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In ‘Rock Rubber 45s,’ Bobbito García gives hip-hop another gift: the truth about sexual trauma

The industry icon offers up a DJ Cucumber-flavored slice of American life

Maybe you know him as DJ Cucumber Slice.

Maybe you were a loyal listener of The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, the radio show that aired on Columbia University’s WKCR during the ’90s that became a gold mine of hip-hop history.

Or maybe you still miss his syndicated Vibe column, Soundcheck.

For decades, Bobbito García has been one of the most influential figures in music as New York’s Puerto Rican hip-hop polymath. He’s been a radio host, a DJ, a sneaker connoisseur, a playground basketball evangelist, a filmmaker and a writer.

His latest documentary, Rock Rubber 45s, adds a much more personal and unexpected twist to the long list of titles that trail behind his name: survivor.

In his filmic autobiography, which tells the story of García’s life through basketball, sneakers, and music — hence the title — García reveals that he was sexually abused as a child.

Two years ago, when it was time to shoot that part of the film, García said, he remembered waking up, shaving, cutting his hair and getting himself to set. He took a deep breath and said, “Here we go.”

At the time, he wasn’t sure how his audience would react. But García has been screening the film in advance of its release Friday at the Metrograph in New York City.

“It’s been powerful,” García said during an interview in Greenwich Village. “Every screening we’ve done, I’ve had multiple people coming up to me — men and women — sharing their experiences. In emails, people opening up. I’ve got people crying on my shoulder at some screenings during the Q & A.

“If it’s an opportunity for people to, in some small step, heal, then it’s worth it. I don’t make films — I haven’t done anything in my career — to tickle curiosity. When me and Stretch did the radio show, we went hard and uplifted an entire community of hip-hop artists.”

The age of #MeToo has sparked revelations about sexual harassment and assault and how common it is — for women. But while men have been identified as the perpetrators of so much trauma, far fewer have come forward to identify themselves as victims or survivors of sexual assault. That’s not just because fewer men have been assaulted, but because the stigma of sexual assault provides a powerful incentive for secrecy. To some, to say that you are a man or boy who has been sexually violated is to admit to being weak, to being vulnerable, to somehow being less of a man.

For example, when rapper 50 Cent mocked actor and former NFL player Terry Crews this week in a now-deleted Instagram post. He posted a shirtless picture of Crews and added the words “I got raped. My wife just watched” and another of Crews holding a flower between his teeth, which he captioned “gym time.”

Crews testified this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee during hearings on a piece of proposed legislation known as the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights. Crews was one of the few men who came forward as a survivor as part of #MeToo. He accused talent agent Adam Venit of groping him at a party in 2016. Crews has also been an outspoken feminist who publicly criticizes the way narrowly defined gender roles contribute to inequality and rape culture.

“The assault lasted only minutes, but what he was effectively telling me while he held my genitals in his hand, was that he held the power,” Crews told the Senate committee. “This is how toxic masculinity permeates culture.”

So García’s openness regarding his own assault is significant. He’s not just coming forward as a survivor; he’s doing so within the context of a musical and cultural genre defined in part by its toughness, its braggadocio, and at times, its contempt for women.

“When you’re a man and you’re a person of color and you add hip-hop to it and the bravado and the machismo in the Latino community — forget about it. There’s all these reasons to suppress.”

Bobbito García and Rosie Perez share a memory in a scene from “Rock Rubber 45s.”

The Where’d You Get Those? author is hoping to influence all of those cultures for the better by exposing his own story of abuse.

“It’s a lot to carry on a daily basis for people who’ve been abused, for women who’ve been raped, for men who have been assaulted who don’t open up about it,” García said. “People hold me up as a luminary in the hip-hop world. That’s a taboo to talk about anything that’s vulnerable. Any moments where your life has been wounded. But I think hip-hop in its truest essence is always you’re true to yourself.”

While it’s a significant part of the film and his life, García’s assault is a small chapter of a life full of stories. There’s the irrational level of rejection and contempt García received from his basketball coach at Wesleyan University simply because he didn’t like García’s streetball style of basketball. There’s the emotional fulfillment that García gets from playing pro basketball at his parents’ home of Puerto Rico. Viewers witness García chasing the high of finding something new or simply underappreciated, and sharing it with the world, through shoes, through basketball, and through music.

In his Soundcheck column for Vibe, García would sit down with artists, usually rappers, and then he’d curate tracks while the artist in question would offer thoughts. García’s bread and butter was unexpected deep cuts, and obscure gems. The result: a unique marriage of music education and interviewing — from De La Soul offering up their opinions of Miriam Makeba to Slick Rick or Lil’ Kim getting Sylvia Striplin’s voice mixed up with Minnie Riperton’s.

García gave it up when advertisers buying space against his column wanted him to play only Top 40 songs. That’s just not what he was about. And the film is some version of this story over and over: García doing extraordinarily well at something, and floating away before it gets too commercial and too fake.

Rock Rubber 45s plays like an album offering up a DJ Cucumber-flavored slice of American life. In the process of telling his story, García enlists features from everywhere and everyone, from Questlove to Lin-Manuel Miranda to Rosie Perez to Rosario Dawson to former Vibe editor-in-chief Mimi Valdés. The through line is what García’s given to hip-hop and the world through column inches, basketball trick plays, and the sweaty, alcohol and weed-fueled escapes he’s DJed around the world.

But in Rock Rubber 45s, García has bestowed yet another gift to hip-hop: the freedom to tell the truth about sexual trauma without fear of blame, or shame, with the faith that the culture will be there to receive it.

“I don’t care who you are,” García said. “Everyone’s multidimensional. Everyone has layers. Whether we’re comfortable sharing that in a public forum or not is another thing. Not everybody’s a public figure, either. I chose to be vulnerable and I’m going to stick by that.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.