To many Americans, and even some local residents, the South Bronx is still haunted by its destructive past. They see a borough devastated by burnt buildings, as was the case in the 1970’s, and overrun with the crack-fueled violence that pervaded the ‘80s. The Bronx is vicious. The Bronx is dangerous. The Bronx is a borough to avoid. Though these perceptions are rooted in some truths, there is one fact about the Bronx that is often left out of the conversation – it has been an incubator for some of the most influential and internationally renowned artists in Latino and Hip Hop music.
The South Bronx Cultural Trail is an arts initiative that started last year to engage and educate Bronx residents about their neighborhood’s rich cultural history. Through site-specific performances, the Trail creates an intergenerational dialogue between those who lived through the explosion of Latino music in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the growth of Hip Hop in the 70’s, with younger generations who didn’t know their favorite songs and dances were conceived in their own backyard.
The Trail grew from a partnership between two Hunts Point-based organizations: Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, which has served the area for nearly 80 years, and Dancing in the Streets, a nonprofit new to the Bronx but has a 29 year history producing flash dance performances around NYC.
“The idea of the South Bronx Cultural Trail was to create different public programs that range from large scale to small scale, [and include] performances, panel discussions and parties that uncover, excavate, celebrate, and involve the community with their historical roots,” says Aviva Davidson, Executive and Artistic Director of Dancing in the Streets.
One of their biggest events was held in October 2012, called “PASEO”. This 11-block walking tour was designed to recreate the vibrancy of the midcentury era when Latino music and dance permeated the whole community. Professional dancers and local residents collaborated to perform Salsa dances outside laundromats and in the fire escapes of buildings; children played bygone street games such as skelzies, double dutch and stickball; men and women marched to the beat of congas and brass bands.
For just one day the neighborhood was transported back in time, but for some it left a lasting impression. “If I hadn’t seen the spontaneous dance show in Hunts Point, I would not have been exposed to all these different styles of Latin dance that were showcased,” recalls Kevin Wolfe, a 25 year-old local resident.
“It is important for this generation to know about their past, to know that they have a voice and that they can express it just like the pioneers in Salsa and Hip Hop did,” explains Elaine Delgado, Director of Marketing and Individual Giving at Casita Maria, which provides after school arts classes and social services. “The good thing is that many of the pioneers are here with us and are open to share their talents with the community.”
The Trail’s most recent weeklong festival in October 2013 explored the history of Hip Hop in the South Bronx; one event, titled “The Bronx Revolution and the Birth of Hip Hop,” included performances by Grandmaster Caz, one of the earliest rappers to DJ and MC, Joe Conzo Jr., a prolific photographer who documented the rise of Hip Hop jams and break circles, and Rokafella, one of the first women to breakdance.
Conzo Jr.’s projected photographs wallpapered the stage, illustrating his first experiences with following the movement.Grandmaster Caz spit lyrics that have now come to symbolize the South Bronx. “Before rap was a game or Hip-Hop was a nation…before Reaganomics, before rappers got shot in their stomachs,” he chanted to an audience that recited back his every word. Rokafella twirled on her hands and knees as her voice amplified the theater, describing her personal introduction to breakdancing and the struggles she faced making a name for herself on the streets.
“It was amazing to really hear the personal stories of these artists. [Back then] they were just kids and doing all these really cool things and it turned into this global phenomenon, so to see them tell their stories in their art form…it was an honor to even be in the room and see that,” says Aisha Jordan, Arts Manager at Casita Maria.
For the pioneers, what is tantamount to recounting the past is ensuring Hip Hop and other artistic outlets remain a mainstay in the South Bronx.
“From when [Hip Hop] started…there was this idea that we’re moving forward as a community and we’re not leaving anyone behind,” Rokafella explains. “So we have a responsibility to represent that for them, and encourage them – if you can do this, you can do anything.”
The Trail has its finger on this pulse, and since its inception last year it has created a space for generations to inspire each other and to breed new talent.
“We’re working with up-and-coming artists,” Jordan says. “It’s been great to give these artists new places to perform, and for the youth here and the community to see artists that are from the Bronx… I think a lot of the time they don’t get to see what’s around just in their own neighborhood.”