April 26, 2013 -- It's true that there is nothing new under the sun -- everything builds on something else, and this is especially true of pop culture, which doesn't exist as a straight line so much as an ever-expanding web, all tangled up in drugs and hairstyles and dance moves and pajama jeans. So when a friend sent me this video of dance squads battling in Mobile, Alabama, I took a moment, collected what was left of my mind, and got to looking up what this was. I was gone and now I have life, because this video gave it to me.
Which brings us to J-Sette, and why, in order to know where it's going, we must learn whence it came. Singer Our Lady J sums up why it's important for children to learn their roots: "Everything interesting in pop culture starts with the queens on the street. And then cis-gendered men sell it to cis-gendered pop stars, who then sell it to the masses. The queens on the street may never collect the coins, but we know where it starts. Watch this emerge in pop culture in the near future." Isn't it always the way.
So. What is J-Sette? The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage offers a succinct description in an intro to their interview with Jumatatu Poe, the founder and artistic director of idiosynCrazy. J-Sette, they write, is "an underground dance style popular in the gay African-American club scene. Borne from all-female, Southern drill-teams and often performed in domestically scaled spaces, J-Sette is characterized by sharp, explosive movements choreographed in tightly executed routines." Here's an example of J-Settin performed by a drill team.
In a testament to just how tangled the lines between pop culture divas and the often-underground, often-queer elements they draw from are (in the case of Vogue-ing, for instance, well. It's very name lets you know what it originally drew from, before it was further repackaged and reappropriated for mainstream consumption), Poe says he first discovered J-Sette via Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" video. "Everybody was talking about it," Poe explains. "Beyoncé is always in the news for plagiarism, so back then, people were talking about [her] employment of J-Sette choreography. I didn't know what that was. I started looking around for J-Sette and because of her video, a lot of the J-Setters on YouTube had exploded in popularity."
Beyoncé was introduced to J-Setting by then 19-year-old JaQuel Knight and Frank Gatson, who helped choreograph the singer's videos for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" and "Diva." Knight, via Bossip, offers a glimspe at how Beyoncé came to learn about the dance:
"Beyoncé wanted to do something really different," says JaQuel, "because she had done everything." He and Frank sat Beyoncé in front of the computer and showed her YouTube clips of people J-Setting. "We were like, 'Are you sure?' and she was like, 'Let's do it.'"
And so they did. But the thing that distinguishes "appropriation" from "reference" is that, in the former, you are not telling your audience what it is from which you're drawing to make art of your own. And that's a shame, because what lies beneath the water is just as much a part of the iceberg as the tip.
So, for more examples of J-Setting, look no further than YouTube, which has fantastic examples of dancers performing in Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, and (once again) Mobile. Enjoy. And give credit where it's so richly due.