Imani Johnson

Faculty Advisor: Dorinne Kondo and Fred Moten

Contact Information


Biographical Sketch

Imani Kai Johnson has been pursuing multi-disciplinary studies since her undergraduate years at UC Berkeley where she double majored in English and Economics and minored in African American Studies. Her interests in African diasporic communities spawned an undergraduate thesis started while living in Barbados, comparing representations of "Black others" in Afro-Caribbean and African American Literature. She went on to earn a Master of Arts at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, focusing on African American and Afro-Caribbean Literature and History. Her MA thesis on African diasporic carnival practices was a cross disciplinary analysis utilizing archival work, ethnographic study in Trinidad, and literary analysis. It was the impetus for her current work at USC. Now a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity, and continuing in her work on African diasporic performance practices, Ms. Johnson's dissertation is an unprecedented analysis of Hip Hop dance circles known as "cyphers"--spontaneous improvisational performance spaces to music in b-boying (breakdancing) culture. In it she looks at how b-boying and cyphers, as kinesthetic forms of knowledge, carry the weight of cultural legacies, individual histories, racial and gender politics, and potential theoretical keys to understanding global community and belonging through Hip Hop. Ms. Johnson's achievements include having been a Scholar-in-Residence at The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY Hunter College (2005) and a fellow for the University of Southern California Urban and Global Studies Summer Fellowship (2005). She is working with Dorinne Kondo (Anthropology), Fred Moten (English), and Ruth Gilmore (Geography).


  • B.A. English, University of California, Berkeley, 05/1998
  • M.A. Interdisciplinary Studies, New York University, 05/2005
  • M.A. American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California, 08/2006

Employment History

  • Adjunct Lecturer APRL 236: African American Literature; APRL 237: Afro-Caribbean Literature, Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies (APRL), City University of New York, Hunter College, 2002 - 2003
  • Adjunct Lecturer APRL 236: African American Literature, Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies (APRL), City University of New York, Hunter College, 2004 - 2004
  • Teaching Assistant AMST 101: Race and Class in Los Angles (Fall 2005); ARLT101: Los Angeles the Fiction (Spring 2006), Program in American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California, 2005 - 2006
  • Adjunct Instructor English 14: College Writing; English 64: Non-Western Literature, The English and Writing Program, Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus, 2002 - 2003
  • Adjunct Instructor English 261: African American Literature, St. Joseph's College School of Adult and Professional Education, Brooklyn, NY, 2003 - 2003
  • Teaching Assistant ANTH 263: Exploring Culture Through Film, Department of Anthropology, University of Southern California, 2007 - 2007
  • Research Assistant (Fall) Prof. Roberto Lint-Sagarena, Advisor--Department of Religious Studies. (Spring) Prof. Lanita Jacobs-Huey--Department of Anthropology, University of Southern California, 2004 - 2005
  • Contract Research Assistant to Scholar-in-Residence, Anthropologist and Ethnomusicologist Kenneth Bilby, The New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem, NY, 2002 - 2003
  • Post-Doctoral Fellow, New York University, 2009 - 2012
  • Visiting Assistant Professor of Critical Dance Studies, University of California, Riverside, 2012-2013
  • Assistant Professor, University of California, Riverside, 2014 - Present


Summary Statement of Research Interests

  • Titled "Dark Matter in B-Boying Cyphers: Race and Global Connection in Hip Hop," this multi-sited, inter-disciplinary project analyzes a ubiquitous practice within breaking (or b-boying) culture known as cyphering—improvisational and competitive dance circles. The analysis focuses on the unseen or unmarked elements of cyphers, sometimes manifesting as cultural knowledge, the import of history, or cypher “energy”. In exchanges between dancers and in relationship to the surrounding spectators (whose participation is equally important), cyphers cultivate a force that becomes their defining characteristic. Practitioners describe it in a number of ways—such as highs, spiritual connection, or energy—that gets captured under the umbrella of dark matter. Dark matter is a physics concept naming the non-luminous material glue that holds together galaxies that “appears” only by way of its gravitational influence on surrounding visible matter. The dark matter of cyphers depicts their non-empirical elements as mutli-dimensional and material. This project considers the multiple dimensions of competitive collaborations in relation to other collectivities, including diaspora and notions of the global. As cyphers perform multi-racial and transnational connection though movement, they act as resources to consider ideas of the whole that are attuned to internal differentiation and conflicting interests, particularly with respect to race and national difference. The primary methodological focus combines interviews with sixty dancers, live performance analysis, and participant observation as an engaged spectator at b-boying events held across the country and parts of Europe. Performance observations and interviews were conducted in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Ft. Lauderdale, New York City, London England, Thun Switzerland, and Braunschweig Germany from 2005 to 2009. Supplementary archival research on early representations of Hip Hop was conducted at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. This project demonstrates the convergence of American Studies and anthropological methodologies to expand the discourse on blackness and transnational connection through performance.

