For my master’s project at Columbia University, I wrote a story about Jamaican-Americans and their place in hip-hop. This was a photojournalism and print hybrid master’s project with a 29-picture photo essay about Cory Flook – a Jamaican-American trying to make it in hip-hop. Check out the photos and the story below. I’ve included an excerpt of the story so if you’d like to read more, please contact me.
Them want come wreck ya: Jamaicans and their place in hip-hop
By Nilo Tabrizy (Copyright 2012)
With the sun setting outside his window, hip-hop artist Cory Flook records music from his 10th-floor in Mount Vernon, a gritty section of Westchester County that sits just above the Bronx. Demo CDs are scattered on his windowsill and a broken Sony Discman covered in dust lies on the ground. Amid the disarray, Flook exudes a certain style and put-togetherness. His hair is bound into short, tight dreadlocks and he dons a green earth-tone long-sleeve shirt. That’s his Jamaican self, he says. Dark baggy jeans and a low-slung baseball cap form bookends to his outfit – the reality of the American culture in which he lives and performs.
To succeed, Flook is discovering his music must successfully, evenly, delicately straddle the same cultural divide.
Born in the United States, Cory Flook is half-Jamaican. His mother is from St. Catherine’s, Jamaica and his father is from St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Flook started performing when his mother put him in a talent show at 12 years old. There, he met producers who gave him his first experience in a recording studio. His musical roots come from his father, who was also a rapper. Until he was 17 years old, Flook was signed to Tycal Entertainment, a label so small that its web presence amounts to a MySpace page, that hasn’t been updated in two years. When Flook realized his deal with Tycal made money for his handlers and little for him, he started to produce his own music at 18.
Making it in the music industry is hard enough. Flook says to perform in Manhattan in before record labels, artists are often charged up to $150. But making it in hip-hop as a Jamaican – as a cultural outsider – is proving even more difficult for Cory Flook. When he performed at a free open mic at Karma Lounge in the East Village, no one showed up. In a small basement area, below the main club, on a makeshift stage with a wavering spotlight, struggling artists like Flook rapped their songs nonetheless.
“No label wanted to sign Jay-Z,” Flook says by way of explanation, as much as a reminder to himself. “All the greats pop because they had to make it pop. Ain’t nobody believe in them, they had to believe in themselves.”
Jamaican immigrants certainly stood out in New York. There was a mass migration of Jamaicans to the United States after national immigration quotas were lifted under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Today, New York State has the largest number of Jamaican Americans in the United States.
Jamaican immigrants are widely credited with bringing the roots of hip-hop to the Bronx in the 1970s. Clive Campbell, deejaying under the moniker DJ Kool Herc, immigrated to the West Bronx from Jamaica in 1967. Kool Herc grew up with the large sound systems of neighborhood parties in the garrisons of Jamaica, called dancehalls and DJs improvising speech in between songs, called toasting. Toasting lay the foundation for rap – it involves improvising spoken, rather than sung, lyrics over a beat. Kool Herc was famous for throwing his own version of Jamaican dancehalls at his parents’ apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in Morris Heights, Bronx. These were the first parties where hip-hop was played. Kool Herc would play popular funk records of artists like James Brown, and reggae music, then he would isolate the instrumental breaks and toast over these breaks.