Updated: Jul 24, 2021
“I found them to be so compatible, I assumed there must be other people who did too,” says Liberty (Libby) Styles, CC ’17, about her work fusing tap dance and hip hop. “I think we’re living in a time where jazz and hip hop are really bordering each other really closely – like with Kendrick’s new album…and tap is really rooted in the jazz tradition.”
Libby is best known to the Columbia community as tap dancer, lead singer and partial namesake of the band Liberty Zoo, famous for opening for Big Sean at Bacchanal 2015. The origins of the group can be traced to the Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop cyphers, where Libby saw collaborator Jonah Hemphill, CC ’17, perform for the first time. Her excitement for those cyphers is palpable: “It still blows my mind,” she says, “I literally go there every time I can and catch flies in my mouth watching them freestyle.”
Liberty Zoo started out as primarily improvisational, with Libby and her friends looping beats or playing music over which she and Jonah would sing, tap or rap. Then the group started writing their music down, killed it at Bacchanal, and spent the summer of 2015 performing at venues like the Knitting Factory and the Palisades before releasing their debut EP earlier this year.
It’s tempting to contrast Libby’s vitality, ambition and spontaneity with the relative sleepiness of her home: a town in western Massachusetts with a population of 1,737. She chuckles while recalling how she drank “exclusively goat milk” for the first few years of her life. The rural surroundings forced her to “make her own fun”, which she says fostered a great deal of creativity (or as she phrases it, a sense of “mis- chief and adventure”) very early on in life. She formed her first band in high school, which she describes as “an angsty teenager thing, sort of grungy folk.” Libby was the drummer, but in the absence of a drum set played trash cans instead.
Improvisation and freestyling seem to be consistent themes in Libby’s life. The mischief and adventure she recalls from childhood never went away in college, and she quickly found a new group of co-conspirators at Potluck House. “Everybody’s so strange in Potluck,” she says with a smile, reminiscing about days spent exploring the tunnels, playing football in the snow or starting massage trains during subway parties. Without Potluck, she says, Liberty Zoo never would have formed—the spontaneous spirit of that community inspired the impromptu jam sessions that eventually grew into the band.
Asked about her other pursuits, Libby takes on a more measured tone to discuss her interest in social justice and activism on campus. A major aim for her is to find ways to connect dance and music to broader social movements, which she sees as her responsibility as a musician. “It would be really cool to allow dance and music to open up spaces for other people to express themselves,” she says, adding that “education and dance and music can be empowering.” She’s already begun working on projects with a more socially conscious angle; her most recent musi- cal project involves looped quotes from oral histories she took of Walmart workers when she participated in the Walmart Summer for Respect campaign in Ohio two years ago.
Anything else? “I like being with people, I like hanging out… I think being a human being is my other pastime.”