The question ‘Where are you from?’ can mean different things depending on where you are in the world. For Nkeiruka Oruche, the Artistic Director and founder of Afro Urban Society, this once was a simple question but became more complex when she moved to the United States. Nkeiruka was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, grew up in New York, Georgia and came of age and found her tribe in California. Each place she has lived has shaped her identity and commitment to preserving Afro urban dance culture. Through original and curated arts and event production, popular arts education and community engagement Afro Urban Society create spaces for people of African descent all over the world to tell their own stories. In a candid interview Nkeiruka describes the essence of Afro Urban dance and community cultivated to celebrate the fullness of African identity; that spans many cultures and nations.
Aries Jordan: How have your Igbo roots shaped how you approach dance?
Nkeiruka Oruche: In Nigeria, when people ask ‘Where are you from?’ they don’t mean where you were born or raised but your ancestral homeland. I am from the Igbo ethnic group, which is one of about 250 different ethnic groups in Nigeria. Many Igbos in present-day Nigeria have a patrilineal society, which determines where you are from based on your father’s bloodline, language, and ethnic tribe. I grew up with a duality of culture that laid the foundation for how I approach dance. I understood that no matter where I was born or raised I had an ethnic identity that connected me to my lgbo ancestral homeland, language, and traditions. Amichi, Nigeria is my ancestral hometown. Growing up, I lived in Lagos (Nigeria), the Bronx, Stone Mountain (Georgia), and the Los Angeles Valley. I finally ended up in the Bay Area in 2003 for college and have been here ever since. The question of ‘Where are you from?’ grew more complicated because my identity was shaped by all of the places that I lived in. I was no longer just Igbo but so much more! A Pan African approach to dance just felt natural because it acknowledged my multinational identity and experiences.
AJ: What inspired the creation of Afro Urban Society?
NO: In New York City I experienced many types of Afro Caribbean and other Non-Nigerian African cultures. There was a collective Pan African awareness and exposure to different accents from people of African ancestry. When I moved to the south there was little diversity and I was immersed in Southern Black culture. Being African and different was really hard. Growing up in the South I felt more disconnected from other Nigerians and Africans. I wasn’t “African enough” and in the US I was “too African.” I attended college in Southern California and San Francisco and connected with other Africans, who were first-generation immigrants or had a Pan African mindset. Afro Urban Society simply began informally as a few Africans that wanted to connect and make stuff we didn’t see. At the time, Africans were creating visual aesthetics specific to their ethnic identity or tribal roots. It excluded the African diaspora that has also shaped modern day African culture. We wanted to create clothing, visual art, performances, and events that were beyond African nationalism and included political consciousness of the places that we lived. Moving to the Bay Area was encouraging; here I not only met like-minded Africans but African Americans that affirmed my multidimensional expression of Blackness. In the Bay Area, I developed my Afro Urban dance practice which became a meeting place for all the different styles I had learned from Dancehall, Congolese music, hip hop, and contemporary African pop. Afro Urban Society became the umbrella to unify and center the creativity of people of African descent.
AJ: How do you define Afro Urban culture and dance?
NO: Afro Urban acknowledges the way people of African descent show up whether it is dance, music, fashion, or visual arts that are unique to each city or each urban locale. In America, the word “Urban” has become synonymous with African American culture. Globally urbanization describes living conditions and has a totally different meaning. Afro and Urban combined connects Black people from the African continent to the diaspora. No matter where Black people are in the world, they consciously and unconsciously have a vibe that is rooted in African culture. Urban culture naturally infuses traditional and contemporary dances. Afro Urban dances are created or fostered by people of African descent living in Urban areas like Breakdance, Turf, Pantsula, Bachata and Afrobeats.
AJ: What are the dance elements that make up an Afro Urban Dance experience?
NO: Urban Dance is usually generated from the stories, social and political conditions of urban living. In places where dance culture is strong, it is often in disenfranchised communities, where people live in close quarters or unsheltered. Public spaces are a place to socialize, conduct business, create music or dance. From these interactions, street dance emerges and no one owns it. Each city has its own Afro Urban style but I have noticed a global thread of line dancing, freestyle, bravado, and call and response. Freestyle and being yourself is important. When there is music playing, you simply dance. There are no strict guidelines, instruction or rules to follow which is rooted in African tradition. Secondly, there is also a crowd celebration of solo or partner dancers that put their unique spin on traditional or contemporary movements. Crowds gather around dancers that truly embody or elevate a dance style. Line dancing and community dancing have an important function in Afro Urban dance. Line dance is an expression of unity that brings the collective group together in movement. Lastly, the interaction between the dancer and music is essential. Traditionally, the exchange between the dancer and drummer is harmonious. Dancers moved in response to the music and vice versa. Contemporary Afro dance styles follow the same structure but traditional drummers have been replaced with DJs.
AJ: What can your audience expect from Afro Urban Society’s upcoming performance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance festival? Also, what is Pan-Afro Urban Drumline?
NO: The audience will experience the African Diaspora through dance and music.
The Pan-Afro drumline is an experimentation of urban drum culture throughout the world preserved by people of African descent. We incorporate drum styles like Junkanoo from the Bahamas, Southern Rap, Miami bass, Second line, Bay Area Hyphy, Coupé-Décalé from Côte d’Ivoire, Dancehall from Jamaica, Reggaeton from Puerto Rico and Igbo Folkloric Chant from Nigeria. That is the drumline! Our Pan-Afro Urban Drumline has partnered with UC Berkeley Bearettes dance team to pay homage to HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] band dance culture.