Jazz is the essence of black culture, yet for years, black musicians have felt it being taken away by the rapaciousness of commerce and profit.
The newest emerging voice in reclaiming jazz hails from the South Side of Chicago, which gave birth and meaning to international trumpet phenomenon Marquis Hill.
“Chicago made me into the man I am today. Chicago made me into the musician I am today," said the 29-year-old Chatham native. "I’m really excited to be a part of this big Chicago movement that’s happening.”
Hill, fresh off of a tour with legendary bassist Marcus Miller, is back on the road with his band, the Blacktet, performing music from their latest album, The Way We Play. With an album cover of the famous Chicago skyline and a unique approach to composition and improvisation, Hill has one message.
“When you trace the history of everything, it’s all the same. I’m a hip-hop lover, I love blues, I love jazz, I love soul, I love rock. Those forms fall under the umbrella of black music. Now, those were just genre names, but if you want to think about it, it’s really just a melting pot of black music."
Cultural authenticity in jazz music has been a long-debated point of contention in the music community. During the Cold War, trumpeter Louis Armstrong was sent on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Europe in a diplomatic effort to showcase American culture, earning him the name “Ambassador Satchmo.” In more recent years, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was appointed United Nations Messenger of Peace by Secretary-General Kofi Annan under the Bush administration.
In 2014, New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton introduced Black American Music, or BAM, to combat the divisive conversations around the word “jazz,” which he says “prevents an authentic analysis of the art.”
“In Black music there are no fields, per se, there are territories and lineages. It’s very clear who is a master drummer in the tribe and who is not. There is also a rhythmic lilt to how you phrase that is encoded in your DNA that gives a sign as to where you are from,” said Peyton in an article on his website.
Before that, renowned jazz critic Stanley Crouch was fired from the magazine JazzTimes after backlash from his article, "Putting the White Man in Charge," which discussed the commercial push of white jazz musicians over black musicians.
Crouch wrote: "This time white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated… Now certain kinds of white men can focus their rebellion on the Negro.”
Hill has his own ideas.
“The first known recording of ‘jazz’ was an all-white band, I believe the original Dixieland jazz band. They were making a mockery of this black music that was being created by people like Louis Armstrong and all of those cats in Chicago. So it’s just a word that was given to this music from day one, and it just stuck through the generations.”
Since winning the 2014 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, Hill has been on an international stage. He was a featured artist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra, and NPR did a special on him, called The Making of the Marquis Hill Blacktet, which reflected on his journey as a musician, from the Chicago area to international tours. With these experiences in mind, Hill believes that black music connects with audiences everywhere.
“People in Europe and Africa and Asia and people in different continents around the world – they love the music. Funny enough, it’s just here in the U.S. that jazz doesn’t get as much love as it really needs, which takes us back to that word. I believe [Americans] hear the word ‘jazz’ and it turns them off, but internationally, people love and respect the music.
"It’s been really, really eye-opening to me," Hill says. "They treat us like royalty.”
Hill is making sure that his music stays accessible, releasing physical and digital copies in an age when almost everything is streamed.
“It’s very clear the direction we’re going in, in terms of streaming music and downloading. CDs won’t be necessary pretty soon. But I think we’re at the end of that period. There’s still some people that come to live shows and want to leave with a physical record.”
The Way We Play is Hill’s first commercial release with a major label (Concord Jazz). While he previously released four projects independently, he says he enjoyed his experience with the label.
“There are certain protocols that have to happen when you want to make a move," Hill says. "When you want to do something, when you want to make a decision, you have to ask them, to a certain extent. When I was producing these records myself, I was my own boss. I didn’t have to ask anyone. If I wanted to do this, OK, let’s make this happen. But other than that, it was amazing.”
With co-signs from contemporary greats such as Wynton Marsalis, Hill aims to develop his own voice in the music industry.
“The music has always been a reflection of what’s happening in society. It’s been the black voice for a very long time. I think there was a moment where we lost that, but you see artists nowadays bringing that back. And I think that should be one of the major roles of jazz, or black music.”
