On anniversary of landmark cultural program, alumni reflect on Boston in a time of violent unrest
During my several weeks of researching the history of the Boston chapter of Rock Against Racism, which celebrates its 40th birthday with an event downtown this week, news broke that students and a few supportive teachers at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester initiated a walkout in response to ongoing xenophobic incidents.
The headlines were just the latest reminders of Boston’s long legacy of racism. Depending on who you consult and confide in, it’s a heartbreaking reality for many. Which is all the more reason to look back at RAR, which in its active years during the late ’70s and ’80s was a touchstone of creativity, collaboration, and unity for Boston’s youth. With help from some forward-thinking adults such as Reebee Garofalo, the unit employed RAR to combat the normalization of systemic racism and hate crimes through workshops, performances, and the kind of parties adolescent memories are made of.
Four decades later, Garofalo and Fran Smith are championed as the co-founders of RAR, which began in 1979 and phased out sometime in 1986. A small resurgence has come on the heels of nostalgic recognition from local historians like Brian Coleman and footage archived at the UMass Boston Joseph P. Healey Library (which is available to watch online).
Here, five individuals associated with RAR—Smith; artist and illustrator Rob Stull; former DJ and rapper Kristal “Kristy C” Shelton-Vitiello; former member of the 3 Rapperteers, Michelle “Honey-Bee” Hunter; musician Ken Field; and UMass Boston associate professor and faculty director of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive Pacey Foster—share their memories of Boston back then, what they gained from having RAR in their lives, and how, in 2019, we can continue to honor the groundwork RAR laid for a better Boston.
As noted by Pacey Foster in a November 2017 Dig piece titled “Revisiting Rock Against Racism,” there was a briefing on the heightened level of racialized violence in Boston, before the first RAR event took place in December 1979. Could you describe and recall how 1970s Boston was, socially and politically?
ROB STULL: For those that have no experience of living here, they think of the race riots, [the 1968] James Brown concert [at the Boston Garden], and busing. Those had grabbed the national headlines.
As a young black kid, I came up in the Brookline school system and a lot of my friends were in the METCO program. [Looking back], it’s a shame we became desensitized to overt racism in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And what I mean by desensitized, I’m referring to being routinely stopped by cops—even in Brookline—questioned, and being called the N-word by people in authority.
As a black kid back then, if you came across a group of white kids, you almost anticipated a sort of negative interaction, especially if you were by yourself. It was that kind of thing. And I have vivid memories of my childhood in other areas like Roxbury and Mattapan. But it was everywhere. I knew it wasn’t right.
FRAN SMITH: [As far as being labeled one of the most racist cities in the US], that was very true. As a young, white person—and I grew up in Weymouth on the South Shore—there was no moral leadership among the religious, cultural, political poly-sections that existed. The racial violence that occurred from 1974 [when students were bused to further desegregate Boston schools] to the early 1980s was a direct result, in my opinion, of the culture of Boston at the time, which was that working-class people of color had no political power and mainstream culture really affirmed the rightness of whiteness. That was the landscape 40 years ago.
PACEY FOSTER: Boston exploded in the ’70s. I was just a kid back then. I was in the Brookline public school system starting in 1978, and it was intense. Even in Brookline.
In Boston, there were race riots at these schools and [remaining KKK members] were recruiting at South Boston High. A friend of mine was bused out to Weston on a “brown bus” and had rocks thrown at them. You can’t imagine the intense racial violence and tension that was going on. And that kind of shit, the youth was experiencing [it]. Compare that to the trauma of the times we’re living in now. Kids were traumatized. Scared. Angry.
KEN FIELD: I’m originally from New Jersey, and I moved to Massachusetts in the late ’70s to go to Berklee. I’ve stayed in Boston since. The city definitely had a reputation for being racist. And that really came out of busing, predating RAR. [Coming from NJ], KKK and Nazi groups were around, but I grew up in a racially integrated community and became friends with people of other backgrounds. Nothing was as newsworthy as busing back home though.
[Still], because I happen to be white, I know my experience is impacted by my own racial situation. I would say that in the musical community, I hope, and thought, it was more equitable than other parts of the city.
With that said, there was an interesting division. I had joined this funk band that played for RAR called SKIN. They were funk-based and influenced by music that had black roots. There was a division between funk and garage rock, [the latter] more based on European, “white” music. The two scenes had little crossover. But that has changed an awful lot, in Boston, elsewhere, and I don’t see that division now.
KRISTAL “KRISTY C” SHELTON-VITIELLO: I went to Roxbury High School, and the year I went was the last time it was opened. I lived in the South End and, so, that was my allotted school. After ninth grade, I was given the option of what school I wanted to go to, and chose Madison Park High. I never experienced busing and Madison did have people that were bused, but it was primarily a black school. I didn’t experience heavy racial issues when I was that young. There were no issues until senior year, and that was when I started working.
While still pursuing my DJing and music career, I got a part-time job after school. I was in a world in which I was interacting with mainly white people and that’s when realizations came into fruition and ever since then have. Like, Is this what you guys think? But I never went through people calling me names. I didn’t know that hardcore racial world as a kid. I loved the South End. I had the best time of my life.
MICHELLE “HONEY-BEE” HUNTER: I grew up in Orchard Park, and the white folks up the street would come down and just be ready to fight. They threw rocks at the buses. We were scared. When we did start to go to school with white kids, my mother started to have us go to church and I hated singing, so I would beat on the table and write poetry. I wrote about what I saw in the streets. People calling us the N-word, nappy head. What I knew.
But my mother taught us to not judge. I never judged anybody based on black, white, gay, because I had foster siblings too. One of whom, a foster brother, was killed by the cops. That was a big thing, with the cops in Dorchester, when my brother got killed.
Smith, how did RAR begin? There’s the story of how a group of Cambridge Rindge & Latin School students were impassioned about merging social justice and popular culture together.
FS: There was a lot of racial violence and hatred that was being felt within the Greater Boston region, not just the city itself, and Cambridge was just over the bridge. [Those students] had reached out to adults, and with musicians and DJs from different genres, the very first event happened at Rindge & Latin and a couple of hundred kids came out. Different music was played and there were talks about the history of music and how music could be a tool to bring people together, which was what the young people of Cambridge wanted.
PF: Until 1983, it was educators talking in schools and some video production but not really a youth program, per se. RAR were run by unpaid volunteers, and then in ’83 [was funded] by Boston Public Schools and RAR was able to hire Fran, got space in downtown Boston, and became an after-school program for Boston youth. By then, kids were also going crazy for hip-hop. So that hip-hop energy became more abundant in the organization.
Smith, how did you personally get involved?
FS: At Franconia College, Reebee had been my advisor, and after Franconia, we kept in touch. Reebee and a bunch of other folks produced the Amandla [Festival of Unity] concert that brought Bob Marley and the Wailers [to Harvard Stadium, in July 1979]. I had volunteered for that, and later, that first event that launched RAR. I was eager to be engaged. I loved music, dance, and was totally invested in dismantling racism and understanding white supremacy and whiteness and what I could do to change its existence.
Were you always inclined to do the work and be a part of the kind of activism that makes an undertaking like Rock Against Racism a reality?
FS: In high school, I was involved in a multiracial youth group and at Franconia, I studied the history of racism and discrimination in public education. When Franconia went bankrupt [and permanently closed in 1978], I moved back to Boston; and at that time, a bunch of black women had been murdered, and I was active in protesting that.
Even from a young age, I [felt this calling]. This young black girl, who was bused from Roxbury High to South Boston High, I met her while she was being bused during ’75-’76, and she asked me why my people taught their children to give her the middle finger and call her the N-word when all she was trying to get was what we already had, which was access to education.
I was 14, her friend, humiliated, and embarrassed. So, I’ve been on this cliff to understand why racism exists and why white adults were so angry that black and white kids were in school together. I’ve been leaning in from a place of inquiry since I was 14.
