Wake up! It’s the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ In this #BlackLivesMatter era, the ’80s film is still very relevant

It was late summer of 1986. Jasmine Guy was standing on the streets of New York City, fresh out of a dance class at the Alvin Ailey School, when she heard a word unfamiliar to her: Wannabe.

She’d just run into director and eventual cultural purveyor Spike Lee. She first met him back in 1979, when she was a high school senior and he was a senior at Morehouse College who was directing the coronation at the school where she danced. Back then, he was telling folks that he planned to go to film school and had aspirations of being a director — although, at the time, Guy wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Spike had some news for her. “I just finished my first movie, you’ve got to see it,” she remembers Lee telling her. He was talking about 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, which is now of course a lauded Netflix series of the same name. She saw the movie and was mesmerized by the very contemporary piece that was in black and white and dealt with sex, relationships and intimacy. She’s never seen anything like it before. With black people. And she was impressed.

She ran into him again on those New York streets, and this was the time that he added a new word to her lexicon. “I’m doing another movie, and you’re going to be in it, so send me your headshot. You’re going to be a wannabe.” She was confused. “You know how you all are,” she remembers Lee saying. She had no idea what he was talking about. Wannabe.

But she soon learned. As did everyone else who would consume Lee’s epic portrayal of a fictional historically black college in School Daze, a movie that altered how we publicly talked about blackness and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). For the uninitiated, the idea of a “wannabe” was a caricature of (for the most part) a high-yellow, lighter-skinned woman with long hair whose physical attributes look more European than African. “Wannabe” was also an attitude: Wannabe better than me.

School Daze. It’s been three decades to the day since theaters were lit up with a historically black campus waking up — this was when Nelson Mandela was still locked up, and students called for divestment from South Africa. Three decades since Spike Lee brought us a story of conflict, of when students pledging fictional Greek fraternities were pitted against those who desired global and local social change. The Gamma dogs. The Gamma Rays. The Fellas. The Wannabes. The Jiggaboos — oh yes, the Jiggaboos. School Daze was about the tensions between light-skinned black folks and dark-skinned black folks.

Everything was right there on a 50-foot screen. No escaping it. We had to consume it. And address it. “It was like, Wow, this guy’s really going to go there,” says renowned director Kasi Lemmons, whose first film role was in School Daze. “He’s really going to explore these issues. It occurred to me, when I saw it, how important it was because it explored so many things that you just hadn’t seen.”


In so many ways, School Daze was an extension of what was happening on campuses. It tapped into activations that were happening in the mid-1980s, and after it was released, it inspired and engaged other students, amplifying the work that was already taking place.

Darryl Bell — who was one of the “big brothers” in School Daze, his first role — was quite active as a real-life student at Syracuse University. He attended rallies where black and Latino students were mobilizing, much in the same way that Laurence Fishburne’s Dap did on Lee’s fictional campus of Mission College. In real life, Bell pledged Alpha Phi Alpha.

“I wanted to know more about these Alpha fellas,” says Bell. He remembers seeing them at rallies. “The idea that Alpha men were involved in, and on the forefront of talking about, issues that mattered — the divesting of South Africa — it encouraged me to be part of student government. All of these things … my experience at Syracuse, you saw in the film. … We were engaged in voter registration. We put on a fashion show to raise money to give scholarships to high school students. … That was the life I was living. That’s why I was so desperate to be in the movie. … This is all about me and what I’m living everyday. It was an extraordinary example of art imitating life.”

The film was more than entertainment; even before A Different World, it really illuminated HBCU campus life. It shed a light on colorism, one of the most uncomfortable and unspoken issues among black folks — something we’d been battling for generations and, in a lot of ways, still are.

“There was … division between the men and women,” says Joie Lee, who portrayed Lizzie Life in the film, “in terms of what constitutes beauty. I wasn’t ‘fine.’ I wasn’t considered that. I did not fit that standard of beauty, perhaps because I was brown-skinned. Perhaps because my hair was nappy, and natural. The women that are considered fine … were light-skinned or had ‘good hair’ — I’m using that term loosely. Those were some of the issues that [we were] grappling with.”

