The first-ever Brooklyn Renaissance Fair kicked off this Saturday at noon in East Brooklyn. Organized by the Brooklyn-local music & arts organization Cypher League in collaboration with Zuri Marley, Arts East NY, and the recovering Cypher League-affiliated underground music scene institution Apostrophe, the festival was rife was raw, underground talent from the North East music and visual arts scenes. The festival was reminiscent of your classic family-friendly block party: an all ages crowd (babies, preteens, parents, grandmothers, etc.) that had host Tee Smif asking the performers to tone down swearing in the lyrics, free food (two giant trays of belly-filling beef patties), and intertwining social circles of the festival spectators, several of which were friends or family of the artists performing.
Getting off the C train two-and-a-half hours into the festival, the 20,000 square-foot vacant lot at 2501 Pitkin Avenue was converted halfway into festival grounds, with Vitamin Water keeping the sparse number of early-bird festival goers hydrated. Across the lot, Adrian Yu was spinning his DJ set while visual artists began hammering and hanging their works for all to see. Unfortunately, the generator’s gas ran out at 3pm which required the management to run down the street for more fuel, giving people time to engage with artwork uninterrupted. With black plastic bags covering 40s in people’s hands as they ambled around the lot, the festival was a relaxed, grittier version of the Chelsea galleries, where artists like Victoria Brown and The Love Child engaged consistently with viewers that appeared intrigued by their works.
A quick once-over of Love Child’s artistry will give you some idea of his name’s origin. The graffitied-out canvases bear some semblance to the works of Cy Twombly, and the colors practically pop with warmth and love alongside a sense of wonder. “I just want to create something that will help people quit their job, like for them to stop working for someone else and follows their dreams,” Love Child explained. “All the most famous people in history did it; they took the plunge with no parachute and landed. I want to help them do that.” Near the stage, Victoria Brown was drawing her own following. “When making art, I’m creating my own language to communicate about things happening within myself or within the world,” Brown described to me. All of her paintings seemed to convey this artistic philosophy, whether it be her own personal life or a more global issue, the works came across as a way in which she could express her beliefs and opinions.
With the generator filled, the festival truly found its stride; the first live act Amani Fela & Strangelove took to the stage around 4pm. The young duo managed to perk the crowd up, breaking them away from the sloth-like trance that everyone had just settled into. Up next, SitcomLife got her set started by commanding her DJ to “drop the bitch track” and impressed her inner psyche upon the crowd when rapping about her personal troubles on “Distant Lovers” and “Hip Hop Labor.” Her DJ unfortunately hiccuped when setting the backing track for “Breakfast,” but the supportive crowd enabled Sitcom to recover her flow gracefully and finish her set strong.
Up next was Taro spitting tracks from his upcoming Japanese-themed EP First Born Son. Throughout the set, the young MC cut with hooks sharp like katanas, closing on a final production-less verse with a mesmerizing flow left the audience to meditate in silence. Shortly after, LaFrance and Bull represented East Brooklyn on stage, with upbeat and carefree attitudes that had everyone hopping around ecstatically and shouting “What you gonna do with that big old booty?” The Mishka-repping Dom O Briggs and his rave-aesthetic DJ took the stage next, ripping over the darker electronic samples on “Gummy Bears” and featuring a plethora of guests like CIDNINJA and ScienZe for their verses and hooks from his albums Mr. Briggs and ResetEP. A few skipped verses by Briggs even went by unnoticed, with the crowd so enraptured by the slacker vibe that Briggs had to make it apparent with his laugh-it-off-embarrassed announcement.
East Brooklyn maintained its spotlight with the up-and-coming HD beginning the late afternoon sets. Matching the energy of his senior performers, HD‘s set embodied the Cypher League mindset, notably on the track “Aladeen.” The young artist dropped the backing track during the verse “All you whack critics can suck my dick/They be like/He sounds like Logic/No, he sounds like Joey/No, he sounds like/Shut the fuck up and blow me,” driving the message home to people like me that his potential goes far beyond those lazy comparisons.
