Local Current Blog

What is hip-hop? Minneapolis dancers challenge stereotypes, raise questions in ‘MIXTAPE’

Iman and Khadijah Siferllah-Griffin are among the performers in 'MIXTAPE' (via Al-Taw'am on Facebook)

Having received his Master’s in hip-hop pedagogy from the University of Minnesota this spring, veteran B-Boy Jason Noer (who performs as J-Sun) is one of the biggest hip-hop experts in the Twin Cities. In his 15 years as a teaching artist at the Cowles Center, he’s worked to create space for hip-hop artists in Twin Cities venues, as well as in academia, where he will continue doctoral research on hip-hop.

His next project, MIXTAPE, fights stereotypes about hip-hop while challenging issues within the culture — such as homophobia or sexism — and embraces the form as art accessible to people of all backgrounds, he said.

There’s a lot of voices that aren’t really heard,” he said. “I have privilege as a white male practicing hip-hop and part of my responsibility is to hold space for those who aren’t on the same path.”

MIXTAPE, which runs from May 19-21 at the Cowles Center, features six other choreographers: Al Taw’am (18-year-old twin sisters Iman and Khadijah Siferllah-Griffin), Magnolia Yang Sao Yia, Herb Johnson III, Ozzy Dris, and Darrius Strong. The cast consists of about 60 dancers, ranging in age from 6 to about 40 years old.

Each dance tackles different issues related to hip-hop, such as the appropriation of the culture and crediting underrepresented artists within it, Noer said.  

I’ve watched these people, I know they have something to say,” Noer said. I felt as if this is my chance to make sure that I’m fulfilling my responsibility to the community by getting into spaces with hip-hop […] because there’s not very many in the Twin Cities.”

In celebration of mixtapes, the dances into each other, with transitions composed by Minneapolis producer Bionik.

“[Noer] is demanding with the choreography in the same kind of way that a critical listener would be to a mixtape. He wants the choreography to be an analog for that […] seamlessly transitioning moods and pieces,” Bionik said.

Bionik, whose credits include producing Lizzo’s Coconut Oil and collaborating on Manchita’s One, has mastered the art of making music for dancers, Noer said. Their collaborative process often involves Noer breakdancing and Bionik creating beats or mixes around it.

“He listens to your idea as a dancer and creates music, rather than the other way around,” Noer said. “I’ve never really come across anyone else like him.”

Bionik said he’s developed this mindset through working with dancers the last five years, which all started after Noer approached him after one of his shows and asked him to help create music for his dances.

“I learned a lot about my music and what I was doing wrong in terms of communicating with people to move their bodies, and I also learned things I was doing right,” Bionik said. “The involvement with the dance community in Minneapolis […] has just been overwhelmingly amazing and altruistic. They’re an amazing group of people […] they’ve taught me a lot about what is it in my music that makes them dance.”

Aside from seamless transitions, Bionik sees another key parallel in the performance to mixtapes.

“The mixtape is where a newcomer or up-and-comer would get their first burst, or maybe thousands of people would hear this unknown person, and they would get a bunch of notoriety. So Jason is pulling from the young, talented, lesser known, and trying to present and showcase new styles and dancers and give them their shots.”

Noer’s focus on supporting young people expands into the audience as well. He has created a GoFundMe with the goal of giving young people tickets to the performance. So far, donors have raised enough money for 50 tickets.

Noer said he hopes the show brings more attention to the diversity of the Minneapolis hip-hop scene. “I think this is a chance for people to see what our community is really like. Community includes young people and a lot of times when people are talking about community, they forget what community really is. It’s not just men; it’s women, it’s people who identify as neither or both, it’s young people. This is what our community looks like on stage that’s one of the biggest things we want to drive home to observers in the audience.”

Jackie Renzetti is a recent journalism and political science graduate from the University of Minnesota. She is also a proud Minnesota Daily and Radio K alum.