New York – In the Hood
Home to gospel, jazz, hip-hop and the best soul food in the US of A,
Harlem is the one your mother warned you about.
Harlem earned its reputation as the mecca for jazz and blues. Venues like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater made stars out of entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Michael Jackson, D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill. While the Cotton Club closed its doors years ago, The Apollo Theater still lights up with major headline acts.
In the Footsteps of Legends
Back when it all began, Harlem’s 7th Avenue and 131st Street were known simply as “The Corner,” where Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Florence Mills and Eubie Blake entertained audiences from around the world. Today, Harlem continues to shape the world’s cultural and musical landscape, playing live jazz in hidden haunts found in neighborhood dives, small clubs in old brownstones, soul food restaurants, and others secreted away in art deco clubs from the 1930s.
Walking in the footsteps of jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Jimmy Smith, and Billie Holiday, you’ll hear the music in the city’s bones; the sidewalks ooze jazz’s rich history and lead to obscure, dark and crowded side-street clubs like the American Legion (248 W 132nd St.) and Bills Place (148W 133rd St.) —all crowded with serious jazz junkies, nodding their heads in slow rhythmic agreement to the unhurried infectious blues thump. This is where fresh talent destined for greatness is to be found.
The Home of hip-hop
On Sedgwick Avenue, the birthplace of hip-hop (where the likes of Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash first scratched records), you’ll find NYC’s provocatively potent hip-hop poets; a multifaceted street talent teaching empowering life lessons, shaping the way its listeners deal with regrets (by jamming to Jay-Z); fostering self-esteem (when listening to Mos Def); exerting self-worth (based on cues from Queen Latifah); getting career advice (from Ice-T’s rhymes); and reflecting on spirituality (with Kanye West).
Hip-hop is a cultural phenomenon first brought to the world by Harlem in the 70s. Its insightful lyrics are cultural expressions providing motivational lessons by the city’s wizened street poets—lyrics that positively influence the way its listening audience maneuvers and copes with their worlds.
Some of the hip-hop pioneers began their careers as DJ’s playing two copies of the same wax album on two turntables, while simultaneously performing rap to get the crowd excited. Eventually, the rappers became the main attraction, the source of commercial success. Today hip-hop’s lyrical skills and heart-thumping beats are everywhere—some of the best acts are to be found at Platinum Pleasures on Lafayette and Fat Back Pussycat on 130W 3rd St. Hip-hop has taken the world by storm, becoming cultural staples on every continent—like the UAE’s own Sharjah Brothers, Illmiyah and Arableak, who’ve given hip-hop an Arabic and Muslim sensibility.
At a spontaneous block party, I came across a young man in a wheelchair who rapped about the first time he picked up a microphone as a kid, to the day he lost the use of his legs through gang violence. He rapped about his incarceration, his self-rediscovery, and rise back to the top of his game, becoming a hip-hop Grand Master. His lyrics spoke a gritty tale of righteous redemption. It left no question unanswered and no apologies were made.
More than Manhattan
You’ll not be alone in your love of Harlem. Millions from around the world have fallen under her spell. The “Sex and the City” New York that tourists seek out is confined to the narrow rectangle of Manhattan, centered on Times Square and Central Park. Alas, few visitors venture beyond this world and as such Harlem, despite its growth from faded bohemian seediness into a blossoming center of culture, is disregarded, and mistakenly considered by some as a blighted inner-city neighborhood. Sure, it’s a ghetto, but it’s one brimming with a complexity of flavors anchored to the past with ties to the present. It’s a sensory experience, a vibrant fusion of music, a colorful and noisy explosion of sounds; it’s chaotic, intoxicating, raw, in-your-face and utterly exciting.