Growing up in The Bronx
Before he assumed his more famous pseudonym, Kevin Donovan was no different to any other African-American teenager growing up in the South Bronx in New York. Despite having a keen interest in music, African history and politics, especially Black Activism (he would often witness political debates between his mother and uncle), Donovan got involved with the local gangs.
The young Donovan founded what became one of the most notorious gangs in his neighbourhood known, The Black Spades, primarily as a form of protection from other gangs and criminal elements that were rife in his neighbourhood. Donovan’s strong presence and natural leadership qualities ascended him to the position of Warlord.
In addition to his gang activities, consisting mainly of territory expansion which had sometimes inevitably resulted in conflictive situations, Donovan, inspired by the legendary DJ Kool Herc, would organise block parties and entertain the crowds with his eclectic musical collection and knowledge. The parties would also provide opportunities to scout for new recruits and thus increase gang membership. Before long The Black Spades became the largest and most respected gang in terms of membership size and territory, and as its leader, Donovan was both well liked and feared.
From Violent Loss to Vision of Peace
With his reputation secure and the gang continuing to become a formidable presence in South Bronx, the fifteen year old Donovan’s life soon took a life changing direction. It started in 1975 with the death of his best friend, shot and killed by police officers. This for Donovan marked the end of the line and in trying to cope with this shock he immersed himself in his other passions of music and African history, particularly the Zulu tribes and it’s most prominent leader, Shaka Zulu.
Having won an essay contest that earned him a trip to the African continent, Donovan got to live out his dream of meeting the Zulu communities. Inspired by the sense of solidarity and community within the tribe, Donovan returned home with a vision and determination to take what he had learned from his travels and bring about a radical change in his troubled hometown. Upon his return Donovan renounced his gang activities, disbanding the gang, and vowed to draw angry and disaffected youths away from the life he had now forsaken.
Birth of the Zulu Nation
When Donovan disbanded the Black Spades, rather than simply sending his comrades out on their own, he decided to form a music - orientated youth group made up of former gang members who boasted formidable social and political awareness and an array of artistic and musical ability. Donovan had already earned a reputation for his successful block parties but to convey the message he felt was needed, he decided that this new group would emulate his greatest inspiration. The group became known as The Zulu Nation and Donovan changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa Aasim, adopting the name of the Zulu Chief Bambatha.
The newly christened Bambaataa with his reformed crew made up of B Boys (Breakdancers) and B Girls, DJ’s rappers and graffiti artists, concentrated on organizing his block parties full time. Bambaataa was already aware of the unifying power of music but for himself and other emerging DJ’s who were former gang members it presented a means to channel their confrontational instincts thus giving birth to the Bronx’s very own take on dueling banjos. Bambaataa battled fellow DJ’s night after night working the turntables proving his musical might, whilst rappers would spark lyrical altercations, devising complex rhymes and reflective recitations.
The dance floor provided the perfect arena for another form of battling as B Boys and B Girls took to the floor in an incredible display of gymnastic dance moves (known as breakdancing) and body contortions (commonly referred to as popping). It must have been life affirming for Bambaataa to see his dream of a non violent means to resolve conflict and unite a community unfold before his eyes.
Yet his goal was not simply to host parties but to convey his political message across and so whilst performing his set Bambaataa would insert into his long instrumental segments, insightful recordings from Malcolm X , and Martin Luther King Jr. With cassette recordings of his battles and music being produced and sold, Bambaataa like an urban pied piper found himself drawing a following of more DJ’s rappers, dancers and artists whom he took under his wing to become part of the fast growing Zulu Nation.
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Image Credits; ShootJoeC