Searching for the Real Harlem Shake-Up

One man’s journey to the world capital of African-American culture looking for signs of President Obama’s ‘change we can believe in.’

US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008

Damian Coombs celebrates atop his car on 125th street in the Harlem section of New York City after U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) won the U.S. Presidential election, November 4, 2008. Since then, the fervor appears to have largely fizzled out. (Photos: Mike Segar/Reuters)

Saturday night in Harlem—it’s only 10 p.m., yet few people walk along 125th Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. Sure it’s the middle of winter, but the lack of nightlife is stunning considering this is Manhattan. There aren’t many entertainment options, and the few bars and restaurants that are open have repressive rules. At Harlem BBQ, an Indian-owned sports bar, you have to be 25 to drink, there’s a minimum purchase required, and patrons cannot stay longer than two hours.

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, more than 100 entertainment options, from speakeasies to jazz clubs to staged theater, vied for business along this stretch. Those days are long gone. With rare exceptions, Harlem is now closer to a mini-police state than to a cultural center.

On the streets, groups of men wearing bubble vests and crooked hats stalk corners. NYPD cruiser lights flash in front of housing projects. Almost every young male wears something red, the color of the Bloods street gang. Cars blast Hot 97, the biggest FM station in the city, credited with having invented rap. It’s fitting that the most popular song on the radio right now is Harlem native A$AP Rocky’s “F**kin’ Problems.”

Even though it has long represented the cultural capital of Black America, Harlem still has a lot of problems. It is both the most violent and incarcerated place in New York. East and Central Harlem have the most murders per capita in the city at around 20 per 100,000—war zone numbers. Harlem also has the most “million dollar blocks”—streets where the incarceration rate is so high it costs the public over a million a year to imprison the block’s residents. This culture of murder, drug dealing and prison equals a loss of adult males in the community, and Harlem has a male role model problem.

The Obama-era was supposed to be one of hope and change, with President Barack Obama as the ultimate national male role model for blacks. Yet, to hear the grumbling on the streets of Harlem, black people’s lives have failed to improve under his administration. On Valentine’s Day, a few days after the Obama’s latest State of the Union Address, the Harlem take on Obama had hardened from what it was four years ago. Back in 2008, on the eve of the election, the impending reality of a black president was just sinking in—and Harlem was delirious.

“It’s great that Obama is finally talking about the ghetto, but the kids here have two goals: Make money hustling or get big in the rap game or as an athlete. These are unrealistic goals. But sadly, that’s the only path people can see from within the broken families and horrible schools.”

But Obama’s first-term domestic policy was focused on the economy and healthcare, and advances in neither of those realms have reached 125th Street in any way that is being remarked upon.

Issues that are central to Harlem’s problems—housing, gun violence, prison-industrial complex—went ignored.

After the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, things are different, as far as the national debate on gun control goes. Obama visited the gang-infested South Side of Chicago and finally spoke to Harlem and the rest of black America’s problems.

“These guys are no different than me,” the president said, meaning they were growing up black without a male role model.

But male role models are not seen as the primary issue Uptown. Blame for the endless grind of poverty falls on the city, state and federal government.

“It’s like an Egypt before the revolution, with police on every corner, a police state,” says one veteran crime reporter. “But it’s much more violent than Egypt was—there are more guns.”

The police routinely arrest people for debatable probable cause via the controversial stop-and-frisk policy, with 17,000 stops in one East Harlem precinct last year alone, the most of any part of New York. The justice system punishes minorities at a higher and harsher rate than whites. The housing policy stuffs the poor into public projects, clusters of redbrick towers that pop up every few blocks. And then there’s education. Harlem’s schools are some of the worst in Manhattan.

Harlem people are frustrated with every authority figure, from beat cops all the way up to the White House.

“I mean, it’s great that Obama is finally talking about the ghetto,” says Sean Howard as he exits the subway on 125th in a leather jacket and new Nikes. The 29-year-old Harlem resident is headed home from work. “But the kids here have two goals: Make money hustling or get big in the rap game or as an athlete. These are unrealistic goals. But sadly, that’s the only path people can see from within the broken families and horrible schools.”

