The 2015 Netflix trailer for the Get Down gave us glimpse of 1970’s New York and the birth of hip hop with the fire and drama you would expect from a Baz Luhrmann production. When the show launched August 12, they managed to deliver on lush cinematography, stunning style and familiar hip hop samples, but well after an hour into the premier the plot failed to take off until the pilot’s final minutes.
There were many starts and stops that plagued the show’s production leaving many wondering if the Get Down would ever see the light of day. According to Variety, budgets were largely unchecked and multiple showrunners were replaced which slowed production and resulted in an absence of a cohesive narrative voice. In an age of endless viewing options competing for viewers’ attention, Netflix must succeed in capturing fans from the beginning. Sadly, the pilot failed to hook me.
The photographic backgrounds introduced in the early scenes of The Get Down set the table for a visual feast featuring historically accurate accounts of New York that include the arsons, political corruption, dismal public schools, deplorable housing and crime in the city. This rang true, but by the end of the show, the Get Down delivered a shallow, messy meal that somehow left me with heartburn.
The character development asked too much of viewers, expecting them to emotionally invest in the cast too early. I really wished their storylines unfolded organically. Every time a main character was introduced, they explained their backstory within their first 5 lines. The love story between the show’s budding rapper protagonist Zeke and aspiring disco singer Mylene was classic Luhrmann; overly emotional and cloying bordering on desperate. Zeke’s impassioned pleas to get a bouncer to let him into the Studio 54-esque “Les Inferno” was as forced and unbelievable as his tears when Mylene rejected his romantic overtures.
Creatively I also found a few distracting cliches in the otherwise authentically styled wardrobe and makeup. While I thought the signature Warriors-style gang gear worn by Warlords was perfectly on point, their sloppily soot strewn makeup made the Warlords look like they were moonlighting as a backup fire brigade. From a casting perspective I appreciated the diversity of the cast that paired fresh talent with veteran actors; sadly they didn’t get the script writing respect they deserve: Jimmy Smits character is a cross between a Puerto Rican Robin Hood and Tony Montana, and Giancarlo Esposito’s character was overblown. There was a disturbing silence among the older women in the cast-the exception being the lady boss who runs nighclubs, prostitutes, numbers, the local drug cartel and a daycare (blink.blink).
I liked the numerous references to 1970’s Kung Fu flicks and blaxploitation films, but every time there was a mention of the red Puma wearing Shaolin Famous I was waiting for Sho Nuff from the Last Dragon to make a suprise cameo. The show’s over-reliance on caricatures diminished the story’s value.
The show felt most at home in the grey space between history and historical fiction, particularly during their use of music and graffiti to move the plot along. Ultimately, the subtle references felt dishonest. In the Get Down, the hunt for the coveted single vinyl copy of a remix by “The Pakoosa” binds the show’s main characters together. The remix is of a song by fictional disco diva Misty Holloway could only be found at a lone Jamaican corner store; historically this is a nod to the 1972 crossover hit “Soul Makossa”. As Will Hermes recounts in his book “Love Goes to Buidings of Fire”, Soul Makossa was an unknown import by Manu Dibango from Cameroon. When David Mancuso found it in a West Indian record shop in Brooklyn in 1972 and played it at the Loft, its scarcity and popularity quickly made it one of the most sought after albums by New York DJs. Once radio stations got a hold of the track Soul Makossa was one of the many songs that laid the foundation of disco. Soul Makossa is also one of the most sampled breaks in hip hop history. Old school hip hop heads and audiophiles likely know all this,
but this history is lost on the poor Get Down fans who were dismayed to find out that Misty Holloway doesn’t actually exist… In this instance poetic license was used to hide some scriptwriting shortcuts.
Putting questions of historical fiction aside, I was willing to sit back and enjoy the ride, especially when I finally got to the infamous party the show was named after (after an hour into the episode). In fact, all of my observations could have been overlooked if the balance of the show was as captivating as the energetic and authentic final two scenes. After the long trudge through the 90 minute premier, I questioned whether I still wanted to take the musical journey into the birth of hip hop with the Fantastic Four + 1.
Camilo Jose Vergara’s work takes a historical photographic look at the dramatic evolution and dissolution of New York’s neighborhoods over decades.
