Shantay Robinson wrote this essay for the fifth session of our Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program. The session was led by Chuck Reese, co-founder and editor of the Bitter Southerner, and was titled “Where Does Your Work Come From?” He asked the mentees to reflect on what compels them to write, and specifically to write about art. We were impressed and at times moved by the essays, which we’ll be featuring over the coming weeks.
On my bedroom wall is a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge. I bought it for $10 from a street vendor in front of the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a photograph by a random photographer who probably gets neglible residuals for the number of times it is sold to tourists and New Yorkers alike. The black-and-white photo was taken in the middle of the bridge, showing the magnitude of this iconic landmark. It does more than remind me of the city where I was born; it reminds me of a transitional point in my life when I really started living with a higher purpose.
I had moved to Atlanta from Brooklyn, New York, in 1991, when I was 13 years old. The transition was jarring. I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of the suburbs that had no sidewalks and no place to get to even if there were any. I made a pledge to myself that I would do well in school and be able to attend any college that I wanted that would be far from where I was. And I did just that. I attended school in upstate New York, but every summer, I would stay with my sister in the Brooklyn apartment she shared with a roommate. The city is a magical place in the summer. There are free outdoor concerts at parks in the five boroughs and a wealth of indoor concerts featuring the hottest artists.
The Black August concert was created to commemorate a history of events that happened in black history during the month of August, including the first Africans being brought to Jamestown in August 1619; Nat Turner’s slave rebellion on August 21, 1831; the beginning of Underground Railroad on August 2, 1850; and the Watts Rebellion in August 1963, among many other important events. This particular event in August of 1999 would live forever in the hearts and minds of those who attended. It was an exciting time. The energy as we were approaching the new millennium was electric. And the hip-hop generation rallied around the concern for issues regarding police brutality, political prisoners, and the war on drugs.
The hip-hop community was thriving and this concert was the epitome of any underground rap show. By this point, these rappers were emerging onto mainstream territory. The deaths of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG made the music industry look at itself for perpetuating violence for monetary gain, and so it became a little conscious. Just the year before, popular radio stations allowed Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s single “Definition” to play during peak listening hours. At the time, New York’s hip-hop radio station programming focused on music that had little substance or social relevance. The top albums of that year were a collection of random hip-hop artists from around the country, few of whom are known today.
My friend and I almost didn’t get into the concert. The bouncer had informed us that the concert was sold out. But, having seen a friend standing by the door next to a bouncer, we waited with him to see what would happen. I don’t know why I thought something would happen. Usually when a show is sold out, you take your losses and do something else. But I waited, hoping that maybe something would change. After a few minutes of waiting outside, the bouncer told my friend that he could go in. And without anyone’s permission, I motioned to my friend and we walked in right behind him.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli — who are still creating music today, almost 20 years later — were joined on stage by now Academy Award Winning actor/rapper, Common and the Late Night Show’s band leaders Questlove and Black Thought. When Dead Prez’s song “Hip-Hop” came on, the building shook. All 2,000-some-odd voices chanted the lyrics at the top of their lungs. But the energy was even louder than the music. Our power bounced of the walls, and when the concert was over, we would all leave that place stronger than when we entered the building.
After the show was over, I bought a T-shirt, which I still own, to commemorate the event. By the time we reached the exit, the crowd had dissipated. Questlove and Talib Kweli were standing on the sidewalk and I lost my mind. I screamed Kweli’s name and ran, arms open wide, to hug him. I’m sure he thought I was crazy, but halfway to him, he opened his arms, and I was able to show him how much he and the other artists mean to me. In my mind, I’m a gangster of love and that was a drive-by hugging.
After the Black August concert of 1999, I was so excited that I wanted to walk back to Brooklyn from the concert venue in Manhattan. My friend and I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge that night. That exit from the city and entrance to my borough was the end of my innocence and the beginning of a sense of responsibility to carry on the legacy of the many brave warriors who fought for my freedoms and rights. And when I look at that picture of the Brooklyn Bridge on my wall that I purchased for only $10, the memories are invaluable.
Shantay Robinson earned her MFA in Writing from SCAD. She currently hosts her blog, the Third Eye Site, which looks closely at the arts in Atlanta. She has also written artist profiles for AFROPUNK and Urban Lux Magazine. She is currently a participant in BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.