Thirty years later, the film still holds up. Replace School Daze’s international concerns with the Black Lives Matter movement and the activism, especially in this current political climate, most certainly feels familiar. “It does have a relevance to what’s going on today,” says Kirk Taylor, who portrayed one of the Gammas. “In terms of the look, in terms of the content, in terms of the final message about waking up … we need to wake up as much now as we did then — and stay awake. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, or false peace, and not be aware that things still need to be addressed. Things still need to be changed.”

Stay woke, indeed.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown is free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country Her new work ‘ink’ explores the grace and democracy of African-American social dance

Alvin Ailey used to say that “dance is for everybody.”

Camille A. Brown, the tiny choreographer with big ideas, may be the living embodiment of that legacy. She’s the latest choreographer to marry social dance with concert dance, creating something that’s both sophisticated and familiar, evocative and unmistakably black.

You may know Brown’s work from a video that went viral and was turned into a TED explainer:

She’s an accomplished storyteller who began her career with Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE company and danced for two years with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She did the choreography for the Broadway revival of Once on the Island. And she’s something of a dance evangelist, not just choreographing and performing but often staying for audience Q&A’s postperformance. She wants to make dance accessible.

Brown is now touring her newest work, ink, which she debuted in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It’s the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012), followed by Black Girl: Linguistic Play (2015). All three examine black identity, stereotypes and authenticity. Her company performed ink at the University of Iowa last week, moved to Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, this weekend and will take the work to St. Paul, Minnesota, in late March.


Brown, 38, grew up dancing in Queens, New York. From the time she was 3, she’d watch Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos. Her mother noticed that she was preternaturally good at recreating the Jacksons’ complex choreography and enrolled her in dance classes. Brown loved it. She had a knack for learning dances quickly under Carolyn DeVore. And then puberty — or, rather, the way the adults around her reacted to the changes in her body — momentarily wrecked everything.

“When I got to high school and college, all of the sudden I became aware of what the ideal body was, and I quickly learned that I was not the ideal person,” Brown said during an interview in Washington. “I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that … so people would say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to fit the costume. Oh, you need to lose weight.’ ”

Brown began dieting when she was 16, and by the time she started studying dance in college at North Carolina School for the Arts, she’d become accustomed to getting sent to the school nutritionist. It was like being called to the principal’s office, but for food. She’s since shed 15-20 pounds, but that time and the way she felt about her body had a lasting impact.

“I had teachers that really saw my ability and really helped nurture that, and then I had teachers that just didn’t look at me, or just was like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to be a dancer.’ I just really had a struggle with that,” Brown said. “Me being a dancer, it was something that I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t necessarily think that I would be able to achieve it based on the things that I had been hearing about who I was.”

“I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that.”

So after receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree from NCSA, Brown joined a dance company where it didn’t matter that she had a butt, or a chest size larger than an A cup: Ronald K. Brown’s Brooklyn-based EVIDENCE.

“Body image was one of the reasons why I got into choreography, because I don’t know if I was always considered the best or had the perfect body image,” Brown said. “Would I be a choreographer now? I don’t know. I just know how I got here.”

Ink incorporates dancers of various shapes and sizes, using African, modern, hip-hop and social dance to explore black identity and day-to-day life. Brown’s movements explode from her petite, muscled frame (she’s maybe 5 feet tall) to fill the stage. Another dancer in the company, Kendra Dennard, holds your attention as a long, lithe, seductive flirt. There are bald heads and locs, juicy booties and small ones. Brown’s dancers run the gamut.

Brown takes movements that are familiar — the way a black woman might pat her hair as if to say, “I’m feeling myself,” or the act of scrubbing a floor — and folds them into stories about romance and friendship. In ink, Brown is a consummate observer of male body language. Her dancers capture the hesitation that comes with meeting someone for the first time, the way men can outwardly show off and exaggerate themselves while concealing vulnerability and sensitivity. And Brown reveals what it’s like in the intimate, comfortable moments when that mask is dropped.

