To The Party Members

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The sound and image of a drum cir­cle may be one of the most easily-mocked moments asso­ci­ated with the Occupy move­ments. But the role of music in the move­ment, and its rela­tion to protests and polit­i­cal action in gen­eral, bears closer inves­ti­ga­tion, beyond the drum circle.

Music at Occupy events has been as diverse as the peo­ple and loca­tions involved, from Bay Area rap stal­wart Mis­tah FAB’s freestyle at Occupy Oak­land to Tom Morello’s Gui­tarmy, indige­nous dancers and singers in Min­neapo­lis, polit­i­cal march­ing bands like the Rude Mechan­i­cal Orches­tra or the Hun­gry March Bands in New York, the Mil­wau­kee Molo­tov Marchers, Pittsburgh’s Riff Raff, and the leg­endary Infer­nal Noise Brigade of Seat­tle. Videos and albums have been launched, and many have called for a new era of protest music to arise.

These musi­cal actions them­selves are often char­ac­ter­ized as “protest music.” In fact, march­ing bands serve vital tac­ti­cal pur­poses at street protests (and beyond): sur­round­ing police vans, iden­ti­fy­ing and fol­low­ing under­cover police, de-escalating ten­sion, and help­ing facil­i­tate the flow and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the crowd. But the con­cept of “protest music” can obscure some of music’s most pow­er­ful aspects as a social force. For many involved in Occupy, the spe­cific rela­tion­ship between the music being played and the peo­ple who hear it has not been thought through very care­fully – and this weak­ness can rein­force polit­i­cal weak­nesses. Indeed, when even Salon.com can call 100 tracks of Occupy-themed music “shape­less and safe,” we might ask our­selves what this protest music is missing.

Har­sha Walia has pointed out that many of the most pow­er­ful aspects of Occupy spaces were not about “protest­ing,” but about enact­ing exist­ing con­nec­tions: what hap­pened in the kitchens, the medic tents, the libraries, the teach-ins and work­shops. These were places where peo­ple brought their exist­ing skills to bear in self-organized con­fig­u­ra­tions, pro­vid­ing for them­selves and each other along a met­ric that was nei­ther char­ity nor busi­ness, but a com­mon inter­est. The most promis­ing polit­i­cal actions were those that con­nected to exist­ing com­mu­nity strug­gles around police vio­lence, home fore­clo­sure, and home­less­ness, where activists, res­i­dents, and even the home­less them­selves, engaged directly with the lived real­i­ties of peo­ple fac­ing sys­temic violence.

Music con­structs sim­i­lar pos­si­bil­i­ties for social rela­tions. The kind of social rela­tions evoked by “protest­ing” are not very fer­tile – a protest can get voices “out there,” some­where – but doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily affect how peo­ple deal with each other. While music, on the other hand, can have a “mes­sage” to com­mu­ni­cate, it can be so much more – it can be a social activ­ity rather than just a prod­uct, what the musi­col­o­gist Christo­pher Small has called musick­ing: a way for peo­ple to per­form con­nec­tions with each other and with exist­ing com­mu­ni­ties, through shared cul­tural expression.

There is a com­plex rela­tion­ship between music and cul­ture that makes music polit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant – and mobi­liz­ing – in ways that go beyond words, and the par­tic­u­lar moment of “protest.” Music can be a lived nego­ti­a­tion and per­for­mance of com­mu­nity and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. A bet­ter under­stand­ing of how music does this, as well as more seri­ous atten­tion to its dif­fer­ent cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally spe­cific tra­di­tions, would help forge a more rad­i­cal rela­tion­ship between the het­ero­ge­neous com­mu­ni­ties and inter­ests that par­tic­i­pate in resis­tance movements.

In my own expe­ri­ence as a DJ, dancer, party orga­nizer, and researcher, I’ve engaged in-depth with the every­day prac­tices of Jamaican musick­ing. In Jamaica, even though the cul­ture of the urban poor is offi­cially vil­i­fied and excluded, that cul­ture still sets main­stream trends, and is under­stood to be authen­ti­cally Jamaican. This cul­tural author­ity has per­sisted despite its exclu­sion from mass media tech­nolo­gies like radio and tele­vi­sion, from their ear­li­est incep­tion. Both under­writ­ten by the gov­ern­ment until rel­a­tively recently, these media out­lets have con­sis­tently sup­ported for­eign and British-identified cul­tural expres­sion over pop­u­lar culture.

This same hos­til­ity has lim­ited poor people’s abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in both for­mal employ­ment and pres­ti­gious artis­tic per­for­mance. Such bod­ily restraints oper­ate at the lev­els of both race and class: skin color tracks poverty even more dra­mat­i­cally in Jamaica than in the US, so the phys­i­cal and ver­bal traits asso­ci­ated with poverty are also gen­er­ally asso­ci­ated with dark-skinned Jamaicans. In the face of colo­nial rejec­tion and hos­til­ity at tra­di­tional sites of “mass cul­ture,” poor Jamaicans began, in the 1930s and 1940s, to carve out their own sites of cre­ative expres­sion, espe­cially through nightlife – music and danc­ing at night, usu­ally around home-built sound sys­tem. These dances, espe­cially the free out­door events usu­ally known as “street dances” – became places where poor Jamaicans pro­duced a degree of cul­tural auton­omy from the colo­nial tastes of the rul­ing class.

