Friday, February 15, 2019

Why Hip Hop Began in the Bronx- Speech for C Span

C-Span Lecture  Why Hip Hop Began in the Bronx!

What I am about to describe to you is one of the most improbable and inspiring stories you will ever hear. It is about how young people in a section of New York widely regarded as a site of unspeakable violence and tragedy created an art form that would sweep the world.  It is a story filled with ironies, unexplored connections and lessons for today. And I am proud to share it not only with my wonderful Rock and Roll to Hip Hopclass but with C=Span’s global audience through its lectures in American history series.

Before going into the substance of my lecture, which explores some features of Bronx history which many people might not be familiar with, I want to explain what definition of Hip Hop that I will be using in this talk.

Some people think of Hip Hop exclusively as “rap music,” an art form taken to it’s highest form by people like Tupac Shakur, Missy Elliot, JZ, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Wu Tang Clan and other masters of that verbal and musical art, but I am thinking of it as a multilayered arts movement of which rapping is only one component.  What evolved in the Bronx in the early and mid 70’s, and which spread to disfranchised communities around the world in the 80’s, consisted of four connected components--- DJ’ing and beat making, the original art form which set the Hip HopRevolution in motion;  B-Boying or Break Dancing, a form of acrobatic group dancing that bore more than a few commonalities with martial arts;  Graffiti art, a form of illegal public art and self-expression which found its way into flyers announcing hip hop events as well as on buildings and transportation systems,  and finally, Mc’ing or rapping, rhyming over beats in a style that could vary from the boastful, to the reflective to the assertively political.

   ALL of these art forms, which emerged in the Bronx in the middle and late 70’s spread around the world TOGETHER, disseminated by film and music video, and can be found today in almost every city in the world in one form or another.

   Let be give an example of this.  When I was first brought to Berlin to lecture about Bronx Hip Hop Culture in 2005, my hosts took me to an abandoned school in the Kreuzberg section of that city which had been turned into a community center.  I was stunned by the visual image it projected. Almost every surface inside and outside the building was covered by elaborate, multicolored, murals in the style of the graffiti art that covered subway trains in New York in the 70’s and 80s’. Clearly, in this section of Berlin what was still seen as “vandalism” among many New Yorkers was prized as an expressive art form to be encouraged among young people in poor and immigrant neighborhoods. Secondly, I was taken to a 
“break dance” class where young women, some of them wearing hijabs, were learning dance moves perfected among B=Boys and b-girls in theBronx 40 years before. Finally, I was shown a state of the art music studio where beat makers and rappers were producing original music in which the language of choice varied between German, Turkish and English.

   And this was not the only place where I saw the four arts forms of hip hop honored this way. I saw the same glorification of the “four elements of hip hop” in three other community centers in Belin, most of them serving immigrants from Turkey, the Middle East and Eastern Europe; as well as comparable community centers in Barcelona, Spain. In all of these places, as well as their counterparts in Paris, Havana, Rio De Janeiro, Rome, Tokyo and even Hanoi, the art forms of hip hop are being cultivated with love and respect and transmitted to new generations of youth, all with the understanding that THEY STARTED IN THE BRONX.

    So today for everyone here, and for everyone around the world who loves Hip Hop, I address the questions  WHY?  Why did  Hip Hop as a multidimensional art form start in the Bronx, and why did it spread.
   In answering this question, I am going to look at three different variables.  1. The Unique Cultural Capital of the Bronx and Its People which derived from immigration and the mixing of cultures.  2.  The tragedies which befell the Bronx in the 1960’s and 1970’s, once regarded as unique, which were to hit many other cities and communities in subsequent years. And 3. The easy accessibility of the Bronx to  Harlem, Mid-town Manhattan and the Village and the Lower East Side which culture makers and entrepreneurs were in a position to publicize and marketBronx Hip Hop when they became away of its revolutionary potential. 

Before going into the underlying factors shaping Bronx Hip Hop in more depth, let me give you a brief hip hop timeline.   Most scholars think that the big bang which launched hip hop took place at the parties held by Cindy Campbell and her brother, Clive Campbell, aka Kool DJ HErc, at the community center of a Mitchell Lama housing complex 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in 1973.  There, Herc discovered that dancers at his parties would go crazy if he used two turn tables and a mixer to fuse the 15-20 second percussive sessions of popular records- which he called “break beats”- into 10 minutes of pure percussion.  After several hugely successful parties at the community center, Herc decided to take his sound system  into a public park 10 blocks north of his house, Cedar Park, using electricity from the bottom of a lamp post. Thousands of young people came to these outdoor jams, which were not broken up by police even though they were done without a permit, and other talented DJ’s in theBronx decided to follow his example. Among these were a former gang leader from the Bronx River Houses who called himself Afrika Bambatta, and young man from Morrissania trained in electronics at a vocational high school who called himself “Grand Master Flash.”  By 1976, parties where DJ’s competed with one another to create the most danceable interludes using break beats from records where taking place all over theBronx, in parks, in community centers, in abandoned buildings.  At these parties, dance competitions between crews  using innovative steps taken from martial arts movies, Latin dancing and James Brown moves became common occurrences, almost to the point where they were as much part of the event as the DJ’s.   Soon, the DJ’s began starting to distinguish from one another by commandeering street poets to rhyme over their beats and by the late 70s the artistry of the rappers was starting to gain as much attention as the DJ’s and the dancers.   By now, the  parties were starting to spread into private clubs and dance halls as well as parks and community centers, places like Disco Fever and the Stardust Ballroom and people from other parts of the city were starting to take notice. Then, in 1979, a record entrepreneur from Englewood New Jersey named Sylvia Robinson, who had once been a singer and club owner in the Bronx, decided to record some of the music. She put out a record called “Rappers Delight” which almost went platinum, and set music industry minds to thinking there were new business opportunities to be found in this Bronx based art form. Within five years, scores of rap records were being produced, some with their own music videos, and mass market films were produced which highlighted the Bronx setting for hip hop as well as the DJing, the rapping, the break dancing and the graffiti which were all integral parts of the scene. As a result hip hop in all four of its forms spread around the city, the nation and the world,  almost always in places where there were large numbers of young people who felt disfranchised and marginalized.

 So that’s the broad story. Why the Bronx:

Let’s look first at the population of the Bronx and the sonic universe they lived in prior to hip hop.

Well before the emergence of hip  hop, several neighborhoods in the South Bronx had a mixture of cultures and traditions that made them unique in New York City and the nation and fostered a remarkable legacy of musical creativity. During the 1930’s 1940’s ad 1950’s, two largely Jewish working class neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Morrisania and Hunts point, were peacefully integrated by three population streams coming from Harlem and East Harlem- African Americans originally from the US South; West Indians from Anglophone Carribbean countries like Jamaica, Antigua and Barbadoes; and Spanish speaking peoples coming from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Honduras and Panama.  Each of these peoples brought their own musical traditions to the neighborhoods, schools and housing projects they lived in and over times these traditions fused and morphed in the most remarkable ways.   By the 1950’s, the clubs and theaters and churches and schools in these were places where you could hear Afro Cuban music and mambo, doo wop and rhythm and blues, bee bop and Dixieland jazz and calypso.  By the 1960’s these forms had begun to evolve as American born youth began to transform them, giving rise to salsa, funk and Latin soul!
      Nowhere in New York or the US were there as many people of the African Diaspora living together in the same apartment buildings and housing projects and the result was a unique sonic universe where melodies and songs in different languages took place to a back drop of powerful percussion.  Let me share a few quotes with you where people describe what it was like to be there and actually listen

(Read Quotes)

But people didn’t just listen- they DANCED- in their homes, in their clubs, in schools and in the streets!  And people shared their dance traditions. If you grew up in the South Bronx, whether you were Black, Latino or White, you danced Latin! And if you were Latino, you probably slow danced to the Drifters and fast danced to James Brown.

