Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Berlin Narrative: Crossing Cultural Boundaries Through Hip Hop With Rebel Diaz

Berlin Narrative- Crossing Cultural Boundaries Through Hip Hop With Rebel Diaz
Mark Naison, Fordham University

“This music is resistance, it’s the voice of the poor”
Rebel Diaz “Which Side Are You On”

On Tuesday, May 27, 2008, I boarded a plane bound for Berlin with Rebel Diaz, the amazing Bronx hip hop group whose video “Which Side Are You On,” is one of the most powerful political statements I have seen in recent years. We were there to participate in an international hip hop festival organized by the House of World Cultures called PROPZ- People Respect Other People Seriously- and to work on a Bronx Berlin Youth Exchange. The guiding force behind both of these initiatives, on the Berlin side, was the brilliant German hip hop scholar Susanne Stemmler, who was working hard to build linkages between the House of World Cultures, where she now worked as a program administrator, and Berlin’s immigrant and hip hop communities. She had brought us to Berlin not only for our our performing skills and knowledge of hip hop history, but because of our commitement to using hip hop to inspire creativity and political activism in marginalized youth.

The first indication of how well organized this festival was came when we were met at the Berlin airport by a young German graduate student named Anna Neumann, who was going to be our driver for the week. Anna, whose unique and very un-German driving skills earned her the nickname “Dj Illegal,” was as knowledgeable about Berlin neighborhoods as she was about hip hop, and gave us a running commentary on every community we drove through. Our next stop was the House of World Cultures, where we spoke, over lunch with Susanne’s colleagues who were in charge of that organizations cultural programming. I gave them press kits from three great Bronx jazz musicians, Valerie Capers, Bobby Sanabria, and Jimmy Owens, and suggested that they might want to organize a festival highlighting the Bronx’s contribution to jazz and latin music if the hip hop program was successful.

Our next stop was a meeting with Gio De Sera, the founder of an organization called the Street University, which met in the Naunynritze community center in Berlin’s most famous immigrant and countercultural neighborhood, Kreuzberg. As we got out of the van in front of the Center, I saw the mouths of the three members of Rebel Diaz open in amazement. The walls adjoining the community center, which was the size of a large New York City public school, were covered with graffiti murals that honored hip hop legends from the Bronx as well as local Berlin figures. Inside the building, graffiti art was everywhere, some of it primitive tags by neighborhood kids, much of it looking like the best of the subway masterpieces done in New York in the 1970’s. Neither Rebel Diaz, nor I, had ever seen anything like this Here was a six story building, taking up a quarter of a city block, with dance studios, a theater, a computer room, art workshops, basketball courts and café, all free and open to anyone who walked in, whose walls were covered with posters, graffiti art and political slogans defending the rights of immigrants and minorities around the world. And it was all funded by the Berlin city government! It was as if somebody gave Afrika Bambatta, the great Bronx hip hop pioneer and founder of the Zulu Nation, title to an abandoned factory and said “here, doing anything you want with this building as long as it serves neighborhood youth.” Gio Di Sera, the Street University’s founder, a graffiti artist, break dancer and music impresario from Naples, described with pride his efforts to make the Center a place where the angriest and most alienated young people in Kreuzberg, especially children of immigrants, would feel at home, and express their feelings through art. Hip Hop, Di Sera told us, had saved him from a life of violence and a life of crime, and the Street University represented his efforts to offer the same opportunity to the youth of Berlin.

