How the gangs of New York inspired me to dream

After I read Gangs of New York: Scenes from the Birth of Hip-Hop, I immediately forwarded it to a friend. He was in a creative rut and looking for some inspiration. I didn’t know that the article would lead me to inspiration. I didn’t think I would end up wondering if I was staring down the barrel of some sort of afro-futurism or neo-futurism or just a personal awakening. I definitely didn’t think a few minutes spent reading about the gangs of New York would inspire me to dream.

Medium suggested the article “based on [my] interest in hip-hop.” I was particularly interested because I had recently watched Fresh Dressed, a documentary about hip-hop’s relationship to fashion. The project, directed by Sacha Jenkins, touched on the gang culture that essentially gave way to hip-hop in the South Bronx. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t disclose my unhealthy thirst for knowledge when it comes to street gangs or organized crime.

The article referenced a documentary exploring the culture of New York street gangs in the 1970s by Shan Nicholson. Before forwarding the article to my friend, I scribbled down the name of the documentary to look up on Netflix later.

I ran my errands and when I was finished, I sat down in front of the television with the remote in my hand to watch Rubble Kings.

Using interviews from legendary gang leaders, Nicholson paints a picture of the economic changes in 1970s Bronx, NY that gave way to rampant gang violence. It started when the government began building highways throughout the city, forcing people out of their homes and neighborhoods. DJ Kool Herc referred to this as the great “white migration.” Whites in the upper and middle class relocated to other areas of New York, leaving the poor behind. Landlords became slumlords and people were forced to move. Soon the Bronx was “burning” due to suspected arson to collect insurance, and drugs and crime began to rise.

I was captivated as people like Benjy Melendez of The Ghetto Brothers, his partner Karate Charlie and Afrika Bambaataa gave graphic reports of the rising tensions in the Bronx. New York’s youth were running around dressed like Hell’s Angels. Gang violence in the city escalated from street fights to deadly brawls that threatened to destroy the community.

Suddenly the story shifted. Inspired by organizations like the Black Panther and Young Lords parties, The Ghetto Brothers and many others began shifting their focus. Instead of fighting each other, someone got the bright idea to fight against “the establishment.” This is where it got real for me. The footage of these young blacks and Puerto Ricans speaking so passionately about peace and progress made me emotional. I was proud of them, and at the same time, I envied them.

The documentary went on to describe the true-life story behind the movie The Warriors and the death of The Ghetto Brothers’ peace-maker known as Black Benjy. Like in the movie, all the gangs of New York prepared for war. In Rubble Kings, Karate Charlie says he was prepared to lead the war against Black Benjys killers until Benjy’s mother said, “Charlie, my son died for peace.”

That’s when the tears started flowing. Although what she said was beautiful, it wasn’t her words alone that opened the floodgates. I started to think about how often I speak or write, and how often I use those words to convey a purposeful message. I’ve used every platform given to me to share the work and ideas of others but I have rarely taken a stance for or against anything that people will remember when I die. I thought about what my mother would have to say about me if I died tomorrow. As I caught my breath, I continued to watch in amazement as Melendez talked about how the gangs eventually agreed to meet to negotiate a peace treaty.

With peace came jam sessions and block parties. These parties birthed the music that I love — hip-hop.

When I saw it all come together, I was blown away. I texted the same friend I wanted to inspire and told him how inspired I felt. I said, “I want to do something that people are talking about 40 years from now.” However, I felt just as hopeless as I did inspired. I’ve never felt comfortable discussing my social or political ideals with anyone. How could I change society? How could I ever build anything as disruptive as hip-hop?

As the documentary closes, one of the leaders of the Young Lords Party named Felipe Luciano says that culture is shaped by the social context of the times, the economic context of the times and an individual’s dream. This lets me know it’s time. With all the #BlackLivesMatter hashtags I’ve seen, and “everybody’s broke” conversations I’ve had with friends and family, all I really need is a dream.

When I stood back to take this all in, I got inspired all over again. Maybe I can’t recreate hip-hop, but all I need to change the culture is a dream! The same goes for you. In these social and economic times, don’t be afraid to dream.


Originally published at blavity.com on January 29, 2016.

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