INTERVIEW | CRISIS MANAGEMENT IN PUERTO RICO WITH CRAZY LEGS “I CAME HERE ON MY MISSION AS A PUERTO RICAN AND I LEFT AS A HUMAN BEING”

cl4On 20th Septem­ber 2017, hur­ricane Maria left a path of destruc­tion across Puerto Rico, strip­ping it bare. Mass flood­ing des­troyed homes and live­li­hoods, leav­ing fam­il­ies with noth­ing. Dam­age to infra­struc­ture was severe. Most of the island was left without run­ning water or elec­tri­city. There were grow­ing fears of infec­tion spread­ing due to a buildup of corpses and the lack of san­it­a­tion.  It was clear urgent help was needed to save this com­munity. There was very little sup­port from the US gov­ern­ment due to red tape and bur­eau­cracy, relief efforts were not match­ing that of the des­per­a­tion. Some­thing needed to be done and it needed to be done now.

One man felt com­pelled to do everything he could with whatever resources he could get his hands on to help his people. That man was – Richard Colón, bet­ter known as ‘Crazy Legs’ pres­id­ent of the legendary ‘Rock Steady Crew’. Not only is Crazy Legs a Hip Hop pion­eer but he has always been recog­nized as an advoc­ate for the Puerto Ric­an people. Legs decided to util­ize his influ­ence on a whole new level and draw much needed atten­tion to a very dire situ­ation to get things mov­ing on the ground.

As with 1 in 14 Puerto Ric­an chil­dren, Crazy Legs now suf­fers from PTSD and he also caught the Zika vir­us. This didn’t deter his efforts, only strengthen his resolve to help. Speak­ing to Crazy Legs whilst he was in Puerto Rico in-between his relief work, we had a very hon­est talk about relief efforts, Hip Hop and polit­ics.

You’ve done a lot of work out in Puerto Rico, why do you think gov­ern­ment relief efforts have been so slow to help the Island?

It was pretty bad on part of the US gov­ern­ment. The people who were sup­posed to do it the best and fast­est were the least effect­ive and the worse. All because of polit­ics, dis­aster cap­it­al­ism and people have agen­das. Trump is lead­ing the way on that and he doesn’t care for people of col­our so it’s not like he is going to respond. The same actions would have been done wheth­er it were Muslims, Puerto Ric­ans, Indi­ans etc. It doesn’t mat­ter it would have gone the same way. That’s why we had to activ­ate things on our own and a lot of us did things without know­ing how to do things and were able to form amaz­ing part­ner­ships and learn on the job and gained a lot more know­ledge.

It’s inspir­ing to see any­one can get involved and do some­thing to help. We don’t need to rely on our gov­ern­ments. You’ve inves­ted a lot of your­self per­son­ally into build­ing the infra­struc­ture in Puerto Rico even before hur­ricane Maria, how did this com­pare?

I was already involved in the eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in Puerto Rico because of my music fest­iv­al but deal­ing with crisis in terms of phys­ic­al dam­age and deal­ing with lives that was pretty amaz­ing, heart break­ing, it was inspir­ing, and it was a whole slew of things that went through my mind that was mind blow­ing to me.

I nev­er knew I would be doing this. I would think that maybe the fact of what I did with Boun­cing Cats and worked with Break­dance Uganda was prob­ably like my intro for what was going to come later. And It’s very dif­fer­ent when it’s your own coun­try.

The crazy thing is I came here on my mis­sion as a Puerto Ric­an but when you get down to things like this you are real­iz­ing you have to help people bey­ond eco­nom­ic status, polit­ic­al agen­das and bey­ond ideo­logy. I came here as a Puerto Ric­an but at the end of the day I left as a human being.

I feel you, tragedy tran­scends all factors. Tell me about your char­ity, ‘Rock Steady for Life’ are you going to keep it going?

Yes, we will. We are still in the pro­cess of estab­lish­ing that, it takes time. It’s weird because some people and some com­pan­ies won’t help unless it is a char­ity. To me, there are people dying out there, I don’t have time to set up a char­ity either you trust me, or you don’t, I’m going to keep it mov­ing.