In the South Bronx, music and dancing were everywhere and nothing was more prized than music that forced you to dance because of the powerful beats. For thirty years before the first hip hop jam, the Bronx was swaying to the multiple rhythms of the African Disapora, indoors and outdoors, in parks and schoolyards in clubs and community centers, and in the streets where people took their record players out in summer months for block parties and outdoor jams.

So when Kool Herc had his “big bang” and created ten to fifteen minutes of pure percussion at the 1520 Sedgwick Community Center, the young people of the Bronx were not only predisposed to respond to it joyously, they were prepared to dance to it just like their parents and grandparents had done, albeit in somewhat different conditions.

Which brings us to another element of the “Cultural Capital” of the Bronx that helped it spawned hip hop- a new wave of Caribbean immigration that followed the drastic relaxation of immigration quotas in 1965  Clive and Cindy Campbell were among the more than 10,000 Jamaican immigrants who came to the Bronx between 1965 and 1975, bringing with them among other things, the “Sound System” culture of that country which had helped spawn Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae. Young people like Clive Campbell came from a society where people made extra cash by sponsoring parties with huge loud amplifiers and speakers, often in outdoor spaces, playing the most popular records, all the while “toasting” over the sounds. It is that tradition that Campbell and his sister brought to 1520 Sedgwick with the loudest sound system anyone had ever heard. But the sound system alone couldn’t excite the crowds. Campbell combined the power of his amplifiers with something they had never heard before, something that made them dance with a power and a frenzy they had never done before, a sound which both reflected the percussive traditions they had grown up with and the harsh sonic universities of communities where buildings were burning, fire engines and police sirens were moaning, and the windows of cars and buildings were being shattered.

 Campbell when he created crashing percussive riffs at full volume, was capturing the sounds of communities experiencing a set of tragic circumstances that at the time were seen as unique to the Bronx, but would soon spread throughout the nation and the world.  So let us turn from Cultural Capital to Tragedy. Because Hip Hop, as much as blues or gospel, was a case of people who created musical innovations amidst extraordinary hardship.

Tragedy As Opportunity:

   During the very years that Hip Hop emerged in the Bronx, large portions of the borough were hit by and arson and abandonment cycle that left  scores of once thriving communities in ruins and produced a loss of housing stock and population rivaling that of cities hit by aerial bombardment.  Morrisania and Hunts Point, the two Bronx communities responsible for much of the borough’s musical creativity, lost 50 percent and 60 percent of their populations respectively and fully 40 percent of the housing stock of the South Bronx was destroyed. But the fires and abandoned buildings were only one component of the tragedy. Because of the NY City fiscal crisis, not only were fire and police services drastically cut in the borough, but the great music programs and after school programs in Bronx schools were shut down as a result of budget, depriving young people of the borough of the opportunity to learn how the play musical instruments and showcase their musical skills the way their parents and grand parents generation had done.

    Yet while the creation and performance of instrumental music in the Bronx  by young people suffered  from these multiple tragedies- as theBronx would no longer lead the nation in performance of jazz, Latin music, rhythm and blues or funk- at least not until some of the music programs restored at the beginning of the 21st century,   it did not suppress the impulse to musical creativity! Rather, budget cuts and disinvestment directed that impulse through channels no one had predicted or anticipated, using turntables, mixers, records, sound systems, and vocal poetry to create something  that the older generation neither welcomed nor predicted, but would end up sweeping the world.

