A Punk Rock band was an amped backdrop to a riveting poetic monologue that ripped into the air and put gentrification in a 50-minute choke-hold.
Gentrified Minds (the NY Horror, Volume 2) is a protest play by Dennis Leroy Kangalee. Kangalee performed as “The Nomad Junkie,” to the enthralling live beats from The Children of Warhol.
In his ode to New York City and its five boroughs, Kangalee showcased his contempt for the rise of hipsters, real estate development, displacement and corporate culture. He mourns the loss of authentic urban culture and local character– what he calls community.
His words ricocheted off the mic as he demanded, “What happened to the brother on the block?” The silent audience sat waiting, and finally he shouted, “He turned into a Starbucks!” Kangalee infuses humor and rage in the satirical theater piece that professes, “The powerless will always be a play thing for the rich, and our neighbors will always be pawns.”
Kangalee’s poems and songs are raw. And if they prove too radical for some, it’s because they’re supposed to be.
He wants honest debate and hopes to inspire aggressive social progress. Kangalee wants to agitate, challenge – elicit a visceral reaction. I chatted with the Nomad Junkie for a peak into his mind about artists’ role in social change and what he has coined as the “gentrified mind.”
Q. You’ve said that gentrification is a cultural, economic, and artistic war and that artists can and will play a significant role. What is that role?
A. The role of the artist in this war is to remind people that identity, self-definition and folk-culture is at stake and is worth fighting for besides what POP culture/mainstream has to offer. The artist has to remind people that weirdness, strangeness, the offbeat in life is just as integral to a healthy balanced life as is green grass, natural food and a decent wage.
Our role is to put up or shut up. We must reclaim our swagger from the self-effacing smug yuppie-hipsters who have done everything possible to destroy the demonstrative nature and lifestyle of the “artist.” They are poseurs who write on paper, when they should write poems on their spleen and pull them out of their chest!
I believe the artist should not be concerned with the modes of pop culture or making people feel good. Artists are truth-tellers, not mommies. Sometimes the truth hurts, and sometimes artistic revolutions do not look like progress, but a huge mess. And it is all right for things to be a mess as long as we are being as honest as possible.
Q. You’ve written about being on the edge of our imagination. How do we make everything we’re conscious of historically inform and inspire the now?
A. So many people are aware of, say, Ghandi, Franz Fanon, Orson Welles or Joni Mitchell but don’t ask themselves what kind of social environment prompted those activists or artists. And if theyare artists themselves, don’t they also have a responsibility to wrestle the demons of their times or generation as these artists have?
I believe our generation and the succeeding ones are obsessed with either pleasing their predecessors as opposed to challenging them. What’s disturbing is that nearly every artist in history whose work has been documented or cited has agreed every generation should incite a change and create new works for new times, steal and pay homage in their own way.
Van Gogh to Miles Davis would agree, which begs the question:Why hasn’t their been any major cultural changes in pop culture in the past 10-15 years? The answer is because artists have become gentrified, as in tamed by media and corporate vultures.
Q. Gentrified Mind is not only a theater piece and a song, but also a state of mind. What does it mean to have a gentrified mind?
The gentrified mind is the symbol of our cultural apocalypse. They are style over substance and do not believe in passion, but being cool– as in detached, irony. The gentrified mind is the person who does not see a yesterday he only sees a today. Unaware of culture, indifferent to anything that may have come before him, and is convinced he and his ilk are capable of improving everybody– that the pavement he stomps on is better for it.
They believe wholeheartedly in the mass media’s rendition of what is “supposed to be,” and that property value is more important than personal value. And so, the gentrified mind doesn’t think, act, or commit in an appropriate way — because their souls have been usurped, “re-developed”(like the communities) to suit corporate interests.
Gentrified Minds premiered at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center as part of NYC’s 9th Annual Downtown Urban Theater Festival. Since then Kangalee has received interest from universities that would like him to perform in the fall, however he admits that getting into local performance spaces in Harlem and Brooklyn, which he calls “hot-beds for gentrification” have proven “tricky.”
He’s been met with, “Yeah we’d like you to do the show, but it’s going to alienate people. We don’t want to alienate people. We have to be careful.” Kangalee admits that a performance piece can be perceived as more dangerous than other forms of art, but thinks controlling what we say and how we say it is a problem.