To keep up with Marquis Hill’s journey, please visit his website MarquisHill.com, or follow him on Instagram and Twitter @MHillsounds.
Thaddeus Tukes is a 23-year-old graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications studying Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In addition to his journalism endeavors, Tukes is a professional musician in the city of Chicago and plays the vibraphone. Follow Thaddeus on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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Luxury is about image. This should come as no surprise. We understand this implicitly; every season brands produce new images to consume alongside their new collections. We indulge in the fantasy of the worlds that these pictures create. In a world that is increasingly splintered and difficult to understand, images, by contrast, are pitched at our desires: For power and prestige, for sex and money. We crave authenticity and history and pine for authority and pleasure. And in our world, still defined by dynamics set in motion at the outset of European colonialism, these desirable qualities are inextricably linked to our very understanding of Europe and the West more globally. To sell luxury is to sell a lifestyle, one often synonymous with ideas of “Frenchness’ (as embodied by the ominous and oft-referenced “French perspective”) and even today fashion editors the world over include mentions of brands’ Italian heritage, framing every new collection in relation to the companies’ nationalities and histories.
And, of course, in examining the actual histories of metropoles like Paris and London, it makes sense that these cities, the cherished and guarded capitals of the Western world, within whose cobbled streets and marbled facades is written the very history of colonial plunder, should be revered as the cultural capitals of that same Western World. Presumably, creativity and time-laden artisanship know no bounds in places unfettered by endemic want or systemic scarcity. And so the real history of the fabulous jeweled embroideries and supple leather saddle bags of France and England is also the history of the jeweled thrones from which ships and plots were launched, and the saddle bags toted along as people were captured and historical trajectories changed forever. Today, fashion overlooks the politics of the images it creates; casually and remorselessly appropriating styles, developing concepts rooted in problematic stereotypes, and most often, ignoring black creativity, ingenuity and beauty all together.
At the same time, it’s obvious that fashion’s visual content is also immediately political; every image presents the author’s own understanding of beauty which, in turn, has long influenced the way we conceive of and interact with the people we meet throughout our lives. Early modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, justified European colonialism by arguing that even slaves who had been freed had never produced anything of comparable beauty to their European counterparts. In turn, beauty has been long recognized as a domain of political influence (the black is beautiful movement emerged at precisely the moment that Stokely Carmichael called for Black Power), and black artists from a variety of disciplines and eras have long embraced the political potential of depicting themselves beautifully, often in defiance of Western norms.
This, I believe, is the function of black art. It offers us a chance to reimagine ourselves, our bodies, our histories and our futures.
It stands in the maelstrom of imagery, a fort in the storm, a window to a new possibility for oneself and one’s own community. Artists such as Nina Simone, Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall and James Baldwin, all of whom I count among my inspirations, undertook their work with the goal of reexamining their own place in the world. On a personal level, KHIRY is my opportunity to do the same; to reexamine my own history, to find myself, my body, my power and my voice, in the historical record. It is a chance to see my own origins on my own terms, and to champion the beauty and distinction of that heritage.
Ultimately, the process of diaspora is one of spreading; on slave ships and airplanes African people have come into uneasy contact with the broader world. But even as our paths have diverged, the roots of traditions lost and demeaned lay present still throughout the diaspora. In innumerable songs and countless dances, the same hips wind, the same legs bend and reach. In Bahia and Brooklyn, St. Kitts and St. Louis, the same voices climb and the same rhythm pounds, with the insistence of a culture that will not be washed away.
KHIRY is an opportunity to center the black body in the reexamination of this cultural past, and in the struggle to define our collective future. It is the opportunity to take a speculative look at the imagery that surrounds us, and to offer a new vision of blackness; one informed by a truth I’m still searching for, but which I can also immediately grasp. And now, as I present these images, I recognize the soft power that has always existed in luxury; the dark allure of it, its ability to manipulate desire, to impose a perspective onto the world, and to communicate a truth. Perhaps, as countless artists and philosophers have found before, there is some small revolution in that.
