Busking in Boston

During a breakdance show outside of Faneuil Hall, a street performer from the You Already Know (YAK) Dancing Company poses for a photograph.

By Frank Boudon, JCamp Reporter

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“We’re just black guys! we have no weapons! we’re unarmed!” shouted Universal Fair, a veteran busker, as he riled up the swelling crowd before his dance troop began captivating performance.

Busking — or as it’s better known, street performing — is alive and well in Boston.

They dance. They sing. They juggle and stand on their heads all for a quick buck and a passerby’s smile.

But the city wasn’t always a vibrant place to perform.

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City ordinances, a cumbersome permitting process and harassment from officials dissuaded performers for years. But a 2006 agreement with the Boston police department deregulated street performance.

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“Street performers and artists do not need permits,” the July 12 legal memorandum said. “Street performers are permitted to engage in their performance activity so long as laws, statues or ordinances are not violated.”

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Presently, public space in Boston remains open to any and all buskers, but private properties such as subways and the renowned Faneuil Hall continue to employ permit or audition processes.

James Bruce, 53, is a native Bostonian whose first street performance of his life was July 31 in Boston Common. A talented vocalist, he struck every note of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” with perfect pitch and regaled listeners with a poignant rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

When asked why he was out performing, Bruce said, “I’ve had a really good, relaxed day, and I just wanted to spread some sunshine!”

The easy assumption would be that street performers generally lack education or income.

But that is not Bruce’s story. Aside from being a singer, he has a doctorate in business, owns a management and development consulting firm, is a substitute teacher in Boston Public Schools, and is currently working on a brand of fruit-based products.

Despite his varied interests, Bruce’s true passion lies with music. He said his favorite teaching job is substituting as an elementary music teacher, building the confidence of the next generation of performers. He has been singing his entire life. At the age of eight, he formed part of the  Harmonizing Stars of Boston vocal quartet.

Entertaining isn’t his only motivation. Bruce wants to promote his faith. He performs regularly with a group from his church, a branch of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, on the corner of Washington St. and School St. He also writes his own songs about world peace, love, and empowerment

In his song, “Life Is Like Climbing a Mountain,” he included the catchy refrain, “If you believe, you will achieve your life’s mountains.”

Peter Reha, a 19-year-old Czech student spending his summer in Boston, said he sees and hears countless buskers everyday from his lemonade stand on the perimeter of Boston Common.

“Some of them are really good,” he said, “…but some of them are really bad!”

Fair, 50, is the head of YAK Dancing’s Boston troop, a dynamic group that puts a theatrical twist on the typical dance performance. His crew performed Thursday at the intersection of North St. and Congress St., in the public plaza in front of Faneuil Hall.

YAK’s style mixes comedy, gymnastics, aerobatics and hip-hop, Fair explained. He became involved with his organization more than 30 years ago, and his current group has been together for about a decade.

Fair has worked for the school district, city police, and in plumbing, but dancing and managing are now a full-time job — one that he loves.

“Once you get good at something that you like doing, it makes you happy,” Fair said. “So that’s what really kept me going.”

And Fair’s dancing reached beyond Boston as his group has performed across the country — most notably in New York and Las Vegas. Fair once performed for Michael Jackson at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. According to Fair, the King of Pop mimicked some of his dance moves in subsequent performances.

Fair attributes YAK’s success to Boston’s lax rules for public performance, making culture and arts a priority: “Most of the places you go, you don’t need a permit; you just have to follow the rules,” he said.

While public spaces are open, private spaces in the city that have their own policies regarding street performance. The Faneuil Hall Marketplace Street Theater program located outside of Quincy Market, for instance, is widely considered the most prestigious venue in Boston (and, arguably all of New England). It has its own rules.

Auditions for a spot in the highly competitive location take place each spring, and as Faneuil performer Bob Besmehn — a juggler, balancer, and unicycle rider — recalled, a panel of several judges base their choices on 15-minute acts.

Besmehn, 40, first received a set of clubs for his 13th birthday and joined a juggling group. He has been flipping, twirling and throwing them ever since.

He earns a living through performance, like Fair, and uses his talents to support a family.

“I would be doing something else if I didn’t love this, right?,” Besmehn said. “People shouldn’t do it if they don’t love to do it.”

Ultimately, what brings all street performers together, regardless of their journeys, motives, or access is a passion for their respective crafts.

This summer, as thousands of visitors continue to descend on Boston, they will have no shortage of opportunities to appreciate the engrossed violinist or the solitary painter.