Our next stop was a the KMA Antenne Youth Center, located in another part of Kruezberg. Housed in an apartment building that overlooked a pedestrian mall filled with Turkish and Mideastern shops, KMA had none of the countercultural atmosphere of the Street University. The rooms and hallways were graffiti free and the person who greeted us, Karlheinz Haase, was an academically trained social worker who spoke almost clinically about incorporating Berlin’s Turkish and Muslim minorities into the city’s schools and civic culture. But hip hop was as important at the KMA Attenne Center programs as it was at the Street University. To illustrate this, Karlheinz took us to a break dance class across the hall from his office, where 12 young men aged 11 to 18, some dark complexioned, some with blond hair and blue eyes, took turns going to the center of the circle they were arranged in and showing off acrobaticr moves to hard driving jams. The enthusiam of the of the young people in the class which impressed us as much as their skill level, jumped up a notch when Rod Starz, the Rebel Diaz MC who had been a B-Boy in Chicago, entered the middle of the circle and began popping some of his old moves. Everyone started cheering. Though Rebel Diaz spoke no German and the kids spoke no English, mutual respect was instantaneous! Somehow, a dance and musical culture created in the Bronx had become the chosen vehicle of expression for a cross section of Berlin youth, and had acquired the power to cross boundaries of nationality, religion and race that the city’s political leaders and educators had difficulty bridging. Even gender barriers were falling, because as we left the room, a group of middle eastern girls wearing sweatpants and headbands were entering the room to join the cipha .We left the Center with an overwhelming sense of hip hop’s power to give disfranchised youth connection to a global community

Our final stop to the day was a welcome dinner at the Hip Hop Stutzpunkt, a cultural center, studio and residence devoted to hip hop culture that had been created in an abandoned transformer building in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of East Berlin. If you are wondering when and how community art centers were created on such a massive scale,they were a consequence of the economic dislocations that took place when Germany was unified and large numbers of e enterprises were unable to compete in the world market place. Berlin, especially in its Eastern Sector, underwent a rapid deindustrialization, leaving much of its industrial and commercial space abandoned. Whereas New York, when it underwent its deindustrialization in the 1970s’ discouraged occupation of abandoned spaces and actually arrested people who practiced it, the Berlin city government adopted a policy of temporary occupancy which allowed people to occupy and use abandoned commercial space free of charge for up to three years if they could pay for their own water and electricity. The arts community, not only in Berlin, but all over Europe, and all over the world, took greatest advantage of this policy, transforming abandoned building into studios and living space for musicians, painters, and people working in theater and film. The Hip Hop Stutzpunkt, the brainchild of a break dancer, dj and publisher named Akim Walter, was a product of this unique cultural renaissance, and for more than fifteen years had sponsored festivals, competitions, record release parties, and the publication of books and cd’s for hip hop artists from all over the world. It was filled with magnificent posters and life size cardboard models of hip hop legends from the UA, as well as first rate recording equipment, computer rooms and spaces large enough to hold a small conference.

The dinner itself,reflected the breadth of support for the PROPZ festival in Berlin. In addition to Susanne and her New York guests, it included staff members from the House of World Cultures, representatives of the Hip Hop Stutzpunkt, young scholars from the Center for Metropolitan Studies, a local hip hop impresario named Johannes Erdman, and a charismatic social worker for Gangway Berlin named Olad Aden who had just produced a hip hop album featuring the street youth he worked with and was the guiding force in the Bronx Berlin youth exchange we hoped to initiate. The food was great, the wine and beer flowed freely and the conversation took place in English, German and Spanish. After learning more about one another’s work, we started preparing for the events of the next day, which included a press conference and a two hour radio show at the House of World Cultures hosted by Johannes Erdmann.

