Street performers descend upon San Francisco

At the bottom of Nob Hill, just past the loading zone for San Francisco’s cable cars, you might just catch Edward Jackson and Moustapha Thiam. They are performing a tap dance improvisation to Bruno Mars’ 2016 hit, 24K Magic. Anyone might consider this a method of panhandling. This dancing duo see it differently. Jackson and Thiam’s story goes back as far 19 years, and expands far outside of the United States.

Street Performers

Edward Jackson and Moustapha Thiam perform on the streets of San Francisco while a passerby joins in the action on March 17.
Photo by Javier Mancha • jmancha2@msudenver.edu

For Jackson, it all started with a six pack of beer.

Prior to his career as a street performer, Jackson’s parents had pushed him to study Political Science. At the time, he lived in Detroit, Michigan. After his father Martin Upshire passed away, 19 year old Jackson began to study entertainment.

“Ironically enough, my father sang with The Contours,” Jackson said, with a smile lining his face.

Jackson’s career path lead him to meet Alfred Robinson in Oakland.

“He trained me in his kitchen for a number of years while he was cooking soul food,” Jackson said. “He wouldn’t let me dance to Michael Jackson. It was all Jazz.” Robinson passed away Jan. 28, 2010 at the age of 88.

Under Robinson, Jackson started learning how to tap dance. However, Jackson did not come to learn under Robinson’s tutelage by looking him up in the phone book.

“I couldn’t afford a studio space, so I was in the BART station and found a little corner and a small piece of plywood. I was working on some steps and his daughter walks by and says ‘you look like you could use some help.’”

Jackson initially took offense to her statement until he learned that she was Robinson’s daughter.

“He never charged me any money” Jackson says. “I asked him what I should bring and he said ‘bring me six of them Budweiser beers.”

Thiam started working with Jackson in 2006.

“I’m from Senegal, West Africa. I moved here in 2000, right before I started,” Thiam said, referring to his tap dancing.. “I used to play drums.”

Many members of the community who see Jackson and Thiam perform have gotten to know them personally. Throughout the day, the street performers and local pedestrians have conversations with each other.

“They are the culture of San Francisco,” said Michael Stewart, a San Francisco resident. “A lot of people come to see the cable cars, but they overlook the things that go with the cable car.”

Jackson and Thiam have also performed outside of California, even as far as Australia, Paris and London as well.

Jackson said that the concept behind performing is freedom.

“The freedom to express yourself, freedom financially and independently,” he said.

Jackson doesn’t mind the perception that some may have towards street performers.

“There might be artists who are substance abusers or panhandlers, but that doesn’t mean all street artists are hypochondriacs,” Jackson said, drawing a laugh from the small crowd around him.

“Get to know the artists. We live in the city, we live in the community, we support the city and the people in the city,” he said.

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