Amirah Sackett uses dance to challenge conceptions of Muslim womanhood. The Chicago dancer, choreographer, educator, and activist combines hip-hop with Islamic themes to explore her identity and invites viewers to expand their understanding of movement as a mode of self-expression. During her visit to campus this week, Sackett met with undergraduate students at an ArtsBites session on Wednesday, sponsored by the Office for the Arts. And on Thursday she planned to teach a hip-hop dance master class at the Harvard Dance Center. That session will be free and open to the public. The Gazette spoke to Sackett about the importance of education in the arts, her activism, and love of poetry.
GAZETTE: When did you fall in love with dance?
SACKETT: I was a kid who couldn’t sit still. When I heard music, I would just get up and start moving, and from about the age of 7 I was obsessed with learning steps. I have a background in contemporary dance and in classical ballet, and the way that I came to hip-hop was probably first through rap music and the way that it told a story. I loved the way that rap communicated things so efficiently in a short amount of time. I loved, and still love, the music of Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Nas. When I started dancing, especially with hip-hop, it was more about mastering skills like breaking and popping. It was around 2011 that I started creating pieces that were more about saying something with that movement. The genre we call hip-hop dance has a rich and expressive movement vocabulary. We have so much to say, and now I’m trying to explore how to translate from what we do in a dance cypher — the circle — to a space like a stage.
GAZETTE: What are some avenues for achieving that translation?
SACKETT: I’ve been fusing Rumi’s poetry with hip-hop and funk beats, and then creating movement with Islamic themes. Rumi has been part of my exploration process in the last few years, and his poetry is popular in the United States, but his Muslim identity is often not discussed here. People are familiar with Rumi as a poet, but they forget that he was also an Islamic scholar. By using Rumi in my work, I’m channeling an artist who is so loved by all and fusing that with hip-hop culture, which I feel is a universal language. I love exploring and growing my skills, but I think it’s very important that I say something with my work.
GAZETTE: Have you grappled with any internal tension around embracing hip-hop culture as a practicing Muslim?
SACKETT: There are some aspects of popular hip-hop culture that don’t go hand in hand with my faith, but the area of hip-hop culture that I have always participated in is the hip-hop that operates at the community level, teaching in Boys & Girls Clubs and after-school programs. I did that throughout my early career, and I saw the way that hip-hop culture and expression through dance helps kids get through tough times and deal with difficult emotions and hardships. I don’t think it conflicts with my Muslim identity. I just have to be very choosy about what I participate in and what’s OK for me, according to my beliefs. There are many ways to participate in hip-hop culture.
GAZETTE: What role does education play in your creative practice?