The next event, a 12 noon press conference just outside the Café Zapata, the club where most of the festival performances would take place, left me and Rebel Diaz gasping for breath. Not because of the press conference, which was boring and short, but because of the space it took place in. Imagine a yard the size of a city block covered with sand, filled with tires and benches and picnic tables, where people could hang out during the day, and drink in the evenings, served by four outdoor and two indoor bars. Then imagine a magnificent ten story building, well over a hundred years old that had been abandoned and occupied by artists after the unification of Germany and transformed into a community arts center with 29 different workshops and a restaurant and a club that could fit over 300 people. Graffiiti filled the walls, metal sculptures filled the empty spaces, and people of every race and nationality were eating and drinking and working on arts projects. In my entire time in the United States I had never seen a community space of comparable dimensions, free from state interference or the sanitized vision of developers. It was funky, it was disorderly, it was filled with energy. Club Zapata, which was inside the adjoining building was infused with the same insurgent spirit. The bar was made of scrap metal and wood, the seating consisted of picnic tables and benches and a dragon like metal object hanging from the ceiling spat out fire whenever someone behind the bar pulled a lever. But the club, which could hold several hundred people standing, had a large enough stage for a ten piece band and had managers who cared more about bringing the community great music than about making money. It felt like I was in the Fillmore West in 1967. I was lost in a time warp and on the verge of tears. Café Zapata, and the building it was located in, brought my 60’s dreams of brotherhood and community to life in a way that I thought I would never see again. I couldn’t wait to see the shows being staged there later in the week.

Just how special the shows would be quickly became apparent when we gathered later that afternoon for a radio show at the House of World Cultures hosted by Johannes Erdmann. In addition to me and the three members of Rebel Diaz, G-1, Rod Starz,and Lah Tere, the show featured Sol, a female singer and MC from Brazil, Anna her interpreter, Diamond Dogg, an MC from Angola, and an Amevu, an Afro German MC whose speed rapping was legendary in Berlin. What went on in the next hour and a half showed how hip hop communicates through rhythm and body language more than words. Once the individual speeches and performances were over, the seven MC’s began free styling with dazzling virtuosity, improvising off each other’s rhymes in rapid succession and flawless rhythm in four different languages, creating an atmosphere of love and mutual admiration that affected everyone who was present including the studio technicians and the people who watched from outside. The spirit of the African Diaspora was brought to life as people from 4 continents came together in joyous celebration of verbal artistry. When the show ended, everyone exchanged hugs with the understanding that something truly remarkable had taken place, excited at the prospect of coming together on a stage in front of a large and appreciative crowd.

But even before the shows took place, we were reminded us that the boundary crossing powers of hip hop were as filled with dangers and contradictions as they were with opportunities. The event that brought us back to reality was the workshop on the history and politics of Hip Hop that Rebel Diaz did with a group of young people from Gangway Berlin that Olad Aden had been working with. We knew, from what Olad told us, that these kids would be tough; but HOW tough didn’t become clear until Susanne picked up ten of them from the metro station at Alexanderplatz and began walking with them toward our van, where Anna and I sat waiting. I took one look at this group of large, powerfully, built young men, wearing sun glasses, muscle shirts, and “game faces” cultivated on Berlin’s meanest streets and immediately recalled my days running a basketball league in Brooklyn which drew youngsters from the Gowanus and Red Hook projects. Only the Gangway guys were older, and looked even tougher. Two thirds were Turkish, Arab, and Afro-German, the others white, looking like weight lifters or skinheads. The one thing they had in common was faces tight with suspicion and anger. As they silently piled into the van, I wondered whether any would be able to reach them in a two hour workshop When I worked with young people like this, I had to first win their respect on the basketball court before they would listen to a work I said, and it often took months to win their confidence.

As the Gangway group left the van to enter the Hip Hop Stukzpunkt, the challenge face Rebel Diaz became even clearer. Despite the work Olad had done to break down their attachment to gangsta rap( which is as vulgar- and as popular in Germany as it is in the US) many of the men started began broadcasting their own version of hyper masculinity by giving us Crips signs, yelling “motherf….er.” and talking about women in disparaging ways. As they arranged themselves in a circle at the request of Olad and Rebel Diaz, the testosterone was flowing so strongly that our driver Anna refused to join the circle and decided to help me in getting drinks, pretzels and pastries for the group. When we returned, Rod Starz of Rebel Diaz was giving an eloquent lecture on the history of hip hop, and trying to explain the difference between hip hop as street art and hip hop as corporate commodity, but for the most part the men were unresponsive. They found it difficult, in an all male group, to relinquish their street bravado and kept making jokes about “video hos” and asking members of Rebel Diaz whether they had ever been shot. Rod Starz to his credit, refused to give in to their misogynist and violent fantasies, and kept telling them that the attitudes they were expressing would insure that they waste time fighting one another rather than the people who were keeping them down. But though Rod finally got through to two or three people, the majority remained unconvinced

