‘Discovering the hidden colors’: The ‘awareness process’ of members of theatre and dance company Untold Empowerment

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By Gladys Akom Ankobrey

Abstract: ‘You have to know your African roots to know where you are going’, is a statement that is central to the approach of theater and dance company Untold Empowerment. Youngsters are supported to learn more about the history of Africa, the diaspora and the cultures that emerged amongst the enslaved in the New World, such as the Winti culture in Surinam. Untold’s theater and dance productions are inspired by this ‘Untold Story’. A story that is hardly discussed in school history books in the Netherlands but needs to be told as a means to empower Black youth. Through in-depth interviews and observations during rehearsals as the members prepare for the Obia show, I seek to explore how they interpret the African Heritage ‘awareness process’ which is emphasized in Untold’s vision. I will show that this ranges from cherishing their cultural heritage and physical appearance, to unlocking their full potential as a dancer. Furthermore, it ‘activates’ activism, resulting in participation in protests against the figure of Black Pete. But most of all, it means ‘to discover the hidden colors’.

Introduction

At the time of writing this paper, the Netherlands is in the midst of the controversy concerning the figure of Black Pete or Zwarte Piet, who accompanies Saint Nicholas during the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration in early December. After a UN human rights commission announced it was assessing whether Zwarte Piet is racist, a spate of racist comments was directed to those who dared to criticize the figure. ‘Pro-Black Petes’ stick to the mythical story: Black Pete has to go through the chimney to deliver the gifts. This explains why his face is black. End of story. However, untold in this story is the Dutch past of colonialism and slavery. According to the Black Pete opponents, the figure is based on the stereotypical depiction of Black people in the nineteenth century. During the countless events I have visited in the last two years concerning the legacy of slavery, people frequently expressed frustration about the lack of historical awareness shown by many Dutch citizens as well as the government when it comes to slavery.

In October 2013 I went to a movie night in the No Limit Theater in Amsterdam Southeast, featuring the documentary 500 Years and Later. Filmed in five continents and over 20 countries in the African diaspora, the documentary shows how people of African descent – 500 years from slavery and colonialism – are still struggling for basic freedom. In the discussion that followed, many of the 89 youths who were present stated that in order to survive as an ‘African’ people in the Western world, you have to embrace your African heritage.[1] These youths included former members of dance and theater company Untold Empowerment, which strives to make the Untold Story of Africa, slavery and the African diaspora known through their theater productions. The stories are portrayed through a wide range of African and African-Caribbean music and dance styles by youth ranging in age from 18 to 31. In this paper I aim to address the question of how members of Untold Empowerment reflect on the African Heritage awareness process.

Eight members of the semiprofessional group within Untold Empowerment – Diana (21), Melvin (27), Freddy (22), Angela (22), Ryan (23), Diego (21), Shamira (31) and André (22) (all pseudonyms) – shared their personal story about their ‘awareness process’ with me. It is important to mention that I often did not specifically refer to an ‘awareness process’ in my interviews with them, but that they raised this issue themselves. Though as an ethnographer I was searching for the meaning behind this, I took care not to ask only ‘meaning-seeking’ questions, as it concerns such a complex process which not everyone can or maybe wants to reflect on. This was one of the main reasons why I asked the respondents to bring a picture of their favorite performance to the interview, so I could at first instance focus more on their experience. My in-depth interviews with these seven young dancers and musician Melvin, mostly took place an hour before the rehearsals for the Obia show. Obia is a theater production full of music and dance, inspired by rituals and songs from the Afro-Surinamese Winti religion and culture that emerged among the enslaved Africans in Surinam. In addition, I interviewed Otmar Watson, the artistic leader, Desta Beekman, choreographer of the Obia production, and Serge Badoué, the African dance teacher. Furthermore, I attended the African dance classes on Tuesdays and the rehearsals for the Obia show on Fridays. In this paper I will examine various aspects of the ‘awareness process’, which I have grouped in the following themes: ‘Untold Story’, ‘Resistance’, ‘Winti’, ‘Pride’, ‘Cut and Mix’, and ‘Breaking Free’.

During the research I was aware of my position as a ‘researcher’, so in the conclusion and throughout this paper I will reflect on my own role and experiences. Thereby I will also tell something about my own background and assumptions, as it is my responsibility as an (upcoming) anthropologist to explain myself. As Mendoza-Denton (2008: 43-44) argues, this can lead to accusations that unnecessary attention is sought by the anthropologist at the expense of the ‘real’ subjects of the study, yet it is important to show the researcher’s identity and subjectivity in order to give the reader the chance to question what has been argued. Ultimately, I intend to highlight why ‘identity politics’ should be taken seriously (Clifford 2002: 2), by taking into consideration what is at stake for the communities involved in the process of creating a movement that is based on a shared culture. Moreover, I will show that the ‘awareness process’ implies more than the African heritage, actually it goes well beyond that; it is about empowering yourself to live up to your full potential. Through dance and theater as a participatory learning medium, Untold Empowerment provides a space for collective learning and self-expression, helping youth to make sense of the social changes around them by visualizing issues through the use of their bodies (Sunni Ali 2010: 3).

The setting

I always call the Bijlmer ‘little Surinam’. But it is not only ‘little Surinam’ but also ‘little Curacao’, ‘little Africa’. For dark people, here it is warm. This is the warm area. We accept each other [here]… – Former Untold member, Frie, in documentary ‘Untold the Story’ (2006).

