It Started Here: Jean Vang’s Journey into Fresno’s Hip Hop Past

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Popping is a dance style that originated in Fresno and is characterized by abrupt spastic movements. The dancers pop their limbs in sudden drastic motions while incorporating subtle pauses to accentuate these popping gestures. The origins are often credited to brothers Popp’ in Pete and Sam Solomon who helped create the dance stylings in the 1970’s.[1] The Solomon brothers grew up in West Fresno which was predominantly African American. Latinos and African Americans were often segregated to this region of Fresno, which suffered from widespread unemployment and poverty. The schools in this region were neglected and housing was dilapidated.[2]

It was under these difficult conditions that the Solomon brothers found refuge in dance. Around the same time, Ricky Darnell McDowell and William Green Jr. developed their own dance stylings at the Tulare Housing Projects of West Fresno. Green Jr. and McDowell, two young African American boys, ditched school frequently and enjoyed smoking marijuana together. They were two troubled youths as products of their environment. Green Jr. and McDowell had to get creative and make their own fun as life in West Fresno during the 70’s offered very little in terms of educational or career advancement for minorities.

The creativity of Green Jr. and McDowell was on full display after observing an elderly man walking out of their neighborhood convenience store. While standing outside Louie Kee Market on Tulare street in West Fresno, William Green Jr. and Ricky Darnell McDowell witnessed an old man with a prosthetic leg and a noticeable limp. The limp of the elderly man became the inspiration for one of their signature dance moves, appropriately named, “the old man.” West Fresno became a hotbed for dance culture as locations like Roeding Park and the Mary Ella Brown Community Center attracted dancers from all over the city. Despite conflicting origin stories, popping has been deeply embedded within Fresno’s dance culture, spreading beyond the west side and the African American community.[3]

Jean Vang is an aspiring dancer from Fresno, California. Jean was born in Fresno on October 7, 1993. He grew up in Central Fresno in the Dakota and Fresno street region just North of the Manchester Shopping Center, a multiethnic neighborhood dominated by apartment complexes. This area of Fresno was heavily patrolled by law enforcement and was often dangerous at night. Jean’s parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam during the 1970’s when the country was divided by ideological conflict. The Vietnam War was characterized by political ideals which forced the communist North against the South, which was allied with the United States and favored democracy and capitalism. Many Vietnamese sought refuge from the violence by fleeing to the United States, particularly after the fall of the regime in the South in 1975. In fact, by 1979, 150,000 Vietnamese people had emigrated.

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The United States welcomed many of these refugees because of their strict anti-communist views.[4] Jean’s paternal grandfather, Za Yeng Vang, assisted the United States backed South Vietnamese forces who were anti-communist, and he was allowed passage to the United States after the Vietnam War as a refugee. Za Yeng Vang, Jean’s grandfather from his material side, was also involved in the conflict and came to the United States as refugees as well. They arrived in the American Midwest and eventually made it to Fresno, California. It was in Fresno, California that Jean’s parents met. Jean’s father is currently a member of the Hmong International New Year, a group which oversees organizing the annual New Year’s celebration in Fresno. They also help to maintain culture and share Hmong values with the community.[5]

Jean first became interested in dance as a teenager while he observed Hmong breakers on the streets perform. “I saw kids on the streets doing flips and spins. I tried to copy them but I would get hurt a lot,” he reflected during an oral history. During his sophomore year of high school, one of the teachers looked to embrace the break dancing talents of Jean and his friends and organized school sanctioned dance events. While this educator was not familiar with break dancing, he knew a lot about popping and introduced Jean to the dance group On Point. This group was composed of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, who were eager to pass down their knowledge of dance to the next generation. The group exposed Jean to the Fresno dance style of popping. Jean would session with the On Point dancers periodically throughout his sophomore year of high school. However, like many youngsters, he was interested in dance but not devoted to it. He played sports and thought he was going to be a video game designer.[6]

After graduating high school, Jean realized that making video games was not for him and began to fully immerse himself in dancing. Jean began to study the physical movement of dance itself along with its history and culture. Jean was willing to learn about dance in any way possible. This young college students enrolled in dance classes at Fresno City College and received a formal education: for example, in addition to studying dances associated with urban culture such as hip hop, Jean also took classes in ballet, tap, and jazz. Now, as a devoted student of dance, he reunited with the dance group On Point. During his second stint with the dance group he came under the mentorship of Leandre Silva, one of the group’s original members.

