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PhD student explores hip hop culture through fashion and dance

sowetoskeletonmovers
sowetoskeletonmovers

Written by
Rosie Higham-stainton
Published date
14 November 2016

Meet Kami Anderson, LCF PhD student, exploring hip hop as performance, drawing on the LA and east London scenes and how style becomes an inherent part of a dancer’s identity. She is the first researcher to receive a new London College of Fashion and Sadler’s Wells Joint PhD Funding Award. The partner organisations, soon to be neighbours in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park when LCF moves to the site in 2022, will support researchers who want to engage with both dance and fashion, and in some way east London.

Here, Kami tells LCF News how she came to do a PhD, how ReQuest Dance Crew and Kanye West are breaking new ground, and how student funding can help people interested in becoming better researchers.

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Soweto Skeleton Movers (performing at Breakin’ Convention) by Paul Hampartsoumian, courtesy of Sadler’s Wells

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from and what you were doing before you went about applying for the PhD?

I’m Kamaira, also known as Kami, and I’m from Birmingham. I came to HE as a mature student after working with children and young people for quite some time. I studied Sociology and Psychology thinking that it could be applied to just about anything afterwards. I was right, the course really changed my perspective on life and taught me to question everything around me.

Social science gave me a solid base, but when I graduated in 2011 I had no real idea of what to do next. I went looking for a creative outlet. That’s when I began volunteering at my local theatre. The design coordinator took me under his wing and taught me how to achieve some fantastic scenery with little to no budget. In my head I saw a potential research project. There were no ‘how-to’ guides for designers like me who hadn’t gone to art school, so I decided to create one in the form of an MA thesis.

My PhD proposal sort of grew out of that work, but I’ve become more and more interested in the people at the heart of the performance and not just the scenery. That’s the good thing about research, you can explore pretty much anything you like.

Your project looks at contemporary hip hop troupes and compares them to the historical chorus line. Do you have a background in dance? Are you a dancer?

I have absolutely no background in dance, but I can move. I suppose I’m more of a social dancer, but aren’t we all?

I’ve always been fascinated by dancers, even as a child. A school friend of mine was a competitive dancer and I found the competitions and shows really compelling. I just never had the urge to dance myself so I would participate by spectating. As I got older I started to look more at the way they dressed and tried to copy the look. I realise now that style is an inherent part of a dancer’s identity and that’s what I want to explore through this research.

Before, or when, researching your proposal did you discover contemporary dance troupes that are really breaking ground and doing something new?

Social media has played a big part in this. A pivotal point was a couple of years back, when I saw a video of ReQuest dance crew- part of the larger collective The Royal Family- dancing to Beyonce’s ‘7/11’. Their style of dance really galvanised things for me. That’s when I made the connection between contemporary hip hop troupes and the more traditional chorus line.

ReQuest recently danced with Rihanna at the MTV VMAs, but are widely known for featuring in Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ video, which has amassed over a billion views on YouTube.

East London’s IMD Legion have achieved some great things in a short period, appearing on TV shows like Britain’s Got Talent and Got to Dance and have represented the UK in international competitions. Their ‘20 Types of Dancers’ video is hilarious. I can totally relate, even as a non-dancer. But that’s what I love about dance families like these, the charisma and the humour, which is usually incorporated into the choreography.

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Who, within popular culture, uses hip hop to explore cultural identity in an interesting way?

Love him or hate him, Kanye West sure is trying. His Yeezy shows are unconventional and its more performance art, like Marina Abramović-type stuff, than your average catwalk presentation. Despite all the backlash and racial politics in the media, he’s very passionate about exploring the intersections of hip hop and fashion. I thought his ‘Fade’ video was quite clever. Teyana Taylor became an internet sensation overnight thanks to a good hook and her killer (dancing) body.

Rick Owens uses dance troupes in his fashion shows. Will your research explore the role of clothing and fashion? If so, how?

Yes. The SS14 Rick Owens show in Paris was another significant moment for my research actually. Again, raw and unconventional. I loved that he used different body types in the show and tried to subvert this ideal of perfection and beauty that we’re so used to seeing.

My thesis uses clothing as a lens to explore how identity is performed through dress at an individual level and in social interaction. I’m particularly interested in the significance of streetwear in the “curation” of identities within hip hop dance culture.

What excites you about doing a PhD?

Firstly, I get to people-watch, legitimately! I love meeting new people, especially those who are super passionate about their craft. This PhD allows me to observe an art form that I truly love, and engage with it in ways that I probably wouldn’t have before.

“I’m really invested in this because hip hop is my own cultural heritage and I want to learn as much as I possibly can about it.”

Secondly, the PhD community at LCF, and UAL as a whole, is very inspiring. I’ve met some great people so far, from all disciplines and I can’t wait to see how their projects evolve over time.

Into the Hoods, by Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of Sadler's Wells

Into the Hoods, by Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of Sadler’s Wells

How can universities make PhDs more accessible and less intimidating?

I think funding is probably the biggest barrier to PhD study at the moment, so studentships and grants, bursaries are really important. Student loans for PhD programmes have been confirmed for 2018-19 apparently, so maybe more people will apply for them. But the term ‘PhD’ itself is quite daunting.

I think PhDs need to be pitched as what they actually are, research degrees. A degree programme that teaches you how to be a better researcher, if that’s what you’re interested in doing as a career, whether in academia or industry.

Why do you think partnerships like the one between Sadler’s Wells and LCF, are important?

I think collaborations like this are really beneficial to student researchers because both partners bring different skills and resources to the studentship, which can help to enhance a person’s profile. Long lasting links can be made between universities and external partners and industry that pioneers future thinking to help to find new approaches to problem-solving.