Hip-hop collective offers support and encourages creativity
By Rita Felciano
On a late August afternoon, Los Angeles’ heat pushes down on you like a heavy blanket; you don’t want to move or even take a deep breath. It’s also quite warm inside the air-conditioned MacArthur Park Recreation Center, in L.A.’s Rampart neighborhood, but no gauge will measure this temperature. This is heat generated by the focus, passion, and sense of experimentation of some three dozen young men—and a few women—who are dancing at the top of their abilities.
They are members of J.U.i.C.E. (Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy), an arts and performance collective that encourages leadership, individual growth, and technical skills through hip-hop arts: breakdancing, legal graffiti painting, deejaying, emceeing/spoken word, and music recording.
Accomplishments are often acknowledged with a handshake or pat, and the atmosphere is one of mutual support rather than competition.
“Hip-hop,” explains J.U.i.C.E. board president Eric Nishimoto, “is what most young people in densely populated, poor urban neighborhoods grow up with. So this program is something they already know; it allows them to explore deep-seated talents.” J.U.i.C.E. was designed to serve disadvantaged urban youth, but everyone is welcome, and everyone is considered an artist.
J.U.i.C.E. was born when Dawn Smith-Camacho, now an Atlanta resident, volunteered at L.A.’s Juvenile Hall while working for the Department of Cultural Affairs. There she helped facilitate a theater program “open only to minors incarcerated on charges of the most serious crimes—murder or attempted murder,” she says. “The shows we created had a depth unmatched in any traditional theater I had seen. Those young people had such wisdom and creativity. They were clever, imaginative, and had leadership skill, and yet these qualities also were coupled with real vulnerability. They were too old and too young at the same time.”
What, she asked them, would have helped them avoid turning to crime and what might help their younger siblings and friends avoid similar situations? Without exception, they told Smith-Camacho that while Los Angeles has many programs for young people, the participants have to pay for them, or dress in a certain way, or have specific grades—all of which excluded them. What they needed was a place where they were safe, and where they could be themselves.
In 2001, J.U.i.C.E. became that place. Smith-Camacho, founder and vice president, enlisted a hip-hop radio station DJ as president of the nonprofit’s board of directors. The two of them, with the help of many friends, organized a fundraiser that launched the project.
Nowadays J.U.i.C.E. opens its doors in the MacArthur Recreation Center every Saturday from noon to 4pm, to all comers, free of charge. On this day in August, the dancers either work alone or within informal circles, where they take turns stepping into the center to finesse their moves. Accomplishments are often acknowledged with a handshake or pat. Some dancers are more technically proficient than others, but the atmosphere is one of mutual support rather than competition.
“They grow and learn together and develop friendships and camaraderie,” says artistic director Marcus Napuri. He found J.U.i.C.E. 11 years ago, when the rave environment he had been part of no longer satisfied him. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but breakdancing proved to be what he needed.
Participants typically stay engaged in the program for around four years “and then move on to whatever life throws at them,” Napuri says. While most are in their early 20s, “the youngest we have had was 3, and we also had an 80-year-old man who just wanted to dance.”
J.U.i.C.E.’s primary goal is self-empowerment and encouraging social change; however, many participants transition into professional dance careers. Both Napuri and Nishimoto remember artists who were at J.U.i.C.E. when they joined and who now make their living in the hip-hop field. Some periodically return to refresh themselves in the supportive, non-competitive environment—so different from the commercial world in which they work. Some also want to give back, and they can do so at J.U.i.C.E. even if they didn’t start out there. Last September, for instance, Harry “Full Out” Weston, a member of the L.A. group Versa-Style, who is passionate about working with at-risk youth, and former J.U.i.C.E. member Gilyon Wiley Brace-Wessel (aka “Bboy Guillotine”), who danced in the movie Battle of the Year, offered free workshops.
In September 2012, the fifth J.U.i.C.E. Hip Hop Dance Festival, the organization’s yearly fundraiser, included a special program, “Each One, Teach One.” Organized by hip-hop artist and event producer Emiko Sugiyama, 16 teenage artists or groups were offered professional development opportunities, for which they had to commit to 15 weeks of mentoring by various professionals. The dancers learned about choreography and stage presentation as well as marketing and event production.