Two of the most important cultural centers in the Bijlmer district in Amsterdam Southeast, No Limit and Bijlmer Park theater, became the main locations in this research project. I spent much time there watching the rehearsals and interviewing members of Untold Empowerment. Both No Limit and Bijlmer Park Theater organize debates, dance, music and theater shows in cooperation with their partners, thereby making a fundamental contribution to the range of cultural activities in Amsterdam Southeast. The artistic leader of Untold Empowerment, Otmar Watson, is programmer at No Limit and he lets Untold rehearse in the building so he can be present at rehearsals most of the time. But the first rehearsal I witnessed took place in the Bijlmer Park theater.

The building is located at the edge of the Bijlmer park, beside a small lake, at a few minutes walking distance from the Amsterdamse Poort, a shopping center in the heart of the Bijlmer district. When I entered the room where the African dance class would take place, I saw some people changing their clothes. I saw a brown girl with braided hair and a light brown boy with black curly hair leaning against a table. Next to them, a brown girl with a similar braided hairstyle and a brown girl with dark-blonde braided hair in a bun, were sitting on chairs. I wanted to make a good impression and I would not accomplish that by just sitting in a corner as a stranger. I decided to introduce myself to the dancers that were standing in front of the table at the right side of the room. I walked in their direction and they looked up: ‘Hey, let me introduce myself. I am Gladys.’ I shook their hands and they told me their names: Diana, Freddy, Angela and Miranda. I explained that I was doing a small research for a school project so therefore I would watch them dancing during the classes and conduct interviews till the end of the month. I shortly explained that the ‘awareness process’ that Untold emphasizes was central to my research. I wanted to find out how the members interpret this process and to what extent it plays a role in their daily lives. When I said I studied cultural anthropology, Diana’s eyes lighted up: ‘Wow, I want to do that too!’ I was really pleased to find out that we had this common interest. The other two girls in the meantime strayed from the subject and were busy with their telephones. Freddy joined the conversation and shared that he wished to go to Africa to join West-African dance classes. A few minutes later everyone was standing up and it seemed like Serge wanted to start the class, so I went to sit on my chair. Suddenly, I heard the loud sound of drums through the speakers of the stereo on the table. I spontaneously began to tap my feet and bounce my head. I was immediately drawn to the music and dancing and most of all, I felt grateful that I was able to witness the youth doing the beautiful, energetic and powerful traditional dances from the Western part of Ivory Coast.

The Untold Story

From the first class onwards, Freddy and Diana became my main respondents, next to Melvin whom I had met prior to my research. Freddy and Diana were very good friends and already knew each other from the dance school they attended together. Melvin is the musical leader of Untold and one of the five drummers.[2] Melvin has been active in Untold since its founding in 2001 and he even helped developing Untold’s vision yet he does not call himself the co-founder. In 2001 he was fifteen years old and ‘in search of his own identity’, so to him Untold felt as the perfect organization to further develop this process. Melvin already knew Otmar Watson and associate director Aisa Martina from the Brotherhood foundation, a drum/brass band that organizes drum and dance classes and in addition looks after the school results of the participating youth. Untold was born after members of Brotherhood went to London to participate in a Black History Month event. During this trip, members danced in the streets to which people responded very positively. They also went to see the show Umoja which made a huge impact on them. Umoja tells the story of people of different tribes and tongues pouring into the chaotic cities of South Africa in the 1950s. This time of social change is expressed through dances to indigenous South African music, jazz, gumboots, gospel and kwaito. For Otmar Watson, it was the best show he had seen his entire life and he became inspired to produce a similar show himself. This became reality with the theater production ‘Untold the Story’ (2001) about the history of the African descendants in Surinam, the Dutch Antilles and the Netherlands. Youth tell the story of slavery, as connected with the music and dance cultures that emerged among the enslaved.

When I first heard about Untold Empowerment, I had my assumptions about the meaning of the name. I thought the Untold Story was mainly about slavery and pre-slavery African civilizations which were not discussed in school history books in The Netherlands, but this proved to be only one aspect of it. I also assumed that the ‘awareness process’ was related to similar terms that Afrocentric scholars like Molefi Keti Asante use to explain the process that the descendants of the enslaved must go through in order to develop an ‘African identity’. Afrocentricity seeks to re-locate a person of African descent as an agent in human history in an effort to eliminate the illusion of the fringes (Asante 1998). It would be unfair to assign that label to the entire organization because they did not use this concept themselves. However, Untold has some very specific ideas about representation, community building, and performance that are related to other African diasporic drum and dance ensembles (Beckley 2005:47-48). Otmar explained that the organization chose ‘Untold’ because the Black community in the Netherlands is not well known throughout the world:

When people come to the Netherlands, they think: hey, are there Black people over here? We travel a lot and people never know where we come from. They also do not know Surinam and Curaçao. So at a certain point we said: Untold [stands] for the ‘Untold’ Story.’

His answer surprised me because I had not really thought about it in that sense. Otmar added that there are many movies about slavery in the United States and that Jamaica and Brazil are familiar to people, so he wants to put the Dutch Caribbean on the map too. Alex van Stipriaan also states that slavery in the Dutch education system has long been mainly associated with ‘the United States and Uncle Tom’s cabin’, while there is a deafening silence surrounding the Dutch slavery past (Jones 2012: 63). This was one of the reasons why Untold decided to take matters into their own hands and design an education program based on their theater production ‘Untold the Story’. In a documentary about the cast members of ‘Untold the Story’ (2006), former Untold member Rinchemar, who now calls himself Kunta Rincho or Kunta X, claims that ‘the history the children learn at school is not history, but it is politics. It is presented from the perspective of the Europeans. No one wants to be portrayed in a bad way’. This relates to Sandew Hira’s (2012) statement that the dominant ideological current in Dutch universities tries to portray colonialism as a normal form of social relations between human beings rather than a system of exploitation and oppression. He calls this ideology scientific colonialism.

Another silence concerns the impact that African peoples, practices and civilizations have had on developments in the West, as well as the extent to which these populations have sought paths that have veered away from Western modernities even while being interlocked with them (Hanchard 1999: 245). Organizations like Untold have rebutted the denial or diminished location of African-descended peoples in Western historical narratives through their theater productions, which therefore always have something to do with Africa or the African diaspora. Otmar argues that people are often visually oriented so that a theater production is especially effective to make people aware of certain historical facts. It is important to see this response to collective subordination not as responding to isolated institutions and practice but to a broader array of forces (ibid.: 250). As Paul Gilroy (1994: 117) has suggested, ‘the cultures of diaspora blacks can be profitably interpreted as expressions of and commentaries upon ambivalences generated by modernity and their locations in it’. So, the Afro-diasporic consciousness grew out of the nation state’s neglects and exclusions because the derogation of blackness has been, and remains, global and transnational (Gilroy 1987). To Omar, raising ‘awareness’ of this history is important because according to him, it defines your ‘identity’:

Identity is very important. To know where you come from. I think it is a requirement to be successful in society. If you know where you come from, you do not have to feel insulted. You can put people in their place. You also know the important people in history. Often it has been said that we did not invent anything while our ancestors in fact invented a lot.

Resistance

Empowerment with respect to ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ is core to Untold’s vision. Untold for example organized a Black History Month in 2005 and they published an one-off magazine (2008) concerning the experiences of the youths who participated in the Black History Month events in London in 2008. According to André, the Black History Month is one of the ways to become empowered:

You learn that there was more than only slavery. You have to know where you come from and [learn] about your ancestors [struggle]. My ancestors did not fight so hard for me to do nothing, so if you know that you [become] ten times stronger.’

Angela was also inspired by her ancestors’ resistance to slavery and it even helped her to overcome her personal issues. She told me that she was brutally beaten in a violent street incident in 2007. After that, she could not cry anymore but became very aggressive. The incident left visible scars on her face, and when someone once made a remark about that she completely flipped and started a fight. Untold helped her to deal with her aggression and she realized that ‘it just happened’: I have to leave it. My ancestors [survived] too. Her experience has even inspired her to work with aggressive youth who have also been labelled as troublemakers, like she once was. In the near future she hopes to start an education to learn how to work with ‘problem youth’.

Angela was not the only one with this interest. Melvin and Shamira also like to support youth considered as ‘problem cases’ through the medium of music and dance. Shamira studies for a Master in Special Educational Needs (SEN) at Fontys in Tilburg. She wants to support youth with behavioral problems in education on a professional level. Melvin has worked as a youth outreach worker in Amsterdam Southeast, but he quit the job because he did not agree with the working method: ‘They do not understand the people in Southeast. A zappy person is immediately labelled as an ADHD person, while there might be more behind it.’ Besides Untold, Melvin views his percussion band Eternity as an alternative way to support youngsters. Eternity often has to deal with ‘problem youth’. As Eternity’s lead drummer, Melvin organizes drum workshops for these youngsters but he also makes sure that there is room to discuss subjects concerning ‘identity’ or their home situation.

The marginalized position of many Black youth in the Bijlmer district is also on André’s mind. According to him, ‘mental slavery’ is a huge problem within the Black community: ‘We are free from physical slavery, but not from the mental slavery. I notice that too with myself, but slowly I am getting there.’ In the concept of ‘mental slavery’ the chains are invisible and transmitted across generations. It is argued that ‘slavery, and other institutionalized forms of targeted race-based oppression, has caused certain symptoms of dysfunction in the African diaspora’.[3] André thinks that Black youth can accomplish much more in their lives, but many are stuck in ‘a certain way of thinking’:

‘What surprises me is that a lot of Black youth follow MBO [secondary education oriented towards vocational training]. Not that it is bad but it is a lower [level]. You can do more; we do not have to [be] like his.’

Another obstacle that has been named is racism, even though not all of the Untold members have experienced it themselves. Freddy stated that people at his dance school do not look at color because it is more about the skills of the dancer.[4] However, some Untold members said that they were one of few Black people at their school or workplace which can make them feel vulnerable at times. Therefore, Untold organizes empowerment workshops to make the members more assertive by discussing social problems that affect Black youth. Untold always tries to make it as interactive as possible, with quizzes or role-play for example. The workshops also serve to counter the effects of stigmatization of Black youth in the media and in governmental reports. African dance teacher Serge likes to be part of Untold because of these empowerment activities: ‘They want to show a [positive] image of Africa. I heard that Surinamese people want to have nothing to do with Africa. But Untold shows them that you have to get back to your roots.’ He adds that you have to respect yourself and that it does not matter where you come from as a Black person: ‘If white people look at us, they think we are just [all] Africans.

So the goal is to protect and empower the self-image of Black youth by teaching them how they can make a case for and express their opinion, for example about the Black Pete issue. The controversy surrounding Black Pete was raised frequently during the interviews:

‘I tell you honestly, if I [Angela] was not in Untold, I would have thought: let’s leave it like it is. But, [now] I know exactly where it is coming from because I started studying it myself [too].. I thought: hey, actually this has to do with racism’.

Former Untold member Kunta Rincho/Kunta X, is the leader of the anti-Black Pete movement ‘Zwarte Piet Niet’. Many Untold members have participated in the protests initiated by this movement. Because of this, Untold plays two different roles in Shamira’s life:

‘Well, you have the conscious and unconscious level. Conscious is about the time I spend to go to rehearsals or do performances. Unconsciously I am also very involved with Untold. Especially during this period, with all the protests against Black Pete.’

Shamira is a hard-working mother of two small children so she cannot always participate in the demonstrations but she follows them via Facebook. This is possible because the young have taken to the internet and make Facebook events so that a growing number of people will join the protest in the streets. Here it is important to emphasize that a youth culture should not be simply seen as a ‘politics of metaphor’, because then the possibilities of the movement are mistaken (Comaroff & Comaroff 2005: 27). Untold can be viewed as a youth culture of desire, self-expression and representation in the first place, which can also involve or generate forms of politicization as this example points out (ibid.: 2005: 21). It shows that Untold is very much concerned with issues that affect the Black youth in the inner city.

Winti

In order to understand what ‘awareness’ further means to these young dancers, it is useful to focus on the ordinary, everyday activities they engage in (Bucholtz 2002) and to examine it in relation to the Winti culture because this plays an important role in their lives. All the Untold dancers stated that the Obia show provided an opportunity for them to learn more about the Afro-Surinamese culture, of which Winti is viewed as an essential part. The same applies to me because my knowledge about Winti was very limited, although I recognized certain aspects in my own environment. When my little (half) sister was born for example, my mother’s Surinamese boyfriend put blauwsel on her head as a means to chase away evil ghosts. Or when we moved to a new place my mother spread pepper and salt throughout the house to drive away all the negative energies and ghosts. Almost all Untold members told me similar kinds of stories in which they discovered that they knew more about Winti practices than they thought. Shamira stated that she did not necessarily perceive certain practices as essential elements of the Winti culture but first and foremost as part of the Afro-Surinamese culture.

In the literature the most common definition is introduced by Wooding (1972: 551) as follows: ‘Winti is an Afro-American religion which centers around the belief in personified supernatural beings, who take possession of a human being, eliminate his consciousness, after which they unfold the past, the present, and the future. [They] are able to cause and cure diseases of a supernatural origin’. However, Van der Pijl (2007) argues that this definition is insufficient to understand the complex belief in and experience of Winti. Winti can manifest itself and have meaning in various aspects in daily life – in relationships, work, well-being, health, and notions of life, birth and death.[5]

The Untold members expressed their connection to the Afro-Surinamese and the Winti culture through their jewelry. I noticed that almost all of them wore a ‘shackle’ bracelet, so I was curious to find out about the meaning behind it. When I asked André, he took off all his jewelry so I could take a better look (see figure 1), and he explained the connection:

‘The bracelet is called a ‘shackle’. It represents Winti. What it exactly means, I don’t know. To me it means life; you start somewhere and you end somewhere, but you know that life continues. Because it is round, it has something like.. I feel that I have to wear it.’

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Figure 1: The shackle of life

I remember that my grandmother and many other older Afro-Surinamese people I knew, used to wear a similar kind of bracelet. My grandmother (from my mother’s side) was born in Surinam and met my grandfather in Surinam when he was stationed there as a Dutch soldier. In 1950 they moved to the Netherlands where my mother was born. Even though my creole grandmother spoke Sranang Tongo fluently, the creole language and the lingua franca in Surinam, she never really taught it to my mother and I also rarely heard her speak it. My grandmother also wanted to have nothing to do with Winti, like many other Surinamese in the Netherlands because in her opinion it was ‘nonsense’. Nevertheless, she wore the bracelet which she called a ‘slave’ bracelet. It shows that the same jewelry can carry different meanings.

Through my grandmother I was aware of the ‘taboo’ surrounding Winti in the Afro-Surinamese community. This was also expressed by Untold members: ‘We made the show because still a lot of Afro-Surinamese think that Winti is taboo’, said Angela. She explained that the negative stigma surrounding Winti emerged in the context of slavery, when the enslaved were not allowed to practice Winti: ‘They always [practiced] it in the dark. The slave masters thought that [the slaves] believed in Christianity, but they believed in Mother Earth.’ As Small and Schalwijk (2012) point out, enslaved Africans embraced and maintained African religious practices, despite the punishments. It was around 1830 that Christian missionaries were granted permission to evangelize the enslaved, so a consolidation and transformation of African religions took place. This is the notion of cultural hybridity as the culture arising out of the interactions between the ‘colonizers’ and the ‘colonized’, or in this case, the ‘enslaver’ and the ‘enslaved’ (Yazdiha 2010: 31). Religion still remained a type of resistance to the economic, physical and psychological subordination and humiliation that was part and parcel of enslavement (Small & Schalwijk 2012: 45-46). According to André, the enslaved had to perform hard and inhumane work, but they could became strong through the power of the winti they became possessed with. ‘They did things during the night through which the slave master eventually would die. They used Winti to win the struggle against the slave master’, told Angela. The bar was only lifted after the independence of Surinam in 1975 and Winti became a religion of lower social status, something people were ashamed of and some still are (Dors 2006).

