Pop ‘n Lock: A Conversation with Al – Taw’am

If you’ve seen Brother Ali’s video “Mourning in America” or Mona Haydar’s “Hijabi (Rock My Hijab)”, then you are probably familiar with Al-Taw’am. Minnesota-based twins Iman and Khadijah Siferllah-Griffin have been leaving their mark in the dance community. In addition to performing at multiple events around the country such as the Nobel Peace Prize forum, the 18 year old high school seniors are using their talents to not only continue the legacy of Hip Hop, but also as a catalyst for social change. Sapelo Square Founder and Senior Editor, Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer sat down with the duo at Takin’ It To the Streets last year to discuss their inspirations, ambitions, and life as black Muslim female dancers.

Dr. Su’ad: So now how did you start dancing?

Khadijah: Both of our parents. We grew up in a household full of music, culture, and dancing. Our parents are African American, and we feel that hip-hop is a huge part of our culture, so we grew up around lots of hip-hop music as well as a lot of Caribbean music, dancehall and reggae. Our mom is Jamaican, so it was just there, all the time.

Dr. Su’ad: What type of dance do you do?

Khadijah: Hip-hop is our roots, our…

Iman: Foundation.

Khadijah: Our foundation. But we have a lot of different styles under our belt. It’s always difficult to explain, because you have a group of people who are saying, “There’s other hip-hop styles other than breaking and 90’s” and then you have another group of people who are like, “That’s not hip-hop.” Like popping. That’s a style that we knew. It’s considered hip-hop by some, but not by others.

Iman: Controversial styles.

Khadijah: We come from a community that is in conflict with what’s hip-hop and what’s not right now. But to describe what we do, we love to pop. Whacking. We love whacking…

Iman: Locking.

Khadijah: I do a little bit of locking, but it’s hard to freestyle lock, for me. But those are our main styles.

Iman: And we’re learning crunk. Something different.

Dr. Su’ad: Ok, so popping, locking, whacking. You said you were learning.

Iman: We’re learning crunk. We also incorporate a lot of West African [influences] within our dance.

Dr. Su’ad: Specific regions of West Africa?

Khadijah: Igbo.

Iman: But still in the process.

Khadijah: Dikali, from Cote D’Ivoire. We’re very into that.

Dr. Su’ad: So you’re mixing that into your hip-hop?

Khadijah: Yup. Also, when we went to high school, we started meeting a lot of African people, a lot of African friends. And at our school there’s not a lot of kids of color, but the ones that are there, we have a tendency to cling to each other.

Dr. Su’ad: Like their parents emigrated from Africa?

Khadijah: Yeah. They’re kind of like, “Listen to this,” and “Let me teach you this”, and we’re like “OK.”

Dr. Su’ad: Is it more like contemporary? What’s this one thing? There was some dance someone was showing me, it was something like this (attempts dance move).

Khadijah: But then there’s also a strong leader within our community, Kenna Cottman, a very strong African American very strong woman in our community. She has a group that goes by the name Voice of Culture, and incorporates young people and older people. They do African drumming, as well as dance. The beautiful thing is a lot of the people that are in Muslim culture are African American. Being in Minnesota and seeing them opened my eyes to, “OK, it is OK for me to venture out and try new things. It’s OK for me as an African American to experiment [and] learn things other than hip-hop.”

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Dr. Su’ad: So how does being Muslim shape your dancing? Does it shape the style, how you dance, does it shape why you dance?

Iman: When I first started dancing, and I feel like this still shapes me today, being introduced to the hip-hop community, the scene is very male-dominated. The movement I was seeing was what some people call ‘masculine’.

Dr. Su’ad: Like the way you move your body?

Iman: Mmh-hmm. So I felt that I could see myself in that, with being able to uphold modesty. And although I see any style of hip-hop as something that is unisex that anyone can do, male or female, I still stick more to the styles that may look a little bit more masculine.
Dr. Su’ad: Masculine.

Iman: Because of the whole ‘modesty’ thing.

Khadijah: I feel you on that. And Islam doesn’t change being feminine. But there are certain dances that are certain ways–that we dance inside the house when it’s just all women–and ways that we dance in public. There is a difference. When you’re in a mixed crowd, we keep our movements modest, you know? We keep our movements stuck to the ways that either a man or woman would do. That kind of shapes it. Intention-wise, with being Muslim, I view dance through a different lens. When I dance, I’m dancing for myself and those that I want to provoke happiness in. But also, I’m remembering Allah. I’m always keeping Allah on my mind. Being so young, Iman being so young, only eighteen, and being able to do the things that we’ve been able to do, that a lot of people within our community are saying, “I’ve never had the opportunity to do that”. Just experiencing that, I’m like, “Man, if this is not Allah, I don’t know.” I’m always in remembrance of who I am while I’m dancing. I feel hip-hop is part of Black culture. Being Muslim, I also feel like- It’s hard to explain for myself, but I feel that there’s nothing wrong with choosing to be African American and choosing to indulge in that culture and still be Muslim and indulging in things that we do.

Dr. Su’ad: So you’re Black Muslim women who dance. What is the greatest opportunity that comes from being Black Muslim women who dance and what is the greatest, or among the greatest, challenges that come with being a Black Muslim woman who can dance?

Khadijah: I’ll just talk about the good things first. I feel like I’m a walking question mark. When people see us dancing, not only do they come up to us afterwards and congratulate us on our movement, they’re asking questions about our identity, who we are. You’d be amazed how many conversations that I’ve had the opportunity to go into just because of how I look. Often times beautiful conversations. Another thing, being African American and still engaging in Black culture, there’s a lot of us, but there’s not a lot of us at the same time. I feel like I’m able to then, amongst other Black people that are not Muslim, I’m able to share who we are and what we’re about. Because, you know, our parents are first generation Muslim.

