“I came here on my mission as a Puerto Rican and I left as a human being”
– Crazy Legs
On 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.
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?
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.
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 literately 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.
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/
Photos courtesy of Red Bull Media House