bhm: remembering hip hop’s woodstock, freaknik

February 8, 2019
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The wounds of the Civil Rights Movement soothed, bandaged, splinted, but never mended. Some would watch their parents shape Historically Black Colleges and Universities into radical safe spaces for Black genius — radical, albeit littered with remnants of respectability politics. Those politics would be rejected across time and space, a few decades into the future, but in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ’80s, they’d comfort a sect of hurting people. Other Black Gen-Xers would see their neighborhoods, schools and bodies ravished by Reaganomics-era disinvestment, their parent destroyed by crack cocaine, their other parent captured by the carceral State, their sister stolen to premature adulthood, their brother lost to neighborhoods narcotics operations.

They would erect feel-good cultural behemoths on both sides of the binaries their parents wrought: A Different World, born two months after the release of Paid In Full; Family Matters, debuting a few days shy of It’s a Big Daddy Thing. The Fresh Prince vs. Wanted: Dead or Alive. This was an era of beautiful, funny Black families juxtaposed against street dreams of wealth, women, excess.

But, in the midst of heavy cultural production on the lawns of respectability, discipline & polish and in the piss-stained halls of despair, anger and rebellion, they would conceive a picnic that would evolve into a seminal event of nearly mythical status. They would see the birth and death of an event that drew millions over its lifetime, yet stands proverbially uncared for on the outskirts of The People’s History. An empty, blighted overarching structure at the edge of town. Impossible to miss as one makes their trips over and through the story of Black Americanness, Black sexuality, Black youth culture, or HBCU culture. It sort of just looms, referenced every now and then, but most undiscussed: Generation X would give us FreakNik.

Then FreakNik, a Woodstock of sorts for hip-hop, HBCUs and Black students elsewhere, would grant a sort of mass, social permission for public raunch by civilian Black people, on open streets, for photo and video consumption, without a fuck being given. A new type of Black gathering, in celebration of materials, capital, bodies, freedom, long-deprived humanness out in the open.

In the early 80s, a group of Washington D.C. based students attending colleges in Atlanta began hosting a picnic for students without the privilege of traveling home during Spring Break. Word travelled across the Southeast, and eventually the country, and attendance ballooned. The event became a stage for Black spring-breakers to let loose. Eventually, it would provide a national stage to amateur and professional hip-hop artists to debut summer anthems, distribute music, network, stunt, have sex with fans and live like rockstars. A lack of humility, disregard for authority and open market for lasciviousness became par for the course, for hundreds of thousands of Black students, at the same time, in the same place.    

As time passed and FreakNik gained popularity, Black partygoers in general convened to enjoy loud, obnoxious music, public sex, wild parties with criminal amounts of drugs and alcohol, and a social scene untethered to rules. They brought a city’s roadways to its knees and fed their most carnal desires in front of God, mostly unbothered by the expectations of parents and professors back home. Their status as students, not addicts, street sex-workers or another underclass, elevated local and national shock. “We were overwhelmed by the numbers. The streets were full. The venues were full. The hotels were full. Everything was full. Where in America had we seen, prior to this, that number of African American youth in one place? Nowhere.” said Eldrin Bell, to Atlanta magazine’s Errin Haines Whack and Rebecca Burns.

As it stands, FreakNik served as a cultural ripener, creating appropriate venues and attitudes for Lil Kim’s Hard Core and Foxy Brown’s Ill Na Na for Black youth. It fostered the type of rebellion that requires young adult bodies, anxious desire, good drugs, better music, beauty, hunger, heat, new money, annoyance with the Status Quo, mockery of optical values, a strong desire to fan the fire within us. Rebellion, but sexy. Normal in the realm of things that humans enjoy, and shocking in the face of The Old Guard.

But respectability is a proverbial magnifying glass placed above a subject’s body, and aligned with the summer sun, until it burns hot and scorches and turns to ashes. And so, FreakNik died out under the guise of inconvenience. Former Mayor, Kasim Reed, even threatened litigation against those who attempted its reincarnation. “We will walk the line between keeping order in our city and welcoming our visitors,” said Reed, during a 2010 public safety conference, in reference to events that draw large crowds.

FreakNik walked no lines and respected no order, though. It’s impact, on the micro attitude and the macro reaction to public raunch by students, artists and their broad, is permanently etched into the skyline. Millennials and older Gen Z live indifferently to the social norms pushed from the outer limits to the center by events like FreakNik. The spectacle of the respectable subject engaging their desires and rhythms on front street no longer conjures the same kind of alarm.

What some still might call the crass flaunting of one’s body, sexuality, social capital and wealth out in the open, on social media outlets today, for millions to witness, is simply a byproduct of what began as a picnic 35 years ago.

The structure of FreakNik, in all its glory, might look forgotten, abandoned even, but its ghosts still wander in the social fabric of today’s Black youth. Of new blood who don’t need permission to enjoy their rawest selves in front of you.