Raven Ganaway got to see a step dance performance when she was 8 years old, immediately fell in love, and became a stepper for five years. She went on to participate in other forms of dance such as jazz, modern, and hip-hop. To this day, dance is something she always makes time for, which is saying a lot, considering how taxing a Lawrence schedule can be.
She performed three dances at Cultural Expressions. The first was a dance from Normani’s music video for “Wild Side,” which came out on July 15, 2021. The dance captured Ganaway’s attention instantly, so when she found a resource online where she could learn the dance from the original choreographers, she immediately got involved. Friends encouraged her to audition to perform “Wild Side” at Cultural Expressions, so, despite nervousness about her first solo dance performance, she took the plunge. She admitted, “I was scared, but I’m glad I did it because it was so fun.”
Next, Ganaway danced to “Fever” by Beyonce with a friend, Chloe Thomas. Ganaway first heard the song in the 2003 movie “The Fighting Temptations,” which she described as having “90s vibes, with a jazz club where people would come to slow dance and watch musicians;” it’s a dream of hers to go to a place like that in real life, so she brought that vibe to life in the dance. Finally, the last dance Ganaway took part in was Afrofusions, choreographed by BSU Co-President Amaka Uduh.
This was her second year participating in Cultural Expressions; she also performed during her first year at Lawrence, pre-pandemic. She recalled, “At my first Cultural Expressions, I got to showcase step, which is my first love in dance, and I got to do a performance of Afrofusion dance too.”
There were three new surprises at this year’s performance: Ganaway got to dance alone for the first time, danced with a friend, and didn’t do step (though she did lead a step workshop as part of BSU’s Black History Month event series!). Other things carried over to this year’s performance; Ganaway shared, “The thing that stayed the same is that I performed Afrofusions both years, and there was as much excitement in my first year as there was this year.”
Ganaway reflected that this year, “A large part of the audience had never seen Cultural Expressions or even knew what it was until the performance, so we got to introduce it in a way, unlike my first year, where a lot of people who came to the show were familiar with Cultural Expressions and knew what to expect.”
A highlight of the evening for Ganaway was watching fellow performer Sarah Navy’s vocal performance, a cover of “I Was Here” by Beyonce. Ganaway shared that she has a lot of admiration for Navy, so seeing Navy perform made her “really proud and happy,” but was also very emotional, because it came with the knowledge that this was Navy’s last Cultural Expressions performance before her graduation.
Performing gave Ganaway a ton of new experiences behind the scenes, including working with tech crew, creating her own wardrobe, and figuring out makeup. Ganaway reflected, “I learned that the people working behind the scenes carry as much weight as the people we see onstage performing.” She also noted the importance of having a creative outlet that is “a safe space for Black students and other students of color on campus to be comfortable enough to even participate, and know that the space is for them.”
Tomi Oladunjoye spends a lot of time in SOL Studios, the student-run recording studio in the basement of the Con. Though he isn’t technically majoring in music yet, and is still in the process of figuring out if the BMA degree path is right for him, he calls the studio his ““second home.” Oladunjoye works with ambience and consciously chooses to work with frequencies that encourage calmness or creativity in the listener. His creative process involves mixing and matching many different sounds and instruments to see what works, pursuing the sounds that best tell a story.
For Cultural Expressions, Oladunjoye shared a sound bath he created, titled “Wound.” A sound bath is an opportunity for listeners to sink into the music and imagine their own story in the sounds. He shared that his intent was to offer the audience “a chance to be the creative ones, a chance to be the narrator.” Similarly, Oladunjoye thinks of his role as that of a storyteller, and his work as “poetry in frequency.”
He shared the story that was told in “Wound”: “Imagine you’re a soldier in the 17th century, in the misty forest. You have two options: you can either run away out of fear or continue to fight, knowing you might die, but that you will die with honor. And if you don’t die, you will rise triumphant.” When he first composed “Wound” over a year ago, he was feeling down, and composed the piece for himself as a way to lift himself up: “I’m losing in this particular part of my life, but I will continue to fight.”
Oladunjoye first saw Cultural Expressions during his first year at Lawrence, before the pandemic began, and was struck by the dances, poems, and the “beauty of creativity”. When it came time for auditions this year, he knew he had to take part.
“Wound” was the opener of Cultural Expressions, and Oladunjoye hoped that starting the evening with a sound bath that invited the audience to exert their own creative agency helped them to continue to listen deeply and make meaning for the rest of the evening. He shared, “When my track was playing, I felt connected to everybody, because we were all listening to the same music. Even though I was connected to everybody, everybody was experiencing their own story, and that’s exactly what I wanted.” He continued, “The uniqueness of what people can create is why I did it — because people don’t know they have a unique voice, but one way to cultivate that is through music.”
You can find Oladunjoye’s music on SoundCloud under the name T O M 1, and you can listen to “Wounds” here. Keep an eye out for his music to be on Spotify sometime soon!
