Kara Zelasko (KZ) is a Cultural Programs Associate at the Meridian International Center.
Introduction: Hi, this is Kara Zelasko, I’m a Cultural Programs Associate at the Meridian International Center. Thank you for joining us for our next podcast in the U.S.-Indonesia Relations series. Today, we are going to be talking about Next Level. Next Level is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State, Meridian International Center, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Its mission is to build global community through hip hop culture. During Next Level’s residency programs, teams of MCs, DJs, hip hop dancers, beatmakers, beatboxers, and graffiti artists travel to different countries around the world to conduct workshops, collaborate with local musicians, and hold demonstrations and performances for diverse audiences. Throughout their programs, the teams of artist-educators and their local partners emphasize artistic excellence and self-expression in addition to cross-cultural exchange, conflict transformation, and entrepreneurship.
In 2016, Next Level held residency programs in Bandung and Jakarta, Indonesia. Joining me today are two artist-educators who participated in these programs: Junious Brickhouse and Haleem “Stringz” Rasul. Junious, the Director of Next Level, is an award-winning urban dance educator, choreographer, community leader, and preservationist, and Stringz is an internationally-recognized hip hop dancer and dance educator from Detroit. Thanks for listening!...
Junious “House” Brickhouse (JB) is the Founder and Executive Director of Urban Artistry Inc., and is an internationally established, award-winning urban dance educator, choreographer, community leader, and cultural preservationist.
Haleem “Stringz” Rasul (HR) is a Detroit-based dancer who has travelled all over the world showcasing his Detroit-style dancing to promote connections between people and communities.
JB (00:19-01:29) Next Level is a cultural diplomacy program funded by Education and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. State Department and administered by Meridian International Center. It’s a program where we take different hip hop disciplines – those include dance, beatmaking, DJing, aerosol art, singing, and beatboxing – and we work with embassies and consulates in different countries to identify people in communities who are interested in learning more about hip hop culture. We are interested in learning about the cultures that they come from and the lenses that they view hip hop from. Some of our lines are, of course, arts education, conflict transformation and entrepreneurship. Today, we’ve been to – I think it’s 31 countries, and yeah. It’s been a good day.
KZ (01:30-01:40) Great. So I think maybe we could speak specifically about Indonesia now. Maybe even speak a bit to the community partners, their mission, and how they influence the exchange.
JB (01:41-4:39) So, for each residency at Next Level we conduct a planning visit, where we will go and spend three to five days in the country, meet the people at the consulate or embassies, and we basically shop it up about what a residency could look like – where we could go, who potential partners could be. We landed in Jakarta – Mark Katz, the founder, and I – and we drove to Bandung to meet with Rumah Cemara. We met with them and immediately we knew that this was our partner; we knew we needed to work with them.
Rumah Cemara is a NGO that works with young people who are HIV/AIDs positive to help them not only realize their value but to support each other in their lives. They do so by providing them [with] music opportunities, ranging from heavy metal music to hip hop, mixed martial arts, soccer or football – just a range of different things. They find ways to communicate with young people and they do so with the goal of remov[ing] the stigma behind people who are HIV positive – they are considered to be drug addicts or to be gay, and people don’t see their humanity, they only see their condition. Their (Rumah Cemara) executive director at the time, Ginan Koesmayadi, was a very inspirational guy that worked really, really hard to reach out to young people and help them through their struggle.
It was really great. I really enjoyed the way that they approached all [of] these sensitive topics with so much honesty – it was just really inspiring for me. Several months later we conducted the actual residency, and went there with “G” Yamazawa, “Gyrefunk,” “Misamerriica,” and Haleem “Stringz” Rasul.
KZ (04:40-04:51) Great. How did Next Level address conflict transformation in Indonesia?
JB (04:52-06:54) The way that we address[ed] conflict was mostly from the perspective that we wanted to blend right in. That’s what they needed – the conflict is that these people are mistreated in their communities because of their illness and they’re stigmatized and put in a hole regardless of what their lifestyles are. So our goal was to conduct our jobs and do what we do without that stigma, meeting them where they’re at, including them in the things they deserve to do, and not making it about whether they’re sick, whether we should touch them or not, if we could get sick – I think that never really came up. We never really thought about it; they were just our students and we just clicked.
