Black Artists and Appropriation
"If we don't know the history, we can't be present to move forward."—Papa-Kobina Brewoo
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.
Angela Fitzgerald: Black artists have been the driving force behind popular trends worldwide for decades. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Forbes magazine reported that hip-hop and R&B could generate a total of $130 billion in profits 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, we’ll talk with one local dance artist about his experiences when it comes to the exploitation of Black art. But first, let’s discuss why race matters when it comes to the arts. Black artists have shaped and inspired this country. Despite the central role that Black artistry plays in popular culture, the art and music empires of America routinely hand Black creators the short end of the stick. Tokenism, appropriation, lack of attribution, resources, and sometimes lack of pay are a few of the issues that Black artists face. Yet, the popularity of Black art continues to grow each year. In 2017, hip-hop surpassed rock as the most dominant genre in the country for the first time, generating billions of dollars in the process. That year, hip-hop also saw a 72% increase in on-demand streaming.
In 2019, rapper 2 Milly sued the company Epic Games over dance moves used in the popular Fortnite video game series, but dropped the suit due to a U. S. Supreme Court ruling that states copyright holders cannot sue for infringement until the U. S. Copyright Office has granted or denied a copyright application. But copywriting dance routines can be difficult. According to the U. S. Copyright Office, short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps can’t be licensed. This prevents a large number of Black artists, especially those seen on popular short-form video platforms such as TikTok from legally claiming ownership of their work.
To discuss the exploitation and erasure of the Black creators behind art forms associated with dance is Wisconsin dancer and choreographer Papa-Kobina Brewoo. Well, thank you for joining us today, Papa-Kobina.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Thank you for having me.
Angela Fitzgerald: So can you tell us your story? Like, what has brought you to this place where you now identify as an artist and in the work that you do?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Well, 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. I remember after school, my friends and I, we had this hangout spot after class that we would hang out in the hallways. And I remember one of my friends showing me these dance moves ’cause they just got back from dance practice. And they were showing me these moves, or they were practicing these moves. And I was asking them like, “Yo, 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, what’s that move, the Batman. It was like a trendy move or trendy dance that was going on around that time. And I was asking these questions, I was like, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Ever since that day, ever since that, going into that summer, my life changed, that completely changed my whole life. It opened me up. It turned me from that shy, introverted kid, into the extroverted kid.
Angela Fitzgerald: Because you tapped into the dance.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I tapped into something that allowed me to speak. That I was like, “Whoa, what? What is this?” [Angela laughing] This is a whole, people wait, people do this here? ‘Cause back home, you’re either, the main goals are you have your standard stereotypical, to 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 idea of it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Well, I will say, I feel like there’s parallels to what you just described here in terms of, and I will say. . . Well, 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. . .
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: . . . the other possibilities modeled for you.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: So thinking about students that may like, graduating high school and thinking about what to do. It’s like, oh, there’s like, 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 wanna be a dancer
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Right.
Angela Fitzgerald: Somebody would be like, well, how are you gonna make money from that? Like how is that a real quote unquote, a job?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: How is that a job?
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: How is that a career?
Angela Fitzgerald: Right, but it could be. I think there’s so many artistic lanes that when you think about the education system, are not invested into, are not elevated as possibilities. So you have these artistically-inclined people who feel like they have to fit themselves into a box.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Into a box, or a bubble.
Angela Fitzgerald: Because that’s what’s presented as optional, right. And when you think about the Black community specifically, there may be other economic factors where you’re like, you better make money ’cause you have to do boom, boom, boom. Absolutely further limitations may be applied. So I think it’s, you uplifting that in Ghana, I’m like, the same thing I have seen played out here.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: It’s so, to me, even empowering to hear your story that you’ve been able to carve a lane for yourself where possibly one didn’t exist.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Right, right, right. And yeah, you hit a lot of stuff right there. ‘Cause first, representation is key.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: 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-old African-American child is not gonna go to a studio, or look at somebody, “Oh, I’m gonna become a dance teacher,” ’cause it’s not there. You’re not gonna see that many African-American instructors in these spaces just because of the system and how that goes about that. And that is, that’s tough. That makes it really tough ’cause art is life. Like, we make our living, everything that we do is art.
Angela Fitzgerald: And that might be by design, right? So it’s doing, the system is doing exactly what it was intended to do. Until there are people like you that are like, “Nope.”
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Nope.
Angela Fitzgerald: That might have been the path that I was supposed to have taken, but actually I’m gonna do this.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I’m gonna do that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: And I feel like we, and at this point I guess, we have to be the ones to push ourselves to change that ’cause the system’s not going to do that. So having more individuals that are pushing that agenda saying, “Hey, okay, you wanna 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 always say, 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. But the system is made that 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. And that’s a problem. [Papa-Kobina laughing]
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That makes it so tough for people of color to even want to become a dancer, or do anything that has to do with entrepreneurship in the art field. It takes that idea out of the picture ’cause 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, or that you’re supposed to play. We all have a role that we’re supposed to play. You just have to find that. But to find it, you need the right guidance.
