Sandra Kurfürst on her book, Dancing Youth

Interview by Jonathan DeVore

https://cup.columbia.edu/book/dancing-youth/9783837656343

Jonathan DeVore: Congratulations on your new book! First of all, can you recount how you became involved in the research for the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you, Jonathan! From 2007 to 2008, I conducted one year of ethnographic research in Hanoi for my PhD thesis. At the time, I was working on public spaces in Hanoi, and regularly hung out around the Lenin Monument at Dien Bien Phu Street and Ly Thai To Garden on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. At the time, I met a number of young people there who regularly assembled in the late afternoon hours to perform break moves, hip-hop dance, and popping. I began conducting interviews with young b-boys from the FIT and MiNi Shock Crews and young women dancers from Big Toe Crew. I was especially fascinated by these young women, their movement repertoire, and their fashion style. Whenever they arrived at the pavilion in Ly Thai To Garden, they would change out of their school uniforms – which were white blouses and blue trousers combined with a red scarf – and switch these for belly tops, XXL T-Shirts, and shorts or joggers. Having followed hip hop culture in Vietnam for a decade, I found hip hop’s diverse dance styles an ideal topic to study, as it combines my personal passion for hip hop with my longstanding interests in the anthropology of the urban and questions of socioeconomic transformation.

Jonathan DeVore: This continuity between your research projects nicely illustrates the observation that the questions we begin with in ethnographic research are rarely the same as the questions that we arrive at in the process. Can you describe how the questions and interests that your book addresses arose, and how these may have been transformed during the course of you research? Were there any key moments in your research that affected or even shifted your focus?

Sandra Kurfürst: Hip Hop comprises four practices of MCing (rap), breaking, graffiti writing, and DJing. Initially, I planned on examining all four practices and the interrelations among actors involves in these practices. However, once I began my research into rap and dancing, I soon noticed that there are some overlaps in the communities, but that rather distinct communities of practice have evolved around each practice. Some actors in Vietnam are very active in bringing these different strands of hip hop culture together, but, so far, there are only a few events that unite these different communities of practice. Then again, I found that the community of hip hop dancing was much more diverse than I had expected. The first dancers I talked to all differentiated between diverse styles, such as breaking, popping, locking, waacking, hip hop, and house dance. That is why I reconsidered my focus and decided to write about dance. From the start, I had been fascinated with how many young women engaged in hip hop’s different dance styles. Therefore, I chose a particular gender focus. However, one eye opening moment was a conversation with a woman locker who told me: “I don’t think it’s about young women, but about people who want to enjoy their life and develop themselves (…).” And that is how I got interested in the question of youth aspirations and visions of the good life under conditions of late socialism.

Jonathan DeVore:  Speaking of late socialism, one dynamic that I found interesting in the book was the gradual transition over a period of years from hip-hop as a relatively informal practice, occurring in common public spaces such as the Lenin Monument, to a set of relationships that became increasingly professionalized, involving market exchanges. Some of the dancers you describe who became more prominent, for example, were able to establish their own schools from which they derived their primary incomes.  Can you tell us more about processes of class formation, differentiation, and distinction among dancers in your research? More broadly, can you relate these processes to Vietnams’ transition toward “market reform, commodification, and consumerism, while officially insisting on socialist ideology and one-party rule” (p. 10)?

Sandra Kurfürst: When I did my research on public space in Hanoi between 2007 and 2008, I also interviewed b-boys and women dancers who were regularly meeting and dancing around Ly Thai To Garden. At that time, the dancers were either still in school or had jobs, and they did not have many economic resources. In 2018, the situation seemed to have slightly changed, as most of the professional dancers participating in my research held university degrees, and had gathered experiences in working in office jobs that were unrelated to dance. Some dancers, however, decided to quit their office jobs to open their own dance studios or to work as freelancers at different dance studios. Others owned their own fashion labels and combined their self-entrepreneurism with teaching dance classes. My study is not representative, of course, but from the conversations and interviews with men and women dancers alike, I gathered that most have urban middle-class backgrounds, and many of them grew up in Hanoi. Moreover, the relevance of consumption as both a status symbol, and marker of belonging to the community of practice, was visible and tangible. Indexes of distinction were comprised of street apparel, such as the German or U. S. sports brands Adidas, Nike, Vans, and so on, as well as other commodities, like photo and video cameras. Mobility was a further asset, as many dancers regularly travelled within Vietnam or the Southeast Asia region, which again requires financial resources and time. At the same time, the proliferation of dance studios in Vietnam’s major cities that offer children’s hip hop dance classes cater to growing demands by urban middle-class parents to provide their children with physical exercise and leisure activities other than gaming.

