Ghetto Brother – Warrior to Peacemaker


By Julian Voloj & Claudia Ahlering (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-948-9 (TPB)

In I971 New York City was a broken, dirty metropolis increasingly divided by top-down, enforced gentrification. From the end of the 1950s the mostly ethnically European population of the Bronx had been moving out into the suburbs – a process dubbed “White Flight” – whilst poorer inner-city newcomers, mostly Blacks and Hispanics, were driven or priced out of their cheap bohemian enclaves in Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown and Soho to fill the vacated places. Those emptied Manhattan regions now comprise some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the Big Apple…

Further social assault came when ruthless urban reformer and City Planner Robert Moses slashed the newly-coalescing community of “foreigners” in half by steamrollering the Cross Bronx Expressway right through the formerly scenic Borough.

Subsequent urban blight, administrative neglect and lack of funding soon turned the whole region into isolated islands of forgotten residents, and their hopeless, opportunity-starved kids began forming fiercely territorial gangs to defend spurious concepts of dignity, personal honour and the little territory they called theirs…

The South Bronx became a global byword for urban decay and a breeding ground for violence by the poor upon the poor. By December 1971 it seemed inevitable that the more than 100 gangs situated in the Borough would wipe each other out and possibly take the entire city with them.

…And then something miraculous happened…

This stunning graphic testament and graphic documentary by author and photographer Julian Voloj and artist/illustrator Claudia Ahlering relates in the impassioned words of Benjamin Yellow BenjyMelendez how, in the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, he formed the Ghetto Brothers, quickly turning it into the largest and most powerful Puerto Rican gang.

It further reveals how the senseless murder of one of his closest friends led to the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting: a tense, protracted conference where rival gang-lords talked instead of fought and astonishingly agreed to a truce which all but ended gang warfare for a generation.

With fighting curtailed, all those bored, frustrated kids needed new outlets for their pent-up energies and what slowly emerged was Rap, Hip-Hop and by extension today’s big money musical industry and cultural movement of self-expression…

Melendez’s path also encompassed music, but he spent most of his time and energies on turning the Brothers into a rough and ready outreach project for the community, with the gang forming an association with organisations of Puerto Rican nationalism, including the then-new Puerto Rican Socialist Party.

Highlighting long-forgotten events of a critical time through one key individual’s incredible epiphany, this amazing tale – still available in trade paperback and digital formats – then reveals his chance discovery of a hidden and quite shocking personal truth that changed Benjy’s life forever…

Addressing a growing cultural zeitgeist attuned to that time and place as recently seen in books and movie documentaries like Fresh Dressed, Rubble Kings, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s and Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, this utterly absorbing monochrome chronicle is bracketed by an Introduction from Jeff Chang (author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation) and the compelling, informative photo-essay ‘The Story Behind the Story’ which further explores that groundbreaking meeting at Hoe Avenue and offers biographies and further reading.
© 2015 Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering.