Art Is Power: A bi-weekly column where Che Kothari, renowned photographer & executive director of Manifesto, asks artists to succinctly define the power of art.
We were thrilled to bring Richard "Crazy Legs" Colon to Toronto for the 4th Annual Manifesto Festival in 2010 -- as one of the original members of the Rock Steady Crew, Legs is one of the original B-boys, doing it before people had a name for it. As a kid he was creating moves that are now part of the B-boy vernacular, and in his teens he was traveling the world preaching the gospel of hip-hop, performing in Hollywood movies, and immersing himself in the music and culture of a new art form. He and hip-hop grew up together, and bringing him to the festival was a treat.
Since then we've stayed in touch, and man, the cat always has something good on the go. He's hosting an event, DJ'ing at a wicked party, judging the up and comers in a battle, dancing, teaching; the guy makes the dedicated look like slackers. He is an amazing example of what it takes to really make it as a pro: hard work. In fact, when we brought him up to Toronto for the Manifesto festival it was on the condition that we find him a place to do his live to air DJ show Lunch Breaks. This web-series doesn't make him any money, but he didn't want to let his fans down -- its wacky blend of cooking and spinning has a cult following, and there was no way he was coming if we didn't get him a kitchen. Fortunately the Starving Artist hooked us up and we were able to make it happen. But that's what I'm talking about when I say dedication.
Photo by Carlo Cruz
Legs has also been exploring his rich ethnic heritage through his work, both by the blending cultural influences in it and by bringing it to the places of his ancestry. It's a poetic circle of life, a natural migration back to the motherland for inspiration and also to inspire. He's working on a new project called "Puerto Rock Steady", happening this May 3rd to 6th. As he got to explaining it to me, I could tell this is a lot more than a business venture to him.
One day I was talking on the Lunch Breaks Show about doing things for the island and the word PRIDE became the major aspect of my inspiration. Being that the first two letters in PRIDE are "PR" I needed that to work with Puerto Rico. So I spoke to my friend Edgardo Miranda and he helped with coming up with P.R.I.D.E. (Puerto Rican Individuals Delivering Empowerment). And then I started thinking about how many intelligent artists I know. I also thought that it didn't have to stop at just being Puerto Ricans that can help. So I reached out to several of them and they all got pretty excited about the concept. I explained to them that I felt like it would be a good idea to establish a tutoring program on the island where academic leaders that are musicians as well, can come to Puerto Rico prior to finals week and give the children some extra help through this tutoring program that they may not be able to get at home.
Photo by Carlo Cruz
I'm a sucker for dedicated, super-artists who give back to the community, so naturally I had to find out what Legs thinks about my firm belief that Art is Power. Here's what he had to say:
How did you become involved with the arts?
The arts to me wasn't something that I grew up understanding. I started dancing in 1977, but never appreciated it for the art that B-boying is. It took me until the late 80s to realize that I was an actual artist. I actually became an artist the moment I felt that I wanted to be part of what eventually became labeled hip-hop.
How has art changed your life?
It gave me life, gave me a voice without having to speak when I was shy as a kid. It also helped me to give others a form of expression within their lives. The fact that my art has served as a cultural and ethnic bridge to others from other parts of the world has done more than change my life. It's changed the lives of people with that same interest.
What does ART IS POWER mean to you?
For 25 years I had the honour of being a member of the Universal Zulu Nation. During my earlier years, when you would have thought that I would be learning about what it was to be Puerto Rican and what I should be doing as one, by my own people, I actually learned from Afrika Bambaataa. Not in the sense that he sat there and broke down every detail to me, but he made me feel a sense of interest and a need for true pride in my people and myself. As I began to do whatever research I could, I realized more and more that as much as I was an American citizen, the blood that flowed through my veins was that of a Taino warrior. Learning the little that I could with limited resources gave me an awareness about the needs of the island and people of Puerto Rico, from the economics of the Island to the education of the children. From that point on, I made a promise to myself: I told myself that when it was time to buy a home I would bring it back to my roots and purchase on the island. DONE! I always had the sense that it would be a proactive move, it would actually be about the flag -- and people not just waving it and screaming that I was one of them -- I also told myself that I would take it a step further and put my efforts towards doing what I can to bring awareness to the needs of Puerto Ricans.
Legs makes an amazing point here: when we have the resource of pride in who we are, the wealth of self-knowledge, it becomes an actual asset to the individual and the community. Pride in our roots makes us more eager to invest in our village. Artists like Legs bring their inspiration and fuel it back into to their neighborhoods, building economic resilience. Not only does it feed the community financially, it reinforces the strengths that already exist within that unique culture. He continued by saying:
Art also creates unity and causes thought. It can act as a bridge to bring people together that normally wouldn't bother with each other, because of ethnic cultural differences. Also, the admiration of ones artistic skills is an amazing barrier breaker.
Photo by Carlo Cruz
Part of his work involves a lot of blending of musical genres. It's never been about isolating himself: it's about bringing people together. That brings us back to "Puerto Rock Steady."
I had initially set out in my thoughts to be a big vacation destination for people that are hard working, music lovers, whether they worked in the entertainment industry or even in the educational system. The commonality would be that they love diversity in music. But it's important, because I want P.R.I.D.E to eventually springboard off of "Puerto Rock Steady" and start making more of a difference in the near future for the children and economy of Puerto Rico.
So hey y'all if you're going to be in Puerto Rico this May, check it out, take part, and if not you can always catch Lunch Breaks every day at 2:00 pm EST on Ustream.
And now for some fun to close off...check out Legs & Ken Swfit on David Letterman back in the day:
Follow Crazy Legs on Twitter @CrazyLegsRSC
Check out previous Art Is Power Series Articles:
Che Kothari is a renowned photographer and the executive director of Manifesto Community Projects, whose mission is to unite, inspire and empower diverse communities of young people through arts and culture. chekothari.com | themanifesto.ca