In a section of the performance called Balance, about the courtship between a man and a woman, Brown said she wanted to use the scene to “debunk patriarchy.” And so the audience sees the male partner following a woman’s lead. The relationship moves at her speed, not his.

“It’s not the romance that we might see in the movies, but it’s romance in the sense that I know what romance is,” Brown said. “I mean, it’s coming from what I see or what I’ve experienced, so in that way it’s what I know love to be.”

What comes through in Brown’s work is a philosophy that social dance is just as significant as its classical cousin, ballet, and that incorporating it on stages like those of the Kennedy Center doesn’t cheapen the work of George Balanchine, whose outsize influence on what’s considered the “ideal” dancer body type continues to loom large. It’s simply a different form of communicating, drawing on another set of traditions and skills, the same way choreographers like Ailey or Twyla Tharp or Katherine Dunham created their own styles too. What’s more, using a variety of bodies to communicate those traditions doesn’t cheapen anything either.

“If you go all the way back to when I was a kid, I’m [told], ‘You’re not the ideal dancer.’ To go from that to actually being at the Kennedy Center under my own name? It’s something that I would have never dreamed of, ever,” Brown said. “It’s really a powerful time, and especially because we’re doing work that is not, by some people, seen as valuable. We live in a very Eurocentric dance world, where ballet or contemporary is seen as the elite movement, and so I’m not doing that. I’m doing modern, and hip-hop, and tap, and African, and social dance. To have this kind of platform, knowing that other people, whoever those other people are, don’t view this as real dance, is tremendous.”

For Brown, a Kennedy Center debut wasn’t just a platform; it was a springboard. She is now free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country, and even the globe.

The message to NFL players: Dance for us, but don’t kneel Demonizing black protest while allowing black celebration has a deep historical context

This NFL season, the usual game-day messaging of beer and sneaker ads and uplifting videos about community or military service has been augmented by a special kind of cultural telegraph.

Sent from white NFL owners and fans to black NFL players, it goes like this:

You can Milly Rock, Juju on that Beat or fake play pingpong in the end zone. (STOP) But we can’t abide you kneeling on the sidelines. (STOP) Dance to your heart’s content, but you best not raise a fist in protest. (STOP)

It’s a historically layered message about what’s allowable, laudable or even tolerable for black men to do with their bodies. It’s an adjudication centered in the white gaze, projected onto black limbs, televised to millions of eyes. Politicians, business leaders and NFL leadership have reached peak freak-out about players tackling racism and police brutality during the national anthem. But even as a divided populace watches football on a hair trigger, the league has newly relaxed its rules about touchdown celebrations.

Every pressurized system needs a release. Cue Mr. Bojangles.

Or can talented players simply be allowed to celebrate athletic achievement and the joy of expression, like any free people, without the echoes of white supremacy? I’m asking for the culture.


White fear of the black male body is part of the subtext of the rage over the NFL protests (and actually any form of black protest). That fear, stemming from perceptions of black lawlessness and criminality, can also be understood as a projection of white rage.

The angst and anger over the protests during the national anthem, which began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently ticked up dramatically. President Donald Trump cursed NFL players who protested and called for them to be fired. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said, “We can’t have inmates running the prison” during a meeting of NFL owners and league executives. TV viewership was down 7.5 percent through the season’s first six weeks compared with the same period last year, and every week brings tension, threats of boycotts and boos directed at players and teams who do anything other than stand and salute.

But end zone dances and celebrations have ticked up dramatically too. Highlights of the most creative are ranked weekly on websites and social media. “We know that you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown. And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in an open letter to fans earlier this year.

That position is new.

Last year, Newsweek reported that players had been fined 18 times for excessive celebrations through 14 weeks, more than 2.5 times the fines issued for all of 2015 and part of a leaguewide crackdown. This included Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose professional-grade twerking in the Washington end zone, along with other pelvis-intensive dances, cost him nearly $60,000. Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King danced with an official’s penalty flag after the opposing team was called for roughing the kicker, costing him more than $12,000. And when then-New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz danced a salsa and teammate Odell Beckham Jr. pretended to take pictures, that choreography cost them more than $12,000 each.

