When 14-year-old Edwin Rivera, a Puerto Rican member of a Brooklyn gang called The Homicides, walked into a Queens church with his older brother and parents, the fire in his dark brown eyes lit up. He had finally found his salvation, hip-hop dance. For the first time in his life, Rivera felt the joy and careless abandon that his trauma-riddled childhood had always disallowed him. As he watched legs fly in the air and freeze in place and heads spin on the glass-stain-tinted hardwood floor, his heart felt lifted. Rivera and his older brother, Carlos, 15, looked at one another knowing they had found their escape from gang life.
It was nothing like Rivera had ever seen before—he knew immediately he had to be a part of it. The boys approached the Dynamic Rockers, led by Freeze, inventor of the head spin, and Green Eyes, and joined the crew as bodyguards and bouncers at first. Later on, Freeze and Green Eyes taught the Rivera brothers how to breakdance, and soon enough, they left Queens for Coney Island to pull their friends out of gangs and into hip-hop crews.
The brothers and their friends started a Coney Island crew called the Furious Rockers. But, Edwin claims he wasn’t completely saved, still living a double life. “I was living the easy life and the good life.”
The good life involved starting a famous dance crew, performing at the Roxy, being sponsored by Nathan’s Hot Dogs, and pulling his friends out of gangs. The easy life was what he was used to: doing and selling drugs. Caught in a cycle of destroying himself and others, he had spent three years’ time in Rikers Island and Texas prisons as a young adult.
Falling into the easy life was not unusual for a kid like Edwin. He vividly remembers being caught in a mess of frequent hospitalization and domestic violence, from his father trying to kill his mother when he was very young and being abused by his parents regularly, to being raped by a female cousin at the age of five. “It happened, you know…and that’s sad…but I can’t change [it] and I can’t do nothing about that.”
Although he tries not to let the pain of those events affect him today, he wishes there had been support systems like the Department of Children and Families or free after-school programs back in his day. Even when he found hope in breakdancing, he says, “I was still in pain, nobody wanted to hear the damage, or sit down with me, talk to me, or help me.”
At school, Edwin always sat at the back of the classroom, not because he necessarily wanted to, but because his teachers deemed him Special Ed, which he claims is the result of living in a bilingual household. His father wanted him to speak Spanish and his mother wanted him to speak English. Afraid of being abused by one parent or the other, Edwin never grew into speaking either language confidently. The American kids would make fun of him for his English, and the Latinx kids would make fun of him for his Spanish. Kids of all ethnic backgrounds would unite to give Edwin a hard time about his asthma attacks and hospitalization. Nobody was around to listen to his cries for help, and he was left to cope with his trauma alone. Eventually, he stopped going to classes altogether, somehow making it to high school without being able to spell ‘cat’ or ‘dog’.
There was a time when Edwin stuck to the “nice things,” like art and dance. He loved them. But his threshold for trauma and abuse was dropping rapidly and his older brother offered him a way out: the street life. At the age of 13, Edwin started drinking to ease the pain. A friend of his introduced him to smoking weed and sniffing glue. It became a habit to drink before school everyday in order to keep up the macho appearance his five-foot three-inch self needed to survive on the streets. “I became a damage to society because that life fell on me when I was young,” he says.
Where his older brother went, Edwin followed, first to The Dirty Ones, then The Homicides, Brooklyn gangs that took the Rivera brothers under their wings while they lived on the streets. As Edwin realized his family was not looking for him, he fell into hard drugs. “That’s the only thing that kept me without my madness, without getting myself suicidal…the only thing that killed the pain,” says Rivera. Sometimes his faith in God would pull him out of the easy life, which he realized was actually causing him to harm himself and others when a feud between gangs caused multiple deaths. That’s when Edwin made space for hip hop dance in his life.
At 54-years-old, Edwin’s voice picks up in a leap of young enthusiasm when he thinks back to his early days with the Dynamic Rockers, battling Rock Steady at Bronx block parties that birthed hip hop legends like Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, Afrika Bambaataa, The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Lady D, and Kurtis Blow. Hip hop dance gives him that same sort of high that he used to need hard drugs to reach—a feeling of transportation and freedom from pain. “A big, a big, wow. I don’t know how to say it, but something that says ‘wow,’ you know?” says Edwin. He and his brother returned to Brooklyn to spread this high with other gang members, hoping the Furious Rockers would pull them out of the easy life.