These par­ties weren’t utopias of free­dom and equal­ity, but the per­for­mances of gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, dom­i­nance, and plea­sure that were enacted there rep­re­sented a col­lec­tive resis­tance to dom­i­na­tion. After Jamaican inde­pen­dence, offi­cial media chan­nels remained dom­i­nated by colo­nial tastes, and poor neigh­bor­hood nightlife became cen­ters of an alter­na­tive voice for the majority.

This alter­na­tive voice speaks in terms that tra­di­tional pol­i­tics usu­ally don’t hear. For exam­ple, sex­u­al­ized dance moves have been con­tin­u­ally pop­u­lar in Jamaica from the 1930s to the present, and crit­ics of nightlife are often unable to hide their dis­com­fort with these erotic social inter­ac­tions. But sweaty moments can have polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Jamaican schol­ars such as Car­olyn Cooper have empha­sized the con­text of these moves: invented by descen­dants of enslaved Africans, such dances were a way to express tra­di­tions and rela­tions denied to them by dom­i­nant soci­ety. Cooper sug­gests that that dance­hall cul­ture is “an eroge­nous zone in which the cel­e­bra­tion of female sex­u­al­ity and fer­til­ity is rit­u­al­ized.” Tak­ing this point more broadly, for mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties – espe­cially those with a his­tory of enslave­ment – sex­ual auton­omy is a seri­ous issue. Secur­ing this auton­omy fre­quently requires trans­gres­sion of reli­gious, sex­ual, and even eco­nomic rela­tions val­ued by dom­i­nant society.

These issues are still alive. Jamaican elites, and the gov­ern­ment itself, have been so hos­tile to local pop­u­lar music that to this day there is no large music venue in the cap­i­tal city – so the abil­ity of pop­u­lar spaces to redraw and resist dom­i­nant cul­tural hier­ar­chies remains rel­e­vant. As Son­jah Stanley-Niaah puts it, these can be spaces where peo­ple “revaloriz[e] aspects of the body that are cen­sored in the wider social sphere.” Con­sider, for exam­ple, the 2010 vic­tory in a Jamaican “Dance­hall Queen” com­pe­ti­tion by Kristal Ander­son, a viva­cious and tal­ented per­former who was both dark-skinned and weighed over 200 pounds. Anderson’s glo­ri­ous skills and tal­ents, honed in the dances that occur in what Obika Gray calls “exilic spaces,” drew enthu­si­as­tic pop­u­lar sup­port. The judges, whose ties to the local music scene require that they respect the audience’s taste, had to rep­re­sent that audience’s sub­ver­sive val­ues. It would be a mis­take to under­es­ti­mate the impor­tance of street dances, and the cul­ture cen­tered on them, in chal­leng­ing dom­i­nant standards.

Valid crit­i­cisms can be made of these prac­tices. Sex­u­al­ized per­for­mances can par­tic­i­pate in the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of bod­ies along gen­dered and racial lines, and many sub­cul­tures are not free of the homo­pho­bia and sex­ism that also dom­i­nates main­stream soci­ety. How­ever, ignor­ing the spe­cific con­text in which such inequal­i­ties take place risks mis­in­ter­pret­ing their ori­gins, and per­pet­u­at­ing hier­ar­chies of race and class. The Jamaican dance­floor, while echo­ing with the sound of many an explic­itly anti-gay lyric, is simul­ta­ne­ously a place where per­form­ers chal­lenge stan­dard def­i­n­i­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity – con­sis­tent with a cul­tural shift, even in main­stream Jamaican pol­i­tics, towards a less homo­pho­bic stance than many pop­u­lar elected offi­cials in the US. Under­stand­ing how dance­floor pol­i­tics reflects and pos­si­bly pushes towards these changes requires a cri­tique informed by the subject-positions and expe­ri­ences within the com­mu­ni­ties being dis­cussed. Unfor­tu­nately, white-dominated “activist com­mu­ni­ties” have not demon­strated a hum­ble com­mit­ment to under­stand­ing mar­gin­al­ized cul­tures. This is a great loss for many rea­sons. For one thing, it’s clear that so many com­mu­ni­ties care about music, and use it as a basis for sol­i­dar­ity and plea­sure – which ought to make any good orga­nizer sit up and pay attention.