Angela Fitzgerald: But you’ve managed to figure it out. So what did that look like for you in carving out that lane for yourself?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I started watching YouTube videos, tutorials, did what I could to try and start learning as many different dance styles, just watching a bunch, a bunch of videos. I started teaching myself that way. My freshman year in high school, I actually started a dance club because I wanted to find other people that wanted to dance. And through that, that’s actually what kind of like pushed that journey forward. So you have this idea that industry’s better than street dance, or studio is better than street dance.
Angela Fitzgerald: So like, being professionally trained and going through certain pathways legitimizes you in this field.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Whereas, if you just teach yourself. . .
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That’s not, that’s not enough to a point. And most of the time they use, they require more studio disciplines opposed to street disciplines. Which in these studios, they would say they teach hip-hop, but it’s not teaching hip hop.
Angela Fitzgerald: So I can 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, right? It requires things to be able to, you gotta 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, right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: That’s not as, 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 like, understanding more about the culture around this in the dance community, in the dance culture, where that’s also divided right there. 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 street freestyle dancer. ‘Cause here, try to even get opportunity to go into a studio was just tough ’cause you didn’t have money. The classes are expensive.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: And if you don’t have the resources, how are you gonna get the opportunity? So already that like, 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. Like, I remember going into the studios and we were the only people of color at these studios. It was just like, oh, and. . .
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: And they’re teaching African dance.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right, that’s what kind of threw me.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: And you have a non-POC person. . .
Angela Fitzgerald: Teaching, right.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: . . . teaching this, I’m like, how would you know this? How would you know how to teach this?
Angela Fitzgerald: And so, okay, I wanna unpack that a little bit. ‘Cause I feel like that is, like we’re stepping into the terrain of exploitation, but I don’t think that always reaches the levels that we might consider exploitative, right. Because there’s one thing to be globally connected.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Right.
Angela Fitzgerald: So one form of dance is not held by a particular group. But then there’s exploitation, which is a step beyond that, where there’s now ownership applied to something, you can correct me if there’s a different definition.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: Oh, no.
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. So can you tell me about like, 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: It becomes cultural appropriation. That’s what it becomes. You’re appropriating a culture and not giving credit due. And you’re skewing the idea of what this dancing culture is. And giving the wrong representation of it. ‘Cause then, I’ve had moments where I’ll have a dancer, a studio dancer, come up to me, or somebody at that dances at a studio, and say that, they’re watching me dance, they’re like, “What are you doing? Like, what is that?” I’m like, “I’m doing hip-hop. ” It’s like, “No, that’s not hip-hop. ” And I’m like, “What are you talking about this is not hip-hop?” And they would try and show me a routine. And I’m like, but that’s just a routine. Where’s the hip-hop foundation? Where’s the foundation, where’s the fundamentals, where’s the style, where’s you? You’re just showing me a routine. You’re showing me a move. You’re not showing me the dance.
Angela Fitzgerald: And that’s tricky, right? Because in a sense, if other people are elevating like, 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 ’cause then people get confused of what it actually is. To this day, to 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 and assuming a routine to a Britney Spears song.
Angela Fitzgerald: Ah, okay. ‘Cause that’s hip-hop.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: ‘Cause that’s hip-hop. I’m like. . .
Angela Fitzgerald: Since when has Britney Spears been classified as a hip-hop genre of music? Pop at best.
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: And the fact that that’s still going on now. But like, it was worse before. But like, it’s getting better. But like, the fact that that’s just even a thing right there, just like, yo, we need to fix that. But nobody wants to talk about it. ‘Cause when it’s brought up, 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. ” 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. It’s not a style, but they’ve made it into a style. They’re making it into a style. Or 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, and 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. It’s like, you don’t need, you automatically, when you say urban that tells me that you don’t know what you’re talking about. [laughs] You don’t know what you’re talking about, automatically. You’re gonna call this urban dance. Why are you teaching this in the first place? And 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 that’s going to the new generation, that’s gonna be confused. And that comes back to the idea of understanding history so that we can prepare for the future. If we don’t know the history, we can’t be present to move forward. And 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 gotta stop doing that.
Angela Fitzgerald: So with that, I feel like you might’ve just done the closing thing. But I wanted to just ask you, any closing anything that you would want someone hearing this conversation to take away from what you’ve shared?
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: No one knows what you’re going to do except you. And 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. 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. 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 other people. So yeah, that’s, love. Yeah, love, love yourself.
Angela Fitzgerald: I love talking to artsy people because they like, add so much to things. I’m like. . . [laughing]
Papa-Kobina Brewoo: I did like a whole. . .
Angela Fitzgerald: I know, like 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, and I appreciate it. Thank you, thank you.
Angela Fitzgerald: Black culture fuels pop culture, and pop culture is wildly influenced by art. That’s why race matters when we talk about it. The innovation and creativity within the Black community has heavily influenced countless artistic genres. But the representation of that creativity can be an issue. Black art should be popular. It should be enjoyed. But not at the expense of the artists responsible for creating it.
To learn more, go to pbswisconsin. org/whyracematters to find additional links and resources to help keep you informed. There, you can also check out the Why Race Matters podcast, as well as additional episodes.
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