Mash Out

Miami Beach reluctantly embraces Urban Beach Week

An eerie silence crept down Washington Avenue this past Saturday on Memorial Day weekend, even though the street was lined with young blacks (and, to a lesser extent, Latinos and whites) streaming in and out of clubs such as crobar, Mansion, and Krave; sitting against storefronts and in front of restaurants; and gathering in groups, determining whether to hit another club or go back to the hotel. The curious lack of noise felt strange considering there were so many people outside, trying to party the night away.

Did the proverbial cat catch the crowd's collective tongue? Or were the squads of uniformed police in cars on every block and at every intersection quelling the noise level? Though statistics weren't available at press time, it was safe to say that the overwhelming media coverage of Miami Beach's ambivalence over the annual influx of African Americans to its environs -- from the Miami Herald's reporting on the infamous black binder containing incriminating police profiles of hip-hop celebrities, to countless stories documenting residents' wariness about so many black people hanging out in South Beach -- had taken its pound of flesh in cash and visitor numbers. A few days before the weekend began, you could hear people whispering about the "tension" in the air and how they wanted to leave town. Rumors abounded that there would be fewer celebrities visiting than in years past, and that all of the major stars had decamped to Puerto Rico and Cancun, Mexico, instead.

So why did so many black people come to a city that, at best, only tolerated their presence? Despite all the negative publicity, they still arrived in droves. They mimicked DMX's famous "Ruff Ryders Anthem" video, forming motorcycle gangs and rushing through the streets in packs. Women wore their finest and skimpiest bikinis, turning Ocean Drive into some sort of fabulous catwalk.

On Sunday afternoon, as the sun set over the Clevelander and two dancers in bikini tops and frilly pink skirts put on their best steps atop a runway overlooking the crowd, Kenyatta Taylor thought about why she had flown here from Dallas for Memorial Day weekend, also known as Urban Beach Week. "Just the fact that Miami has a history of fame," said the beautiful woman, dressed in a white ensemble with a see-through skirt and high heels. "Movies are shot here, videos are shot here." The other, more important reason, she added, was the chance to be around lots of black people. Unlike other national "black" events such as New Orleans's Essence Music Festival, Urban Beach Week emphasizes youth culture -- hip-hop culture. "It's good that they have an event here where you have 200,000 people who look like you and share the same culture as you," she said.

Yes, the city made a killing and everybody had a good time over the weekend. But that's not to say there aren't and haven't been problems.

On May 14 city and law enforcement officials teamed up with the Miami Beach Black Host Committee -- established by Mayor David Dermer last year to build relations between the city commission and the black community -- to hold a symposium and assuage fears among hip-hop representatives over the black binder and racial profiling. Unfortunately it ended with a loud and very public argument between local rap legend Luther "Luke" Campbell and Henry Crespo, chairman of the BHC. A week later, Campbell was rebuked again by the city when he wasn't allowed to include music acts in his annual Umoja Festival activities, which he planned to hold on the beach for the third straight year. (Instead he decided to have the music-oriented festival in Overtown and a fashion/party extravaganza on the beach.)

Nevertheless, no matter how much they want to ignore him, people will continue to listen to Campbell because of his fame, considerable ties with the black and hip-hop communities, and numerous alliances with politicians and political organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. But local officials have yet to realize that allowing and even sponsoring events such as Campbell's Umoja Festival would bring structure to a weekend that is haphazardly -- and sometimes dangerously -- unwieldy and amorphous.

It is not enough to expect 200,000 people to pay $40 or more (which the Clevelander charged for its afternoon soiree) to go to a club. Unlike the Winter Music Conference in March, there are no free parties during Urban Beach Week, just the opportunity to roam the streets in search of action or scramble for a table at T.G.I. Friday's. Why not give visitors a free, well-publicized, star-studded festival to while away the hours? It may prolong the life of a fledgling tradition that is quickly losing its buzz among hip-hop fans as a prime vacation spot. Then again, that's what Miami Beach probably wants, anyway.

 
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