I really love his early early 1970’s work. For me, the most captivating series is “Old New York”, a body of photos that exposed the neglected, desolated, apocalyptic cultural landscape existing in the South Bronx.
In these pictures you can clearly see destructive legacy left behind by the development of the Cross Bronx Expressway in the 1950’s. The construction of the Cross Bronx essentially bifurcated the city in two. As white, middle class residents migrated north, thousands of poor black, brown and immigrant residents were displaced in the South Bronx. By the 1970’s after decades of abandonment and blight, the area was further destroyed by slumlords in search of insurance money who burned buildings they owned. The flames were systematically and symbolically fanned by a city government that depleted the area of critically essential fire fighting resources. At one point the city “averaged 12,000 fires a year-more than 30 a day.” (Source, Will Hermes, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire)
When I think about disco in New York in the 1970’s I think of the lotus flower.
You can get so lost in the complexitiy of its beauty that it’s easy to overlook the murky waters the flower emerged from. We are entranced by a mythoized notion of disco marked by flashing neon lights and ribald excess, but beneath the surface loomed a gritty New York which was an isolated, abandoned wasteland in the early 1970’s.
By 1975 (NYT Drop Dead headline, Ford) the city was nearly bankrupt when the New York Post ran a headline that read: “President Ford Tells NY to Drop Dead.” It was a punch in the gut of an already battered and beaten city. Crime was rampant, schools were underfunded, and middle class flight led to the destruction of abandoned buildings destroyed by arson and crooked landlords looking to collect insurance money.
In a post Civil Rights New York, the era produced lingering discontent among residents of color who were still marginalized. Police brutality was rampant and fueled by officers intimidating tourists into preparing for doomsday scenarios by handing out Fear City survival guides. It was also during this time the LGBT community came to fruition post-Stonewall.
Under these conditions disco and hip hop originated and fluorished in clubs and parties that served as the primary vessel for amplifying both genres of music. With roots in soul and gospel, disco music became the aural glue that brought communities together. Parties became social constructs that served as shelters for free thinking, fellowship and survival (ie paying the rent). An earlier iteration of disco music created in the early 70’s is now called Proto Disco.
After Rio’s shiny, spectacular Opening Ceremony on Friday I came across this sobering picture that quickly brought me back to reality and filtered my view of the Olympic games. Brazil’s honest portrayal of the slave trade and the upbeat, energetic favela portion of the ceremony obscured some of the horrific present day realities behind the historical and social constructs that created the favelas in Brazil. Behind the graffiti tagged privacy walls that NBC aggressively tries to obscure during their broadcasts, lies some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country. This image serves as stark reminder of the societal costs of the Olympic games.
When artists choose to use their work as a platform for social commentary they open our eyes, hearts and minds to worlds that are unlike our own. I started thinking about the Brazilian artists responsible for putting Rio’s street art scene on the map. Celebrated artists like Os Gemeos have been conspicuously absent from the 2016 games, despite their mural contributions to Athens in 2004. On the other side of the coin the Rio Olympics have done an impressive job of showcasing local art when they chose 13 Latin American artists to design the official posters for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Other artists like Paul Ito touched on the complicated political, social and economic challenges Brazil faced in the months leading to the 2014 World Cup, however that level of artistic public discourse has been absent in the street art in Rio thus far, however if anyone has seen work to the contrary, please let me know.
French artist JR was commissioned for some imposing public installation projects in addition to his work that decorates the Olympic stadium in wheat paste portraits. He is currently using his social media presence to provide his followers with behind the scenes look at Olympic competitions and he is also partnering with popular YouTube celebrities to showcase his work.
Despite all of this, there is one little known aspect of JR that is not getting much attention, and that is his work in the favelas. Long before his documentaries, museum shows, books and TED talks, JR opened Casa Amarela, a community art center perched high atop a hill in Morro de Providencia, Rio’s first favela. Up until 2014, the favela was only accessible by imposingly long stairways; now it boasts an elaborate $35M cable car system. The fact that the government prioritized a gondola system over basic infrastructure necessities like a municipal water supply or an interconnected sewage system is a mind-boggling conundrum that speaks to the complicated dichotomy that exists in the favelas. They are simultaneously romanticized and demonized as areas of stunted development that are riddled with crime that co-exist with trendy cafes and favela tours which hint to a looming threat of gentrification.
