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Opinion: Hip-hop culture has been misunderstood - it's not about misogyny or glorifying crime

As they prepare for the 2021 Top 8 Street Dance Battle, Tobi Omoteso and Deborah O’Connor explain what hip-hop culture means to them.

Tobi Omoteso and Deborah O’Connor

HIP-HOP CULTURE has often been misunderstood and misrepresented with negative connotations, with mainstream media pushing a narrative that doesn’t hold true to the origins of the artform.

You sometimes see hip-hop associated with bad language or misogyny, or glorifying crime, violence, drug use – and sometimes you do see musicians glamorising substance abuse or crime.

But this doesn’t hold true to what hip-hop is at its core, which is a culture built on values of social justice, peace, respect, self-worth, community, and having fun.

Hip-hop was actually created to challenge the status quo and to enable, empower and showcase those groups and individuals that had been cast aside by social elites.

At Top 8 we strive to embody an authentic, healthy, welcoming and nurturing example of what hip-hop culture really is. And hip-hop is a whole culture, with four artistic elements: DJ-ing, MC-ing, breaking (breakdance) and graffiti.

‘There aren’t many places for teenagers’

IMG_0073-3 Source: Damo McCarthy

We’re seeing more and more young people take up this artform. Between dance, graffiti, MCing and DJing, hip-hop culture offers something for everyone, welcoming young people who may not have had many social gatherings to go to that didn’t involve some sort of substance abuse or aggression.

There aren’t many places, or social settings, or gathering for teenagers in Ireland – and these teenagers have energy that they need to expel. It’s better for them to expel this energy with their creativity than expel it negatively.

Something close to our hearts is helping young people by creating a safe place where they can feel seen and heard, regardless of age, cultural background or ethnicity. So we got involved in Top 8 in 2014, coming together to organise hip-hop events.

Tobi grew up in Nigeria and from a young age he was surrounded by an older brother, uncles and cousins who actively lived the hip-hop lifestyle in all kinds of ways. But he really got into the art form himself at the age of 15 in Carlow here in Ireland, after watching the movie You Got Served. He could identify with the struggles highlighted in that movie, and was inspired by how the characters were able to express themselves using Street Dance.

The movie showed how you could channel whatever you were feeling into a movement and let that be used as a healing mechanism. Tobi wanted to know more about what this culture was and how he could use it as a healing mechanism for himself first – and then move onto showing others the artform and its potential.

Deborah started dancing at the age of 7, trying Irish dancing, tap dancing and ballet, but none really ‘stuck’. It was only in her early teenage years she was introduced to hip-hop. Everything about hip-hop culture gave her a sense of belonging – the dance, the music, the clothes.

When she walked into the dance studio the outside world along with any teenage woes no longer existed. In the studio it was happiness, acceptance, freedom, hard work, dedication, discipline all rolled up in one. She believes that hip-hop culture and its values (peace, love, unity and having fun) has helped shape who she is today.

As a young girl she was shy, and hip-hop culture gave her a freedom of expression. We want to empower young people to have that confidence to put themselves out there to authentically express themselves. By doing so realise they are perfect just the way they are.

More than physical benefits

Deborah O'Connor Cropped Deborah O'Connor

Young people might come to one of our Top 8 events for the exercise, but they experience much more than the physical benefits – they grow friendships, confidence, a sense of belonging and acceptance to be exactly who they are.

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Those that authentically live the hip-hop lifestyle are always there to help to share and to nurture. ‘Each one, Teach one’ is a motto that Top 8 lives by. We believe it is our responsibility to spread knowledge for the betterment of our community.

We want to create future leaders, bringing transferrable skills like collaboration and creativity from the Hip-Hop culture into the community, to aid and empower these young people in any area of life they may find themselves.

We’re really motivated to create platforms for people to showcase their talents, like the Top 8 Street Dance Battle. For anyone who doesn’t know what a street dance battle is – individuals, or crews, will be “battling” by dancing one at a time in the middle of the dance floor. After each battle, the event’s judges will declare a winner, who goes on to the next round of the battle. This goes on until there are just two dancers, or two crews, left, at which point there is a final battle and an overall winner of the event is chosen.

But the underlying tone to street dance battle in not about the accolade or bragging rights: it far surpasses those elements. The battle stands as a physical representation of the battles and challenges we face in life and how we can overcome them, as long as one is prepared and confident in one’s skills and ability.

At the end of the day the battle is against oneself.

When this art form was created, the creators were all from marginalised backgrounds who faced many social and economic challenges, so for them a positive way to deal with those challenges is to put it all out in a dance battle. meaning that if they win here, they have the ability to win in ‘real life’.

Most importantly hip-hop is a safe space for us and for everyone. A place to connect with ourselves and with other people that share the same passion and outlook in life. A little-known, warm, welcoming, confidence-boosting, healing, nurturing place where you are accepted for who you are and for where you from and for what you do or do not do, where we can create a better future for ourselves and for those around us.

It literally does mean the world to us and to others alike.

The 2021 Top 8 Street Dance Battle will take place at Dublin’s Sugar Club on Sunday 17 October, also livestreaming on Top 8’s YouTube channel. The event is suitable for all ages and is open to both competitors and those who just wish to enjoy the spectacle. For more information please see Instagram top8streetdancebattle. Top 8 thank the Arts Council, Dance Ireland and Dublin Dance Festival for their support.

About the author:

Tobi Omoteso and Deborah O’Connor

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