As I spoke with Howard, two NYPD officers approached and grabbed my camera. They made me show them the photos I’d been taking of the 456 train stop, then told me I could be arrested.

“That’s not true,” I protested. “This is a public street.”

“Put the camera away,” one of the cops said.

“Just chill man,” Sean said—to me, not to the cops.

I lowered the camera, and the cops gave a hard stare and backed off. Sean Howard walked in the other direction and would not talk further. I was angry that the police didn’t allow picture taking on 125th Street, but knew that Sean was right. Getting arrested in New York is not usually worth being right.

Harlem projects: The lights are on because everybody is staying home. (Photo: Ray LeMoine)

To give an idea of what success looks like in Harlem, on a recent Sunday I met Dipset rapper Juelz Santana in the VIP section of a Queens strip club. Juelz started rapping at age 12 and was discovered a few years later at the Apollo Theater during an open mic night. By 18, he had signed with fellow Harlem rapper Cam’ron and formed the Diplomats. Not unusual among rappers, Juelz has been arrested for gun and drug charges. One indictment accused Juelz of being the ringleader of a Bloods faction running a drug and gun market from his studio, though he denies any charges of gangster-ism and hasn’t been convicted.

In the VIP area there were maybe five tables, each held down by a rapper entourage. Juelz was with 20 or so members of his Dipset sub-crew the Skull Gang. Every single person there was smoking a blunt, and the whole room was cloudy. It was oddly peaceful and relaxed—was it the weed? More likely it was the fact that this was a party full of rappers, producers, DJs, managers and other people who carry thousands in cash and drive white BMWs.

“Man this is just the way we hang out,” said Skitzo, a young producer from the Bronx who has worked with Dipset since his teens. “Dipset got a bad rap, but there’s never any problems with us at the club. This is every kid’s dream man; so we live it up because we’re so damn lucky.”

A few nights later, I saw Juelz Santana again. His convoy had just pulled up to a Soho nightclub. It was 12:30 a.m., and Santana stood on the sidewalk, smiling in a camo T-shirt and sparkling chain with a few crew members watching him.

Once inside, he performed for 20 minutes. Then it was off to another club to make more money, hang out drinking “the bubbles” and hold court. MC does mean master of ceremonies, and many rappers supplement their recording careers hosting events.

With all the talk of pockets full of cash, awesome cars, guns, gold chains, nice clothes and women, the contrast with Harlem’s reality, where the poverty rate is over 35 percent, is stark. The high unemployment rate among black and Hispanic males is one factor swelling the entourages so many rappers travel with. Some kids make money for beats they produce, or are aspiring rappers under Juelz, or sell weed, or offer security. Every one of them tries to hustle some aspect of a rap game, but some mix it with the hustle game.

The system with Dipset is very tight; they run it like a military school. Yet this generation appears to have given up on politics or activism.

“Why wouldn’t I hang out with friends at the club?” one of Juelz’s associates told me. “It’s better than standing on the corner and getting arrested for standing on that corner. White people will never care about us. We have a black president, and still nothing changes.”

I thought of how I’d been threatened with arrest for taking pictures on a Harlem corner. If I were black, I would have probably spent 36 hours in Central Booking.

For Harlem’s Rapper Jet Set, the goal is simple: A house across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, the regular old American dream, a lawn and white picket fence in the ’burbs.

This option should be within the grasp of a far wider group of Harlemites than its millionaire rappers.

Harlem’s problems are similar to the rest of black America’s.

Obama has yet to take the lead and help black people find a way to offer more opportunity to young black men. Providing a strong education, reforming prison sentencing and addressing gun violence are a start. But it is time to address root causes and conditions: This country needs to wage a new war on poverty, and it should start at the federal level.

Does the federal government have a responsibility to lead a new war on poverty? Stake out your position in COMMENTS.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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