have the right representation with the right environment, with the right resources and tools, you’re sending the wrong information to the new generation that’s going to be confused. That comes back to the idea of understanding history, so that we can prepare for the future. If you don’t know the history, we can’t be present to move forward. We’ll keep tweaking it out how we want to, so that we get what we want to, to move forward, but that’s not… We got to stop doing that.
Angela Fitzgerald: It also very much excludes those who were the founders…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Actually do it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Or the originators of certain art forms., speaking of dance, specifically, from being able to be recognized for that if you’re saying, “No. That’s not what it is. It’s actually this.” It’s like, “Actually, no.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That’s not it either.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. Then you get to when you talking about representation because they’re being excluded, that representation, it is not there. Like we’ve said before, it’s going to reduce the cultural integrity of that particular form of art.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: It strips it of its authenticity. It makes it a trend. That’s what it’s become where, yeah, it’s accessible more now where anybody can dance. That’s great. I want everybody to dance. I think dance is one of those things that, again, for me, it’s life. I’ve learned so many lessons. I wouldn’t be where I was without dance. Through dance, the lesson I’ve learned with my life is enrich my life. It’s gotten me to the point where I am at, and maybe, there are things that… I honestly, I can think back and be like I don’t think I regret as much. There are things that I would say I wanted, I would have done different, but I don’t regret it, because it’s the experience that got me to this point. Then I can realize that, I’m like, “Oh, if I had done that different, I could have done this.” I would have never got to this point if I didn’t go through that experience.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Just that in itself is, it’s so important. My big thing with my company is pushing history, teaching culture, teaching foundation, teaching our body awareness, teaching fundamentals, teaching things before you actually even get to the dance, because they don’t do that in the studios. I don’t know that many studios, here, at least, that actually talked about history. Unless if you’re talking about ballet. They would do that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right, right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: When it comes to hip hop, they expect it just to be a fun little dance thing that you can do for exercise. I’m like, again, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you’re not providing the value with it, and only the variables, that’s cultural appropriation.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. I think that is a challenge with Black cultural art forms specifically because there isn’t a quote, unquote, country of origin, then that historical background is never elevated, even though we could trace the history beyond this country and within this country, but… In taking African dance classes, there’s a history that’s talked about. Ballet, there’s a history that’s talked about.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Jazz, tap.
Angela Fitzgerald: I’m assuming jazz, tap…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Contemporary.
Angela Fitzgerald: What’s the Russian… All the different dances.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: All of them.
Angela Fitzgerald: They have a historical background that’s talked about, but like you said, with hip hop, that’s not the case.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: They never talk about it, because they don’t know the history of it. I want people to dance. When it comes to education, you need the right people to do it. We can do a quick flip. Police policing. We have bad apples. If you have the right cops, we can make things actually happen, but there’s a lot of bad apples, so this is the outcome of what happens when you have bad apples in the dance scene. You have bad apples that don’t care about what they’re teaching, so it makes it tough to actually push that agenda to elevate, to actually grow and pursue, and represent, because it’s not there. They don’t talk about it. It makes me so sad because you have the community in the cities. You have people that do these styles, that live it, that travel, that battle, they compete. It’s their career. You’re going to miss that opportunity and say no. We’re going to go over here and get somebody in the industry to come here and then teach us.
That individual, yeah, they’re probably famous, they have money. Are they part of the culture? I don’t know. Are they part of the community? We don’t know. But then people will listen to that person. People will think that’s the representation. They’ll think that’s the culture. That’s not it. I teach in schools. I’ve taught in elementary, middle schools, and high schools, and some of the universities, and barely do I hear people, the youth saying, I want to be a dance teacher. Ever. They don’t see that being a possibility.
Angela Fitzgerald: It’s not seen as a possibility.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Even back home, before, too, that’s never a possibility. Maybe now it’s changing, it’s growing where it’s become more acceptable, but just that in itself limits us. It takes away from we can really become because it’s us. We’re the history. We are the ones that created… we created these movements. There’s a whole history of hip hop, but people don’t want to listen to it. They want to listen to it, but they don’t know how to teach it because they don’t know it. If you don’t know it then do your research.
Angela Fitzgerald: That definitely speaks to the importance of the work that you do where you’re not seeing forms of dance that are rooted in Black culture as just a dance form that does not have a historical backing to that’s important to emphasize, as well of the piece we’ve reiterated throughout this conversation, that representation matters.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Representation matters.