However, as Mitchell Esajas (2011) notes in his thesis about Winti in the Netherlands, it is transforming into an accepted and celebrated part of Afro-Surinamese identity and culture. Diana acknowledges that, previously, she held a negative attitude towards Winti too:

‘I was raised a catholic and within the church it is seen as something negative because it might be against the will of God. During Keti Koti on the 1th of July I came in touch with Winti through a performance of Untold. First I thought: God does not want this. This [reaction] was caused by my environment. I was not open-minded and I made objections when they asked me to participate in the Obia show, because I am catholic and I go to church. And I did not know what my environment would think of this.

Diana was facing a dilemma so she went to the information nights about the Winti culture, organized by Untold to answer all the members’ questions. Thereafter, she decided to participate in the Obia show and she is happy that she did: ‘It brought me so many beautiful things. It gave me another perspective on Catholicism.’ Diana now combines Christian and Winti elements. Thus, her altar at home contains not only Winti attributes but also the Bible, and when praying she not only thanks God and Jesus but also the ancestors for giving her strength (see figure 2).

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Figure 2: Diana’s colorful altar

André sometimes finds it hard to combine Christianity with Winti because people consider it idolatry, but he still embraces both beliefs:

‘I strongly believe in God, the Christian God. But I also strongly believe in Winti and my ancestors. I am more a Christian when I am in church but at a winti pré[6] I feel really at home. When it comes to Winti I feel at home and when I read things about it I think: this is just really me.’

Esajas (2011) argues that there are those who seem to be perfectly comfortable with the combination of Winti and Christianity, so Diana and André seem to fit into this group. On the other hand, there are those who want to get rid of the Christian influence and the taboo sphere surrounding Winti by rejecting all Christian elements and inclining towards the African influence. Melvin, for example, states that he did not grew up with Christianity but with the Afro-Surinamese culture and the Winti rituals that go with it. According to him, his parents stayed very true to themselves. ‘My mother found it important that I would understand [the Winti culture], [even] though some people thought I was too young to know certain things.

Untold makes the Winti culture more accessible to the youth through the Obia show. The show narrates the story of a young adult who misses the last bus after a night out. While waiting at the abandoned bus stop, he is visited by the spirits of his ancestors who confront him with his own life questions. First he tries to ignore them but in the process they let him truly feel how much power is hidden inside of him, waiting to come out. He realizes that he needs to open up to the high powers to be able to use it as a source of empowerment. This story also relates to the experience of the Untold members who were not that familiar with the actual Winti rituals before the Obia show. Freddy noticed that not only the members became empowered by participating in the show, but it was an ‘empowerment of the Winti culture’ as well.

Pride

Empowerment means to become aware of the Winti culture and the African roots. That is why I always wear this necklace (see figure 3). My attitude totally changed from how I used to be. In the past, I felt ashamed if someone called me an ‘African’. Then I said: ‘No, I am Surinamese’. I also did not want to become darker. That is why I always stayed out of the sun. When someone now calls me ‘African’, it makes me feel proud. ’Diana

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Figure 3: Diana’s symbol of pride

To Diana the ‘awareness’ process was very much related to embracing Africa as her ‘homeland’ and the same applies to the other dancers, except for Freddy. But how was this process ‘activated’? Remarkable was that Diana, like most of the other members, explained that it all started with the word ‘neger’ (‘nigger’)[7]. According to Diana, once you have knowledge about your ‘roots’ you won’t use the word. Many members admitted that they used to use the word themselves, but after joining Untold, they would be immediately confronted by Otmar and Melvin when using it. Like Diana, Shamira stated that she listens very carefully when Otmar or former Untold member Kunta Rincho discuss this or other issues. At home she reflects on it and develops her own opinion. She does not necessarily explains what she learned at Untold to her children because she thinks they are too young for it. Shamira wants to let it run its course:

I watched the Django movie with my child for example. There was a scene in which a black men was whipped and [my daughter] asked me why it happened. I responded that it is the reason why we celebrate Keti Koti on the 1th of July. We celebrate that it will never happen again.’

For Melvin, the ‘awareness process’ started because he and his friends had opposing views:

‘I never felt like a ‘neger’. I was [a member of] drum group ‘Brotherhood’ and we were talking. Then I heard: ‘nigger this, nigger that’. ‘I do not know about you, but I am not that. Because I was young, I asked him very simple questions like: ‘do you know where ‘negerland’ (‘niggerland’) is? And then he could not respond.’

