A Bronx native, who has spent his life in the arts and music, recently wrote a book about the jazz-hip-hop folklore that originated in the borough.
In February, Grammy-nominated, artist Mwalim released his first novel ‘Land of the Black Squirrels, A Bronx Boheme Novel.’ It is part of a series of four novels, which is written in a jazz-poetry style and tells the story of the underground music scene in the Bronx and NYC during the 70s, 80s and 90s.
“This book is a way to remember New York from the 80s and 90s,” Mwalim said.
The book begins in 1969, when Black squirrels began to appear in the Bronx. Obatunde Bey a jazz musician and painter leaves his desk job at the NYC Parks Department to open an arts academy in his northeast Bronx neighborhood, ‘The Valley.’ Afterwards, his home and neighborhood became one of the centers for hip-hop and jazz.
Mwalim ‘DaPhunkee Professor’ (Morgan James Peters) is a multi-award-winning performer, writer and educator whose works span the mediums of spoken-word, literature, music, theater and film. Mwalim, 51, was born and raised in Co-op City in a family of musicians. His grandfather Allan Nurse played piano, his mother Shirley Nurse Peters was an opera singer and Mwalim plays piano.
The Massachusetts resident lived in the Bronx until 1986, came back in 1999 and has been in New England since 2003 as a professor at UMass Dartmouth. He explained that his upbringing and culture had a profound impact on his life.
“Growing up hip hop was coming about,” he said. “The 70s and 80s were a golden period for the arts.”
Some of his favorite musicians as a kid were Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Kenny Kirkwood and Marcus Miller.
However, writing has also been a passion of his. In middle school he won awards for writing and in college, he began his career as a storyteller and spoken-word artist. In 2003, he published ‘The Bronx Boheme’ as a long-form storytelling piece.
But about a year ago he felt compelled to tell the story of jazz and hip-hop in the borough. While the book is fictional, it is based on people in the music scene that he was around.
During that time underground clubs dominated the music scene. Mwalim performed in many of these places and witnessed the rise of jazz and hip-hop firsthand. Whether it was the Bronx, Lower East Side or Harlem, these places were everywhere.
“The underground scene was raw and creative energy,” Mwalim said. “People weren’t worried about genres and format. A lot of rap groups came out of the underground scene.”
He told the Bronx Times a lot of people have read the book and told him how nostalgic it is.
“It’s the memory of that crumby apartment you had when you first got out of college,” he said. “Read the book and most likely if they don’t find themselves, they will at least find people they know.”