The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator

Kembrew McLeod

“Places with the Racist Faces”: Virginia Beach, Greekfest ’89, and Hip Hop

Greekfest began in Virginia Beach during the early 1980s, when sororities and fraternities from East Coast HBCUs started a beach picnic during Labor Day weekend in my hometown. Many white residents and business owners despised this gathering, and several beach stores would close in protest during the busiest weekend of the season, posting signs that might as well have said, “Your kind is not welcome here.” The Virginia Beach Police Department threw gasoline on the fire until tensions exploded on September 8, 1989, provoking one of that decade’s largest racially-charged uprisings, a spectacle that was soundtracked by hip hop. The weekend celebration began on a positive note, when thousands of African-American visitors streamed into the Oceanfront where LL Cool J and Q-Tip were hanging out. After De La Soul checked into the Kona Kai, they hung out on the boardwalk among a peaceful crowd until a line of baton-wielding police officers rushed at them, unprovoked, and chased the freaked-out group into their hotel rooms. A few hours later, 120 officers in riot gear marched in “V” wedge formation down the main Atlantic Avenue strip, and the crowd responded by flinging debris and chanting “too black, too strong” (a sample from a Public Enemy song that everyone knew). A few months later, Chuck D raged about Greekfest in “Welcome to the Terrordome,” the lead single from 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet. Another video from that album, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” included footage of VBPD officers beating young black people at Greekfest ’89, though this seismic event has largely been forgotten today. This multimedia presentation shines new light on that moment with firsthand accounts (from De La’s Posdnuos and others) to tell a story about race, rupture, rebellion, and hip hop’s cultural force during the end of the Reagan era.

Kembrew McLeod has published several books and produced three documentaries about popular music, including as Copyright Criminals, which aired on PBS’s Independent Lens. His book Freedom of Expression® won the American Library Association’s Oboler Book Award for “best scholarship in the area of intellectual freedom” and Kembrew received a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award to support work The Downtown Pop Underground, published in 2018 by Abrams.