   How did hip hop thrive in tragedy? First of all, let’s look at how it was disseminated.  After Herc’s first parties, hip hop largely spread through the Bronx as a result of outdoor parties held in schoolyards and parks with electricity drawn from lamp posts, all done illegally!  Why were these parties allowed?  Because given how their ranks had been reduced by budget cuts, and given all the forms of violence taking place in the Bronx, police made a decision to allow outdoor hip hop parties to take place even making huge amounts of noise and lasting well into the night, as long as no one was being shot or stabbed at the events.  Did people complain? Hell yes. The noise drove nearby apartment dwellers crazy. But police ignored those complaints so long as the gatherings remained peaceful. Basically, scores of illegal outdoor parties, attracting thousands of people, were allowed to take place because in the 1970’s, the Bronx was viewed as such a war zone that such gatherings had to be tolerated. Ten years earlier, or twenty years later, such gatherings would never have been tolerated.  The same thing was true of the graffiti arts that accompanied the rise of hip hop and were regarded as one of the
4 elements of hip hop.  Police and transit budget cuts in the 1970’s up into the 1980’s made it impossible to keep graffiti writers from tagging trains or whitewashing their masterpieces after they went up. Just as hip hop parties thrived outside the law, so did graffiti art, and the two paralleled one another.
Amidst what many New Yorkers regarded as lawlessness and chaos, new musical and visual art forms arose, spread and ultimately took such a compelling form as to inspire imitators around the nation and around the world.

   Even rioting helped the spread of Hip Hop. When New York City was hit by a blackout in 1977, even major business district in the Bronx was looted, especially the Hub, Tremont Avenue and Fordham Road. Perhaps the most popular target of looting were electronics stores, leading to the dissemination of hundreds of sound system to Bronx youth and the creation of even more aspiring Hip Hop DJ’s.  In the past, such young people would have learned to play trumpet, saxophone and trombone in the public schools, leading them to seek outlets for their talent in salsa, funk or rhythm and blues, but with those programs gone, kids with musical talent looked to Djing and rapping as an outlet and they produced music when, when popularized, many young people found irresistible

    Because one thing has to be said in understanding why something in the Bronx ended up spreading around the world.  The arson, disinvestment, and building abandonment that took place in the Bronx turned out to be anything but unique. Indeed, it would prefigure what would happen to almost every industrial city in the US and Western Europe when factories began to close and industries began to move to developing countries.   By the late 1980’s  and early 90’s you could see abandoned neighborhoods which looked like the Bronx in the 70’s in places ranging from Youngstown Ohio, to Buffalo New York to Manchester England and Berlin Germany, with similar cuts to public services and programs in schools.  And it those circumstances, the sounds that Bronx Hip Hop Dj’s were producing and the raps that accompanied, had become the soundtrack of a generation of young people caught in the throes of de-industrialization and globalization.

   But to understand that, we have to understand how hip hop spread and to do that, we have to understand something of the Bronx’s accessibility, via public transportation, to other communities where global cultural production was already taking place, albeit with different musical forms.  The young people of the Bronx had the ability to create culture, but not to market it. That responsibility would fall upon those located in other neighborhoods who were aware of Hip Hop’s potential to be sold as music, as visual art, as dance and as fashion

New York Location and Marketing.

The story how hip hop was marketed is a fascinating one and requires us to look at people based outside the Bronx. Quite frankly, the earlyBronx hip hop dj’s rappers, break dancers and graffiti artists, all  needed help from people with more resources to market and sell their arts. And that help would soon be forthcoming,  in part because of the Bronx’s accessibility to public transportation.  Though the tragedies that hit theBronx took a unique cast there, people in other parts of the city knew all about it. The Bronx was only 15 minutes by subway from Harlem, 30 minutes from Midtown, and 40 minutes from Lower Manhattan and a 20 minute car ride from New Jersey.
 Adventurous individuals in the commercial New York music scene, by the late 1970’s all had Hip Hop on their radar screen, albeit for different reasons. As previously mentioned, Sylvia Robinson, a former Bronx based singer and club owner, who with her husband Bill Robinson owned a small record label based in Englewood New Jersey,  decided to try recording rap song to studio produced beats and the result so successful that the concept took off. Following “Rappers  Delight” Robinson signed Grandmaster Flash and his rap team “The Furious Five” and produced several legendary tracts including the best known hip hop song of all time “The Message,”  Soon, other small labels started to produce catchy rap tunes, among them two 1980 hits by Bronx Rapper Kuris Blow “Christmas Rappin” and “the Breaks.”.