But Edwin was still living on the streets. He used the money he was getting from his breakdancing career to pay for drugs and alcohol. He stayed tight with gangs, moved to Rhode Island after living with his father for six months, and got chased around Federal Hill by Italian and Irish gangs because he wasn’t white.
At the age of 27, Edwin got into an argument that would cost him his freedom. “I was young, I was confused, I was lost,” he says, with a voice that progressively thins out, “and I gotta carry that for the rest of my life.”
While at a party at his younger brother’s house, Edwin got into a drunk argument with his brother’s ex-wife’s cousin. People eventually grabbed Edwin by the shirt and threw him out of the house. He shouted to be let back in, but they simply turned the music up and continued partying. He eventually gave up and went home.
Later that night, Edwin’s housemate told him someone was shouting at him from outside the window. Edwin feared for his and his housemates’ safety. Not having a phone at the time to call the police, he decided to go talk to the shouter himself. Edwin’s housemate told him to take a weapon to protect himself, since the man had a hand behind his back. So Edwin took a knife. It was the same man he had been arguing with at the party. As soon as Edwin began to speak, the man pulled his hand out, causing Edwin to think he was pulling out a gun. Edwin stabbed the man and killed him that night. Edwin’s younger brother, who had been hosting the party, brought over the police, who gathered his testimony as he was violently throwing up, still drunk from the night.
Edwin spent a year in intake until the seven-day case finally proceeded. He knew he was not going to be free after killing someone, but as his own younger brother tied in pieces of Edwin’s misbehaviors as a child into his testimony against him, tears fell down Edwin’s face. He felt isolated in that court room—from his brother, an almost all-white jury, and a lawyer who spent time socializing with the prosecutor. The day before Easter, the jury went downstairs for coffee and donuts and, when they came back, Edwin Rivera was charged for first degree murder and taken to the super-max department of the Cranston ACI to spend the rest of his life in the prison system. Thinking back on that moment, Edwin quietly says, “My eyes…you know, I wanted them to pop out. And my head…I wanted that to blow up…the pain…I wanted to die there…but my life became a part of the system.”
Edwin says prisons present themselves as a place for prisoners to better themselves, but says that is a mask which unassumingly hides the darker image behind its brick walls and barbed wire fences. Instead, the prison system works to keep inmates out of control. Officers will often photograph inmates, throw things at them, and take their possessions. Using a plastic fork, he acts out what it is like to be treated like an animal in the prison system: “Say you take a stick, and you poke a lion.” He mischievously pokes his fork at an imaginary lion in front of him. “The lion is sitting there, the lion don’t want to deal with you. You’re poking and poking and the lion’s going to say grrrrrr,” he says, as he grits his teeth, “‘I’m tired of this!’ He’s going to attack and eat you up alive. That’s what goes up in the prison system.” Officers had the power of the pen. Anything they wrote with that pen, could put an inmate in isolation and keep him there.
In super-max, Edwin spent 23 hours of the day in his cell, neighbor to notorious Rhode Island serial killer, Craig Price. His nights were spent picking bugs off of himself and inching away from blood-stained walls, and during the day, Price would help him out by teaching him how to read the Qur’an. Edwin began to find power in the pen. He took it upon himself to learn how to read and write in order to familiarize himself with prison policies and fight back.
He also spent time teaching English to Spanish-speaking inmates so they could do the same. Between teaching English and going on hunger strikes, Edwin was causing too much trouble for correction officers to put up with. Continuously transferred from one prison to another, he bounced between Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Georgia prisons in his 25 years. “They didn’t want me in Rhode Island because I would fight the system. Not with this,” he says, holding up his fist, “I fight with the pen, and they didn’t like me learning about the law.”
In the ‘90s, interactions within Georgia’s regional prisons easily could have been mistaken for conditions pre-13th Amendment, with the N-word, ‘boy,’ and ‘master’ being thrown around without question. In Georgia, officers would put inmates in cages and shoot them with pellets, attack them with dogs, and sexually assault them. The more Edwin pursued programs in English and Art, the tighter the correction officers would grip their reigns. “They want inmates to be…powerless. They want inmates to be…like an animal. They want us to be weak, to be lost, to be suicidal,” he says.