Even in Puerto Rock Steady there is an entity of Rock Steady for life where we col­lab­or­ate with dif­fer­ent organ­iz­a­tions like ‘Child of this Cul­ture’ with Candy Molia, and oth­er organ­iz­a­tions to do things like beach clean ups etc. We are in our 7th year. I cre­ated it for the sake of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment that was the over­all agenda of Puerto Rock Steady. It is a for profit busi­ness but the found­a­tion of why we star­ted it was for the inten­tion of it was to bring new money to Puerto Rico espe­cially dur­ing the down­time of the sea­son and being able to sup­port loc­al busi­nesses.

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I under­stand why you have a strong con­nec­tion to the island now. In a brave move you reached out to Red Bull ask­ing for help, at which point was this?

I approached Red Bull before the hur­ricane even landed in Puerto Rico, at the time hur­ricane Urma was com­ing, I was in New York head­ing to Hol­land and I had found out hur­ricane Urma was passing but Maria was com­ing behind it. I was freak­ing out, I was wor­ried think­ing about my friends, my home (I have a house here), all the years I’ve inves­ted into try­ing to be part of the infra­struc­ture that’s grow­ing over here. I was just an emo­tion­al wreck. I reached out to Red Bull like basic­ally you are some of the most power­ful people I know, can you help me help my people? I was cry­ing as I was typ­ing.

A deeply emo­tion­al time. How did Red Bull respond and how were you able to be one of the first to reach the island?

Yeah def­in­itely emo­tion­al. It’s a tough one when you think about it, because you say some­thing like that some­times people run from you when you are ask­ing for money. That one was straight up about money. When Red Bull respon­ded, from their response to talk­ing about how we should approach the situ­ation it was amaz­ing.

In terms of hav­ing impact, we were one of the first ones to land on this (West) side of the island. Red Bull chartered a plane for me and sent me down with sup­plies, they also set me up with Waves for Water to dis­trib­ute water fil­tra­tion and puri­fic­a­tion sys­tems. As much as they were say­ing people couldn’t get to this side of the island and noth­ing could land here, that was a lie. The air­port was ready for flights to come in five days after the hur­ricane. They didn’t start send­ing any gov­ern­ment sup­ply planes in until after I called the media in the states and star­ted telling them the air­port had been ready for two weeks. Then sud­denly sup­plies star­ted com­ing in.

The col­lab­or­a­tions encour­aged self-sus­tain­ab­il­ity. Not just quick fixes. Who came up with these ideas?

This had a lot to do with Red Bull set­ting me up with Waves for Water and MPOWER the people who make the sol­ar lights. They taught me you can do a lot more if you do it smart, some­thing sus­tain­able and effect­ive on dif­fer­ent levels. For example, if you bring a water fil­tra­tion sys­tem not only are you going to give people access to water, with just one sys­tem one fam­ily can sur­vive for 20 years, you are also help­ing to pre­vent an eco­lo­gic­al dis­aster. Some areas water bottles were delivered and that was needed where you couldn’t access a lake or stream or river and that made sense. But at the end of the day if you can pre­vent plastic bottles from accu­mu­lat­ing you are doing some­thing for the envir­on­ment as well. With water fil­tra­tion sys­tems once they are used and everything sub­sides, you can put the water fil­tra­tions way until the next time you need them. Right now, we have 200,000 people who will have access to these sys­tems if anoth­er crisis hap­pens, so we are ahead of the game when it comes to water.

That’s amaz­ing. There was a lot of for­ward think­ing involved, like the use of sol­ar lights, I think we can learn a lot from your exper­i­ences for future crisis man­age­ment.

The thing is, we were able to form mul­tiple part­ner­ships that enabled us to bene­fit each oth­er. For example, off the grind mis­sions with Angela Maria, she deals with hard of hear­ing and deaf com­munit­ies and she sug­ges­ted that we take our sol­ar lights there. For people who are deaf or hard of hear­ing once the lights go down how do you com­mu­nic­ate?