Jonathan DeVore: I see – so, parents want their children moving around instead of just sitting in front of televisions and computers!  This actually relates to another question I wanted to ask you about:  Embodied movements, gestures, and actions are notoriously difficult to represent textually, in the medium of an article or book. Can you describe the difficulties you faced, and the strategies you used, in representing the different dance forms you investigate—not only in the book, but perhaps also in other media, such as fieldnotes?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you. This is a topic that I struggle with to this day. Certainly, audiovisual formats are an option, and I would like to further pursue the question of writing dance in the future. As for fieldnotes: After taking dance classes, I recorded my sensations and experiences as well as student-teacher interactions in voice recordings on my way home. Listening to my own voice recordings later on, I particularly noticed my own shortness of breath after having trained with one dancer, named Mai. Also, the interview situations themselves were certainly sensory events. Whenever I sat down to transcribe interview recordings, or to write my field notes, I started humming and singing songs that my interlocutors had played for me on their phones. And I found myself searching the internet for tracks and videos they had told me about. A really fascinating format, to avoid simplifications involved in just describing what I saw and how I moved, seems to be autoethnographic performance. However, what prevented me from engaging in autoethnographic performance in the book were my English language skills. The use of different literary genres to express movement in written language is really appealing to me, but I would have to do so in my own mother tongue. In my teenage years, I used to write rap lyrics. So, writing in German would be one way for me to go.

Jonathan DeVore: I can certainly appreciate this challenge!  And as I read your book, I also found myself looking up YouTube videos of the songs and music videos you cited!  Perhaps a final question to conclude: Are there any interests or questions that remain open for you after writing the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: I keep wondering if, at one point, I could invite the women hip hop dancers to Germany for a performance in the city of Cologne. I think that would be a great opportunity to bring them together with Cologne-based dancers. Moreover, I would really like to meet them again – but due to the pandemic, I have not returned to Vietnam since 2018. At the time, when I got to know the women dancers, they were all at the end of their 20s – an age when women in Vietnam are usually married and have children. So, one question I did not ask, but which comes up again and again, is: To what extent does leading a dancing life have an impact on women dancers’ decisions to marry and have children?

I was also very glad to find queer dancers at dance battles. However, as battles are quite ephemeral events, and the dancers were not directly related to participants in my research, I did not have a chance to talk to them. But it made me wonder if queer performance, such as the style of waacking, helps to open up spaces for the queer community in Vietnam. The LGBTQIA+ community has become more active and more visible in public space, such as with the annual Viet Pride festival. So, I was wondering if dancing, and waacking in particular, may also be a way for them to create a community as well as to gain more public awareness and acceptance.

Jonathan DeVore: Thanks so much for talking with me, Sandra, and congratulations once again on Dancing Youth.  I’ll look forward to reading your next book on one of these other topics!

Mwenda Ntarangwi on his book, The Street is My Pulpit

Christine Chalifoux: By focusing your ethnographic attention on the hip hop artist Juliani, you were able to weave together so many important facets of life in Kenya: socioeconomic precarity, self-expression, the influence of the burgeoning youth population, and most significantly for your work, Christianity. Your ethnography especially stands out because it not only takes Christianity seriously as a subject on its own, but you engage in anthropology at home in the religious sense, too. How did your position as a fellow Christian affect the relationship you cultivated with Juliani?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: First, my focus on a single person allowed me to use Juliani as the minimum unit of analysis and work ‘backwards” to establish what made him who he is as a Christian and as a musician. I kept asking myself, “what have been the key influences in Juliani’s life that have led him to become who he is today?” It is this analysis that helped me generate the kinds of questions that allowed Juliani to reflect and share some of the experiences and incidents that shaped his identity at the time that I was carrying out an ethnography on his music and life. It also gave him a chance to identify certain individuals and incidents that had had major influences in his life. Second, as a Christian myself, I was very much aware of many of the possible blindsides of carrying out the study of a Christian artist and had to constantly keep checking on my own biases (against or towards Christianity). I remember once having a deep conversation with Juliani about some of the church members at the congregation that had been exposed as following a preacher who claimed to remove evil in their bodies by duplicitously applying potassium permanganate to look like blood. I told him that they were too gullible and followed without question the preacher’s gimmicks. Juliani shot back saying that each one of them was getting something more than what we can discern intellectually. He insisted that the congregants were not fools but rather strategic players who knew what they wanted from the preacher and were getting it. Third, I came into the ethnography with a specific bias towards Christianity, having edited another book with a focus on the social significance of Christianity in Africa, whereby I juxtaposed the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa and the corresponding expansion of social ills represented by high levels of corruption, disease, poverty, and focus on the occult. At the back of my mind, I was skeptical about any positive role Christianity was playing in Africa and was therefore interested in Juliani because he tended to challenge Christianity and especially the way it was mobilized publicly. He, for instance, challenged certain expected silences towards areas of Christianity that did not make sense such as how Christians would seldom challenge certain ideas about God, especially the idea of God’s power over everything, meanwhile many attending church and professing faith in God were languishing in poverty and abuse. Growing up in a Christian context where we did not have many opportunities to challenge certain narratives about Christianity, I was naturally drawn to Juliani’s messages that engaged critically with Christianity as he understood it. I was straddling the two worlds of curiosity toward Juliani’s challenges of Christianity and my own biases towards Christianity. I had to be very careful not to look for Juliani’s messages that would validate my own biases. Being a fellow Christian further provided a shared position from which to engage but not a shared set of interpretations that would miss the complexity of life of Christians.

