Hip Hop Her Way; An Interview with Sisterz of the Underground’s Sarah Smalls

By Christy Funsch

March 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Sisterz of the Underground (SOTU) is a community, network, and support system created by, and for, females who choose hip-hop as a form of expression. As an open hip-hop collective, SOTU aims to encourage the integration of different elements of hip-hop, breaking, djing, emceeing, and graff art, use the elements as tools for education and social change, as well as provide opportunities to showcase the elements — such as the annual Sisterz of the Underground event.

The Extra Credit Kru (ECK) is an all-female breaking crew centralized in the San Francisco Bay Area as an accessory to Sisterz of the Underground. ECK has gained notoriety in hip-hop events and conferences from San Francisco to Cincinnati, and every city in between. With Hound Dawg Truckers and Rock Steady Crew as some of their main influences, ECK has cultivated a demanding style through old school foundation, incorporating the novelties of its members: Sarah Smalls, Nurseboogie, Cryx, Goldirocks, Miss Mavis, Aplus, Estairia, Fluid Girl, Bina Girl, and Dr. Beantwerp. When ECK and its members are not performing or competing they are enriching the community, teaching in community centers, homeless shelters, libraries, and youth emancipation centers. They work towards empowering girls and women to strive for success even in male dominated arenas, and directing youth toward positive and artistic achievements, all through hip-hop.

Sarah Smalls is anything but. The fiery, ever-positive founder of the hip-hop collective Sisterz of the Underground has contagious energy and an impressive track record. As performer and hip-hop scholar Skorpio puts it, Sarah “embodies style, finesse, and articulate movement.” I invited the Sisterz to perform with me at the Live Worms Gallery in March, as a tribute to the righteous work they are doing in empowering women and advocating for social change through movement. As part of this project, I wanted to get a little something in print about Sarah.

CF: What is your background in movement and hip-hop? What and who were early influences on you?

Sarah: Well, I’ve been a dancer and an artist since I was really young. I started tap, jazz, hip-hop, gymnastics, and theater when I was about five years old. My real introduction to hip-hop dance was in the 90s when I was able to see dance moves and create routines with my girls. When I was about 15, I started getting into the underground party scene in L.A. and started freestyle dancing. That was my first experience with cyphers [hip-hop jam sessions]. My early influences in breaking definitely came from a Bay Area b-boy crew, the Hound Dawg Truckers, and, of course, the Rock Steady Crew. But now most of my influences come from my b-girl crew, Extra Credit, and my man, B-Boy Machine.

CF: How did you come to form SOTU? How would you describe the atmosphere for women in hip-hop and have you seen this change at all?

Sarah: At the time I started SOTU, I was really, really inspired by two women in my life. One was Inchant, a female emcee, who is still down with SOTU. The other was Arouz, a female graff artist. I had always been such a tomboy and when I met these girls, I really believed there were many other strong, talented, independent women out there. The owner of the Justice League (what is now the Independent) had approached me and asked if I wanted to throw an event, so I decided to throw an all-female hip-hop show with ladies representing all elements and I called it “Sisterz of the Underground.” I spent three weeks going to every hip-hop show scouting out female mcs, djs, b-girls, graff artists, and more. We sold out the venue and everybody was asking “who is Sisterz of the Underground?” so I asked all of the girls if they wanted to form a collective so we can act as a support system for women to express themselves comfortably in what has historically been a male-dominated arena. I definitely think things are changing for women in hip-hop, especially in the breaking community. There are some super dope b-girls out there that blow me away and even though the changes may be small, they are happening…slowly but surely.

Since the beginning of 2005, SOTU has been running their education program under the name, DEF ED-Definitive Education. DEF ED uses the powerful influence of the hip-hop culture to cross common boundaries that often separate communities, such as gender, class, and culture. Through emceeing, djing, breaking, and street art workshops, DEF ED attempts to promote pro-social life and learning skills through language arts, artistic expression and physical fitness.

CF: How did SOTU’s DEF ED program start?

Sarah: After about two months of forming SOTU, I received an application for teaching a workshop at the 5th Annual Young Women’s Conference. So I applied for SOTU to teach a “4 Elements” hip-hop workshop [the four elements being breaking, emceeing, djing, and graff/street art]. We didn’t know what we were doing and completely winged it, but it was very successful. At the conference we met two local organizations that held programming for girls, Oasis and Girls 2000. They both contacted us about coming to work with their girls. One thing led to the next and we started getting contacted by other local organizations, some that weren’t only for girls. Before we knew it, we had formed DEF ED. We ran this program by ourselves for five years before approaching CELL Space to support and house DEF ED. Currently DEF ED serves over 1,500 youth each year in six counties in the Bay Area through schools, community centers, libraries, juvenile hall centers, and more.

CF: DEF ED seems like it has the potential to greatly impact and empower young people: can you share any stories from your teaching experiences?

Sarah: Oh, I probably have too many stories! I would love to mention two youth that I have connected with. The first is Jamairi. We started teaching Jamairi breaking when he was six years old and in the first grade at El Dorado Elementary School. He lived with his two brothers and his mom in a small house in the Sunnydale Projects. He was so great that I invited him to come to a jam with me. He loved it and danced all night long in the cyphers. Last year he entered a competition and won $50. It’s amazing to see how much he has grown and how he’s continued to stay out of trouble now that he’s going into 6th grade.

The other student I would like to mention is Nadia. Nadia joined Machine, my boyfriend, in one of the DEF ED classes at Horizons as one of the only girls. She was a little shy, but she stayed in his class for three years and now comes and practices with SOTU at CELL Space. The most wonderful thing about her is that a couple years ago she was questioning going to college. We encouraged her towards that option and now she has already applied to a couple colleges and will hopefully be attending one of them next year.

CF: What obstacles have you faced in establishing and maintaining your own performing and teaching company?

Sarah: Oh there’s too many to list, but I always remember to fail forward, meaning that every mistake I make, I move forward and learn from that. It is difficult being a female trying to work inside of hip-hop where there can be negative connotations towards women. That has remained tough!

CF: What’s next for you and SOTU? What are some dream-come-true scenarios for you?

Sarah: Well the next big thing is our six-year anniversary that is coming up on Thursday, March 22, at 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco. It will be an all-female line-up of mcs, djs, b-girls, graff artists and more. Proceeds will help fund our DEF ED program. Other than that, we have bi-monthly gatherings where we invite other talented women to come and meet us as we plan for future events and community projects. As for Extra Credit, we are planning on going international this year to compete at I.B.E. in the Netherlands [a major break dance battle] in the latter part of 2007.

CF: How can people find out more about SOTU and contact you?

Sarah: Check out our web site www.sisterzunderground.com, or drop in at CELL Space and speak with our DEF ED Program Director Crykit.

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