Hip-Hop Unites Hill & Tre, Town & Gown

Nicolas Medina Mora Pérez PhotoQ: What happens when you throw a bunch of kids from the Hill and the Tre in a basement with some Yalies?

A: An exchange of music. Dancing. Conversations. And a really fun party.

The not-so-usual gathering took place Friday night in the basement of 216 Dwight St., a dilapidated building that houses students involved with WYBC, the university’s radio station. Its purpose was to celebrate the release of a new rap EP by Yale’s Jacob Sandry, also known as Yaakov.

The evening featured performances by Sandry, another Yale rapper called Jake Backer, and Rosette City Musiq, a rap collective whose members hail from neighborhoods as far-flung as the Hill and Dwight-Kensington (aka The Tre).

In a city scarred by neighborhood rivalries and an historic town-gown divide, the demographics of the party were striking. Some 75 people attended the event, about half of them New Haveners unaffiliated with Yale. Many of them came from parts of the city that traditionally have not gotten along.

The atmosphere of the party was something like a citywide college mixer. The guests were treated to great music and a chance to interact with people from outside their usual circles. Kids from once-beefing neighborhoods shared lukewarm beer. Ivy Leaguers danced with Gateway students. Everybody was surprised by how easy it was to get along.

The party was a rare glimpse of what a united New Haven might look like.

Mostly, though, it was just really fun.

Equal Footing

Friday night’s party was inspired by a concert that RCM played at 216 Dwight late last year. Alan Sage, a Yale blogger who has dedicated himself to bridging the town-gown divide through hip-hop, contacted WYBC to propose that the rap collective play a show at the radio house.

Given that concerts at 216 Dwight usually feature Yale indie rock bands, Sage’s suggestion of bringing a New Haven rap collective to the basement of the radio house was anything but orthodox. The students who run WYBC decided to go with it anyway. It worked.

Among those present at that first concert was Sandry (pictured above), who was so impressed by RCM that he decided to invite them to play at his own release party. Interviewed before the concert, Sandry explained that he liked the idea of letting Yale students and New Haven residents interact on equal footing.

“When Yalies interact with New Haven people, it’s usually Yale kids coming down to them to help,” Sandy said. “But that’s kind of paternalistic. What I like is having Yale kids and New Haven kids just hanging out.”

Members of RCM echoed Sandry’s thoughts. Duce Green (pictured above with opener Jake Backer), a 24-year-old resident of Dwight-Kensington, said that he felt welcome at 216 Dwight.

“We’re black, and like 90 percent of Yale kids is white,” he said. “But if y’all think about us, and if you invite us to show you a little of what we got, that’s cool. We like seeing the reaction of the Yale kids to our music.”

T-Fleez (pictured above), another 24-year-old member of RCM, agreed with Green.

“I love performing here,” he said. “We get a lot of respect from people. Everyone’s on their best behavior tonight—no drama, just fun.”

RCM’s success at 216 Dwight might have something to do with the collective’s history. RoBoy Beanz (pictured), a 22-year-old member of RCM from the Hill, explained that the group was already bridging divides before playing at Yale. He said that the collective was founded several years ago on Rosette Street with members coming together from different parts of the city.

That may not seem remarkable—except that New Haven has a long and bloody history of inter-neighborhood violence. For instance, the drive-by shooting last fall of a 16-month-old boy on Kensington Street, the heart of Tre territory, grew out of a feud between gangs from the Tre and the Hill.

By coming together to make music, the members of RCM were already exercising the kind of tolerant openness that would serve them well at 216 Dwight.

“We’re just a bunch of ‘hoods getting together to collaborate,” Beanz said of the collective. “Now we’re looking forward to a collab with the Yale kids.”

“Shout-Out To The Yalies!”

The night began with Yale’s Jake Backer performing some of his signature freestyle rap. (Click on the play arrow to watch clips from all of the night’s performers).

“Do any of you know what freestyling means?” Backer asked of the audience. “It means that I make up every word as I go!”

New Haveners could be seen looking at each other with skepticism. The crowd had spontaneously formed into two distinct groups—New Haveners and Yale students—each occupying one side of the grungy basement.

Slowly, as Backer rapped in between technical failures and difficulties, the atmosphere became more relaxed. People started dancing. Someone opened a 30-rack of light beer.

Backer finished his set with an improvised rap about his profound dislike for tofu, then left the stage to RCM. The lights went down, the volume went up, and the party exploded.

The members of the collective formed a tightly packed group on one side of the room, with their fans joining in to dance with them, occasionally even taking microphones to rap along with the lyrics.  As more and more people joined the collective, the divide between the stage and the party gradually disappeared. The air was full of energy.

By the time Sandry took the stage to present his new album, the speakers were so damaged that it was hard to hear what he was saying. But the two groups had become one.

Mutual Respect

People interviewed after the concert agreed that the party had been a positive experience. 

Raquel Austin (pictured above), a 23-year old from Newhallville, said she had a great time at 216 Dwight.

“This is my second Yale party,” she said. “It’s so much fun, ‘cause it’s a mixed crowd. People are always saying they only want to hang out with black people, or white people, but I don’t like that.”

She said that Yale students had impressed her by being so down to earth.

“They’re so polite!” she said, laughing.

Devin Butler (pictured with Austin), also 23 and from Newhallville, said that he enjoyed spending time with Yale students.

“It’s different,” he said with a smile. “Let’s just say that it broadens my horizons.”

Hannah Sassoon, a Yale student, said that she had been impressed by how much the party changed throughout the night. She said that she had been dancing with New Haven people.

“When we first walked down there, there was a very clear racial divide,” she said. “There was black people in the front and white people in the back. But then things started to change. This lady came up to us and started a conversation. She seemed really interested in knowing about my life, and I was very interested in learning about hers. It was very open and friendly.”

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posted by: jimjoebob on February 18, 2013  3:19pm

Sadly, New Haven’s most salient feature is its divisions: ethnic, class-based, town-gown. So hearing about events like this is very heartening. This town could use a lot more of this kind of thing.

Also, the second photo is absolutely classic.

posted by: markcbm on February 18, 2013  7:25pm

Similar parties have gone down in Yale basements in years past (though it has probably been a long while) - I’m glad the NHI covered this one, and so well. 

It’s always great to see folks from different walks realize how much they have in common. 

Tangentially, I’d give my bottom dollar to see the Yalies at a Rosette St. basement party.  As the kids say, that would poppin’.

posted by: random on February 24, 2013  9:06am

These kind of social events occur when young people challenge the stereotypical information fed to them about Yale and the New Haven community. I’m hoping more events of this kind happen and successfully diminish the racial and socio economic divide within the city. I’ve been aware that this “coming together” of neighborhoods was already taking place before this event and now that is has been reported it might inspire other young people to work toward becoming ONE New Haven again. Hopefully a new city administration will recognize the value of young people having spaces open to them to socialize and not allow fear to continue to deprive them of positive connections. I believe in restoring the livelihood of this city. It begins with thoughtful decision makers and a reallocation of funds.