Diana was very open about how the ‘lack of awareness’ also affected how she thought about her appearance. She used to be ashamed of her skin color because not that many Black people lived in her neighborhood in Amsterdam West, so she always felt different. This was one of the reasons why she did not want to be called ‘African’. Furthermore, Diana stated that many dark girls struggle with their hair. When she became a member of Untold she also had this struggle, so she wore a weave because she was ashamed of her hair. She used to straighten it a lot so her hair broke off. During the interview she showed me the following picture of herself during her favorite performance (figure 4):

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Figure 4: Diana shining in the middle

The first thing she said about the picture was that she wore a weave back then (two years ago), just like the other two former Untold members. Interestingly it does not really look like a weave, so it was not that she simply desired to have straight hair. She wanted the weave to look like her own hair, but she was ashamed to show her own hair because it was so damaged:

‘I had to straighten my pony every day and then you go dancing, and of course you will sweat. So then you will have to straighten it again. I did not feel like braiding my hair every other month, so I decided to get a weave.’

Diana’s view differs from the more ‘common sense’ explanation that many black women spend a lot of money and time to get straight hair because they suffer from an ‘inferiority complex’ caused by the stigmatization of black hair. Mercer (1987), on the other hand, states that we need to de-psychologize the question of hair-straightening and recognize hair-styling itself for what it is, a specifically cultural activity and practice. From a perspective informed by theoretical work on subcultures, for example, the question of style can be seen as a medium for expressing the aspirations of black people excluded from access to ‘official’ social institutions of representation and legitimation in the urban, industrialized societies of the capitalist First World. Black hairstyling as an art form is then a unique pattern of style, across a range of practices from music, speech, dance and dress (ibid.: 34).

However, even though Diana’s hair is healthy now, she still sometimes finds it difficult to wear a natural hairstyle. She thinks people are influenced by the media and popular culture:

‘Nicki Minaj has a weave, so let’s do that too. I don’t think that these people think: I have black hair so let’s hide it. People don’t really think about it. That is why it is good to say: ‘your own hair is also beautiful’.’

Her example came from people around her; fellow Untold members (mainly girls), like Shamira who experimented a lot with her hair. I also observed that all the female members of Untold had natural hair (at first glance) or they had braided hair. Diana also started following Facebook pages about natural hair. Diana likes artists like India Arie and Lauryn Hill, who leave their hair natural: ‘And then I think: wow. They have natural hair, I can do it too.’ Gradually she started a process which would eventually lead her to accept her natural hair. Diana showed me a picture on her telephone of herself at the first day with her natural hair after years of straightening it. It was a huge step for her because she was still a bit insecure about her hair but it felt like a liberation (see figure 5).

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Figure 5: Hair liberated

Diana translated her story of self-acceptance and self-love in the dance production ‘For Colored Girls’ which she organized, choreographed and directed together with three fellow students of her previous dance school. The performance is inspired by the movie Four Colored Girls in which four women discover their path in life in their own way, each based on the same themes of past, love, power and faith. Diana danced a solo on the song ‘Four Women’ by Nina Simone: ‘My skin is black/ My arms are long/ My hair is wooly/ My back is strong/ Strong enough to take the pain/ Inflicted again and again.’ Because I knew about her struggle, the performance had even more of an impact on me. She danced gracefully and vulnerable but at the same time very powerful and full of confidence.

Cut and mix

All the dancers I interviewed had a passion for ‘traditional African dance’ but they also practiced other dance styles. However, ‘African dance’[8] was viewed as the base for all dances because certain movements reappear in every dance. That makes it versatile because they can add modern, hip-hop movements to an African dance: ‘Even when you put on a hip-hop track for me, I can still do a traditional African dance on it’, said Diego with a big smile on his face. Diego is not only a dancer in Untold but also has his own dance crew called ‘La Fievre Africaine’, which focuses on urban African dances. One of the most popular urban African dances at the moment is ‘Azonto’ (see this video for an example), and during observations before the class started I saw many members listen to hiplife music from Ghana and do the Azonto dance on it. The hiplife genre combines hip-hop sampling, scratching, and rap lyricism with older forms of highlife popular music, ‘traditional’ storytelling and formal proverbial oratory (Shipley 2009: 631). Azonto is defined as a ‘dance which mainly involves moving of all the joints in your body in a rhythmic fashion without taking any or very little steps’. The popularity of this Ghanaian urban dance craze is built through its global circulation, which makes it possible for youth to identify with an African diaspora community (Shipley 2013: 362).

However, Diana distances herself from what she calls ‘commercial’ dances, and instead wants to deepen her knowledge of the meaning of certain traditional West-African dances as a future anthropologist/choreographer. Otmar also refuses to teach ‘commercial’ dances like Azonto and hip hop, simply because he loves traditional African dance and as an ‘expression of Untold’s objectives’. The Obia show includes West-African dances, choreographed by Serge in cooperation with Desta who adds movements that are specific to certain wintis. So the members learn about the Winti culture and West-African dances at once. Even during the African dance classes on Tuesday, the drummers play and sing Winti songs while the dancers do the traditional West African dances. Thus, there is a clear intertwinement between Africa and Surinam, which becomes evident from the moment the Obia show starts with a song called ‘Mama Africa’.[9]

For Freddy, Untold provides him the opportunity to expand his cultural repertoire. He first wanted to start with Surinam because that it is where his parents came from. He is also interested in cultures in general, but he specifically feels attracted to cultures with a certain ‘way of thinking’ or ‘life lessons’ that are in line with his own convictions. Freddy discovered that these cultures correspond with his own cultural background, but especially with the Aboriginal culture. That is how he enrolled in the ‘awareness process’:

I am convinced that you not only inherit physical, genetic things of your ancestors, but also spiritual things. It gives you a direction to know what you can do with your characteristics.