Christine Chalifoux: The names of some of the hip hop groups and artists you wrote about, such as Camp Mau Mau and MajiMaji, reference powerful anti-colonial movements in East Africa. Are such references common among youth in Nairobi today? And, if so, are young people able to reconcile violent rebellion with Christianity?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: A number of young people who are politically sensitized do use references to Mau Mau and colonial experiences, especially the fact that Africans were taught the wrong type of Christianity. Their claim is similar to the one articulated immediately after independence when Kenyan political leaders claimed that Christianity made Kenyans docile, allowing colonialists to take all their land while they shut their eyes to pray. There are, however, fewer Christians who combine the political with the spiritual because they often assume that they are incompatible. It is thus quite surprising that in early 2021 well-known Christian artist and preacher Mr. Reuben Kigame talked about Jesus being a social activist and that there should not be a dichotomy between faith and living. This is quite a departure from his earlier songs in which he focused on personal piety and preparation for life after death. The Mau Mau have not been viewed mainly as violent in much of Kenya, but rather as agitators for what is rightfully owned by Kenyans. But the memory of their influences has slowly faded away. There might be some affinity between Christianity and Mau Mau in that they both seek radical change in people’s quest for a better life.

Christine Chalifoux: Basing your ethnography in the urban setting of Nairobi, you were able to avert the temptation of many anthropologists and historians of sub-Saharan Africa, which is to break up the country of study into regional ethnic groups. Despite this, readers can see how ethnic concerns continue to be at the forefront, even in the nation’s cosmopolitan capital. In Chapter 3, in particular, you write about the ways in which Christian missionaries had different conversion tactics for particular ethnic groups. Do you think a Christian identity, or ‘performing Christianity’, to use your term, allows the youth to be more amenable to a larger Kenyan nationality?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: Ethnicity has been mobilized to define identity in Kenya for a long time to such an extent that it is the default mode of defining individuals. When this is combined with political processes that amplify ethnicity, then one can see how ethnicity becomes such a key part of the social fabric of the nation. The idea that Africans were organized around tribes was extended to Christian missionary work and colonial boundary-making processes in forming administrative areas in Kenya. This has now been assumed to be the default standard for leadership in certain locales, even in churches. There is a tendency up till today to have certain church leaders be seen as belonging while others don’t belong, and this is based on their ethnic identity and the denomination involved. The Methodist Church, for instance, remains a church associated with the Meru so much that it is almost expected that the presiding bishop of the church will be from the Meru ethnic group. It is quite telling that only the first presiding bishop of the Methodist Church was not Meru, the other five have all been Meru. Interestingly even cosmopolitan churches such as the Christ is the Answer Ministries, a Pentecostal church that was started by Canadian missionaries in 1918 in Nairobi, has been led in the last twenty years (2002-2021) by men from the Luo ethnic group. Despite these patterns of continuity in perpetuating certain ethnic ideologies, I am convinced that the Church in Kenya has the best shot as bringing about a change in ethnic identity. This is for two reasons: first, the Church is, especially in urban areas, a space where new communities are formed and many of those communities are multiethnic. When there is a critical mass of such community building, ethnic identity will no longer be the primary organizing factor in social relationships. Second, many weddings still take place in church and as more and more interethnic marriages take place the church will be an important space to demonstrate a changed social reality regarding ethnicity. Many younger people (those under 30 years of age) are not all too wedded to the idea of ethnic identity especially if they are exposed to a more multiethnic social context compared to their parents’ generation.

