Muslim faith, passion for hip-hop ‘tell a uniquely American story’
Amirah Sackett and Ahmed Zaghbouni (MR MiC) are the 2022 artists in residence at Next Stage Arts Project in Putney.

Muslim faith, passion for hip-hop ‘tell a uniquely American story’

Amirah Sackett and Ahmed Zaghbouni, artists in residence at Next Stage Arts Project, explore the intersection of dance and cultural identity

PUTNEY — Next Stage Arts Project has welcomed Amirah Sackett and Ahmed Zaghbouni (MR MiC) to Putney in recent days to serve as their 2022 artists in residence. The pair gave workshops, lectures, performances, and several media interviews - all aimed to inspire everyone to follow their passion.

Sackett, a Muslim American 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 received 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 hijab, the modest style of dress among Muslim women.

Zaghbouni is a multitalented beatboxer and filmmaker, originally from Sousse, Tunisia.

“We live in a place where approximately 96 percent of the residents are white, so bringing Amirah and Ahmed to Putney is moving our communities forward 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 uniquely American story,” he continued. “She's a professional dancer who merges her identity as a woman, Muslim, and American and, in so doing, shows us the connection between hip-hop and dance culture.”

The Commons sat down recently with Sackett and Zaghbouni for an in-depth conversation on 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?

Amirah Sackett: It's hard to see myself as separate from dance - it's the way I communicate and express myself. It's always been there with me since I was a child.

V.C.: How does your Muslim faith inform your dance?

A.S.: My path as a Muslim is part of me as well as being a dancer, and I express myself through both of those things. Being naturally expressive and connecting to the spiritual plane is not unusual for dancers.

At the same time, being a dancer is related to my spiritual path; they are very much in synch. In 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 encompasses social justice at its core.

V.C.: What impact do you hope to make?

A.S.: The work I'm doing where I'm speaking with my voice and showing people through dance, my strengths and my pride in who I am. It's evolved where I'm using my actual voice now - in the past, I was just dancing but not speaking. The intersection of faith, activism, hip-hop, and dance - they all go together.

V.C.: You talk about hate speech and Islamophobia. How do you bring those topics up when you perform?

A.S.: It's a natural progression to say something about how Muslims are being discriminated against in Europe and in the U.S. In 2011, France was banning the hijab in school, and there was also a burkini ban.

In the case of France, I asked, “You want to take clothes off women who want to be covered up?”

“We want to liberate Muslim women,” they said. They are neglecting the fact that it's our choice how we dress. It's linked to a form of feminism, modesty, and strength. You can't judge us on the outside 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 hate. I studied how hate speech affects us - a physical threat, people being afraid, stems from not understanding fully the religion and only getting the media's take on it, which doesn't represent 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.

V.C.: Would you change anything from your TED Talk [“Finding peace through Islam and hip-hop,” TEDxAmoskeagMillyard], which you gave in 2016?

A.S.: That's a good question. No, I would keep it the same. That is the core of me - my love of both things and the connections between them.

The great thing that's 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 ages 15 to 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 not Muslim. I want to get to the point where it's secondary that I'm 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.

V.C.: What is it like to perform in Vermont?

A.S.: In 2018 I did a residency with Sandglass Theater in Putney and realized that Putney is an ideal small American town. It's what you hope America will be: welcoming, people who are educated and open, an increasingly diverse population, and a strong focus on the arts. The environment and nature here is so beautiful.

Many people here have been exposed to Islam as a religion, and are open to learning more.

V.C.: How did hip-hop evolve from break dancing?

A.S.: Hip-hop started in the Bronx in the late 1970s; remember the movie Flashdance and Breakin'? The original dance of hip-hop is called breaking (break dancing).

I grew up doing ballet but 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 learning moves from music videos as well.

In the early 2000s, I was practicing with b-boys and b-girls and got really into the underground hip-hop scene. I realized that the commercialized hip-hop scene was not in line with my values.

I distinctly remember this moment when I met PopMaster Fabel, a popper from Spanish Harlem who was Muslim, when he came to Minneapolis. That's when I became more serious about teaching hip-hop history and when I started exploring popping as a style of dance.

I became more serious about studying hip-hop and finding the roots of its culture. Fabel was a great mentor to me. He would say, “You're doing fine. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.” I began to trust myself in my journey.

V.C.: Explain the dance style “popping.”

A.S.: Popping is a West Coast style of hip-hop - you've heard of the robot and waving, and tutting, a style based on geometric patterns. I started with breaking and then got more into popping. I teach a lot of breaking to kids and the foundational hip-hop style.

The dances of hip-hop are powerful athletic dances and build self-esteem through dance. When girls are dancing the same as boys, there is less emphasis on being pretty, cute, sexy.

V.C.: When did you and Ahmed Zaghbouni (MR MiC) begin collaborating?

A.S.: We started working together in 2019. We met in Algeria, where I was performing and he was filming. Ahmed is 29 and lives in Chicago now. He's a world-renowned beatboxer and is super talented. You see him create these sounds with his mouth. I've learned so much from him.

V.C.: Have you seen an evolution in your work together?

Ahmed Zaghbouni: When Covid hit, we were doing our show live, so we made it live on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube and had audiences watching from all over the world. We then taught kids via Zoom, Skype, and Messenger, and we had panel discussions.

We both judged a Tunisian championship beatboxing competition. She taught a virtual community class for Harvard University. We decided to stream our show to teach through all the platforms.

A lot of people started noticing our show. The first show we did live, without an audience, was “Beat Box meets Popping,” in Kansas City in the fall of 2020, under the umbrella of Amirah's brand “We're Muslim, Don't Panic.”

At that time, Amirah had pieces of 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 those are from the international Lift-Off Global Network Film Festival 2021.

Then we created another film, Lateef (one of the names of Allah, the subtle name).

V.C.: Tell me about growing up in Tunisia and how that influences your beatboxing.

A.Z.: I am from Sousee, Tunisia and grew up in a really artistic environment. My dad was a musician and my mom is an artist. My family practices Sufi, which is a Muslim practice that focuses a lot on rhythm, harmony, and breath to make dhikr, a direct connection to Allah. A lot of what I do now comes from that.

I was 10 years old when I found out about beatboxing and hip-hop. I was making rhythmic sounds, voice impressions, and sound impressions all the time. I would mimic every sound I heard.

Michael Jackson was the first interview I remember watching. I recall videos of pioneers from the U.S.A. like Doug E. Fresh - the Godfather of beatboxing who is from the Bronx. At age 18, I took it more seriously. I started competing, performing, and uploading videos on 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 in the world championship in beatboxing in Germany. It's very moving to see how many people have been affected by my work.

V.C.: Any final thoughts?

A.S.: We're living in a time when we are told you're not enough. Being yourself with all of your complexities is your strongest path. Just being you is enough - and that is when you are the most impactful.

We are hopefully planting seeds so children and young adults can see that it is OK to be themselves. They are more powerful when they do that.