I also hate when I’m described as “passionate” because of what I do. It feels dismissive. I am an expert in the history of structural and institutional racism, public policies and practices that have ensured my unearned privilege. Facts don’t really matter to white people when it comes to racism. We have been breathing the air and drinking the water that is a bunch of lies about this nation and our history of inclusion, diversity, and equity.
Forty years into it, I know now, what I didn’t know then is that I came from the heart. I had a friend that was upset and hurt because of the decisions my people made.
And another thing about my journey is that I’ve always had a challenging time in male, white, traditional spaces. I’ve come to understand that I’ve spent 40 years decolonizing my heart and mind.
Rock Against Racism was based on the original RAR, over in England, and that was a direct response to emboldened racists and racism in the UK and its music industry. How did you guys hear about RAR stateside and what did you want to do differently in the Boston chapter?
FS: Mackie McLeod [III], who has since passed on, was a news guy on WBCN and an activist. He worked around racial justice issues and was instrumental with the Roxbury cable task force, to ensure that when cable came to Boston that community access stations would be included. And it was [a handful of other RAR black folks ensuring this result as well], such as Born, who was part of the Uneek Dominos. His dad was a technical producer [who later trained the young RAR staff on video production]. Mackie had the foresight to understand that technology, cable, and the internet were the waves of the future.
After Mackie visited England [where he got the chance to witness RAR], he brought the concept back to Boston and we took that concept and the idea of culture and art as tools of freedom and liberation alongside access television. Communication through television was something that the black folks and Reebee were adamant about so that they could control their own messages and stories and our kids could experience this new technology.
As someone who’s become aware of RAR in recent years, what is your connection to the organization, Foster?
PF: I study creative industries, and that means I’m interested in the intersection(s) of arts and cultures, social change and business, and justice. As a part of all this work, I launched the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, which came out of a long tenure of research and a community engagement project. We launched 2016 and partnered with the Boston Public Library to help digitize our first collection of cassette tapes, and they agreed to be our partner. That following Hip-Hop History Month, we launched about 500 rap tapes from 1985-88.
As a result of that, the UMass Boston special collections told me they had items from Rock Against Racism, and it was partly founded by UMB’s Reebee. He was a professor there. When he retired, he left behind all his RAR materials.
I vaguely knew it existed but didn’t know anything about RAR. As special collections were digitizing their videos, some included hip-hop. They sent me an example, which ended up being the RAR-produced Breakin’ Rappin’ Poppin’ Graffin: A Rockumentary (1985), a dance battle between the Floorlords and HBO aka Homeboys Only, outside of Madison Park High. I practically burst into tears. It was so moving to me, and so inspiring and unbelievable to see Boston’s first hip-hop generation. I had no idea that there were videos of these [performances]. Videos and camcorders were expensive back then, so I was floored. I was absolutely floored.
My new research trajectory is RAR, and how music has been used as a tool for organizing collective liberation and thinking about the models RAR used and what parts of those models still exist and were path-breaking.
For those of you who were performers—and RAR had a palette of genres on deck such as Latin, hip-hop of course, and jazz—can you recall what about RAR spoke to you back then? And how did the opportunity to perform come about?
KF: I joined SKIN after being in a couple of different bands in the Boston area, and they were mostly R&B. I think it was a mutual friend that knew about SKIN and their sax player was leaving. Being in SKIN was a real education for me. They were in a scene in which I was unaware of in terms of trying to make it in the music business and they were a partying band. A real in-your-face kind of band! By the time RAR came up, I was playing alongside another sax player, Henley Douglas, who’s still a close friend of mine and [thus, the band was also interracial].
I hadn’t heard of RAR personally. It was something other people in the band were aware of and we were invited. It was eye-opening. The people who were instrumental in making the events happen were so active in social justice issues and I wasn’t at the time. Our performance was my first introduction to social and political activism and had a significant impact on me to participate further.
Today, I’m part of the [Somerville-based] HONK festival and it’s oriented towards local activism. A band I play with are specifically community-oriented and is called Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band.
