Saturday, February 2, 2008
Hit 'em! Kaba Modern represents hard on MTV's "America's Best Dance Crew"
Randy Jackson (from American Idol) brings a very interesting (and long overdue) reality competition show on MTV called "America's Best Dance Crew," and Kaba Modern (above) is representing lovely. As you can see from the video above, no one would be surprised if they made it all the way. Kaba Modern is known--especially in California, but also worldwide--for street dance supremacy. They always kill it! And I'm sure it'll be a massacre with Kaba Modern on this MTV show.
Undoubtedly, I give my full support to Kaba Modern in this amazing feat. But, what is concerning is the lack of Filipinos (on this show) for a group bearing the name "Kaba Modern." Kaba Modern, which is in its 16th year, comes out of the bigger Kababayan, which roughly translates to countryman/woman in Filipino. Kababayan is an organization at the University of California at Irvine and has roots to a consciously political movement at UCI dating back to the 1970s. However, Kaba Modern, which is distinct but has origins to the bigger Kababayan, is focused on dance excellence and less concerned with the political and cultural priorities of Kababayan. Here is a description of the troupe from their website:
"Kaba Modern is a street dance group established in 1992 by a group of Kababayans at the University of California in Irvine. Originally put together to perform as "The Modern Suite" at their Pilipino Culture Night, the group has evolved from being a PCN suite to becoming one of the most cutting-edge hip hop troupes in California. Since then, the group's legacy has lived on, first and foremost as a family, embracing different styles and aspects of dance, creating quite a name for themselves as one of Southern California's most cutting edge dance groups."
It's great that this organization is excelling in the choreographed street dance craft (I myself come out of that scene and miss it everyday!). Even more, it is well-known and celebrated that Kaba Modern comes out of the rich legacy of Filipino American dance tradition, and it's wonderful that they are now on MTV (finally some shine!). But, where are the Filipinos? Looking at the clip above and the Kaba Modern member bios on the show's website, the Filipino representation in the group is zero. What does this mean for an organization that proudly bears the name "Kaba"? Or, should it even matter at all?
To spur discussion on the questions above, I have pulled a few comments from the Youtube clip above to further probe the tensions:
"truth is only about half of our team is filipino...the other half is a combination of people from many other ethnicities...our choreographers are of many races as well. it is this diversity and respect for all people that allows us to innovate and display our love for dance =D"
"I'm filipino and it doesnt matter if there is no pinoy on the crew I'm still proud of them as asian and they carry the name kaba modern as the group. KABA mean kababayan right, group of asian country we can call them our kababayan because we are from asia"
"Like ppl said in previous comments majority of the crew is Pinoy but the ones reppin on the show are the not cause the whole crew is a lot bigger and the 2 pinoy that auditioned with them couldn't leave the rest of the crew hanging since their the coordinators for this year I hear."
Here are some analyses:
1. Of course everyone should applaud an organization for their eager efforts to diversify their members. But what does it mean to make a commitment to such diversity, when the origins and brand of the organization is unmistakenly Filipino? The second commenter who tries to justify the lack of Filipino representation by claiming that "Kababayan" is an inclusive term for all Asian countries (if I'm reading their grammar right) is diluting the concept of Filipino Kababayan, a particular concept alluding to the promise of national sovereignty that colonized Filipinos hold dear. And if the reason is to transform the word Kababayan to reference more to the concept of a generic "family" than to a specific Filipino comradeship, that is as problematic as adopting the Hawaiian word "ohana" by Filipinos (or any Asian) to brand their organization. Considering their history of colonization and cultural appropriation, Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in general would deserve more than an utterance of a cute word.
2. What were the 2 Pinoy coordinators who auditioned for the show (but later bailed) thinking? Was it their firm commitment to the larger UCI Kaba Modern that won over MTV stardom? If so, big props! Community before fame, right? But, at what risk? Is it fine to rep Kaba Modern without its proper Filipino representation? Are there no coordinator replacements in the group?
3. If the issue of Filipino representation is moot (because it's about the dance not race!), then why not change the name of the MTV-competing Kaba Modern group to something that does not reference the Filipino organization? And on a bigger issue, why not change the name of Kaba Modern to another name altogether? What purpose is there in paying homage to Kababayan if it is more concerned with dance excellence and diversity, rather than Filipino representation and Filipino cultural production?
4. Even if there is internal homage to the Filipino roots of Kaba among the Kaba Modern folks on MTV (and I am confident there is), is there a more public acknowledgment of the organization's Filipino dance tradition/spaces, especially since the name of the group makes a public gesture to Filipinoness?
Other comments made on Youtube demonstrate the pride people have for Asians having so much rhythm and skill. The pride here is well-deserved, but the veiling of Filipino contribution for an overtly Filipino group is dangerous.
Here is why: The erasure of Filipinos within the broader Asian American community is reminiscent of Fred Cardova's book Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans. For an all-Asian American group to rep a Filipino name without a Filipino face is not helping with Filipino recognition, especially in the midst of multiethnic Asian American community-building; the idea of "Asian American" will continue to be represented without a Filipino face. The invisibility and problems of racial ambiguity of Filipinos is further reproduced in this case--meaning the veiling of Filipinoness for Kaba Modern isn't making it easier for Filipinos who want to break through the mainstream even though Filipino Americans have long been invested in the labor of mainstream artistic performance. Filipinos need more opportunities to represent themselves (and also need to go beyond passing as other races).
(As a note, I'm sure these discussions are old news to the good folks in Kababayan and Kaba Modern. It would be neat to continue these discussions, and I hope folks from these groups would comment or at least read this. I'm open to all perspectives. I'm sure we'll all learn a lot together.)