Navani Knows the Rubble Kings

It seems the gang culture of NYC and Hip-Hop culture are closely interwined, at least that’s what director Shan Nicholson (Downtown Calling) discovered one day while partaking in his usual pastime – record digging. He Kept seeing a high priced record on the walls of stores from the group Ghetto Brothers and was intrigued. He vowed to get ot the bottom of why this group had such an expensive record and who they even were.  His research would lead him to the making of the documentary Rubble Kings, which premiered last night at he New York International Latino Film Festival.

Rubble Kings chronicles the NYC gang culture from it’s inception in the 1950’s to it’s transition in the 70’s into hip-hop culture. It’s interesting to see the connection between the two. It is by far, the most in-depth look at this era in NYC history. What was interesting was how the climate of the nation played a huge part in the creation of gangs. First there were Civil Rights, and Malcolm X and Martin Luther king and people in the inner cities were mobilizing with a hint of hope. Then after all our heroes were killed, the feeling of hope died with them, leaving a group of underserved, angry people.

This anger erupted into swarms of gangs, crews on every few blocks all over the city. The most notorious being in the Bronx, also known as the birthplace of Hip-Hop. Rubble Kings, a term used to describe how gangs made the members feel like they had some type of power, kings of something even if it was their own demolished neighborhood, details the rise and falls of these gangs. After much bloodshed, gangs would start to realize that the only people their rebellious, careless actions were hurting were themselves.

Enter Ghetto Brothers, a group that began as a traditional street gang but evolved into a community focused movement. They formed a band and held jam sessions, encouraging youth to stop the violence and take ownership of their communities. But when one of it’s members was slain in an attempt to make peace between two rivaling gangs, that’s when everything changes. A peace treaty was formed with all groups and slowly the division softened. In the midst of this Hip-Hop would see it’s beginings in the park jams featuring Djs like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. These jams were instrumental in bringing together people from all the gangs and using that competitive attitude now for battling on the dancefloor and not in the streets.

Rubble Kings combines personal commentary of gang members and stellar archived footage for an insightful and intimate look at gang culture never told before. This film struck a chord with me for many reasons. For one, I am a huge fan of Hip-Hop. And two, because it shed light on a part of my personal  history that is never discussed- the role gangs played in my family. My uncles and my father were involved in gangs, Savage Nomads to be exact which are discussed in the film. I remember hearing how my grandmother sewed their patches on their jackets for them, not only accpeting it but encouraging it. Back then, it was the only way to survive and she worried about her boys.  If you wanted to survive, you aligned yourself with a gang, period. But I never knew more than that. This film helped fill in the gaps of  how and why this was the way of life for many Puerto Ricans in New York during that time. For that, I am grateful. 

I think this is a must see film for anyone who is not only a fan of Hip-Hop, but who wants to learn about an overlooked, influential era in NYC history –  and how it sparked a transition that would change the world.

For more info on future screenings follow Rubble Kings on Twitter.

Navani Knows: Bacalaitos & Fireworks

When I went to the launch of Jamel Shabazz’s latest opus Back in the Day, Remix I remember feeling two things: complete appreciation for Jamel’s AND wishing there was something out that documented Nuyoricans the same way. Alas, my wish has come true with the release of Bacalaitos & Fireworks, by Arlene Gottfried.

Powerhouse Arena celebrated the launch of Bacalaitos last night  with a slideshow and panel discussion featuring photographer Arlene Gottfried and panelists Paul Moakley, Puma Perl, and Gail Quagliata. Bacalaitos & Fireworks introduces readers to a New York City long gone. This is the New York of broken televisions littered throughout the streets, burned-out abandoned buildings, neighborhood fiestas with pigs roasting on spits, and outcasts living in poverty. Gottfried offers first-hand testimony to the pain of alienation, neglect, drug addiction, and ultimately crime, prison, and death. Amidst these images of desolation, however, there is also evidence of the lively and intimate community able to overcome these obstacles. 

It was a great event that included salsa music playing and wine. Arlene took us through a slideshow of images that documented the lives of a people normally ignored and at a time before gentrification. She spoke of community and everything that affected it from slumlords to gentrification to straight up Puerto Rican pride. After which she opened the floor up for questions. Although Arlene was a spectator to the community she photographed, she eludes love and respect,  saying she is Puerto Rican “en el corazon”.

Pics that stood out to me included one of LES burning – slumlords putting their own property on fire to make a profit and force out dwellers. This was something I thought only went on in the Bronx and that people tried to blame Puerto Ricans for. Having her document that in LES let me know this wasn’t the case. also, I loved the picture of people at the parade, one where a Caucasian couple is walking down 5th avenue next to parade goers looking alarmed and bewildered, lol. Those are very honest portaits.

