South By South Bronx is Rebel Diaz’s rollicking, political answer to Austin

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Rebel Diaz's RodStarz interviewing Afrika Bambaataa. (Joe Conzo)
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Standing on the Eugenio María de Hostos Community College stage in the Bronx on Saturday evening, hip-hop originator Afrika Bambaataa was talking about the semester he recently spent teaching at Cornell University, and how it wasn’t such a stretch for him.

“I’ve been professing every day of my life,” he said. “In the streets.”

His comments echoed the introduction he’d been given in front of a packed audience, by RodStarz.

“You hear terms like ‘hip-hop organizing’ and ‘hip-hop activism,’ but this brother was doing that years before those terms were ever invented,” he said.

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The two were on hand for South By South Bronx, the weekend-long festival that brought together Bambaataa, D.J. Kool Herc, Grandmaster Caz, and a host of other Bronx-bred luminaries, old and young, spearheaded by RodStarz and the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective.

RodStarz (Rodrigo Venegas) is a founding member of both the Rebel Diaz rap group and the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, a community arts center opened in 2009 that includes a performance space, multimedia studio, computer lab, and art gallery, screening films, hosting workshops, and putting on performances by Rebel Diaz and others. When I spoke with RodStarz (pictured at left, with Charlie Hustle, Julio Illanoiz Calderon, and Claudia De la Cruz) on the first day of the festival, he explained how the Collective grew to the point where it could put on such an event:

“We’ve always done political music as Rebel Diaz, but we thought that it was important to not just have a message but to actually have a project,” he said. That project was the renovation of an abandoned 4,000-square-foot candy factory on Austin Place, under the Bruckner Expressway in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. The space would become the home base for the group and eventually the home of the collective.

A trip to Austin’s South By Southwest festival this past spring inspired the group to plan its own large-scale event back home in New York.

“We as musicians were at the South by Southwest music festival," he explained to me. "And just playing around with words, we thought it would be dope to do a South by South Bronx but do it our way: without corporate sponsors and free for the community.”

On Friday and Saturday, that community was out in full force. A crowd of mostly local residents, ranging from young kids to older women and men (some adorned in Black Spade or Zulu Nation jackets) browsed a number of booths outside the main auditorium, at which artists sold shirts, C.D.s, and DVDs. Alongside them activists handed out leaflets. Some opposed the building of a taxpayer-subsidized Fresh Direct distribution center on the Bronx waterfront, while others decried the proliferation of stop-and-frisk police tactics across the borough.

The latter issue remained in the air throughout the weekend, discussed at length in a Friday night workshop and again during a Saturday tribute to Ramarley Graham, the unarmed 18-year-old Bronx teen who was recently killed inside of his grandmother’s apartment.

“When you look at the stop-and-frisks that are happening, the majority of them are happening in the Bronx,” said RodStarz. “And we can’t talk about stop-and-frisk in the Bronx without bringing up the case of Ramarley Graham.” Rebel Diaz has had a couple of confrontations of its own with the NYPD, both more embarrassing for the police than for them.

But along with activism and consciousness-raising, there was also the music.

Grandmaster Caz (pictured at left), the Cold Crush Brother who describes himself as rap’s first ghostwriter for his uncredited work on the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight,” performed Saturday afternoon and offered what could have been the slogan of both the event and the neighborhood it celebrated:

“When it comes to hip-hop, I’ll do it on my dying bed.”

Now over 50 years old, the veteran M.C. proceeded to rock the crowd, several hundred strong on a Saturday afternoon, with strength, precision, and far more energy than the younger attendees might have anticipated.

Performances by Caz and his heirs—artists like C-Rayz Walz (a refugee of the storied Def Jux label who’s so Bronx he named his son after the borough), Quese IMC, a Seminole rapper born in Oklahoma, and YC the Cynic, a rising local who spits politically charged tongue-twisters—were bracketed by interviews with Kool Herc, Cindy Campbell, and Afrika Bambaataa.

Though brief, these interviews were at times more interesting than the performances: It was a wise choice to include Campbell, the party promoter that some rap histories have reduced to “Kool Herc’s sister,” but who was central to the early scene. She reminisced about the first hip-hop parties being attended not just by the local kids but also by parents and neighbors.

When I got in touch with him after the festival had wrapped up, Mark Naison, the Fordham history professor who has been an ardent supporter of Rebel Diaz and who had introduced Herc and Campbell on Saturday with recollections of taking the long-gone Third Avenue El through a burning borough, was impressed.

“I never went to an event like this before,” he remarked. “It was a like a combination of a teach-in and a block party.”

All photos by Joe Conzo.