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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Photo by J.R. Blackwell

It’s a late Sunday morning in Clark Park, and the basketball court at 44th and Chester is split amongst two groups. About 10 people play a half-court game of hoops at one end. A mess of 20-somethings and high school students occupy the other, a soundtrack of James Brown’s “Mind Power” stinging the pavement from an iPod plugged into a 12-inch guitar amp, practicing dance moves.

Then Mark “Metal” Wong turns on a small, black boombox and begins circling through the park. “Free hip-hop show!” he tells the families watching their children climb the monkey bars and toss footballs in the small, open-grassed valley. The same message has already been posted on signs all around the park, lining Baltimore Avenue’s phone poles and community bulletin boards: a “Free Hip Hop Dance Show,” the signs promise, will teach “the history of civil rights” through “Education! Music! Dancing! Fun!”

Within 20 minutes, the hipster parent demographic of West Philadelphia has descended upon the grass and benches lining the pavement. There’s a crowd. Basketball continues on half the court, but the small group of dancers, who call themselves Hip Hop Fundamentals, start breakdancing to an original remix of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to get the audience warmed up.

“Clark Park, what time is it?” Wong asks the swelling assemblage. The crowd’s already been told the response point: “Showtime!”

A young man decked out professorially, in a full gray suit and bowtie, takes center stage. “Dr. King fought for his people through nonviolent direct action,” he proclaims. “The founders of hip-hop fought for their free expression through art, culture, expression and dance. The truth is, hip-hop is one of the many legacies of the civil-rights movement.”

This is Aaron Troisi, former lead organizer at the community group Fight for Philly and a former member of Occupy Philadelphia. He’s got a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from Penn State and is now studying to be a social studies teacher. In this show, titled “Civil Rights Movements”—which he helped Hip Hop Fundamentals develop last winter—he’s playing Professor Peabody, the narrator, teaching a condensed version of mid-20th-century American civil rights history, meant for elementary school students.

Here’s what the civil rights movement and hip-hop have in common, he tells the audience: young people, peace, love, unity and respect. By the end of the performance, you’ve got to hand it to them: Everyone’s participated, the audience has formed a dance circle around the performers, and many are whipping out their phones to donate to the group’s crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter.

The point was to make learning fun. And by George, they did it. It’s the sort of creative education success story Philadelphia doesn’t see enough of.

The company has traveled the nation over the past two years, bringing their shows school-to-school from Maine to California; their repertoire includes not just “Civil Rights Movements,” but also an anti-bullying show and a “Laws of Physics” show. But until just this month, one place where they hadn’t been able to reach students in schools was right here at home, in Philly. Because the schools simply couldn’t find any money to hire them.

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