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As an African American born in 1985, Silva had vast knowledge of popping and hip hop’s origins, especially as it related to Fresno. Leandre believed that to fully immerse oneself within hip hop dance stylings the study of the history and culture was necessary. It was through Silva that Jean, a Vietnamese-American dancer, learned about the history of popping in Fresno. Jean credits Leandre for “teaching him the fundamentals of popping, and to appreciate the culture of hip hop.” Leandre educated Jean about the history of James Brown, Michael Jackson and the Electric Boogaloos, a dance group whose founding members Sam Solomon and Popp’ in Pete grew up in West Fresno.[7]

Leandre also connected Jean with Los Angeles’ vibrant dance scene by taking him to popping, and breaking dance competitions. On these trips, Jean got to see firsthand the extent of popping, locking, and breaking. Jean had not seen dance events or talent on this scale in Fresno. “It was mind blowing for me. It was a whole new world I did not know existed” he remembered during an oral history. The exposure to the talented Los Angeles dance scene motivated Jean to work harder. Leandre continues to influence Jean. They remain in constant communication even though Leandre joined the military and is currently living on the East Coast. Jean described a conversation with Leandre which sums up their relationship. Leandre once told him, “You are going to school for dance. Never stop pursuing what you want. Embrace the culture because it started here [in Fresno].”[8]

Jean learned about the history of popping in Fresno primarily from his mentor Leandre and to a lesser degree word-of-mouth growing up. Jean believes that many people do not know of the history of popping because it has never received much mainstream media attention. Furthermore, most of the biggest popping and breaking events are held in larger cities who have a rich history of hip hop culture. These cities include New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. These cities attract dancers from all over the world. Jean believes that Fresno has not done a good job in maintain a prominent hip hop culture so the most talented dancers leave for the larger market cities where dancing is a viable career choice. Meanwhile, popping and hip hop dance in general are taking off on the international stage. Jean’s Mentor Leandre Silva would tell him stories of his travels as a dance instructor abroad, as he held seminars in Taiwan and Korea and attested to the global reach of popping. Yet it remains true that Fresno today has not maintained a dance culture on the same level as New York or Los Angeles.[9]

Jean has danced in many different forms such as ballet, modern, tap, jazz, hula, Hmong cultural dancing and breaking. When performing in front of an audience, Jean describes the feeling as, “an out of body experience,” as he feeds off the energy of the crowd and experiences a euphoric adrenaline rush. For Jean dance provides him with a method of artistic expression. “Dancing makes you forget about everything.” Jean has said, “Suddenly, all your problems go away and for those few moments you are completely at ease.” Dance has a therapeutic effect on him; there have been points in Jean’s life when he was not dancing because of his busy schedule, and he describes feeling incomplete during these times without dance. No matter what he is going through dance can lift his mood and ease his mind.[10]

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As an Asian American from a multiethnic city, Jean loves the communal aspect of dance and hip hop culture. “The most attractive feature of hip hop culture is the way in which it can bring people together,” he says. People from all walks of life come together to share their love of music. No matter if you are rich or poor, white or black, dance sees no color and unites; for many, it is an escape from the struggles of everyday life. Currently, Jean is a dance major at Fresno State and hopes to give back to the community by teaching dance to youth. He wants others to feel the same joy he feels from dance, which he believes is the purest form of human expression.[11]

This post is part of our Straight Outta Fresno series. To learn more about the project, click here

About the Author

Roger Espinosa is an undergraduate student majoring in history at Fresno State University. He is a Mexican American whose mother and father immigrated to the United States from Apatzingan, Michoacán and El Grullo, Jalisco, Mexico in the 1980s. He first became interested in history growing up as a little boy watching historical documentaries on PBS while showing interest in the many history classes throughout middle school. He grew up in Firebaugh, California, an agrarian community about 1 hour west of Fresno. Firebaugh is a small town with a population of 7,000 and only two traffic lights in the entire city. Growing up without movie theaters, bowling alleys, or shopping malls offered a unique perspective. Roger credits growing up in this small town for his appreciation for the simplicity of life such as his love of history.

Bibliography

Chacon, Ramon D. “A Case Study of Ghettoization and Segregation: West Fresno’s Black and Chicano Community During the 1970’s.” SCCR Working Paper, No.12, (Stanford: Stanford Center for Chicano Research) 1-40

Du Do, Hien. “The New Migrants from Asia: Vietnamese in the United States.” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 10, (Summer, 1996) Accessed 12-12-2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163102

Espinosa, Roger. Jean Vang. Fresno State Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving Our Stories.

Guzman-Sanchez, Thomas. “Underground Dance Masters: Final History of a Forgotten Era,” (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012) 109-112)

Higa, Ben. “Electric Kingdom.” 57-58

References

[1] Higa. “Electric Kingdom.” 57-58

[2] Ramon D. Chacon. “A Case Study of Ghettoization and Segregation: West Fresno’s Black and Chicano Community During the 1970’s.” SCCR Working Paper, No.12, (Stanford: Stanford Center for Chicano Research) 1-40

[3] Thomas Guzman-Sanchez. “Underground Dance Masters: Final History of a Forgotten Era,” (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012) 109-112)

[4] Hien Du Do. “The New Migrants from Asia: Vietnamese in the United States.” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 10, (Summer, 1996) Accessed 12-12-2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163102

[5] Roger Espinosa. Jean Vang. Fresno State Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving Our Stories.

[6] Roger Espinosa. Jean Vang. Fresno State Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving Our Stories.

[7] Ben Higa, “Electric Kingdom.” 57-58

[8] Roger Espinosa. Jean Vang. Fresno State Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving Our Stories.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Roger Espinosa. Jean Vang. Fresno State Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving Our Stories.

[11] Ibid.

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