Angela Fitzgerald: I guess I was interested briefly in your thoughts around the importance of art, particularly within this moment that we’re in historically.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Right now.
Angela Fitzgerald: We’re in a social justice movement, for lack of a better term. Art has always played an important part in social justice movements and within Black led movements. What do you see, related to the work that you do, as being so crucial to this time that we’re in? I’m also thinking quotes that float around like the Instagram quotables that say things like, “I wish that people loved Black people as much as they love Black culture.” There might be people that would love to sign up for a hip hop dance class, but then would argue with you about why Black lives matter. Tell me about the art piece to where we are now.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: All right. Like I said in the beginning, it’s life. It’s part of our everyday, our everyday living. It should be something that we should take more pride in, we should make it more accessible, we should make it more available, and more accepting. Through art, if you list the five elements of hip hop, automatically…
Angela Fitzgerald: There’s five elements? Yeah. Okay.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: You know?
Angela Fitzgerald: I did not know. Go ahead.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: DJ, MC, graffiti, beat boy or breaking or beat girl, knowledge. Main five elements of hip hop. You have more elements that goes into it, but so those are the main five elements. DJ, music. Music is everything. Frequency and vibrations, we’re music. We can sing to music. It’s all vibrations. We can sing to it because… and show so much through those different vibrations when we’re present, and aware, and believe ourself. Music also just speaks volume. It’s a way for us, because of that frequency, it’s a way for us to hit specific emotions, hit specific frequencies and vibrations that vibrate us. We’re multi-dimensional beings living a human experience. If you go to that realm of what that is and connect that with music, music is literally everything. It’s just a frequency. It speaks so many volumes and we can all relate to it in some way shape of form.
Angela Fitzgerald: I think that’s another layer about talking about dance, specifically, within the climate and culture that we’re in now because yes, it’s one medium to convey a message, but it’s also a form of self-care where you’re like…
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Self-love.
Angela Fitzgerald: “In this moment, I am free to express myself and I’m not focused on all the stuff that’s coming at me, telling me who I am, or how my life matters or does not. I can just be.” Right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: You can just be. I can be present. I can be accountable of my actions because what you… Me doing this is my actions. It’s not someone telling me, “Hey, wave your head.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m feeling this right here. Oh, I’m feeling that I have to do this because I’m feeling that way.”
Angela Fitzgerald: You look good even doing that. I was like, “Okay. About to teach us how to pop lock.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That in itself speaks so much volumes at least for me, because, at least in the dance world, for me, you can tell where a person’s at in life by how they’re dancing. How they move, the details, the execution, the connection that you can feel or receive from what they’re doing. That can tell a lot about an individual. We tend to forget about that portion because we get so focused. This is where the TikTok and Instagram, again, great tools and resources, but we shouldn’t let those be the main things that run those things. It should be something that we can use to help.
Beacuse when you go on these TikToks, again, it’s not saying anything bad about them, but I don’t think… It’s a great way to feel cool for a little bit, it’s a great way to learn something fun and engaging and do something, do movements, but then what do you do after that?
Angela Fitzgerald: You post it, and other people like it.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Then when people like it, or if people don’t like it, now what do you do after that? If people like it, you going be like, “Oh yeah.” You get the self-boost, you get the confidence, but if no one likes it then you’re like, “Oh, I’m trash. Oh, I’m terrible at dancing. I should have never done it in the first place.” Then you get those perspectives because then you have… It gets deeper where you have the sense where what is cool to post, the moves is cool to post, and what is not. ‘Cause then you have the freestyle dancers like me, that we post our videos, we won’t get that many views, opposed to say you have a TikTok dancer like Charli who will get 9 million views from doing this. If a freestyle dancer did this and that, they were like, “That’s not the same thing.” Why?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That just shows you the difference right there that that’s not even trying to get the individual to dig deep. That’s just them…
Angela Fitzgerald: Carrying out emotions.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Carrying out an emotion, or carrying out a motion or move. Again, nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to understand the depth of it because you could just do this all day, but if I do this with feeling and emotion and power, that gives a whole different image then.
Angela Fitzgerald: Just seeing that.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Or I’m like… I don’t know what that meant to you guys, but for me, that was just me pushing the air to my heart to release. I could do this all day, but what is the purpose behind what you’re doing. That comes from the individual. I feel like through dance, more now, we’re forgetting about that part. We’re trying so hard to look cool, or trying to get these moves to get the acceptance, that we’re forgetting that we’re already enough. We’re trying so hard to do this, this, and that, to impress other people, and we’re not impressing ourselves.
