A breakdancing phoenix: B-Girl Be rises from the ashes

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B-Girl Be is back.

“It’s the phoenix rising from the ashes,” said B-Girl Be co-founder Melisa Rivière. Rivière, the head of Emetrece Productions and an anthropology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, is one of the original founders of B-Girl Be, the summit that stands as one of the few places in the world that not only defiantly makes claims for an expanded role of women in hip-hop, but also for a radically different image of hip-hop itself and what it can accomplish socially.

While the first B-Girl Be was held in 2005, its roots extend back into the history of Twin Cities hip-hop. It began as the Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Evolution concert series in 1999, organized by Jamaica Del Mar, Desdamona, Toki Wright, and Larry Lucio. These were monthly concerts featuring performers from all over the Twin Cities. One show per year had an all-female lineup and it turned out to be their most popular show. Soon, they had four all-female shows per year, with workshops in between, which morphed ultimately into the first B-Girl Be Summit in 2005. This first event was founded by Desdamona, hip-hop scholar and filmmaker Rachel Ramist, Deanna Cummings, Leah Nelson, Melisa Rivière, and Intermedia Arts executive director Theresa Sweetland.

read justin schell on the 2007 b-girl be

One of the means of making B-Girl Be happen again at Intermedia Arts, its home since its inception, was some unexpected funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. This funding had to be used in 2009 for B-Girl Be or it would disappear. While Rivière said it was not enough to match the scale of its first three incarnations, it has allowed B-Girl Be to happen once again. Moreover, it has brought out participants’ and supporters’ dedication in ways that surprised even the organizers.

“It’s amazing how people have come forward. People are really putting their minimal resources in the bucket,” she says. “We’re really seeing the community reach out and come together, even if they don’t have all the resources.”

This year there are also new participants in the organization of B-Girl Be, although they’re all familiar faces to the B-Girl Be community. In addition to the continued presence of Desdamona, Sweetland, and Rivière, Michele Spaise and Amy Sackett have taken over the job of organizing the visual and dance components of the event, respectively, and Shannon Blowtorch will organize DJs.

Spaise, co-curating the visual exhibition with Theresa Sweetland, was an assistant to the curator of the first B-Girl Be exhibitions, DeAnna Cummings, and is an accomplished photographer herself. The dance portions of B-Girl Be will be led by Amy Sackett, a well-known Twin Cities dancer and b-girl who is a member of The Collective, a group of b-boys and b-girls that perform and teach the entire range of hip-hop dance around the Twin Cities. For Sackett, her participation in B-Girl Be encompassed the best days of the entire year.

“People walk away from it on a high,” she said. “It carries you and inspires you.”

The organizers for this year have planned an ambitious series of events, slated to happen between mid-August and mid-October. From August 11-14, a series of “Summer Camps” for girls will be held, in conjunction with Project Girl. Led by Desdamona and visual artist Katrina Knudson, the camps will allow young women from the ages of 10-18 to explore and express through words, images, and music their thoughts about the world around them and their place within it.

There will be two main visual art components to B-Girl Be this year, one inside the building, and one on the building itself. “Mama Said Knock You Out!” is the theme for this year’s visual art exhibition, curated by Spaise and Intermedia Executive Director Theresa Sweetland. With an opening reception on August 28, the exhibition is scheduled to run until October 23. It will draw artists from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and philosophies, to show how women in hip-hop are not a new presence, but have been there since its South Bronx beginnings.

The other component, one of best-known aspects of B-Girl Be, is the complete repainting of the Intermedia Arts building by graffiti and aerosol artists from around the world. This activity will be part of the B-Girl Be Block Party, held on Saturday, September 19. The all-day event will feature performances, workshops, and discussions that normally were held as part of a multi-day festival.

“We’re keeping the concept, but trying to compress it into a one-day block party,” Rivière said.

The Block Party will happen in the midst of four dance performances, curated by Amy Sackett, which will happen from September 17 through September 20. In addition to the four curated performances, Saturday night’s performance will feature a special “Cipher Show.”

“I want to showcase all the forms of women in dance and hip-hop,” Sackett told me. “People that dance in the club, people that break, people that do choreography.”

All of these events tackle the vexed relationship between emphasizing a more progressive place for women in hip-hop, but also not limiting their presence to the equally demeaning category of “she’s good…for a woman.”

As Detroit MC Invincible notes with forceful eloquence in “Looongawaited, “I wanna be
one of the best MCs period / Not just one of the best with breasts and a period.”

“We all know the reality of women in hip-hop, because we live it,” Desdamona said. “I don’t necessarily identify as ‘female MC,’ I want to be accepted just as an ‘MC.’ But there are lots of things that don’t allow that.” She says that one of B-Girl Be’s goals is to “create some more solidarity between everyone,” making it more than “just about me, about my turn.”

While much of B-Girl Be’s emphasis is dedicated to combatting the all-too-often
degrading images of women that populate so many rap videos, Rivière believes that just “rejecting the existence of that isn’t going to further our conversation.” What really needs to happen, she says, is “teaching other options and alternatives.”

“Those images that keep getting pumped and pumped and pumped, we need something to counteract that,” Spaise said.

In the end, however, this year’s B-Girl Be is about much more than just women. “It’s not about girls anymore,” Rivière says forcefully. “It’s about hip-hop, about really, really good hip-hop.”

“We’re not just making room for women in hip-hop,” Desdamona agrees. “We’re changing hip-hop.”

Justin Schell (612to651@gmail.com) is a freelance writer and grad student in Minneapolis, working on a book and documentary about immigrant, refugee, and diasporic hip-hop here in the Twin Cities. For more on the project, see 612to651.com.

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