United States of America
Heaven and Hellacious
The Rev requests that, as a sign of respect, do-rags and hats are not to be worn. There’s a shuffle as a hundred scraps of material are removed from their owners’ heads. As one, the congregation praises His name and a beat played at mega-decibels starts heads bobbing. Blow paces in front of his flock and begins to big Him up, rapping about how God changes people’s lives.
A wailing parishioner falls trembling to his knees, testifying his sins. When the hallelujahs and praise-be-to-heavens are done, the convert cries out, confessing even more wrong-doings. The transgressor, it seems, is having a good time unburdening himself of his bad deeds, and at each new shortcoming the congregation cries out in unison, praising God’s precious name. Each time the testimony gets particularly juicy a silence falls as the flock soaks up the newest offence. “Hear thy humble servant’s words,” the Rev pleads to the ceiling. Animated, he continues, spinning a holy rap to his gathering and working them into a dancing frenzy.
This unconventional approach to soul saving is hugely entertaining. To some it may seem somewhat bizarre, but the spirit of camaraderie, the urban street sounds and the unconditional bonding are real.
So many tourists to New York have a view of the metropolis heavily influenced by the settings of TV shows – Sex and the City, Law & Order – they never think to venture further than that narrow rectangle of Manhattan bordered by Times Square and Central Park. Head north, though, and you’ll discover a complex, colourful inner-city neighbourhood. Harlem has left faded bohemian seediness behind and blossomed to, once again, become a centre of culture.
Feeling cleansed of spirit I take a walk towards the jazz district. En route businesses have been spontaneously set up on footpaths outside homes. Whole families accompany them, having moved their sofas to the curb in order to better watch the world pass by.
On a street lined with pimped-out saloon cars, four beautiful women dressed in tight skirts shine an already gleaming vehicle. Its owner, relaxed in his curbside chair, approves of their work. From behind him a bear of a man slowly shambles towards me. His bleak expression suggests someone soured by the burdens of life. I fix him with the most respectful grovelling look I can muster and enquire if I can take a few photographs for a magazine. Time hangs like cobwebs in the air; I can see the questioning in his eyes then, suddenly, they sparkle and he signals to the man in the chair to join him on the bonnet of the newly polished car. “D’ya see dis?” he wheezes at one of the women. “My boy here and me, we’re gonna be famous, I tell ya.” Later he positions himself in a chair and poses again, arching an eyebrow at the camera.
At the Big Apple Jazz bar I meet Bill Hill, a New York sporting legend, and his sidekick Rob. They are sitting outside on the footpath, either side of a small table, swapping yarns about the good old days. Blues music spills out around them, its lazy rhythm demanding immediate attention. Bill’s eyes shine with excitement as he relays memories of Harlem in the twentieth century and how it has experienced a social and economic gentrification. A police cruiser slides by, a wave of acknowledgement exchanged.
The early 1920s saw the beginning of Harlem’s renaissance. Back then, the junction of 7th Avenue and 131st Street harboured the Shuffle Inn and later Connie’s Inn. It was in this building Florence Mills, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Eubie Blake entertained audiences from around the world. The 1930s and 40s then brought some of the world’s biggest musical legends. This was the era Harlem became the epicentre of the jazz world. Venues like the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater made stars out of entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald, then in the ensuing years James Brown, Michael Jackson, D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill. While the Cotton Club closed its doors years ago, the Apollo marquee is still lit with the names of major acts.
Today, the neighbourhood continues to shape the world’s musical and cultural landscape. Harlem’s historic district has experienced a rebirth, but the one aspect that remains constant is the music. From neighbourhood dives, small clubs in old brownstones, soul food restaurants and Art Deco clubs from its heyday, jazz can be heard throughout the district. It’s in this part of the city’s bones. Everywhere you’ll see jazz junkies nodding their heads in slow rhythmic agreement to the unhurried blues thump, because this is also where you’ll hear fresh talent destined for greatness.
Harlem is also where NYC’s provocatively potent hip-hop poets can be found teaching empowering life lessons. As a cultural phenomenon, hip-hop emerged from this neighbourhood and the Bronx in the 1970s. Around 125th Street, names like DJs Red Alert and Hollywood, Spoonie Gee and, of course, Kurtis Blow forged this new type of music from elements of other genres, playing two copies of the same record on different turntables while rapping over the beats.
Today the lyrical skills and heart-thumping rhythms of hip-hop are everywhere. It has taken the world by storm and become a cultural staple on every continent – in the United Arab Emirates, for example, brothers Salem and Abdullah Dahman, known as Illmiyah and Arableak (and collectively as Desert Heat), have given hip-hop an Arabic and Muslim sensibility.
If all you associate with hip-hop is the pimped-out cars and voluptuous women pushed by music videos, be prepared to experience the real deal on Harlem’s streets.
At a block party I meet MF Grimm. He raps about the first time he picked up a microphone as a kid, as well as the day he lost the use of his legs to gang violence. From a wheelchair, he tells of his incarceration, the rediscovery of his former self and his rise to the top of his game as a hip-hop grandmaster. His lyrics tell a gritty tale of righteous redemption. They leave no question unanswered and no apologies are made.
A visit to Harlem is a sensory experience – a vibrant fusion of music, a noisy explosion of sounds. It’s chaotic, intoxicating, raw, in your face and utterly exciting. And a completely different Manhattan scene to the one so often portrayed.
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to New York’s JFK Airport via Los Angeles.
The three-star Aloft Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard features clean-lined, modern design, a grab-and-go snack station, bar and lounge, and gym. Rooms from US$212 a night.
There are a number of operators running music-based tours of Harlem. Jazz aficionados should join Big Apple Jazz, which runs Great Day in Harlem and Harlem Juke Joint tours.
Hush Tours runs experiences around the neighbourhood led by emcees, graffiti artists and DJs.
Words Cindy-Lou Dale
Photos Cindy-Lou Dale