“We have a shared responsibility to keep our communities safe,” Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams told me at the top of our phone conversation. With the pandemic continuing to ravage the DC area and America, “wearing a mask is one of the ways we can protect ourselves and each other.”
But what can a DC performing arts organizations actually do about the COVID crisis? Williams, whose dance company celebrates the African American tradition of stepping, had a ready response: “We’re stepping on our virtual stage and into our community with a powerful, relevant message: #MaskItUp.”
A digitally based outreach campaign, #MaskItUp combines stepping and Go-Go (official music of DC) to send a critical public health message: Wearing a mask can help reduce COVID infections and death from the virus.
Reaching beyond the stage (and past the last administration’s failure to communicate), #MaskItUp helps folk understand the importance of wearing a mask to protect themselves, their loved ones, and the community from the scourge of COVID.
With live performance impossible because of the pandemic, Williams “wanted to develop on a digital platform to reach the community where people live.” He and Step Afrika! aimed to develop a film “so it could be viewed at home. It is not a substitute for live performance, but connecting to audiences in a new way, like never before.”
#MaskItUp film is a blend of vibrant song, fine storytelling, and high energy. The Step Afrika! dancers are full of synchronized teamwork and titanic agility, all with a purpose and focused message: ”Wear a mask.”
What’s more, the setting and the locations used provide an expansive sense of DC well beyond the White House and Capitol, government buildings, and museums. The #MaskItUp video features DC favorite landmarks including the Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Northeast, the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast, the Big Chair in Southeast, the Wharf in Southwest, and the home of the #DontMuteDC movement, the Metro PCS Store on Florida and 7th Street Northwest.
In addition to the “Wear a mask” message, the digital #MaskItUp campaign has done something else. Williams was able to employ dancers and creative talent while waiting for when live performances can happen once again.
#MaskItUp was filmed and edited by Ajah Smith. Lyrics are by Jeeda Barrington with choreography by Jakari Sherman. The film features a dozen Step Afrika! performers. The exciting, pulsating percussion is by Kofi Agyei, Jeeda Barrington, Conrad Kelly, Ajah Smith and Valencia Springer. Superb costumes are by Mfoniso Akpan and Jordan Spry. Crisp, clear, top-notch sound engineering is by Gustavo Trejo, Sole DidIt, and Jeeda Barrington. Dr. Yolandra Hancock provided counsel and worked in partnership with the campaign on its message of keeping safe.
Step Afrika! has earned Mayor’s Arts Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education, Innovation in the Arts, and Excellence in an Artistic Discipline and headlined President Barack Obama’s Black History Month Reception at The White House. The Company is featured prominently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History & Culture with the world’s first stepping interactive exhibit. Step Afrika! was also a part of the We Are One celebration that honored and celebrated all within the Black community and African Diaspora.
Williams ended our conversation saying that he is “so proud of the amazing work” of everyone involved with the #MaskItUp” video campaign. He looks forward to when the performing arts can be live once again but knows that until that time, digital platforms can reach so many right in the safety of their homes.
The Step Afrika! #MaskItUp is sponsored by a DC HOPE Grant through the Executive Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Step Afrika! provided special thanks to Highway 160 Proof (an African American–owned and produced hand sanitizer based in Houston), and Joe’s Movement Emporium (for providing a safe space in which to rehearse and create during these challenging times).
Step Afrika! is also distributing PPE kits to 1,000 families within DC—a marvelous way to show what the performing arts can do to make a critical difference in any community.