In an explanatory video last year, Dean Blandino, then senior vice president of officiating for the NFL, said there were long-standing rules against excessive demonstrations (which earned it the “No Fun League” nickname) but penalties were up because “it’s been a point of emphasis.” Hugs and salutes were fine, he said, as were limited dancing and going to the ground in prayer (presumably unless it involved praying for police to stop shooting black people).

In the offseason, however, the league changed course to allow group choreography, props and rolling on the ground. This year has witnessed the Peter Piper dance and an homage to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on Monday Night Football. There’s been faux bench-pressing and fake home run hitting.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now,” Brown enthused in a preseason tweet. Along with other players, Brown (who last year finished in the top five on Dancing with the Stars) previewed possible dance moves on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon at the beginning of the season. He helped tout the new dance rules in a Pepsi commercial.

Both freedom of expression in black protest, which has been demonized, and freedom of expression in black dance — which, this year at least, is more OK — have complex and often contradictory messaging. But it all relates to questions of power and control of the black-body politic.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now.” — Antonio Brown

Former NFL Pro Bowler Keyshawn Johnson has experienced those attempts at control firsthand. In 1996, Johnson was a New York Jets rookie wide receiver when he scored his first NFL touchdown. He ripped off his helmet, spiked the football and started dancing. Teammates joined in celebration and tackled him to the ground. Former quarterback Joe Theismann, then an ESPN analyst, called him a jerk.

Though Johnson never went in for celebration dances after that — he threw balls in the stands until the fines got prohibitive, then just handed the ball to kids in the front row — it wasn’t because of Theismann’s criticism.

“I looked at it as this is a white dude that don’t like a black man doing something totally different than what the narrative is supposed to be, which is you’re supposed to play football and be quiet and be happy,” he said.

A segment of fans will always think celebrations are wrong, Johnson said. “They just think that showboating is basically like clowning.” It takes their mind to “if you celebrate, you’re disrespectful, because they want to control what you do. Part of controlling what you do is, ‘We prefer him to do this versus that.’ ”

When white players perform celebration rituals, they are understood differently, said Johnson. The quarterback position “is dominated by mainly white dudes with the pumping of the fist and the screaming out loud and guys shouting to the air when they throw a touchdown,” Johnson said. Fans and analysts say, “Oh, look at Tom Brady … he’s exuberant. He’s passionate about that throw to [Rob] Gronkowski. You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s celebrating.

The nature of the guys who often take the ball into the end zone contributes to the creativity of the dances, Johnson points out. Wide receivers have to be fast, and speed is its own form of beauty. Receivers are “isolated. They’re the furthest position on offense, detached from their teammates,” said Johnson. They touch the ball less often than running backs and quarterbacks, so when they do get their hands on it, they want to make it count. Plus, “we happen to be, you know, sports car guys. We ain’t no big old truck dude. We ain’t no lineman. You look in the car lot, they’re going to have Bentleys, Ferraris, they’re going to have all that.”

Johnson likes dances being choreographed and creative but with limits on sexual suggestiveness, or implied violence such as throat-slashing. He believes that dances are allowed while protests are contested because of money. “When it starts to affect the bottom line, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, man. We’ve got to put a stop to this.’ ” He believes in criminal justice reform. “But I also understand Jerry Jones [Dallas Cowboys owner, who threatened to bench players last month who he said “disrespect the flag”] because I, too, am a business owner, so I understand when you start messing with my money. … ”


Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, sees the players’ dance moves — the boasting, mimicry and pantomime, the circle formation, the use of props — as definitive hallmarks of the African-American dance aesthetic.

Dancing and singing were one of the few areas where the dominant white culture allowed the enslaved freedom of expression. Then, of course, blacks got stereotyped as always dancing and singing, said Reece. This contributes to the multiple gazes operating on the field when it comes to football dances.

