With movies like “Brown Sugar”, the Netflix series “The Get Down”, and VH1’s “The Breaks”, we get to witness the formation of Hip Hop and its humble beginnings; where it’s apparent that a pure love for not only the music, but the culture of break dancing, fashion, and in many ways the creation of a new language are central themes to Hip Hop’s birth. When Michael Henderson, a student at Howard University, decided to participate in the study abroad program it was this language of Hip Hop that allowed him to make a deeper connection with the people and culture in Oman.
“A Classroom without Borders,” the motto of the World Learning program, attracted Henderson to an opportunity to study abroad while he was at Howard University. With a choice between comparative studies in the Southern Cone, which consists of the southernmost countries of South America or countries in the Middle East, Henderson chose Oman, a small country in the Persian Gulf. His host family exposed him to the many sites of Oman, which included desert excursions, visiting ancient markets, hiking and cliff jumping, and a place called Salalah, which Henderson describes as the “Garden of Eden,” and exposure to Persian, Indian, Arab, and African cuisine. His immersion experience allowed him to participate in the daily life of his host family, whose roots were a mix of Arabic and African, while learning to converse in both Swahili and Arabic tongues. But it was the way that he communicated his love for music that led to seeing a side of Oman that wouldn’t be found on your standard tour guide.
Growing up in Texas, Henderson listened to everything from East Coast to West Coast and Midwest Hip Hop music, developing a well-rounded taste in Hip Hop and a robust knowledge of the history and vocabulary. He was also aware that there are parodies of Hip Hop culture around the world, with people mimicking the style and mannerisms of the culture. Yet, Henderson didn’t know what to expect when his host brother offered to show him the Hip Hop scene in Oman. He describes what he walked into as a “scene straight out the Bronx in the 80’s” with hundreds of people pop-locking on the beach getting ready to battle.
What he also found was that their intentions were just as pure as their moves. It wasn’t about the glitz and glam that was becoming prevalent in Hip Hop culture. These dancers just wanted a proper studio where they could dance without scraping their knees and elbows on the concrete. They also wanted to study with the best dancers in America and be able to represent for Oman on the Hip Hop scene. What Henderson observed was a merging of cultures without a loss of respect for the existing culture. He notes that during the call to prayer, the dancers would lower the sound on their boom boxes. That night, he was invited to judge the break-dancing competition and he made a promise to try to help the dancers achieve their goals.
Henderson went back to Howard University with a passion to tell the story of what he discovered in Oman. With the university’s support, he was able to build a team to travel back to Oman several times to document the growth of Hip Hop in Oman on film. He would soon find himself in conversations with diplomats and ambassadors spreading the word of what was happening in Oman.
Naturally there was a bit of resistance from the powers that be to associate Hip Hop with Oman, an absolute monarch and Islamic state, but when legendary dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen became interested in working with the dancers for an event at the Kennedy Center in NY, things began to change. Dr. Elizabeth McKune, a Black American who, at the time, was serving as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in the Sultanate of Oman, helped build the connection between the Omani government and Debbie Allen and was key to opening doors and fulfilling the promises made to the Omani dancers.
When discussing how he was able to connect with the Omani people and witness this immersion of Hip Hop as a part of their culture, Henderson says, “I was being my whole self.” His advice to anyone who is interested in studying abroad: “I would say just do it. Be your full self. You don’t have to change who you are to make a connection. You will find your way. The important thing to be is curious and adventurous. Allow yourself to have new experiences.”
Though he admits that his trip was already planned before he told his mother, Henderson also has advice for parents who may be wary about their children moving to another country. He says “You’ve done a good job of raising your son or daughter. Your hard work is not going to be negated by distance. The ability to communicate with other cultures puts them in position to be more employable. And some of the countries are conservative and have a small town feel where everyone is looking out for you like family.”
Henderson definitely credits his experience in Oman with how he pursues his current goals. “I learned how to build things from the conversations I had when I was trying to get things started in Oman,” he says. What he wants others to take away from his experience is to “be focused and know what you want, so you can ask for it specifically. So even when you’re not in the room someone can speak on your behalf.”
Years later, Henderson still uses the skills he gained while meeting with foreign leaders and representatives. With his company, “Developers Doing Development,” his humanitarian focus is on letting people use their interests to enhance the quality of life for others locally and abroad. His philosophy: “Why ladle soup when you can be creating an algorithm that saves lives.”
Henderson’s newest venture, called “Interlocal,” is where doers, makers, creators, and developers come together for a combination of dinner and talks about how to increase diversity and how to use their influence for good. Interlocal provides food and culture based experiences and uses it as a way to influence public policy, changing the narrative of under-served people, and understanding local issues from a global perspective. “The best part is that it’s actionable,” says Henderson. Some of the topics discussed over dinner have been about everything from intersectionality in the gaming industry to the future of the feminist movement. “What we did in Oman was help people do what they love in a universal way and that’s what I’m trying to do with the movements happening here and in countries on the African Continent,” say Henderson. “We eat, we talk, we make a difference.”