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Out of Innocence

This is a guest post by Farah Damji

“The sense of movement is primarily encapsulated in a sensibility of a larger canvas. The unbeaten philosophical principle that out of innocence and mendacity one can become the message has a seductive power…”

~ John Locke Professor of Legal Studies, University of Nantes

Two weeks ago, a video was doing the rounds on Facebook.  I saw it,  scrolling down my news feed. There it was again.  One posting was by a  Facebook friend, who had shared it via David Dorrell, the legendary 80s DJ / promoter.  The other,  a  chick-lit author,  bit-part actress who became famous because she blogged about her affair with  one of the world’s modern musical maestros’ strange peccadilloes posted it. I couldn’t imagine two more disparate women. Interest piqued, I checked it out.

After the video did the Facebook circuit for a couple of days ,  it was picked up by a west London blogger / poet,  Tristan Hazell whose blog was then   mentioned in a dispatch about Turf Feinz, by Huffington Post  . Here is his response to the dance 

The initial frames of the  original YouTube  video depict 2 young black men on a street corner in an urban metropolis. A police car sweeps by and stops. What now, a random shake-down by San Fran’s finest? No, the car moves on and the “danse sous la pluie” begins.  My heart clenched for a beat or two, was this the precursor to some horrible portrayal of gangland violence and  mayhem? A shooting or a knifing, some other ritual of passage into gang culture? But then the music started and it was melodic, dripping piano and guitar strums and thrilling chords. In gorgeously choreographed movements, that use the street furniture and  passing cars as partners / props, these boys express death and poetry through a mixture of classical ballet positions to  moves straight from Michael Jackson, the godfather of the dance floor. Think Alvin Ailey on  the  street on  MDMH.

Turf Feinz is a group of black American gang members from Oakland, near San Francisco with no professional dance training.  They organise “dance-offs”  and create a safe space to engage rival gangs in their turf wars, and to promote  turf dancing.

What if Simon Cowell caught wind of this as a vehicle to harness the brave raw talent  which  exposes itself here, over and over again.  The world is tired of the X Factory, I can’t bear any more cynical offloads of Wagners, failed forty-something  performers looking for a second wind,and Cheryl Cole look-alikes. There’s only so much space in my heart for schmaltz.  Turf Feinz dancers  mine into the vocabulary of dance and street, drawing from ancient African culture, which relies on dance as an expression of emotion at just about every social occasion, from birth right through to death ceremonies. These videos are produced by YAK Films, owned and run by Yoram Savion. Only 25 years old, he has dedicated his talent to bringing Turf Feinz’ important work in campaigning against gun and knife crime through film and as an instructor in Media Literacy and Production Instructor at an Oakland non-profit organization called  Youth UpRising, which organizes programs for youth leadership and development.

Each member of Turf Feinz has  a set of moves specific to himself, in the same way a graffiti artist might have a tag and each contributes something to the performance. A lot of it is mime, such as the shooting at the end or the crucifixion at the beginning but somehow, these kids ( aged between seventeen and twenty-three) have managed to cross cultural boundaries  and create a space beyond language and geography   in which they can express their anger and frustration about losing friends and family to knife and gun crime. Through this collective they have touched a global nerve and defied our preconceptions about who we think they are. For too long , society has demonised the young black male making him into the anti hero of contemporary folk lore with no place in modern culture unless he is a parody of himself. Hiphop and Gangsta rap are not about empowerment or  furthering the social needs of  ghettoized communities. Society has failed this sector of society for far too long  and they have drawn an elegant  line in the sand  en pointe, across which they dare us to cross, and enter a world of their understanding, a world they have created. 

Whilst the dance can be seen as simply “throwing shapes” it addresses a very real social problem: knife and gun crime has increased exponentially in the UK and already this year, 16 teenagers have been killed, and that is just in London, in spite of endless government interventions to try and address the problem.  Proportionately,  seven times more black people go to prison than four times as many per population in the US.   Prison sentences are much tougher,  attracting  increased automatic tariffs since March 2008,  and still,  someone loses a child , every week, to knife crime in the UK .  Alarmingly, the number of juveniles receiving immediate custodial sentences has increased, quarter upon quarter, ( see page  5 of previous M o J report) In London alone there are two serious gang related wounding assaults which often result in murder. Every week.  But where is the mainstream media in this? Perhaps we have become immune to the horror of death, perhaps we don’t care, black on black violence has been going on forever and doesn’t really affect our social cocoon.

But it does. We don’t have a clear picture of how serious the issue is, when gang members as young as ten are out patrolling the streets protecting their “turf”  from up to 170 rival gangs. Everyone from Cherie Booth (chairman of  The Street Weapons Commission Report 2008) to multi-agency reports by churches, Youth for Justice commissions and teachers who are often frontline witnesses,  have not yet come up with a comprehensive solution to the problem or its underlying societal factors which cause  fear and anger and inevitably  lead to violence. Fashion, marketing, consumer culture and social pressure reinforce the stereotypes, school to prison has become the norm, rather than the exception. 

Turf Feinz and other Turf dance collectives have taken back   control   by shattering the  widely believed myth that all black men are engaged in violence  and criminality and through poetry in motion, they have found a way of expressing their power and also their grief

Their  initial video  went viral and now tops 1.4 million YouTube views.  How empowering it might be, to bring Turf Feinz to the UK, and put them in front of our suited and booted policy wonks  and  police commissioners, to have them interact with their UK inner-city gangland counterparts and dance it out.

We have a lot to learn from these young men.  Until the Huffington Post piece, the phenomenon of Turf dancing has been largely ignored. However, the message  needs to be heard  through the mainstream media in order to bring them here and demonstrate, real and live, in front of not only policy-makers  and prison governors but others affected by gun and knife crime, whether as victims or perpetrators, that there is another solution. The wider  community can come together to support and make real the change that needs to happen.


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