In one political moment, it’s showboating, overly stylized, expressing individualism at the expense of sportsmanship. (And, as a popular Key and Peele skit suggests, no touchdown dance is complete without at least three pelvic thrusts.)

In another political moment, dance is safe and entertaining — something white folks have historically enjoyed watching happy blacks do. In turn, that sight line evokes minstrel show dancing and “cooning” for white audiences.

The dances “can be spectacle, depending on the arena that it’s in, but the roots of it are quite meaningful and quite rooted in a cultural tradition,” said Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Battle, who says he doesn’t do the latest dances, “the Dougie, or whatever,” sees football players expressing grace, athleticism and even their inner child as they move their bodies to punctuate their joy. But black dance has always been a contested cultural signifier. NFL dances are about rejecting old strictures and reclaiming personal expression. It’s the idea “that you dance in spite of how you’re being perceived because you know the inherent joy in that.” Or, Just because it’s a stereotype, I’m not going to stop eating fried chicken at the company picnic.

The dances are meant to push buttons, Battle said. It’s meant for “the naysayers or the ones that would be threatened. It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened because I’m that damned good!”

Black social dancing has always been an extension of dances that came to the Americas with the enslaved, said Kyle Abraham, artistic director of the Abraham.In.Motion dance company and a MacArthur Fellow. “The ways the pelvis is used in the dancing, the way it’s much more grounded, can evoke fear to some but can deliver power to others.”

As for black dance being loaded with shade, Abraham references the cake walk. It was an elaborate, high-stepping prance that began before the Civil War and mocked the high society pretensions of whites and slaveholders, subversively, on the low, to their faces, as they clapped along.

“It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened, because I’m that damned good!”

“There is always a possibility that there is a game being played within a game and that we are actually in control,” said Abraham. “Look at me, I’m entertaining you. Are you entertained? Am I what you want me to be, while at the same time I’m making you notice.”

The handcuffs are off and players are going to want to step up their moves, especially in an age where they can go viral. “Maybe part of this illusion in this modern-day cake walk is that you actually think you have ownership over who I am and how I will be presented … but in actuality, I have full ownership of who I am and how I choose to speak and move and dance. And when I will make those extra 10 yards!” Abraham said.

Damion Thomas, curator of sports for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, remembers watching the Houston Oilers’ Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, an NFL dancing pioneer who became legendary for his flapping-leg touchdown celebration in the late 1970s and 1980s. Thomas calls Hall of Fame cornerback Deion “Primetime” Sanders, who in the 1990s helped usher in the modern celebrity football player era, his all-time favorite player and dancer and points out that his signature, flashy stiff-arm and high steps mimic movements from Detroit ballroom dancing.

He notes that white players, such as the Jets’ Mark Gastineau and his sack dance, historically have been part of the creative NFL culture. Today, white players have been involved in some fan favorites, including a game of duck, duck goose. Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, is a serial end zone dancer and originator of Week 9’s potato sack race, one of the season’s best group celebrations.

Although both dancing and protest have gotten attention this year, Thomas contends they occupy separate spaces. Players let you know when they are protesting, he said, and they reserve political acts for certain moments in a prescribed space while keeping the end zone as a “part of the field they are not engaging with social issues.” The exception: “When Odell Beckham Jr. scored a touchdown, went on all fours and raised his leg like he was a dog — and then later said that was in relationship to Donald Trump.”

Reece, the music and performing arts curator, sees multiple narratives “being enacted as we struggle with trying to get beyond the lens of the way that people look at us, and interpret us and define us.”

These will continue to play out as fans struggle, as football players struggle, as the nation struggles with this political moment and the long, complicated history of the black body politic.

Kennedy Center is bringing hip-hop center stage and Simone Eccleston is making it happen A full season at the nation’s premier performing arts venue signals the art form is adulting

Four decades after its birth in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop has moved into the era of adulting. Among the many markers of maturity, one of the most significant happens today when the nation’s premier home for the performing arts announces its first full season of hip-hop programming.

The performance season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., was curated by A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip along with the center’s first director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston.