    But hip hop also caught the attention of musicians and artists in the Lower East Side punk scene. Not only did they see the potential to market rapping as a musical form, they also saw potential in graffiti as saleable art and break dancing as marketable performance whether live or on film.  One sign of this was a 1980 song by Punk group “Blondie” which included actual rapping by lead singer Debbie Harry, but also began with a tribute to graffiti artist Fab Five Freddie and DJ Grandmaster Flash. The song began with these lines

“Fab Five Freddie told me everybody’s high
DJ’s spinin are saving my mind,
Flash is fast, flash is cool”

The song was a huge hit and was followed up by a movie about the Bronx Hip Hop scene and its connection to the downtown punk scene called “Wild Style” which featured graffiti art and break dancing as much as mcing and rapping

This was followed, a year later, by a movie produced by Harry Belafonte called “Beat Street” which featured an epic break dance battle at the Roxy Ballroom on the Lower West Side and had a tribute to a graffiti artist who had been killed tagging the trains.

The success of “Wild Style” and “Beat Street” had as much to do with the spread of hip hop as did songs like “Rappers Delight”  “the Message” and “The Breaks.”  Both movies treated mcing, rapping, break dancing and graffiti as connected art forms created by disfranchised youths in New York’s most decayed borough which suddenly became legendary for its artistic creativity as well as its unprecedented devastation.

 So when Hip Hop spread to Paris and Berlin in the early 80’s it was not just as music, it was as dance and visual art as well.  And this continued through the 80’s and 90’s as it spread to Asia, South America, Africa and Eastern Europe, all with the understanding that it started in the Bronxand that the  Bronx has a honored place in Global Cultural History:

The Meaning:

     Hip Hop’s origins in the Bronx is replete with irony.  A new form of music  was created when houses were abandoned and burne, police and fire resources were cut, violence spread, and young people lost the ability to learn how to play musical instruments.

       Yet it was precisely Hip Hop’s emergence amidst tragedy, as well as its multicultural origins and connection to immigration, that were integral to its appeal. Because what happened in the Bronx was going to spread throughout the world- factories closing, schools being shut, people from all over the world learning to live together as they migrated not only from countryside to city, but from one country and continent to another.

 That the young people of the Bronx, abandoned, despised, and marginalized, created art forms that fused into a powerful message of defiance to those who would silence them, has inspired young people around the world who find themselves in similar circumstances. Using their own languages and musical traditions, drawing upon their own ways of dancing and creating visual images, they have kept Hip Hop alive and fresh for more than 50 years, never forgetting where it started--- right here in the Bronx.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Girl Groups in the Bronx: Race Gender and the Pursuit of Respectability

10:16 AM (2 minutes ago)