One day, Edwin was told to visit the prison hospital. When he arrived, a nun greeted him with bad news. “I don’t want to hear it… I don’t want to hear no bad news,” he said. “What you talking about?” he said. She told him his father, Carlos, had died from peripheral vascular disease in his foot due to diabetes. When they refused to let him visit his father in the hospital, and instead locked him in his cell for a day, he cried and cried. Only a few months later, Edwin faced the nun again to find out that his older brother, Carlos, who had been living with Hepatitis C from sharing dirty needles, took his own life. “That hurt me a lot because my brother was my idol, he was my goal, he was my protector. He’d do anything for me. We used to be shadows. Anywhere he go, he take me, anywhere I go, he there…When I caught this murder beef, he wanted to stay with me…in prison.” (When Edwin first arrived at the ACI, Carlos sent some of his friends to prank him, as older brothers do.)
The inmate community came together for Edwin, and outside prison walls, Edwin’s mother, Moresta, was writing him letters as one of the first members of the Behind the Walls Committee at DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) in Providence.
In those years, to bring himself solace, Edwin’s mind returned to what saved him from his childhood trauma. He began to miss his days of hip-hop with the Rockers and was depressed by the thought of dance dying in Rhode Island, until he turned on his TV one day to news of a new group called the 401 Crew, led by an ex-convict named Face, keeping original hip hop dance alive in the state. The sight of this news made Edwin want to get out immediately.
At the end of 25 years, Edwin, age 51, was released on life parole. His first step into the real world weighed with lack of purpose and thoughts of turning back. But John Prince, Organizer of the Behind the Walls Committee at DARE thought back to the letters they had written to each other while Edwin was in prison, and reminded him of what he loved. With Prince’s encouragement, Edwin worked through DARE to become a passionate advocate for the rights of prisoners, workers, and children. He now also works for the George Wiley Center, is a member of Black Lives Matter, and is in the process of opening his own studio called Heavenly Hip Hop School: Save our Kids where he will be teaching dancing, singing, rapping, DJing, and art. The thought of opening up his own studio has him repeating “I’m floating, I’m floating,” over and over again. On the side, he’s working to get a 16-year-old girl onto The Voice and is advocating in court for a 17-year-old boy with Down Syndrome so he can live his dream of going to school. Today, John Prince describes Edwin as “a true leader within our city…without exaggeration, one of the most dedicated, consistent, and compassionate person[s] of our entire city.”
Edwin was initially told he would be able to open up his studio in August, but once he turned in his background check, the process was elongated with no explanation. “Maybe next year,” is what the contractor told Edwin. “Look at all the people who want this,” he says as he flips through several pages of signatures.
Edwin met with 20 of the students signed up for his class. “How you doing kids?” he shouts to the crowd of children who cheer and wave their hands in response. “Who likes hip=hop?” he asks. A choir of “me’s” echoes in the air. A six-year-old girl tip-toes up to Edwin, tugs on his shirt, and with wide open eyes asks, “Um, excuse me, are you going to teach us how to sing?” Three weeks later, Edwin just repeats “I’m touched” as he looks back on this moment.
“The government, and the people out there that don’t know me, don’t see the real me… They don’t see the love I get from kids and the love I get from the community. We are the community of Rhode Island, so we should have somebody who stands up for the people of Rhode Island, not give up on those who go to prison, not give up on our children. So that’s what I want to do, because if I could get a seat and go to Washington DC and all that, I could talk.”
Today, Edwin arrives four hours early to the Davey Lopes breakdancing competition. He comes repping his original crew, the Dynamic Rockers, and watches members of different crews with admiration as they warm up. The music in the Davey Lopes Center is bumping against the gym walls, as legs fly in the air and young men and women, many of them ex-convicts, up-rock in each of their own styles. Face, head of the 401 Crew, spins on his head and freezes his legs in the air, then nonchalantly hops back onto his feet and continues to walk across the gym with a smile on his face.
Face and the rest of these guys picked Rhode Island hip hop back up when it reached almost zero ground, giving folks like Edwin hope and a community coming out of prison. Edwin was there when hip hop started, but says he bows down to the younger Rhode Island crews for keeping it alive. Watching one of the dancers incorporate maracas into his acrobatic, antigravity twists, Edwin says, “These kids give me energy when they do stuff like that… It brings me back to being young. I started when I was 14. I’m 54, and it’s a fountain of youth. It’s good to have this energy, to have this with you, you know? This is what I love. I’m happy here in this hip hop lifestyle.”