Conference Presentations

  • “The Practice of Belonging in B-boying Cyphers,” paper to be presented at the American Studies Association panel “Troubling Citizenship: Belonging, Community and Resistance in an Age of Migration,”, 10/2008
  • “Battling in the Circle: Competition and Collaboration in B-Boying Cyphers” given at the City University of New York Baruch College Conference “Battling: Dueling In and Over African Diaspora Culture,”, 5/2008
  • “Dark Forces of in Dance Circles: Race and B-Boying in Global Hip Hop Culture” given at The Black Humanities Collective and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies Conference “Bodies in Motion: Diaspora, Difference, and Discursive Performances, 3/2008
  • “Hip Hop America” for the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Visions & Voices Program, University of Southern California, 10/2007
  • "Dark Matter: The Inter-Workings of Performance and Blackness in B-Boy/Girl Cyphers." Collegium of African American Research Conference (CAAR), Madrid, Spain., 4/2007
  • "Alien-Nation, Blackness and Third World Belonging in The Spook Who Sat By the Door." The Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora Conference, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 10/2005
  • "Carnival Journeys: Women and Their Bodies in Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow." Society for Caribbean Studies 26th Multi-Disciplinary Conference. University of Warwick, UK., 7/2002
  • "Ritual of Memory, Ritual of Performance: Carnival in Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow." V Congress of the Americas Popular Cultures Conference. Universidad de las Americas, Puebla-Cholula, Mexico., 10/2001
  • "New York Pinkster Celebrations and the Spectral Nature of Slave Life." Holiday Conference: A Multidisciplinary Conference on Holidays, Ritual, Festival, Celebration & Public Display. Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio., 6/2001


  • Book Review
    Johnson, I. K. (2008). Review of Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar’s Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007).
    Encyclopedia Article
    Johnson, I. K. (2005). "Canboulay," Encyclopedia of African American Folklore: Three Volumes. (Anand Prahlad, Ed.). Missouri: Evergreen Press.
    Johnson, I. K. (2005). "Tricia Rose," Encyclopedia of African American Folklore: Three Volumes. (Anand Prahlad, Ed.). Missouri: Evergreen Press.

Honors and Awards

  • University of California, Berkeley Advanced Regional Oral History Summer Institute., 8/2004-  
  • New York University Academic Diversity Post-Doctoral Fellow, Perfomance Studies, 9/2009-8/2011  
  • National Center for Institutional Diversity Exemplary Diversity Scholar Citation, 2009-2010  
  • Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, 6/2008-5/2009  
  • UC Irvine Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory. Participant. Seminar Theme: , 8/2005-5/2008  
  • El Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos Scholar in Residence Summer Research Grant 2005, City University of New York, Hunter College, 6/2005-8/2005  
  • University of Southern California Urban and Global Summer Fellowship, 6/2005-8/2005  
  • USC Center for Feminist Research Travel Grant 2004 for research on the Fiesta de Vejigante in Loiza Aldea, Puerto Rico, 6/2004-7/2004  
  • NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies 2001 Summer Research Grant for Study in the Non-Spanish Speaking Caribbean (Trinidad), 7/2001-8/2001  



  • Department of American Studies & Ethnicity
  • University of Southern California
  • 3620 South Vermont Avenue
  • Kaprielian Hall 462
  • Los Angeles, California 90089-2534