Krump Theology: Street Kingdom, Faith, and America’s Best Dance Crew

The Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber, pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church, GTU PhD grad, artist, and dancer extraordinaire, offers a Pop Theology first with her article on krump and theology. More (with videos) after the jump.

I typically roll my eyes when famous athletes point to the clouds after scoring the winning point, or when singers or actors thank “first and foremost God” after receiving a Grammy or Oscar. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it almost always seems to rub me the wrong way. Perhaps I feel that it indicates a shallow theology that seeks to display faith rather than living it humbly and quietly. Perhaps I’m a “reverse snob” and it bothers me when famous people who make millions of dollars speak glibly of a faith whose central message is oneness with the poor, denying thyself, etc, etc. Perhaps, as a liberal religious scholar and ordained minister, I’m actually quite cynical. Perhaps.

So, when I don’t balk, roll my eyes, or become annoyed with someone on my television screen who points toward the clouds or speaks of God in response to a win or loss, I know I need to pause and pay attention. Surprisingly, such was the case last Thursday evening when the krump crew, Street Kingdom, was voted off MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. This may come as a surprise for folks unfamiliar with the development of krumping or the history of dance in Christianity. But for me, hearing the reaction of Ceasare “Tight Eyez” Willis, the developer of krump and Street Kingdom’s crew leader, was an affirmation of krump’s origins, as well as a poignant affirmation of faith in Christ.

Street Kingdom dance crew.

Krumping is sometimes represented as K.R.U.M.P., which is a “backronym” for Kingdom Radically Uplifted Mighty Praise.  As William Booth’s 2005 article, “The Exuberant Warrior Kings of ‘Krumping’,” illustrated in the Washington Post, krumping is understood by many as a faith-based art-form. David LaChapelle’s documentary, Rize (2005), offers the development of krumping in South Central Los Angeles, and includes an entire section called “Krumping for Christ.”

Krump developed out of the clowning movement of Tommy the Clown; Thomas “Tommy the Clown,” Johnson is a reformed crack dealer who began clowning for cash at birthday parties after his release from jail in 1992. Krump is characterized as aggressive, hard, fast, improvisational, high-energy, and contains four primary moves: jabs, arm swings, chest pops, and stomps. Like Rize demonstrates, much of the movement resembles forms of African tribal dance or Santeria and voodoo religious ritual dances from Cuba and Haiti. The twelve krumpers in Rize, however, were shocked to see such a comparison because they had never been exposed to these dances. Until the 2005 release of Rize and subsequent attention from music videos and television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and ABDC, krumping was not performative. Rather than dancing on a stage, krumpers dance in “battles” where dancers face off in mock combat. Krumping was and is an escape from poverty, violence, gangs, and drugs.

But when a fellow krumper was killed in an act of gang violence, Tight Eyez and Miss Prissy (now a professional dancer) softened their movements and danced in their church beneath a painting of a black Jesus: krumping for Christ. Tight Eyez and many other members of Street Kingdom describe krumping as not only an escape from the poverty and violence of South Central, but also as an escape from much of commercial hip hop. Though hip hop—both in music and dance—started prophetically and with an emphasis on justice, much of commercial hip hop places tremendous emphasis on “bling,” money, sex, degrading women, and booty dancing. For these reasons, krumpers from Street Kingdom recoiled at the idea of dancing to a Nicki Minaj song on ABDC because, according to Tight Eyez, her lyrics are vulgar and Street Kingdom seeks to “krump the Godly way.” Like many krumpers, Tight Eyez was a victim of violence and has a bullet hole through his elbow; he states that “Krump led us to Jesus and got us saved.” Similarly, much of his rhetoric sounds like an evangelical conservative.

If I’m honest, this type of rhetoric— like pointing to the clouds after scoring a touchdown— typically bothers me a bit, as well. However, hearing such rhetoric is somehow different coming from Tight Eyez than from a person of wealth or privilege. Upon being voted off ABDC, Street Kingdom spoke of “walking by faith and not by sight” and of keeping Christ in their krump. Walking by faith and “being saved” takes on a deeper meaning when the person speaking about it has been shot and has created an intense and revolutionary dance form as a way of escaping poverty, violence, drugs, and gangs. It’s not metaphorical or theoretical when Tight Eyez and other krumpers speak of salvation; it’s an actual reality. In this way, their dance is their salvation. Krumping literally saves their lives. Salvation is actualized through this prophetic, urban dance form called krump.

Street Kingdom's Tight Eyez.

And krump is different than the many “Christian” rappers and hip hop artists who appropriated these art forms, “baptizing” the music and dance in order to evangelize youth. It is different because rap and hip hop didn’t start as a Christian movement. Krump did. In many ways, it is an embodiment of a liberation theology of sorts, liberating the body and soul from oppression and violence.

If you were to read the pages of almost any book about the history of dance in Christianity—academic or popular—you would be hard-pressed to find much mention of dance outside of Europe or America. There are brief examples, but the majority of references and writings stem from the histories already highlighted in most seminary classrooms: Martin Luther, Calvin, popes, and the early church fathers. Yes, Luther, Calvin, and many popes lauded dance as a valid form of worship! So did Augustine, Jerome, St. Basil, Ambrose, St. Gregory, and the list could continue.

What we don’t read much about in these books are dances of Christians on the so-called historical margins: women, minorities, the poor, and disenfranchised. This continues throughout history books as they recount the development of dance in worship in the United States today. Those who follow such trends hear about the revival of liturgical dance in the Catholic church after Vatican II. This spills into Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. In the academy we sometimes hear of the dances in Pentecostal and charismatic churches, but they are not studied with the same academic rigor as the “high church” traditions because they are often viewed as too ecstatic, too uneducated, too “other.” The same is true for much of “praise dance” in many African American churches. While I have traced links from dances in Africa to the “ring shout” amidst hush harbors during slavery, into the use of “praise dance” in many contemporary African American churches, most scholars neglect or ignore such connections. And such is case when it comes to krumping, yet another dance on the margins of the church and society.

So, it’s no surprise to me that when these krumpers pause from their aggressive, pounding, stomping, high-energy dance form and, with tears streaming down their faces, point toward the skies and speak of salvation, I am not annoyed or rolling my eyes. Instead, I am moved. Because krumping is theological. It is salvific. It is worshipful. And it changes lives.