Hip Hop Saved My Life. Panama Saved Hip Hop
When I was younger, my parents wouldn’t allow us to listen to rap music. Rap was the thing of thugs, gangsters, and women of questionable morals, they thought. They would remind us often that they had not sacrificed everything so that their children can debase themselves by listening to a genre so crude. Like most Haitian parents, they wanted their kids to grow up to become doctors and engineers, poets or painters. However, I was always somewhere in the middle: a scientist, but social. An artist, but political. A lover of words and wordsmiths alike, the appearance of ease in which hip hop spoke of the complexity of an entire people captured my imagination.
With one ear to the door listening for the sound of keys, my little brother and I would quietly listen to hip hop music on the radio when our parents weren’t home. We were thrilled and scandalized by 16 bars of poetry in motion that left us contemplating and debating the lyrics long before the song had ended. Back then, the local radio station, Power 96, would have rap battles where listeners could call in and freestyle a rap over a beat. The winner each night would advance and compete against past winners. When mix CD became popular in high school, I’d hand my list to the kid at school who burned CD’s with the obligatory $5 with all the fanfare of a spy handing over the secret nuclear codes. These lists were precious to me, and the CDs even moreso.
One evening, my father found my stash of CDs and destroyed all of them. Each and every one. Despite that crushing setback, my siblings and I grew up to become complete audiophiles. Discerning and eclectic in our musical tastes, we are the types to turn the lights down low to listen to a new album from start to finish, stopping to replay certain parts over and over. We text each other excitedly when we discover a new artists worthy of being downloaded onto our carefully curated iPod playlists. We quote Tupac and Dostoevsky in the same sentence. Thus, the current state of mainstream rap music has pained and embarrassed us at times (although we were avid enthusiasts of the “crunk” phase brought on by Lil Jon, refuse to ever renounce Uncle Luke, and do partake in occasional ratchet-ery).
There was a time when rap music was critiqued for reflecting the misogyny and violence all too familiar to followers of NWA. Nowadays, however, I have more street cred than most rappers on TV. It often feel as if mainstream rap songs have devolved into four-minute ads for European designers and liquor brands with nonsensical lyrics (what is "Panda" about?!) and guest appearances by next season's cast of Love and Hip Hop. Now, you must seek out real artists that weave a story over a beat to capture the imagination of the listener. Thus, when I found out that a hip hop dance battle was taking place here in Panama City, I was excited to attend and get back to one of the things that first drew me to hip hop music: the sense of community.
I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into the King of Style dance battle in Teatro Amador, but I was taken aback by what I saw: The place was packed from floor to ceiling with battle dancers and fans. The young crowd was truly diverse with people of all ages, races, genders, and sexual orientation. Dreamers, social outcasts, models, and marketing gurus alike filled the room. A panel of judges, seasoned battle dancers themselves, would pick a winner amongst competing teams of 2 after each round. As the night progressed, there was nothing but happiness and friendly competition in the air. People danced off in the circle during intermissions as the DJ spun, the audience held their breath whenever a contestant broke out a new move, and everyone was smiling and coming together to just have a good time. That night in Panama, so far away from the streets of New York that birthed hip hop music, I got to experience hip hop in its purist form. It reminded me of how KRS - One once said, "Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live." After the final 2 teams battled it out on the dancefloor, the crowd went wild when the winner was announced.
I wanted to share the experience with you through the photos and video that I took that night here with you: