Naphtali Fields October 19th, 2012
ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields and her youth theater group redefine rap.
“Diego! Hold your chest up! Proud like a soldier,” I walk across the room and do my best stiff-armed soldier impression. Diego nods his head affably and imitates me for about a half-second. Then his shoulders slump back into their constant hunch and he begins his gangster walk towards the rest of the group. “No, Diego,” I repeat, trying to keep the laugh out of my voice, “don’t slouch like that, you have to be sterner, more in control.” Again the nod and the smile, but he can’t do it. He walks like a happy rapper whether he’s supposed to be acting like an indigenous chief or an army sergeant.
Diego joined our theater group in Las Palmeras only a few weeks ago. His first day, I asked the group members to compose a rap based on three different parts of Salvadoran history: the indigenous period and the Spanish invasion, the civil war of the ’80s and the current situation. They complied enthusiastically, none more so than Diego. At the end of the session, we got up to share our verses. Most people were off-beat, but their rhymes were solid and their message sound. Then Diego stepped up. He began crooning about a true love’s rejection as he bounced up and down in the middle of the group, one hand gesturing wildly, the other on his crotch. He has clearly spent time watching music videos; when he finished he slouched back to his place in the circle with a grin.
I wasn’t the only one surprised by his performance. The next week, as I readied the music for a second go at the group rap, I turned around to find the whole group imitating Diego’s stance and pelvic thrusts. “Is this how you do it, Diego?” Yolanda asked as she bounced her butt in a cumbia-style rhythm. Our youngest member, a 12-year-old girl, began to attempt break dancing on the hard linoleum floor. I couldn’t help it; I started laughing. We were rapping about indignities, violence, history and our dreams for the future. And everyone was convinced that they needed to clutch their crotch and waggle their rears to get the message across.
We eventually came to an agreement about the movement/song relationship. Bopping is allowed. Thrusting is not. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Diego. For me, he represents what ArtCorps is all about.
Diego lives a hard life. He’s from a poor family and before I met him, he found something that filled him with joy: rap. He swallowed the messages, the movements, he even changed his walk to match that of his new pop-culture heroes. And then he came to our group. Suddenly, Diego was introduced to a different idea about what rap could do. It can motivate people to action. It can tell stories of the oppressed. It doesn’t have to be about sex and money and drugs. It can tell his own story in a powerful, redemptive way.
The beauty of working with community groups is that each member brings with them a richness of past experience when they join. Sometimes that takes the form of singing, acting, or drawing. Two of our group members love doing bike tricks and we want to incorporate that into a play someday. And Diego is our rapper. He teaches us rhythm that we didn’t have, and we help him understand that he holds a tool for good in his hand that all of us can use together.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America.
When ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields started choreographing a dance for the Las Palmeras youth group, she chose the three-count stomp as the base beat, assuming that it would be easy for the group.
“Stomp, stomp, CLAP. Stomp, stomp, CLAP.” I remember countless basketball games my high school gymnasium as the bleachers erupted with the sound of feet stomping and hands clapping their three-count beat for the team. I’ve always thought of this rhythm as the most basic of beats, good for encouragement, intimidation or amateur rap.
“It can’t be that bad,” my visiting friend Junia chided as I mourned over my group’s lack of rhythm.
“You have no idea!” I replied, “the boys have an amazing ability to mess up the beat in a different way every time. First they lift their foot wrong, then they forget to clap. The third time they start two counts too late. It’s incredible; they’ve found every possibility for error and make them all.”
We were walking the fifty minutes towards Las Palmeras for the second session with the group’s boys. They were cast as the farmers in our play about sustainable agricultural practices, performing a dance/rap number that promotes native seeds, organic fertilizers and more communal farming techniques. As all eight of them lined up with the broomsticks we were substituting for their traditional planting sticks, Junia flashed me an encouraging smile and began the stomp. I led the girls in the rap as the line haltingly marched forward, hitting their broomsticks against the ground as they tried to keep up with Junia’s rhythmic marching. One verse in she called for everyone to stop.
“This isn’t working,” she stated. “Let’s divide up and have them watch us as we walk through it.”
Then we grabbed partners and made them do the routine with us. Then we all just tried to clap the rhythm. Three hours later we were still working on the same one-minute song. The clouds suddenly broke over our heads and as we started to run the long, muddy way home we shouted encouragement at the tired boys. “You can do it! We’ll see you next week!”
Stomp, stomp, CLAP.
Five days later a girl from the group told me that every night the youth had been meeting on their own to work on the rap/choreography. The girls were learning it, the boys were getting better, and everyone was excited to show off their skills to me on Saturday.
“We’re not going to embarrass ourselves,” she told me confidently. “We’ll practice every day if we have to.”
I congratulated her on her commitment to the play but couldn’t stop thinking about the awkward dancing boys. Is there another rhythm that would be easier for them? Am I imposing some kind of American beat that doesn’t fit with the movement of Salvadoran culture?
Saturday came but instead of showing off their practice, they wanted to work on the choreography for our second song. I spent some long minutes trying to get us lined up on the right beat, kicking at the same time with the same leg and twirling in the same direction.
