PUTNEY—Next Stage Arts Project hosted Amirah Sackett and Ahmed Zaghbouni (MR MiC) in Putney for the past few days to serve as their 2022 Artists-in-Residence. The duo gave workshops, talks, performances and several media interviews – all aimed at inspiring everyone to follow their passion.
Sackett, an American Muslim hip-hop dancer and educator, said she fell in love with hip-hop culture as a child. She lives and works in her hometown of Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree in dance from the University of Minnesota.
Sackett is proud of her Muslim identity and aims to educate Americans about what it means to be a Muslim American woman and why she chooses to wear the hijab, the modest dress style of Muslim women.
Zaghbouni is a multi-talented beatboxer and filmmaker from Sousse, Tunisia.
“We live in a place where approximately 96% of the residents are white, so bringing Amirah and Ahmed to Putney moves our communities in a positive direction,” said Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project.
“Amirah’s Muslim faith and her passion for hip-hop merge to tell a quintessentially American story,” he continued. “She’s a professional dancer who merges her identity as a woman, Muslim and American, and in doing so shows us the connection between hip-hop and dance culture.”
The cities recently sat down with Sackett and Zaghbouni for an in-depth conversation about hip-hop, Muslim identity and Vermont, from which this excerpt is taken.
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Victoria Chertok: How do you see yourself as a dancer?
Amira bag: It’s hard to see myself separated from dance — it’s my way of communicating and expressing myself. He has always been there with me since I was a child.
RESUME : How does your Muslim faith influence your dancing?
AS: My journey as a Muslim is part of me in addition to being a dancer, and I express myself through both of those things. Being naturally expressive and connecting on a spiritual plane is not unusual for dancers.
At the same time, being a dancer is linked to my spiritual journey; they are very synchronized. In the original hip-hop culture, being based in your community, working to solve problems, and being creative are all part of using art for social change. It embraces social justice at its heart.
RESUME : What impact do you hope to have?
AS: The work I do where I speak with my voice and show people through dance my strengths and my pride in who I am. It evolved to where I use my actual voice now – in the past I just danced but didn’t speak. The intersection of faith, activism, hip-hop and dance – they all go together.
RESUME : You talk about hate speech and Islamophobia. How do you approach these topics when playing?
AS: It’s a natural progression to say something about how Muslims are discriminated against in Europe and the United States. In 2011, France banned the hijab in school, and there was also a burkini ban.
In the case of France, I asked: “Do you want to undress women who want to be covered?
“We want to liberate Muslim women,” they said. They overlook the fact that it is our choice to dress. It’s linked to a form of feminism, modesty and strength. You cannot judge us by the outward appearance of our bodies.
I realized early on that people don’t understand Muslim women and Islam in this country. I didn’t want to see those religious freedoms eroded here by Islamophobia and hatred. I have studied how hate speech affects us – a physical threat, people being afraid, stems from not fully understanding religion and only getting the view of the media, which is not the majority of Muslims.
It’s my duty as an ambassador, being a Muslim woman who is also American, to have these conversations with people. It is very important.
RESUME : Would you change something about your TED Talk [“Finding peace through Islam and hip-hop,” TEDxAmoskeagMillyard]that you gave in 2016?
AS: It’s a good question. No, I would keep the same. This is the core of me – my love of both things and the ties between them.
The great thing that has happened through social media is that so many Muslim women have taken to TikTok and Instagram and are creating a lot of content around their identity.
A large group of Gen Z girls aged 15-22 are making a lot of content about being Muslim, wearing the hijab – there are some funny videos. They have tons of followers who are non-Muslims. I want to get to the point where it’s secondary that I’m a Muslim, primary that I’m a dancer. That seeing women like me is not unusual and that we are seen as Americans and part of the community.
RESUME : What’s it like to happen in Vermont?
AS: In 2018, I did a residency with Sandglass Theater in Putney and realized that Putney is an ideal small American town. This is what you hope America will be: welcoming, educated and open people, an increasingly diverse population and a strong focus on the arts. The environment and nature here are so beautiful.