And while this moment says something important about the evolution of a still-young art form, it also marks a necessary evolution in the tradition-bound world of high art. After years of lower-profile partnerships with hip-hop festivals and free performances in its lobby, the Kennedy Center is moving hip-hop out of the programming D-League to join theater, opera, jazz, dance and classical music as featured art forms.

The season will open Oct. 6 with a performance featuring Q-Tip and Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, and closes in spring 2018 with a multimedia performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

Besides the big-name acts to open and close the season, the schedule is light on live performances, relying heavily on curated dance parties. The center is also re-upping its longstanding partnerships with hip-hop advocacy organizations Hi-ARTS and the D.C.-based Words Beats & Life. The programming, which isn’t limited to music, includes a staging of Chinaka Hodge’s Chasing Mehserle, a performance piece about Oakland, California, and gentrification.

The Kennedy Center will host a 35th anniversary screening of Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, a documentary about the early days of hip-hop, followed by a panel discussion including Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Caz and Busy Bee.

The commitment of full-time staff and space to hip-hop sets the Kennedy Center apart from other marquee arts institutions such as Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center while expanding the definition of American culture. Like jazz and the blues — and even the iPod one might play them on — hip-hop is a uniquely American invention, a beacon of coolness that shines brightly around the globe.

“As the nation’s cultural center, that’s a heavy-duty title that we hold,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “It’s important that we have all of the nation represented here. And candidly, we still have a long ways to go. … Hip-hop is a 40-plus-year-old art form. It ain’t going away. It isn’t a fad. This is an art form that continues to develop and grow and have impact, and it is broadly seen throughout several generations as the voice of their generation, and how could we not have it fully here at the center? The sophistication of the work that’s being done has to be brought here.”

The hiring of Eccleston, 37, and the announcement of the new season are only the latest in a series of events that suggest hip-hop is thriving even as it starts to get gray around the temples. That maturation isn’t just an accounting of raw years of existence, but also the emotional growth in the genre’s most high-profile acts. Certainly, earlier hip-hop featured adult, introspective voices such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Little Brother, Consequence and Talib Kweli. But witness the confessional nature of Jay-Z’s 4:44 or Dr. Dre confronting his past sins as a woman beater in the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones.

Simone Eccelston

André Chung for The Undefeated

Hip-hop is now old enough to inspire nostalgia and reflection. In the past few years, there have been the retrospective gazes of The Get Down and The Breaks, and Jigga’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — heralded by consummate Jay-Z fan President Barack Obama. And don’t forget about Snoop Dogg pooh-poohing misogyny, releasing an album one critic called “the audio version of linen pants and fish fries,” and co-hosting an Emmy-nominated reality show with an ex-con 30 years his senior, Martha Stewart. Even Atlanta trap god Gucci Mane seems like a new man after exiting federal prison last year. Rather than touting his time as a signifier of masculinity, Gucci was candid about just how unpleasant the experience was.

It was only roughly 20 years ago that Eccleston was hopping on the D train from the Kingsbridge stop of her childhood home in the Bronx to go to her first rap concert at Madison Square Garden. Now, her task of making hip-hop a fixture at the Kennedy Center seems obvious, if not overdue.

Wait. Wasn’t this already a thing?

When the Kennedy Center announced in 2016 that it had netted Q-Tip as its artistic director of hip-hop culture, the move was part of a trajectory that had been in the works for years. Moran had been lobbying Rutter for more hip-hop programming. So had former White House social secretary Deesha Dyer, who had covered the scene in Philadelphia as a freelance journalist.

“[Dyer] and Jason really pushed me over the edge to say, ‘OK, we should do this more than just one-offs and really make it something,’ ” said Rutter, whose background is in classical music. “We have programs for young artists rising, and then we were doing these big names … but how do we really have that bigger impact? We were going to need somebody to curate it all. And that’s where having an artist and then an administrator [came in], because you can’t really have an artist who’s not supported by an administrator.”

Q-Tip offers name recognition and communicates something about the center’s intentions tastewise. Eccleston, on the other hand, is an experienced arts administrator well versed in the nitty-gritty duties needed to realize an artist’s vision. Before traveling south to Washington, she spent more than 11 years at Harlem Stage, finishing as its program director.

