Major music festival squashed under pressure from residents who questioned its motives
The Lvnguage is a psych-funk band with members who hail from Morris Park and Pelham Bay. The quartet performs live with three synthesizers, a bass and amp, two guitars and amps, and a drum kit. It takes time to build and break down their stage show. So when the musicians first heard that their set time at the “Its The Bronx” music and arts festival scheduled for March 22nd had suddenly been changed, lead singer Rob Van Zandt was a little concerned.
Then the group got word that they would not be playing at all.
Just days before what organizers had hoped would be the “biggest celebration of hustle the Bronx has ever seen”, the host venue issued a statement announcing that they were pulling out. That venue, the Andrew Freedman Home, indicated that community blowback had informed their decision.
Some Bronxites have accused the head of the “It’s The Bronx” festival, Marco Shalma, of exploiting artists and contributing to gentrification because of its relationship with a local commercial development. At least 28 musical acts that were set to perform at the festival are now caught in the crosshairs. Among the artists, there is frustration, disappointment, resignation, and in some cases, optimism. They’re asking themselves who has the right to build live performance platforms in the Bronx and how it can be done ethically.
While Bronx artists sometimes circulate a local scene of small shows at restaurants, bars, and other businesses, several say the dearth of major venues and outlets in the Bronx forces them to look to Manhattan and Brooklyn for gigs.
Shalma, of Mott Haven, noticed. Experienced in marketing brands and events as the founder of the media agency Round Seven, he began to build out the “It’s The Bronx” festival to bolster local talent. Early last winter, he started by inviting artists to apply to perform at a free showcase at the Bronx Brewery. The best acts, voted on by the community and Shalma’s music director, were invited to headline a festival that would take place two months later.
A successful preview solidified faith in Shalma’s vision for some. By the afternoon of the day-long event, the 8,500 square foot space was packed. It was the largest audience rapper Tarik “Quote the MC” Shah had ever performed in front of.
“There was a lot of love in the building,” he says.
The artists saw the festival as an even greater opportunity for themselves and the community, they say. Though Shalma says he couldn’t pay the artists in order to break even, he didn’t charge them to perform either, as other venues and festivals might. Several of the artists were comfortable with this arrangement. Elissa Carmona, leader of one of several headlining acts, the Morrisania Band Project, is sympathetic to the detractors, but frustrated that they did not reach out for her perspective. “I’m being told I was being exploited, but no one bothered to ask me,” she says.
“It’s The Bronx” advertised that acts would be competing for a legendary Summer Stage slot. “It almost felt like every single person from the Bronx was going to come together for one special day,” says Richard Pickett, a hip-hop artist whose stage name is Richard Pigkaso.
But not everyone was enthused. The most public face of the opposition has been Hydro Punk, a local grassroots arts organization. Beyond alleging exploitative practices, Hydro Punk’s co-founder Monica Flores accuses the festival of “artwashing” the Bronx.
“[Developers] use art to rebrand and sanitize the neighborhood for the upcoming wave of elite that are moving in, to make it more comfy for them,” said Flores at a rally that took place on the day the festival was scheduled.
Union Crossing, an upscale new commercial building on E. 141st Street, was set to be the festival’s original venue until two weeks prior, when Shalma realized the building would not be ready. Union Crossing had leased the space to Shalma for the festival for free, he says. Later, when the festival was moved to the Andrew Freedman Home on the Grand Concourse, he says Union Crossings’ development team was going to pay for 100 tickets to be given away. Flores believes that the Bronx music scene should reject corporations’ offers to contribute to events. Hydro Punk hosts punk and hip-hop shows through community fund-raising, she says.
But when it comes to claims of artwashing, a 2016 study of New York and the nation conducted by researchers from England, Australia and Texas, found little evidence that the arts were spurring gentrification in the U.S., though there was a high concentration of arts establishments in neighborhoods experiencing displacement in New York.
“I understand groups like Hydro Punk’s fear of gentrification, but I think and I know stating me as the face of it is completely misdirected,” says Shalma.
“It’s The Bronx” adamantly denies receiving any support from developers beyond the Union Crossing space.
“I’m not for gentrification. There’s nothing that I get from displacing my own people,” said Oscar Alvarado, “It’s the Bronx’s” music director, who was born and raised off Fordham Road.
But Carmona of the Morrisania Band Project doesn’t necessarily believe that developers shouldn’t involve themselves with music in the Bronx. Instead, she thinks they should be influenced by and benefit those with roots.
“As long as we can’t buy the burnt-out buildings, other people will,” she said. “What we can do is be a part of the conversation and not allow them to push us out.”
To both Carmona and Pickett, the hip-hop act, Shalma showed investment in the community. “From the moment I met him, everything was the Bronx,” said Pickett.
To Shalma, the demand for “It’s The Bronx” festival tickets indicates that the community is interested in what he’s building.
“It’s not about me or ‘It’s the Bronx,’” he says. “It’s not about Hydro Punk. It’s only about the people of the Bronx and what they want.”
Shah, the rapper, thinks other opportunities for Bronx artists to showcase their talents will arise. “It had the potential to be a big event and bring eyes to the borough,” he says. “But our talent isn’t going anywhere.”