Follow Jameel Mohammed, Creative Director of Khiry, on Instagram @khiryofficial. And check out the brand on M'oda 'Operandi.
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No one makes traveling look better than we do! And like most things, it's even more lit when the squad is involved. Here are nine group photos that will inspire you to build your travel team — all the way from Jamaica to Germany.
Dive into the local culture — Germany
@illy_mays dive into the local culture #Germany 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Oct 5, 2016 at 10:47am PDT
International link up — Indonesia
@missakbeauty international link up #Indonesia 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 15, 2016 at 4:17am PDT
Black lives matter — France
@rick_ontherun "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." #Paris #France 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 21, 2016 at 8:15am PDT
When no one flops on the group trip — Jamaica
@milan_candie when no one flops on the group trip #rare #Jamaica 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 21, 2016 at 4:58am PDT
Whole squad in uniform — Senegal
@soukena uniform #Senegal 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 28, 2016 at 4:00am PDT
All together now — Spain
@_jaymaree_ when the crew gets the memo #Ibiza #Spain 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 28, 2016 at 10:34am PDT
Desert beauties — California.
@jnambowa desert beauties #California 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 28, 2016 at 7:03pm PDT
Sun & fun — Jamaica
@themandiebshow sun and fun #Jamaica 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 29, 2016 at 5:09am PDT
African Queens — Florida
@i.am.najr so much epic #Mia 🔸 #soultravel
A photo posted by Travel Black: SoulSociety101™ (@soulsociety) on Sep 30, 2016 at 3:40pm PDT
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For most of my life, I've been an avid lover of hip-hop.
More specifically, the rhetoric behind the trap music sub-genre has reverberated many of my own mantras. Yes, I am a feminist and no, I am not a drug dealer. However, the culture is much deeper than what meets the eye and ear at the surface.
Trap music speaks to those of us who were not afforded the luxury of being born with a silver spoon in our mouths, yet so desperately craved to make something else shake. It offers hope to those seeking to escape the symptoms of sociological, psychological and economic marginalization while allowing us to practice self-expression — as that's often the only thing we truly have ownership over.
From the super chill rhythm, melodic hook and whimsical wordplay to the moody percussion, trap music plays a supporting role in the black free-thinker’s ascension to freedom, fame and financial stability. Growing up in the United States’ thousands of inner cities, public housing projects, wards or boroughs once provided ample room for aspiring to achieve something ‘higher’ than their familiar socioeconomic strata. However, once gentrification comes into play, it becomes a whole new song.
Trap artists openly speak about past struggles while on the come up, attributing much of their success to the neighborhoods they were raised in. Now, many popular zip codes have become grounds for what policy makers call "urban rehabilitation." An area that was created to keep ex-slaves away from the non-black, property-owning population now houses high-rise condominiums, a Starbucks and a yoga studio.
I’ve lived in and visited many major cities in the U.S., witnessing firsthand the rapid growth of gentrification. Social polarization is the very foundation from which trap music arose; now the genre’s artists and fans have nothing to truly call home. I listen to my favorite artists proclaim their love for a neighborhood that was, at one point in time, a glorious Mecca for black culture.
Any sign of an Afrocentric population that learned to make do with the socio-economic margins that they were dealt by the U.S. government is deteriorating faster than our decades-long neglected apartment complexes. Spatial restructuring is forcing minority people and small black-owned business owners out of the very neighborhoods we helped build. As if the appropriation of our culture was not enough, the exploitation of our community epicenters is yet another thing stolen from the grip of underprivileged minority communities in America. What I can hope, as a lover of hip-hop and trap music, is that the artists and fans come together to keep the movement alive—despite the constant attempts of cultural disenfranchisement.
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Although you might not realize it, Portlandia has failed you.
The hit IFC-comedy scores laughs about everything from biking and hipsters to extreme localism and weird bookstores. Although calling Portland white is akin to saying it rains there (duh), failing to address the elephant in the room is anything but funny. We ain’t mad at Fred and Carrie because some of these events and groups are fairly new, but here are six of the blackest things the show didn’t spoof:
Partners In Diversity organizes the quarterly Say Hey! event series, which attracts a multicultural crowd — something visually unlike anything you’ve seen on Portlandia. They literally welcome new black people to Portland and shower you with gifts, drinks, food, drinks, praise (maybe an exaggeration... and did I mention drinks?) in hopes that you’ll stay a while.
Black Investment Consortium for Economic Progress
BICEP is a group of community leaders interested in augmenting Portland’s black community through commercial real estate investment, opportunities and revitalization. BICEP has developed the Soul District (yessss!), a neighborhood reclamation project that will feature black-owned businesses. Take that, gentrification!
Da Lab is dedicated to changing the narrative of black love in Portland by gathering black singles and couples for healing, connection, love and kinship through events, group outings + dinners, workshops and more. You WILL leave with a new friend or a (potential) boothang.
Hands Up is a powerful series of seven monologues commissioned by The New Black Fest in response to the Mike Brown and John Crawford shootings, among others. The August Wilson Red Door Project, whose mission is to change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts, puts on the monologues and facilitates a talkback after each show. Gripping perspectives, informational and all-the-feels inducing; did I mention that all the playwrights and actors are black?
Young, Gifted, and Black/Brown
In their own words, “Y.G.B is more than just a party it's a community. We come together to get down, celebrate each other and honor all things YOUNG, GIFTED and BLACK.” This year-old collective has created a safe and welcoming space for black and brown people centered around music and social events. They’re taking it to the next level with a showcase at PICA’s (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) Time-Based Art Festival.
Like Shark Tank? If so, you’ll love Pitch Black even more. This pitch event features black entrepreneurs, and the crowd decides the winners. Black folks, investors, founders and politicians all in the same room + deals on deals and ca$h shmoney!
What other awesome things are happening in Portland that shows like Portlandia overlook? Let us know in the comments below!
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Stephanie is a recovering lawyer turned life coach, business consultant and matchmaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She co-founded Da Lab, a safe space dedicated to changing the narrative of black love in Portland. Enthusiastically inconsistent; continually progressing. Follow Stephanie on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and at her...
Another video. Another black person lying dead in the street. Another police officer, nameless, faceless, shouting into radios, “he’s dead.” A mother feels a pang in her stomach, her ears ring a sound she’ll never hear again. Charlotte, North Carolina. Ferguson, Missouri. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And those are just the ones that make the news. The Washington Post (the paper of Watergate) keeps a running tab on who police are shooting. It seems they’re shooting more and more. And they’re fearing more than ever, too.
There have been days of protesting in Charlotte. People are fed-up. They’re tired. Day one ended in bloodshed after a man shot a protester in the head. Point blank. The crowd erupted. Social media followed suit. First, we heard that a protester shot his activist kin. Then, that it was the police. Now, finally, the truth: an assailant opened fire on Justin Carr setting off a tidal wave of rioting. The response was deafening, as usual.
What's going on
The violence feels senseless. The reactions to black people doing completely ordinary things seem absurd at best. And King Mez, a North Carolina emcee on the rise, agrees. “Unless something comes out that’s firm, hard evidence, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s actually going on,” he stated. “It doesn’t feel right to me. Especially since it’s a recurring theme.” Such a recurring theme, in fact, that the political right has readily jumped to the fantastical idea that the “mainstream media” is race-baiting, so ready liberals are to suit up for a racial holy war. How arbitrary those folks would rather do some magical thinking than deal with the reality: African-Americans, Latinos, and other POC are disproportionately affected by policing strategies that value escalation.
“That’s the thing that frustrates me, too,” says Mez. “People are always talking to us like we’re crazy like we’re supposed to be beyond this. I don’t even see how that makes any sense. We’re still dealing with this to this day.” His voice rises and falls in waves. You can feel the tension in it. His fear. Fear that all our lives are up for grabs in this free-for-all of a situation. We hit them with #BlackLivesMatter. Some argue that we’re separatists. We hate America. We want this discord, and, most disturbingly, that we deserve it.
The narrative of race
The narrative is a simple one. "Brown people commit the most crime, they argue. Of course, they’re the ones we should watch the closest." But these institutions have given themselves away. For, if you’re watching us as closely as you say you are, then it stands to reason that you could be stacking the deck. Who's watching the folks this media narrative presupposes is not committing a crime? And, the kicker, who is watching you? The examples of oversight are almost too numerous to claim. In June of 2015, an officer approached a young, black woman in a parking lot in Austin, Texas. The resulting exchange went viral. The officer body slammed her and generally acted the fool. She was arrested and placed in the back of another cruiser where she asked the question on everyone’s mind. The officer replied that blacks had “violent tendencies.” He elaborated, “Ninety-nine percent of the time … it is the black community that is being violent. That’s why a lot of white people are afraid. And I don’t blame them.”
I do. These narratives are costing us our lives. But what King Mez wants to know is where are the artists that are willing to speak out about these issues? “As an artist, I feel like I’m excited to do the things I can do with this art to make things better. But I’m really disappointed in anybody who ain’t using everything they have to make this sh*t better,” he notes. “I’m disappointed in the artists who won’t use their voice.” There are a few that are.
The artful protest
Some of the best musical output this year has been "protest" records. Jamila Woods Heavn and NoName’s Telefone are exuberant, somber redresses to bigotry. Colin Kaepernick’s silent kneeling during the National Anthem inspires both an image of prayer and of defiance. And Charlotte, too, has been artfully protesting. Through curfews and state emergencies, they’ve marched.
Even now that partial viewings of the dashcam and body camera videos of police officers involved in the shooting were released, still they march. Because, despite the rhetoric, protesting is an act of love. It’s a peaceful reminder that people matter. Mez wants to show that, as well. And he understands how hip-hop’s influence can shape the world. “Hip-hop is the most influential culture in the world. Even pop music sounds like hip-hop. Hip-hop culture influences the whole world. All we have to do to be together, but people’s minds are on so many other things,” says Mez. “It’s so much bigger than me. It’s so much bigger than my career. I’m so passionate about this.” With everything going on in his home state, how else could he be?
The Last Question
Blavity: Is there anything you do for self-care? It can be hard to watch all the media around this stuff.
King Mez: I’m going to be honest with you. It’s hard for me to watch [the videos] all the time. I definitely don’t like to see, but I honestly, in some instances, force myself to watch it. I want to feel those emotions. [That] will directly affect my art, directly affect the way I carry myself and the decisions I choose to make. What a lot of people don’t even realize is at this point all the decisions you make as a black man you’re not just making for you. You’re making them for everyone. You’re making them for the culture. As an artist, it’s not just about you anymore. It’s about everyone.
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I went to a predominantly white university. In fact, I went to one of the whitest universities in the country. It’s a huge, beautiful campus in the middle of Illinois that is known nationwide for its party culture, playing host to the largest college greek system in the world and its Big Ten football team. It’s the kind of school those college bro comedies are based on. With black people only making up about 5 percent of the population, our culture was not the foundation of the educational or social makeup. But that doesn’t mean we were just lost souls trapped in a world of Ugg boots and North Face windbreakers.
My friends who went to HBCU’s are quick to point out that I missed out on an "authentic" black college experience because I went to a PWI. They insist that the strong sense of community and belonging was a direct result of learning amongst their black peers. Some have even suggested that they could never attend a PWI because of the erasure of black culture and community. And that is where I always have to correct them.
I certainly wish I didn’t have to deal with the racist macro- and micro-aggressions my peers and I experienced at our institution of higher learning: Nooses hung in front of our cultural house, fraternities and sororities throwing parties with racist themes and guests in blackface, our events being over-policed, our intelligence questioned, and my peers not understanding why I wore a bonnet as I checked the mailbox. But those experiences did not destroy black culture at the university. In fact, the adversity made our community stronger, more organized, and if we’re being honest, kind of lit.
Even at a school that was the pinnacle of whiteness, I still had a black college experience.
First, consider the logistics. I mentioned the school I went to was only 5 percent black. But the total population of the university was 46,000. With more than 2,300 black folks, there were more of us at my PWI than some HBCUs entire populations - including Morehouse, Spelman, Dillard and Fisk. These demographics are not uncommon for many black students who attend public, in-state universities that are predominantly white. Many of us transitioned into those colleges from all-black high schools and communities. And as the saying goes: You can take us out the hood but you can’t take the hood out of us.
Chicken and spades parties were official events held by members of registered student organizations. The entrance steps and patio of the student union, which sat at the head of the main quad, was unofficially called “The Stoop.” And in true black neighborhood fashion, it was the place where we all congregated during the day to discuss racial politics, spill tea, shoot dice or just chill between classes. We held double dutch tournaments. Instead of bake sales we opened temporary candy stores where students could their childhood favorites like Flamin’ Hots with cheese and Frooties.
For homecoming weekend, there was a completely separate lineup of black events for the week that made our small college town look like All-Star weekend. The annual step show competition hosted by our black greeks brought visitors from across the entire Midwest to our campus for the festivities. We were constantly out locally, doing community service, creating, organizing, mentoring and collaborating. We had an equal number of naturalistas and baddies with freshly-installed bundles. The impassioned activists were sometimes on point, but sometimes extra and annoying on our campus, too. We were black… AF.
I know the HBCU debate is serious business for some folks, so let me state for the record that I don’t have a dog in this fight. I see both the pros and the cons of attending an HBCU over a PWI. With the current student debt crisis that unsurprisingly affects black folks disproportionately more, my only advice on selecting a college is: Follow the coin!
But if your concern in choosing a university where you're a minority is that you'll somehow miss out on a college experience that supports your blackness, you might be mistaken.
HBCUs have a rich history that has shaped the story of blackness in this country. They are an important part of black culture that can’t be denied. But I haven’t seen a “List of things you’ll only understand if you went to an HBCU” or “X Types of people you meet at an HBCU” that hasn’t also described my college experience perfectly.
This reinforces what we all know to be true about blackness — it’s resilient.
It stretches across time and space, despite intentions. Just as black culture is still flourishing in a country of anti-black racism and state violence, black culture is alive and well at PWIs, too.
We’d love to hear from you! If you went to a PWI, comment below and tell us what events and traditions kept black culture alive and lit.
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It was his swing — it was always about his swing. There was a bravado in the batter’s box, a swag to the saunter at a time when “swag” wasn’t in our lexicon. The same year I was born, on May 16th, Daryl Strawberry was brought up from the minors and started his first game with the New York Mets. His saunter screamed a certain kind of emblematic Black Power, the one that would be released on a diamond made of grass rather than a street full of protestors, or cell of incarcerated “what ifs." It was the same feeling I got watching Tyson punch, the strength of a hundred broken homes and poverty lines fueling the gloves. I cried when he lost to Buster Douglas. I cried during the Tyson documentary because even with the brutality of past, there was a softness and strong tinge of regret in his speech, the kind that makes us forgive. The Strawberrys, the Rodmans, Goodens, Jordans and Bo Jacksons of the world would come alive with an unbridled, unabashed “F--- it, I’m still here” in eras of slum lords burning down tenements for insurance, displacing thousands upon thousands of black and Latin families in sections of the Bronx, pre-Reaganomics, post-Watts Riots, the failure that would be Boston busing and the crack epidemic.
I was born on January 10th, 1983. I was fortunate enough to have a big brother eight years my senior, one of those big brothers who inadvertently taught you about life and living by living his. He was my cultural hub, and the only thing resembling what could be a father figure and role model other than Heathcliff Huxtable (and we see how that panned out). So naturally, I turned to him for any and everything related to sports, music, and dealing with the opposite sex.
My brother was a die-hard Mets fan.
Littered about our Smurf-colored walls were Daily News, New York Post, News Day clippings, and any other kind of paper you could cop for a quarter at the local newsstand near the bootleg man, near the Petland, on that corner of E. 188th and Creston Ave. in the Bronx in the early '90s. Those clippings, before the days of Instagram, Twitter feeds, Facebook algorithms and 24-hour news cycles, were our food source. Clippings of stolen bases, game-winning homers, shout-outs, “almost there” no-hitters, a sacrifice fly, broken records, line-up changes and trade deadlines. There were also clippings of Hulk Hogan slamming Andre the Giant, and a young me assumed Pay-Per-View meant you would pay the paper people to let you view the World Wrestling Federation telecast we couldn’t watch — me being part of the last contingent of folks in my 4th grade class to get cable in our apartment.