     As many historians of popular music have noted, Rock and Roll, when it first burst on the national scene, was an overwhelming male phenomenon, with stars like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and the Everly Brothers defining new ways of singing dancing and courting for a generation of American teenagers. Although the musical forms which were re-branded as Rock and Roll, rhythm and blues and country music, had strong female artists like Ruth Brown, Etta James and Patsy Kline whose stage presence was as commanding as any male Rock and Roll Star, none of these were pushed forward by the Radio DJ's, concert promoters, and owners of small record companies who engineered the Rock and Roll Revolution during its breakout years from 1954-1957. While Rock and Roll was -correctly- perceived as racially insurgent, breaking long established traditions of social separation of whites and blacks on stage and in theaters and dance halls, it did nothing to challenge post war gender norms which encouraged women to suppress their individuality,  power and  independence, to make them more acceptable marriage partners to men whose incomes would provide the basis for middle class life styles
When women did finally break into Rock and Roll, it  was exclusively through the medium of the "girl groups"- harmonic singing ensembles whose songs glorified marriage, romance , and the reverential love women would have for men who had the wherewithal not only  to support them but marry them,  Physically attractive, meticulously well groomed, wearing dresses tight enough to inspire sexual fantasies, but proper enough to wear to church- the girl groups, whether black or white, helped define love and romance for a generation of American teenagers. While everyone loved the beautiful harmonies, there was a gender how the music was received Young men responded to the flattery ( He's so fine")  and the prospect of being cared for- young women saw their road map to  middle class happiness, , which required holding back sexual favors to assure an offer of marriage, captured and romanticized in song.
    Young Black women from the Bronx were major figures in the emergence of the girl groups. "Maybe," the first urban harmonic song from a female group to sell a million records when it came out in 1957, was sung by five young women from the Morrisania section of the Bronx who were 8th graders in St Anthony of Padua elementary school when "Maybe" appeared. The beautiful song they produced,  covered by artists from Janis Joplin to Patti Austin, invoked a vision of female longing and dependence that would be staple of virtually every girl group that followed.
Maybe, if I pray every night
You'll come back to me
And Maybe, if I cry every day
You'll come back to stay
Oh, maybe
Maybe, if I hold your hand
you will understand
And maybe, if I kissed your lips
I'll be at your command
Oh, maybe
In the early 60's the Chiffons, a group who met at James Monroe in the Soundview section of the Bronx, produced no less than three million selling hits  in which  women confidently displayed their powers, not to carve out lives or careers of their own, but to persuade reluctant men to commit to lasting relationships. :

One fine day, you'll look at me
And you will know our love was, meant to be
One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl
The arms I long for, will open wide
And you'll be proud to have me, right by your side
One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl
Though I know you're the kind of boy
Who only wants to run around
I'll keep waiting, and, someday darling
You'll come to me when you want to settle down, 

One of the most prominent features of their songs, something emblematic of almost all of the Girl Groups, was flattery, a rhetorical device  used to cement men into long term relationships.. which in an economy giving women limited access  to high paying jobs, was the only trustworthy path to economic security. No better example of this was their song "He's So Fine" with a legendary beginning and chorus "Doo Da Lang Doo Da Lang" that adds an element of majesty and mystery to what the singer hopes will turn into a marriage contract

Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang
Do-lang, do-lang
He's so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
That handsome boy over there
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
The one with the wavy hair
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
I don't know how, I'm gonna do it
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
But I'm gonna make him mine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
He's the envy of all the girls
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
It's just a matter of time
(Do-lang, do-lang)
He's so fine
(Oh yeah)
Gotta be mine
(Oh yeah)
Sooner or later
(Oh yeah)
I hope it's not later
(Oh yeah)
We gotta get together
(Oh yeah)
The sooner the better
(Oh yeah)
I just can't wait, I just can't wait
To be held in his arms
If I were a queen
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
And he asked me to leave my throne
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
I'll do anything that he asked
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Anything to make him my own
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)