Many people here have been exposed to Islam as a religion and are open to learning more.
RESUME : How did hip-hop evolve from break dancing?
AS: Hip-hop started in the Bronx in the late 1970s; remember the movie lightning dance and Lapping’? The original dance of hip-hop is called breaking (break dance).
I grew up doing ballet but I was also surrounded by hip-hop culture. Hip-hop was something I did with my friends; there were no classes at that time. We learned the moonwalk, the cabbage patch, the running man, and I just loved it. In the 1990s, I was doing choreography and also learning movements from music videos.
In the early 2000s I was training with b-boys and b-girls and really got into the underground hip-hop scene. I realized that the commercialized hip-hop scene didn’t align with my values.
I vividly remember this time when I met PopMaster Fabel, a popper from Spanish Harlem who was Muslim, when he came to Minneapolis. That’s when I got more serious about teaching hip-hop history and started exploring popping as a dance style.
I became more serious about studying hip-hop and finding the roots of its culture. Fabel has been a great mentor to me. He said, “You are fine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I started to trust myself in my journey.
RESUME : Explain the “pop” dance style.
AS: Popping is a style of West Coast hip-hop – you’ve heard of robot and waving and tutting, a style based on geometric patterns. I started with the break, then I turned more to popping. I teach kids a lot of breaking and the basic hip-hop style.
Hip-hop dances are powerful athletic dances and build self-esteem through dance. When girls dance like boys, there’s less emphasis on being pretty, cute, sexy.
RESUME : When did you start collaborating with Ahmed Zaghbouni (MR MiC)?
AS: We started working together in 2019. We met in Algeria, where I was playing and where he was filming. Ahmed is 29 years old and currently lives in Chicago. He’s a world famous beatboxer and he’s super talented. You see him creating these sounds with his mouth. I learned so much from him.
RESUME : Have you seen an evolution in your work together?
Ahmad Zaghbouni: When Covid arrived, we were doing our show live, so we streamed it live on Facebook, Twitch and YouTube and had audiences around the world watching. We then taught the children via Zoom, Skype and Messenger, and we had panel discussions.
We both judged a Tunisian championship beatbox competition. She taught a virtual community classroom for Harvard University. We decided to broadcast our show to teach on all platforms.
A lot of people started noticing our show. The first show we did live, without an audience, was “Beat Box meet Popping,” in Kansas City in the fall of 2020, under Amirah’s brand “We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic.” “.
At that time, Amirah had choreography on big stages — the idea is that the choreography is there and the set is there, so we made a dance film. We made a short film, which received three awards; two of them are from the 2021 Lift-Off Global Network international film festival.
Then we created another movie, lateef (one of the names of Allah, the subtle name).
RESUME : Tell me about your childhood in Tunisia and how it influenced your beatbox.
A.Z.: I come from Sousée, in Tunisia, and I grew up in a really artistic environment. My father was a musician and my mother is an artist. My family practices Sufi, which is a Muslim practice that focuses a lot on rhythm, harmony, and breathing to make dhikr, a direct connection to Allah. A lot of what I do now comes from there.
I was 10 when I discovered beatbox and hip-hop. I was producing rhythmic sounds, vocal impressions, and sound impressions all the time. I imitated every sound I heard.
Michael Jackson was the first interview I remember watching. I remember videos of pioneers from the United States like Doug E. Fresh – the godfather of beatboxing from the Bronx. At 18, I took it more seriously. I started competing, playing and uploading videos to YouTube.
I was the first beatboxer in my country and one of the first in the Arab world! I was chosen to represent the Arab world in 2019 at the beatboxing world championship in Germany. It is very moving to see how many people have been touched by my work.
RESUME : A final thought?
AS: We live in a time where we are told that you are not enough. Being yourself with all your complexities is your strongest path. Just being is enough for you – and that’s when you have the most impact.
We hope we are planting seeds so children and young adults can see that it’s okay to be themselves. They are more powerful when they do this.