Christine Chalifoux: Juliani asserts that “Kenyan youth mostly recognize two tribes–the rich and the poor,” (15) a claim that foreshadows the lyrics in his music criticizing corrupt politicians. Yet, the campaigns to improve communities described in chapter 4 suggest that he embraces a neoliberal vision for the youth. Throughout the ethnography, you convincingly stress that Juliani’s music focuses on Christianity in this material world, rather than heaven and the afterlife, but there seems to be some contradictions in his vision of political economy. Does Juliani have a clear vision for a more egalitarian economy, and if so, what does it look like for him? Do you think Juliani’s faith and music have the potential for more radical forms of politics?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: For Juliani, society is not fully free until everyone has a chance to follow through with their dreams. He believes that such freedom does not come from political benevolence but that it must be constructed and demanded by the electorate. Making the right choices at the ballot box and holding leaders accountable is an important step towards achieving the kind of society Kenyans need. Juliani is also clear that no one will be given free stuff and each one has to work for the things he/she has. He believes that the youth have an opportunity to change their circumstances through honest hard work supported by the right economic and political structures. This belief is what propelled his song and movement he termed “Kama Si Sisi (if not us)” which is about the youth taking on leadership and owning property today (not tomorrow, as is the common idea that youth are leaders of tomorrow). This kind of hope is not far-fetched because, as I show in my other book on East African Hip Hop, many of the businesses revolving around popular music within East Africa were run and owned by young people. The kind of politics that Juliani espouses through his music (the politics of radical faith) has not quite caught on among many Kenyans because of the enduring assumption that politics and faith are like water and oil, they do not mix. It will take a few more years of consistently breaking such assumptions and norms to get the masses to see the value of using faith to engage with the politics of the day. But given the culture of deceit corruption and outright mudslinging, it is difficult for a Christian to be engaged in fruitful politics in Kenya today. As they say, culture will eat strategy for lunch. Unless the political culture changes to accommodate people of Christian faith, there still will be spaces where Christians will feel like outsiders in politics.

Ruben Enrique Campos III takes the page 99 test

Destiny again. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. It had to be page 99.

Upon entering, I immediately saw why the place was called legendary. It oozed underground Hip Hop. Graffiti covered every wall. In the past, there had been a waist-high mural that wrapped around the bar featuring skeletons in fluffy rat costumes. Now most of it was covered over in aerosol paint, paint pen, postal stickers, and permanent ink throwies. The above-waist, mirrored walls were now covered over in tattered black plastic tarp, which was itself covered over in white mop paint pen tags. The tile floor was thick with dried beer and tracked-in road grime. Google Maps had not been wrong. The place had been permanently closed; but it was still quite active that night. A crew of two dozen men and a few women sat drinking beer, listening to the Chicano music of my youth. Most of the audience seemed to be in their late 30s. Their clothes were baggier than Heticko’s which was a sign of his relative youth at 25 and the changing trends of a scene. Most wore tan Dickies pants and either a plain white cotton tee-shirt, a tan khaki shirt, or a black one with La Sociedad Café printed in Old-English style font. Most wore thick löc-style sunglasses. The darkly lit scene could have passed as a sepia-toned photograph save for the glints of the deep red and thickly lined lipsticks of the women, and then there was the pop and lock dancer wearing the royal blue tracksuit and white gloves. Two beautifully maintained, chrome laden lowrider bicycles sat on the stage. Tomás, the owner of TT Caps arrived after me. He sat at the bar to chat with El Bombay’s owner. Both were in their late 50s and had invested in Hip Hop as more than a fad years prior. They had both given the youth culture space to flourish, but now had to watch as their business dried up.

My dissertation explores life in desmadre, or the overwhelming, noisy chaos that continually changes underfoot in the streets of the metropolitan valley surrounding Mexico City, the largest urban landscape within North America. I chronicle the experiences of contemporary rap artists as they move through the city, creating a Hip Hop scene in looped interconnectedness. And while my work is attuned to the Voice of these artists, it’s always grounded by my relationship to the streets and by that feeling of destiny I feel when I’m in the wrong place and the right time, when I encounter everything I need to be Hip Hop, to be ethnography. After weeks of futile attempts to find a Hip Hop scene by safe and traditional means, I found Bombay in a moment wondering aimlessly and dangerously down a dark alley in Tepito, a barrio born into its bad reputation. Following that moment, dedication and destiny launched me across the entire valley from La Paz, Iztapalapa and La Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl to Tacubaya, Colina Del Sur, and el Reclusorio Norte, all to find Hip Hop.

Ultimately, I find that by practicing their poetry and their breath control rappers learn to render the aural sensorium and echo the city itself through their bodies—from the noises of its mass transit to the acoustic registers of its ambulant vendors; from the sounds of familiar language games, poetics, and popular culture to appropriated Nahuatl vocabulary and place names. By learning to navigate through the city, flowing against its conservative logic for their own artistic and cultural purposes, rappers come to embody a difficult to explain yet deeply felt awareness of desmadre. Rather than seeing chaos as a source of frustration (to state control), as inefficient (to capitalist profit), or as unnecessary imperilment (to fearful citizens of the general public), rappers find direction and purpose in creativity and community. By engaging with others in desmadre they recognize their place, authenticate their experience, and overcome anonymity through the choral voice, hearing their own subjectivity echoed back and affirmed by others who have travelled a different route. …And so do anthropologists.

It had to be page 99. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. Desmadre again.

Ruben Enrique Campos III.  2020. Word To Desmadre: Hip Hop, Voice, and the Rhythm Of Chaos In México. University of Hawai’i, Phd.