Robert Battle, the Creative Director at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, breaks down “This Is America,” and how it relates to black masculinity.
Dance plays a powerful role in the African American community—telling stories of black pain turned to joy at the drop of a beat, even when social issues seem unchanging. Whether doing the “Electric Slide” at any given family function or a worship dance at church, black people always find the means to dance.
Childish Gambino’s look at the U.S. in his video, “This is America,” is an example of the role dance can take within the black community. The video created a forum for endless conversations about his unexplained use of contemporary symbolism and historical references. “This is America” is currently the number one song and arguably one of the most talked about culture moments of 2018.
The Sherrie Silver choreographed video features a background full of mentions of police brutality, school, and church shootings. Amidst this, Gambino is in the center taking up space as he expresses his black masculinity through movement. Gambino bounces between responding to the traumatizing details of both his past and present, while tapping into dance to move past them. The video features a combination of familiar black American dances like the “Nae Nae”, the “Shoot,” and the “Reverse” mixed with the “Gwara Gwara” from South Africa.
While dance is a creative form of self-expression, society has placed limitations on how black masculinity should be expressed through movement. Dance is identified as something fluid and feminine, the exact opposite of the terms identified as black masculinity: brash, hypersexual, and aggressive. The notion of black men dancing and taking up space is often left out of cultural conversations.
Okayplayer recently caught up with Robert Battle, Artistic Director of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He spoke to us about defining masculinity in movement, Childish Gambino’s use of dance in his “This is America” music video, and taking up space as a black man.
Okayplayer: How do you define masculinity in a movement?
Robert Battle: Well I can say that in some ways it’s interesting because it’s a kind of juxtaposition in terms of the way people think of dance. You know they think of it as feminine to be blunt. So as someone who has had to battle with that as a kid dancing, my thoughts are sort of mixed around that because of my own experiences of being picked on because of dancing as a man or as a male person dancing. But when you look at that juxtaposition, I mean I think that is very powerful actually because dance has a certain vulnerability, that is often not associated with maleness. I think when you see quote on quote masculinity in dance you are reminded of the complexities of the perception of a man using his body to express whatever emotions or whatever sense of joy or sadness. I think there is something courageous about that inherently, because of how it’s viewed—because it has always been complicated in a way.
OKP: I think that’s a two-part question, how would you define black masculinity?
RB: I think again it’s a complicated thing because black masculinity is something that is different based on who you are asking. Black masculinity is both fear and love. When I think about it, it’s not just one thing. Like the notion of black masculinity when you think about hip-hop. The notion of black masculinity when you think of someone who is gay, and in hip-hop. Where is the definition of black masculinity there? I do think it is so much about perception and so little about the actual individual. You have to claim it yourself and then walk in it, whatever it means to you. Rather than being told that this is what is expected of a black man. It’s almost like you are always fighting against the narrow image of what it means to be a black man. So we see that more now, I feel that people are claiming their individuality within that construct, which I think is brilliant and speaks to the power of the “This is America” video.
OKP: How do you think dance helps to defy what society thinks it means for black men to take up space?
RB: When I think about Alvin Ailey and his use of dance as a weapon for change, as a way to express the beauty of the black body and certainly the male body, you know that for me personally when I hear the term taking up space, I think often one can feel like a menace, like when you walk around people, people look at you with certain expectations. When you step into an elevator and people clutch their purse. You experience that stuff all of the time. What I found and I’m sure what a lot of other folks have found is you start to minimize yourself, if you are tall and have an imposing figure, but also if you are looked at as the problem, one learns how to sort of be invisible so that people aren’t afraid of you—taking up whatever space you’re taking up. I find that what dance does is it ask you to be expansive. The notion of being a wonderful dancer really is about taking up huge amounts of space. So in the very nature of dancing and moving all parts of your body in the space, it asks you to be courageous, it asks you to claim your name and claim your space.
OKP: What do you think the main function of dance is?
RB: You are telling stories about your survival as a human being. What says more about the testimony of being life, of being relieved of stress? I think it’s found inherently in dance.
OKP: So going into Childish Gambino’s work, what were some of your takeaways from the “This is America” video?
RB: Wow, you know, my first impression was this is courageous because my assistant first showed it to me and I didn’t know why she was showing me. Like other people, I initially thought that this is a great beat. I get where we are going. And then all of a sudden they took it there… that first gunshot and as shocking as it was I think it also made me feel good, because so often people look to hip-hop for fun. They forget that it comes from the disenfranchised, that it was about reclaiming your drums in a way. It was wonderful to see how he attached that kind of meaning to it, in terms of the matters of the day. In terms of social justice, in terms of really sort of digging down deep, and I’m glad that it shocked people who otherwise were just looking for fun. I think that’s important, he understood that.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been doing that for 60 years—using dance as a weapon for change. I think about Rennie Harris, who works for the company and some of his works have been about police brutality, about different issues of the day, and using the juxtaposition of those things. I also thought about what he’s saying in that video. We don’t like to say this, but violence is a part of human nature as well. And so to put these two things next to each other that seemingly don’t belong, like the church choir singing praise and then being gunned down in the next breath, well that’s the world in which we live in, and so I think until people stop being shocked and stop saying things like, ‘Well I can’t believe that,’ [and believe] then we’ll always be in a state of flux.
I’m looking for believers. We say that now when we look at the current state of affairs in our political climate, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Well, history tells us, not only can you believe it, but that it is possible, because until you believe there will be no action because you are walking around in disbelief that these terrible things can happen. So I felt like he pulled you into a certain narrative and then sort of punched you in the gut with the truth. This was really quite brilliant and reminded me of some of the tenants of modern dance and some of the important works that we do as a company. It may not be as viral as some of the things in pop culture, but it is certainly as necessary.
OKP: What were some of the similarities that you saw between the work that you do at The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and what Childish Gambino put out, where he has himself dancing in the center of all of these things going on around him?
RB: I mean we dance all over the world with so many things happening all over the world, that we dance in spite of those things. We’ve made a career out of dancing in spite of or because of. So this notion as an artist being surrounded by these world issues that affect you, but dancing in spite of that or because of it is a world in which we are used to living. So that’s the one element, the other element really is using dance as a weapon for change, using dance to shine a light on humanity, and to celebrate our common humanity. But sometimes having to show not only the fun side but the dark side are you fully realizing what it means to be human, that’s the only way that change happens.
So that’s what we try to do in our work. We have a brilliant work by a brother Kyle Abraham did about mass incarceration and it’s titled “Untitled America”. Even the titles “Untitled America” and “This is America,” we make these kinds of statements all the time. That, to me, is the importance of art. Art to me can bring people together and get people talking who would otherwise not talk to each other about the complexities of these issues, so that’s why I appreciated that video so much. I hope that people understand that this is the kind of work that goes on at Alvin Ailey and get themselves to a theatre.
I also thought that it’s really great at the end when he is running and being chased. Who is chasing him we don’t know? Is it the artist being chased, because he is there, to tell the truth? You know that’s a powerful idea, it’s not always the person, the people seemingly doing the chasing isn’t always who we think it is. I think that is a very important statement. It can sometimes be the simpler ship, it can sometimes be your own community saying how dare you to put that out there, it can be lots of things, so I think that statement alone is a very important one that we have to have the courage to tell the truth even though we might get gunned down or chased or whatever it is, but the power of speaking the truth is lasting.
Priscilla Ward is a celebrated writer whose work has been featured in Essence, Salon and is also the creator of #BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting about bell hooks, sandwiches and art shows @MacaroniFRO.