Leaders of the New School: Local Hip-Hop Figures Offer Alternatives to Gangs, Drugs

The ground: an unavoidable, unforgiving medium in the art of breakdancing. It bruises and cuts a dancer’s hands. Experience forms callouses.

So, when world-renowned Hollywood-hired and San Jose-bred breaker Raymond “NastyRay” Mora set out to photograph some of the world’s top breakdancers (B-boys), he focused on their hands.

The resulting gallery—titled “10Plus,” because it focuses only on those who claim a decade or more on the scene—shows dancers holding their palms up to the camera, as in a motion to stop. A reception and Q&A session with Mora about the 10-picture display takes place Friday evening at Suhreal Store in San Jose, a precursor to an actual breakdancing competition sponsored by the after-school community group Future Arts Now that takes place Saturday night at Edenvale Community Center.

The photos feature dancers who have influenced breakdance internationally, including Jay Rawk, Poe One and Wicket.

“The exhibition shows the hands as a metaphor for the longevity and discipline,” says Bobbi Vie, 29, a San Jose dancer and co-founder of Future Arts Now with with South Bay rapper Demone Carter. “You’ll also see on display framed pieces of all the materials you dance on–linoleum, cardboard, cement, carpet.”

Carter, 34, says the next-night dance-off rewards the musical element of breaking, not just the acrobatic.

“We want to put the focus back on the actual dance,” he says. “It’s still improvisational, the guys and girls are putting together a vocabulary of movement on the spot, but they need to do it with the proper footwork, to keep in time to the rhythm instead of giving us a series of the flashiest or daring gymnastics moves.”

The gallery and contest are part of a larger effort, led by Carter and Vie, to promote hip-hop, street art, rap, spoken word and dance among San Jose’s youth. The idea is to promote enough creative outlets that teens avoid drugs, drinking or gangs. Future Arts Now partners with creatives like Mora to give kids young-enough-to-not-be-lame role models.

“It’s the cool uncle effect,” says Carter, a successful underground rapper—stage name Dem One—since the early 90s. “Our approach isn’t to tell kids, ‘Don’t be in a gang,’ it’s more like, ‘Hey, come here, do the dancing, do the art, hang out with people who aren’t too much older than you, but old enough that they could be positive role models. It shows them that there’s a way to be cool that doesn’t involve you drinking, smoking, being in gangs … If you’re a real rapper, a real breakdancer, you don’t have time for that.”

When Carter entered San Jose’s after-school scene about a decade ago, there wasn’t much else but an open gym for at-risk teens. Little concerted structure, just city-run community centers or school-led anti-drug lectures that told teens what not to do rather than presenting options to better occupy their time.

“When we got into youth services we saw a lot of these programs weren’t giving kids an outlet, just telling them what not to do,” says Carter, a father of three and husband to a public school teacher. “What do they do then? That’s been the founding principle of most of our programs: Giving kids something positive, creative, interesting to occupy their time.”

Fed up with his day job in banking and stuck in a creative rut after so many years in the music scene—and lacking enough commercial success to make a full-time living, Carter founded Hip Hop 360 to channel his own art as a teaching tool. Funded by city and state grants, he taught youngsters how to write, how to rap and how to perform.

A couple years ago, the grant money ran out, so Carter changed tracks, establishing with Vie a more all-inclusive arts education organization: Future Arts Now. It’s a for-profit outfit with working contracts at several South Bay campuses and an arrangement with the city of San Jose to use the Edenvale Community Center for office space and practice space.

As social media became more ubiquitous, Carter noticed students expanding their interests beyond rap and into other aspects of hip-hop culture. Students began asking him about graphic design, making T-shirts, dance, drums and video production. Future Arts has grown up to accommodate those interests for more than 250 students in San Jose.

Still in the Game
“As the city’s been wrestling with what to do with youth violence and how to prevent it, Demone’s come up with a model that speaks to today’s youth, which maybe some of these other folks [in academia and local government] are just learning,” says Raj Jayadev, head of community youth group Silicon Valley De-Bug. “Sometimes someone comes along with an idea that really just answers the moment, and that’s what Demone’s done. The city always went back to the same ideas, open gym or basketball, which is cool, but what Demone does is he brings in well-known, well-respected, currently practicing artists and connects them with our youth. He makes them accessible and it becomes this inter-generational relationship. Kids have genuine respect for it because they’re people practicing their craft.”

Carter still practices his craft, too. While his hip-hop act dovetailed with the after-school community organizing, his latest album, The New Math, is on iTunes and people can keep up with his latest projects through his Life After Hip-Hop blog.

“That’s really a key piece of what we do, is to stay active in the scene,” Carter says. “A lot of kids still have this respect for us, because we’re still part of hip hop, because we’re still in touch. Everyone who’s a teacher remains active in creating their own music, their own beats, in dancing, in doing whatever it is they’re doing. That’s what these youth want to see.”

Art Exhibit
WHAT: #10Plus: A Collision of Dance and Photography
WHEN: 7:10-10:10pm Friday
WHERE: Suhreal Store, 401 E. Taylor St., Suite 110, San Jose
INFO: Bobbi Vie, 408.915.8155

Dance Competition
WHAT: 1nfamous 2013 “Just You and the Dance” Breakdancing Competition
WHEN: 8pm-12am Saturday
WHERE: Edenvale Community Center, 330 Branham Lane East, San Jose
COST: $10 presale, $12 at the door
INFO: Bobbi Vie, 408.915.8155

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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