But then, on Susanne’s suggestion, Rebel Diaz abruptly ended their workshop and began performing some songs. As the pounding beats created by G-1 made the walls of the Stutzpunkt vibrate, Rod Starz and Lah Tere, their bodies coiled with energy, began unleashing lyrics with a speed, inventiveness and rhythmic dexterity that left the men in the room open mouthed in admiration and awe. These incredible artists, their faces filled with ecstasy as they Preached the Word of Justice, rapped as though they were possessed by spirits. Rod and G-1 were incredibly powerful, but when Lah Tere stepped forward and an performed her signature song “Crush”, it was a life changing moment for many people in that room. It was as though every woman that had been beaten, stepped on, and pushed aside by men, found their instrument in the torrent of lyricism Lah Tere unleashed on that room, with a speed and power and metaphorical genius that shattered every idea of feminine weakness the men in that room carried with them. This was Etta James singing “Stop The Wedding;” Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” Lah Tere’s performance smashed through every ounce of false bravado in that room and allowed these very tough, very wounded men to express their own emotions. When she finished, the men ran up to her and hugged her, asked to be photographed with her, and implored her to listen to their own original raps which they had performed on the Gangway CD. All of a sudden a room filled with tension became a community where art was supreme and feelings could be shared. As these young men got up to perform, they literally bared their souls in music. One young man who sat in the circle fidgeting and twitching, next to his friend who kept making snide remarks about gunshots and gangs became transformed into a pair of inspired lyricists with an effortless flow, and whose faces alternated between pain and ecstasy. At the end of that workshop, something miraculous had occurred , binding people together across lines of gender, language and nationality. A permanent connection had been created between Rebel Diaz and Gangway, one which would be reaffirmed during a performance at Café Zapata on Saturday night, and would reshape our plans for the Bronx Berlin Youth exchange, scheduled for November 2008, which now would include Berlin/ New York Album of original hip hop produced in Rebel Diaz New York Studio.

There would be many great moments in the rest of my Berlin trip. The Friday night performance at Café Zapata of Berlin’s best MC’s, hosted by Johannes Erdmann, was nothing short of breathtaking. Several hundred people were treated to a hip hop show of higher quality than any I had seen in New York, marked by inspired beat making, remarkable lyrical flow, and a crowd that never stopped jumping up and down. I was jumping up and down with them until I looked around and realized that the sight of a 60 year old man leaping and screaming amidst scores of 20 year old women must have looked a bit strange, so I headed to the bar and spent the rest of the evening talking to Joanna and Katrin, the generous and fun loving managers of Club Zapata. The Saturday night performance of Rebel Diaz was even better Rod, G-1 and Lah Tere had the whole club dancing, shouting political slogans, and affirming the fight for immigrant rights around the world. Lah Tere, as I anticipated, had the same effect on the people in the club that she had on the young men from.Gangway. When Lah Tere hit the first notes of Crush”, I saw the mouths of some of the women from House of World Cultures open in amazement, as they saw raw female energy and creativity in a form so pure that it literally took their breath away

But despite all the memorable experiences on my Trip to Berlin, the event that had a greatest impact on me was the workshop Rebel Diaz did for the young men of the Gangway organization. Anytime someone says that hip hop is too compromised by misogyny and violence to be a force for justice, I will think of how Lah Tere’s performance opened the minds and hearts of a group of tough working class young men and enabled them to see women as allies in their quest for recognition and respect and as exponents of an art form that best allows them to express what they feel inside. This was Hip Hop at its best, brought to life in Berlin by a group artists and political activists from the Bronx. It is the most powerful instrument we have to reach disfranchised and marginalized youth, and we turn our back on it at our peril