Festival Spotlight: Hussein Smko’s Journey from Hip-Hop Street Dancer to Project TAG
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Dancing past the odds
Hussein Smko had a calling. He was a hip-hop street dancer from Erbil, the capital of the war-torn Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The odds were against him, but dance was his passion, and given a chance, he knew he could share his artistry with the world. Today, he has earned a growing reputation in modern dance, founded his own dance company in New York City, and become a regular performer and storyteller at the One Journey Festival in Washington, DC.
Smko (pronounced sim-ko) was born in Erbil on October 4, 1993, just before civil war broke out between rival Kurdish factions. One of 14 brothers and sisters, he grew up amidst poverty and conflict. “When I was four years old,” he remembers, “a rocket flew into our house but didn’t explode. If it had, I would have died.” Life was hard and a constant struggle to get to the next day. “Bullets holes have been left on several building as a remembrance of those times.”
When he was nine years old, the US-Iraq War began. Perhaps his timing could have been better, but this was when Smko chose to be a dancer and began practicing his craft on the streets of Erbil and Bagdad (his mother’s home city). Even at that young age, “I knew I wanted to show a broader audience through dance that we are not defined only by war and violence. Kurdistan has a rich artistic heritage, and I hoped to show the differences between the Kurdish and Iraqi peoples.”
People stated noticing this young self-trained dancer and choreographer. At age 16, he organized a concert that drew over 700 people to watch the rising hip hop star perform. In a country devastated by violence, this was a celebration with dance and music that united everyone present. The crowd sang and hugged and smiled, shoulder to shoulder, during a fleeting time of human connection.
Next Stop, America
For the next several years, Smko honed his craft while picking up work to make ends meet, which included starting a cell phone store. He also knew that performing in the United States was his path to success in the dance world. To prepare for a new life and interacting with American audiences, he watched American films and listened to music in English while practicing hip hop. This led to his love for watching dancing in Hollywood movies and for taking his mastery of hip hop, an American art form, even further with the glamor and style he saw in the movies.
Smko’s new life came calling when American Voices founder John Ferguson chose him to train and dance with its flagship cultural engagement program, the YES Academy. The program focuses on nations and areas like Kurdistan, emerging from conflict or isolation. Smko recalls how nervous he was on the morning he auditioned. One minute he was a struggling street performer in Iraq, and the next he was selected by a prestigious arts program and preparing to fly to New York City, the global center of the performing arts.
The YES Academy experience lasted just a month, but it introduced Smko to dance in America and the possibilities available to him. While still pursuing opportunities to perform, he supported himself with a number of jobs – salesman at Bath and Body Works, carpenter, video game store clerk, and restaurant worker. He also returned to Iraq for a time. Then his big break happened.
Battery Dance in New York City spotted Smko’s talent over social media in summer 2014. The prestigious dance company was interested and offered remote training to him in Iraq via Skype. He returned to the U.S. in early 2016 and was granted Permanent Resident Status. From 2017-2020, Smko completed a residency with Battery Dance as the first recipient of the Adel Euro Campaign for Dancers Seeking Refuge, which was established to honor a dancer and friend who was one of 300 innocent people killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad in 2016. Like Smko, Adel Duro was being mentored remotely by Battery Dance, which now relocates, hosts, and trains six Adel Duro Fellows from conflict zones each year.
During his two-year residency, Smko performed in his own choreography as well as with the Battery Dance ensemble. He taught workshops for community organizations, public schools, and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for a Spoken Word and Dance program with Iraqi journalist Riyadh Mohammed. He also performed at the first One Journey Festivals in June 2018 and 2019 at the Washington National Cathedral. “I participated the first year it started. I love the festival, the location, and the background about it.”
One Journey’s message of connection and seeing the positive contributions of people displaced by conflict and persecution aligns perfectly with the themes that drive Smko’s choreography and his new dance company. After completing his residency in October 2020, he obtained business backing and founded Project TAG. As stated on the Project TAG website (now being updated) “we intersect the themes of Politics, Religion, and War through lived experience,” which reflects the hardships he experienced growing up in a war zone while knowing there is so much more to his country and culture.
“I am very excited for the return of the One Journey Festival,’ says Smko. For this year’s Festival, he and his troupe will present a contemporary work he has choreographed called “Call for Prayer.” The 15-minute dance features five amazingly talented dancers from Project TAG, which has now grown to 13 dancers in the company with big plans for the future.
Hoping for Peace
Smko thinks back to the day he was standing in his kitchen and the rocket flew through his house and almost killed him. Now here he is living in New York City with his own dance company. The contrast reminds him of another day, in Iraq, when he was being questioned by an immigration officer at the US embassy. Though nervous, he was ready for his new journey ahead. Smko is always grateful to that immigration official who handed him his migration passport and said “We hope you enjoy your stay in the U.S.” When he landed later at JFK Airport and stepped outside in New York City, the feeling was electric. He was on his way.
Being in America, Smko feels a burning desire to fight for the American dream that has helped him and so many other immigrants. He has a strong motivation to work with other organizations and look beyond the fears of the past for the beauty and magic of his homeland, which he shares with the rest of the world through his artistry. Hoping for a peaceful Kurdistan, Smko wishes to embody peace for his people, and see the violence end. He dreams of seeing thousands of years of history and art restored to his beautiful homeland.
There is a saying in Kurdistan that if you live 40 days in another nation you become one of them. Smko may be an American now, but his Kurdish homeland is always close to his heart.
Hussein Smko and his dance troupe will be performing that this year's One Journey Festival. To see him perform live, RSVP for our festival on June 25, 2022!