written by R. Ruiz
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.This was the case for Bronx born and bred Hip Hop artist Swizz Beats who recently wrapped up his first Arts and Music Festival in the borough.
The #NoCommission Arts Festival aimed to “Bring art back to the Bronx” by welcoming upcoming artists to display their work for free, to network, and sell their pieces without fees. They also invited big name rappers from Fabolous to Young Thug, DMX and A$AP Rocky. The festival had the makings to be groundbreaking, a first of its kind in our borough. An arts event, sponsored by Bacardi, in a primarily latino and black community: Genius. A free event in an area where the average household income is less than 20k a year: Great. #NoCommission was an arts event with relatable celebrities that could target nearby neighborhood youth living in the miles and miles of New York City Housing developments. It had the makings to be everything the people of the Bronx had been asking for. But it was missing the most important thing… Bronx people!
On day 2 of the festival, after spending about 20 minutes trying to traverse vague instructions on how to download tickets and snarky attendees pushing past me, I was able to get inside to the event. After walking through the metal detectors, I was greeted by the bright lights of a carnival ferris wheel. In front of me stood a modest group of people, modest when you consider the names on the bill, I’d say maybe 300-400 people at best. In front of the group, Brooklyn native and NYC Rap all-star, Fabolous was rocking the stage. He was laying down a few classics like “Young’n”, “Can’t tell me nothing”, and “Throw it in the bag” while interweaving them with new joints from his upcoming mixtape. There was a part in Fab’s performance where he stopped and asked,“Ayo where Brooklyn at?” Around 80% of the crowd raised their hands and cheered.
After Fab concluded his set, Swizz kept the party rocking by bringing the beast, DMX on stage. “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem”, “Party Up”, and “X Gon Give it to Ya” had the crowd throwing drinks, shirts, and even other people in the air! Still… something was missing. When DMX asked to see X’s in the air, few obliged. “Where’s the Bronx at?!” fell on deaf ears several times. When I left the festival that night, I was left wondering: where is the Bronx at?!?
Day 3 proved no different. Again I arrived to a shit show of staff members trying to keep pushy concert goers away from the “at capacity” show. I flashed my credentials and got in this time as press, making a beeline straight for the stage. I was excited at the idea of the show being at capacity, maybe that meant more people from the hood had heard about it and decided to show up. Unfortunately, that was not the case. After passing the metal detectors, I saw the same amount of people as the night before, give or take. I even saw familiar faces but they were mostly bloggers from the scene.
Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash were on stage when I joined the audience. Mel had just finished flexing for the crowd as the Grandmaster addressed the people and Swizz. He gave thanks for everyone who came out to support Bronx art and once again asked that all important question “Where’s the Bronx at?”
I wish someone had a soundboard because a cricket noise would have been perfect at that moment. Swizz jumped on the mic to fill the silence. He pumped the crowd up for another song. It was clear to me that the Bronx was not invited to this party. I stood until the very end to see if there would be a difference from the night before, perhaps a mention of an after party or a surprise guest since it was Saturday. Who wants to go home early? Alas, the bars closed and Swizz wished everyone blessings as usual. I walked along Bruckner Blvd hoping to see folks linger, hop into a local bar or restaurant. Instead they all scurried in different directions. Some to the trains, some to their cars, some flagged cabs off the street. No one stayed.
During several of his mini speeches on stage Swizz was vocal about how much he wanted the Bronx to have this because he’s from the Bronx. Before and during the show, Swizz made attempts to reach out to local artists as best he could but it was an attempt too little too late. I believe Swizz wanted his people to enjoy a great show, and that he wanted it to be like shows he wished he had while growing up. However I don’t believe that the hosts for this event, Keith Rubenstein and the Somerset Group agreed with the guest list. Speculation can be made but the facts are evident. Port Morris is ground zero for gentrification in the Bronx.
The neighborhood has already undergone significant changes within the past few years. Residents have been vocal about their opposition to speculative investors, like the Somerset Group, invading poor communities in order to accommodate Suburbia’s thirst for culture. Several protests have been held against Keith Rubenstein and his partners after they insensitively tried to rebrand a neighborhood whose roots extend back to to the American Revolutionary War. Last but not least the party was held on Sommerset property. Mr. Rubenstein might as well have been perched on the rooftop, waving to the borough, shouting with background piano music: “You can’t sit with us.”
It’s painful to think that we aren’t allowed to enjoy the fruits of decades of Bronx labor in our own home. #Nocommission had a goal to bring art “back” to the Bronx but instead it ignored the rich art communities and organizations already rooted in the borough, and reignited a heated debate over gentrification and how art dictates new communities. They say in real estate that if you’re looking for the next best thing you just have to follow the drips of paint. Whether Swizz Beatz meant it or not, he helped draw a pretty line right into our backyards.