Museum-goers filtered into the Baltimore artist Phaan Howng’s exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Saturday. But this time, the very-Instagrammable fluorescent and swirling colors of “The Succession of Nature,” inspired by toxic waste, were not the main event.
Instead, the vibrant room served as a backdrop for a lively hip-hop performance by Baltimore Dance Crews Project’s senior youth group. The team of teenagers aimed to use dance to tell their stories of gun violence and to challenge stereotypes.
“The students wanted to address gun violence, an issue that affects them on a daily [basis],” said Cynthia Chavez, the group’s executive artistic director, before inciting a loud “Yaas” from the crowd.
Then the music began, with audio from news broadcasts. The recording asked audience members whether they had heard gunshots in their neighborhood or had lost a loved one to gun violence. Some stood and raised their hands.
Then the performance began, with crew members moving melodically to the music, some forming guns with their fingers before swatting them away. Others spun to the ground. For the finale, they danced to a fast-paced song, which repeated the word “Ceasefire” over and over again, before joining arms and kneeling together. They’d do it four more times that afternoon.
Brenton Facey, 53, of Parkville, sat in the front row through three of the performances.
“I was very, very moved. They did a wonderful job representing what their concerns are pertaining to the violence in Baltimore, and also, like the kids are saying, they don’t want to be identified with a stereotype,” Facey said. “That’s why I sat through it three times.”
Among the other attendees were Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby and her children, and Baltimore Ceasefire organizers Letrice Gant and Michelle Shellers, who said they were taken aback by the children’s performance.
"This is what we've been asking for from the beginning: For the youth to get involved and for them to make their voices heard and their feelings known, and for people to really pay attention to them specifically because of how impacted they are by gun violence," Gant said.
"And it's really important that the youth are allowed to express themselves how they feel they need to express themselves about the movement,” said Shellers. She said the decision of the students to do the piece on their own was even more touching.
“It just makes my heart melt," Shellers said.
Sean Collins, 12, of Columbia, said performing at the museum was “very inspiring” and “something new” for the students. They have also performed at the Johns Hopkins University, and the B’More Healthy Expo this month. (The next performance will be at their sixth annual “I Can B’More” concert at Notre Dame of Maryland University on May 12, executive director Brian Gerardo said.)
“It’s been very heartwarming, and I feel like it should inspire people to stand up to violence,” said Sean, who added that the students have been practicing and perfecting the routine since last summer.
Kevona Bouknight, 14, of Catonsville, has been dancing with Baltimore Dance Crews Project for three years. She said the opportunity to perform hip-hop dance in a museum allows the students to reach an audience of all backgrounds. Seeing people record the performance gave her hope that the message of the harm caused by gun violence can spread further.
She described the challenge of performing.
"As much as we try to make it perfect, we also really connect with it,” she said. “It just makes us give more feeling into the piece and do it even ... better when we perform. When things probably start to get a little emotional to do, we're still comforting each other to do it, like 'You can do this.' You're trying to get this message across, so put all your feeling into it."