Then, I stood back and watched for a minute. Fourteen boys and girls were singing loudly about their dreams for their rural communities as they linked arms and danced enthusiastically. What is rhythm after all? If it is the base, the pulse behind the song, then these kids have figured it out perfectly. They might not kick or clap or march on time, but they know what they’re singing about. And they know that stepping on beat is not the most important thing—it’s stepping together.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America.
ArtCorps Artist Napthali Fields shares the challenges of working with women’s groups and introducing theater and creative expression in rural El Salvador. She is collaborating with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America to promote women’s leadership in their homes and communities and prevent violence against women.
Ten months ago I stood in front of a semi-circle of women in rural El Salvador, waiting to begin our first meeting. Trying not to be distracted by the free-range chicken who kept honing in on my toes, I smiled cheerfully at the kids who ran as free and as dirty as the chickens and worked on keeping my rising sense of panic off my face. My mission was deceptively simple: teach theater and art techniques to women so they learn to analyze and express the realities of rural poverty in their communities. Standing in front of fifteen women who sat silent and impassive, staring at the ground or nursing their babies, I wondered what in the world I was doing.
We started with an ice-breaker. An easy get-to-know-you game that involved tossing a small ball around a circle and saying your name to the group. I had scheduled five minutes for this introduction. Twenty minutes later the women were still silent and impassive, even as they chased after the balls that found the dusty ground more than they were caught. I don’t remember much more of that meeting. My Spanish was bad and the women, if they spoke, used a slang called caliche that was impossible to understand. That first day we set up rules for our new art group: be courteous, show up on time, participate, don’t criticize other members and others. In the days to come, everyone would break those rules.
Week after week I would walk down the dusty road with a huge plastic bag of colored pencils, paper, cardboard, and balls hanging off my shoulder. If it rained, we canceled the meeting. If it even looked like rain, no one would come. In times of planting or harvest, when every hand was needed to assure a year’s supply of food, we would postpone our group. Babies got sick, tortillas had to be made, and at one point in mid-May we were down to a group of 4-5 women.
“The problem is that you aren’t bringing rice,” Niña Aracely told me as we sat in the shade of the patio.
“True,” Lupe laughed. “Rice and some clothes in that big, ugly bag of yours.”
“That’ll bring ‘em for sure,” Niña Aracely nodded sagely. I sighed. This region had a long reputation of handouts from various aid organizations. That’s why any kind of community organization was almost impossible to form; no one saw the point when the system was corrupt and if they waited long enough God or some NGO would hopefully have mercy on them. Giving gifts was completely against the mission of my organization. We wanted to empower rural women, to give them the tools to think, organize and act for themselves so they could resist dependence on well-meaning but unhelpful foreign aid. Still, how could I teach empowerment if no one came to my meetings?
“Alright.” I said to Niña Aracely. “If they want rice I’ll see what I can do.”
The next week, my plastic bag was heavier as I walked towards our meeting-house. I hadn’t brought rice, deciding on a big snack instead that would add some variety to the never-ending repetition of beans and tortillas that everyone ate. Niña Aracely had rounded up a few more women with the promise of food, and I stood in front of a big circle of women again, praying that this time we would stay on course.
I taped a blank poster to the wall and asked, “Why is it hard to participate in the women’s art group?” First there was an embarrassed silence. Then Lucinda spoke up.
“Everyone gossips about us and says we’re crazy. The men say that we’re wasting time here playing games when we should be working. Other people say you’re teaching us to dance. Everyone makes fun of us for being here.” At her words, everyone began to talk at once, confirming or adding to the stories about the community mocking them for doing something so strange as an art group. Eventually I had to let out an unladylike shriek to be heard above the noise.
“Do you think we’re learning crazy things?” I asked the women. They shook their heads no. “Well, it’s your opinion that matters. You’re the ones who are learning new things; the ones who gossip about it are scared of any kind of change.”
I wish I could say that my words inspired them to continue. Honestly, they didn’t seem very convinced until I brought out the snacks. I wisely decided that from then on I would offer the powerful combination of good food and inspiring speeches at all of our meetings.
Slowly we began to act like a real group. We presented a play called “The Education of Santiago” that questioned the disparity between boys’ and girls’ value in the community. We rehearsed for months to perform at a nursing home a story about a tyrannous queen and a village that slowly organized against her abusive laws. Finally, the year ended. At our last celebration, Niña Aracely came up to me and spoke in her gravelly voice.
“The men were at it again yesterday,” she said. “They were telling us we’re crazy for being in this group and that we’ll never be good for anything now.” I sighed. After all the work we’d done, I thought that public opinion would be a little more favorable. But Niña Aracely was smiling. “I just had to tell ‘em it was a whole load of lies and if they have a problem with you they are just wrong because we learn good things in our group and you are not a crazy woman.” I stared at her in amazement. That she would dare to contradict the powerful men in her community to their faces in defense of our little group was more than I’d ever expected. But Niña Aracely wasn’t done yet, “And I told ‘em that when you come back we’ll be looking for even more women to be in the group and we’re going to get even more done next year.” She looked at me for a moment and I remembered the taciturn woman I had met a few months before.
She pulled me in for a goodbye hug. “But this time, bring that bag of rice to the first meeting.” She smiled, “Those good-for-nothing men will want to come too.”