Zajal Movement brings hip-hop to the National Gallery

(Photo: Jordan News)
Contemporary African art decorated the walls, a vibrant backdrop to b-boys practicing their moves in preparation for the competition to come, pop-locking along the fringes of a temporary dance floor set up for the National Gallery of Fine Art’s monthly hip-hop elements jam called Zajal Movement.اضافة اعلان

Zajal in Arabic means “a type of poetry dominated by the vernacular”, a clear reference to rap and a fitting name for a project that brings together the five elements of hip-hop: dance, beatbox, DJing, rap, and graffiti. It was the breakdancers who carried the jam this time, bobbing to every beat, dressed super fresh in retro tracksuits provided by vintage streetwear shop Zawyeh Space and becoming visual conduits to the musical stylings provided by DJ Flash B.

Alaaeddin performs for the crown at the Zajal Movement elements jam on March 3, 2022.(Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

The national gallery, located in Lweibdeh, runs a program called Factory, which provides a platform for emerging art projects in Amman, and Zajal is the product of a collaboration between Factory and local arts organization Underground Amman, spearheaded by Alaeddin Rahmeh, himself a breakdancer and a cornerstone of the local hip-hop scene.

Khaldoun Hijazin, the national gallery’s director of art and cultural programs, said that Zajal was Rahmeh’s brainchild, and that Factory was happy to partner with the local hip-hop community to showcase Jordan’s homegrown talent. The monthly jams will culminate in a gallery showing slated for fall 2022, which will tell the history of hip-hop in Amman from its inception up until the present day, a history which by now spans over three decades.

Amer the B-boy dances to DJ Flash B's music while Alaeddin, Wawi and Mod look on at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Art, March 3, 2022. (Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

The relationship with the national gallery started last year; “the idea is to showcase and to support youth and hip-hop culture and community here in Jordan”, Rahmeh said.

One of those youths, the runner-up in the breakdancing competition, is B-boy Lil Nas, an incredible athlete whose dancing is full of acrobatic moves requiring unbelievable balance and agility. After competing, he told his story with the help of his friend B-boy Mowgli.

B-boy Amer, Wawi, and Rajaee participate in a Q&A session at the Zala Movement elements jam on March 3, 2022 at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts.(Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

 Lil Nas is Palestinian, originally from Bir Saba but born and raised in east Amman. As a boy, he used to sell small items on the street to help support his family, and it was while he was working as a 14 year old that he caught the eye of B-boy Isheh, one of the most successful of Amman’s early generation of breakdancers. He tried to impress B-boy Isheh by doing a handstand, and then a front flip which he failed to land. He laughed as he recalled the event: “I landed right on my (behind), but when I looked up, Isheh was so happy, and was smiling.”

B-Boy Lil Nas dances in the breakdancing competition at the Zajal Movement elements jam on March 3, 2022.(Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

B-boy Isheh was impressed with his heart and fearlessness, and invited him to come train at a free dance class. It was there that he eventually met B-boy Mowgli. Mowgli had secretly practiced breakdancing at his home near Petra for several years, and thought he was the only kid in Jordan who knew about breakdancing until he saw Isheh on TV, dancing at an international competition called Red Bull BC One at the White Palace in Egypt.

When he saw a dancer from Jordan, he said, “I freaked out – I literally freaked out. I looked him up on YouTube and asked him to help me train”.  Isheh is in California now, part of a crew called Middle Beast which features several Ammani dancers, and Mowgli and Lil Nas have become incredible dancers in their own right.

B-boy Mowgli and B-boy Lil Nas pose in front of contemporary African art at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts during the Zajal Movement elements jam on March 3, 2022.(Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

The event on the third floor of the gallery was well attended by a mix of locals and foreigners. The program opened with a Q&A session, led by B-boy Amer, which focused on two local dancers: Wawi and Rajaee. Wawi, who is also an excellent artist and the owner of Zawyeh Space, is from the old guard; he has been involved in the scene since the 90s. Rajaee is from the new generation picking up the torch to carry on Amman’s hop-hop traditions; in addition to dancing, performing, and working as a dance instructor, he is a professional graphic designer.

The two dancers spoke about how they first got involved in breakdancing and hip-hop, and then took questions from the crowd about their passions, their motivations, and the trajectories of their careers. Later on in the evening, Rajaee and his dance partner Hassan Yousef, with whom he teaches dance classes, won an all-style dance-off competition.

DJ Flash B provides the sountrack at the Zal Movement's elements jam at the Jordan national Gallery of Fine Arts, March 3, 2022. (Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

B-boy Amer said that he chose Wawi because he has been on the scene for so long, but chose to pair him with Rajaee so that the audience could hear from different generations.

Before the competition, which featured two teams, there was a larger breaking competition. At first, the dancers used the whole floor, then they placed a small circle of boomboxes on the floor and the dancers took turns dancing inside the circle – anybody who accidentally knocked over a boombox was out, and eventually only one dancer remained to take home the prize. It was amazing to see the dancers pushing each other to new levels, introducing acrobatic flips and spins and encouraging each other from the sidelines every time somebody made a particularly audacious move.

Members of Amman's hip-hop community pose together at the end of the Zajal Movement elements jam on March 3, 2022. (Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

After the dancing competitions, there were several more performances. Some local beatboxers performed, including one named Taj who beatboxed while playing a recorder. A local rapper named Kazz, who traces his origins to the Palestinian city of Ramleh, also performed a few songs with DJ Flash B. He said that he started his career writing political songs, but as rap evolved and people became more interested in new styles, especially trap music, which focuses mainly on the beat and the rhythm of the delivery, he shifted his focus and changed his style.

Zajal’s next show will be on March 31, and costs JD3; the proceeds go to the artists in the community. The events are advertised on the Underground Amman and Factory Instagram and Facebook pages.

The events are definitely worth attending, as both foreigners and locals might be surprised at the depth and variety of local hip-hop talent in Jordan’s capital.

Palestinian-Jordanian rapper Kaz performs at with DJ Flash B at the Zajal Movement elements jam at the Jordan national Gallery of Fine Arts on March 3, 2022. (Photo: Zane Wolfang/ Jordan News)

The programming varies every month, shifting focus between dance, rap, DJ sets, beatboxing competitions, and live graffiti demonstrations. Even for people who are not hip-hop fans, the national gallery’s current exhibit of contemporary African art, including work by artists from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, provides ample food for thought about the interconnectedness of art and the relationships between Africa, Arab culture, and the African-American origins of hip-hop.

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