Previously known as Aaron Davis Hall, Harlem Stage is known for promoting artists of color. Eccleston was a natural fit for its hip-hop ambitions: a product of the borough whose Latino and black musical influences melded to birth the genre in the first place, she completed graduate studies in arts administration at Drexel University and studied curatorial practice in performance at Wesleyan University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Eccleston’s first job was at Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos, a nonprofit in North Philadelphia.

Rutter and Harlem Stage executive director Patricia Cruz say Eccleston possesses a valuable skill set: She’s got a good ear for finding new talent, she’s passionate about nurturing relationships with artists, and she’s got a knack for developing community outreach and education programs.

While at Harlem Stage, Eccleston took responsibility for an initiative to connect New York City students with playwrights, choreographers, musicians and dancers from around the world. Also, Cruz said, “She developed programs that were scholarly, that really communicated to an audience what this artist’s intent was, what their philosophical approach to what they were doing was, so that audiences could understand this was not just performative.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“We’re not just putting people on the stage and saying, ‘Here. Enjoy them.’ It’s not entertainment, in that regard. It’s about the ideas the artist is representing. … For us, if art is to have a meaning for people in their lives, I think it is critical to have a context and talk about the history.”

Q-Tip may be the initial draw, but if you want to see your favorite act on stage at the Kennedy Center (cough OutKast cough), Eccleston’s the person you want to lobby.

Let’s talk about sex music!

Perhaps surprisingly given her age, Eccleston is not an evangelist for ’90s hip-hop. Sure, she grew up loving De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kwamé, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill. She watched WNYC-TV’s Video Music Box and remembers dancing in the street when someone would start playing their radio in Kingsbridge.

But she’s not stuck in the decade.

“We’re always like, ‘It’s the golden age, it’s the golden age,’ ” Eccleston said. “I think that that doesn’t allow for the music and the artists to evolve. I think it’s about creating space for the next generation of artists. Who knew Kendrick [Lamar] was coming? When you think about the fact that [’90s artists] created space for alternate views of black masculinity, just the joy in music, just the intellect. It’s like being brilliant and comfortable with that. Not having to necessarily play to specific ideals of what masculinity looked like, what it meant to be black at a specific point in time.

“I think that they created space for us to be complex, diverse and really tell our stories. They were able to create these pathways within that generation of artists. I think that it’s interesting to see people that kind of take on the mantle and continue to move it forward.”

When it comes to revealing her musical tastes, Eccleston is a skilled politician. Asked to choose between Biggie or Tupac, the native New Yorker initially named Biggie. But there was an addendum: “You know what? Tupac was also very brilliant,” she said. “Just from an activist standpoint, in terms of being a woke MC.”

Eccleston has the potential to be an inspired choice as an administrator for a genre that has a complicated relationship with black women. While she straddled the East Coast/West Coast divide, for instance, she was fully comfortable sharing her thoughts about Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical endorsement of stretch marks on “Humble.”

“I was like, ‘Go ahead, Kendrick!’ ” Eccleston said, grinning.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“I think that there are certain images, certain artists, that are celebrated who may have had some augmentation. That is seen as beauty, or as beautiful. Then young women that may look up to the artist, or the ideals that are being portrayed in music videos, they then think that they have to alter who they are in order to be considered beautiful or attractive. We need to interrogate that, which is why it was great that Kendrick celebrated stretch marks.”

While hip-hop isn’t the only genre that features misogynistic themes and lyrics, it is the one that often gets publicly dinged for it. Eccleston, like many of her feminist friends who are also hip-hop fans, has experienced times where she felt that a particular artist or song just wasn’t for her.

“I think it’s important for us to maintain healthy critique,” Eccleston said. “I think that it’s also important for us, as we’re looking at the songs that we may want to challenge, or the artists that we may want to encourage to dig a little deeper, to look at all of the other work that’s being done that either celebrates us or provides a multidimensional portrayal of who we are.

