Reclaiming hip hop

This Sadler's Wells show saves the genre from itself.

I now realise (what took me so long?) that the perfect medium for expressing despair, desire, joy, friendship and the feminist credo is undoubtedly hip hop. Nothing quite says I love you like a spot of locking and popping. Krumping is the new iambic pentameter! Such is the eye-opening evidence of Some Like It Hip Hop, currently playing at Sadler’s Wells.

Fittingly, given hip hop’s frisky bricoleur tendencies, dance company ZooNation have taken two existing classics of cross-dressing, Some Like It Hot and Twelfth Night, and parlayed these into something rich, strange and very street.

The bare bones of the story articulate an admittedly crude parable, teaching the kids that books are cool and misogyny ain’t (but then plotting wasn’t Shakespeare’s strong suit, either). We are transported - arguably not very far - to a land where books are burned, or banned, and women demeaned and subjugated. It’s Riyadh, with drum ‘n’ bass. To take on and take down this benighted, boys-own city state our two girl heroes Jo-Jo and Kerri must don Groucho Marx moustaches, and enter the citadel disguised as chaps.

In the show’s final “battle”, the regime’s goons busts some impressive moves but it’s a one nil victory as the girls and the wonks stick it to the patriarchy. It’s not made wholly clear how the girls link to the books, or the books link to the wellbeing of the state, but dance is a mode that laughs in the face of the non sequitur.

This is a show in which everything flips: bodies, beats, texts and genders. Inverting the Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis axis is a stroke of genius. This time it’s the women’s turn to ogle the men (dressed, at one point, in cursory boxers for the night). The way the two performers (Lizzie Gough and Teneisha Bonner) ape a blokeish physicality is an utter joy. The brilliance of their forgeries is that they don’t just look like women pretending to be men. They look like women pretending to be men pretending to be men - exposing posturing masculinity in all its crotch-grabbing nullity.

Bonner is a fabulous dancer, and an even better comedian. As she mans up and gets her swag on, only the slightly wild and shifty eyes give away anxieties about being unmasked. And what real boy doesn’t have these same anxieties?

There are two love stories played out in Some Like It Hip Hop, one of which is between the only bookish guy in town (a charming Tommy Franzén) and Gough, as the cross-dressed Jo-Jo. The lovers perform a delightfully goofy his ‘n’ hers routine: a hip hop pas de deux. Franzén, in his dapper checks and swotty bow tie, dances with the nonchalant grace of an Astaire and a Chaplin. Who wouldn’t fall in love with him?  

Meanwhile the repressive Governor of the mini-kingdom (Duwayne Taylor: sultry, sulky) has demons of his own. In flashback mode, we watch his tyranny take root in the death of his beloved wife. During this vignette, the dancers’ movements start to judder and stutter; glitches appear in the scene, as if it were a video tape degraded in the replaying. It is up to the magnificent Kerri to redeem the bereaved despot, burned up by such memories.

The original score (by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde), which includes some terrific live singing, rips from jazz, funk, blues, rock and rap. Walde himself surfaces benignly in umpteen scenes, singing, chorusing, playing the guitar. Arguably no-one’s more ubiquitous, however, than the unseen Katie Prince, who’s director, writer, choreographer and lyricist. Her physical style is an ebullient and witty mash of moves, as she appropriates everything from cheesy-licious dancehall to acrobatic breakdance. It’s choreography that makes the rest of the West End look old. Her biggest move is the reclamation of hip hop itself, not to mention its vile “bros before hoes” canon. In this land-grab, it’s annexed as a feminist form. Prince’s genre-bender pulls hip hop away from narcissistic, belligerent machismo and re-imagines it as co-operative, romantic and feminine. Some teeny bopper elements in the stalls screamed for the virtuoso (male) dancers like they were rock gods - but time and again the narrative carefully reels them back from such fetishisation.

Marvellously, the audience could not have been - rare in theatreland - culturally more multi, or generationally more mixed (a few, surely, more at the hip op stage?).

Some Like It Hip Hop? Surely All Like It Hip Hop.

A scene from Some Like It Hip Hop (Photograph: Simon Prince)
Photo: Getty
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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia