In South Bronx, An Inclusive Art Form
There are more than seven billion people in the world. That’s more than seven billion bodies--breakdancers, hip hop artists, and DJs, but also construction workers and police officers, poets and artists. For neighborhoods like the ones in the Bronx, NY, these bodies are united as a community: a network of people and relationships. Yet these communities are becoming invisible.
In South Bronx, political and social realities of the past decades have caused a revival of artistic forms of expression, if only to preserve identity. Culture is an active process, but deliberate ignorance of the issues in the region have led to elitism and exclusion.
This is somewhat related to class issues, but race and gender issues as well. Marginalized groups--such as the Latino and African American populations prevalent in the Bronx--have often been disregarded in larger discussions of public policy. Women are largely ignored as possible influences. Discussions of progress in urban areas have been centered on benefits for the majority. Immigrant neighborhoods with less economic status are facing constant challenges to not only their citizenship, but their history as well. And many are turning to hip hop as a form of resistance.
The evolution of hip hop has become a central part of the region’s narrative. Hip hop isn’t a form of art; rather, it’s an umbrella term for all the art produced by the Bronx as a result of the neighborhood’s societies and the working class people that define them. And while hip hop originally started as a male-led movement, women are now active participants as b-girls--the flip side of b-boys, but as leaders as well.
“It was really all about individuality,” said Crazy Legs, former president of the Rock Steady Crew, “when you grow up in a situation like the ghettos, the only thing that you really have is your individuality.”
According to Joe Schloss, ethnographer, professor, and historian, all artistic means have been used as living history. What one should focus on, he says, isn’t why people practice [those means], but rather why they disagree on the ways of practicing those means. After all, what does it say about those people if they’re still arguing about the same topic that they’ve been arguing for decades? What does that dialogue say about what has happened to those ethnic communities since, with progress in urban areas and the influx of the middle-class?
When asked whether she thought gentrification in the Bronx was a positive good, resident Migdalia Dejesus said, “It’s sad, but yes. You want to see people enjoying themselves. You want things to make you happy.”
For people like Migdalia, this sentiment isn’t entirely unusual. Gentrification means an influx of “trendier” and more relevant restaurants and consumer products. In Port Morris, La Grata, a new Italian restaurant, opened just a few months ago. Pictures of Basquiat--the artist whose painting Untitled sold for an unprecedented $110.5 million--line the walls. This is just the beginning for chief developer Keith Rubenstein, who has made plans beyond just the restaurant; he plans to install a food hall and a residential/retail complex, in addition to the already-established coffee shop and art gallery.
Yet some locals still view these attempts at gentrification as an erasure of minority groups, a way of attacking the women and people of color that have been a central part of . South Bronx has consistently been characterized by the black and Latino immigrant communities that make up much of the demographics. With the entrance of the white and middle-class, graffiti--once accessible to all--has transitioned to gallery, almost elitist art. Target audiences are changing. And that’s only one of the many transformations that are being seen within the neighborhood.
Yet race and gender don’t exist inside a vacuum. Neither does art. There’s a constant negotiation between these cultural activity and policy-making in cities--one affects the other. Especially in the South Bronx, preconceived notions of the area have earned it a reputation for being a place of public squalor. Despite the increasing gentrification, a dominant narrative still looms over the region.
For the residents of South Bronx, hip hop is not a way of rebelling against conformity, but a way of saying, “I’m here.” It is a sign of presence. It is a call for wider America to take a look at the history in the here and now. It is a plea for people to not just see, but also understand.