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From the sanctuary to the hip hop soundstage

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Ariyan Johnson  journey to self discovery

June is a month full of celebrations, including Juneteenth, Father’s Day, Pride, and graduation. For the past 44 years June is also recognized as Black Music Month, originally established by  President Jimmy Carter and is a celebration of African-American musical contributions. There are several types of lively music to explore throughout the remainder of this month.

Genres include sacred and/or spiritual music, folk music, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and finally hip-hop and rap. As fellow Americans and people alike celebrate the various genres of music, culture, and the joy of integrating history and sound there are some interesting, yet controversial relationships that intersect. One is the relationship or lack thereof between hip-hop and church.

The church a staple in Black culture

The church is a major staple in Black culture. Baptist churches, in particular, provide a very structured environment. One person trying to bridge the chasm between the church and hip hop is Ariyan Johnson whose spiritual upbringing and talent for dance is examined closely in the docuseries entitled “Spiritual Cyphers.” The first installment of a docu-series that will premiere in Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 28, at 4:45 p.m. at the TCL Chinese Theatres.

Johnson’s background and career exploration within the music scene was an authentic life experience culminated through a combination of passion, education, talent, and love for both church and hip-hop. The film unpacks the late 1980s through the 1990s with interviews with pastors, fellow artists, historians, and pioneering women hip-hop artists who undergo a challenge for acceptance for hip-hop within the church.

Spiritual Cyphers has premiered at the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival, the International Christian Film Festival, the Harlem International Film Festival, the American Dance Festival’s Movies by Movers, the Women of African Descent Film Festival, Columbia Film Festival, and Dances with Films. This month’s local premier will be a part of Dances with Films, an independent film festival at the TCL Chinese Theatre.

Showcasing her work coast to coast

Many alumni of the film festival have moved on to craft, direct, write and produce celebrity-studded vehicles, star in movies, and television series, produce multimillion-dollar films, and create popular tv shows. The TCL Chinese Theatres is located at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood.

Johnson has showcased her work in a number of locations stretching from Harlem, NY to Orlando, Fla. and onto San Francisco  and so far has sold out with positive feedback and support. She’s enthusiastic and proud of her work saying “This film to my knowledge is the first one addressing things like you know spirituality and hip-hop. Some Black women dancers were again illuminating the music by their movement, by their body, by their lived-in experience embodying the culture. So these threads are throughout the film.”

Johnson, a native New Yorker, is the owner of the company Degrees In Movement which was arranged by Ariyan (D.I.M.A.B.A) and established in 1991. Johnson attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, studying dance and earning a merit scholarship at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre School, Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, and Chautauqua School of Dance. Johnson holds a B.A. Degree from Lehman College in Speech Pathology and Audiology and an M.A. in Applied Theatre from CUNY SPS.

Touring with the stars

Johnson has an acting, dancing, and choreographing background and has toured with many well-known artists including L.L. Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Chaka Khan, Ms. Melodie, Ya Kid K, 2 in a Room, Mary J. Blige, SWV, Mariah Carey and many others. She was awarded the 2022-2023 Hellman Fellows, the 21st Century Creativity Research Grant for 2020-2021, as well as being the three-time recipient of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Artist-in-Residence grant.

Johnson has very high hopes for her film premiere.

“The first installment is the pilot concept that I shot as a stand-alone documentary for the festivals with plans to show the entire series on a network/streaming platform,” she said. “I am so honored that all things aligned for 2023 to be the 50th year of Hip Hop which is so rich with history which I believe my film helps fulfill by shedding light on some untold stories of Hip Hop history.

Johnson was born into a family of artists, one being her mother who was a graduate of an affluent dance school. Johnson’s film begins with her journey through her local church, Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, where only the word of God and The Negro spiritual and ballet were allowed within the church. The DJ is the worship leader, the graffiti is the art and style, the Black church is the aesthetics and the emcee is the preacher where the sermon metamorphoses into the dance. The B-Boy and or B-Girl is the dance ministry where dance reveals messages and knowledge as the Word of God (Bible) is what unifies people throughout the community as culture.

However, Johnson was flabbergasted when her starring role in the first hip-hop movie to feature a Black female hip-hop lead “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” was shown in church for everyone to see. Up until that point Ariyan had separated her church and hip-hop background dancing career.

Paying homage to African culture

“The interesting thing about when we talk about the history of the Black church is we have to visit how we begin to worship, how we begin to gather and that was in the ring shout on plantations,” she said. “The Black church stems from these gatherings, on these plantations so when you’re gathering, here you are being told not to worship the way you would normally worship – in terms of your own cultural aesthetics because you are being oppressed.”

The “ring shout” is a cultural practice derived from African culture where people could praise, worship, communicate, sing, and serve as a communal form of protection. Whooping includes chanting, cadence, call, response, and melody and is a way in which black pastors close sermons and introduce songs and or music.

Johnson was torn between her two loves, church and hip-hop, although she was successful in background dancing, her big break came when she came to Los Angeles for a part in the movie “Bulworth” with Halle Berry and Warren Beatty, depicting a rapper who influenced hip hop culture on a political landscape.

While in Los Angeles, Johnson joined Faithful Central Bible Church where she collaborated with Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer to introduce hip-hop and the word of God all into the same space. Johnson became the artistic director and Resident Choreographer of Faithful Dance Company, working with deaf participants. “Just start, begin where you are, where you can, and keep going. If you love it and have a passion for it-it will make room for you to grow in it as you keep nurturing it by doing it.”

Bishop Ulmer was the first pastor to secure the 18,000-seat Great Western Forum, the first faith-based African-American-owned venue.

Johnson created dances and productions every second Sunday, assisting Bishop Ulmer with reaching a new generation. In 2000, Johnson choreographed Tabernacle, with Bishop Ulmer rapping and providing words and sermons as Johnson's movements took center stage.

Johnson’s documentary is a beautiful inspiration for creative expression, acceptance, and collaboration among different artists, including religious leaders and musicians. Presently, Johnson is an assistant professor at UC Irvine and remains an adjunct instructor at the CUNY Dance Initiative Dance Resident at Queensborough College in New York.

In closing, Johnson noted: “I feel like my responsibility is to remind us that we were born from community and so no matter where and how far the reach is of hip hop we have to be reminded to continue to cultivate community.”

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