William "Mr. Penguin" Randolph and his brother "Boogaloo Vic" Randolph, members of the East Oakland dance group The Black Resurgents. Credit: Spencer Wilkinson

In early June, the killing of a Santa Cruz police officer made national headlines. The murder was later linked to the drive-by fatal shooting of a security guard at Oakland’s federal courthouse building, during what began as a peaceful protest for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Black Lives Matter. Both incidents were linked to the upstart “boogaloo bois,” a loose national community often described as an extremist alt-right movement. 

Initially organized online, these so-called boogaloo bois have been showing up, heavily armed, at recent protests, and have been linked to other incidents of domestic terrorism and charges of inciting riots. Their goal, it’s been reported, is to start a second Civil War by directly engaging government agents to provoke further violence. Steven Carillo, the alleged shooter in the Santa Cruz and Oakland incidents, was not a participant in the BLM protests, but “came to Oakland to kill cops,” according to the FBI.

Immediately following Carrillo’s arrest, the term “boogaloo bois” began trending online. Dozens of articles describing the movement appeared all over mainstream media outlets, from CNN to NPR to the BBC. But none of those reports mentioned that for more than 50 years, the term “boogaloo” has been associated with an African-American-derived dance culture that began in the Bay Area. 

Oakland origins

When William “Mr. Penguin” Randolph—a member of the legendary East Oakland dance group The Black Resurgents—found out about boogaloo’s violent doppelgangers, he was appalled. “I heard a news clip talking about these guys in Hawaiian shirts and semiautomatic weapons, talking about they were boogaloos and the boogaloo movement was a movement that would create civil war and neo-Nazism or anti-American government in the United States,” he said. “And I’m like, wait a minute, hold on.”

Randolph says understanding this culture and art form means going all the way back to the early days of boogaloo in the 1960s, when dance moves including “the funk boogaloo” and “the robot” diverged from the James Brown dance known as the “soul boogaloo.” This evolution paralleled the emergence of funk music, which broke away from conventional soul and R&B, with Bay Area artists such as Sly & The Family Stone spearheading the revolutionary new sound.

Distinct, funk boogaloo dance techniques—including “the ditallion,” “the hard pose” or “bam,” “the dime stop,” “the freeze,” and “the hit”—emerged early on. Other movements—“creepin’,” “worming,” “the cowboy,” “the looney cartooney,” “the dynorama,” “vibrating,” “ticking,” “waving,” “3-D,” and “animation”—were added to the lexicon later. “The hit” became “the Oakland hit” due to its use by mascots at Fremont and Castlemont High Schools during competitive sporting events.  

These dynamic, visually arresting movements were incorporated into both solo and group routines; the latter also utilized Temptations-style stepping and other unison movements. Countless hours of practice went into developing the boogaloo repertoire, which was further refined at parks, rec centers, and high schools throughout Oakland, eventually making its way to other cities and larger stages.

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Randolph, an East Oakland native, first saw boogaloo dance performed at a house party in 1965. In 1972, as a student at Castlemont High School, he became a founding member of The Black Resurgents, one of the top two boogaloo groups in their part of town, along with The Black Messengers.

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In many ways, Randolph symbolizes the living history of boogaloo culture. He and The Black Resurgents danced at Black Panther rallies in the early 1970s and were backed by a band which included a young Dwayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné fame. In January 1977, the Resurgents performed live on stage with Parliament-Funkadelic at the Oakland Coliseum, a show captured for posterity on the Live: P-Funk Earth Tour album. 

In 2000, Randolph joined forces with San Francisco’s Lonnie “Pop Tart” Green and Richmond’s Ralph “Plik Plok” Montejo to form BRS Dance Alliance (the initials stand for Boogaloo, Robottin’, and Strutting—dance styles associated with their respective cities), an organization whose mission was to preserve boogaloo’s traditions and maintain them for current and future generations. 

In 2010, the first Boogaloo Reunion BBQ was launched at Oakland’s Shoreline Middle Harbor Park, and it’s since become an annual event. In 2017, Randolph, along with Kerney Meyer and John Murphy of The Black Messengers and turf dancers from Turf Inc, performed at the Oakland Museum of California. In 2018, Randolph appeared in the Netflix docuseries “Hip Hop Evolution,” affirming boogaloo’s role as a progenitor of hip-hop dance. 

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Taking back the name

Standing in front of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center (previously the Oakland Civic Auditorium), the site of dozens of boogaloo competitions over the years, Randolph describes the reaction to what he and other members of the original boogaloo community consider cultural appropriation of the worst kind. 