I was surprised when he told me that his grandfather was an Aboriginal because I somehow assumed that he, like the other members, perceived himself as an Afro-Surinamese. His ultimate dream was to travel through Australia to learn more about the Aboriginal culture and implement the knowledge he gained in his choreographies (see figure 6). After Australia he wants to travel to the Ivory Coast, Senegal, South Africa, Brazil, Bolivia and the United States to include all different movements in his choreographies but also as a means to bring people together and express what is going on in the world. While Ryan claims that all Africans in the diaspora should know traditional African dances because it is part of their roots, Freddy wants to go beyond this to transcend categories. As a dancer and choreographer he searches for a specific ‘color’ and that determines if he wants to work with a person or not. He calls it the color of potential: ‘I see that some people are blank. That means that you are still searching and have not developed an identity yet.

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Figure 6: Freddy’s dream

Breaking Free

The Untold members all agreed that dance is about expressing emotions and Freddy even calls it his ‘religion’:

It is a religion for me because it is a way of life. Wherever you are or whatever you do, it influences you on a conscious and unconscious level. To me it is a moving form of meditation.

Desta also emphasized that dance is body, mind and soul, and when you have emotional blockades it directly shows from your body movements. Therefore, Desta lets the dancers do exercises that are really intense and require a strong focus. One time they had to stand in a line while facing an imagined audience and they had to tell the story with their eyes. For some it was more difficult than for others, but when they were finally pushed out of their comfort zone by remaining focused, magic happened. Ryan for example told me that he used to be a very quiet and shy boy, but Desta really triggered him to ‘break free’ by expressing all his emotions through dance. This helped him in his daily life to become more social and assertive. Performing his favorite African dance with Untold on a television show in Surinam, was even one of the highlights in his dancing career (see figure 7). He could release all his energy in this dance. According to Shamira, a dancer must give everything, but especially when doing an African dance because the dances are very energetic and dynamic: ‘It will just look weird if you are not dancing it with all your possible effort. You do not dance on the music but you have to dance in the music.’

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Figure 7: Ryan’s breakthrough

Despite Desta’s efforts, Diana found it still really difficult to show her emotions on stage and she was resistant towards Desta’s exercises. At one point, the dancers had to do a session where they needed to look in the mirror while telling about things that bothered them in their life. Suddenly, Freddy walked in the room for the first time, he was not yet a member of Untold. Freddy’s presence was enough to make Diana cry :

‘I spoke and I stuttered a bit and then he opened the door. I felt a kind of power and I let it out. The tears came and I thought: oh no, now everyone sees how weak I am. But I could not stop it. Freddy came to me and said that he was really proud that I did it.’

This breakthrough led to a powerful performance of her in which she released all her emotions on stage during the Keti Koti Festival 2013 in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam-East (see figure 8).

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Figure 8: Showing emotion

Finally, Freddy used the metaphor of the ‘mirror’ to describe his awareness process:

‘When you are dancing, you are constantly self-reflecting. That is what I did and needed to do. You look 24/7 in the mirror and things are asked from you. Everyone has obstacles and fears but you cannot let it hold you back. If you want to do something, you have to stand at the threshold to develop it and blossom.

Conclusion

In this research it became clear how the youth remain ‘a constant source of creativity, ingenuity, possibility, empowerment, a source of alternative, yet to-be-imagined futures (Comaroff & Comaroff 2005: 29). I think my age was an advantage in this research because I could relate to many of their interests, anxieties, hopes and dreams as someone belonging to the same generation. Because of that, I did not feel like a ‘researcher’ during the observations, but more like an acquaintance who was interested in the activities of the organization and the people that participate in it. This also made it a bit more difficult to focus because I had a lot of informal conversations during the observations or sometimes I was distracted because I was intrigued by all the dances. Some members also seemed more conscious of my presence than others. Still, my observations during the rehearsals for the Obia show proved to be really useful although there is not enough space to go into detail with my observations. Especially the interviews helped me to find out how the members interpret the African Heritage ‘awareness process’ that Untold emphasizes in its vision and to what extent it plays a role in their daily lives.

During the interviews they shared their personal journeys with me about the ‘discovery of their hidden color’. Hidden stands for the Story that has not been Told about Africa and the slavery past but moreover the ‘Discovery’ relates to how remembering the ancestors can be used as a source of strength in the present. The references to Africa expressed in the theater and dance productions give some grounding in, and some continuity with the past. The audience is however also reminded that what binds people to the African diaspora is precisely the experience of a profound discontinuity: the peoples dragged into slavery, transportation, colonization and migration (Hall 1993). Moreover, the legacy of slavery continues to shape relations in the ‘imperial belly’ which has given rise to this assertive youth culture of desire, self-expression, representation involving new forms of politicization (Comaroff & Comaroff 2005). Some members acknowledged that the way they felt about their own position in society partly explained why they were attracted to Untold in the first place. Through Untold, the members learned more about the African heritage and the diaspora, and drew on it for motivation and inspiration. New technologies in the time of globalization have eliminated the time and space factors and helped them to imagine an African diaspora community. Thereby, the youth also engage in acts of bricolage which are in a certain sense self-appropriations – borrowings and adaptions of one’s own cultural background to create new youth styles (Bucholtz 2002: 542).