Looked at with the wisdom of hindsight, these songs seem impossibly archaic. How could  young Black women from the Bronx , clearly possessed of talent and beauty, not only accept such  subservient gender roles, but romanticize them in ways that made virtually all of their peers hum their melodies, sing their lyrics and, on the dance floor and real life, try to act them out? Was this all a fake, an elaborate  and cynical charade designed to attract popular audiences, or did it reflect lived realities in the Bronx communities they singers grew up in?
Based on the scores of oral histories I did with Black men and women who grew up in the Bronx during the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's,  I would come down, with appropriate words of caution, on the "lived reality" side of the equation. During the 1940's and 1950's, the Morrisania community, and the newly built public housing projects built all over the Bronx starting in 1950- several of which were located  in Soundview where James Monroe was the local school, contained tens of thousands of upwardly mobile Black families who hoped that economic security, and middle class respectability, was within their reach. For young women brought up in such families, the path to that security went squarely through marriage, and for a while, they tried to live according to the script for such a goal laid out by the Girl Groups
The oral histories of Victoria Archibald Good and Andrea Ramsey, two brilliant, attractive young women who came of age in the Bronx in the 1950's, one in the Patterson Projects, the other in Morrisania,  provide a window into a time when racial optimism, the hope of prosperity, and extremely rigid gender roles  had a defining impact on their worldview.  Both Victoria Archibald and Andrea Ramsey were attractive, popular and academically successful women whose goal, like many of their neighborhood friends, was to get married shortly after they graduated from high school and then pursue whatever careers marriage allowed.  College and a profession were not on their horizon in the 1950's; they would only move in that direction after the drug epidemics, the Vietnam War,  the Civil rights Movement and Women's Liberation, would shake their world to its foundations.
   Their social life reflected the combination of romance and respectability which upwardly mobile families in their community felt. During their middle school and high school years, both women created social clubs which sponsored parties, outings, and charitable activities  which were not only places where women friends from the neighborhood could bond, but where they could meet eligible men. .The parties sponsored by the clubs highlighted the great music of the era, much of it produced by Bronx based groups.  A good number of the songs were slow dancers where men and women pushed one another to the edge of sexual excitement-  one local variant of slow dancing was  called "The Slow Grind."    But though the lights were turned down as the parties wound down,and the breathing got hot and heavy,  couples didn't pair off in empty  rooms to have sex.   These parties where chaparoned, with adults there to make sure nothing happened that would lead to unwanted pregnancies. The ultimate goal  was marriage, something the sound track of the music, and the social arrangements behind the parties, kept foremost in every young woman's minds.
  As it turned out, the  economic and political stability of the late 50's and early 60's turned out to be illusory, as the Bronx, and the nation, plunged into crisis after crisis. Many of the early marriages  collapsed, as men lost their cachet as providers in the context of drug epidemics, war, and the disappearance of high paying blue collar jobs, and women started finding new opportunities to attend college and pursue once male professions.  Both Andrea Ramsey and Victoria Archibald became successful professionals whose no longer depended on male incomes to support themselves and their families.
  But neither forgot the excitement and optimism of their early years, when great music  filled the streets of the Bronx,and the hallways of its apartment buildings, and  young women from their neighborhood put  the hopes and dreams of young women all over the country into musical form. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Italian Americans in Bronx Doo Wop-The Glory and the Paradox

The appearance of the Green Book, a mass market movie where the Italian American main character doesn't want Black people fixing things in his house, but feels confident  enough to school a Black classical musician on the music of "Little Richard" is a perfect opening for discussing the prominent- and ambivalent- role of Italian Americans in the growth of  Urban Harmonic Music- sometimes known as "Doo Wop"- in the Bronx.  A form of music that was first performed by black artists in the Morrisania section of the Bronx in the early 1950's, and popularized through hits like the Chords "Sh-Boom" and the Chantels "Maybe,"  it spread quickly  into  Bronx Italian American neighborhoods and led to scores of Italian Americans groups making records, and two Italian American singers, Dion DiMucci and Bobby Darin (Walden Robert Cossotto), becoming among the best known rock and roll stars of the later 50's. This dominance spread into the 1960's when a half Italian half Jewish singer songwriter named Laury Nyro ( Laura Nigro) became one of the most influential singer songwriters in the country

