Book Review-“Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok,” Deanne Kearney
Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok by Trevor Boffone, Oxford University Press, 2021
Reviewed for Riffs by Deanne Kearney, York University, Ph.D. Candidate, Dance Studies
Trevor Boffone’s Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok focuses on TikTok and another app, now obsolete in the ever-morphing digital abyss, called Dubsmash. The book interrogates how social media platforms have played a role in youth identity formation in the United States through hip-hop dance and music, yet from a very different perspective to the many publications now trying to do a similar thing. This is because Boffone is not only an academic but a Spanish high school teacher, whose videos of him dancing with his students have gone viral.
Dubsmash was an app similar to TikTok where users could film short videos dubbing over soundbites from movies, music, and internet trends. It is an extinct app like musical.ly and vine, whose URL is now redirected to Reddit, as they bought the company in 2020 with lost dreams of embedding its videos into their website. Boffone does not ignore that this could be the case when researching for this book, as he states that by the time you read this, it may already be dated since Generation Z, as for many youth cultures, are hard to predict and quickly move to the next best thing (yet he also finds this fact exciting) (9).
After reading this book, I was left with an immense curiosity and a sense of loss in never experiencing Dubsmash. Albeit, I was also left with a better understanding of racialized cultures on social media platforms, and the importance of culturally relevant hip-hop pedagogy. This book fits into broader social media and youth research, as scholarship on TikTok is taking off. However, Boffone’s insights into an app that was a precursor to TikTok make way for interesting arguments about these digital cultures.
One of Boffone’s main objectives is to tell the stories of influential Dubsmashers who have not been recognized for their contributions to Western popular culture. Boffone focuses on artists including D1 Nayah, Jalaiah Harmon, TisaKorean, Brooklyn Queen, Kayla Nicole Jones, and his own high school students (Primarily in the introductory chapter “A Tale of Two Teens; or, How the Renegade Was Born”). He argues that they are huge players and key creators in the social media age, even if they lack widespread recognition for their work. Boffone posits that Dubsmashers “privilege their cultural and individual identities using performance strategies that reinforce notions of community and social media interconnectedness in the digital age” (5). He asserts that these Dubsmasher’s identities and communities inform and are informed by hip-hop culture. Boffone states that he hopes to center his research on blackness, hip-hop culture, Generation Z, artists, dancers, and musicians, which he does for the book’s first half. He then gives interesting insights about his experience in teaching Generation Z, and ideas around the future of hip-hop pedagogy and community for the second(xvii).
In the first chapter, “Digital Communities: From Dubsmash to TikTok,” Boffone argues that ‘Renegades’ (cultural producers – in this book, Black Generation Z creators) use digital platforms and hip-hop culture to push against both pervasive Whiteness and White supremacy of mainstream Western popular culture. Boffone contends that there is a racial divide between TikTok and Dubsmash, where Dubsmash is a Black space and TikTok is a White space (13). Boffone sees these apps as influential outlets for pushing against and supporting systems of power that subjugate Black people in America through algorithms (59).
He contends that these Black artists are some of today’s most influential content creators, even if they lack large-scale popularity and the coveted blue checkmark on Instagram (providing a physical mark of celebrity status). Their work and influence are incredibly far-reaching. Generally, their work is first published on Dubsmash and then spreads across more popular apps, like Instagram and TikTok. A widespread example of this is the viral dance “Renegades,” created by black creator Jalaiah Harmon on Dubsmash, and performed by other prominent white stars on TikTok and Instagram. The creation resulted in a name change in the song that it was choreographed to (from “Lottery” to “Lottery (Renegade) on Spotify’s platform), showcasing a critical insight into the creation and dissemination of dances in the age of social media dance and music (4).
As I stated earlier, Boffone is an interesting character to be writing this book as he is a White American Spanish teacher at Bellaire High School in Houston, Texas. He is also a lecturer in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston. The book discusses the rich history of white people navigating hip-hop culture, like himself. As a white high-school teacher in the world of hip-hop dance on Dubsmash, he sees his whiteness as a privilege to work against bell hooks’ description of a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and “the interlocking political systems that are the foundation of our nation’s politics” (xv) which play out in the digital dance world. Boffone explains that while he may have dreamed of working in academia as a tenure-track professor, he found a different and new dream by using his doctoral training in theatre studies, ethnic studies, and community engagement to build community and power in working with his high school students (105).
I was taken with Boffone’s claims that Renegades are Generation Z’s b-boys and b-girls – hip hop’s original break dancers (19). He proposes that like break dancing before it, Dubsmash serves as “a public showcase for the flamboyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill.” (Schloss (2000) 53, Boffone 15). He states that Renegades disrupt and shift culture right before our eyes, like b-girls and b-boys in the past. Boffone further asserts that the Dubsmash online communities have been able to democratize access and reject coastal biases typically seen in popular American culture, that is, entertainment created outside the traditional entertainment centers of Los Angeles and New York City. Although, he claims that TikTok has reinforced coastal biases as major White stars flock to Los Angeles to start TikTok houses (like the infamous Hype House) (39). This leaves me wondering if this is still happening with the loss of the Dubsmash app.
In Chapter 3, “The Original Renegade: Dubsmash, Hip Hop Culture, and Sharing Value in a Digital Space,” Boffone discusses ideas around crediting on TikTok and Dubsmash. This has been an extensive conversation about dance in online spaces and in scholarship, and Boffone looks to the youth cultures and how they have already been doing this. Boffone questions: “Can a dance app have an unspoken shared set of values?” (53). He researches how Renegades forge and maintain values of ownership and credit, generally mentioning and recognizing other artists’ work in their captions to create a shared sense of values. Boffone maintains that Dubsmash is built on a culture of paying it forward. He further contends that going viral and not being credited on social media is to be robbed of real opportunities. Credit, clout, and numbers now result in paid and lucrative work through social media platforms. The artists act as hyper-specific social media billboards, yet this has been lost on un-credited Black creators (57).
In Chapter 5, “Moving as One – Unison Dancing, Muscular Bonding, and Hip Hop Pedagogy,” Boffone asserts for the transformative power that social media dance can hold to forge an inclusive hip-hop pedagogy. He discusses how unison dancing aids Renegades in creating stronger relationships and a sense of community, similar to Broadway chorus lines and military formations (90). However, I find his most powerful argument to be that Dubsmash can be used as a tool for anti-racist community building and culturally responsive teaching in hip-hop education (90).
Using the scholarship of Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995), Boffone explains that “culturally relevant pedagogy requires teachers to consider the cultures and identities of the students in their classrooms before any instructional or environmental decisions can be enacted” (105). He explains that his work with his students reveals the powers of hip-hop education, unison dancing, muscular bonding, and social media dance to break down traditional institutional structures within the classroom, the community and the teacher/student hierarchy. You can see this in the many viral dance videos posted by Boffone and his students, which were also picked up by many news outlets worldwide.
In Chapter 6, ” When Karen Slides Into Your DMs: Race, Language, and Dubsmash,” Boffone researches the audience’s reception to him as a teacher dancing with his students to specific music and movements. He reads this through a mixture of critical race theory, sound studies, and hip-hop pedagogy. Boffone suggests that there is a racial divide between White and Black viewers on social media, which Renegades pushes against through their music selection and dance styles on Dubsmash. He looks at how his White followers attempt to police the language and cultures of the students, contrasted by the praise they (and he) received from his Black followers for doing the same dances and recordings. Boffone examines the interplay between language, race, and power and how these intersections affect his digital classroom community on Instagram and his face-to-face classroom. He explores what mainly White American society determines is appropriate and inappropriate and what that means for Black students (107).
Boffone posits that many of the issues Black students face in public education comes down to cultural differences and the disparity between how teachers and administrators see the students and how they see themselves. Unsurprisingly, he maintains that this inconsistency is rooted in systems of race and privilege, which dictate power dynamics in American culture. Boffone argues that there is a hidden curriculum, an unwritten set of rules that dictate what the schooling experience should look and sound like (108). He suggests that White and Black audiences are literally “hearing” two different things, one deemed inappropriate and the other not (115). Boffone concludes by reading into how the Renegades used social media during social justice movements like that of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 (Chapter 8: The Revolution Will Be Dubsmashed).
Overall, this is a commendable, well-researched book and introduction to social media dance studies, as it strongly brings out a wide range of interdisciplinary scholarship. The book dives into the research fields of media studies, hip-hop studies, dance studies, and critical race theory. It applies them ethnographically to his personal experience as a teacher (and an incredibly successful one at that) within the American schooling system.
The book’s significant strength lies in its chapters around race and teaching, as he advocates for updating hip-hop pedagogy into the new age, yet still relates to and respects breaking as a form. I find the audiences that would benefit from reading it the most are those in teaching positions, who may need to update their curriculums to include more culturally relevant pedagogy around hip-hop and the social media age.
Boffone, Trevor. Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok. Oxford University Press, 2021.
“Dancing Teacher Hits Stride With Students.” YouTube, Inside Edition, 5 Sept. 2019, https://youtu.be/k5wHpC5oYWw.
hooks, bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Boston: South End Press, 2000.
hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” American Educational Research Journal 32, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 465–91.
Schloss, Joseph G. Foundation: B-girls, B-girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.