BYU student fights against racism through cultural dance

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BYU’s new dance group, AfroDance Ensemble, joined other cultural dance teams at Cougar Canyon. They have performed at other events this semester, including a private performance for BYU President Shane Reese. (IG: @theafro_dance)

To some, cultural dance can mean overcoming challenges and finding deeper connection to others and oneself. BYU student and Bay Area native JRay Kuhn created Rhythm N’ Soul Collective to bring people together and fight back against racism he and other Black students have experienced.

Kuhn is a BYU student from California as well as a singer and performer of cultural dance. Kuhn explained he has been using his talents to find comfort through his trials and be a source of help and belonging for others.

Kuhn first came to BYU in January 2020. He had only gotten home from a full-time mission about a week prior, he said. When he moved to BYU, he said he began to see challenges he had not seen before, including racism.

Kuhn shared he was very excited to go to BYU, and it was his “dream school.”

“I kind of envisioned it being like EFY … every day,” Kuhn said. He thought he would always be surrounded by other people who had the same values, faith and beliefs as him.

“Not even a week into starting school at BYU I already encountered racism … it was new to me,” he said.

It began with an individual in Kuhn’s ward, he said. This person would make comments about Kuhn’s skin color or the fact that he was Black.

The first comment this ward member made was during a Family Home Evening activity where they asked questions in a get-to-know-you game. He commented Kuhn’s “special talent” was “being the only Black guy in this ward,” Kuhn said.

“As time went on, I started getting more racial comments from this same kid in my ward,” he said.

He described one of these times as when he participated in BYU’s Men’s Chorus. They performed at a devotional and in the broadcast, the cameras focused on his face for what felt like 15 seconds, Kuhn said.

In a group chat afterwards, the ward member commented: “JRay sticks out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else.”

Kuhn’s past vision of a BYU filled with happy and spiritual experiences was weighed down by experiences like these, he explained.

“After having experiences like that, whenever people would walk past me and just look at me, I would imagine that they were thinking the similar comments that that boy in my ward made,” Kuhn said.

He imagined others would think things like, “Why is he here?” or “I wonder if he’s from the ghetto,” he said.

Eventually Kuhn moved to another apartment complex, where he said he encountered more racism with his new roommate.

Kuhn said his roommate would repeatedly call him racial slurs or tell him to go back to Ethiopia — even though he is not Ethiopian.

When speaking to others who would visit their apartment and ask for Kuhn, his roommate would not refer to him by his name but would instead call him “the Black man.”

“I ended up not even sleeping in that same room as him at night because I felt like, I’m not safe,” he said.

He tried reaching out to BYU and his apartment complex to see if they could help him with his issue, he said. No one at BYU could help because his roommate was not a student, he said, and his apartment management only suggested Kuhn move to another apartment.

Kuhn performing at BYU’s show Perspectives in 2020. Showcasing his talents to remember his culture was helpful to Kuhn through the challenges he faced at BYU, he said. (Courtesy of JRay Kuhn)

It is difficult to find people who understand his struggles, he said. Even when he joined dance team BYU Living Legends a couple of years ago, which has other racial minorities, no one understood what it was to be Black, he said.

“Especially at BYU, it’s such a unique experience being Black at BYU.”

Kuhn shared he constantly wonders, “Where do I fit in? Where do I belong? Are people judging me? Do people really want me here? Do people have this negative image of me and my other Black brothers and sisters at this university?”

These experiences made him want to go home, he said, and it was then that his mental health was at its worst.

Things got better with the many experiences he had with cultural song and dance, he said.

It began with the group Remembering Our Culture, now known as Legacies, where he was able to learn African dances.

“That just kind of awakened something in me, I think,” Kuhn said.

Learning about his own culture through song and dance was very special, he said.

“It really pushed me forward to combat the racism that I had been going through and finally be like, you know what? I’m Black, and I’m so proud of that,” he said of the experience.

Later on, in 2021, Kuhn danced with Living Legends, which is a dance group representing Native American, Latin American and Polynesian cultures, he said.

JRay Kuhn represents a Fancy number in a photoshoot done with BYU Living Legends. In Kuhn’s second year, he helped teach and choreograph the male parts of the Native American dances they performed. (Photo courtesy of Brooklynn Jarvis Kelson)

He was in the Native American section of the group and helped teach the dances in his second year, he said.

He loved learning about others’ cultures and recognizing these people in his vicinity had gone through similar trials as well as their ancestors had, like his, he shared.

The dancers in his section wanted to create change too, Kuhn said.

“They stood for their culture like no other, my people in the Native American section,” he said. “It really touched my heart, and I felt like I need to do something to help the Black students on campus, too.”

It was then that he felt inspired to start a dance group to represent all African cultures, Kuhn said.

“Ever since the beginning of our friendship, he’s been talking to me about this,” Fatwa Luka said, Kuhn’s friend and co-creator of Rhythm N’ Soul Collective.

Kuhn and Luka got together with faculty within the BYU dance department to come up with numbers that focused on the whole African diaspora for a group of dancers and singers, she said.

They started Rhythm N’ Soul Collective this fall semester and have performed for a number of events on campus, Kuhn said.

“In media, you see the typical dancer and singer and that’s just not reality,” Luka said. “A lot of the dancers and singers in our group have never danced or sung in a choir until now. The fact that they are courageous and brave enough to start new shows that it’s such a need and that it does so much good for them and for us as a whole.”

Both Luka and Kuhn emphasized they want their dancers and singers to come to a place where they feel they belong and they can become confident in who they are.

Many Black students at BYU have felt very discouraged, Kuhn explained. They have tried making change and they “just get shot down, over and over again.”

“Some of my best friends had been at BYU and have left because they felt like ‘This is not a university that’s going to support me,’ and that was not okay,” he said. “That pushed me to the point I am at today with creating Rhythm N’ Soul Collective.”

JRay Kuhn and Fatwa Luka share what Rhythm N’ Soul Collective is all about. They shared the importance of a group like theirs at BYU, and how the students involved can find a place of belonging. (Ivette Galvez)

One of Rhythm N’ Soul Collective’s recent performances was at a conference for women called Empowher at the Marriott Center on Oct. 19.

BYU student Isabel Benjamin attended the conference and watched the group’s women perform a number from West Africa.

“I think giving people a space to learn more about and then share their culture and heritage is empowering to the dancers and the audience members,” she said.

Music and dance can be “powerful tools” for building connections between different people and educating others, Luka said.

“That’s something that I want to do now. I want to continue to try and make change and try and create safe spaces for not only our Black students but I hope that I can be of any assistance for other students of color who feel like they don’t belong at BYU or feel like they haven’t found their space yet,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn said he continues to create and teach numbers for BYU Rhythm N’ Soul Collective as well as perform with other groups like BYU’s Young Ambassadors.

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