I think my aunt summed it up best when she said that this book could easily be our family photo album. that’s what I appreciated about it – for the first time I could pick up something in the media and say that. For that I am grateful for Arlene’s work. My only dissapointment of the night would have to be the lack of Latinos there to support it.

For more info and to order a copy check out the Powerhouse Website.

Navani Knows How to Be Sorta-Rican

Being Puerto Rican is no easy feat, especially if you are one born and raised here on the mainland. It means living a double life… one as an American and one as a real-deal Puerto Rican. You drink coke and malta. You watch MTV AND Univision. You love eminem and Calle 13 equally. You live in both worlds but not quite EXACTLY living in either 100%. This comes in all different forms too. I’ve learned that no two Puerto Rican experiences are the same. It’s what makes us unique and proud as well as easy targets for jokes, as was my experience.

In my day, when you grew up around blanquitos and didn’t speak Spanish fluently, you were labeled as a “fake Puerto Rican”.Being a “real” Puerto Rican was an ideal you constantly strove for: acceptance by those on the island. Or in my case, those from the Bronx. I thought for my whole life, that I was alone in this weird duality of culture. But alas, I see I’m not.

These days there is a whole generation of nuyo-ricans that are dealing with this exact theme in their creative works. Nowadays, they call themselves “Sorta-Rican” – being somewhere in between New York and Puerto Rico. This was also the theme of an art show that just opened at Taller Boricua in East Harlem.

The exhibit showcases the work of four “sorta-rican” artists and their interpretation of the term. Some used photography, some performance and others paint and mixed media to express their expereince with identity. By definition (via press release) a sorta-rican in this case is:

The term Sorta-Rican, a hyphenated mix of the slang term “sorta” and Puerto Rican, describes the experience of a person of Puerto Rican descent usually born and raised in the United States with Nuyorican and/or Boricua parents. As second (or first, depending on one’s interpretation) and third generation members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, they commonly reside somewhere between at least two cultures, absorbing each one though not fully assimilating either.  Occupying this obscure acculturated space, Sorta-Ricans exist as both members and outsiders, included and excluded—all the while reinterpreting and redefining the culture.

This I like. Especially because I am used to it meaning:

Modulation of the word puerto rican, Sorta rican is a puerto rican with little understanding of the culture or language. Sometimes claims to know aout it, and sometimes they don’t. – Urban Dictionary

That was the negative connotation I grew up with. So, what I love about this exhibit first and foremost is how they took this insult, claimed it and turned it into something positive. It is a very empowering statement when you do that. And to have it describe a whole show where people can openly share and engage their experience without judgement and shame was huge for me. To me, it signifies a changing in time and perspective. We are claiming our own idenitity and not letting anyone else define it for us. Oh, happy day!

The exhibit opened Friday, April 8th with a nifty reception including awesome food, wine AND capias. All the artists involved were in attendence which were: Daniel Bejar, Charles Beronio, Leenda Bonilla and Melissa A. Calderon. Don’t fret if you missed it, it will be on display until May 21st. For more info visit the Taller Boricua Gallery website:

Navani Knows Head-Nod Music

There are certain artists that keep the New York signature sound vibrant despite who is buying out the media. Joell Ortiz is one of them. I am enamored with this man for some reason. It’s not for his debonaire looks or anything, I mean Joell is hood, but that’s part of his charm. He keeps it real. I love following his story – signed to Aftermath only to end up a Free Agent shrotly after. Why? Because his style cannot be manipulated or contrived. He doesn’t sell out to mainstream stereotypes. And he is forever repping NY in everything he does. Oh yeah, and he’s Puerto Rican 🙂 (I get to be biased on my own blog).

Check out his new video for “Battle Cry”:

Image via Google

Navani Knows Lolita: A Tribute in Photographs

Growing up I often looked for movements to belong to. I read books about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and became entralled in their sotries and scarifices for change. Being that was all I knew it was all I could identify with as an ethnic person. But I always wished there was something even more personal to me to latch on to.

In college I finally learned there were. I learned that Puerto Rico had it’s own struggle for independence that went as far back as the 1950’s. And even more so, that fight had a prominent woman in the forefront: Lolita Lebron.

Learning what she did to promote the freedom of my parent’s homeland triggered something in me. It also made me feel proud,  like I had a movement of my very own to belong to. Who knew actions that took place over 20 yrs before I was born would affect me so much.

