Cover Story: Peace Train’s Popping & Breaking All Stars

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By Jasmin Agosto

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2018-2019

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Hip hop is a cultural movement initiated by African American, West Indian, and Latino youth in the early 1970s in the South Bronx, New York, according to Jeff Chang in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (Picador, 2005). It was, Chang argues, a response to the criminalization of youth, the lack of quality education supports, and the burning down of dilapidated housing neglected by property owners and the New York City government.

Soon after the emergence of hip hop culture in New York City, Hartford, too, had a burgeoning hip hop scene in neighborhood landscapes similar to those in the South Bronx. A November 2016 panel discussion at Hartford Public Library and subsequent interviews archived by the library’s Hartford History Center, along with articles published in TheHartford Courantand TheHartford Advocatebetween 1981 and 1991, document the scene’s formation. Breakdancing, graffiti, rapping, and DJ crews developed in Hartford in the late 1970s and early 1980s as small groups of teen and preteen boys and girls, emulating what they learned from the New York City-based styles, worked on their moves in the basements of houses from Charter Oak Terrace to Sheldon Oak to the Anawan Street projects to Bellevue Square and beyond.While hip hop was largely a male-dominated scene, young women were part of the early Hartford movement. There were all-female and mixed female/male crews in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Two female participants in the center’s digital story project said it was challenging, as the hip hop scene was seen as a male space and men would tease women and discourage them from participating.

This small scene wasn’t fully recognized by a larger area audience until Peace Train, a Hartford non-profit better known for producing the New England Fiddle Contest in Bushnell Park from 1974 to 1984 (with a brief return 15 years later), produced a breakdancing and popping contest in Bushnell Park in August 1983. An estimated 15,000 Hartford residents swarmed the park to see 40 crews compete in a contest judged by dance teachers from Hartford area high schools, colleges, and dance organizations. The winners performed a couple of weeks later for another Peace Train event featuring the famed New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Peace Train held a state-wide contest in 1984.

From 1983 to 1985 Peace Train developed the Peace Train Breaking & Popping All Stars, an all-male group of winners of the organization’s first contest. The group, from neighborhoods in the South End and the North End of the city, was paid to perform and teach workshops for students in schools and after-school programs throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and into New Hampshire. The All-Stars performed at a half-time show during a Boston Celtics basketball game at the Hartford Civic Center in January 1984 and on Peace Train’s mobile stage parked on Main Street in Hartford during summer weekday lunch hours. The All-Stars continued until 1985, when Peace Train ran out of funding. Several of the participants continued to get gigs after that, some through Peace Train and some on their own. Peace Train as an organization closed by 1986.  

Former All-Stars members revealed in interviews conducted in fall 2017 and a February 2018 panel discussion that their participation in the group and their crew generally helped them to focus on developing their art forms and a positive brotherhood, which kept them safe from getting involved in the gang scene. Although many of the All-Stars moved on to different careers, many are still in touch with one another and speak about this period in their life with a great sense of pride and nostalgia—and with great hopes to share their stories and keep hip hop alive in Hartford for generations to come.  These photographs are from the Peace Train Hip Hop Archive at the Hartford History Center at Hartford Public Library. The collection was donated by photographer Wayne Fleming and former Peace Train Breaking & Popping All-Stars manager Tim Wolf in August 2017. These images illustrate the influence of Peace Train in fostering and documenting Hartford’s early hip hop scene.

Jasmin Agosto is the education and outreach manager at the Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.

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