With festival, Ramirez battles hip-hop's stigma

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PITTSFIELD — Andres Ramirez usually uses his Facebook posts to spread positive messages, the kind that have helped make his business, The Funk Box Dance Studio, a North Street success story. But on April 3, he needed to vent. After years of holding dance competitions and presenting last year's inaugural Hip-Hop Festival of the Berkshires at Pittsfield's Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, Ramirez couldn't find a venue willing to host the event's second rendition.

"It blows my mind," he wrote, noting his work in the community.

Ramirez's exasperation drew an immediate response, and two days later, the 26-year-old authored an exclamation mark-filled post announcing that this year's festival would be held at the Berkshire Museum. From 3-10 p.m. Saturday, spectators visiting the Pittsfield institution's Crane Room will experience some of hip-hop's various forms.

"I really like to incorporate all elements of hip-hop, which is breaking, emcee-ing, graffiti [art] and DJing," Ramirez said Monday while seated at a desk in his studio. "That was a big thing of last year's, we did all of them, and we were able to do all of them. This year, we might not be able to do the graffiti just because we're in the museum, but we're still doing everything else."

The festival is essentially an expansion of annual dance competitions Ramirez began in 2014, the year he opened Funk Box. Consequently, dancing still dominates. Ramirez's studio, which specializes in break dancing, will host workshops, he said. At 3:30 p.m., the museum portion of the day will begin with young dancers competing in the recently formed New England Breakin' League. (The youth division is ages 5-12, while the teen division is ages 13-18. Registration and warmups begin at 3 at the museum.) The judges will include B-Boy Born, a Rivers Crew member who hails from South Korea. A DJ will spin throughout, and Ramirez said that students from The Funk Box Dance Studio will perform. At 6 p.m., Berkshire hip-hop group Nostalgia will provide some emcee-ing before adult dance competitions begin at 6:30.

Harry Park, Berkshire Museum public programs specialist, cited a pop-up performance by Ramirez and his students at the museum this summer as one of the reasons the institution booked the festival.

"[He] did a really fantastic job," Park said of Ramirez.

When he and Ramirez met to discuss the festival's logistics, Ramirez tested the performance space by backflipping and cartwheeling.

"It just makes me happy," Park said of hosting the event, adding that the museum is "there for the community."

The Lichtenstein hosted the festival without incident last year, according to Jen Glockner, the City of Pittsfield's Office of Cultural Development director. Workshops were run indoors, while the competitions were held in front of the building.

"It was all positive," said Glockner, who mentioned that Ramirez was looking for a bigger venue this year.

Yet, when Ramirez began location hunting a couple of months ago (he usually starts earlier, but he had a potential April commitment he needed to wait on), his inquiries were met with silence, delays or worse, he said. (The Lichtenstein wasn't among this group.) In a subsequent Facebook post, Ramirez mentioned hearing things like "`we don't need that type of crowd around here'" when he was in discussions with a few potential venues. Asked if the "crowd" comment was repeated verbatim or something close to it, Ramirez was unequivocal.

"It really was," he said.

Ramirez wouldn't name names, but he was willing to divulge that they were all Berkshire County establishments. It wasn't an experience without precedent for the Bogot , Colombia, native.

"When I first moved to the States, it was kind of like — there was racial profiling and stuff. And with hip-hop, sometimes I experience that the same way. It's not welcomed. I feel like a lot of times in the Berkshire community, there's a stigma of negativity in breaking, like gangs and all these different things that were in the past of hip-hop. But if you look at humanity, really, there's negativity in everything."

In an interview before last year's festival, Nostalgia member Jonathan "J. Soul" Goodson made a similar observation.

"There's no one interested in booking our genre around here," Goodson told The Eagle. "Everyone has this weird stigma about hip-hop, but it's not about objectifying women or gangs."

A new obstacle for hip-hop to overcome is a wave of SoundCloud rappers, who idealize prescription drug abuse and have amassed millions of young followers in the process. (One of them, Lil Peep, died this fall after overdosing on Xanax and fentanyl.) Ramirez doesn't view their work as the kind of hip-hop he celebrates.

"The media is really portraying hip-hop as those kinds of sounds now. And I guess it's hard to say that that's not hip-hop because everybody's saying that's hip-hop. But to me, really the hip-hop culture — as in breakers, emcees, DJs, graffiti artists — a lot of these guys, they don't see that as hip-hop," he said.

At his studio, Ramirez champions hip-hop's roots.

"In my beginner class, we only listen to James Brown or that kind of genre, where it's funky," he said.

At the festival, he hopes to open more people's minds.

"The festival is really about proving what hip-hop is all about," he said. "It's a family-friendly event. We really are trying to defeat the stigma of negative hip-hop in the Berkshires. We welcome everybody. We really are trying to show everybody how it's a movement of self-expression."



IF YOU GO...

What: Funkdation Hip Hop Festival of the Berkshires presented by The Funk Box Dance Studio

When: 3-10 p.m. Saturday, April 21

Where: Crane Room, Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield

Tickets: $10 general admission; $7.50 for museum members; free for 12 and younger (unless competing); $15 combination ticket includes museum admission (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and festival admission for ages 13 and older

Information: For dancers, online registration is $10. At the door, it's $15. 413-242-2179; beastdancer91@aol.com

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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