There were clips of Patrick Ewing dunking on everybody before his knees told him slow down. And later, adorning the chipping paint job of the yet-born-again walls, were The Source Biggie interviews and Sports Illustrated covers with John Starks dunking on what seemed to be the whole city of Chicago. There would be clippings of Mark Bavaro, hands in the air, saying all that he could say in Buffalo, and Leonard Marshall running with a pigskin cradled in his giant manpalms recovering a Joe Montana fumble, the fans knowing what that would mean to that team at that time during that game. We got a collect call from our biggest brother from Elmira following Christie’s missed field goal. There would be Vibe covers with Diddy and B.I.G. before it became just Diddy, and Angie Martinez crying on the radio for what would feel like forever, 5-mic album ratings and free posters snagged from the HMV record store my brother worked at.
When we didn’t have much other than our mother and ourselves, we had sports. And we had music.
And somehow, those two things would be and still are synonymous with the experience of struggle that is Ghetto America. This is primarily because, nowadays, professional teams and the athletes that make up the bodies that fill the jerseys (the same bodies that fill clubs and coliseums and venues and stadiums) happen to look like me and the kids I grew up, rapped, played with and around — black. Now, more than any time in the history of entertainment, sports and media, the faces being captured by camera lenses and film crews, those dominating air time and fields and courts and radio look and sound like the America I was raised in.
We opened fire hydrants in the summer because it was hot and humid and water is free in America (unless it has lead in it, then the price tag is equated to slower motor skills, death and a careless government). We played stick ball in front of our buildings and stole milk crates from schools only to cut out the bottoms and screw them into the concrete walls to practice Shawn Kemp-like dunks. Or, when times were harder than most, rounding out wire hangers with our small hands and hanging them over door frames, rolling up college-ruled paper sheets and playing best of seven’s until the downstairs neighbors complained about the shuffling of feet. We’d beat on lunch tables and rap in staircases until our throats numbed and scratched. We’d see crowds of young men and women in a circle and bodies bobbing and swaying to sounds and we’d know what was happening. We still do — the music some version of a glorious lullaby.
These acts of substitution, of placing ourselves in the shoes of the ones we’ve admired and emulated the most, was not unique to the ghettos of America.
But there was a certain kind of magical mystique when the only comfort you had was a tape deck with a Kool G. Rap cassette stuck inside and a Nerf ball because your playground was a crack vial forest with the tops hidden in its grassy parts — the Easter eggs you never asked for. Or when playing outside too late was more than a game of scrimmages, but of life and the depletion of it.
The 1994 New York Knicks squad, the Fab Five squad of C Webb and Jalen Rose, that UNLV Running Rebels squad of Larry Johnson and Greg Anthony were the preeminent leaders of that hodge-podge of black culture. Hip-hop meets Mookie throwing the garbage can through Sal’s Pizzeria meets Illmatic; brash, bald-headed, gold teeth and gold chains, the Pennys and Shaqs, the Ken Griffey Jr.s and Karl Kanis of our youthful existences, would usher in a new dawn for the baggy jean and wheat Timb set . Our rules would be no rules, highlighting the fears of middle America with each mic-dropping, crotch-grabbing, Spalding-crossovering, bat-throwing home-run hitter.
The times have shifted.
The new ones are named LeBron and Durant, Cam and Kendrick. They are our new ambassadors at this witching hour. Carmelo Anthony challenging athletes to do more, Jordan seeing hell freeze over and issuing a statement not involving horrible dad jeans and overpriced sneakers — this is our new normal. The faces have changed, but the stories surrounding the strokes and swishes, the boom-baps and sweat-soaked party halls still glow as they were. And the ghetto will always keep a speaking role in those stories, these stories, our stories, because it always has.
