A Bronx Renaissance?
Published February 2017
Having looked at the 1930s Harlem Renaissance for Track 5, I pondered whether the cultural activity in The Bronx in the 70s and 80s could be considered as an equivalent ‘Bronx Renaissance’ – and so I put this question to Professor Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
JZ: Am I onto something with this Bronx Renaissance idea?
DLB: A Bronx Renaissance huh? I have never actually thought about it in those terms. But in fact in 2006 writer Miles Marshall Lewis edited a Bronx Biannual as a nod to The Paris Review to highlight the kind of ‘street lit’ aesthetic that was heavily influenced by hip hop culture. He highlights the writings of people like Zadie Smith and Adam Mansbach, and I am sure Junot Diaz, Sapphire, and Paul Beatty and others would be included. To be sure this approach of equating ‘renaissance’ with the literary and visual art ‘influenced’ by a moment is a pretty orthodox approach…
If I simply heeded the insights from my own writings on Chicago’s New Negroes, then there is no question that the popular arts of B-boying, MCing, and graffiti were not just inspirations for art but arts themselves – and part of a rich cultural explosion that emerged in the bowels of despair (more so because of Reaganomics, landlord arson, and civic austerity and divestment measures as much as crack or heroin). But of course we don’t want to go too sociological and suggest that all black art is merely a reflection of poverty or lack without recognising the amazing artistry and call and response between older cultural forms. This includes disco, funk, and salsa, Black Belt theatre, and of course the travels of graffiti – from uptown storefronts and train cars to downtown art shows, Jean-Miche Basquiat the most notable proponent. We must also recognise how these overlapped and cross-pollinated within a national and global context – the electronic and marketplace playfulness that was happening in 1970s and 1980s New York was certainly mirrored in Chicago house, Jamaican dancehall, Los Angeles technofunk and other black musical and cultural phenomena emerging at the very same moment. So yes I think you make a good point that needs to be developed…
JZ: I hope you’re not suggesting I’m the person to develop it – I’m a little tied up right now. How do Run-D.M.C. slot into this?
DLB: What we are describing as The Bronx is slightly removed from the highly commercial ambitions and success of Queens-based Run-D.M.C. Their very sound was organised for the more commercial phase of hip hip and its move to large stadiums, national tours and product endorsement. Don’t get me wrong, I love Run-D.M.C. and as a kid from the Midwest their sound and accessibility was a major gateway for me into hip hop. But they signal the shift towards hip hop’s nationalisation (after it had been exported from the Bronx to all the boroughs and up to Connecticut and down to D.C.), and they represent a heightened level of commercial activity into wider markets. The earlier block party, multicultural, Bronx-based form of hip hop is wonderfully captured in movies like Wild Style and the Netflix series The Get Down.
JZ: I appreciate the recommendations. Through my research so far, I can recommend avoiding Run-D.M.C.’s 1985 film, Tougher Than Leather.
DLB: I am quite familiar with Run-D.M.C’s whole catalogue including their films. And yes that was a bad film, but I would also caution against equating commercialisation with fakeness or inauthenticity. I have argued elsewhere that hip hop has always been commercial – but that the question is who controlled commercial exchanges at different phases of its development. Its original engagement with parties, experimentation with new and old technologies, and its dissemination through radio, mixtape and tours, shows that hip hop was always commercial and for me (a kid from the Midwest ) it was precisely those commercial networks (not all profit-driven) that allowed me to gain entry into the culture. I think that some of the ‘old heads’ have now in retrospect adopted an anti-commercial stance that was not always there because of what they see happening to the culture in the present moment.
Still, even in Run-D.M.C’s commercial phase they were able to bring a very real ‘b-boy’ style of dress and performance to a national and even international audience. But at the same time, except for their live stage shows, they also divorced MCing and DJing from all of the other essential elements of hip hop culture.
JZ: Thank you for your time Professor Baldwin.
DLB: Hey, no problem.