On June 8th, the segment in front of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue was renamed Hip Hop Boulevard. The event was attended by several hip hop luminaries such as Slick Rick and Kurtis Blow who celebrated the spot where in 1973 Kool Herc held a back-to-school party that is often seen as the beginning of hip hop.
Three days earlier, not far from Sedgwick, Benjamin Melendez, known by his gang name Yellow Benjy, was laid to rest. There is a connection between these two events in the Bronx, not only because both Herc and Benjy were both at one point members of the Cofon Cats, an otherwise widely forgotten South Bronx gang, but also because Benjy was one of the people responsible for brokering a gang truce that paved the way for street parties and hip hop to emerge in the Bronx.
In 1971, at a moment in time when gang violence threatened to escalate, Benjy was one of the leaders behind a gang summit that resulted in a truce that changed—even if just temporary—the landscape of the Bronx. As Afrika Bambaataa put it: “The gang truce was powerful. It was the time to put down the weapons against each other and try to organize.”
In the aftermath of the truce, Benjy’s gang, the Ghetto Brothers, became a driving force for social change. Jeff Mao explains: “Catching the revolutionary spirit in the air, the Ghetto Brothers eradicated junkies and pushers from their neighborhood, cleaned parks and garbage-strewn empty lots, and participated in clothing drives and breakfast programs.”
The Ghetto Brothers became role models and inspired others to improve their living conditions in the Bronx. In the aftermath of the inter-gang alliance, the Ghetto Brothers invited other gangs to their turf to party together. An area that was known for territorial gang feuds now became the birthplace of a new culture. The Ghetto Brothers band played, as NRP’s Carolina Gonzales describes it, a combination of “Beatles melodies, James Brown’s funk and Santana’s psychedelic fuzz”. In 1972, they even recorded an album, “Power/Fuerza” (re-released in 2012); the title song became a legendary hymn for Puerto Rican self-awareness.
Benjy’s coming-of-age years are defined by his quest for his his own identity, first focusing on Puerto Rican nationalism, later on Jewish spirituality. After leaving the gang, he continued his work in the community as a social worker, helping others to find their way. Joe Schloss recalls: “Benjy was a ‘man of the people’ in the truest sense of that term. He lived and breathed community and was always concerned with how his actions affected others. And I think that was what he was most proud of: not just that he helped bring peace to the Bronx; not just that he set the stage for hip-hop to emerge; not just that he made great music with his own band…But that these things would inspire others to make their own contributions.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Benjy moved as a kid to New York where his father had previously settled to provide a better life for his family. They first lived in Manhattan, but after a tragedy—a fire that killed his sister—moved eventually to the Bronx. The area was already in decline. This was not the American dream his father had hoped for.
The Bronx of his youth was deprived of many things, but it was also rich with community. People knew each other. Yes, there was crime and violence, but also friendship and solidarity. The same misconception is true for the gangs. Their members were not violent savages, but complex human beings that lacked opportunities. Benjy was a charismatic, charming leaders, a talented speaker, performer, and musician, but growing up in the Bronx he did not have the opportunities that others had.
I always wondered what could have been if his circumstances had been different. The same is true for his health. For years he was waiting for a kidney donor, and in our nearly decade of friendship, his health deteriorated while he was waiting. He never gave up hope and we made plans for all the things we still wanted to do.
We lost a great man, a husband, a father, a friend, but his legacy will live on in books, videos, and his music. Rest in Fuerza, hermano.
Below, video of a 2015 ceremony in which the Bronx Music Heritage Center honored Benjy Meléndez of the Ghetto Brothers as a Bronx Living Legend .
Julian Voloj is the author of "Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker," a graphic novel about Benjamin Meléndez.