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Photo: Trent Johnson

A Day in the Life with Simone Eccleston, the Kennedy Center’s Director of Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music

When you think of hip-hop venues in DC, it’s probably fair to say that the Kennedy Center isn’t the first that comes to mind – but perhaps this sentiment is beginning to shift. In recent years, the nationally renowned institution has made exceptionally large steps toward taking hip-hop more seriously as a conduit for culture, including several festivals and concerts featuring performances by legendary stalwart Nas and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar. In 2016, A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip became the Kennedy Center’s first artistic director for hip hop culture, and less than a year later, the center announced the appointment of Simone Eccleston as its first-ever director of hip hop culture and contemporary music.

Since then, Eccleston has worked with Q-Tip and other members of the center’s hip hop culture council, which includes an impressive amount of star power and influence such as Questlove, LL Cool J, Big Boi, Common, MC Lyte and a score of others. Though Eccleston’s name may not evoke the same kind of awe from hip-hop heads as Q-Tip or Common, this doesn’t diminish her impact. Since taking on the mantle of director in this brand-new initiative, there’s undoubtedly been an uptick in programming investigating the cultural impacts of hip-hop, from workshops to film screenings and other intersectional events in-between. To learn more about her inaugural position at the helm of hip-hop culture, we spoke to Eccleston about her affinity for hip-hop, her ongoing mission and what she’s learned in the role.

On Tap: What are your earliest memories of hip-hop?
Simone Eccleston: The first song that I remember knowing word for word was LL cool J’s “Around The Way Girl.” I was age 10 at that point. There was something about the energy of the song and the video. It was fun and had an unapologetic New York vibe. I loved the way that it celebrated independent women and reminded me of women in my neighborhood. At 12, I heard Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s T.R.O.Y. and my whole world changed. It was so honest, vulnerable and familiar. I connected with it immediately. It’s still one of my favorite songs.

OT: Are there other artists who stuck out to you in your formative years?
SE: The artists that really helped me fall in love with hip-hop and see myself reflected early on were MC Lyte and Queen Latifah. They were both strong women with powerful lyrics. Their self-possession was inspiring. I remember seeing them and aspiring to be a woman of strength.


Five Things Simone Can’t Live Without
Prayer
Family
Purpose
Live music
A great DJ


OT: If you could’ve told that 10-year-old girl in the Bronx listening to LL Cool J, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte that in the future you’d be on the phone with these people, what would she have said?
SE: My 10-year-old self would bust out with The Running Man [Laughs]. I will say this: not necessarily when I was 10, but when I was 16 [to] 25 through now, there was a part of me that always knew I would be working in service of the culture. I knew my life’s work and purpose would be tied to celebrating the genius of people of color.

OT: Did you ever think you’d be in a role like this, focusing on the culture of hip-hop?
SE: I remember when [the Kennedy Center] announced their commitment to hip-hop culture as a program in 2016, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I want to be there.”  Who would have thought I would be the inaugural director, working with Q-Tip and our incredible council? They’re an incredible community that is so committed to being of service to the culture. They reflect the very best of who we are.

OT: Is it ever surreal for you to be working with some of the people you credit with your love of the genre?
SE: Yes, it can be surreal. But more than surreal, it’s incredibly humbling and gratifying. Being able to partner and collaborate with them to do this work is a gift and a blessing, and I don’t take it for granted. To be able to partner with someone like Q-Tip, who has deeply inspired my love of hip-hop and [A] Tribe [Called Quest] as a group – he’s such a visionary. He’s someone who’s so committed to ensuring that it’s never about him. It’s about the culture. You’ll never really see him trying to insert himself in particular ways. Instead, he’s like, “Use me so that way we can create space for others.”