KC: Most of my history is with Fran. When I first performed for RAR [as part of the trio the Incredible She’s, in April 1984], I wasn’t initially known as a rapper. I did not rap, I was known as a DJ. I specifically wrote that rap because I wanted to be a part of that RAR high school production. That one that rapped with me, Shay-Skee, was in a theater arts class with me. It was a musical production about racial injustice, so, I was like, okay, Shay-Skee, let’s get down to it. And she hadn’t rapped a day in her life. That performance featured the first rhymes I wrote. I put my brain to the paper and let my brain do the talking about how uncool racism was.
HB: I was young then. I was in the group the 3 Rapperteers, me and two other girls. And what’s funny is that at the time, I was into like Luther Vandross, and later Whitney Houston. When I made my beats, it was through R&B music, so I didn’t sound like anybody else. I knew had a voice, what I wanted to talk about, and rap about what my mother and sisters went through, and conversations that the kids at school would have about the different colors of people and how people were judged based on that.
I met Fran at the [Jeremiah E.] Burke [High School] and the Rapperteers performed [March 1984]. RAR was just a unity then and creating music made us and our hearts feel better. RAR had a lot of summer things too. I was 14, 15 then, performing in the Rapperteers. Some of the places we performed at aren’t even here anymore.
Forty years later, how has RAR change your life for the better and unexpected? What can we learn from it? News clips from the ’80s and the kids that were interviewed showed sheer gratitude for RAR’s positive push for diversity and youth culture. There are also so many parallels between RAR’s day and 2019, and how matters of inclusion and human rights have all but imploded in the media, politics, and our everyday lives.
FS: For the last two years, I’ve been working in predominantly white spaces with white people trying to grow our racial justice muscle and flex. As I said, we’ve all been drinking the water. Racism, white supremacy, and all the standards of the US have been based on whiteness.
Recently, I realized that by being immersed in RAR since the time I was 20, I was taught that people had a right to self-determination and to know their own story. I was just a conduit for those stories to be told. I had a desire to be about love and justice. I didn’t know what I was doing and that was the beauty of it.
Because I had core values in believing that anybody can do what they want with the right support and resources, I stepped into relationships, work, and collectives from a different lens.
Since Oct 21, I’ve recognized that this thinking had everything to do with the black and brown and progressive white working-class volunteers I was with for years. They laid the foundation for me to decolonize myself and I’m so grateful. My life has been so rich. And I’m disappointed that most of society hasn’t gotten to see things the way I have and the kind of progress that I thought was possible 40 years ago.
PF: RAR was way, way ahead of the [inclusivity trend]. They were really the only place you could see a hip-hop group, a Latin group, a rock group, and get a speech about music and racial justice in the same space. That wasn’t happening anywhere. Let alone in Boston. It was a powerful part of their model. For something like RAR, it was a dramatic intervention for a community that was traumatized by busing. If what RAR did appears incredible, it’s even more so considering the cultural climate it came out of.
I think for a lot of us, when Barack Obama was elected, it felt like a high point, a real mark of deep cultural progress. Then in 2016, and leading up to that year’s election, it all unraveled. Ever since then, I feel like we’ve taken a massive step backward. It’s become a constant battle for hearts and minds. In some ways, I feel like we’ve progressed and then again, have regressed. Certainly, in the last few years. To put a sharp point on that, that means that RAR’s message and work are always timely because racism will always be with us, alongside sexism and patriarchy. We’re still working to dismantle all those structural oppressions. It’s important and critical that we look back at the models and successes of the past, learn from them, stand on their shoulders, and build on their work.
And while I’ve gone to and will always appreciate social justice movements [such as marches, rallies and meetings], a lot don’t really have the spirit of a joyful celebration and the collective of a party that you can’t resist because it’s so fucking dope. Like, we need to be doper. That feels like the secret sauce that we’re missing a little bit. You can’t lead a dope, dance party with a multiracial, multigenerational group without having that sense of we are together, united across differences.
We need to have a better party and drown everybody else out out. That’s the direction I wish we’d start moving into.
KF: I think one of the lessons is that there are always going to be people who fear people who are not like themselves and that turns into hate. I think that it’s a critical mass, and societal mass kind of issue. If enough people feel comfortable acting out those fears and hatred, it becomes the social norm and that’s what happened in parts of Boston, especially South Boston.