Angela Fitzgerald: So with that, I feel like you might have just done the closing thing, but I wanted to just ask you any closing anything that you would want someone here in this conversation to take away from what you shared?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: The biggest thing I want to say, or take away from anything we’ve talked about, is to love yourself first. Lead with love, and everything else will come. What does that mean, and what does that look like? That’s your own personal journey that you have to uncover. No one can tell you how to get to that point. You can create the environment with the right guidance and resources and tools to push you to get to that decision, but you shouldn’t… no one knows what you’re going to do except you. To get to that point is daily self-love, daily dedication, daily things that you have to do to just get to that point to love.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: And I think that’s the biggest thing. Love is the biggest frequency that we should all be vibing off of right now because that’s what connection is. That’s what life is about: connection. It’s my world connecting to your world, connecting to their world, connecting to that world. When we’re able to connect our worlds together, because I’m a whole different being right here. You’re a whole different being over there. If I’m able to be present and connect, that’s love. To get that love, that’s daily things that you have to do.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I’ll leave with this last thing. There’s this krump. Krump is one of my favorite dance styles right now. It’s the dance that has changed my life more. I thought dance changed my life in high school. Krump has changed my life these past four years. It’s an acronym that I’ve been living by ever since I got into it. Krump stands for Kingdom, radical, uplifting, mighty, praise. If you search krump it looks like a very aggressive violent dance. It looks like it, but it’s not. It has a lot of African roots and it’s actually very spiritual. Actually, it’s not Christian based, but it was created in the church by Tight Eyez and Mijo. Shout out to Tight Eyes and Mijo. Mijo. Okay.
The idea of your kingdom… kingdom, radical, uplifting, mighty, praise, your kingdom if you, your being, your world. What does that mean? What does that look like? What does that feel like? What is involved in that? What’s in and out of that? What is your kingdom? Who’s part of your kingdom? How are you taking care of that kingdom? How are you building that kingdom? How are you growing that kingdom, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? That’s the first thing you have to do in life already, just in general. You have to take care of this, because if this is not good, there’s no way you can do other things outside of that.
The next step is radical in the sense of, for me… radical can mean a lot of things, but for me it’s how I present myself to the outside world after I’ve gone into my kingdom. I can do radical things in the sense of I can just jump right now and start dancing because I want to. That’s my radical way of speaking from my kingdom. Or I could go up and say hi to somebody across the street. I could be sending that energy. That, in turn, whatever that radical thing that you’re going to do, it can uplift many people. The smallest gestures can change someone’s day or year forever. Kingdom, radical, uplifting, mighty. Mighty in the sense of power and strength. You get this uplifting energy from building your kingdom, doing radical things to bring positivity or just energy and light to give power or strength, not only to yourself, but to the other person that you’re sharing or sending this energy to. That’s the connection of our worlds right there.
That might allows us to praise. Praising can mean anything. It can be what you want it to be, but you won’t know what that means if you don’t do build your kingdom, if you don’t these other things. You’re not going to know what that means. The first thing that we’re told is believe in yourself, love yourself. I’m not sure if we’re all told that, but we should be told that more often. Love and believe in yourself, because that is how it starts, and that’s how it pushes and that’s how it grows, and that’s how it allows us to find ourselves, and then allow to connect to other people.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s love.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yeah. Love, love yourself.
Angela Fitzgerald: I love talking to artsy people because they add so much to things in life.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I did a whole…
Angela Fitzgerald: I can see the way you all express yourself, like I absolutely love it.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Awesome.
Angela Fitzgerald: Thank you so much for that Papa-Kobina.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Thank you so much, Angela. I appreciate it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Black culture fuels pop culture, and pop culture is widely shaped by art. That’s why race matters when we talk about it. The innovation and creativity within the Black community have influenced countless artistic genres, but who’s making money off of that creativity can be an issue. Black art should be enjoyed, it should be popular, and it should be monetized, but not at the expense of the artist responsible for creating it in the first place. For more info on Why Race Matters, and to hear and watch other episodes, and visit us online at pbswisconsin.org/whyracematters.
Speaker: Funding for Why Race Matters is provided by Cuna Mutual Group, Park Back, Alliant Energy, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programming, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.