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When I watch The Get Down, I'm in awe of how it shapes the story of a budding New York City subculture built mostly around the energy of poor, black and brown people. That subculture grew into the global hip-hop landscape that exists today. By honestly bringing forth the queer spaces that supported hip-hop in its infancy, The Get Down also shed a light on how important those underground spaces were for young people coming of age and developing a sense of identity.
Even though I wasn’t born until a decade after the events that inspired the show, nearly 800 miles away in Chicago, I can tell you a thing or two about growing up and finding black joy in a city that otherwise makes little room for young, black folks.
During the late '90s and early '00s, the thriving subculture was unfolding in basements, project apartments, skating rinks and community centers all over Chicago’s South and West sides, and eventually all over the black Midwest. Anyplace dark with little-to-no adults, a loud enough speaker and some juke tracks could create the infectious atmosphere that defined my adolescence: The juke party.
What Midwesterners probably think of first when they remember a juke party is the grinding that coupled dance partners did, which was a huge part of the scene. Sure, you can go to any party or club and witness two people grinding on the dance floor. But until you’ve seen the toe-to-ankle-to-knee-to-hip coordination that’s required to juke and the tricks and flips that come with it, you might as well have been watching somebody hit the Carlton.
Yes. It was explicit. It would have made most parents clutch their pearls to witness. I won’t front like juking wasn’t — at times — a fully clothed simulation of a kind of sex more outrageous than any I’ve had as an adult. And I’m also not flexing as if these events were completely outside a context of desire and sexuality. Just like The Get Down, juke parties document the story of a city, its youth, their gender performance and their coming of age. My friends and I were navigating desire and sexuality when just about everything else had been sorted out and decided for us.
Juke parties were the formal courting rituals for those of us who couldn’t afford to be debutantes (and some of us who could, but still liked to bust it open on the weekends). We didn’t reject respectability politics, we flipped them on their head. It was in these spaces that we created and defined ourselves.
But being cute and looking for bae weren’t the only things that happened at juke parties. These parties were the spot for creative expression and showmanship. An emerging circle of guys, and sometimes a few girls, meant that a footwork battle was in the works. This complicated freestyle dance was masculine and often cheered on by a homie holding up the collar of the dancer’s white tee to give the impression that his feet were dangling off the ground. Unofficial bobbing and hip rolling competitions were also in full effect. These required feminine precision but could be pulled off by guys, too. After practicing at home and in your neighborhood for weeks or months, juke parties were where you showed up and showed out with your peers as judges. It was a way to make a name for yourself in your community, an aspiration that many of us had just as Dizzee did as a young tagger.
I remember the feelings of anticipation for an upcoming juke party at the skating rink near my house. I would look at my outfit laid out on the bed three or four times during the day. I would be giddy and anxious with excitement while the hours seemed to drag by. I could expect one of my homegirls to knock on our door attempting to sell a stolen disposable camera so that she could pay her own admission for the festivities. I would stay out of my mother’s way to avoid giving her a reason to say I couldn’t go. I would dance around the house all day to make sure my moves were still in order. It was an escape. Even though I usually dressed comfortably enough to dance and fight, I always felt safe. I never felt more in control, more independent and more free than I did walking onto that dance floor with my homegirls.
For young people today, desire looks like a subtle squint in the eye, a filter that singes the skin with an unnatural glow or a perfect pout in the lips. Admiration and respect are measurable entities, quantified via the amount of likes and heart eye emojis, or an intentional private, direct message on a social network.
Subcultures often become mainstream commodities thanks to the internet. Juke culture was gritty, but it feels sacred to me. I love that the closest you can get to witnessing it is grainy videos with bad sound posted by Wala Cam. With so much black cultural production being credited to the South and the East Coast, this Midwestern girl is happy to say that juking was ours. It was a beautifully explicit mashup of creativity, expression and connectivity. I carry both nostalgia for it and a yearning for the kids I’ll have one day to have a similar space that will make me sick with worry about what they’re doing, but grateful that they can get down, too.
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