Kiera MacWhinnie ’17, USNOW Staffer
On Thursday, October 6, Eric Axelman and Oliver “Sydsho” Arias came to Waynflete to present at an assembly about racial awareness. This wasn’t an ordinary presentation though; they educated the Upper School through rapping and break dancing followed by a discussion about race, privilege, and cultural appropriation. The Upper School danced and clapped to the beat while they performed their six songs. The highlight of the show was when Oliver, with Eric rapping, put on an awesome break dancing display.
Following their exceptional performance, Eric explained how he grew up in rural Maine, a place characterized by lots of trees and mostly white people. He found his love for rap and hip hop music before attending Brown University and eventually meeting his dance partner Oliver. Oliver, who is Dominican, grew up in Providence in a Latino, Black, and Southeast Asian neighborhood. He listened to rap and hip hop growing up, as did most of his community. When they finally came together to be performers, they created great songs that could also the educate the community and started going to schools to teach about cultural appropriation. In addition to performing together, they are diversity educators as the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island.
From this assembly, students learned the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Eric adopted the break dancing and rapping culture, but he made sure to acknowledge and learn from the culture from which it came. In short, Upper School students race and culture while enjoying the show.
After the assembly, homerooms met together for an Advising Lunch to discuss topics that were brought up during their presentation. Discussions were based around cultural appropriation, privilege, mass incarceration, and racial awareness around the world and in our own community. Through these discussions that happen a few times a year, our community learns how to be respectful while talking about topics that aren’t always easy to discuss.
After lunch, classes were cancelled so Eric and Oliver could hold an all school break dancing lesson in the gym followed by a competition. The Upper School students formed a circle around a stage in the middle of the gym while Syde-Sho taught some easier break dancing moves. For the more advanced break dancers, or people who wanted more of a challenge, one person from each homeroom represented their advising grouip by participating in the break dancing competition. Eric and Oliver had to decided the winner: Matty Sullivan, who earned a pizza lunch for his homeroom.
Jimmy Manyuru, Associate Director of Student Affairs, History Teacher
Jimmy is new to Waynflete, coming from the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. Jimmy was born and raised in Kenya and attended Middlebury College in Vermont.
As a new member to Waynflete, I have been struck by this community’s ability to empathize, assume best intentions, and willingness to lean into discomfort. Eric and Oliver’s recent presentation embodied this willingness to bridge differences and find common ground. Oliver Arias, who goes by his stage name “Sydesho” is a nationally awarded break dancer, and a first generation Dominican, who grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. Eric Axelman is a white man who grew up in rural Maine, attended Brown University and is now a filmmaker. The two of them are also part of the hip hop musical group: The Funk Underground. When Eric and Oliver first met, they did shows together in separate sets, later moved on to doing sets together – each with their individual songs, and eventually started making music together.
They shared some of their work and engaged us in discussion on the ethics of cultural border crossing and cultural appropriation. In addition to their upper school presentation, the duo had several follow up meetings with students and faculty throughout the day. A definite highlight was the school wide break dancing lesson and competition they orchestrated – talk about leaning into discomfort. In the evening, they were back in the theater to present to the wider Portland community.
As we make dialogue a keystone habit in the Upper School, it will be important to remember this duo work on the importance of speaking from the I perspective even in creative writing, their willingness to engage in discussions about racial and gender inequality, and the responsibilities and learning opportunities that come with consuming and appropriating the cultures of others.