“A lot of people said they could not use the term boogaloo to promote what they’re doing, because it’s not correct, it’s not right, it’s not what we stand for,” Randolph said. “I know for a fact the term didn’t originate with these anti-American culture people.”

Reportedly, the boogaloo bois moniker also references the 1984 movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” an association which seems oddly disingenuous, given that the alt-right movement started as a racist meme in the early 2010s, and the movie is about Latino and Black street dancers. 

According to dictionary.com: “By the 2000s, jokes about ‘Breakin’ 2’ extended boogaloo as a slang term for any nonsensical, unnecessary, or strange sequel, literal or figurative. . .  The word boogaloo became especially used in often racist and violent memes or threads about the idea of a second civil war or engaging in violence against the police.”

After the killings by purported boogaloo bois members in early June, depictions of the alt-right version of boogaloo quickly jumped to the top of Google searches, further obscuring an art form and cultural lifestyle that was called “a forgotten era” by author Thomas Guzman-Sanchez in the 2012 book Underground Dance Masters. Soon after, Facebook closed “hundreds” of accounts associated with the boogaloo bois, raising the possibility that boogaloo dance pages and individual accounts which included boogaloo references unassociated with the extremist sect would also be shut down.

In response, the keepers of true boogaloo culture declared July 1 “International Boogaloo Day,” taking to social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to post historic clips of boogaloo dancers in action or clips of themselves “popping” and “hitting” in an attempt to reclaim the name of their art form. “International Boogaloo Day has nothing to do with people running around with guns and trying to be divisive in their talk,” Randolph says. “IBD is about us showing what we do and how we do it and speaking up for the culture of boogaloo in its original form.” 

Though they succeeded in making a show of community solidarity and engaging their thousands of social media followers around the world in affirmations of positive boogaloo expressions, not a single major news outlet has covered their story. This irks Randolph greatly. “Why hasn’t the national media picked up on any of that? We’re a worldwide faction of dancers that has done this for 50 years.”

Speaking over the phone from his current home of Las Vegas, Montejo, a veteran of various boogaloo groups (including the Criminons, Demons of the Mind, and PT3000) and a former choreographer for Madonna, describes his reaction to the news of the deadly shootings. “There was a really direct connection for us as the dance community to say, hey, we need to take a stand and let the people who don’t know what the term means to us.” 

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The appropriation of the name, Montejo says, felt like a personal affront. “I’ve been associated with the term since I was a young kid growing up. To see it in an extremist light was disheartening. Anger and all these other emotions that make you want to fight back. That’s a direct attack to adopt it. For them to use it and mock it, it kind of killed our soul and made us want to resurrect.”

Randolph agreed. “We have to protect the art form’s name. We have to protect the culture. This culture didn’t destroy lives, it saved lives,” he said. “We do not want an alt-right organization using boogaloo. Leave it out of your mouth, leave it out of your speech. Do not associate us with your craziness.” 

Older meanings and past uses

In West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, another storied site of boogaloo dance history, which once hosted talent show competitions and one-on-one dance battles, William “Boogaloo Bill” Bilal notes that the dance and the culture associated with it “represents a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people, [but] violence and bigotry and hatred is just not one of those things.”

William "Boogaloo Bill" Bilal
William “Boogaloo Bill” Bilal, a practitioner of the West Oakland style of boogaloo, first saw the dance being performed in 1969. Credit: Eric Arnold

Bilal says the name boogaloo is even older than the James Brown dance from the mid-1960s. Despite Merriam-Webster’s erroneous assertion that the term originated in 1966, Brown mentioned it in 1964’s “There Was A Time,” and it appeared in print in Time magazine in 1939. “There was a woman, living in Georgia, and she wrote an article about a relationship that her husband had with their hired help,” Bilal recounts. “She talked about the relationship and she said, you know, his name was Boogaloo.”

“If [the boogaloo bois] really and truly understood what the definition of boogaloo is, they never would have chosen it as a name in the first place. It dates back to slavery. And the true definition of it is—and I’m just going to say it—happy-go-lucky Negroes,” said Bilal.

Boogaloo’s precise origins are undefined by the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries, yet the word itself is rooted in African American culture. Boogaloo historian Levant Obulié maintains the term germinated in New Orleans’ Congo Square, derived from several similar-sounding words from the Ki-kongo (“mbugi”), Hausa (“boog”), Sierra Leonean (“bogi”), Manding (“booga”) and Bantu (“mbugi myuki”) languages. These words all have similar meanings, ranging from “to dance wildly” to “take off in flight.” 