“It’s delicate because you have to provide space for an artist to be an artist, you can’t censor them. … It’s just real complex because we all have our hopes for something that we’ve seen ourselves reflected in, something that provides us with a sense of space. I think we’ve all got to continue to complicate it and disrupt it.”

Eccleston now has the power to further that disruption. With the Kennedy Center’s resources, she can expose audiences to lesser-known female emcees such as Brooklyn, New York, rapper Jean Grae and Snow Hill, North Carolina, artist Rapsody. She wants to bring more female graffiti artists and beat girls into the fold.

“There’s a whole generation of hip-hop … culture producers that are impacting literature and theater and scholarship, and it’s getting pressed into that. I think that one of our roles as an institution is to create space for the celebration of all of those things so people understand the depth, the breadth, the complexity of the culture,” Eccleston said. “I think it’s important for people to know hip-hop culture isn’t just one thing.”

What now?

One of the most significant challenges Eccleston faces will be making the Kennedy Center feel accessible to everyone.

While it’s a national institution, it’s situated in a city that for decades was majority black and is still majority minority. Eccleston is adamant about wanting the community to feel a sense of ownership and investment in the center, rather than seeing it as a stodgy, predominantly white institution finally granting validation to a still relatively young art form.

While existing partnerships, such as those with Hi-ARTS and Words Beats & Life, the D.C. nonprofit dedicated to advancing hip-hop culture, provide a foundation, the Kennedy Center faces hurdles that predate Eccleston in attracting eventgoers who are economically as well as racially diverse. The most obvious hurdle may be geography. The Kennedy Center is situated in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom/West End, a neighborhood that’s home to George Washington University, where tuition and fees run nearly $70,000 per year. Its immediate neighbor is the Watergate complex.

Of course, black people frequent the Kennedy Center. They show up for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly appearance. They line up to see Brandy play Roxie Hart in Chicago, to hear George Benson, to witness the brilliant athleticism of Misty Copeland. And it has no problem selling out concerts like the ones Nas and Lamar did with the National Symphony Orchestra.

But the center is still figuring out how to extend the same sort of welcome to audiences with fewer resources, and that’s where the inclusion of free dance parties, open to the public, appear to come into play.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

These concerns aren’t exclusive to the Kennedy Center. They bubble up every time hip-hop veers into spaces such as Broadway that are traditionally coded as white. Class and accessibility were a big part of conversations surrounding Hamilton, so much so that its practice of making tickets available to those who couldn’t necessarily afford its astronomical market rate prices has become central to the show as it’s expanded into multiple cities. That includes the upcoming production of Hamilton coming to the Kennedy Center. (Hamilton, while heavily influenced by hip-hop, is still under the Kennedy Center’s theater programming slate.)

“Part of the goal in terms of instituting hip-hop as an integral part of our institution’s work is about creating space for the community to engage in the work that we’re doing,” Eccleston said. “To see themselves and their culture reflected. Right? That’s how I got into the arts, understanding the significance of it. As many opportunities as we can create for people to know that this space is theirs and open to them. A place that they can call home. I think that that is important.”

While there’s a moral argument for expanding hip-hop into a dedicated programming season at the Kennedy Center, there’s a financial one as well, especially when you consider the graying fan base for opera and classical music. The Kennedy Center relies on funding from corporate sponsors, philanthropists and paid memberships that unlock access to ticket presales and opportunities to hobnob with talent. If additional hip-hop programming results in more memberships from rap fans with money to drop, that’s all the better for hip-hop and the Kennedy Center. So far, it appears Q-Tip and Eccleston will have to figure out how to find a balance between buzz and revenue. While names such as Fab 5 Freddy and Kurtis Blow may draw older, more financially established attendees, a healthy dose of current voices is necessary too. Yes, hip-hop is famous for its backward-facing references and samples, but it’s always charging forward to new musical territory, thriving on the spirit of reinvention.

Still, if this experiment goes well, who knows? We might one day see the same programming in the ritzy fine arts institutions of New York — you know, the birthplace of hip-hop.