The conflict transformation worked differently – we just had to see people’s humanity. We really didn’t have to do anything, just had to let go of any misconceptions that we had, we had to be focused on hip hop, and go in there and teach what we knew how to do. I don’t know if we really had to focus and address a thing per say, I think they were just happy that we treated them with respect and with dignity. Of course there were different conflicts that arose – working in this environment there’s things that come up, sometimes things go wrong, you have situations that you have to try to work out – but for the most part I think that everything went well.
KZ (06:55-07:11) Good. That actually kind of leads up to my next question – I was wondering if you could give a specific example from either the workshop or the final performance that demonstrated the benefits of teaching this kind of conflict transformation? I know you spoke a bit of it on the phone with me.
HR (07:12-08:33) There was one particular incident – and I don’t know if I can remember really it being an incident but it was kind of major though. We definitely had people from different communities there – the LGBT community, trans community – so they were intermixed with practicing Muslims, and sometimes just being in that same environment, working on the same thing very close together – especially looking at dance – could be somewhat engaging, I guess. There were a few of the dancers that wanted to opt out as far as performing the last piece; a couple of the youth came up to me and talked to me about it and I was able to take one of the [inaudible] of the community to the side and give some words, and we were able to actually squash it. Everything worked well, the performance went well.
JB (08:34-11:54) So, in the detail behind that – there were several people who identified as transgender that, for the final performance, wanted to wear women’s clothes, makeup, wigs, and basically dress what most people would call “drag” to do the show. When we said “no” to that, they frankly made it about something that it wasn’t – like, “Oh you’re mistreating us because we’re transgender” – and we were like, “No.” I’ve been dancing my whole life and I’ve never had the dancers tell the choreographer what they’re wearing, and some of the things that they wanted to wear were just inappropriate for the movement that they were doing, with people on the stage and people being beneath them – wearing a dress and a skirt, people see all of your business and that’s a little too much entertainment for an audience.
We wanted to find a happy medium, so we were like, “Look, if you want to wear makeup, if you want to wear wigs, if you want to wear heels, just as long as you can do the choreography we’re fine. But doing floor work and being on the ground in a skirt? Yeah, not really conducive to what we are trying to accomplish.” I was a little bit stuck because everyone was getting along so well, I didn’t know that that would be an issue but we didn’t have a problem with who they identified as. We just didn’t want conservative families to see someone dancing on stage and be able to see up their skirt or dress. If there were young ladies there, we would have told them the same thing.
So, that was the deal. Wear pants and just wear anything else you want, and they did; they wore wigs and put makeup on and they killed it – they did a really great job. They got to be who they wanted to be and present that. There’s a question about whether that was appropriate – whether that was an appropriate venue to make that statement – and I think that’s where the conflict was because a lot of the other dancers, who didn’t actually identify otherwise because they thought that that was too much for their parents to see. They were like, “You know, I got my mom and my dad here to see me do this thing, and we’re doing a drag show. That’s not what we signed up for. It would offend my family if I brought them there.” So we can’t do that, but I think we found a happy medium.
KZ (11:55-11:59) Yeah, I think you kind of reframed the issue as just dancer and choreographer to try and make the solution.
JB (12:00-12:53) Yeah, I’ve never been a part of a show and told the choreographer, “Hang on, I want to wear what I want to,” and that’s not the way that works. The choreography matches the costuming and it’s a theme. We don’t tell women not to wear makeup or how to do their hair, so we didn’t feel like we needed to start a hole with this group of guys. And they were dope man, they were really good, really talented; they showed in that show both their masculine and feminine artistic characters were on point. So, it was a statement about range, and no one can question that they came to win.
KZ (12:54-13:11) Could you maybe speak a bit more about that final performance? Were there any moves or choreography that incorporated both Indonesian and American culture? Or even just different Indonesian cultures?
HR (13:12-14:13) Well, I know we went over some of it during the workshops, so I wanted to gauge what they were bringing to the table already and I was already putting a Detroit flavor on it to be honest. So we were actually able to fuse some things, but I think I wanted to, as a choreographer, stick to the hard core beat going in. The aspects that they wanted to reach were like [inaudible] and stuff – I was never really into that, and then just the Detroit style that I do, and we were able to put it all together. Do you know what I’m saying? And the people that came, that’s what they’re into, they’re into hip hop. There were some really dope beatboys there, like high level, so it was really about having a balance.
KZ (14:14-14:26) So I guess next, do you think you could speak a bit to the transformation of space that Next Level provided for all of the participants in this exchange? We talked a bit about the mirrors on the phone.
