How an apocalypse in the Bronx made way for Hip Hop
Marked by DJ Kool Herc’s ‘Back to School Jam’ held at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, August 11th, 2018 is Hip Hop’s 45th birthday. Considered to be one the most complicated, loved and influential genres in the world, Hip Hop is arguably one of the most prominent examples of what happens when the world ends, and we turn towards each other.
When the Bronx was Burning
The construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, like in so many working-class neighborhoods around the country after the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, dissipated a community populated by mostly black and latinx people. Preceded by cutbacks in fire, sanitation and police services, a struggling economy, rise in crime and a white flight that left the cities poorest behind, Robert Moses’ vision caused massive displacement and exasperated many of the existing conditions in the borough that made way for what would be become the birthplace of Hip Hop, the South Bronx.
The complete economic collapse that came after the systemic disinvestment in the south Bronx caused the arson epidemic responsible for the loss of 97% percent of buildings in 4 census tracts and over 50% in seven more. In total 40% of the Bronx burned in between 1970 and 1980.
I’ve heard so many people who lived through the fires talk about children playing on piles of debris and abandoned buildings being used as homes for criminal activity. While also telling stories of the community's resilience. The South Bronx was a neighborhood of people trying to make a way out of no way while being consumed by fire. They were left behind to survive their very own apocalypse. The end of the world.
From the Ashes
I was born in the Bronx in 1989. My mother, An undocumented Dominican immigrant, came to the US and settled in the Bronx before moving to Boston which I consider my hometown. My family still lives in the same building I was born in off University Avenue, and although I don't visit as often as I would like, my heart is tethered to the Bronx and its story of overcoming, one so similar to mine.
The first time I read about the Bronx burning and the birth of Hip Hop was through Jeff Chang’s "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.” This book got me to thinking critically about the conditions of my neighborhood, how they were influenced by systemic violence and the beauty that emerges when people let their imaginations run wild as a response to oppression. Hip Hop was a product of the collective imagination.
After the fiscal crisis cut funding to the music programs in public schools, young people made due with what they had. Their turntables, their bodies, their voices, their art. Many of the house parties attributed with creating and growing Hip Hop's popularity were held in abandoned and condemned buildings and later in schoolyards, giving birth to the block party and reclaiming spaces once deemed unlivable. Kool Herc's experiments with breaks, bboys & bgirls joining in, the intricacies deepening in the music, and the evolution of the MC serve as a testament to emergence's role in creating culture.
The people of the South Bronx turned to each other during apocalyptic times; they carved out spaces to be together, strengthening the relational field of an entire community whose exchanges created a culture that would change the world.
Our Own Apocalypses
All around us, we’re experiencing the end of the world. Global warming, fascist political climate, Muslim bans, family separation, racist immigration policies, police brutality, mass incarceration, food scarcity, massive forest fires, floods, etc. Although it feels as if we're in a downward spiral, the world has ended so many times, mainly for Black and Brown people and our ancestors used the apocalypse to reimagine and build a world that was yet to be. Harriet Tubman saw beyond slavery, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash saw beyond the fires.
Our reaction to apocalypse so far has been reactionary, a noble attempt to salvage what once was. The questions that I pose are these: how, in the midst of the end of the world, can we turn to each other? How can we let our collective imaginations run wild? How can we experiment with creating the world we deserve? When do we start using the ashes of the apocalypse as clay?
This is the first in a collection of pieces highlighting what’s possible when communities use the apocalypse to midwife the new world.