 The Italian American prominence in Urban Harmonic Music is paradoxical for several reasons. First, of the three major white ethnic groups in the Bronx, Italians, Jews and the Irish, Italian Americans were the only ones to make a major impact as rock and roll singers, even though they were a far smaller portion of the Bronx's population than their Jewish and Irish counterparts.  According to every account I have read,  all young whites listened to and danced to Rock and Roll, but only Italian Americans made a name for themselves performing and recording the music.   What makes this prominence all the ironic is that the relationships between Italian Americans and African Americans in Bronx were filled with moments of extreme tension as well as examples of collaboration an co-existence. Some of the most shameful episodes of racial policing of urban space took place in the largest Italian American  enclave in the Bronx, the Belmont Arthur Avenue community, and young Italian Americans constituted the bulk of the crowd during violent attacks on civil rights demonstrators protesting employment discrimination at a White Castle on Allerton Avenue and Boston Road in 1963. These violent attacks on African Americans by Italian youth were not only  documented by  numerous oral histories we did with African Americans who grew up in the Bronx, who spoke angrily of being chased out of the neighborhoods adjioining Fordham road in the 50's and 60's  by Italian American gangs like the Fordham Baldies, but by some Italian Americans who were embarrassed to reveal that bats were kept in the supervisors offices  in an Arthur Avenue vest pocket pocket to attack black youth who dared venture within its borders

How is it that an ethnic group so determined to keep African Americans out of its largest neighborhoods and engaged in turf wars and gang battles at numerous high schools could take an form of  popular music  of African American derivation and give it such  loving treatment and provide an appreciative audience to African American practitioners of this art, right up until this day?

To understand that, we have to  both probe deeply into  tensions surrounding the Italian American drive to assimilate into mainstream American whiteness, something which first became possible in the post World War 2 era, and the cultural commonalities which in certain circumstances made Blacks and Italian American good neighbors, good friends and occasionally  marriage partners. Throughout the interviews we did for the Bronx African American History Project, we found as many examples of Black Bronx residents describing  friendships with Italian American school mates, team mates and neighbors as we did examples of racial boundary policing and conflicts in school. Commonalities in language, the construction of masculinity and the theatrical presentation of the self- all described eloquently in John Gennari's new book "Flavor and Soul", made bonding between Black and Italian- American young men easy and comfortable when the pressure of the outside world didn't intervene.  Several oral history  interviews we did with Black men who grew up in  Italian-American  neighborhoods and with Italian men who were the only whites in all Black/LatinX housing projects spoke of the ease with which acceptance came in the communities they grew up in- though this did not always translate when they left their immediate surroundings..   

These cultural commonalities  shaped the powerful attraction young Italian American men felt when they heard their black counterparts singing, whether on the radio or  in the cafeterias and hallways of schools they attended. Not only did young Italian men have numerous examples of vocal virtuosity from their own tradition, ranging from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Enrique Caruso, they had the physical self confidence to sing in public in contested space. More than any white ethnic group in 1950's New York, Italian Americans were feared and respected for their ability to defend themselves, an attribute which gave them cachet with young women as well as young men.  If they started singing in public, no one was going to make fun of them or try to intimidate them, especially if they had talent.

  And the talent was there! One beautiful song after another was produced by Italian American groups from the Bronx, from "Dream Lover" by Bobby Darin to "Tell Me Why" "Teenager In Love" and " I Wonder Why" by Dion and the Belmonts, to :"Barbara Ann" by the Regents.  There was also the great Italian American lead singer of the multiracial Bronx group "The Crests", Johnny Maestro, who was the lead on the epic hit "Sixteen Candles."  These hit makers were supplemented by scores of neighborhood groups, some of who made recordings at the Italian American music center on Fordham Road, Cousins Records

  In the battle for the streets of the Bronx, sometimes ugly, sometimes infused with racial hostility, doo wop constituted a way of commanding space that was joyous optimistic and free from the threat of violence.. Blacks and Italian- Americans, sometimes fighting one another, sometimes befriending one another,, found in an art form a way of minimizing the damage that Racism and White Supremacy inflicted when it put them them in competition and gave Italian Americans an edge in status, employment and property ownership. 

Some would call Italian American Doo Wop appropriation, but it also contained elements of homage, and perhaps served as a vehicle of escape from racial violence into a realm of beauty and harmony. Along with its Black counterpart, it is represents some of the most beautiful music ever produced in the Bronx, or for that matter anywhere else