JB (14:27-17:56) Yeah, so the Rumah Cemara is right in the center of Bandung, like you can walk past it and miss it. There’s all these shops – these little tiny shops – selling food and little trinkets and there’s this little door, and it’s like a walkway. When you walk into this walkway and get to the end, it opens up and there’s this huge courtyard surrounded by several rooms and offices, a boxing ring and a flat space for mixed martial arts – so it’s like a wrestling mat. It was pretty big, but we had to change and work on it to make it into what we were trying to do with DJing, beatmaking, dancing, and MCing. With the help of the Embassy, we were able to turn the boxing ring into a classroom for the MCs – we had mics hanging, so they had this real battle/warring thing in the boxing ring, spitting bars. It was really nice. We were able to get some cushion – they were operating with like a concrete floor and this antiquated mat, which is pretty normal – but we were able to get some padding and some particle board down there so we could do dance classes. And we were able to get mirrors so the dancers could look into it. We were able to transform the space so it could be a proper dance venue, if they needed it to be. The beatmaking equipment and DJ equipment they did use to start teaching classes with people who were already working.
Rumah Cemara have different offices and chapters all over Indonesia, and what was unique was that they were able to bring them all together – five people in from different parts of Indonesia so that they could work and collaborate together. I gave them a call a little bit ago because we were thinking of possibly going there for a visit, and they’re running fine. Unfortunately, Ginan passed away, but the business is still in order. They just [inaudible] and got back to work and continue to provide their service for people all over Indonesia.
HR (17:57-18:17) I just remember, the front entrance is like the craziest entrance ever. It wasn’t steps to go up to the next level, it’s just a plank. I was like “That’s crazy,” and they were using it too.
KZ (18:18-18:34) Alright, last question I have for you guys. The theme is transformation; can you maybe speak to how your time in Indonesia led to a personal transformation or just a personal takeaway you have from that experience? For either you or the participants that shared something with you.
JB (18:37-20:49) Yeah. First [of all], Indonesia was my first time with Next Level site managing, so for me it meant a lot. I’ve definitely done site management with my company, doing other envoys and so forth, so I kind of know what that’s like. But working in the boundaries with this type of partner, which wasn’t a partner that I knew and had a connection with, was really different. It kind of helped me grow as an operator; balancing these critical issues really helped me mature as a manager, and I’m glad that that was my first residency.
It helped me really take my job seriously; I’ve been known to be kind of serious about this work but that’s because when you have people like Ginan and you see how they work – that was another thing for me. I’d never seen anyone so dedicated and working so hard, and he wasn’t an office guy. He was sitting out there in the chair, drinking coffee and eating with everybody, dancing with them and rapping with them – [doing] everything he could to make them feel welcome. That was an example for me [of] what leadership looks like outside of my organization. At Urban Artistry I’m used to doing what I do, but seeing someone as passionate – even more so than I was – and care about those people, was really inspiring for me. Those are a couple of things, but that was a very, very important trip for me and I’m glad that I was able to meet those people.
HR (20:50-23:32) I would have to say for me – me and Junious met maybe a year or so prior to the Next Level application. We met in Chicago, in the context of thinking we were judging the same battle; I’m seeing him doing the same thing I do. I have a business, we dance, that’s what we do. But I didn’t know the full extent of what he did until I was under him at Next Level. I was looking like, “Wow, this is another level you can go to, if I wanted to do that, if I wanted to pursue [that]” – it just got me thinking.
I know I still have a lot to do – it’s a lot of responsibility, and I’m just watching – but just to know that that is another avenue is just great. I’ve been traveling and being able to be over something, to have this type of responsibility, I think it’s just perfect. By him having that experience – that dance experience – it made it easier for me being there because he knows what the dancers need. It’s not just mirrors and stuff, it’s little details. And I know that the dancers I manage back at home, so it just makes me see things from a different perspective. As far as Indonesia goes, [it’s] a beautiful place. I’ve never been there before prior to that; I’ve been to China – I always wanted to go. I’m a Muslim myself and I know that Indonesia has the most concentrated [population of] Muslims in the world. Just to be able to experience – being in my hotel room and hearing the Call for Prayer go off, being able to do my prayers alongside some of the dancers – was a very powerful experience that I shared there.
KZ (23:33-23:43) That’s great. That’s all I have for you guys, thank you so much for speaking with me and taking this moment to reflect on your time there.