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Wow. I wouldn’t have even thought of that. It must be an even heav­ier bur­den on those com­munit­ies. Again, it shows how mean­ing­ful these col­lab­or­a­tions were.

I learned a lot of things from dif­fer­ent people, like sus­tain­able farm­ing. We divided money to farm­ers and that money goes a long way out here. They had fund­ing from oth­er organ­iz­a­tions but with the red tape that comes with that they didn’t know when they were going to get the money, so I was like a ‘band aid’ through the crowd fund­ing it was super help­ful. And when I say ‘I’ I really mean ‘we’, because if it had it not been for every­one who made a con­tri­bu­tion and allowed me to be the arm on the ground for them I would not have been able to do it.

We estab­lished rela­tion­ships where we had people com­ing down from Puerto Rock Steady to learn about sus­tain­able farm­ing and helped farm­ers for a day. We also did things like rebuild­ing sand dunes to pro­tect the coast­line, when you first do it seems like noth­ing, it’s hard work I almost passed out but when you come back a year later and you see the sand dunes grow­ing you think moth­er nature is sick, she can des­troy but she can also cre­ate.

 

These events must have taken a toll on you per­son­ally. How is your health now and was there any dam­age to your own house over there?

My house was hit, there was about $13,000 of dam­age and the insur­ance only covered a quarter of it which sucked. Help­ing people I was phys­ic­ally affected, I caught Zika, I have a mild case of PTSD now. Like eight months later I was think­ing I still need to fix my house, I wasn’t work­ing out and I’m sup­posed to be a dan­cer, I was gain­ing weight. I’m over here help­ing every­one but myself. I had to learn to start adjust­ing my efforts, so I could take care of me also.

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I get that, it’s hard to think about your­self when you are wor­ry­ing about every­one else.

Yeah you know, the people from ‘Waves from Water’ are mostly surfer dudes, they’ve been doing this relief work around the world for a while. At one time I was trip­ping out as to why they were wak­ing up early in the morn­ing to go have fun. They did teach me that in order to be effect­ive in crisis situ­ations, have fun when you can. It makes you more effect­ive. I learned that and it was tough because I lit­er­ar­ily cried for 17 days straight.

Wit­ness­ing the suf­fer­ing, I can ima­gine why you weren’t in the mood to have fun.

Here’s a crazy thing, I talk about you have to have pride bey­ond music and food but one time I was com­ing from a mis­sion and I got to the bot­tom of a hill of a town with no elec­tri­city or water and there was a cel­eb­ra­tion going on with cul­tur­ally indi­gen­ous music to Puerto Rico. After going through so much of an emo­tion­al roller-coast­er ride, when I saw that, I was like ok I get it. I get why you can’t just dis­miss it.  It’s folk music and dance, it helps you pass the time. It’s kinda like how breakin did for us in the Bronx in poor com­munit­ies. Had we not had that, had we not had an interest in devel­op­ing our skills that would have led to us doing more destruct­ive things or not hav­ing as good as a life that we sup­posedly had. We were poor, but we were dan­cing through it.

I think a lot of people mis­in­ter­pret how Hip Hop star­ted, because cer­tain things sound really fun and beau­ti­ful to ima­gine but it’s not like as chil­dren or young teen­agers — every­one who sup­posedly cre­ated Hip Hop sat there and said hmm what can we make up to dis­tract us from stick­ing people up, burn­ing down build­ings, gang fights and all of these things. We are talk­ing about kids who don’t really have edu­ca­tion, so the gen­es­is of what happened with the inten­tion of being cre­at­ive for the sake of com­pet­i­tion and look­ing good was the indir­ect savior.

We do have a some­what roman­ti­cized notion of Hip Hop, and I think that sense to under­stand why we need to enjoy ourselves, is one of those things that’s hard to explain some­times.

So here’s the dif­fer­ence, for us who came up in the 70’s, let’s just say Nas for example as he is lot young­er than me. I’m that kind of per­son that Nas could look out to from his win­dow and grow up say­ing I want to be involved with that stuff one day. For us who pion­eered things it was one thing, but every­one who got to see what was com­ing up after, they were able to assess and maybe look at it and say I want to do that instead of fight. We would like I’m going to prac­tice and then I’m going to stick someone up for some money and go get some food. So it was very dif­fer­ent.

