This interview is the first in a series focused on the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program, highlighting each of the 2022 grant recipients and their projects over the course of the 2022 grant project year. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Congratulations to you and your team, Junious! First, tell us about your organization, Urban Artistry.
Urban Artistry, Inc. (UA) is an internationally recognized non-profit organization dedicated to the performance and preservation of art forms inspired by the urban experience. UA focuses on urban dance forms born in Black and Brown urban communities, including Breakin’, House, Hip Hop, Popping/Boogaloo, and Locking, among others. Serving as cultural ambassadors for communities that are often unsung, UA fulfills its mission through collaborations that support artists’ past, present, and future.
I founded Urban Artistry, Inc., in 2005 in the Washington, DC metro area to focus on the authentic preservation of Urban Dance culture. Recognizing the absence of comprehensive and consistent education in these cultural forms, I reached out beyond the boundaries of a genre of dance, past solipsistic communities of practice, and pulled together artists of all ages to learn how to pass on these cultural traditions responsibly. The idea was, “what if dedication to cultural preservation, reciprocity, and entrepreneurship could foster a community of artists who share a global and intergenerational perspective on creativity and art broadly?”
One way that UA does this is through acknowledging the importance of archiving; making accessible the voices of dance communities, as both author and audience of its preservation, through multiple avenues of programming since its inception. Notably, The Preservatory, established in 2013, archives and shares the voices of the global urban dance community through interviews with dancers, DJs, MCs, club owners, music producers, and music lovers.
So, tell us about your project…
Sure thing! Our project is Follow the Music: Exploring the Multi-Linear Legacies of House Culture, or FTM for short. FTM is an initiative to expand upon the common narratives and document a wider range of the community voices that define the multi-linear legacies of House Music and Dance Cultures (HMDC).
As specific HMDCs moved from underground and localized venues to mainstream globalized events (e.g., international battles and workshops), the intricacies of each community of practice have been overshadowed. Battles, demonstrations of dance movement mastery and musicality, that once served as one aspect of HMDC, have become HMDC’s most recognizable visual representation in popular culture and media.
Frankly, generalized phrases such as “The House community” do not embody the actual complex and distinctive scenes that exist in so many U.S. cities where HMDC have localized traditions, such as: particular rites of passage; level of guidance or participation from elders; musical subgenres; and locus of practice. One community may host battles; another might teach classes in a studio; another might cypher (host a dance circle) in a club; and another community might do all of the above, and any of them may be in conflict or harmony at various points throughout the city’s history. Importantly, the daily work of community building is present in so many dance communities: the trust built into practices; the tenderly held vulnerability of marginalized communities within; capturing voices of wisdom and losing elders; the bread broken after clubbing all night; the strategies used to transform conflict; the strength of enduring encouragement; artistic growth acknowledged over the years; the embrace of each person through different phases of life; stories of life on the road, visiting, and revisiting communities of practice. These narratives of collaboration that HMDC communities build are at risk of remaining untold without support.
In order to sustain the entirety of HMDC, we must shift from the tunnel vision created by a dominant narrative of individual excellence, and expand our vision to make room for multiple narratives built through HMDC. UA has already carefully documented the development of HMDC in the DMV region, but if we do not take care to support communities to document their own cultures, then the products of our culture may take precedence over the processes by which we sustain them. We at UA feel that a participant-led examination of the process of community building is the next necessary step in self-determination, solidarity, and sustainability.
That’s a great way of summing up the mission of the grant program as a whole. What’s also fascinating is that the project is multi-sited, with documentation activities taking place in cities across the U.S. How are you and your team approaching what I imagine will be a rather dynamic and fluid process?
It is definitely dynamic, let’s just hope that the process is fluid as well! No seriously, the planned cultural documentation activities for this project will serve HMDC communities in Washington, DC, Baltimore, MD, Chicago, IL, Detroit, MI, New York City, NY, and Oakland, CA alongside primary partners. I started dancing to house music in the mid-1980s, and my curiosity for the music and the love for the people who surrounded me, has kept me engaged, globally ever since! And of course, UA members have already established their own networks of House Heads, Club Kids, choreographers, DJs, producers, club owners, and promoters, among others. The FTM project team’s methods will start with the relationships we have already established. From there, we will survey those initial close contacts for other potential participants, confirm their willingness to be a part of the project, and conduct oral history interviews both virtually and in-person. The primary partners we have already spoken to have not only committed to working together with us on this endeavor, but also to communicating with others in their city’s scenes (even people within HMDC communities in conflict with one another) in order to document responsibly.
You see, I can’t think of one person who doesn’t have a story to tell. As much as I love being a Folklorist, I also want people to be able to tell their stories on their own terms, in ways that are agreeable to them. So using a UA method that we call The Collaborators Code, as well as principles like shared stewardship, is our effort to help people share who they are, and why they are a part of and work to sustain house music culture.
Much of the documentation generated in the project will be safeguarded by both Urban Artistry and the AFC, eventually being made available on the Library website. Why is this important, and what are lasting impacts of this work?
For some reason, as I’m thinking about my answer, the weight of responsibility really begins to sink in, giving me serious goosebumps! I have a long list of reasons why safeguarding FTM with UA & AFC is so important but if I can keep my answer short: I think of all of the house music venues I loved whose doors are shuttered, the people who lost small fortunes being in service to their communities, the DJ’s who helped us remember who we are, as well as all of those dancefloor icons HIV took from us …and I want their names to live in perpetuity. With this project, the ancestors and our elders (known and unknown) have a platform to continue to educate and inspire. It’s more than important; its necessary. The lasting impacts are if nothing else, healing.
So powerfully said. As the 2023 round of Community Collections Grants applications is now open, do you have any advice for those interested in applying?
My advice to anyone who is interested in applying in 2023 is to simply be inspired by the people, the collaborators who make the project and subsequent archival collection possible. Start the planning with care and relationship building in mind. Focus on process and not outcomes, or style..
Thank you, Junious – best of luck to you and your team!
You can read more about Junious Brickhouse and Urban Artistry here. And check out the 2023 Community Collections Grants application webpage here (deadline: August 1, 2022). Stay tuned for more interviews with the 2022 grants recipients in the coming months!