“Let’s turn around, it’s blocked here.” Two police cars labelled BPD, lights out, are blocking a small street in the western part of the city. “Probably gunshots, they wouldn’t close the whole block otherwise.” Lawrence Burney, a black guy with glasses on, addicted to his phone, freelance journalist (for Vice, The Fader and Pitchfork) and huge fan of French rap, drives around the block and finally gets us to the infamous Penn North neighbourhood. A year ago that’s here that the protests were the most violent in ‘Charm City’. Often forgotten, stuck between New York, Washington and Philadelphia, Baltimore attracted America’s attention after its reaction to Freddie Gray’s death. On April 12th 2015, the 25 years old boy on his bike is caught at the corner of North Avenue, close to his house in Gilmore Homes, down one of the red bricks decrepit buildings that make the city’s architectural identity.
That night at the same spot, a small group of dudes hangs around smoking weed. A lonely and tired street light ambitiously tries to shed light on the battered road and old vacant houses dressed in wooden planks. There are no bars or restaurants in this part of town, the only open shops around are a liquor store and a laundromat, sometimes a brand less supermarket with minimalistic stalls. Two hours after his meeting with the police Freddie Gray was in a coma, injured in his spinal cord. Seven days later, he was dead, triggering the suspension of the six responsible police officers and the start of an investigation on homicide charges. Once Freddie Gray’s death had been made public, demonstrations erupted and then came a six nights unrest, the biggest since 1968, forcing the authorities to declare the state of emergency and call in the National Guard with its military grade equipment.
“Things you only see in video games”
Behind the wheel of his new Hyundai Sonata (the last one did not survive the bumpy roads), as the radio spits some Travis Scott and some JPEGMAFIA, Lawrence, one the city’s trendiest rappers, remembers those dark insomnia nights: “It wasn’t chaos all over the city, but the unrest was located in the neighbourhood I live in, Penn North. Helicopters were flying over my house all night long, I heard cops talking in walkie-talkies. It’s frightening to be surrounded by Humvees and machine guns, it’s things you only see in video games. My step-father had a shop in town, I wanted to help him close it down, but the National Guard was blocking both ends of the street with guns and riot shields. You don’t know if you can cross, you might get shot at any point.”
To him the city had it coming for a long time. “There have been a million Freddie Grays before. The difference was that his arrest was filmed. It sparkled everything. His death allowed people to wake up and rise up against the system. When you go out and the only things you see are empty houses and used syringes on the floor, let me tell you that none of your days start well. It’s most people’s reality here. How do you want anyone to react in such an environment? People are also fed up with police’s impunity when it deals with the black community. They act like they please, they’re everywhere, harassing everyone.” In Baltimore every member of the black population has a story to tell about the police. Lawrence remembers well his first arrest when his was 13, he and few friends had lit fireworks, they were all lined up against a wall, hands on their heads, by cops that had arrived sirens at full blast. Police forces almost kill someone on a daily basis there. Every morning two or three gloomy news come out in the Baltimore Sun. “Just last night for example, the police killed two. It has become normal to us.” Police officers feel like they have so much power that they decided that they were offended by the critics that followed Freddie Gray’s death last year, and they stopped patrolling and answering emergency calls. In consequence the city witnessed a record in the number of homicides (344 in 2015).
Going down towards Inner Harbor, down town, where the Light City Festival held its first edition, the lights of the city’s commercial area are blinding. That’s pretty far from the almost non existent public lights in Penn North. Sailing boats, couples with strollers and relaxed tourists wander around the concerts and the light shows. Around the corner, on the McKeldin Square that was squatted in 2011 by the Occupy Wall Street movement, the rappers DevRock and Son of Nun throw lines on Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” beat. Between two punchlines they make a reference to Freddie Gray and the LBS movement, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a think-tank that champions more consideration for the Black community in public policies.
The Light City Festival
They surely need it. In Baltimore the segregation is geographical, physical. The city’s legacy is one of pioneering the racist system of redlining in the 30s, which prevented black people to access to mortgage resulting in the creation of ghettos, black neighbourhoods and white neighbourhoods. “You can walk around a block with nice streets, pretty houses, then you cross a street and everything is shabby, as Lawrence describes it, people here only go one way, they never cross to the other neighbourhood. When you’re a student you’re even given a map of places to avoid. It’s a one of its kind city, people live next to each other but never interfere. When you’re black you never go to the fancy neighbourhoods. You just drive through them.”
© Patrick Joust
In the more opulent areas there are also invisible walls. The Light City Festival (a week of events around art, music and innovation), by putting forward only the ‘nice’ part of the city, isn’t sending a positive message, rather it gives the impression of hiding the issue behind glitter and cheerful events. Black or white neighbourhoods, rich or poor, the behaviours of Baltimore inhabitants shows that tension and mistrust are widely spread. You can feel it when a woman sitting on her porch asks you about your camera, or when Baltimore city’s tourism representative makes everything she can to prevent Radio Nova’s team (with whom we travelled) from having dinner too close from Johnson Park, an area where drug dealers operate in daylight and where scenes from The Wire were shot. Baltimore iconic series – which displays the confrontation of a police unit with organized crime – is not its best selling argument.
