"Move for peace."
The 2022 Olympic Day slogan fits perfectly with the newest sport on the Olympic programme for Paris 2024: Breaking.
In a little over two years, dozens of B-boys and B-girls will head to Place de la Concorde in Paris to take part in exciting breaking battles that mix athleticism with artistic movements, with the aim of winning the first-ever Olympic breaking medals.
It is a sport that has its roots in a peace movement that took place in New York's Bronx district in the early 70s, following a difficult period of gang violence.
Olympics.com looks back on the birth of hip-hop culture, out of which breaking emerged, with Mounir Biba, a French B-boy who won the Red Bull BC One event in 2012 and worked alongside Tony Estanguet, the president of Paris 2024, to have the sport added to the Olympic programme.
A gang that wanted peace
In the 1970s, the north of New York City was facing the challenges of a social crisis. Several neighbourhoods, particularly in the south-Bronx, were divided into zones controlled by different gangs.
“People from the ghetto, because it was a ghetto, were abandoned,” explained Biba, one of the most influential figures in breaking, who danced for the Vagabond Crew for over 20 years.
“People lived in extreme poverty, there was high unemployment and daily violence. It was a war between gangs. We know what winter is like in New York City and the majority of people didn’t have hot water, electricity or heating. They were very hard times.”
In December 1971, a member of the Ghetto Brothers gang named Cornell Benjamin, also known as Black Benjy, was asked by a superior named Benjy Melendez to promote peace among the gangs in this New York neighbourhood with a surface area one-and-a-half times larger than Paris.
A peace treaty signed in a club in the Bronx
While attempting to complete his mission, Benjamin was killed. It was a murder that reverberated across the Bronx and could have led to many additional confrontations.
But Melendez and Carlos Suarez, president of the Ghetto Brothers, were convinced that peace was needed to make the Bronx a better place to live.
“The Ghetto Brothers is moving in the right direction,” wrote Jose Torres in the New York Post. “They don’t believe in bloody confrontations, they don’t think that violence is a substitute for persuasion.”
Melendez and Suarez decided to visit the mother of Cornell, and as Jeff Chang wrote in his book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, she was clear about what she wanted:
"No revenge. Benjie lived for peace," she said.
The desire for peace that Suarez and Melendez felt grew stronger and they did everything they could to get the gang leaders of the time to sit down and talk.
On 8 December, dozens of those leaders entered the Boys Club in the Bronx with police and the media also in attendance. After long talks, where voices sometimes rose, a peace treaty was signed.
“They were free,” said Biba. “They could cross the streets, get along with each other, talk, meet together… it’s something that didn’t exist before.”
Hip-hop culture begins and breaking is born
As time passed, confrontation was replaced by creativity, as gang members met at improvised parties, famously known as block parties.
“They began to play music, gathered in the parks and we could see the first B-boys and B-girls, the first MCs, the first DJs. And in August 1973, when DJ Kool Herc hosted his first parties, hip-hop culture was born.”
Dancers faced each other in ‘battles’ when the sound of the vocals from a track mixed by the DJs lowered and only the instruments could be heard in what’s now known as a ‘break’.
Rap, graffiti, breaking - all of those movements of urban art rose up in the first half of the ‘70s, before they spread internationally and became the cultures we know today.
“It’s a culture born out of peace, first and foremost,” concluded Biba. “This is why the hip-hop slogan is ‘Peace, Unity, Love and Having Fun’. Those are the values and messages shown by hip-hop from the beginning, especially when it comes to dance.”
They are also messages that resonate on Olympic Day, which will once again be shared across the world in July 2024 when the Games begin in Paris.
About Joe Conzo’s photography
Born and raised in the Bronx, Joe Conzo photographed the birth of hip hop from the 1970s and on. A member of the Rock Steady Crew, Joe’s photos captured hip hop as a modest, intimate, homespun phenomenon. From DJ Kool Herc, to the Rock Steady Crew, to the Cold Crush Brothers in high school gyms, “It was family back then.” When not taking photos these days, Joe is a retired New York City Firefighter and was a first responder to 9/11.
Discover more of his photos and the breaking history in video, from the 1970s to present days, in the “Breaking Life” Original Series on the Olympic Channel, from July 7th.