OT: Why has hip-hop resonated with you in such a profound way, to the point that you’d dedicate at least this part of your career to it?
SE: There isn’t a place where hip-hop isn’t. Part of [the Kennedy Center’s] charge as an institution is not only to celebrate the tenets of the culture, but its intersections. You think about how hip-hop has informed fashion and film – it’s in practically all media content. Our role as an institution is to be able to create a space for all of that to be seen. Even if you think you don’t have a connection, you’re connected. Hip-hop not only shapes culture, it creates culture.


Five Work Must-Haves
Our incredible Hip Hop Council
A White board + time to ideate
My pod
A great soundtrack
Music + culture podcasts


OT: Why do you think it was so important for the Kennedy Center to make such a large commitment to hip-hop?
SE: When you think about America’s art forms and when you think about hip-hop as a culture – not just about the music – I think that adds nuance, complexity and dynamism. It’s one mode of our ability to tell our stories and make ourselves visible. I think it was a platform for us to resist, even if the resistance was just us saying, “Hey, I’m here.” Historically, when you think about how we’ve been marginalized and the dismantling of our communities, hip-hop was a form of resistance. It was an opportunity to declare our presence amidst a society that was trying to erase us.

OT: That being said, how have you approached the integration of hip-hop into the Kennedy Center’s programming?
SE: Part of the impetus for us here is a celebration of hip-hop culture. For us, it’s about celebrating the genius of the culture and the genius of the communities that created it. This is about a centering of community and in ensuring that in this space, known as the nation’s performing arts center, we are truly reflective of the nation. You think about jazz being one of our greatest ambassadors, but hip-hop is equal if not greater when you think about the way it provides space on a national, [even] global level. You can see it when you go to different communities across the globe. People are using it as an opportunity to provide voice and visibility for themselves, but also to resist.

OT: How have things grown at the Kennedy Center over the past two years?
SE: At every show, there’s always a handful of people that come up and say, “Thank you.” [They’re] people who had never come to the Kennedy Center that now do. The institutional commitment to hip-hop culture as an anchor program came in 2016, but that wasn’t without years of groundwork being laid. What I’m seeing is clearly a growth in programming, but [also] a presence across the institution. You’ll have intersections with our special events. You’ll have intersections with our education department. You’ll see all of these different ways in which hip-hop is continuing to undergird, imprint and transform the work of the institution.

OT: What are some things you’ve learned that you didn’t expect?
SE: Just the lesson that transformation takes time. None of us will truly know the real results of our work until 10 or 20 years after it’s done. It’s about being patient and understanding the work isn’t about us. It’s about the people we’re trying to serve and the change we’re trying to make. We’re here and we have an ambitious goal of being a 21st-century performing arts organization. It’s teaching us the ways we need to evolve our work and our processes in accordance with that. It’s a formidable challenge, but I think we’re up to the task.

For more about the Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music programming, visit www.kenney-center.org/calendar/series/HHC.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Jati Lindsay

HERstory Presents a Love Letter to Women in Hip-Hop

The culture of hip-hop has made it difficult for women to be respected the same way male artists are with its vulgar and misogynistic lyrics. Playwright Goldie E. Patrick’s “HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop” paints a picture of struggles women in the industry have experienced over time, while celebrating the legacies and trailblazers that have contributed to hip-hop culture. 

As the audience walked in and found their seats, a DJ played classic tracks, which brought people to their feet. WPGC 95.5 radio host Poet also walked around and asked the audience what hip-hop album or song made them fall in love with the genre. 

After seeing the production in its entirety, it’s easy to understand why that question was important. The atmosphere with classic hip-hop tracks playing brought people to their feet and set the stage for what the audience was going to learn. While a fun performance, it sparked an ongoing conversation on how the genre has positively and negatively connected people in various ways.

The production, performed on June 14-15, at the Kennedy Center pulls its inspiration from Common’s 1994 song “I use to Love H.E.R.” The narrative portrays hip-hop as a woman named H.E.R. who is in the hospital and in critical condition. The audience is introduced to four characters who all have some connection to the music, but through very different lenses. 

