By Alexander Billet
Heading into Humboldt Park last night, it was hard not to notice the specter of gentrification looming over the neighborhood like a bad vibe. Real estate signs can clearly be seen seeping into the edges of this working class, heavily Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. The only signs more prevalent than these are the ones that proudly protest "Humboldt Park: Not for Sale!"
There is a lot for Humboldt to be proud of. While the diversity of so many neighborhoods has been wiped out by developers and replaced with Starbucks and lily-white, Humboldt has managed to stick by its roots. A massive Puerto Rican flag over Division Street greets you as you pass the park itself. Right down the street is Adalberto Methodist Church, where Elvira Arellano sought refuge from immigration officials as she fought her deportation. Working class artists and musicians, bohemians and activists have all found a niche in this area of town.
The reason I came into Humboldt was to attend a fundraiser at a local community center, El Batey Urbano. My friend Son of Nun was in town, and was guesting at this fundraiser with two groups from the east coast that I had never encountered. I say now that I am very glad I went.
The two groups SON was performing with were Broadcast Live, and Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde. Both are radical, musically eclectic, and brought an energy to that small community space that lit up the place! Those who doubt the power of music to inspire and organize would do well to hear the work of these two groups.
Broadcast Live's sound is rather hard to pin down, but that's only because it takes the best of so many different styles and make them all their own. Lyricist Victorio spits with confidence and utter devotion as the rest of the group delivers a hard-edged blend of hip-hop driven indie rock. Much more than sheer power, though, the group often takes a step back to settle into a slow, simple-yet-intricate soundscape and contemplate on the inner struggle of living in a world that clearly doesn't want you to exist. In Humboldt, this resonates. By the time they launch into "Boomerang Metropolis," the audience is on their feet, and there isn't a soul in the place who doesn't identify with the refrain of "motherfucker, get off my block!"
If Broadcast Live were a tidal wave of resistance, then Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde were a hurricane, swirling and weaving rather than blasting open, while not losing one bit of resolve or strength. Like Broadcast Live, their sound is hard to pin, drawing on jazz, reggae, hip-hop, and the incendiary energy of Nuevo Cancion and throwing them into a solid folk-rock. Though the group as a unit wouldn't work if any one member were missing, front-woman Asili is undoubtedly the focus, bringing a proud defiance to her work. Equal parts Lauryn Hill, Ani DiFranco and Lila Downs, the group's songs embodied the kind of power that only ordinary people have when they are able to raise their voices.
If Mayor Daley walked into El Batey last night, he would have had no clue what was going on.
Though the crowd was small last night, it was still undeniable that we were watching artistic power from the bottom up. This is the kind of vibrance and solidarity that all-too-many city councils have forgotten about (if they ever recognized it in the first place). More people need to hear these kinds of groups, if only so they can remind us what we're fighting for.
Alexander Biller is a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago. Regular contributor to Znet, Dissident Voice and SleptOn.com. Appears in the recently published "At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored For Violence and Exploitation," from Greenhaven Press. Check out his blog Rebel Frequencies