And then of course there’s the art created by the center that beautifies the area. According to Phaidon, Casa Amarela “offers stage design, photography, and reading classes to local young people, as well as a children’s library, and open-air cinema screenings”; most importantly, the space is a cultural and educational hub for the community and a source of pride. Community centers like Casa Amarela provide the local children with an artistic refuge in an area that remains vulnerable to redevelopment. Luckily for now, the center has staved off those threats and was recently remodeled so that Casa Amarela can continue to provide local children with artistic and educational services and according to JR, up to 100 children from the area will have an opportunity to experience the Olympic games in person.
At the end of the day isn’t that really what we want the Olympics to be? A much needed, albeit temporary escape from our realities? For two weeks we get to celebrate athleticism, strength, work ethic and national pride. We can enjoy respite from politics, Brexit, elections, crime, the economy, healthcare, Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter and most importantly we get a break from a traumatizing media cycle. For a few days we can bask in the glory of gold. Admittedly, 100 favela children experiencing the Olympics is a drop in the bucket that won’t rid Brazil of its many ills, but for a few brief moments, these children will get to bask in gold without having to pine for it from afar.
Early on in my career I was given a small piece of advice that dictated how I presented myself professionally:
“Dress for the job you want.”
In the intersecting space between gentrification and street art, developers have applied that age old career advice to the neighborhoods they invest in. When it comes to street art, they’re dressing buildings for the returns they seek; in other words, they want to maximize their investment. Good street art is an indicator of investment’s appreciation potential. This not so subtle distinction is an important one when you think about the historic role murals and street art have played in the cultural growth of Los Angeles.
On April 16th a popular mural on a building in DTLA’s Arts District was whitewashed for its new tenants. The mural was originally created in 2011 by 4 artists (Dabs & Myla on the left panel and How & Nosm on the right) and was located in the parking lot on the east side of the Neptune building. For residents and frequent visitors to the Arts District, the mural’s buffing was another stark reminder of the negative impact of rapid change taking place there in the last 5 years. The small neighborhood, flanked by Little Tokyo and Skid Row, contains historic vacant warehouses and manufacturing facilities. In the late 80’s and early 90’s these abandoned buildings were popular among artists, musicians and creatives who converted many of these spaces into un-permitted live/work lofts. It was far from an artistic utopia; the deserted area was riddled with crime, drugs and homelessness that spilled over from Skid Row’s 1970’s “containment strategy”.
As street art gained cultural cachet in the late ’00s, the neighborhood encouraged murals and building owners quickly commissioned wheatpastes, stencils and other graffiti art by popular street artists. The popularity reached its peak with Jeffrey Deitch’s “Art in the Streets” show at MOCA in 2011. The show and the resulting murals that were imported into area brought the Arts District and other L.A. neighborhoods into focus eventually bringing attention to the residents of this small, connected artistic community.
When the Dabs/Myla and How/Nosm mural was buffed last week, it created an uproar among the current residents and patrons of the Arts District who were not only angered by the lack of notice of the mural’s demise but also by the seemingly clandestine decision making that led to its destruction. In the court of public opinion (social media) it appears as though few discussions took place among community/arts advocacy groups, the building owner and its new tenants (the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions). This mural was viewed as a symbol of the dynamic creativity that transformed the Arts District into a thriving, desirable neighborhood. While the mural was a favorite of many who considered it representative of the present day Arts District, it was not immediately embraced by everyone living there when it was originally painted.
In April 2011 the 4 artists who created the mural were commissioned by the LA Freewalls project to paint the Neptune Building’s east wall. The mural was a gift to the community that at the time was accepted with some trepidation. L.A. has a history of mural creation that spans decades including works that represented the cultural richness and diversity of the communities where the murals reside. When it was painted some questioned if the mural accurately represented the community and the residents within the Arts District at that time. Even more problematic, leaders within the LA Freewalls project were viewed as polarizing figures in the street art community. They were characterized in the press as cultural opportunists who profited from brokering deals between street artists and building owners to create the murals that pepper the neighborhood.
