Because They Danced Amidst the Flames
When Swizz Beatz (producer/rapper/artpreneur) née Kasseem Dean, switches from his popular moniker and uses The Dean Collective to promote his art endeavors, it is evident that the hip hop megastar means serious business. This was definitely clear when Beatz transported his art festival, “No Commission” from super art world scenes like Miami’s Art Basel to a random August weekend in the South Bronx with a little help from (and for) the corporate sponsors. The novel idea behind No Commission is that no gallery receives a commission from the art sold: so the artists collects all the funds. Within this model, there seems to be no downside: bringing art to an underserved community (even it it’s not necessarily lacking in art), support for artists, and a local Bronx boy doing good for his hometown.
Here comes the but.
While “No Comission NY: Art Performs” looked fantabulous and amazing on social media and in headlines, the swell of unlikely visitors to the South Bronx pointed to the larger problems of gentrification in the neighborhood, and brought a simmering conflict back to the forefront. The site chosen was part of an ever intensifying gentrification battleground, the corporate sponsorship was blatant, and with the tons of outsiders sojourning on field trips to enjoy the art, many started to question who the true beneficiaries were. As numerous articles pointed out, it wasn’t the people of the South Bronx.
At first glance, the neighborhood didn’t seem to be faring much better on Netflix either. During the same weekend that “No Commision” was open, the Baz Luhrmann directed hip hop musical, The Get Down premiered. The Get Down is a mostly enjoyable, sometimes confusing, Netflix series set in the Bronx in 1977 that chronicles the rise of hip-hop while telling a sweet coming of age story. In this South Bronx, the developers- like Swizz Beatz- are home grown, but it’s clear that the beneficiaries of a rebuilt neighborhood would be the current residents in exchange for their political support in local campaigns. The show looks remarkably different yet eerily similar to parts of today’s NYC. Cue lots of images of warm family dinners, leather clad gangsters, beautiful graffitti, nightclub violence and drug use, sinner-saints, burned out buildings, and a racist Ed Koch. The lavishly artistic shots are blended with actual footage of the Bronx in the 1970s and created footage made to look like it’s from that era. This no-man’s land is not bleak. Despite the portrayals of blight, it is also an unrelenting portrayal of varying types of joy. Joy amidst the strife. Joy without the gentrifiers. In the series, hip hop is being created, graffiti is both art and crime, and the Bronx is only burning because people are being paid to set it on fire by “poverty pimp” businessmen with noble intentions.
That joy is real. More people would do well to believe in it.
Many people don’t get what there is to love about a neighborhood in shambles. To think that everyone isn’t like Mylene, the budding young starlet just trying to get out of the South Bronx in The Get Down, is to assign a bit of lunacy and complacency to those willing to stay. Yet, upwardly mobile blacks are still the most likely of any racial group to stay in an impoverished neighborhood. What’s telling in The Get Down, is that while Mylene is focussed on leaving and while others are focused on getting the narrator Zeke out, it’s in these shambles that the young protagonist is finding his voice, literally, as well as his future.
There have long been and will continue to be arguments over the nature of gentrification. Some people- those with half full glasses- seem to think this is all just a natural evolution of neighborhoods. And while these urban planning Darwinists note the changes and displacement, the facts still remains that improvements are made with the intentions to better a place with little thought given to the effect on the lives of current residents. While a focus is placed on economic bettering, the social and cultural richness of the existing lives is ignored in the process. A qualitative richness gives way in hopes for one than can be quantified.
The Get Down succeeds in putting a rose colored perspective on the lives of people in dire circumstances. The series reminds us of the full bodied life that people lead even when times are rough, and the art that can emerge in those circumstances, without having to be invited or imported. It’s a portrayal of poverty we haven’t truly embraced in a post Norman Lear (Good Times/Sanford and Son) world. The Get Down gives us pure nostalgia and pure musical with the right level of mysticism. Ironically the neat package is delivered by a director who participated in an offensive “Bronx is Burning” Halloween party last year at the same site that Beatz held his art fair.
Here’s the only piece of advice that comes from all of this: If the Bronx is still burning 40 years later, and you’re so determined to party there, bring a fire extinguisher, and an extra pack of Coronas.
If people have danced amidst the flames, survived through the smoke, and rebuilt amidst the ashes, they deserve to be celebrated.
Originally published at www.kimberlythinks.com on August 29, 2016.