Thursday, January 12, 2023

Imani Kai Johnson's "Dark Matter in Breaking Cyphers"

Imani Kai Johnson is Associate Professor of Critical Dance Studies at UC Riverside. She specializes in African diasporic ritual cultures, global popular culture, and Hip Hop. Johnson founded and directs of the Show & Prove Hip Hop Studies Conference Series. She is also co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Dance Studies, and has published works in Women & Performance and Dance Research Journal.

Johnson applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Dark Matter in Breaking Cyphers: The Life of Africanist Aesthetics in Global Hip Hop, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“Breaking is an opportunity to talk shit, be angry, and be a badass, and it’s cool. You suck if you can’t do that.”—Chyna

“But she [Mom] was like, ‘Well, one day, she will settle down and have kids.’ And, um, yeah— it didn’t happen!… I started doing more breakdance, she’s like, [shrugs] ‘Yeah, spinning on a dirty ground…? What are you doing?’ …So, I don’t even bother to explain it that much.”—Black Pearl
So begins page 99, with two excerpted quotes from b-girls: one featured in the We B*Girlz collection (Kramer & Cooper 2005) and the other I interviewed. Based on this test, while you wouldn’t likely know what the arguments in the chapter or the book are, readers will be immersed in qualities that I highlight to tell the story of Hip Hop dance circles (cyphers).

The Test is successful in conveying the spirit of the project, evident in key stylistic elements. Page 99, the first page of my third chapter— titled, “Badass B-girls Dancing the Dissonance of a Breaking Sociality”— begins by centering practitioner voices as both critical interlocutors and experts in the field. It also opens with familiar or common expectations of b-girls, including notions of being badass alongside narrow assessments of what it means for women to break. To make the writing accessible, I open with what we presume to know before diving more deeply into an underlying complexity embedded in those experiences. On a personal level, memories of completely overhauling this chapter during the first year of covid and sheltering (including protests and virtual community practices) brought into stark relief the book’s main thread: that centering Hip Hop’s Africanist aesthetics reveals radical social and political possibilities in global Hip Hop collectivities from which we can all learn. In this case, improvisation, an imperative toward originality, and ritual insult games reveal new possibilities in gender expression and forms of sociality in cyphers occupied by b-girls from around the world. That realization shaped the final round of revisions.

Ultimately, this chapter exemplifies the book’s subtitle, The Life of Africanist Aesthetics in Global Hip Hop; and page 99 is a doorway into deeper questions about gender, race, nationality, identity, and dance.
Learn more about Dark Matter in Breaking Cyphers at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue