Tanji Harper is here to spread love.
Tanji Harper is the Artistic director of The Happiness Club, the Director of the HiDef Dance Ensemble, and Founder/Executive Director of Blue Rhythm Chicago.
She sat down in the studio with Vocalo to chat growing up on Chicago’s South Side, fascination with Lake Michigan, and her evolution from dance instructor to youth mentor.
Introduce Yourself and briefly describe what you do:
I am the Artistic Director of the Happiness Club which is a youth performance group outreach program. The Director of the HiDef Dance Ensemble which is a teen afterschool program. I am also the Founder and Executive Director of Blue Rhythm Chicago, which is an adult dance crew and theater collective.
Where in the city did you grow up?
I was born on the south south side in the hundreds. And then my family moved a little bit further north so I feel like I’m a product of the South Side directly in almost every neighborhood. I am now in Woodlawn and I think that that heavily makes up who I am as a black woman and artist. Because I’m of the lake I think. I think there’s a difference between how you feel about Chicago when you live closer to the lake, you’re just more accessible you have a lot more access to some things.
What has it been like growing up and living in Chicago?
I have a lot of backbone and openness and strength when it comes to meeting new people and trying new things. I was always encouraged to do that as a kid, and never be afraid to meet people, never be afraid to get to know people, never be afraid to go places in our own city. And I think that that’s something young people should always be encouraged to do. It doesn’t happen that much in Chicago. We’re so segregated and blocked off often. A lot of the young people in Chicago don’t visit other neighborhoods, and that’s a disservice to them growing up in this city and being a viable community builder in this city.
What do you love about Chicago?
I really love what’s happening in Woodlawn right now. I know people feel all kinds of ways about it because we’ve got the presidential library coming and there’s a lot of gentrification and changes happening in the area. I don’t think all change is bad, I’m excited to see what happens in the neighborhood and how it might benefit the residents. And what we can do to keep the authentic feel of Woodlawn cause there’s a very authentic feel to it, there’s a very diverse feel to Woodlawn as well because University of Chicago is there and a lot of the people that go to the college stay and have families. Beautiful coffee shops everywhere, there’s youth centers and day cares and new charter schools in the area… there’s boutiques opening up and it’s gonna be super cool to see more jobs and more residents moving to the area.
People come to appreciate the lake from that side because they don’t even realize how beautiful it is, it is gorgeous! I encourage everybody to come down to the South Side stop being afraid, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Speak about your work, how and why did you get involved in this mission?
The work that I do benefits the city most because young creatives are our future and I’m very grounded and centered in helping young people. Dance is just the conduit that I use to do it. It’s gone way beyond me teaching dance, I don’t think of it that way any more. I know that I’ve grown more as a mentor. It turned out that I was investing in young people and who they were becoming, and who they would be as an adult and how they would represent this city and themselves.
So I think my impact on our city is gonna be better citizens, better artists, better humans. the city impacts my work because I see that that is the need. I see the need for some change and I’m not a person who is gonna constantly talk about what needs to be changed, I’m solution driven… I want to find solutions and find ways to fix what’s going on… I think my city pushes me to get involved.
How has the city shaped you?
I think my favorite thing about Chicago is how similar we are to the lake. Lake Michigan and that water and that feel…is so cool and chill and sometimes tumultuous and sometimes stressed and sometimes peace. I think this city has so much of all of that.
We definitely have our issues we def have out problems but we are grit grime sweat work love and commitment . we are just down to fight we are down to make things better we are down to do the work that we need to do. we really are supportive of each other. We’re just so naturally talented, everybody here, and especially the young people that can do so many more things than we ever could. I want to see all of that build our city to the glorified nature that I already know that it has
What would you like to give back to the community?
I really hope that the legacy I leave behind is one of unity, and community and love. If you are thinking about what I gave to you, you are also thinking about what you gave to me, because this is such a back and forth. I learn as much from these young people as I hope that they do from me. The validation that I seek is there success. And I feel like if more people took the time with our young people to share with them, to give them what you have, because you don’t just have whatever your skillset is you also have empathy, and you also have sensitivity, and you also have love.. that you can give to another human being that will benefit from it.
So when my toes are up on the beac and I’m drinking my Piña Colada I want people to say “she helped me to get to another space where I was able to move on and belive in myself.” I hope you turn around and do the same thing for somebody else, because paying it forward is the only way we are all gonna understand that love is connected, we are all connected. And that is what we’re supposed to do for each other: to build each other up and hold our community accountable.
Then you won’t have any worry – then you can smile and just relax.
Photography by Tom Gavin
In our ongoing series, This Is What Chicago Sounds Like, we feature the voices and people who contribute to our city’s rich cultural diversity. This month we celebrate women in Chicago who are doing incredible work in the city they love. Check back here for more interviews with amazing Chicagoans.