Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Bronx Comes To Germany- My Visit To Hip Hop Berlin

The Bronx Comes to Germany- My Visit To Hip Hop Berlin
May 2007

My head is spinning after the three days I spent in Berlin. I came to deliver a paper on the Multicultural Roots of Bronx Hip Hop to an international conclave of scholars in Urban Studies, but spent as much time in the immigrant neighborhoods of Berlin as I did at the university and discovered, first hand, how much hip hop has become the chosen vehicle of expression for disaffected and disfranchised youth throughout the world. The experience I had in Kreuzberg- Berlin's largest immigrant neighborhood- had such a powerful effect on me that I decided to bring the spirit of Kreuzberg, and the Bronx neighborhoods my paper was about, into the conference by "performing" my paper with a rapper and an African drummer rather than simply reading it.

This exercise in democratizing academic culture may or may not have been successful, but before exploring it in depth, I need to say something about the events which preceded itMy guide and co-conspirator in my Berlin adventure was Susanne Stemmler, a post doctoral scholar at the Center for Metropolitan Stuides in Belin, who is writing a book comparing immigrant hip hop in Berlin, Paris and New York. Susanne spent two months in New York working with the Bronx African American History and helped arrange several important Oral History Interviews, and I was looking forward to meeting Susanne on "her own turf." Susanne met me at the airport and took me to meet the other organizers of the Conference at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at Berlin's Technical University. The CMS offices reminded me of the Bronx African American History Project center on the 6th floor of Dealy Hall. It was populated by a team of young scholars passionate about their work, but not afraid to have fun. I immediately felt at home and plopped down on a coach to take a nap, so I could handle the demanding schedule Susanne had mapped out for me without succumbing to jet lagWhen we awoke, Susanne took me on an amazing journey into immigrant Berlin.

Our first stop was to a legendary neighborhood called Kreuzberg, which was for the last thirty years has been a gathering point for hippies, radicals, punks, and most recently, Turkish and African immigrants. Susanne said this was the one neighborhood in Berlin that skin heads and neo-Nazis were afraid to venture into and it was a place where dark skinned immigrants could live and socialize without the harsh stares- and sometimes worse- of white Germans who felt threatened by their presenceWhen we got out of the cab I looked around me in amazement. This was very different than the hip, upscale neighborhood Technical University was located in, which reminded me of the West Village or Park Slope. I felt transported into outer borough immigrant New York. At least half of the people on the streets looked like they came from Turkey or the Middle East, supplemented by a small contingent of people from Africa. Many of the whites, especially the younger ones, seemed to sport tattoos, nose rings and multicolored hair. The streets were crowded, noisy and dirty, and there was graffiti everywhere, some of it in the form of tags and some of it in the form of complicated and innovative art work. The Turkish influence was seen in the shops blaring Turkish music, in chadors of Muslim women walking with their children, in the tough chiseled faces of the young men standing on street corners and in the satellite dishes on the terrace of almost every apartment in public housing which allowed their owners to get programs from Turkey.

Throw out your image of a spotlessly clean German city where hausfraus water the streets in front of apartment buildings and stores. Kreuzberg was a funky, dirty, vital urban space that reminded me of Sunset Park in Brooklyn or Corona in Queens, filled with immigrant energy and enterprise with an undercurrent of alienation and rage Susanne and I walked to a community center called "Nanynritze" in Kreuzberg a six story building whose doors and exterior walls were covered with murals and tags. It was as though the center's directors believed that the youth they were working with felt most comfortable in a chaotic environment. Skilled art work and amateurish scrawling were given equal footing

The center was locked and we prepared to go to our next stop when two young white women with bare midriffs, multiple piercings and tattoos walked up to the door of the center and opened it with a key. Susanne asked what they were doing and they told her they were break dancers practicing for a performance We asked if we could accompany them and walked with them to a practice room on the second floor of the center where they had a CD player. Here, the Bronx music CD's I had brought to accompany my presentation at the conference came in handy. When I put Grand Master Flash's "The Message" on the CD players, a huge smile came on the two dancer’s faces. They knew this and several other songs I had in my collection, including Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" and Afrika Bambatta's "Planet Rock" and we spent a few minutes laughing, talking and taking pictures before Susanne and I moved on to our next stop.