A lot of people believe Hip Hop was cre­ated to keep people from fight­ing which is such bull­shit, that was when I did most of my fight­ing haha. If you loved the art enough at that time, you knew you had to prac­tice to battle but you were still poor. At the end of the day if you are prac­ti­cing as a kid for six hours in the park you’re going to end up hungry and if you’re poor and you don’t have money, you’re going to do what you can to sur­vive. That’s the real­ity of it, like any oth­er hood.

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I under­stand that. So how are things in Puerto Rico now? I know there is still a lot of work to be done, but we don’t see it in the media any­more.

I can look out­side my win­dow right now I can see a tarp as someone’s roof because they can’t afford to fix it. There are imme­di­ately four or five I can see, only maybe 100 or 200 yards away, so ima­gine how many thou­sands of them are still left dam­aged, holes in people’s rooftops. All kinds of things. A lot of things haven’t been done also because Trump hasn’t released the amount of funds that were sup­posed to be released to the com­munity so that the aid can reach the people. SI don’t sit here as the per­fect per­son but when you are mak­ing decisions which affect oth­er people’s lives and their well­being, you have to be anoth­er kind of evil.

What advice would you give to any­one want­ing to help but not sure of how to get involved?

People need to fig­ure out what they are pas­sion­ate about. There are people who want to help because of the look of it and then there are people who want to help but don’t know how to help. The first thing is to fig­ure out what you are pas­sion­ate about, and if it’s some­thing that is needed on the ground then you approach it that way. Don’t try to help people by giv­ing them what you want, espe­cially if they live in a dif­fer­ent envir­on­ment, and a dif­fer­ent social and eco­nom­ic situ­ation. It could be from sav­ing dogs to fix­ing rooftops. Maybe reach out to us (Puertorocksteady.com). We do have efforts hap­pen­ing every Puerto Rock Steady.

People need to real­ise this is some­thing that you need resources for. Also keep in mind that get­ting resources to where they need to be is a whole oth­er logist­ic­al night­mare. You have to see it from begin­ning to end. You can’t just make dona­tions to an organ­iz­a­tion that doesn’t know how it’s going to get it into the hands of the people dir­ectly.

We had a hand to hand effort, when the gov­ern­ment was fail­ing we found a col­lab­or­at­ive way to leg­ally get sup­plies across with Fat Joe and Tai­nas Unid­is. We got almost one mil­lion pounds of sup­plies to the most remote part of the island. Through nor­mal chan­nels this would have been dif­fi­cult, but we found a leg­al way to beat the sys­tem.

Thank you for your time, it was so inspir­ing to talk with you. Keep up the mean­ing­ful work you are doing out there, chan­ging lives.

We can learn a lot from these future think­ing efforts, with the inten­tion on estab­lish­ing long term sus­tain­ab­il­ity, Puerto Ric­ans are being giv­en hope for a bright­er future.

Rock Steady for Life: https://www.gofundme.com/rscforlife

Puerto Rock Steady: https://puerto-rock-steady.myshopify.com/

Puerto Rico Relief: six months since Hur­ricane Maria aid con­tin­ues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XVinYnByww

Pho­tos cour­tesy of Red Bull Media House

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Faizah Cyanide

Faizah Cyanide

Faizah works in clin­ic­al research by pro­fes­sion and has been an avid Hip Hop lov­er since the early 90’s, hav­ing cre­ated her own Hip Hop event, ‘Breakin’ Bound­ar­ies’ in the early 2000’s which was pre­dom­in­antly based around the concept of bboy battles, she has worked with sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al events pro­moters and dan­cers to inspire oth­ers through this art­form.
Faizah Cyanide

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About Faizah Cyanide

Faizah Cyanide
Faizah works in clinical research by profession and has been an avid Hip Hop lover since the early 90's, having created her own Hip Hop event, 'Breakin' Boundaries' in the early 2000's which was predominantly based around the concept of bboy battles, she has worked with several international events promoters and dancers to inspire others through this artform.