On Tuesday night, the Avon Theater’s screening of “Rubble Kings” shed light on the often ignored yet strikingly important story of gang violence in New York in the 70’s and how it influenced the upstart of hip hop music. The theater welcomed Shan Nicholson, the film’s director, and Topaz, a member of the Ebony Dukes who was featured in the film, to answer questions from curious audience members.
Even those in the theater who had lived in New York City throughout the 70’s and 80’s were shocked and intrigued by the often-untold history that the film plays out.
“Rubble Kings” sheds light on the festering gang culture that arose from the dashed hopes of the civil rights generation. In order to convey how dramatic the transition to peace was, the documentary first told what it was like to be constantly at war in the streets through the voices of those who experienced it.
In an era when the Bronx held the world record for arson, teenagers violently confronted their own deteriorating neighborhoods in the form of bloodshed. A gang dominated every street corner. Areas like the South Bronx became rampant with murder and unrest.
The general chaos prevailed until the Ghetto Brothers, a gang with new flavor, started to channel violent energy into something purposeful that would slowly come to transform the culture. They empowered individuals and provided their own social services, policing their own people, holding food and clothing drives, and showing the community a glimpse of its own potential. Their organization came not from some external force, but from the inside. Instead of toward senseless killing, frustration was focused through speech towards a system that had caused their unrest in the first place. They knew how to articulate and how to use the media.
When Cornell “Black Benji” Benjamin, a leader of the Ghetto Brothers was killed however, a gang war seemed inevitable. Instead, while the media waited to confirm the gang’s savagery, a hundred members of the city’s most notorious gangs gathered and arranged a peace treaty lead by another leader of the Ghetto Brothers, Benjamin Melendez.
Though peace was alien at first, it soon became acceptable to enter previously forbidden territory and speak to former enemies. This is where and when hip hop announced peace. Jam sessions and block parties became symbols of coexistence. Rap battles and break-dancing competitions took the place of fist-knife-and-gun-fights.
The gangs didn’t dissipate, but instead channeled their competition creatively through graffiti art and music. The DJ’s became the stars of the neighborhoods, and the resonating music let New York know the neighborhoods existed as defiantly creative.
Though the film ends on this positive note, a decade or two is skipped between where the film cuts off and the present. After the show, director Shan Nicholson and Topaz of the Ebony Dukes answered some of the lingering questions that the audience had about today’s narrative of hip hop and gang culture.
Now, it seems, mainstream hip hop has become less creative and more about what will make a lot of money, according to Shan. “There’s a kind of formula to it now, and it’s revolved around money, violence, materialism, and sexism in a lot of ways,” rather than sending the message of nonviolence it once did in the 70’s.
Being in his late fifties and trying to raise kids the best way he can, Topaz said, you want to get involved in something that will be a positive influence on them despite the message of materialism that today’s rap music pushes.
“We’re actually very pleased with the movie because it’s trying to start another movement where we can try to regroup what’s been going on in the past forty years and bring that back in a much more positive, peaceful way.”
When Topaz speaks to those like him who have been in gangs since they were children, it’s important to tell them that it’s possible for a group to chose peace within themselves. The Ghetto Brothers certainly did so without any outside agencies or police. The spreading of this message is one of the major aims of the film, and one of the reasons Shan and Topaz are so excited about the film’s premiere.
Most importantly, the film provides an example of transition rather than an abandonment of community. “You don’t really leave a gang,” Topaz says, “and you don’t want to get out because they’re your family, so what I try to do is transition them from all the crazy robberies and stuff they’re doing to something involved in creativity. I don’t try to get them out of the gang, I try to get the gang involved in other things.”
Shan Nicholson feels deeply that it’s important for part of the roll-out plan to be the exposure of the film to at-risk youth and in areas currently involved in violent activity. Continuing the legacy that hip hop music once inspired, the film will let those on the border of violence witness a way out through finding a gift, whether it be musical or otherwise.
For anyone interested in viewing the documentary, which includes footage of the peace treaty signing and of the Ghetto Brothers Band performing, Rubble Kings will first be released digitally on iTunes, Amazon, and other digital platforms and later in select theaters (June 18) before its release on DVD.
The Avon Theatre is located at 272 Bedford Streed in Stamford.