Flash forward 5 years. The neighborhood is “on trend”. In addition to the legendary murals, the neighborhood is now peppered with coffee shops, artisanal toast, blue chip galleries and haute (yet eco-friendly) designs. The beloved 3rd Street mural now accurately represents the history of the community yet in an ironically cruel twist of fate that brief history was erased; perhaps to make room for bigger pockets and newer, “trendier” artists…
In an attempt at some damage control, the LAFPP claimed that they legitimately pursued due diligence in notifying the artists and the community prior to buffing the mural (those claims are still being challenged by arts activist groups). They also maintain that plans are underway to create a new mural on the blank white wall that sits on the property today. Sadly, street artists have been forced into an odd game of musical chairs where the winner gets to dress the new building… undoubtedly for the job the owner wants– to maximize their investment.
When I started Culture Shock Art in 2010, my goal was to explore street art and graffiti in Los Angeles, after I stumbled upon street artist JR’s work completely by accident. The process of discovery through investigating the origins of one of his murals led me to his 2010 TED talk after which I purchased one of his lithographs. That similar sense of curiosity in “finding the wonder in the every day” led me to Shinique Smith. In January when I prepared a list of artists to feature during the February 2016 Artist a Day Challenge, I added Smith to my list after learning that Hauser Wirth & Schimmel will feature her work during their inaugural show “Revolution in the Making” opening in March.
I recently discovered an artists talk that Smith presented on her creative process which fuses graffiti, Japanese calligraphy, text, abstract expressionism and assemblage. Her artistic influences are diverse and include dance, poetry, eastern religions, fashion and music, but what struck me most about Smith is her intention and how it guides her work and her process.
As children we have an innate curiosity and sense of wonder that lead us to magical, serendipitous discoveries. When I think of “pure joy” I think of a laughing child taking delight in exploring the world around them. Over time the light that leads to this delight fades and becomes harder to find, but is never lost. The art of curiosity, of finding joy through learning and exploration allows us tap into that sense of wonder. In Shinique Smith’s art, she transforms distinctly different art forms to create her work- her goal is to create a postive exchange that propels us forward. Smith does not look toward the past, nor does she attempt to right the wrongs of the daily struggles of life in her work. Rather, her art is a form of catharsis that is both transformative and carries universal appeal. During an October, 2015 artist’s perspective talk Smith comments:
“I want to have a more positive ‘moving forward’, transformative exchange and that’s not easy to come by and I think that comes out of an empathy. As much as I am horrified by us and sometimes disheartened and dissillusioned and angry, at the end of the day there is a beatuty in us as a human in the world. Seeing life that way helps me move through it.”
This gave me a stronger appreciation for her work and I cannot think of a better artist to close out the 2016 Artist a Day Challenge.
The artists that I featured this month were varied. Some express themselves through pain, joy, their experience, by observation, remembrance and others through the lens of the injustice they encounter. By exploring black artists across the diaspora from diverse geographic backgrounds, different points in history and different points of view I am reminded that there is so much creativity to experience and explore; it is important to always be curious, ask questions and understand that like a butterfly, beauty comes from challenge.
As I wrap the 2016 installment of an Artist a Day challenge I want to thank everyone who have faithfully joined me in exploring these amazing artists. I welcome you join me over on TONDI (a Culture Shock Art project hosted on Squarespace) in March as I debut my second Virtual Exhibition that explores the history of Disco and House music. Yes, Disco! Researching this exhibition has been an absolute blast and it opened my eyes to a side of Disco that is rarely discussed and is relatively unknown (by commercial standards). The exhibition launches in March, and I will be sure to provide links to the virtual show right here on Culture Shock Art. Until then, be curious, create joy and take delight in exploration!
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.
The Friday before a long weekend holds so much promise. I’m counting down the minutes until 5:00, so until then I am living for the work of Lakwena Maciver. Her work combines the bold, geometric lines found in Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings with the colorful graphics of 8 bit video games. Lakwena’s energetic paintings are punctuated with woodblock style typography with messages that just make you feel alive. Simply put, her work speaks for itself.
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.