At last year’s Notting Hill Carnival Star Wars Actor, John Boyega was accused of being inappropriate with the way he was dancing with a young woman. He was accused by feminists as being demeaning towards the young woman as he ‘held the whine’. Whining, described as the rotating and thrusting of the pelvic girdle in a rhythmic pattern, is a form of Caribbean dance. This dance, an integral part of Black British music culture, has been sexualised much in the same way as twerking has. While commercial musicians feature the dances in their music videos, there is still a negative connotation associated with both. It is a lack of understanding of black music and dance culture, that leads to this sort of ignorant calling out.
There aren’t many plays tackling the negative stereotypes associated with Black British music and dance. Coral Messam’s Run It Back, a show devised in just two and a half weeks, is just that. The show has been created using the cast’s experiences, as well as clips of carnival and looks at the history of Black British music while dismantling the negative stereotypes associated with it. Working alongside DJ Conrad Kira, and produced by Talawa Theatre Company, Messam has directed a show that creates a rave situation igniting the young black ravers with music and a desire to dance as drama unfolds on the live set. While Kira has worked on many theatre pieces, he told me that, “usually I soundtrack work on plays, but this is the first time I’ve worked as a DJ. Usually I DJ more for press nights but never in a play.”
In Run It Back, the music creates a community that is often forced to stick together and fight against disappearing spaces and changing legislation. But while music can unite, it can also divide. For example, there is debate amongst DJs, dancers and reviewers about whether pulling up or wheeling up a track (i.e. when the DJ stops the music and spins the song back) is unprofessional or not. The roots of rewinding tracks stem back to sound system culture. Sound system culture, which at its peak had sessions in crumbling buildings in west London sits in the centre of Run It Back. Messam describes the influence of this on the piece: “We looked at a lot of sound system and how it became a part of UK history. We looked at the Windrush migrants who brought sound system culture with them via Jamaica. We then looked at the sound systems in present time like Rampage and the physical world of that. Though the piece is not heavily based on this, it’s based on the reclaiming of space and claiming our sounds again and really allowing ourselves to be loud in an authentic way.”
The reclaiming of raves and clubs is definitely a gendered debate; from the taking back of space, to dealing with assault, to the struggles of playing music that has derogatory language towards women. DJ Kira talks about knowing which songs to play: “There may be some songs that are associated with the mandem and assumed that the mandem will want, but there are women that request them. The women want to get down to them as well but when the mandem are going crazy they might not want to dance and feel closed off sometimes.” Having to battle misogyny, homophobia and racism all while trying to claim back the space is just a small part of DJ Kira’s experience that makes its way into the show.
Run It Back is not just a play, it’s an experience and one that takes its audiences with it through people’s experiences, positive and negative, of going clubbing and dancing. “The idea is that we want to bring dance and rave culture to the theatre. It’s not about us making a theatre piece about dance and rave. We want people to be a part of an experience rather than being an audience and watching a show,” elaborates Messam. The ravers take over the space in a disused warehouse, sectioned off by the police to create a visual statement against police presence rather than a narrative one. While the DJ observes the space and plays a mixture of bashment, soca, afrobeats, lovers rock and other music from the African and Caribbean diasporas, the audience is invited in to experience the dance and rave culture rather than just watch it. Perhaps this is the way we need to move in order to dispel negative stereotypes associated with Black British culture and music. Messam and Kira have both been clear that, whilst this is a positive piece on the impact that a space engaging with its history has on Black British young people, it doesn’t deny the negative experiences that some people have. From not knowing how to whine, to navigating a male space as a woman, Run It Back investigates what it’s like to be a young Black British person engaging in the dance and rave scene in the UK.
Run it back is playing Hackney Showroom until August 31. For more information and tickets, see http://www.hackneyshowroom.com/run-it-back/