“HERstory” begins prologue by Ya girl, KK, played by Heather Gibson, who “spills the tea” on her social media about H.E.R. being in critical condition. As a former gossip columnist, Gibson’s character serves as a sort of female version of Perez Hilton. Her opening prologue proves how gossip on social media can negatively impact the public’s misconceptions on the personal lives of an artist, and how the media pits female artists against each other. 

Later on the audience is introduced to the four characters; Maxine, a die-hard fan; Eve, a passionate graduate student who has been in contact with H.E.R.; Lele, a music producer who’s worked with H.E.R.; and Isys, a former performer that has been H.E.R.’S life for some time.

The whole cast is successful on shedding light on issues, while still depicting the positive impact hip-hop culture has on female artists. Eve, played by Billie Krishawn, portrays an outsider and the youngest character. Unlike the other three, she is not in the industry, so all she knows is information filtered through the media or through her studies as a grad student. As the youngest and most optimistic character, through her the audience is reminded of how and why they first fell in love with the genre.

For more on playwright Goldie E. Patrick, visit www.goldiepatrick.com.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

www.kennedy-center.org

Hip-Hop Dancer Comfort Fedoke Comes to Kennedy Center

Comfort Fedoke realizes that in order to grow and gain skills in anything you aim to do, you have to start where you are. The Emmy Award-winning dancer didn’t start out as the superstar we have seen her become since her TV debut on So You Think You Can Dance. Fedoke was drawn to dance after suffering an injury while running track and field. For her, it started with the electric slide, a super popular line dance that’s social, group-focused and fun for dancers of all levels – much like the Dizzy Feet Foundation’s National Dance Day.

This Saturday, dancers of all skill levels and abilities will gather at the Kennedy Center to celebrate dance by learning choreography, watching incredible performances and participating in various dance-related events. In honor of this nationally recognized holiday, we spoke to Fedoke about her dance career, working as a choreographer for the one-and-only Missy Elliott and what’s she’s most excited about for National Dance Day.

On Tap: National Dance Day is all about celebrating the art of dance, encouraging Americans to dance and making it accessible to all kinds of people of all ages. What made you get involved with this event?
Comfort Fedoke:
It’s so important [to have] a place and a platform for all types of dancers. Dance is a universal language and I just have to be involved with it because dance is my life. I always say, “Movement is my communication, so watch and get to know me.” I really wanted to make sure that National Dance Day could be celebrated by everyone and we can all communicate through dance and movement. I have to participate in it as much as I can, to just make sure that dance is being put on that platform. [As dancers,] we get put in the background so many times, so to actually be put in the front and be able to celebrate [dance] through movement is just beautiful.

OT: What inspired you to dance and how did you get started?
CF
It was just something in my body. My mom dances. She’s a really, really incredible dancer. My dad also – he has his random drops and claps and stuff. I think it’s innately in our family, so rhythm was just something that was destined [for me]. It turned into a hobby and then it turned into a career. I couldn’t dance at first. I could do the electric slide that my mama taught me and that was all I needed. But I got hurt because I used to run track and field. Dance was just another passion, another outlet that felt like a competitive sport. I didn’t really think of dance as a sport then, but in my head it was so competitive so I was able to gravitate to dance competitively. I just loved the rush and the feeling of freestyling and battling. After that, [my inspiration came from] learning from and wanting to dance with artists that I love to listen to all time like Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Missy Elliot who were dancing as well as singing and performing. That was so incredible [to me] that they were dance artists.

OT: I know it’s every dancer’s dream to work with Missy Elliott, so that must be amazing.What has been your favorite experience working with her?
CF: When I first got with Missy, that was the start of everything. As dancers, some of our first steps of wanting to become a dancer is because we want to dance with an artist or on Broadway. Whatever the case may be, it’s always with someone else – it’s never on your own. As dancers, we can brand ourselves. If you’re a dancer in Los Angeles, your goal is to dance with an artist. Coming from a freestyle space, I wanted something with more movement. When Missy Elliott came in 2012 and said, “Hey, I’m coming back and we’re looking for dancers,” I went to the audition. The audition was for Get Ur Freak On, which is one of my favorite songs and videos, and the biggest surprise –which still drives me crazy to this day – is that I was the only one she picked from Los Angeles out of the entire [group]. 

