Last month, when rapper-activist Killer Mike appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher, the host asked, “Mike, what do you say to people who link crime and violence to rap music?”
“After I say, ‘You’re stupid’?” Mike replied. “Rap music – hip-hop as an entity – was started in the late Sixties, early Seventies. Bunch of kids were in a burnt-out gutter called the South Bronx. . .”
“Late Sixties?” Maher says incredulously. “Are you sure? I thought it was a little later than that.”
Mike went on to detail the history of the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting, a 1971 gathering of 40 of New York’s biggest gangs in a Bronx Boys Club to broker a peace treaty that would virtually eradicate gang violence in the Bronx overnight. Equally significant, these gangs traded beatdowns for B-boying and rap battles, sowing the seeds of a bourgeoning hip-hop movement that would expand past New York half a decade later.
This under-recognized but crucial episode in both New York and hip-hop history has been told before – see Jeff Chang’s essential book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop – but is personalized in Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering’s vivid, illuminating new graphic novel Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker.
Part personal biography, part socioeconomic exposé, Ghetto Brother tells the story of “Yellow” Benjy Melendez, the Puerto Rican founder of the titular gang Ghetto Brothers. As the graphic novel details, Melendez would go on to be a driving force behind the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting while later reconciling his Nuyorican roots with his hidden Jewish upbringing.
Writer Voloj and artist Ahlering are nothing if not ambitious. The duo traces the history of the Bronx as its population shifted from white immigrants in the 1950s to the poorer, predominantly Black and Hispanic communities that would occupy the borough in the 1960s after “White Flight.” Told from the first-person perspective of Melendez – who calls Robert Moses, the city planner responsible for splitting the borough in two to build the Cross Bronx Expressway, the “guy [who] ruined the Bronx” – the book charts the formation of the Ghetto Brothers in 1968 alongside more than 100 others gangs in the Bronx alone.
“It was an army of people,” Voloj writes of the more than 2,000 members of the gang, not counting affiliates in other boroughs. “Gangs were like family. They provided shelter comfort and protection.”
As Melendez recalls in the book, a member of the Black Panther Party visited the Ghetto Brothers headquarters and convinced them to forego fighting other gangs and battle “the true enemy”: The U.S. government depriving them of economic opportunity. In 1971, Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin, a 25-year-old former junkie–turned–drug counselor who was appointed peacemaker of the Ghetto Brothers, was murdered by rival gangs while trying to broker a truce. “Black Benjie died for peace and if you take revenge and declare war, it will have been in vain,” Melendez tells his vengeful Ghetto Brothers peers after Benjamin’s death.
While “eye for an eye” was the norm in the South Bronx, something unprecedented happened following Benjamin’s murder, with the presidents of rival gangs offering respect and support to the mourning gang. This gesture influenced Melendez and the others to forego additional violence and initiate the peace treaty meeting.
As Melendez details in Ghetto Brother, the treaty was a near-immediate panacea for gang violence. “The world became broader,” Voloj writes. “You went to parties in neighborhoods you never set foot in before. It didn’t matter what colors you were wearing. The turf grid was slowly disintegrating. Former warlords became DJs and gangbangers battled on the dance floor.” Gangs replaced their menacing names with more benign crew names, and hip-hop, in its earliest form, was born.
There’s been a quasi-resurgence of hip-hop’s earliest history of late. New documentaries Fresh Dressed and Rubble Kings highlight the genre’s evolution through fashion and gangs, respectively. Yet, notwithstanding fascinating NYC gang docs like 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s and Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, the amount of video evidence from the late Sixties/early Seventies period is scarce.
Ghetto Brother’s visuals attempt to make up for that. Ahlering’s style – black and white, angular, stark – mirrors the desolate vibe of the South Bronx circa 1971, giving the book an edgy feel that complements its source material perfectly. A worth addition to the canon, Ghetto Brother is a brisk, compact work highlighting an overlooked, yet pivotal, part of the history of both a genre and a city.