After a long ride on Berlin's excellent and very complicated rapid transit system, we came out in another neighborhood where we had a meeting set up with Olad Aden, an African American social worker fluent in German who was working with an organization called "Gangway" which sought to find artistic and athletic outlets for Berlin's disfranchised youth, irrespective of race or neighborhood. Olad was going to take us to a community center in his neighborhood where young people were painting a graffiti mural to mark the beginning of a local cultural festival.Olad, a well built man in his late thirties dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, told us that Berlin had a gang problem in a number of neighborhoods and that the program he worked with tried to bring disaffected youth into organized programs which gave an outlet for their energies. The kids in the neighborhood he worked in were mostly children of Turkish or Arab immigrants, but there were other neighborhoods the program organized which were located in what used to be East Berlin and where the kids involved were mainly skin heads and neo Nazis.

After a brief lunch at a café in a park, where we drew what I though were some unfriendly stares from the all-white patrons, we walked about ten blocks to a community center across the street from a supermarket where two men in their early forties were helping a group of about ten adolescents create a graffiti mural on a wall about 30 feet long and 10 feet high. I asked for a CD player and started playing Bronx Hip Hop and soon we had a crowd around us talking about the cultural festival they were sponsoring and the neighborhoods they lived in. They were very excited about the possibility of any kind of exchange program that could get them to New York and Olad told us that a local organization called “The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation” might be interested in funding such a program. We then left the site and invited Olad, who was a huge hip hop fan, to come to hear my paper on the Bronx origins of Hip Hop which I was giving on Sunday afternoon.

We returned to the Conference very excited and had a great time at the plenary that evening and the morning and afternoon sessions the next day, but were even more excited about the trip we were planning the next evening to a community center in Kreuzberg’s Gorlitzer Park, where we were going to be meeting a Turkish social worker who organized neighborhood youthThe next day, Katja Sussner, one of the main organizers of the Conference and a good friend of Susanne’s drove us to Gorlitzer Park, dropping us off at an entrance about 8 blocks from the Center. As we walked through the park, I felt completely at home. There were Turkish families having picknicking on folding tables, African men gathering in groups of twenty and thirty to talk and play drums, hippies playing hackie sack and throwing frisbees, families with young children and teenage girls in skimpy clothing taking in the sun and walking slowly to make sure they were seen. The park was scruffy, filled with patches of dirt where grass used to be, and trees that needed watering and pruning. Virtually every wall and surface was covered with graffiti- brazen, colorful, almost overwhelming in its sheer command of the visual space. The community center and café, when we finally found them, looked like graffiti monuments, and the shaded spots under their rooves were filled with people. Some of them were immigrants, but some of them were local organizers of protests against the G-8 summit, which was coming to Berlin in two weeks. Susanne and I went up to talk to them and they told us that Gorlitzer Park was the place where protesters could come to get food, get medical attention, or find a place to sleep

We walked into the Kreuzer Community Center in Gorlitzer Park where we were greeted by the Center’s director, Erbil, a Turkish immigrant Susanne has known for many years, plus other community activists. Because few young people were there at that time, we had a conversation about the Center’s work, conducted in German and English with Susanne translating. The story the Center director told was grim. Many of the young people he works with feel they have no place in German society. They are mocked and discriminated against in the local public schools, discriminated against when they apply for jobs, and feel they have fewer economic options than their parents generation. Angry and demoralized, and without organizational outlets for their discontent there is no Turkish NAACP in Berlin—they have seized upon hip hop culture as their major vehicle for expressing their discontent and telling the world that they are not going to quietly disappear. They feel that Germany is their country, but that most Germans don’t accept them, and their frustration could easily morph into the kind of rage that exploded into the suburbs of Paris

In the middle of our discussion, five young teenagers swaggered into the community center, looking at me and Susanne with very skeptical eyes. The community center director told them who we were and told us that one of the young men was a talented rapper. I told Susanne to tell the kids that I was from the Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, and that I wanted to hear them rap. Susanne did so and as soon as she did, the oldest of the youngsters, who called himself MC Abbos, began to rhyme. Suddenly, this quiet young man became transformed into a bundle of energy and passion, spinning out rhymes in German with breathtaking speed while his hands and body moved in rhythm. It didn’t matter that that I didn’t know the exact words. He made me feel his pride, his rage, his determination to be heard and his boastful recognition of his own genius. It was one the most powerful expression of hip hop’s power to give voice to the voiceless that I had ever heard, and I was determined to find some way of bringing the spirit of his performance into my presentation