Monique Johnson has been writing since she was 9 years old, but her performance at Cultural Expressions this year was only her fifth time performing spoken word live. Her first spoken word performance took place during her sophomore year of high school for a Black History Month event, and led to the opportunity to perform at Eric Garner’s commemoration.
Writing is Johnson’s personal escape, or as she put it, “It’s the easiest way that I can think of to manage my emotions.” She has amassed several bodies of written work, and while she sometimes pulls material and inspiration from her archives, she wrote her performance piece, “U.N.I.T.Y.,” specifically for Cultural Expressions.
The theme of Cultural Expressions this year was “Unity,” which felt very timely for Johnson. She particularly connected with the theme because one of her minors is in ethnic studies; she shared that in her classes she’s been thinking a lot “about how the Black community don’t really support and uplift each other as they should and why.” Her spoken word performance was targeted toward the Black community, saying, “We need to support each other more, uplift each other, and stuff like that.”
As a returning performer, Johnson pointed out some differences she noticed from last year’s Cultural Expressions. She shared, “It felt more like I was actively present because last year we were virtual. All of our performances were prerecorded and then synched into a video. There’s just something about having a live performance that adds extra support to the entire experience.”
“U.N.I.T.Y.” was the second performance of the lineup, so during rehearsals, Johnson deliberately left after rehearsing her piece. She didn’t want to see what her fellow performers were working on, mimicking last year’s rehearsals, when she didn’t see anyone else’s performance until the video was presented at the event. She reflected on finally seeing all the performances together during the event, “It was just so magical being able to come together in the same room at the same time, and be able to share your talents with one another.” Johnson continued, “I was just so moved by all of these beautiful BIPOC individuals just showing their talents. It truly felt like more of a community, and I feel like this term I’ve needed that feeling of a supportive community.”
Johnson related her experience with imposter syndrome on campus, and how Cultural Expressions helped her feel like she belongs: “A lot of times on this campus, I feel like I just don’t belong here, like this isn’t the place for me. But when Cultural Expressions happened, it’s like this event, this space, this time was created for you to be able to use your voice and not be afraid of being silenced because of it.” She continued, “Performing in a white space – because that’s what Lawrence is – it’s something that I truly appreciated […] I just felt like it was a very amazing space to be appreciated, and for BIPOC individuals like myself to share our story and share why we’re so angry and the history behind it without fear of judgment.”
Participating in Cultural Expressions gave Johnson fresh insight into what it means to take your work seriously and to be driven by your work. She acknowledged that the rigorous auditions and rehearsals tested her motivation and her ability to withstand pressure, but concluded, “This was definitely a solidifying moment for me. Like, ‘Yes, you need to perform. You need to say what you need to say. Stop keeping this in your notebook.’ And so I would definitely say it influenced my ability to grow as an artist.”
Seckou Soumare and Nate Smith, two first-years from New York, have been making music together in SOL Studios since September. They performed their original song, “Take,” at Cultural Expressions. Soumare described the song’s creation as fun and special; he remembers walking into the studio with some lyrics while Smith was working on a session for someone else, and 20 minutes later, the whole song was written.
Soumare and Smith are also Posse Scholars, both members of Posse 15; Soumare shared that making music together has been a fun way to deepen the connection with his fellow Posse Scholar.
Rather than studying in the Con, Soumare is taking a literary approach to his music; his focus right now is English, though he does hope to pursue music studies at some point. Cultural Expressions was actually his first experience performing his own music in front of people; he reflected, “I was a little bit lucky because the spotlight was shining so brightly that I barely saw anyone [in the audience]. It was my first time performing in front of people, it was nerve wracking, but when it was finished, I was so happy I’d done it.”
The supportive community Soumare found through Cultural Expressions made all the nerves worth it; he reminisced, “It’s such a loving community and such a fun space to be in, surrounded by people of color, being creative and pushing each other and wanting each other to be great. There was a lot of support in the room, and I think that’s beautiful.”
Cultural Expressions requires months of rigorous rehearsals, and Soumare admits that this challenged his expectations at first. Initially, he expected to “get a chance to get up on stage, show them what I got, and then just get off.” Now, however, he’s glad of all the time and effort that he and others put into making Cultural Expressions appear perfect and effortless, and he celebrated all the work done in the background by the performers, tech crew, and BSU.
Soumare considers it a blessing that he was able to be a part of Cultural Expressions. He reflected, “It’s a big event at Lawrence for good reason. Black people who have been pushed to the margins for years are standing up, doing our own thing, and showing our talents. I think showing that to the wider community is beautiful.” He continued, “Even though it’s big now, I actually think it needs to be bigger. I think we need to expand it […] like maybe perform more than one night.”
You can find Soumare’s music on YouTube under the name SeckouSings, and you can listen to “Take” here.