Muslim hip-hop dancer charms the QC

Can hip-hop dance and beatboxing bring about world peace?

Judging by the screaming, ecstatic response of diverse group of elementary students at Bowlesburg School in Silvis in a special Monday morning program, chances are good.

The hip-hop dancer and choreographer Amirah Sackett, part of Quad City Arts’ Visiting Artist Series residency program, is performing at 14 schools this week in the area, backed by the fun, enthusiastic DJ MR MiC, culminating in a public “Quad City Arts Presents” at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Putnam Museum, Davenport.

Patrons will experience a full-length performance, followed by an intimate conversation revealing the artist’s background and creative ventures. 

During her week in residence, the Chicago-based Sackett will visit 14 local schools in six school districts. Students and families attending her residency activities will see how she blends dance and music, hip-hop and Islamic traditions, to create her own perspective on female Muslim identity in the hip-hop community, according to Quad City Arts.

“Kids are the most honest. They make you feel so good, because these young kids — in middle school, they get unimpressed, but these kids are like, ‘Wow!’,” Sackett said after her 45-minute program in Silvis Monday.

She and her DJ and beatboxing maestro – real name Ahmed Zaghbouni – introduced the Bowlesburg kids to hip-hop traditions, how to beatbox, and how diverse people from around the world are united by his cultural force.

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A brief snippet of Sackett’s Visiting Artist Series program at Bowlesburg Elementary in Silvis on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024.

In speaking to students, she emphasized how people from very different backgrounds can share things in common, like religion or a love for hip-hop and beatboxing.

“There are commonalities which unite us,” Sackett said Monday after the session in the school gym. Hip-hop is very popular among Muslims, she said.

Sackett performed in the Bowlesburg School gym Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 (photos by Jonathan Turner).

“It became popular through Black Muslims, specifically the Nation of Islam,” Sackett said. “Now all over the world, it is everywhere.”

She has traveled to multiple countries, and saw hip-hop scenes everywhere.

“It’s a way of expressing yourself,” she said. Rapping and graffiti artists are not as affiliated with gangs or violence as they once were in the ’80s.

Sackett is widely known for her creation of the choreography and performance group known as “We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic,” which reached viral video fame after being featured on POPSUGAR Celebrity, The Huffington Post, and Upworthy. 

Celebrating differences and unity

“Don’t Panic” is a program she began in 2011. Hackett hopes to serve as a role model for kids who see themselves as different or unusual.

Sackett and her DJ/beatboxing partner MR MiC (Ahmed Zaghbouni) at the Silvis school Feb. 5, 2024.

Over the past 15 years, discrimination against Muslim-Americans also has declined as people learn more about each other, she said.

“We’re not as different as you thought,” Hackett said. She cited the tragic Chicago-area case last October, when an Ilinois man fatally stabbed a 6-year-old Muslim boy in Plainfield — allegedly over the Hamas-Israel conflict.

“This stuff is still happening,” Hackett said. “There’s all kinds of ways we discriminate against each other.”

The Bowlesburg elementary school students having fun in the interactive program Monday.

“Through dynamic movement, children engage in physical fitness, build self-expression, and develop teamwork and collaboration,” Quad City Arts posted on Facebook. “The cultural elements within Amirah’s programming promote diversity awareness, and the experience instills values such as respect, work ethic, and inclusivity. Dance impacts us far beyond the dance floor.”

Sackett has been honored to be a TEDx speaker, guest lecturer at Harvard University, and a cultural diplomat with the U.S. State Department in Bangladesh and Malaysia. 

Sackett having fun with some of the kids in the school program.

Her signature style is the funk style dance known as “popping,” which incorporates robotic, mime-like movements. As a proud Muslim-American (Sackett wears a hijab, or head scarf), she combines Islamic themes with her dance to share the universal beauty of her faith with audiences of different faith backgrounds to promote unity and understanding.

Ahmed Zaghbouni is an international beatboxer and filmmaker from Sousse, Tunisia. His performance always entertains the audience with disbelief by the sounds he creates only using his mouth and voice as an instrument.

Zaghbouni was very impressed by an impromptu beatboxing performance by 8-year-old Nacier Abram on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024.

He is proud of his Muslim heritage and the Sufi faith traditions native to his home of Tunisia. These two Muslim artists bonded by faith and their love of hip-hop, offer a counter-narrative to the media’s portrayal of Muslims. Both Ahmed and Amirah are dedicated to preserving and sharing hip-hop culture with the next generation and audiences around the world, as well as being examples of using art for social change.

Partnering for five years

The pair of hip-hop Muslims met in 2019 in Algeria and filmed videos during the pandemic.

“We created a lot of stuff, a lot of content. We had a live show on Twitch and YouTube and Facebook during the pandemic,” Zaghbouni said.

The Putnam performance on Saturday will be very different from the school workshops, Sackett said. The public show includes a short film, called “Lateef” — made by Zaghbouni.

Sackett and Zaghbouni demonstrate their skills for students.

“Lateef is one of the 99 names of Allah,” Sackett said. “It’s about choosing a path. Sometimes you want to go down the easy path, but the hard one is chosen for you. It’s about that struggle for your path, that may be difficult.”

Everything was choreographed by her, and “Lateef” was filmed in Chicago.

Zaghbouni has directed a short dance film called “Sikeena,” with Sackett, which was chosen to be part of the American Muslim Futures exhibit created by Shangri La Doris Duke Foundation for the Arts and the organization Muslim Advocates.

In 2021, “Sikeena” won an Official Selection and a finalist Award at the Lift-Off Global Network International Film Festival. In 2022, he directed two short films “No Normal” in collaboration with the Green Belt Festival in the UK.

Zaghbouni has fun with students at Bowlesburg in Silvis.

The Putnam performance will not be as interactive as the schools, but does include a fun game, Sackett said.

This event highlights performing arts’ pivotal role in sharing cultural traditions, both old and new, and the power of arts to create a space for cultural exchange and introspective discussion, Quad City Arts said.

In a 2019 interview with The Harvard Gazette, Sackett said being visibly Muslim, wearing hijab, and “doing something as powerful as dance and representing it in this strong way — I think that that image is the complete opposite of what most people who don’t have a lot of contact with Muslims might see.

“Across the country, I’ve noticed that when I’m able to bridge that gap with dance and art, when I talk about misconceptions about Muslims and our religion, people are more likely to respond to me differently and ask questions they might not ask in a different situation,” she said then. “I think that’s crucial in America, to have the conversations that are uncomfortable and being open to those questions. For me, these kinds of conversations and finding what unifies us is the strongest weapon right now. I don’t want us to be divided; I want us to be unified.”

Sackett’s performance Feb. 10 is the culminating event of her educational residency, the eighth in the 50th season of the Visiting Artist Series.   

The full 2023-2024 roster of artists participating in the Visiting Artist Series includes 14 professional performing artists providing educational activities in music, dance, theatre, and visual arts creation. Residencies featuring artists from across the U.S. and around the world are scheduled through May 2024 and will focus on presenting educational performing arts-based engagements in and around the Quad Cities.  

Schools and community sites can schedule visits from these artists for demonstrations, workshops, informal performances and more. Details about the series and scheduling can be found HERE.

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Tickets for the Putnam performance are $20 for general admission, $10 for students, and are available online or at the door.

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