Hidden also stands for the gifts that the ancestors transmitted, but an open and respectful attitude is required to be able to take full advantage of it. Hidden furthermore stands for a flower that is waiting to blossom and embrace its beauty. Diana for example showed her love for Africa to the outside world, whether it was in dance, her hairstyle or other accessories. Finally, Hidden stands for suppressed emotions that needs to be released through dance and music. In the words of Freddy, the colors represent the potential of people; the Hidden treasures that need to be discovered in the awareness process which encompasses all these different aspects.

Appendix

Photo elicitation: the favorite performances

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Ryan – ‘This was during the Obia Show. I was a winti who could look in the future and I had to pick out two people from the audience to predict their future. This was really scary. I do not really like to talk [so] it was really out of my comfort zone. If you see how I was when I just became a member of Untold and how I am now… It is a huge difference.’

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Angela This was a memory of my first show. This is how it started for me and how I learned everything about my culture, also through the empowerment workshops. We had history classes about Surinam and Curaçao; countries we would never think about.’

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Melvin – ‘Why this is my favorite? There has not been a show that dared to present the Winti culture in this way. People pretend it is accepted but people are still embarrassed about it. In Surinam it is even more worse than in the Netherlands. I think it is the legacy of slavery and it is mental.’

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Diego (on the left) – ‘I like the excitement before the show. It is a kick. This is at the end of the show. You can describe it as praying. You see that everyone is exhausted and sweaty. But when I hear the [drums], I need to dance. I does not matter how tired I am. The only thing in my head is: dance, dance, dance.’

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André ‘This show was most touching to me. It was also confronting because I could relate to the story. And I realized that I achieved a lot with my talent at such a young age. When I am on stage.. It sounds a bit strange, but then I feel a bit like Beyoncé’s [alter ego] Sasha Fierce. I change into another person and I just eat the audience. A bright future is ahead of me.’

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Freddy – ‘This performance was in Surinam. It was magical. Why? Because the Winti culture is from Surinam. I also did it for my ancestors and the previous generations. I was not only on stage for myself but for a lot of people.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

Notes

[1] IZI Solutions started the initiative for the movie night, called ‘Wijzer kijken’ (Watch Wiser). The purpose is to make certain issues discussable among the youth through monthly meetings based a central theme, which is introduced by a film. See http://www.izi-solutions.com/index.php/concepten-1/wijzer-kijken.

[2] The drummers of Untold are also members of the Afro-Surinamese singing group Black Harmony. Melvin is the musical leader of the percussion band ‘Eternity’ as well as of ‘Black Harmony’. So both of Melvin’s groups, ‘Eternity’ and ‘Black Harmony’ are active in Untold.

[3] Mental Slavery: The Most Insidious Legacy of Slavery: http://www.africanholocaust.net/html_ah/mentalenslavement.html.

[4] Freddy made this comment during an interview about ‘Tradition and Cultural Heritage’ on the radio station ‘Voice of Naija’ in Amsterdam Southeast.

[5] Within the Winti system Anana Gran Godo is the creator, comparable with the God in Christianity. Anana does not interfere with people’s daily lives because it delegates this work to the subordinate Gods which are known as winti and the power of Nature (Wooding 1972: 122; Esajas 2011: 11). The human being is viewed as a biological and spiritual creature and the spiritual consists of three essential elements: djodjo (winti’s of the environment and spiritual parents), kra (the soul) and jorka (spirit of the ancestors) (Wooding 1972: 123).

[6] A ritual event during which the wintis are honored and the people desire to achieve a trance-like state. The aim is to harmonize the relations between themselves and the spiritual world so they can live a prosperous life (Wooding 1972).

[7] There are divergent views on the question whether the term ‘neger’ is insulting or neutral. Some argue that the term ‘neger’ is a synonym for a black person, whereas others claim it is a reference to the slavery past and has negative connotations.

[8] I hereby emphasize that the term ‘African dance’ is problematic in that it undermines the different dance styles in the multitude of diverse cultures in Africa.

[9] ‘Black Harmony’ composed the song ‘Mama Africa’. For the live version of this song during the Keti Koti celebration in 2013, click here.

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Shipley, J.W. (2009). Aesthetic of the entrepreneur: Afro-cosmopolitan rap and moral circulation in Accra. Anthropological Quarterly, 82(3): 631-668.

Shipley, J.W. (2013). Transnational circulation and digital fatigue in Ghana’s Azonto dance craze. American Ethnologist, 40(2): 362–381.

Sunni-Ali, A.F. (2010). Impact repertory theatre as a tool of empowerment: Black youth describe their experiences and perceptions. African-American Studies Theses. Paper 3.

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Van der Pijl, Y. (2007). Levende Doden: Afrikaans-Surinaamse Percepties, Praktijken en Rituelen rondom de Dood. Utrecht/Amsterdam: IBS/Rozenberg Publishers.

Wooding, Ch. J. (1972). Winti, een Afro-Amerikaanse Godsdienst in Suriname. Een Cultureel-Historische Analyse van de Religieuze Verschijnselen in de Para. Meppel: Krips Repro.

DVD

Reeder, André (2006). Untold, The Story. Kratertheater.

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