Dr. Su’ad: Your parents converted to Islam?

Khadijah: Yes. So even wearing hijab all the time, and having cousins that aren’t Muslim, and them seeing us still being treated for who we are, still being Muslim, for them it’s some kind of, “Wow, you all are different.” They love us dearly, but still, sometimes, there’s that, “Wow, what is this about. You all are different.”

Iman: Also, with being African American, and being women, and being Muslim, that’s like triple terror. Being all three of those in America isn’t always easy. [We] do get judged by what we do, our decisions. I think self-love comes into play for why we continue to stay true to who we are, even though it gets difficult when people are in your face and telling you you’re wrong.

Dr. Su’ad: Do people do that? Do they come up to you in your face sometimes?
Khadijah: More so the people that are bold enough to come up to us, it’s usually on the more reserved side. But as far as the Internet, the people behind the screen, it’s a bloodbath.

Iman: But another challenge is – this is always a touchy topic – but I feel that, when it comes to expression and artistic expression, and when it comes to [being] Muslim, I feel that a lot of Muslims leave room for Muslims that are not African American, that are Middle Eastern or Arab. They can still be Muslim and still engage in their culture, and its fine. But when we step up to the pit, it’s almost as if it becomes haram and it’s always something that I’m like, “Hold up, that’s not fair.” I had a conversation with a woman, one of our peers that came up to us. She’s Somali. And she said, “I love seeing you all dance, but what you’re doing is wrong.” I was listening to what she was saying, and I waited until she was done, and I said, “But on the other side, why is it OK for Somalis to dance? Why is that OK? It’s done at weddings, it’s done at festivals. Why is that OK, but when we step up to the plate with hip-hop, it’s all the sudden, “This is bad.” That double standard is something [we] see all the time.

Dr. Su’ad: Who are your teachers, and who are your dance inspirations?

Khadijah: I consider myself an old soul. So whenever I want dance inspiration, I’ll always watch old hip-hop videos. Usually done in some garage or some basement or something like that.

Iman: Or Soul Train.

Khadijah: Or Soul Train. We used to watch Soul Train like it was Disney Channel. Real talk. But, like I said before, my mother and my dad are some of my biggest inspirations in life. Our mom [is] a dancer, Dad [is] not a dancer, but still very knowledgeable about hip-hop. Just being who they are, and then teaching us, just being advocates of our culture and saying, “never forget that”, they’re some of my biggest inspirations.

Iman: Dance-wise, I have a lot of dancers who inspire me. Amirah Sackett was the first Muslim dancer woman who we met in Minneapolis, who moved like us, who’s a popper. When we met her we were like, “Where have you been?” She’s an inspiration. Herbert Johnson, he’s a hip-hop dancer, he does hip-hop in many varieties of different styles. He knows so much and he’s always learning something new, whether it’s the masculine styles or the feminine styles.

Khadijah: I’d say he’s one of the first people. Our Mom would teach us certain dances, but when we got to an age where we started to surpass her in ability Herbert Johnson was the first person that actually was like “look, here’s technique, here’s this, here’s that.” He actually, physically teached us. We were in the same company for a certain time, back in Minnesota, and we weren’t too hip to freestyling as much as we are now. And so he just said, “Practice starts at 1 o’clock.” And we would get there and there’s be no official practice. He’d just be practicing the material, practicing technique. So he pushed us in that way.

Dr. Su’ad: So is dance your career, is that what you’re going to do when you ‘grow up’?

Iman: We have one more year, senior year, and I’d say the most stressful part about the whole college thing is not money, it’s not scholarships, it’s trying to figure out what I want to do. There are so many things I’m interested in, and I’ve always been interested in dance and movement, period. But just thinking, “Do I want to do that every day for a job?” It’s…I don’t know.

Khadijah: I definitely see myself being more than just a dancer. So, keeping dance in my lifestyle as much as possible but being something else on the side as well. I don’t know what that something else is right now.

Iman: I’m very into science. But I’m very interested in social justice also, Back home, being a huge activist, and just working with people and being mentored by people. I’m just like, “You know, I could see myself doing things like this every day.”

Dr. Su’ad: Since you said you were a huge activist, I was wondering, about Black Lives Matter, and the whole movement around Black lives, Where do you see yourselves in relationship to that, and where do you see hip-hop and hip-hop dance in relationship to that?

Iman: For me, I absolutely use my art to push social change forward, and that’s what we’re really known for back home. Bringing that message along with dance. I find it funny that I’m always seeing this activism in hip-hop circulating in a circle, oftentimes. What I mean by that is often times, back home, when there’s protests and where there’s the need for people to listen or reach feeling, there’s always hip-hop. At protests back home, there’s always hip-hop music bumping and we’re always there at those protests to do what we have to do, but that’s how many of us feel. Hip-hop is how we get through a lot of things.

Khadijah: Yeah, I think the right kind of hip-hop is healing. Not to shame other forms, but there are some forms of hip-hop that I consider more healing, and that’s the truth, being true and honest about experiences, especially our experiences. We have many dancers still fighting. That shows the struggle and the lifestyle of African Americans since the beginning of us being here, and all the way up to today. So that’s something we’ve done in our city many times. I think Black Lives Matter is a beautiful movement, and it has definitely inspired our art a lot. A huge part of where I’m at in my life right now is like, “How can [we] African Americans start seeing the change we’ve been asking for?” I think we need to get on the same page, we meaning African Americans. We need to unlearn things and get into the heads of our youth to start unlearning the things that trap us as far as how we view ourselves and the things we go after in life. I’m just really here for my community, especially African Americans, and Muslims as well.

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