OT: Wow, that’s a huge honor!
CF:
Yeah, it was crazy! Since then, I’ve been working with her and going around the world. She trusts in my movement and she asks me to help create the choreography so I’ve been able to have my hands on a lot of the choreography at a lot of points. I’m from Nigeria, so when we did WTF (Where They From), she saw me doing a lot of my Nigerian moves and was like, “Oh my gosh! Where’s that from?” and I was like, “Oh from Naija” and she was like “Whaaat? We gotta put this in the music video!”So it was cool to be able to put some Naija moves like “Shoki” on the map. My Naija fam was like, “Ohhhhh!” [when they saw the video]. I feel like that beginning point was my greatest highlight with Missy. From there, it was just history.

OT: So let’s get back to National Dance Day. Why do you think it’s a good idea for people to participate and what are you looking forward to most about it?
CF: I think you should just ask yourself “Why not?” It was established by Nigel Lythgoe in 2010, and it’s recognized by Congress. It’s actually a day, you know? It’s just one of those days when everyone can share – there’s no color lines, there’s no anything. I’m just looking forward to being able to be onstage at the Kennedy Center and looking out into the audience and saying, “Look how many individuals are out here for one reason and one reason only: to elevate themselves through movement and dance.” It’s also good because dance is important for the human body – mentally and physically. The more you dance, the more you move. My good friend Courtney Galiano [now Courtney Platt] has MS [Multiple Sclerosis], and she is a fighter. She has an MS walk where she actually dances and moves and tells people to not let that bring them down. Dance does that for so many people in so many different ways. That’s why National Dance Day can involve anybody through any health issues.

OT: I love that. I was watching the combo video and I appreciate that you guys make it accessible to people that don’t have a full range of movement. That definitely ties into the idea of making National Dance Day accessible to everyone.
CF:
Absolutely. People that can’t walk and aren’t mobile can create hand tuts. You can still dance with your hands and create different tut lines and stuff like that. Bollywood [has] all the different lotuses and the hand movements they create are beautiful. That’s still movement and it’s still elevating you in a different way. National Dance Day just speaks to everyone.

OT:  Do you have any advice for people that may be participating in National Dance Day for the first time?
CF: It’s extremely easy to participate. Mandy Moore created the choreography, and she made it so you can do it your own way. She takes some of the moves and she also gives you a little bit of a platform to showcase [your dance] with the hashtag #dancemademedoit. It’s something people can share with friends and not feel alienated. It’s just something they’re trying to get everyone to participate in and really show that each individual community can do it and not feel insecure. Not everyone is an incredible dancer, but if you’re moving with some type of rhythm, or if you can do a two-step and take at least one of those moves and turn it into the entire dance, then you can do something. You’re a dancer now. It’s something that really anyone can enjoy.

OT: Here’s one last question that I’d like to throw in for fun. What’s a question that you wish that I’d asked you?
CF: Hmmm. Maybe “What’s my favorite dance movie?”

OT: Okay, what’s your favorite dance movie?
CF: It’s The Goofy Movie, which is kind of a ridiculous answer.

OT: Well, they had some moves. I can see that.
CF: Yo…Powerline?

OT: A.k.a. Michael Jackson
CF: He was going in. I found out it was choreographed and played by Anthony Thomas, who is my favorite choreographer now. He did all of Rhythm Nation. I freaking love that movie. It’s like my go-to movie and when I was a kid, I tried to learn that choreography. Plus it had a perfect cast!

Catch Comfort Fedoke leading the official National Dance Day routine this Saturday, July 28 at the Kennedy Center. For a full list of National Dance Day events, click here. This event is open to the public and free to attend; no tickets required.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F Street, NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org