Rennie Harris University Is Empowering Hip-Hop Teachers to “Tell Their Own Stories”
December 7, 2021

When Rennie Harris University (RHU) launched earlier this year, it was a long time coming.

Like, 20 years long: Harris first had the idea for the street dance teacher certification program in early 2000, and it sat on the back burner as Harris prioritized the many other projects on his impressive resumé—from his Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM) company to teaching in academia to mounting his choreography across the country.

“I was almost waiting to see if someone else was going to do it,” he says. “And then I’d let myself off the hook.”

But in 2020, when Harris found himself with more time due to the pandemic, the issues he’d identified many years prior—the lack of thorough teacher-focused education on street dance and the prevalence of watered-down, appropriated versions of street dances being taught by unqualified teachers—still very much existed. He got to work launching the first-of-its-kind program, aimed at giving teachers the tools to confidently bring street dance—real street dance—into classrooms and studios.

Image of acclaimed choreographer Rennie Harris instructing a female hip hop student dancer
Photo by Brian Mengini, Courtesy Harris

It’s difficult to think of someone better suited to lead such a program: Born in North Philadelphia, Harris grew up immersed in street dance, and began performing with a laundry list of hip hop dance and music legends from an early age. With RHPM, he’s long been a pioneer in bringing street dance to the concert stage. He’s similarly bridged the gap between street dance and academia, having taught at universities across the country while continuing to be a pillar of the hip hop community in his native Philadelphia.

In other words, Harris isn’t just an expert in hip hop and its culture, he’s lived it, says Dr. Shamell Bell, who taught an elective class on street dance activism for RHU’s first semester. “He really got me to understand the true history of street dance and hip hop,” she says of her time as Harris’ teaching assistant at UCLA. “It’s different to learn things theoretically, or even to get things passed down through oral tradition, but Rennie lived it.”

Harris will bring this lived knowledge to his virtual lecture class, the centerpiece of the RHU curriculum, which places hip hop in a broader context, interrogating the political, economic and social factors that have contributed to the culture—from the transatlantic slave trade to “how Robert Moses destroyed the South Bronx” and beyond.

The program consists of additional virtual electives—this past semester included classes from Dr. Bell, b-boy YNOT and graffiti artist and scholar Dr. Susie Lundy—as well as three yearly in-person weeklong “cyphers” focusing on movement (the first taking place this winter at University of Colorado, Boulder, where Harris is an artist in residence) where participants will be evaluated to ensure they are on track to earn a certificate. (Assuming participants pass all three assessments, the program takes three semesters to complete.) Participants are also expected to take movement classes throughout the program on their own from a list of approved teachers around the country.

For Angelina Labate, a hip-hop and house teacher, this has meant taking classes from locker Raymond “Spex” Abbiw, b-girl Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, house dancers Sekou Heru and Caleaf Sellers, voguer Jocquese Whitfield and others. Labate, who teaches at Dance Mission Theater and is a teaching artist in the Bay Area, says part of the beauty of the program is that she’s able to implement learnings in her own classroom right away. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I learned that on Monday, so on Wednesday we’re going to talk about it,’” she says. So far, she’s brought lessons from Harris on the history of street dance, from Dr. Bell on street dance activism and “freedom dreaming,” and from Dr. Lundy and b-boy YNOT on graffiti. “It’s had a huge impact immediately, which I didn’t expect,” she says.

Labate says that the program has also helped her feel more confident in the classroom when navigating the complexity of hip-hop culture. For Harris, this is a sign that what he’s doing is working. “Hip hop is so complex,” he says. “Everybody’s story is correct. So how do you present that as a teacher?” He gives the example of “The Smurf,” an old-school dance that originated in Philadelphia, New York City or Chicago, depending on who you ask.

Harris sees this as especially vital for those teachers in the program working in academia, who must repeatedly qualify themselves and the information about hip-hop culture they know to be true. “It’s hard because academia is like, ‘Who said that?’ And the issue is that there’s no one person who’s the hip-hop God,” he says.

Photo by Brian Mengini, Courtesy Harris

In many ways, the program feels like a response to the ways in which, for Harris, academia has fallen short. Though he credits UC Boulder for partnering with RHU, and for having a hip-hop studies certificate program, it took him nearly eight years to get that program underway. Many other schools, he says, just see hip hop as an elective, rather than a serious area of study. Or worse—”They’re hiring the cat who’s doing jazz studio stuff that they call hip hop,” he says. “These kids are getting the wrong information. I want to be a part of helping usher it to academia properly.”

If RHU works as intended, it will be a pipeline for getting knowledgeable teachers into colleges (and dance institutions of all kinds) to correct these wrongs, empowering members of the hip-hop community to “tell our stories before other people tell them for us,” says Dr. Bell. It will also serve to push back against the idea that hip hop “is not really serious,” says Harris, “that it’s not intelligent, but it’s entertaining. People don’t necessarily think of hip hop as something for adults.” Harris has big dreams for RHU: A brick-and-mortar space; more partnerships with universities; big-name scholars and teachers on faculty (he cites Brenda Dixon Gottschild as one high up on his list). His ultimate goal: “To make this the epicenter of African American culture,” he says. “It’s time for us to be a part of navigating our own future for hip hop.”

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