It’s The Bronx festival postponed after criticism and ‘racist remarks’

The It's The Bronx festival has been postponed after losing its venue amid criticism.
The It’s The Bronx festival has been postponed after losing its venue amid criticism. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Claudette Barius

After facing criticism and losing its venue, the It’s the Bronx festival has been postponed, according to organizers. 

The festival was slated to launch on Saturday as the largest talent showcase "by the Bronx and for the Bronx" at the Andrew Freedman Home with 30 musical performers, 40 visual artists, 20 panelists and dozens of food and drink vendors, and there were plans to run monthly.

But on Wednesday, the festival’s founder Marco Shalma sent an email blast saying that his team has been "confronted by continuous xenophobic, bigoted and racist remarks from a few individuals, fueled by falsities suggested in the form of a sloppy, one-sided ‘investigation’ for which none of our team members has been approached for a response."

Ticket refunds were available as of 8 p.m. Thursday, he said.

"We do understand that due to the sensitivity of issues brought by certain members of the Bronx creative community there is a bigger conversation to be had," Shalma said in a statement. "We will address these and other items in a town hall meeting hosted by the Andrew Freedman Home in April so we can collectively move forward for the benefit of all Bronx creatives."

In a phone interview, he told amNewYork that the people criticizing the event claimed they represented "the only true art in our borough," and that there has been a cyberbullying campaign launched against the artists and musicians who were planning to perform.

Bronx-based art/media collective hydrOpunk has been publicly critical of the festival and Shalma, writing on Instagram that "the Bronx is still burning with gentrification." They accused Shalma of being an "outsider" who is "commodifying our culture, way of being and using it as a tool to rebrand and ultimately sanitize our Bronx."

In a statement Friday, hydrOpunk denied Shalma’s claims, saying "at no point have we ever bullied, harassed, intimidated anyone in our community." However, they accused him of exploiting the arts for his own benefit and described the It’s the Bronx Festival as an "elaborate ‘art washing’ scheme to make way for luxury developments in the South Bronx."

Shalma said "unfounded claims" of gentrification started hitting the festival’s Instagram page last fall, with some bigoted remarks about Shalma’s Israeli and South African heritage, he said.

"We are self-funded and the 12 of us were born or raised, or have been living and working in the Bronx. We are anti-gentrification; we don’t approve or comply with that," he said. "We paid no attention to [the criticism and bigotry] and wanted to focus on the community," he continued. "We kept going and it got worse and worse. But for every one of those nasty voices, we had 100 people supporting the cause and the artists."

But earlier this week, the festival’s venue, the Andrew Freedman Home, called off the event, saying that it did not have time to find out whether the criticisms of the festival had merit.

Additionally, the venue said it did not have a tally of ticket sales and couldn’t tell if it had enough space or adequate insurance to cover the value of the artwork that was going to be displayed.

"We are a community service organization with deep roots in the South Bronx that extend back to the 1970s, and have a long history of listening to and responding to the concerns of our artists, neighbors and families," it wrote in a statement on its website.

"Knowing now that there is significant controversy surrounding ‘It’s The Bronx’ and lacking the time to understand whether or not the criticisms have merit, our only choice at this time is to cancel our participation in this event."

Walter Puryear, the Andrew Freedman Home’s director, further explained his decision to cancel. 

"We are very open to doing a community event to give the artists who are in the festival the opportunity to show their work," he told amNewYork. "This has nothing to do with artists within the show. We are deeply apologetic that we had to cancel but we felt if we did this event it might be misconstrued and our mission might be seriously tarnished if it were to come out later that it did have an affiliation with developers."

How to help Bronx artists develop while maintaining the borough’s character will be up for discussion at the Andrew Freedman Home’s town hall. 

"We feel like there needs to be a conversation about artists in the Bronx and their influence and social responsibility," he said. "Artists not only change and beautify the environment but they can also be rebranded. If they’re not aware they can be easily used and manipulated. We’ve seen how things have played out in Brooklyn, the lower East Village and in Queens and I can’t deny that I see a pattern forming or getting ready to play itself out here — that is what had us very concerned."