A way to combat that, and not necessarily to change those people’s minds because they’re kind of hardened, is to create a critical mass in the other direction and cause [the former] to be socially unacceptable. That’s the lesson: You can build a new societal consensus by rebuilding with an appropriate community.
RAR was an opportunity for people to know their power and make a change. To experience the ability to change some minds and make small differences and keep it moving. It’s important for people to know that they can be active and not passive about issues that need to be addressed. Music, in this case, was a channel to get that message out.
RS: The number of people that came out of the RAR program and went on to do incredible things in life acknowledge RAR as a starting point. Some of the people I met for the first time was through that program.
As a visual art, I knew what I wanted to do as a child and really gravitated towards the visual element of hip-hop because I was into graffiti. Though the culture as a whole blew my mind. For me, RAR contributed to my professional and creative evolution. Years later, I was working full-time in the comic book industry. The seeds were planted by going to RAR and meeting illustrators and other graffiti artists.
Fran and Reebee were able to use hip-hop to make change in the city. We had a feeling we were doing something cool. That energy. That hip-hop. That unapologetic individuality; within that platform, you were allowed to be yourself.
RAR essentially taught kids that the culture of Boston was teaching us to avoid or hate each other. Instead, we learned, worked together, loved, and respected each other. And all under the banner of hip-hop. That was our linking and common denominator, and RAR helped us focus on an objective. Kids got a hell of a lot more power than they realize.
And you know, this country is careening towards a direction in which unless something is done, it’s going to be hard to bounce back from. In the spirit of Sankofa, the African proverb, sometimes you gotta go back and get it, and be reflective and introspective to see what you did to get to this point. That’s important to do. As artists we do it all the time.
KC: Since working in a mainly white corporate America situation for the last 20 years, [because I performed at RAR in front of an audience] my heart doesn’t beat, I don’t get nervous and if anything, I like to step up to the plate, and bring the fun into things, and make people feel comfortable—I’m animated. When it comes down to it, I’m passionate about everything I do. We all drive to succeed. But I’ve also put it in my head that I will succeed. And if I don’t know, I’m going to learn and find out.
People can still be ignorant. Lately, it’s felt like we’ve gone backwards too. Since RAR is being revisited, we can celebrate how people had strong feelings about ending racism and we’re doing it in a day in which it feels worse than ever. I want to see the people that believe in the fight because I’m not going to stop living and feeling the way I do because the world has taken an angry step backwards. I’m going to take a bigger step forward to say, “Not me.”
HB: To come together as one and make that platform for everybody. Support each other. It’s so important. RAR had so much unity because they embraced the idea of having enough of a platform for everybody. Don’t sell yourself short. And RAR was a home away from home and where you could be yourself. Rap and be okay.
What were memorable performances, appearances, and moments for you from RAR? What were the moments that made you especially proud?
RS: The Floorlords vs HBO battle—and I wasn’t present for that battle, but I knew about it. Then there was the Uneek Dominos and Spin City Rockers. Uneek and Floorlords were like superheroes to me. If you were in the club, and they were too, you might’ve been doing a little something. But as soon as you knew they were around, you took a seat.
It was the best era. The best time. It was pure. I’ve got a bunch of [fond memories]. And there was a festival one time on the riverway that, for the stage, I had provided the graffiti. It was cool how we all didn’t have to do the same thing. Like I couldn’t MC but I could draw.
FS: I was so proud of us when we brought Run-DMC for a fundraiser. And we did it on a shoestring budget. People showed up and were amazing. Everybody that I asked for help were great, including [the rock club] the Channel. And to Run-DMC for gigging for us for $4,000.
That whole experience was mind-boggling. Alongside that, the young folks that these people have become, those still in my life and the ones I don’t even know. We ran an organization from the heart and were committed and stayed true to our values.
And despite the oppression that has always been a part of our history, we got up and put our best foot forward towards our goal of liberation and freedom. We had a tenacious spirit.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. To see more reporting like this, please donate at givetobinj.org.