Music professor (NEEDS HEADLINE)

One of Janine Tiffie’s first performances was at a jazz club in New Jersey, when she was a child. She played a song that she wrote on the piano. As she started singing it, everyone at the club laughed because of how adorable she was, but she thought that people were laughing at her. She stopped singing and refused to continue because she was embarrassed.  

Music played a huge part in Tiffie’s life. Her father, Nathan Tiffie, was a professional musician. He used to play the piano and guitar and sings in different events like weddings and clubs. She was surrounded by music her whole life, and it’s what encouraged her to build her career. 

As a child, Tiffie was always encouraged to play outside and be surrounded by nature. She had a big garden growing up and was taught to appreciate nature, so it’s important for her understanding of the world. And as a result, Tiffie decided to do her bachelor’s degree in zoology because she always pictured herself doing something environmental. Her observation of nature inspired her to do her doctorate in ethnomusicology, which is the study of the social and cultural contexts of music, at Florida State University.

She came to Kent State University seven years ago to teach the history of rock, popular world music and music and cultures of Africa. She also directs African ensemble, African dance classes and steel band. Most of the instruments she plays are related to the classes she teaches, so she considers herself primarily a drummer and plays dozens of different types of African drums. 

One of her biggest and memorable performances was in Seoul, South Korea, when she performed the opening ceremony for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Tiffie and her group had to perform barefoot in the rain. It is extremely dangerous and hard to dance in these conditions, but she did it anyway. She originally went to South Korea to participate in a two-week drum festival to represent the U.S. drumming group, but ended up filling up for a group who couldn’t make it to the World Cup. She was excited but scared at the same time, because it was her first time performing for a large audience and for an international event. 

When people first meet Tiffie, the first thing that comes to their minds is ‘how is she white when she teaches African music and dance?’ Tiffie usually gets that comment, but it didn’t stop her and it never stood in the way of her success. 

“People don’t always say that to my face, but I’m very aware of that being a thing,” Tiffe said. 

She said she’s already a minority because there are not a lot of women in her field, so being white adds even more to that. When she lived in the southern U.S., it was more pronounced, but it didn’t bother her. 

Tiffie is the faculty advisor for Ase Xpressions, a dance group that focus on both modern and traditional African dance movements. Yulani Rodgers, the president of Ase Xpressions said, “When I first met Janine and was introduced that she was going to be our advisor, it completely threw me off because I was like, ‘I know this is an African dance team, so why is there this white lady here teaching me stuff?’”

Rodgers recalled one of her favorite performances she has seen of Tiffie, and said that it was with steel band and they were performing a piece called “Humble” from Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN” and Tiffie rapped a whole verse of that song and the audience was shocked and everyone loved it.  

“I’ve seen Janine perform and every single time it amazes me how her composition skills and how she puts everything together in her head,” Rodgers said. “It boggles my mind every time she gets on the stage because she looks like a professional and she also looks so comfortable and at home on stage.” 

Tiffie attends Ase Xpressions practices only when the team needs to learn traditional dance movements. During practice on Oct. 17, all 12 team members gathered to start dancing barefoot, while Tiffie wrote the dance moves on the board and started explaining what each one meant and where it originated from. 

She also taught them the right pronunciation of each one. After that, they started learning the moves and singing. Some of the team members were amazed by how good Tiffie is at singing and one of them said, “I forgot that you can sing, too.” Tiffie kept it exciting by encouraging the team and having fun while dancing. 

Tiffie treats her students as if they were her own children. They see her as their “support system.” Tiffie forms strong relationships with everyone she works with, including her students.

“She always made sure to hug me and smile, and I think that’s why I just felt so deeply in love with her because that woman is a special human being. Like she’s an alien, she’s not from here,” Rodgers said. “The woman is amazing. I love her to death like a second mom.”

Tiffie balances her work and performing by taking care of herself by eating healthy and working out in order to be able to continue what she does. As a teacher, she has most of the summer off so she takes advantage of that to decompress and have a free space in her mind to stay creative, Tiffie makes sure she allows herself to have that creative process going when she’s not working to give her a boost when school starts.

 Contact Sara Al Harthi at [email protected].