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Dreams, Diaries, and Getting Down: Individualizing the Past Through Youth and Nostalgia

Mabel Rosenheck
Justice Smith in The Get Down

Despite its limitations, television can help viewers make sense of and shape both the world and the struggle for social change.

The bellbottoms, the crop-tops, the afros. The bright red Pumas and kung fu moves. The spray paint on subway cars and Grandmaster Flash on the turntables. Decaying infrastructure and burning buildings. Black youth that rock the block and shoot for the world.

The Get Down, the new series from Netflix, is at its best when it's a teen drama that intertwines the historical context of black and Latino working class lives -- lives so often underrepresented on television -- with the incredible culture they produced in the South Bronx in the '70s. There's no doubt that The Get Down, with its mythic narrative, vibrant colors, and extravagant musical routines that combine the past with the present, bears the mark of co-creator Baz Luhrman.

Yet to read it solely on those terms is to miss so much of the series' underlying argument; it’s to miss so much of hip-hop’s underlying argument. From its opening notes that use a 1996 arena concert to frame this '70s street story, The Get Down tells us this isn’t just about music; it's about economic inequality, entrenched racism, and the systematic abandonment of a borough. The interludes of news broadcasts and documentary footage aren't incidental to the story, they're integral. They're why this story matters, why it couldn't be told in another time, why it didn't happen in another place.

What The Get Down does is use hip-hop -- the constellation of DJs, MCs, break dancing b-boys, and graffiti writers -- to tell even bigger stories about social, cultural, economic, and historical contexts. The history of hip-hop is a history of urban renewal, white flight, deindustrialization, austerity, drugs, gang violence, and disenfranchisement in the postwar era. It's also a history of resistance and struggle. Through its teenage protagonists, the series shows how the music and these contexts are inextricable.

Making this history visible are narratives about arson, and frequent glimpses of burning buildings. The series intentionally interrupts otherwise wholesome and universal stories about young love, dreams of stardom, and parental defiance with reminders of the social context in which these teen dramas are happening. At times, these reminders of what has happened in the Bronx may feel forced, but they do important work in highlighting the everyday realities that surrounded these people.

Similarly, Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits), a Puerto Rican politician representing the Bronx who is both corrupt and idealistic, sometimes sounds like a nightly news report, but his exposition is as important as the images are in juxtaposing personal stories with systemic ones. This argument is extended further when Zeke Figuero (Justice Smith) -- a poet and budding MC -- gets an internship with the city’s Fiscal Control Committee downtown at the World Trade Center. The powerlessness of working class black and brown youth finds avenues into the halls of power, and Michael Kiwanuka's contemporary track "I'm a Black Man in a White World" plays over the scene. Like the burning buildings, like the politician, the series, through Zeke, shows how hip-hop was informed by the race and class politics that characterized the birth of the neoliberal city.

The series also shows the grassroots takeover of abandoned spaces. Spaces that absentee landlords looking for insurance money set on fire are prime spots for partying and working class cultural production. What we hear in the music, and what we see over and over again in the city, is what Tricia Rose identifies as the dominant logic of hip-hop: "flow, layering, and ruptures in line" (Black Noise 38). The past, present, and future flow into one another, are layered on top of, and at the same time interrupt, one another. The 70s-era disco, funk, and soul songs are used for their break beats and are rapped over by wordsmiths like Zeke, manipulating the products of capitalist culture.

Manipulating time, Zeke's words are played over records from the past. They are about the Bronx in the '70s, but they also suggest his future as a rap superstar selling out arenas in the '90s, while simultaneously suggesting the memory of all of this in 2016. There's no single conception of time here; the past of the black and Latino working class Bronx collides with decades of neglect, and runs into a future where these stories are mythologized on a superheroic scale.

As much as this series is about the music, graffiti is an equally eloquent manifestation of the series' arguments. The roar of the subway is a constant on the soundtrack. Images of graffiti-covered cars serve as interstitials between scenes and episodes, a constant reminder of the distance between the Bronx and Manhattan, between labor and capital, and deindustrialization and austerity. They are a constant reminder of how graffiti writers, like DJs and MCs, took back the city by creating art as a response to the politicians that left them for dead.

The show's thesis is that out of neglect came an even stronger need to proclaim oneself. Hip-hop was a way of affirming the value of black life in the face of those who said they didn’t matter. Hip-hop was people of color showing that they had something to say, that they were more than statistics or burned out buildings or housing projects. In hip-hop, and on The Get Down, the South Bronx isn’t just a warzone or a ruin, but a community; it’s families and churches and crews.

This isn't a new idea -- scholars and journalists have been putting forth a similar ones for decades -- but it’s a departure from discourses that dominated the graffiti writing of the '70s, which vilified hip-hop as mere evidence of social decay, juvenile delinquency, and the inferiority of black life. The fact that the series isn’t built around a "gritty realism" is certainly a testament to Baz Luhrman's over-the-top musical aesthetic, but it’s also a reevaluation of the South Bronx that draws not just on the burned out buildings within it, but equally on the vibrant colors of graffiti or the energetic flows, layers, and ruptures of DJs and MCs.

As much as The Get Down fits into the history of hip-hop in the Bronx, it can and should also be situated in a longer history of using seemingly trivial youth culture to tell larger stories about social change and race and class struggle in America. These series are a rejoinder to an understanding of mass media as an agent of stupidity, a rejoinder to the idea that all mass culture is identical. These series argue that music, art, and television itself are fundamental ways in which we make sense out of the world, and even out of which we can change the world. As much as they may be products of culture industries that represent bourgeois interests, these artifacts are used -- in both the past and the present -- as ways of making meaning out of the social forces that shape our lives.

Shows like The Get Down, American Dreams, and The Carrie Diaries are often nostalgic, but theirs is a nostalgia for black community in the South Bronx, for the civil rights movement in the urban North, or for the queer and feminist spaces of downtown New York, respectively. Theirs is a nostalgia that challenges the easy sense of loss and the erasure of systematic injustice that characterizes earlier series like Happy Days and The Wonder Years.

Premiering in 2002, American Dreams built on the appeals of earlier series also set in the past: its tag line was "Remember the Music. Remember the Innocence". Yet, this was a series that not only replayed the songs of the past but, like The Get Down, also placed them in historical context. While American Dreams, Happy Days, and The Wonder Years all focus on teens and the family as a locus of both adult memory and youthful identification, American Dreams was a show that used cultural history to engage with narratives of political and social change, setting its early '60s Philadelphia teens apart from the safe nostalgia of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage). Indeed, further distancing these teenagers from the suburban whiteness of other series is the class character of both the white, Catholic Pryor family and the black Walker family. Both families are left out of the kind of white flight that marks the Cunninghams and the Arnolds.

Gail O'Grady and Arlen Escarpeta in American Dreams

One of American Dreams's most powerful moments comes in the middle of the seventh episode of the first season. In it, Usher performs as Marvin Gaye singing "Can I Get a Witness?” on American Bandstand; protagonist Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow) sings along in the audience. This scene is intercut with Sam Walker (Arlen Escarpeta) in the locker room at East Catholic High, where he's one of only three African-American students. Dressed only in a towel, members of the football team play a prank on him by stealing his clothing out of his locker and, helplessly, Sam stands there with the white boys, including Meg’s brother JJ (Will Estes), playing monkey in the middle. Usher as Gaye asks "Somebody, somewhere, tell 'em it’s unfair. Can I get a witness?" as Sam stands by powerless.

The boys on the team are literally there to see what's happening to Sam, but when confronted by their coach, none of them will come forward to bear verbal witness to the indignities to which they're subjecting his black body. Sam begs, silently, for someone to tell 'em its unfair, but he's clearly alone in this. Thus, while the scene’s representation of Usher as Marvin Gaye perhaps invokes the progress of African-Americans in the cultural sphere and reflects the tolerance of the baby boom generation, it also reveals the gross limitations of progress on both an interpersonal and an institutional level. There’s little the school can or is willing to do to defend Sam -- or Usher --against the humiliations of institutionalized racism. What's more, as Meg enthusiastically sings along to Gaye on Bandstand, JJ shows that there are limits to the racial understanding provided by simply listening to black artists. Meg can't interfere on Sam’s behalf, and neither does JJ, whatever the sense of transracial understanding presented on the sanitized soundstage of American Bandstand.

The distance between white teens and black teens, between white culture and black culture, between white communities and black communities, returns in the season finale when racial tensions in Philadelphia come to a head. On American Bandstand, the dissonance between police violence and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels is replaced by the consonance of urban rebellion and Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child playing Martha Reeves of the Vandellas singing "Nowhere to Run". The two groups that began in Detroit represent two very different histories of the Motor City, from the garage band to the polished pop of Berry Gordy.

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