Needless to say, I was saddened to hear of her death this year on August 1st, 2010. Though I had never met her, I felt as if I knew her. Her influence was felt so strongly that a series of events commerating her life continue to take place months after her departuture. One of those being a photo exhibit of some of her most memorable moments. Casa de Las Americas – a cute lil exhibit space for Puerto Rican cultual events I never knew existed – hosted the raw and uncut photos by photo journalist Bolívar Arellano.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I never belived it until now – even as an art major. When I walked into the exhibit and saw the infamous photo of Lolita getting arrested outside the House of Representatives I had chills. Besides those photos there were pictures of her in prison as well as her release and return to Puerto Rico. Her activism didn’t stop there as she was documented at other protests including one in Vieques to stop the bombings there by the US.

This exhibit told the story of a woman that had her own ideas on how people should be treated and spoke out to fight for them, at a time when it was taboo for women to do so. She was passionate and unyielding and backed up her ideas with action. I continue to use her as an example for the type of woman I want to be. And the type of Puerto Rican I know I already am.

Check out the exhibit with raw, unedited photos for sale at  the Wifredo Lam Gallery182 East 111th Street (Between Lexington and Third Avenues) in El Barrio.


Navani Knows the Puerto Rican Democracy Act

The debate over the status of Puerto Rico has been going on for the last  112 years to no avail. The latetest attempt at reconciling the political status of the island came in the form of a bill passed by the house on April 29th called the  Puerto Rico Democracy Act.

The Act, AKA “HR 2499” in short states the following:

HR 2499, as approved by the House, stipulates that Puerto Ricans will hold a plebiscite in for voters to choose whether to: a) “…continue to have its present form of political status” (in relation to the U.S.) or b) “…have a different political status.”  If voters choose the second option, a second plebiscite is required to choose among four status choices: 1) Independence; 2) Sovereignty in Association with the United States; 3) Statehood or 4) Commonwealth, or status quo.

The National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights (NCPRR), the largest Puerto Rican civil and human rights organization in the United States has found some issues with the bill.  They claim:

 The bill is contradictory, since Puerto Ricans voting to change their status in the first stage, will still have to revisit the status quo option in a second vote, which completely undermines the purpose of the first stage vote. 

They also complain that “ballots for the plebiscite will only be in English, despite constituting a potential a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects language minorities such as Puerto Ricans to receive ballots in their own language. ”

I have to say I kind of agree with NCPRR about their concerns with this. It sounds like poli-tricks. Just another stalling of an issue that needs a resolution. What’s also is confusing is the timing of this bill. The day after the bill was passed in the House of Representatives, nearly every media outlet dubbed it the “Statehood Bill.”  Conservative commentators have spoken of the “impending” statehood of Puerto Rico, stirring anti-Hispanic rhetoric amidst the current immigration debates, and causing fear that the US will add two Puerto Rican senators and six members of the House through this legislation.

I agree that the senate should not vote this into law and instead find a better resolution of the status of Puerto Rico which would allow for the unification of the eight million Puerto Ricans who dividedly inhabit the United States. In doing this,  they should propose legislation respecting the critical civil and human rights objectives at issue. Not just find another way to keep confusing the issue or stalling.  All it does is keep us as a people divided on it, which seems to be their overarching goal. I don’t know about you but I’d like a new issue to fight over as a Puerto Rican in the United States.

Navani Knows: Calle 13 Speaks Out Against U.S.

If you know me, you know I can’t go too long without making mention of something Calle 13 related. Partly, because I secretly want to bear Rene Perez’s children. But mostly, because of his outspoken political views. I respect a man that can be both poetic and political in his music.

Political he was last week at a show in Havana, Cuba. When the opportunity came to perform in Cuba, of course the group took it, no matter what political undertones may have be associated with it.  Tuesday, March 23, 2010. Calle 13 brought its reggeton and hip hop to fans from an open-air, concrete stage dubbed “Anti-imperialist Plaza” and built in the shadow of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Cuba. During the concert Calle 13 expressed their dislike of the US policies. Early on, lead singer Rene Perez screamed a string of profanity at the “building behind us,” and kept up the verbal assault on the Interests Section as the evening wore on.

It’s no surprise that Rene still holds a grudge against the US for the “alleged” murder of Filiberto Ojeda Rios. They made it known by performing  “Querido FBI,” or “Dear FBI,” a song dedicated to Filiberto Ojeda Rios, alleged leader of a militant Puerto Rican nationalist group accused of using stolen millions to finance bombings and attacks. Ojeda Rios died in a 2005 shootout with the FBI at a remote farmhouse in Puerto Rico.

Rene remarked:

He was a good boricua, and they killed him!

Ouch. The group is preparing for a follow up concert in Miami and is bracing for some backlash from those who see the visit to Cuba as support for the country’s communist government. Perez said Monday the band is influenced by politics in most things it does, and is aware it’s making a statement with the Havana show.

Check out the pics after the jump…

Continue reading