Every battle is a story. It starts with a swagger, builds power through dramatic tension, and closes with an exclamation point — a statement that the warrior is done, for now.
In the world of competitive break-dancing, the story’s told in 45 to 90 seconds. One night last weekend, 84 dancers organized into two-person crews sweated out their stories at the Cirque Events Center. Before them, 24 others competed in the street-dance technique known as poppin’, demonstrating their prowess in the rapid, robotic moves of that style.
The Mighty Four International B-Boy/B-Girl Competition (the "B" stands for "break") was the culminating event in the sixth-anniversary celebration of 206 Zulu, the Seattle chapter of the international hip-hop organization Universal Zulu Nation. The competitors were multi-racial, female and male. They battled for respect and for money: $500 in the poppin’ contest and $2,000 in the two-on-two.
Universal Zulu Nation was established by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa in the mid-1970s as a means of bringing together oppressed peoples, particularly of African ancestry. Its outreach today is worldwide and multiethnic, and its mission is to empower youth through a practice of hip-hop and to create positive change in communities through knowledge and education. Zulu Nation members break-dance, deejay, emcee, write graffiti, and educate, write, and mobilize people to support community development and political uplift through and around hip-hop.
The Seattle chapter formed in 2004. “The significance of having a Seattle chapter was that it was able to help unify different camps and crews,” says deejay and community organizer King Khazm, who leads 206 Zulu.
Seattle’s hip-hop community is small but highly diverse. Participants practice, perform, and teach hip-hop’s arts at a variety of venues including community centers, churches, schools, and all-ages and 21-and-over clubs. Often, participants would work alone and not interact with the larger community. “People started to see the importance of collectivity and being able to support each other on a larger level,” says Khazm. “It was just something that was needed, not just for the hip-hop community but for the youth who need something positive to go towards.”
The chapter now supports a radio show, a variety of educational events, and shows featuring hip-hop’s core elements: b-boying and b-girling, deejaying, emceeing, and graffiti writing. Its anniversary celebration included a hip-hop education summit for youth, a live graffiti writing expo, deejay and musical performances, and tributes to hip-hop heroes, including James “TalkSick” Sullivan, a 206 Zulu member who died in October after contracting swine flu and pneumonia. Attendees ranged from toddlers scribbling Crayola ink onto butcher block paper to 60-year-olds feeling hip-hop’s positive vibe for the first time.
Love and peace may contradict more popular perceptions of hip-hop focused on commercial rap music that glorifies consumerism, hyper-sexualizes women, and advocates violence. Zulu’s goal is to counteract that form of hip-hop. Many of Seattle’s current hip-hop community leaders grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, and recall break-dancing after school at Westlake Center, writing graffiti in empty spaces, and rapping at the Pike Place Market. Many were inner-city youth who found in hip-hop an escape from potential trouble and a mission for their life.
One b-boy — Marcus Sharpe, who goes by Fidget — for instance studied salsa, tango and a variety of other dances at Ewajo Dance Centre in the Central Area before embracing hip-hop at age 12. He and two other teens founded their b-boy crew, Fraggle Rock, at age 15, and now operate a record label, video production company, entertainment company, and clothing line. Three of Seattle's approximately half-dozen competitive b-girls — Anna Beth Nagy (Naj), Colleen Ross (Bean), and Mary Lee Nagy (Lee) — are among the crew’s seven Seattle members. Naj and Bean have competed in international competitions and Naj now travels regularly with the crew to national competitions.
“I turned to b-boying after I’d tried out every other dance,” says Fidget, “all in an effort to find myself.”
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