“For many of them, this was the first time they shared a stage with professionals,” Nishimoto says. “It changed their lives.”
In the big, airy MacArthur studio space, the Saturday afternoon J.U.i.C.E. dancers twist, turn, spin on their heads or their elbows, and freeze in pretzel-like positions. Some of the moves—a moonwalk, a windmill, a robot—may look familiar, but these dancers are developing individualized movement languages.
Joshua “Kenzo” Aldrete, the DJ facilitator, is a quiet presence in the room. He exchanges a few words with one dancer, gives another one a hug, a third a handshake. He is there with a Band-Aid when someone chafes a knee, and he offers a suggestion to a young woman in a crouch who is struggling to get her leg curled around her standing foot.
The learning that happens in the J.U.i.C.E program comes from participating and sharing ideas, not through formal teaching. Still, Aldrete says, “if I see somebody who might be new to the art, I might give them some pointers.”
Nishimoto, who learned about J.U.i.C.E. by overhearing a b-girl talking about it, says, “The first two or three times I came, I just watched.”
Looking around the room, Aldrete points out three young men intently observing the action. “They are breakdancers visiting from Japan who came to check us out,” he says. Also present are “a very famous clothing designer and a great graphic artist. They come every once in a while to clear their heads.” Then Aldrete sees a bilingual Spanish-English emcee/spoken-word artist. “I guess he decided that today he wanted to dance.”
Unlike in other programs, J.U.i.C.E. artists are free to choose which aspect of hip-hop—breakdancing, deejaying, graffiti art—they want to pursue at any time. “The only rule we have is that we respect everyone, and we respect this place. Life is tough; jobs are tough. This is a home,” Aldrete says.
Once in a rare while, he needs to talk with someone who has issues or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. “I tell them I understand where they are coming from, but that they may want to think of this place perhaps as a church or their grandmother’s house, which they want to respect,” says Aldrete. “Somewhere else, they might get yelled at. But we treat them with dignity and as the human beings that they are.”
Breakdancing is the largest aspect of J.U.i.C.E.’s activity, but emceeing/spoken-word skill development and music recording are also integral to the program. Nishimoto opens a door to a small, dark space, gloomy looking yet charged with positive energy. Music production facilitator Leon Lustre has the expertise and the professional-quality equipment to help poets produce commercial-grade demos. At this moment, surrounded by fellow spoken-word artists, a young man is recording a long poem in hip-hop’s highly rhythmic language. Nishimoto closes the door quietly.
In 2004, when Aldrete walked into J.U.i.C.E., it was because he felt lost. “I was teaching elementary school and wondering where I was going with my [visual] art,” he says. Today he facilitates the weekly jam sessions and also mentors DJs. He expects the DJ working this Saturday afternoon to become a professional soon. “He is very good; there is little I have to tell him,” Aldrete says. “He is musical, with a good rhythmic sense, and he can read the room. You must be able to sense the atmosphere and adjust your deejaying to it.”
Aldrete started out at J.U.i.C.E. working on graffiti, the most controversial aspect of hip-hop culture, since it has become identified with tagging and illegal spraying. Napuri says he understands the public’s reaction, but he also knows graffiti is integral to the lives of these young people who need to speak through the art. So J.U.i.C.E. offers opportunities to create legal, socially sanctioned graffiti, such as murals in the community.
In the MacArthur lobby, half a dozen artists are sitting around a table. They and visual arts facilitator Hakan Smith are designing a poster for the upcoming J.U.i.C.E. Hip Hop Dance Festival. An hour later, they are outside, attaching a large canvas to a wall. Once in a while someone adds a dab of paint here, lengthens a line there. Mostly, the artists look at what they have accomplished so far. The vitality of the work’s layered colors and shapes jumps out. This graffiti is already dancing.
By late afternoon, Nishimoto, who had manned the reception desk with another volunteer, has finished his day’s work of giving back. As the L.A. sun streams through the lobby’s open doors, he starts to dance. Slowly, carefully, all by himself.