Born King NY: On Ka and Public Memory

By Bertolain Elysee

 

Should build museums from all the shit I’m writing.” – Ka

 

Brownsville MC Ka’s  rhymes do not offer much in the way of chronological narratives or concrete imagery, relying on evocative metaphors and piercing observations to paint a portrait of daily struggle in Brownsville. Ka’s music videos, however, unite his rapping with immersive, impressionistic explorations of urban space. In his 10 videos to date, all self-directed and edited, Ka is the only person to appear on screen, with the exception of brief, time-lapsed wide shots of crowds trafficking Times Square and cars gliding through Manhattan streets. He does not present himself as a character, but instead is a guide for the viewer, almost a human extension of the city itself. The camera captures him wandering through open streets, driving over the East River, standing in empty underpasses, crouching on staircases. In a profound moment of self-awareness, Ka takes out a photo camera in the video for “No Downtime,” capturing images of cranes listing idly behind a graffiti-laden tin wall – both street art and empty space will presumably be erased from the landscape, and he chooses to record the very recording of their presence. Ka is off screen for a significant portion of his videos as well, his lens probing the very physical and social infrastructure of the city: sewer grates, MTA subway maps, open fire hydrants, police precincts, public school banners. In this way, Ka strongly reminds me of Julius, the protagonist of Teju Cole’s novel Open City. Much of the novel consists of Julius, a Nigerian-German medical student, taking long walks through Manhattan, reflecting on the various layers of history embodied by and buried within the cityscape itself, referencing 9/11, Dutch colonialism, public memorials.

As an art form, hip-hop tends to share Ka’s obsession with place. The status of the South Bronx as the birth place for hip-hop is firmly entrenched within the genre’s mythology, containing countless retellings of block parties, graffiti bombers and b-boy battles emerging out of the wreckage of federally engineered white flight and the city’s policy of “benign neglect,” black and brown bodies reclaiming streets, parks, subways as sites of celebration, collaboration, contestation. Die hard fans or the simply curious can now take  guided tours of the South Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn, Queensbridge, all immortalized locations in NYC within rap lore. Even as hip-hop has become a global language, rappers are still intimately connected to where they live, and their origins can be pegged by their slang, cadences, and style of production. Any fan listening to Ka’s excellent, self-produced Grief Pedigree would trace Ka’s aesthetic to the East Coast, if not within the borders of Gotham itself. His construction of spare, minor-key boom-bap loops, his use of dense internal rhyme patterns and extended wordplay – these are the classic markers of 90s golden-age, “lyrical” New York street rap. “My flow, delivery, I feel like it’s a quiet rage now,” Ka conveyed to an interviewer earlier this year.

He is telling the truth. Ka spits with palpable urgency and conviction, each bar imbued with gravity and often multiple meanings. This intensity is somehow enhanced by his adoption of an unhurried, monotonous inflection throughout the record, delivering boasts, laments, and questions with an almost unyieldingly deadpan tone. This somewhat abstracted approach to rapping allows Ka to seamlessly blend roles, to be observer and participant, to act as documentary essayist as well as street protagonist. To wit, Grief Pedigree is interspersed with audio clips sampled from a documentary called Brownsville Transfer  exploring the history of Brownsville and the NYC Housing Authority administered Brownsville Houses. In the opening moments of “Vessels,” the listener is told: “This is the skyline of New York City as seen from Brooklyn, and this is a part of Brooklyn that few people see anymore – a battleground for the police and young street criminals.” Making the invisible places, stories, and conflicts of Brownsville (and the other parts of Brooklyn that have not yet been absorbed into Mayor Bloomberg’s luxury real estate development machine) visible is Ka’s mission.

 

To this end, Ka is creating something of his own emotionally driven audiovisual archive of Brooklyn. He does not glorify Brownsville – his rhymes make its dangers and tribulations abundantly clear, and the specter of drug violence and police brutality hovers uneasily throughout his videos – but for Ka, it is important that they are not forgotten.[1] This is meaningful and politically important work, for current narratives around New York as the creative capital of the world and fully beyond the post-industrial fallout elide just how many of its residents continue to suffer from lack of employment opportunities, poor housing, underfunded (and increasingly privatized) public education, and discriminatory police practices such as stop and frisk. It is telling that one of the few videos to depart from this template takes place in a school, suggesting education to be one of the few pathways out. By depicting these recordings in his videos and lyrics, Ka’s specific explorations take on broader associations that are still deeply relevant to post-industrial cities throughout America.

As one of these cities, Philadelphia has been attempting to replicate New York’s “successful” transition from manufacturing center to service and leisure hub for several years, and the accompanying dangers are clear. Mayor Nutter’s ban on public “feeding”, which coincided with the opening of the Barnes Foundation, is only the most recent example: institutionally driven cultural consumption becomes permissible only with the removal of homeless people nearby. The $50 million construction of Dilworth Plaza (replete with ice skating rink, café, and an unspecified art installation) and the city’s youth curfew provide yet other instances of the Nutter administration’s attempts to re-orient public space toward leisurely consumption, at the expense of providing vital services to the city’s more marginalized residents. Unfortunately, the discourse of creating “vibrant” art spaces can and does go hand in hand with the displacement of persons deemed not to belong in them. Thus, to me one of the most pressing questions an artist might ask is how to not let creative and social work contribute further to this exclusionary logic, while harnessing this new influx of capital productively. By fixing an unflinching, archaeological gaze upon New York’s built environment, upon spaces that signify struggle and others that signify hope, Ka may provide the beginnings of an answer.

 

Bertolain Elysee is a writer and musician from Queens, NY, currently based in Philadelphia.



[1] In the aforementioned interview, Ka expresses his ambivalence when asked about his thoughts on NY’s growth: “I’m torn. A lot of the new comers come to NY and they think it’s sweet. They move like its sweet. Sometimes the hood inside of me says ‘you couldn’t have done that in the NY that I grew up in, you would’ve gotten yourself hurt up.’ But then as a grown man I also understand that I wouldn’t want the kids today to live through the same shit I did.”

[2] For a much more thorough critique of the idea that fostering “vibrancy” is a panacea for urban woes, see Thomas Frank’s “Dead End on Shakin’ Street” published in Issue 20 of The Baffler.

 



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