“Before bling culture, before hip-hop culture, there was salsa, and all those salseros were super blinged out,” filmmaker Djali Brown-Cepeda explained to me. She was raised in upper Manhattan and the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood by a Dominican mother and a Black and Indigenous father, and she’s the mind behind Nuevayorkinos and BLK THEN, digital archives dedicated to cataloging New York City’s Latinx and Black cultural heritage. Each of the projects’ Instagrams is filled with family photos and personal narratives that tell the story of a New York that is becoming harder and harder to recognize. There are pictures of Puerto Rican teens hanging in pre-gentrified South Williamsburg, a dapper group of Black partygoers in ’50s Brooklyn, and even Brown-Cepeda herself visiting the Graffiti Hall of Fame in East Harlem with her father in the early aughts. Present in almost all of these images is gold: on fingers, earlobes, necks, and, of course, teeth.
Emmanuel Popoteur, a model, wears an 18-karat-gold cap on his right front incisor as an ode to the one his father used to wear. The elder Popoteur immigrated to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic as a teen in the early ’70s. In the ’80s and ’90s, New York became the epicenter of hip-hop’s golden age, bringing with it new edicts on freshness. “If you didn’t have a gold tooth back then, you weren’t poppin’, ” Emmanuel remembers his father telling him. By that point, gold and silver teeth were most commonly seen in the mouths of West Indian men and women uptown and in Brooklyn who had emigrated from places where the use of precious metals in dental work was common. In typical hip-hop fashion, however, the city’s Black and brown youth took a plebeian banality and flipped it to create something fresh, original, and undeniably fly.