Above: photo by Jim Barcus
A Life in Hip-Hop
Winner of a 2018-19 Rocket Grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation and a 2018 Inspiration Grant from ArtsKC, Kansas City artist James “SugEasy” Singleton is gaining a growing reputation for his advocacy and performance of hip-hop.
“I am a dancer, a dance teacher, an advocate for the positivity of authentic hip-hop culture,” he says.
Hip-hop may be all around us, but, in Singleton’s mind, “not in the right way, not in the right direction.”
For some, hip-hop culture carries a negative stigma. For Singleton, it’s “a movement, a way of expressing and sharing life.” It’s “about peace, love, unity, still having fun.” He recently opened his own studio in Overland Park with these goals in mind.
Last September, Singleton presented a “Retro Rock Hip-Hop Culture Jam” in downtown Kansas City. In October, Singleton and his crew, Souls of Sole, offered a vibrant performance of music, narration, graffiti, emceeing, dance and deejaying in Swope Park as part of Open Spaces. Next came a Hip-Hop Halloween Party at the Lenexa Public Market.
This spring, he will use funds from his Rocket Grant to produce “Breaking Art” at Ermine Case Junior Park at 905 Jefferson St., in which break dancers will paint a mural on canvas with their dance movements. Come summer, he has his eye on the 2019 KC Fringe Festival. September brings another “Retro Rock Hip-Hop Culture Jam,” this one at the 10 Spot at 1000 Broadway.
Singleton lives hip-hop, which grabbed him at age five and never let go. He grew up in a music-loving military family, where Soul, R&B and Funk were constants through frequent moves — Texas, North and South Carolina, California, Louisiana and Japan. He landed in Kansas City when his father was stationed at Richard Gebaur.
Singleton attended high school in KC, where he got the nickname “Sug” (short for SugaMann). A friend added the “Easy” to describe his smooth dance moves, which he showcased at home and at numerous out of town competitions. These days he perfects them by attending classes all over the country and in New York every summer; he also brings pioneer teachers back to KC to hold workshops. Teaching is just as important as performing in Singleton’s quest to ensure hip-hop’s optimal development. He cites his classes with Down syndrome and autistic students as particularly rewarding.
As reflected in KC Rep’s 2018 production, “Welcome to Fear City,” hip-hop is often traced to disadvantaged urban youth in the 1970s Bronx. Yet hip-hop’s roots run deep and wide. It can be argued that it started as far back as the lindy hop floats and slide dance moves of the 1920s. The hip-hop thread runs through the Jamaican dancehalls and DJ battling of the 1950s and ’60s and the break beat of James Brown in the ’60s. It continued into the 1970s and ’80s with the beat-strong rhythms of Muhammad Ali, poet/performers like Gil Scott-Heron and The Black Messengers, and the founding of Zulu Nation by hip-hop founders DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. The goal was to pull teenagers away from gang life, drugs and violence.
Hip-hop today has four major components: deejaying, rapping emceeing, graffiti and B-boying or breakdancing. At Singleton’s new studio, “Break Free” (opened in collaboration with the successful franchise operation based in Houston), classes focus on breakdancing and deejaying and education for students of all ages and abilities. Singleton, who has taught at multiple studios over the years, approaches hip-hop as an art form comparable to jazz or ballet. It requires a similar concentration on fundamentals and technique, in contrast to the common misperception that hip-hop is all freestyle.
Hip-hop’s role in contemporary life can’t be denied. In the fall of 2018 Breakdancing was, for the first time, an event at the Youth Olympics, now there’s a push for it to be included in the Olympics itself.
Singleton is confident hip-hop can elevate us. “Hip-hop never invented anything, it just reinvented everything,” he says.
For upcoming events, visit www.translationinmovement.com