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Posted under: News Culture

From The Streets To Tik Tok: How Renowned Memphis Dancer Lil Buck Fights To Preserve Black Dance Culture

'...learn the culture first, before the moves ...'

Dancing has always been integral within the Black community and has served as a way of expression for generations. Yet today’s digital age has made entryway into learning community dances easy without providing the history behind the moves.

On any ordinary day of scrolling down social media feeds, one can find a cavalcade of pirates trouncing around the digital sphere masquerading as “influencers” with Black cultural dances in close proximity. That happened to Atlanta teenager Jalaih Harmon when the viral “Renegade” dance that she created was stolen and repurposed, by a white Tik Toker, with no initial credit given to her. 

Similarly, when dances like the “Nae Nae” and “Hit The Quan” filtered into pop culture, we saw a surge of non-Black folks rushing to imitate these dance moves with little homage paid to their origins. 

Hence, Blavity sat down with renowned Memphis Jooker, Lil Buck to discuss the importance of society, especially  non-Black people, learning the culture and history behind some of the most popular modern dances, before attempting to profit off of them.

Blavity: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us, Lil Buck. Why don't we start off with a little background information on you  -- tell us who you are, what is Jookin and how you got involved with the dance style?

Lil Buck: Yeah, one hundred percent. My name is Charles Riley for those who don't know. My alias is Lil Buck. I've been having a background in Memphis Jookin as my predominant dance style for a long time, I got into it when I was 11 years old. 

I was born in Chicago. My family moved to Memphis when I was seven or eight years old and that's where I kind of discovered Memphis Jookin for myself. Me and my older sister Stephanie, grew up on Michael Jackson and she was a dancer. We'd get a hold of his tour tapes on VHS and watch these different tours and try to learn the choreography as much as possible, until we just knew it, and that was our fun. We grew up pretty poor and struggling to make ends meet, so dance was one of the things that really kept me happy growing up. 

Photo credit: @RandmVision

When my older sister was in high school, was when I really started to see Memphis Jookin. She came home one day and said her friends taught her this Memphis Jookin routine. I was like, what is that? To see people moving like Michael Jackson, doing this style called Memphis Jookin, was just the most mind blowing thing I've ever experienced in my life. It just stuck with me forever.

Blavity: We've seen time and time again how non-Black people steal our culture and make a profit off of it, not even knowing the significance of it. Can you talk about the importance of preserving cultural artifacts in our community such as jookin?

Lil Buck: I think it's a must, when it comes to dances that are native and have a very deep and rich cultural background to it. It's not just a dance, but it's something that people in these different communities grow up doing. It's a big part of their lives. 

[Jookin is] a big part of Memphis and is one of the things that makes Memphis, Memphis. It's a craft, just like break dancing, just like popping, just like these dance styles that people respect and know have a whole culture and history behind them.

I don't think a lot of these young kids just wake up and say, 'you know what? I'm a white kid and I can make it.' I think they just, for the majority of the part, want to learn this amazing dance style that they see, and they're not going to let anything hold them back from wanting to learn it. When I first saw it, I wanted it so bad. I was just grateful enough to be in the city to learn it from the people the right away. 

It all comes down to us actually teaching it in a way where people really respect it. I think preservation is really key, but also sharing is as well, in the right way so people can understand. I wanted to take on the task of bringing Memphis Jookin to the world and sharing that this is the style that's native to Memphis. 

I'm always preaching that everywhere I go, every interview I do, every performance I do. No matter how much I blend my style with other styles and do other things, I'm always preaching the gospel of Memphis Jookin. Once people get an understanding of who we are in Memphis, as jookers, and what the style is and understanding the background of it, they grow more respect for it. Teaching is one of the biggest, most important tools that we have right now in preserving this dance style.

Blavity: I understand that you partnered with Red Bull Dance to not only teach the fundamentals of Memphis Jookin but the history as well via social media. How is the current digital approach to dance training impacting the Black dance community?

Lil Buck: There are a lot of good pros. Now, a lot of the OGs — like Daniel Price and Dr. Rico — use their platform to teach. As opposed to people having to come to Memphis to learn how to do that style, now they can go to MemphisJookin.com and see the tutorials that we have provided for them and actually have easy access to this information, to learn the culture first, before the moves. 

Some of the cons, when it comes to social media, there are so many guys with big followings that love this dance style and a lot of young kids out there in Memphis want that easy success too. They'll partner with some of these guys to start teaching them some of it, but they're not educating them as much on the culture. They're getting around to it now, because now they're starting to see the importance of it. But the education is starting to get scrambled a little bit in social media because it's moving so fast and a lot of people just really don't know what it really is. 

There were a lot of people taking my class today because they really wanted to be informed. I had a lot of messages after my class, on my page, from people just saying 'thank you so much. It was very informative and I needed to know this.' They want to learn the right way. It's just up to us to teach them.

Blavity: Can you share your most memorable dance moment and how you turned this passion into a career? Was this always an avenue for you?

Photo credit: @RandmVision

Lil Buck: Dance became something that I always wanted to be a big part of my life. I knew I wanted to be a dancer, when I first saw this guy named Bobo. His name is Jeremy Greer and they called him Bobo. I saw him at the Crystal Palace, I think, one day gliding across carpet like it was water and he had golds in his mouth and he had Js on with big baggy jeans. 

When I first saw him, that was like the dream right there. I was like, wow, this is somebody who's in Memphis where I'm living right now, just moving like this. He had so many people around him, this huge crowd around him giving so much praise and that's when I was like, I want to do this. 

I knew that somehow I could create a career out of it in some way. I knew that Memphis Jookin was a diamond in the rough and it was something I just wanted to get good at. I was around 10 or 11 years old at the time when I really made my mind up.

Blavity: In what ways do you feel like Black dancers (and dances) impact the world outside of the Black community?

Lil Buck: Everybody wants to learn how to jook right now, in the world. Everybody wants to learn how to do these dances that come out of Black and brown communities. There's always going to be a little tug of war within the cultures and within the style, about how people take on the culture and want to learn the culture, but ultimately I think it's just that everybody loves the culture of hip hop and dance from Black communities. 

I think a lot more education needs to be at the forefront of why people are so into our culture. Our culture has really shaped these dances, and music as well, and it's really innate in us. 

Black people and Black culture are interwoven into every fabric of what we’ve come to know as pop culture, thus making Black culture synonymous with pop culture itself. It’s expected that the people who so badly want entry within our culture would make an effort to take some of that magic for their own use, but there’s a thin line between respect and cultural appropriation. 

Respecting Black culture means crediting it. Appropriating is using the culture for your personal gain and not being willing to learn the history behind these dance moves or any form of Black art. As for the advice Lil Buck offers to both Black and non-Black amateur dancers, longevity and patience is key. 

"Educate yourself as much as possible and take time learning what you want to do in life," Buck said. "Don’t try to rush the process"

Note: This interview was edited for brevity.

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A Detroit native, Kenneth 'Kenny' Williams Jr. is a self-described cultural critic and visual storyteller. While at Michigan State University, Kenneth received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications and went on to obtain his Master of Arts degree in Public Relations. Kenneth's passions include pop culture, writing, and using his skill sets to actively and positively promote the narratives of Black people and Black culture. Interested in seeing more from Kenneth? Follow him on Medium at https://medium.com/@kennethwilliams310