Opa-locka was founded in the 1920's with an Arabian theme. "Hollywood was making movies about the Muslim world and there was a romanticized stereotype of Muslims as sultans with swords instead of terrorists with bombs." Kathryn Garcia, executive director of MDC Live Arts, explains. "Developer (Glenn Curtiss) wanted a city with an Arabian Nights motif. Buildings were designed that way like their city hall and you have streets with names like Ali Baba Avenue."
When leaders of MDC Live Arts decided to dedicate a season series to the Muslim world, they knew Opa-locka had to play a central part. "Our season initiative is called Ojalá/Inshallah: Wishes From the Muslin World," Garcia says. "We wanted to ...eliminate Islamophobia." Since hip-hop is a global phenomenon that can unify cultures and Opa-locka has a history of producing hip-hop, the idea of Hip Hoppa Locka was born. The two week celebration will showcase Muslim hip-hop artists working in the Opa-locka community. It all culminates April 21 with a performance and the unveiling of a mural on Opa-locka Boulevard.
MDC Live Arts chose to give Hip Hoppa Locka an added progressive twist by focusing on Muslim women in the hip-hop world. "Women are stereotyped both in the Muslim and hip-hop culture," Garcia says. "We brought in three strong women artists from Muslim backgrounds to show women don't have to be limited by religion or culture."
The trifecta of visiting artists will have a two-week residency where they will teach local school kids their crafts: dance, music, and visual arts. Amirah Sackett is a Chicago based hip-hop dancer, choreographer, and teacher, who performs her moves while wearing a hijab. Cita Sadeli is a graffiti artist who goes by the handle of “Chelove" and aims to meld the tropical mysticism of her heritage in Java, Indonesia with the raw energy of Washington, D.C. streets where she grew up. Finally, there's Aja Black, a New York-born MC, who with her group, The Reminders, has shared the stage with Snoop Dogg, Nas, Mos Def, Big Boi, and KRS-One.
Black, who lives in Colorado Springs, was particularly excited about working with the students of the Opa-locka school, Arts Academy of Excellence. "I'm using the platform to teach kids the importance of storytelling. Storytellers are the preservers of history and of the community."
Being an MC can increase self-esteem, she adds. "I try to incline kids to be forthcoming with their feelings," she says. "I use a lot of creative writing exercises. I give them very limited info like two to three words and they have to come up with connections in their life experience to write their own verses. I teach about rhythm and metaphor...Hip-hop has helped start political movements."
Besides preparing the students to perform at the April 21 show, Black is going to some pop-up shows at Miami-Dade College. She is also going to encourage the students to write a piece for the National Student Walkout on April 20, when kids nationwide will protest America's gun fetish.
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She's hoping the Hip Hoppa Locka artists' presence will spark curiosity and conversation about their Muslim backgrounds. "The three of us all look different," Black says. "I'm black with dreads and dress like I'm from a hippie town. There are Muslims from Africa, South Asia, America, not just the Arab world. People think Muslim women are oppressed, we want to show them Islam is not one concrete image."
Black thinks the kids of Opa-Locka can relate to overcoming a negative image. "Opa-locka has a lot of history. People only see it with its issues of crime and poverty. I grew up in a place like it in Queens. These kind of places have so many stories that can be told. I was reading about Opa-locka and you know that famous picture at Kent State where the girl is crying over the dead body? She was from Opa-locka."
Black and her fellow artists are hopeful that the effects of Hip Hoppa Locka will remain after their two-week stay. "We're hoping our presence can have a lasting impact...and Opa-locka can be seen as a place full of stories." That's a fitting goal for the city originally inspired by the one thousand and one tales of Arabian Nights.
Hip Hoppa Locka
4 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at The ARC, 675 Ali Baba Ave., Opa-locka; olcdc.org. 305-687-3545; Admission is free.