Given the rap-centricity of the festival, it was somewhat surprising that Boston’s period-ending-obsessive Holm. joined the BRF’s roster. It was immediately apparent once he began how much his beachy, synthpop ambiance clashed against the muscular and heavier mood that had been established by the rap genre. Nonetheless, in his vintage Hello Kitty hat and Hawaiian shirt, Holm. served up refreshing melodies that managed to coalesce with the festival’s chill atmosphere. The weed and cigarette smoke floated above the audience members’ heads during the sunset, allowing dreamy auditory waves from “Update Failed.” and “Don’t Mind.” off the Ithaka. EP to lull the listeners into a hazy trance, heads bobbing along to the drum beats.
After a string of live performances, the booming bass from the DJ’s interim set of slow dub reggae jams physically forced crowd members away from the lone main stage and find solace in the various benches set up or to appreciate The Love Child’s unveiled, live-painted white fence piece. When the bass-thumping subsided, the crowd surrounded the stage as Dynamic Equilibrium’s Alpha Memphis and Machia began their set, heavy with various singles and tracks off their Post-Crack Era album heavy with instrumental jazz backing tracks. Unlike the previous acts’ hit-or-miss familiarity with the crowd, Dynamic Equilibrium had almost everyone calling back while bouncing to the boom-bap beat, belting the duo’s autobiographical lyrics “Work like a slave, eat like a king…In your lifetime you reap what you sow, that much I know.” The duo closed with the philosophical “Age of Enlightenment,” and the crowd members were more than receptive to the song’s message. Following Dynamic Equilibrium’s lead, everyone flashed their peace signs and roared the life-affirming mantra: “Peace, Peace, Love/Love and Peace, Peace.”
Nicholas Hunt, one of Cypher League’s festival artists, followed after Dynamic Equilibrium, mellowing the energy down with his R&B-infused set and switching between aggressive rap verses and swooning, soulful hooks. His romantically-themed ballads and crooning vocals more than fit the evening ambience, with crowd members happily swaying back and forth to the tracks that his backing DJ impressively put together that day. The off-the-roster ScienZe took the stage for an unannounced performance after, hitting a handful of songs off of Divine ScienZeand The Wake Up Album such as the headbanging “Hero” and crowd-favorite “Rocket.” At the end of his set, ScienZe brought Johnny U onstage, amping the crowd up as they rapped over the scratchy production and squelched female vocals of “Hear My Vision.”
After a flood of testosterone charged flows, the stage finally was graced with the presence of the second and final female set of the night: the gorgeous and fearsome L.atasha A.lcindor, or as she reminded the crowd, L.A. Channeling the energy from ScienZe’s set, L.A. stimulated the crowd with both music and socially commentary, mentioning the Ferguson shootings shortly before diving into her biting, dagger-like vocals on “Black Magic,” and emphasizing the necessity of women’s equality as a prelude to her feminist-inspired “YO.” Throughout the night, L.A. had the crowd constantly roaring with applause, the loudest coming well-deservedly just after her final verse on the closer, “I’m Alive.”
Having seen Salomon Faye’s lanky body jumping around near the front of the pit the entire night, it was only a matter of time before Cypher League’s other festival-representing artist, The illUZiON, finally showcased their musical philosophy in all its glory. Faye with fellow illuZiON rappers Enasni Leber and Vader the Villin overtook the show, exuding their iconic, “no fucks”-punk energy in their stage presence. During crowd favorites like “Brooklyn 11233,” the group and no less than 30 people jumping were in unison and headbanging while praising the rise of Brooklyn. Those on close terms with The illuZiON made their way onto the stage to bounce, hyping during “Alchemy” and creating a scene all too reminiscent of one of those nostalgic, anarchic nights at the old Cypher League Dojo.
By the time I was back on the C train to Manhattan, it was hard not to buy Smif’s consistent bragging that “Something like this has never happened before in East Brooklyn! We’re making history y’all!” Maybe it was just a gimmicky facet of his paternal presence that engrained those claims deep in my skull, but there really was something original to the Brooklyn Renaissance Festival. During those brief 12 hours, each moment of the festival felt unique and truly original, saturated in the positive energy of today’s youth that few, if any, other music festivals in Brooklyn, or New York itself, have offered. It might just actually be a sign of the times.
Photos by Angel E. Fraden and Matthew Levine