DJ Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa to join National Public Housing Museum as curator

The museum is slated to open on the Near West Side next year. Spinderella will curate the museum’s music room.

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A rendering of the National Public Housing Museum. The larger museum will be housed in the last remaining original building of the Jane Addams Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1930s.

A rendering of the National Public Housing Museum. The larger museum will be housed in the last remaining original building of the Jane Addams Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1930s.

Courtesy of National Public Housing Museum

DJ Spinderella spent her formative years living in public housing in Brooklyn, New York, with her parents and five siblings.

Her family’s records were on a loop, as well as the music of DJs from outside the projects. She remembers the sounds of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

Spinderella counts these moments as deeply influential on her career as DJ and member of the hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa.

The musician, 52, will bring her experiences to the National Public Housing Museum as both a curator and a board member. The museum, which will move to Chicago’s Near West Side in early 2024, is the first and only of its kind, the museum says.

The National Public Housing Museum will be located in the historic Jane Addams Homes building, in the last remaining building of that public housing site. The museum broke ground in September 2022 and currently operates in a smaller capacity at 625 N. Kingsbury St. in River North.

Spinderella will be tasked with curating the museum’s music room, which will feature the soundtrack of cities with public housing history, like New York City, Los Angeles, Memphis and Chicago.

“The music room is just going to entail nostalgic factors,” Spinderella told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Public housing showcased all kinds of talent that was literally overlooked. But it also showcased some megastars, some icons.”

“A lot of artists are in those buildings in those segments and (have) talent,” she said. “Only some make it, but from my experience, it was a haven. Music was a haven in my home. I noticed that that was the case for a lot of people, or a lot of the cohabitants of the projects that I grew up with.”

A photo of DJ Spinderella from when she lived in a public housing complex in Brooklyn.

A family photo of DJ Spinderella at the public housing complex she lived in in Brooklyn.

Courtesy of National Public Housing Museum

Some unexpected artists, like Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley, lived in public housing and will be featured, as well as Nas, Jay-Z and Prince.

“It is impossible to understand the American musical landscape without acknowledging and exploring the role public housing played in its development,” said Josh Kun, an adviser to the museum’s music exhibit, in a news release about the museum. “The song of America is endlessly hybrid, heterogeneous, and enriching — a source of comfort and strength for populations who have been taught that their lives do not matter.”

Over 10 million people across the country have lived in public housing over the last century, museum leaders say. Public housing began in the 1930s, with the passing of the Public Works Administration Act. Jane Addams Homes was one of three initial projects built, according to the Chicago Housing Authority.

The Chicago Housing Authority built thousands of public housing units in the ensuing decades, most of them deeply segregated in Black and low-socioeconomic communities. Disinvestment created poor living conditions.

Music artists like singers Lou Rawls, Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler were among those who at some point lived in Chicago areas known for public housing.

The National Public Housing Museum represents efforts to memorialize a history that has been demolished frequently since the 1990s, the release said.

“One of the reasons why it was so easy to dismantle public housing was because there was just one single mainstream narrative about the so called failure of public housing, that — also because of our deeply racialized history — actually made public housing residents themselves the fault of the failure,” said Lisa Lee, the museum’s executive director.

Historical artifacts, as well as a sense of nostalgia in atmosphere, decor and music, can be expected. The museum has been operating on a much smaller scale in River North, acting primarily as a meeting space for events and a home for vision boards of the new museum.

The new space will hold three replicas of public housing apartments, Lee said — A 1930s apartment belonging to a Jewish family, an apartment showing the history of redlining and a third replica apartment that Rev. Marshall Hatch, now pastor the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, lived in in the 1960s.

There will also be a rotating collection of belongings from public housing residents across the country. The museum has been cultivating an oral history archive from these residents to combat the singular narrative of public housing that is often told, Lee said.

Residents were part of a “vibrant community,” Lee said. While they often had joyful times, that doesn’t negate the neglect, disenfranchisement and segregation that went on at the same time in public housing, she said.

“(The music room) shows all these incredible people who grew up in public housing, who ended up turning their cultural capital into other forms of capital and shaping this thing that we’re calling the sort of soundtrack of American life,” Lee added. “We wouldn’t actually have any sort of diverse cultural expressions if we didn’t have musicians who came out of public housing.”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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