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A new mural in North Philly pays tribute to all elements of the city’s hip-hop culture

Nate File - Philly Inquirer

One day as Christian “TAMEARTZ” Rodriguez continued the careful work on his hip-hop mural in North Philly, a group of girls walked by, stopping to look at one of the artists being immortalized on the wall. The Black teenagers gazed at the black-and-white image of Queen Jo, an up-and-coming rapper from West Philly, holding a microphone and performing for those passing by underneath the overpass at 900 Cecil B. Moore Ave.

The girls said to one another, “She’s Black, I swear, she’s Black,” taking in her giant hoop earrings. But they weren’t entirely sure. They turned to Rodriguez, up on his ladder. “She’s Black, right?” one of them asked. Rodriguez said yes, and told them that they were looking at Queen Jo, just one of many artists featured on the Know the Elements mural. As they walked away, a girl said to her friends: “I told you. Told you, they look just like us.”

“It’s just those moments that [make me feel] like, all right, we’re doing the right thing,” Rodriguez said.

Years ago, as Rodriguez and his artistic partner, Bill Strobel, discussed collaborating on a Philly hip-hop mural, they knew that it needed to recognize more than rap. When hip-hop was said to be born in the South Bronx in the 1970s, DJs, breakers (also called b-boys, b-girls, or breakdancers) and graffiti artists were equally important creators of hip-hop culture. Each kind of artistry contributed to hip-hop’s broader ethos, which was to deconstruct the surrounding world and its art, in order to build something new that spoke to the experiences of poorer Black and Latino people.

“Hip-hop started out poverty and struggle, but rich[ness] in the mind and in the heart and the soul,“ Rodriguez said. “I think people hear the word hip-hopand they immediately think about the music. But [it] is only hip-hop when all four elements are together.”

In their planning meetings with Mural Arts Philadelphia, Rodriguez and Strobel explained that they couldn’t find evidence of any mural in America that honored DJs, MCs, breakers, and graffiti artists all at once. “You never see [the four pieces] all in a cohesive space, where they’re all equally interacting with each other. I think that’s what helps this whole thing come together,” Strobel said.

But to make it work, the artists knew that authenticity was key. “Bill and I sat down, and we’re like, we don’t want it to be cheesy. ... We want it to represent the culture in its purest form,” Rodriguez said. To them, that meant paying tribute to people other than Philly’s biggest hip-hop celebrities, like Meek Mill or the Roots, who already receive plenty of recognition. They wanted to feature artists who people could easily reach and easily talk to,

people who are still alive and making more art.

Most of all, they wanted the North Philly community to feel the mural is for them. “I wanted to make sure that the neighborhood saw themselves in the wall,” Rodriguez said.

So, Rodriguez reached out to his friends and others he knew from Philly’s hip-hop community, like Ciarra Lambert, who performs as Queen Jo. When Rodriguez called about including her in the mural, Lambert told him she didn’t deserve it.

“I literally spent five minutes [asking], Why me? You sure you don’t wanna pick anybody else? Because here in Philly, you wanna make sure all the right people get their just due,”

she said. But after Rodriguez explained his and Strobel’s vision, Lambert gave him the OK.

“As a woman, being chosen to be on the mural as a rapper is such a big deal to me, because I think that there are a lot of women rappers in this city, but I don’t necessarily think that they always get the same type of recognition as our male counterparts,” she said. “It just shows to other girls who want to be rappers, other younger girls ... [their] vision is obtainable.”

The mural consists of two walls on either side of Cecil B. Moore Avenue. The southside wall features DJ Jazzy Jeff, B-girl PepC (breaker), Reef The Lost Cauze (rapper), B-boy BoxWon (breaker), Michele from Ladies of Hip-Hop, B-boy YNOT (breaker), and DESIL (graffiti artist).

The northside wall honors Queen Jo, Rodriguez’s sons posing in a b-boy stance, DJ Nashira, B-boy El Niño (breaker), INFA (b-boy and graffiti artist), and DJ Skeme Richards.

“It means lineage,” Richards said about the mural. “It means preservation of culture. Preservation of Skeme Richards. To be immortalized someplace, that right there, I feel like signifies your value, signifies you’ve made it, signifies someone cared enough to showcase you to the rest of the world.”

He first started DJing in 1981, and has a deep appreciation for hip-hop’s history. Richards cherishes his DJ mentors and idols, while still acknowledging they are just one piece of collective hip-hop artistry. “If there was never any music, there would be no rapper. And if you are a DJ, the one thing you want is people to be at a party dancing, where you get the b-boys and b-girls. So having everything captured [in the mural], it’s amazing.”

The mural will be dedicated this Saturday, with a free afterparty that evening at Billy Penn Studios. Rodriguez hopes after the celebrations are over, and the mural becomes an everyday piece of North Philly, that people see his art as a tribute not to something dead and passed on, but to something that still evolves and means so much to people’s lives.

“Hip-hop is a genuine thing. It’s living and breathing,” he said. “I want people to know these people are here, the culture is thriving. It’s living in real time.”


The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.

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