By David Brand
Nas released a sort-of-new, sort-of-old record last month, comprised of tracks that didn't make the cut on some of his past albums. As in much of his work, a big portion of the lyrics in “The Lost Tapes 2” pay tribute to Nas’ native Queens.
Queens is a theme, setting and source material for Nas and other musicians, especially black and African-American hip-hop artists, who use their work to honor their home borough.
It’s time to ensure that Queens honors them in return, says legendary DJ and music video director Ralph McDaniels.
McDaniels, the hip hop coordinator at the Queens Public Library, shares Queens artists’ stories through exhibitions, events and installations. He wants to see these initiatives grow throughout the borough and city.
“One of the reasons I started working at the Queens Public Library was to tell the rich history of what Queens has, the rich history of hip hop, jazz and other areas,” McDaniels said.
“Kids need to see that. I needed to see that,” he added.
Starting in September, the Central Branch in Jamaica will host larger-than-life sculptures memorializing three Queens artists who have died in recent years — Prodigy, a Queensbridge legend from the duo Mobb Deep; Phife Dawg, a St. Albans native from the group A Tribe Called Quest; and Jam Master Jay, who grew up in Hollis and DJed for Run DMC. The nine-foot-tall pieces comprise the work “A Cypher in Queens,” which features audio of the artists and last summer towered over visitors at Socrates Sculpture Park.
Right now, Queens has relatively few permanent tributes to the black and African-American artists and leaders who have called the borough home or otherwise made their name here. There are only two “Sculptures Honoring the African-American Experience” in Queens included on the Parks Department website. One is a statue of tennis player Arthur Ashe in Flushing Meadows Corona Park; the other, an abstract homage to trumpet player and bandleader Louis Armstrong in Corona.
Corona also hosts the Louis Armstrong House, Satchmo’s longtime dwelling, which achieved landmark status in 1988.
The city announced in March that it would place a statue of iconic singer Billie Holiday near Queens Borough Hall as part of an initiative to build more statues of women around the city. Holiday lived for a time in Queens’ Addisleigh Park, an enclave that was once home to several prominent African-Americans including to Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie.
Several Southeast Queens want the statue of Holiday placed closer to the community she lived in, Queens Patch reported Thursday.
"Our Southeast Queens community would benefit from a statue of this successful black woman for cultural heritage purposes," Queens Community Board 12 Chair Rene Hill told Patch.
Efforts to commemorate contemporary musicians and artists have been more informal, and typically depend on the diligence of local artists, community groups and councilmembers.
Artist Vincent Ballentine painted a stunning mural of Phife Dawg near the intersection of Linden Boulevard and 192nd Street, a strip of St. Albans street that the city renamed Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor Way in 2016. Taylor died in March 2016.
But even beloved memorial murals are not guaranteed to last — a reality illustrated by fears of whitewash erasing a mural of rapper Sean Price on a wall in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
McDaniels said he has worked with councilmembers like I. Daneek Miller and Brooklyn’s Laurie Cumbo to ensure black artists, in particular, are honored with street renamings, and that their images are preserved and maintained.
“We come from a place where if someone passed away, we did a mural for them, and those murals exist all around the city,” he said. “We have all of these incredible images … But what has happened is that the artists might have passed away, no one took care of it, and there was no specific agenda to make sure these images were kept up.”
Permanent structures would enshrine those memorials and ensure Queens’ diverse communities and artists are honored in public spaces.
“Changing the images young people see is important. Some of the old artwork and sculptures, what does that represent?” he said, adding that some public art needs to be “updated 50 years” to reflect more than just white men.
As for the specific artists he wants to see permanently memorialized, McDaniel suggested two of the luminaries featured in the library’s upcoming exhibition.
“We definitely want to get a little something more for Prodigy and Jam Master Jay,” he said.