Hip-hop dancers teach kids a civil rights lesson

A successful Kickstarter campaign means Hip Hop Fundamentals finally gets to bring its history-by-music program to underfunded Philly schools.

By Randy LoBasso / photos by J.R. Blackwell
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 26, 2013

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Hip Hop Fundamentals dancers include Tarrell “Breeze” Edwards, Cody “Codesius” Russell, Willy “Chill Will” Salazar, Joe “Stunna” Son, Mark “Metal” Wong, Ben “BoxWon” Barnes-McGee, Aaron “Peabody” Troisi, Steve “Believe” Lunger, Tyrell “Native” White, Nate “Klassick” Pyfrom and Stephen “B. Nasty” Loftin.

Photo by J.R. Blackwell

After this year’s school budget meltdown, leaving the district woefully short of state funds, arts and sports programs have been decimated at many local public schools. And when the academic year ended last week, it wasn’t just the end of the semester: It marked the permanent closing of 23 schools around the city, and, at least for now, the laying off of another 3,783 employees—including 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals and 1,202 noontime aides.

Against that grim backdrop, it seems even more valuable to bring students a program like Hip Hop Fundamentals, which strives to enrich learning for kids who aren’t getting art, music or dance in their daily routine. That’s why Wong, Troisi and their crew turned to Kickstarter.

A word-of-mouth fundraising campaign this spring garnered some corporate backing, and they raised $10,000 from supporters to bring their show to 10 low-performing, impoverished Philly schools. Local entrepreneur Steve Graham of Silverback B-Boy Events, a Philadelphia-area organization that sponsors and supports local hip-hop artists, agreed to match each dollar the crew raised up to $5,000, and they exceeded their goal with a week to spare. Thanks to the campaign’s success, Hip Hop Fundamentals was able to perform at several city schools in June, including Southwark School in South Philadelphia, Samuel Gompers Elementary and Dimner Beeber Middle School in Overbrook and Mayfair Elementary and Bethune School in North Philly. They plan to visit five more schools in the fall.

It’s not a replacement for music class, of course. Or history class. But, dammit, it’s something.

out the power of hip-hop and dance, he says, while attending Haverford College early last decade. That’s when the Bermuda native met his future partners in Hip Hop Fundamentals, Steve Lunger and Joe Sun, meeting up by word-of-mouth to practice hip-hop dance in whatever empty Temple classrooms they could find. “Temple was one of the only places I knew that had a break dance club,” he says, “and ‘club’ meant we were sneaking around the hallways, looking for an empty room.”

Wong and Lunger began melding hip-hop and education alongside their friend and colleague Justin Murta, who’d started a group called Hip Hop Handbook. They used the company to verse Philly and regional students on all the components of hip-hop: graffiti, DJing, dance and musical performance. Then, in 2011, Murta decided to move overseas; he handed the company over to Lunger, Wong and their friend Tony “Knuckles” Chanza, who subsequently left as well to compete in international breaking competitions).

The two remaining principals soon renamed the company Hip Hop Fundamentals, refocusing its direction more on academic content. Wong says taking charge was a natural progression: “I’d always been interested in education and almost had enough credits to minor in education at Haverford,” he says. “I thought the next step would be teaching in dance studios, but I wanted something that was more performative.”

After joining forces with Lunger’s childhood friend Troisi, they debuted “Civil Rights Movements” this year—on Martin Luther King’s birthday, at the African American Museum on Arch Street. Though the show was meant for children, the museum was packed with adults and families that day, which made the positive response that much more fulfilling. “Connecting with a room of older African-American residents in Philadelphia was really validating,” Troisi says, considering they’re the ones who lived through the era that Hip Hop Fundamentals is trying to teach.

The dancers know civil rights is a touchy subject often glossed over in public school due to the harsh nature of what happened: the riots, the murders (both high- and low-profile), the ugly background of slavery and its aftermath. But, they say, kids can take it. “Since the beginning of time, kids have had to handle pain, death, famine—they’ve had to deal with all the same crap that adults have had to deal with,” Wong says. “It’s not sugar-coating, but you have to package it differently so their brains can understand it in a different way.”

“I think the job that we’re trying to do is—we’re being upfront,” adds Lunger. “We’re talking about segregation and racism, and we’re tying civil rights to the hip-hop movement in a way that allows people to have access to it. I think it’s more just the start of a dialogue, a conversation, hopefully, that teachers will pick up.”

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