Scottie B, the anomaly
A man defied Baltimore’s reality, and became one of its main characters. The DJ and producer Scottie B lives in a nice house in Remington, a quiet part of the city, a mostly working class area but gentrification is slowly making its way. We meet him in front of his place before following him in his cave, followed in turn by his small but loud dog, he set there a big TV, his studio and a wall of fame. On the said wall, American football jerseys, a copy of the Baltimore Sun, hats, trophies and a picture of Maryland University’s basketball player Len Bias. The local dribbling star, often compared to Michael Jordan, who died of a cocaine overdose two days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics to play in NBA, in 1986. Scottie B also kept posters where his name is besides Ms Tony’s, the city’s legendary trans MC, and Shawn Cesar. It is with him that he started the Bmore club, but they simply call it ‘club music’. The Bmore is a hybrid genre, between hip-hop and house, it saw its golden era in the 90s in the US, before a small revival in Europe in 2006-2007. In France it echoed with artists like Kazey, OG Bulldog, Night Slugz’s crew or Feadz and Teki Latex.
Scottie B and Lawrence Burney © Keem Griffey
Scottie B who launched most of the label Unruly back in 1993, remembers the first times of a movement that united house and hip-hop, despite their history of almost ignoring each other: “At the time hip-house started to work well. On the East Coast, hip-hop dudes listened to it and started to rap on house. It lasted for whole summer, in 1989, but in Baltimore we kept on going after that. When the genres are mixed so is the crowd. I don’t know if people realized that that sound only existed in Baltimore. It became the city’s musical image to the outside world.” The Bmore scene peaks between 1994 and 1999, focused on the city’s black community. In the middle of all that, one pale face, Scottie B, and it’s been like this for as long as he can remember: “Looking back on it I was the only white guy in all those parties.”
Scottie B’s Boiler Room
Scottie B was an anomaly for all of his life. He grew up in a black neighbourhood, in Park Heights, he studied in predominantly black schools. Today, he’s married to a black woman and lives with her and their three children. All this thanks to Baltimore’s Jews who went against the segregationist laws on the housing market. “In the 50s, you had delimited black and white neighbourhoods and there were clear demarcation lines. In the 60s, in Park Height, that was nicknamed Little Israël, Jews sold their houses to black families, which is something nobody else in the white community was doing. It countered the authorities’ plan and my family ended up in a black neighbourhood, he explains people never considered me like someone from a different colour. They were saying things like “You’re not white” or “I never considered you as white guy.”” As a kid Scottie B goes through the same abuse from the police. “I remember the first time I got caught, at 13, for a stupid thing. There was a myth that train locomotives had firecrackers inside. After school we tried to get in one but we got caught. They put us in a van, the same kind as the one Freddie Gray died in. When we got to the police station I was the last one. The cops laughed at me: “Oh! Look! We’ve got ourselves a white one!” They were treating us like animals.”
Bring down the walls
Yet we shouldn’t try to make a symbol out of Scottie B. He’s fine with just being a Bmore legend. “People sometime talk to me about it, but I’m no politician. I want to help people I know, make sure that people in the neighbourhoods I grew up in, get more attention. This way they might be able to start their path on a good note. At the time of the protests in Penn North, there were hipsters too. But when the demonstrations ended they just went home. If you want to change things you need to do more than demonstrate for a day. You need to come back the week after, get your hairs cut here, eat here, build relationships, shake hands… And let’s not fool ourselves, spend money. You don’t need to spend all your dollars on a meal, but enough for the cook to know what you like. That’s the way those places are going to develop.”
Baltimore communities’ mix is not dead yet. For two years, the Crown, a bar/club/lounge/gig, has hosted the Kahlon parties (which is soon to become a festival), bringing together communities and the underground scene. On the small scene, under red lights, Abdu Ali, a gay rapper with a punk attitude and engaged lyrics, is twitching, bare chest most of the time, behind both the mic and the decks. Scootie B recalls the first time he played there: “When I got in the room I heard: Faggot! Faggot! Faggot! I thought to myself: Shit! This rapper doesn’t like gays? What the fuck!? When I got closer I realized it was Abdu.”
Abdu Ali – I, Exist
Abdu Ali built his fame on his lyrics in which he tells about his life as a black and gay kid in the ghetto, how he was rejected and insecure, how he eventually became the voice of Baltimore’s queer scene, where artists seem to speak there mind more and more freely. “The interaction between the social situation and music isn’t anything new to Lawrence Burney who also is the co-founder of the Kahlon nights. It’s just that racial issues are more put forward by the media nowadays. Obviously it pushes artists to express their opinion. They used to talk about parties but now they know they can also become the next one to die on a video. All of this creates a feeling of emergency. Artists now consider that getting involve is a duty and not a burden.”
Abdu Ali @ Kahlon © Alex Andra
On the phone, Abdu Ali is not as enthusiasts about the Kahlon parties’ diversity. “It is true that it is a rather unique thing. When you see people from such different backgrounds getting together, especially in Baltimore where people usually avoid each other, it’s always cheering you up. But you won’t see any banker or anyone from Black Lives Matter. The usual crowd of Kahlon is involved in those kind of struggle. It’s a fairly diverse event but when you dig a bit, you still see people who suffer from racism or sexism. My goal is to break down this wall between black gays and straight gays, between Asians and Afro-Americans, between black and mixed race people, between black Christians and black Muslims. People need to unite, because we’re all on the same boat. Break down the barriers between minorities, that’s my fight.”
From Scottie B’s veteran point of view, Abdu Ali’s fight is a success: “His biggest success is not to make black and white dance together, it is to make gays and straight people dance together. That’s where he impacted the most, it’s huge. Of course there was Miss Tony in the past who was openly gay but it was a particular case. Honestly the wall between the black and the white community is much easier to breakdown, because if you give them money, jobs, food and sex, people won’t think about colour any more.”
This article was originally published in Trax Magazine #192 in May 2016