Oakland Is Our Turf
By Lou Fancher
Did you ever expect, during the pandemic lockdown, to miss the crushing inhumanity of riding on BART at rush hour? Didn't think so—unless over the past few months you've been the lonely sole member of a pod or—more fortunately—you had the vicarious pleasure prior to Covid's outbreak of witnessing the popping, bone-breaking, sneaker-clad pirouetting of Turf Nation during your daily commute.
The Oakland dance crew known as Turf Feinz (along with other groups) brought the Latin dance style officially known in the 1960s as "Boogaloo" to Bay Area streets in the 2000s. Soon, the dance form's blend of angular accents, intricate footwork and fluid use of torso and arms took off, bursting onto regional, national and international stages and featured in pop, rap and hip-hop stars' music videos. The West Oakland turf style further distinguished itself by integrating tutting, waving and gliding moves grounded in West Coast gang culture with Brooklyn-style, rhythmic, bone-breaking contortionist maneuvers to create new, complex and dynamic movements. During the last two decades, South Central Los Angeles' krumping, Memphis-style juking and other street styles have further diversified the art form that—after people complained about the noise and police began to hustle the turf dance groups off San Francisco streets—members of Turf Feinz began to perform on BART.
In a fortuitous meeting, Tokyo-born Korean creative director and filmmaker Jun Bae attended a turfing battle at Blue Bottle in Oakland. Inspired by one of the dancers, Yung Phil, Bae sent footage he'd taken of the competition to Turf Feinz. Bae is an award-winning filmmaker whose work often features street dancers performing in non-conventional spaces. He holds an MFA in documentary film and video from Stanford University and is the founder of PRIZM VISION.
"They hit me right back and Yung Phil invited me to come film them on BART," he said in a recent interview. "Young Phil's been turf dancing since he was like 10 years old. His nephew, Yung Raph, he's in the footage I shot on BART, too."
Bae began filming the group on BART in 2018, soon switching to a Sony A7 that was the size of a snap camera and attracted less attention than his usual equipment, a bulky Sony F5. "I could be less obtrusive with the A7," he said. "The audience's reactions are always a little different. And no one went at them and hated on them. Honestly, filming on BART, getting clean audio was the hardest part. Turf Feinz's shows all follow a similar format, so I was able to anticipate and move around to get different angles by shooting multiple times on multiple days."
In Turf Nation, Bae's documentary short film drawn from the footage, BART train passengers don't call out racist taunts or clutch handbags and backpacks to their chests or poke with canes at the dancers. Such things have happened, according to Bae, but people tend to behave better on camera than off. The 13-minute documentary, a Cinequest Film Festival 2020 selection, was trimmed from a 40-minute cut of the longer, post-production film. "Because a lot was shot on BART, with ambient noise, sound mixing was vital to the work and done by Matt Tammariello from Roast n' Post, a micro-roastery and post-production studio in Oakland," Bae said.
The documentary includes footage of the dancers performing on BART and other locations, but most poignant and inspiring are the interviews with the stars of the film who tell stories about how they use their art in entrepreneurial ways to survive. Although these turf dancers appear in the videos of hip-hop artists such as G-Eazy, Kehlani, Tyga, H.E.R., E-40 and others, dancers in general are often poorly compensated and rarely given credit lines or attention equal to the musicians. Frenchiebabyy, who appears in a montage scene in Turf Nation, is a turf dancer on the rise who is transitioning to become a rapper. He recently received a Golden Buzzer from Romania's Got Talent. Bae, who is working on a full-length feature about Frenchiebabyy, said, "Street dancers who transition do it because in the dance world, turfing is not something you can keep up doing for decades. The dancers see the rappers and see how they're being paid more, so there's a lot of transition now."
Yung Phil, in a separate interview from his home in San Leandro, reflected on how he sees himself as fortunate to be a turf dancer. "Honestly, I got blessed because, growing up in Oakland, it's easy to attract negativity," he said. "Especially being a youth of color, it's easy to slip into bad habits. I was dancing and doing OK, then fell off track. It got to a point where I thought, am I doing something meaningful? Since I was young, I had been the influencer, the leader ... so once I caught myself doing not-cool things, I had to be me again. A leader. What could I do? I saw how well my group in Turf Feinz were doing. They were just succeeding. They welcomed me back with open arms."
Yung Phil, 23, stretches constantly to retain flexibility. He works on creating new moves, asking himself what he can remix into a fundamental move to bring something unique into his repertoire. On BART, he's learned how to deal with negativity, reinforcing and increasing his professionalism. "Negative people who want to mess up the show or say something racist—when I was younger I'd get riled up and lash out," he said. "Dancing on BART has made me stop and think about how that person is feeling. Something made them mad enough to speak or act out. Usually, I just brush it off, but sometimes, I ask where they're coming from. Without an aggressive tone, I sometimes ask them about why they feel the way they do. It leads to conversations that are real."
Oakland's rich culture allows him to experience new things and mix interracially every day. "The turfing culture stems from Black people, but people from other races get into dancing," he said. "You can find out about Hispanic culture and have friends who do other dances. You can develop friendships with Asian people and see how they live. You don't have to fit in with your own race only. That's something other places can't do. Oakland's not as segregated as other places."
Bae's interest in street dance began after Michael Brown was shot in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Filming people crumping on the streets near where Brown was killed, Bae's interest and career focus shifted from architecture, which he had been studying in college, to filmmaking focused on street culture and dance. "Turf dancing, it's hard to describe it, but sometimes it reminds me of a body in an earthquake," he said. "It's called a 'get off' when the whole body is vibrating. Nowadays, with new styles and elements like gliding and bone breaking, the range of movements is astonishing. But the main message[s] of my films are for people to be inspired by these dancers and because of them, to believe it's possible to do anything and thrive."
Of course, with the shutdowns and more people working remotely, BART ridership since March 2020 is less than 15 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Which means the Turf Feinz dancers and others who earn part of their income performing in public spaces like the trains and at transportation hub stations are taking a financial hit. Yung Phil says that while Covid cut into opportunities he has to perform live, he's been able to book work on music videos, at talent showcases, on paid Zoom appearances and recently, he performed at the Asian Art Museum with a hip-hop orchestra filming a video for a new album.