The next portion of the day provided an element of comic relief to what we saw in the Community Center. Susanne and I repaired to the outdoor café across from the Community where we were to meet Noel Garcia Lopez an anthropologist from Barcelona who was my co-panelist at the Conference. Noel is a pioneer in a new field called “sound anthropology” which involves recording and analyzing sounds in urban settings, comparing them over time, and analyzing what these sounds can tell us about the neighborhoods they were recorded in. Noel was meeting us for a “sound walk” through Kreuzberg and came up to us very excited about a scene he had just recorded in Gorlitzer Park involving ten children playing in a public fountainUnfortunately, when Noel joined us, it started pouring so we had to move to the indoor portion of the café until it stopped raining. There Noel recorded the sounds of the bar, which proved to be much more interesting, when played back, that I could have imagined

When the rain stopped, we headed toward the street under the canopy of the café, where a whole group of Middle Eastern men had gathered. All of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my foot. I looked down and saw that I had stepped on a broken bottle, and that it had gone all the way through my shoe. When I extracted the bottle and took off my shoe and sock, I saw my foot was bleeding fairly badly, but one of the people with us, a paramedic, assured me that the wound was small enough so that I wouldn’t need stitches. While Susanne got bandaids and paper napkins from the café, he used pressure to stop the bleeding and was able to bandage me up enough to walk comfortably. Once the first scare was over, we found the entire situation hilarious, especially when I began quoting from the lines of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” “Broken glass everywhere , people pissing on the stairs you know they just don’t care”I suggested that we tell people that I was “cut” in Kreuzberg and was saved from serious injury only by the intrepid action by my “posse” from the Center for Metropolitan Studies

In fact, my friends did go the extra mile to see that this injury was not more serious. When we got back to my hotel, Susanne spent nearly an hour riding around on her bicycle to find an open pharmacy where they sold disinfectant The next day, Susanne, Noel and I planned to find the most effective way of bringing the spirit of Berlin’s immigrant neighborhoods and streets into our session, which was the final one in the conference. Noel’s suggestion was that we move the panel from a Conference room into a huge adjoining rotunda, where the sounds he had recorded be heard more effectively. My suggestion was that someone play the conga drums during my presentation to duplicate the sounds of Bronx neighborhoods in the period I was discussing. Somehow, Susanne made both of these things happen. She developed plans to shift the panel and recruited a former student of hers name Theophilus, who was a drummer and slam poet, to be part of my presentation.At lunch, our plans became even more complex. When a Berlin rapper named Johannes showed up who could beat box and free style, I decided to transform my presentation into a three person performance, beginning with a drumming exhibition and a poem from Theophilus, the reading of a shortened version of my papers to a drum accompaniment, and a freestyle exhibition by Johannes at the conclusion of my paper. To make room for the drum portion of the session, Noel decided to cut the written portion of his paper in half

Needless to say, this session, as we had planned it, was not the most conventional expression of German, or indeed American academic culture, but we all felt it was something we needed to do after what we had seen and experienced the last two days.How did it work? Well, Noel’s presentation set a wonderful tone. No one present probably believed that sounds recorded in urban spaces could particularly interesting or revealing, but the sounds Noel chose opened everyone’s minds, and ears. Then I moved into my presentation by saying that hop hop arose in the Bronx in part because public spaces in the Bronx were filled with percussion and the sound of drums, and then called on Theofilus to give a demonstration. He en presented a poem, with his own drumming as background, called “African Drum” which brought to life the message my paper was presenting, followed with a moving thank you to the Conference organizers for allowing him to express himself in a country where he often felt like an outsider. Then as I began to read my paper, Theophilus accompanied me on the drum, following the rise and fall of my voice, and the paper’s message with great sensitivity and skill.

When when my paper was over Johannes leapt on the floor- literally- and began free styling in English, French and German to the accompaniment of Theophilus’s drum. When the session ended three minutes later, the audience looked utterly stunned by what they had witnessed, but a number of people came up to us and said how much they enjoyed what they had seen. But the session wasn’t over. After Susanne closed the conference by thanking all of us for coming, she turned the meeting over to an Afro-German rapper she had invited who dazzled the audience with a series of three extraordinary raps that had everyone shouting and clapping. The speed of his delivery, the rhythms he created with his words and body movements, and the passion and anger and pride he expressed in the totality of his sounds and movements, gave the scholars in that room a glimpse of hip hop’s power to give young people who feel marginalized, stigmatized and trapped a voice. It was one of those moments where art and scholarship and politics became oneAfter all, isn’t that what Conferences are for?