Over the decades, the term has surfaced repeatedly in pop culture. Jazz musician Abie “Boogaloo” Ames reportedly earned the nickname in the 1940s for his mastery of the boogie-woogie piano style. In 1956, Kent Harris, recording as Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew, released “Cops and Robbers,” a proto-rap record with boogie-woogie piano and a walking bass line. In the 1960s, the term became associated with a popular dance originating out of Chicago, a number one hit record by Tom and Jerrio (which spawned a slew of answer records), and James Brown, whose television appearances were widely viewed in African American homes all over the country. There was even a Latin “bugalu”—a short-lived musical movement created by young Puerto Ricans in New York in the 1960s.

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The boogaloo bois’ misappropriation of the name, Bilal says, is particularly galling because “the art of boogaloo really is a happy-go-lucky, free-flowing, freestyle, movement. And it has done so much more for a people, a culture, communities. It has provided a way of survival for some of us. I chose to get involved in the dance as deep as I did as an alternative to getting in trouble. It gave me something to do.”  

A practitioner of the West Oakland style of boogaloo, Bilal first saw the dance being performed in 1969. In the artform’s early years, he says, there was little to no interaction between boogaloos on either side of town, so each area developed its own style. “West Oakland didn’t have a lot of groups, we had individual talent.” He notes that the West Oakland style distinctly included a pantomimed movement called “headsnatching” and was also less aggressive than its East Oakland counterpart.

Bilal was given his moniker in high school and remained active in boogaloo culture up until the late 1970s. In recent years, he has joined the ranks of cultural preservationist organization Original Boogaloo Movement—which also includes Darrin “Dub” Hodges and his brother “Boogaloo Dan” Hodges, and “a guy out of Sacramento called Dancer 64”—the organizers of the Boogaloo Reunion BBQ.

This isn’t the first time the term boogaloo has been misappropriated, Bilal says. Back in the late 1970s, the Electric Boogaloos, a group originally from Fresno but based in Los Angeles, were introduced during a Soul Train appearance as the originators of boogaloo by host Don Cornelius. But according to Bilal, “When the EB’s formed, they weren’t doing boogaloo, they were actually locking”—a dance style associated with Southern Californian Don Campbell that, Bilal says, contains elements “which came from the culture here.”

In actuality, Bilal says, the Fresno scene and the EB’s specifically were exposed to boogaloo by Bay Area dancers. A former track athlete, he recalls attending relay events in Fresno in 1972 and 1973 and later doing the boogaloo dance at after-parties. “[People] would come up to us and say, what are you doing? It was the first time they had ever seen it.”

The EBs, who formed in 1974, were directly exposed to boogaloo during a talent show in Sacramento, Bilal claims. “They ran through all the competition except for a group who came late. That was Derrick and Company,” a group out of West Oakland. 

“Derrick and Company took the first round. They actually took the second round. And they put up such a fuss about them coming late, there was a third round. All three rounds, for lack of a better term, [the EBs] got mopped up. So that was their first exposure to this thing called boogaloo.”

While Bilal credits the EBs for their overall contributions to dance culture over the years, he and the rest of the Bay Area’s boogaloo veterans are adamant that the Bay Area pioneers should get their rightful props for their stylistic innovations.

“I’m very passionate about this art,” he says. “And I just want to make sure that when the history books are written, when you tell the story about the art and the culture, it’s important that you have to tell the entire thing.”

Randolph adds his final thoughts: “We’re going to continue to push the preservation of the art form forward. We can’t bow down to anything that’s going to be negative concerning the preservation of our historic culture. We have to keep it moving in the right direction.”

Writer, editor, and photographer Eric Arnold cut his teeth covering the Bay Area’s uniquely independent hip-hop scene, from Hieroglyphics to hyphy. He has written for national outlets from Vibe to the Source to Okay Player to Billboard to Making Contact, as well as local outlets including the East Bay Express, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Chronicle, KQED Arts, Oakland Local, and Oakulture. In 2018, he co-curated the Oakland Museum of California’s groundbreaking “Respect: Hip Hop Style and Wisdom” exhibit. In addition to hip-hop, he has covered diverse topics including dance, film, spoken word, world music, street art, gang injunctions, environmental equity, social justice, and media policy. He is currently based in Oakland, California.