My own obser­va­tion of (and par­tic­i­pa­tion in) white-dominated activist scenes sug­gests that the abil­ity to col­lab­o­rate often falls apart not over polit­i­cal plat­forms, but over per­sonal and social engage­ments around race, cul­ture, eth­nic­ity, and gen­der – often in seem­ingly non-political set­tings, like night­clubs and par­ties. In rela­tion to music, these prob­lems result from the “protest” mind­set. Many par­tic­i­pants in the Occupy move­ment have approached music as a didac­tic event, instru­men­tal­ized around “get­ting a mes­sage to peo­ple,” to inspire them or oth­er­wise make them behave in a cer­tain way. Alter­nately, music is expected to be a gen­eral com­mu­nal “emo­tional release” where the specifics of par­tic­u­lar cul­tural and musi­cal prac­tices and his­to­ries are expected to be sub­sumed or erased – and that era­sure is appar­ently assumed to be liberating.

Nei­ther under­stand­ing of music is polit­i­cally fer­tile, or likely to take the musi­cal expe­ri­ence very far out­side of white middle-class activists, because it fun­da­men­tally mis­takes or ignores the social func­tion of music within mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. This reflects a broader prob­lem fac­ing the self-identified “Amer­i­can left,” which has long made it irrel­e­vant, or even harm­ful, to com­mu­ni­ties of color, queer com­mu­ni­ties, and indeed the work­ing class – an inabil­ity to deal with cul­ture as an aspect of polit­i­cal iden­tity and practice.

Much like Jamaican street dances, the his­tory of vogue balls, hip-hop (which includes DJing, danc­ing, rap­ping, and graf­fiti), and house or block par­ties where immi­grants play the music of their home coun­tries or dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties, all demon­strate that music affirms spe­cific his­to­ries and iden­ti­ties in the face of mar­gin­al­iza­tion. Queer com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cially queer com­mu­ni­ties of color, have been espe­cially rooted in these spaces, since a queer per­son of color may not be safe diverg­ing from expected iden­tity per­for­mances any­where else they go. While cer­tain norms of gen­der are enforced at home, at school, and at work, the dance floor is a space to work out plea­sure, sex, and style, in the face of often mur­der­ous hos­til­ity from dom­i­nant cul­ture. Plea­sure, sex, and style can be dis­rup­tive of dom­i­nant social orders – not always, but depend­ing on the spe­cific bod­ies and com­mu­ni­ties who per­form them, and the modes of their per­for­mance. It is pos­si­ble, to be sure, for peo­ple to take plea­sure in racism or sex­ism, or for hedo­nism to col­lapse, espe­cially along lines of class, into con­sumerism and addic­tion. But when people’s actual bod­ies face hos­til­ity – from arrest to state-sanctioned vig­i­lante vio­lence, or direct police vio­lence – for devi­at­ing from dom­i­nant norms of sex­u­al­ity, gen­der, and race, then their prac­tices are more sig­nif­i­cant than sim­ple “sex-positivity” or the fetishiza­tion of transgression.

After all, we shouldn’t for­get that despite the white faces of main­stream “gay rights,” it has always been queer and trans­gen­der peo­ple of color at the fore­front of the strug­gles against the polic­ing of sex­u­al­ity. Such strug­gles often began with attempts to defend seem­ingly dis­rep­utable spaces of refuges and resis­tance. Such spaces are spe­cially impor­tant for peo­ple – dis­pro­por­tion­ately queer peo­ple of color – who have been expelled from or are unable to find homes. If a home isn’t safe, or you don’t have one to live in, spaces where you can just be your­self, with­out scrutiny and threat from oppres­sive forces, are even more nec­es­sary. Many of these spaces exist on the mar­gins of respectable and legal soci­ety. From ware­house par­ties to the Christo­pher Street Pier, such strug­gles are rooted in the his­tory of queer lib­er­a­tion: it should be no sur­prise that Stonewall is so sig­nif­i­cant to the movement’s his­tory – a bar fre­quented by trans peo­ple of color like Sil­via Rivera, who led the resis­tance. Nightlife can be a refuge, but also a source of resis­tant iden­tity and mobilization.

When we talk about cul­ture, we’re also talk­ing about his­tory, and often music defines people’s iden­ti­ties from the begin­ning. Songs with lyrics that might make white middle-class activists squirm can take on dif­fer­ent mean­ings in the con­text of the dance floor. Such an engage­ment with music is not defined by the record­ings or lyrics them­selves – music is a socialexpe­ri­ence, and its polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance can’t be under­stood until you know who is phys­i­cally in the room, and how they are inter­act­ing with each other in the moment of musi­cal engage­ment. A room­ful of white frat boys singing along to DJ Assault’s “suck my moth­er­fuck­ing dick” has a very dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance, and a very dif­fer­ent effect, from the same cho­rus sung by black drag queens.

What I’ve learned as a DJ is that the sig­nif­i­cance of a musi­cal expe­ri­ence is enacted by the actual bod­ies of the peo­ple in the room, and thus mak­ing mean­ing­ful musi­cal expe­ri­ences requires know­ing specif­i­cally who you’re try­ing to reach and what their (musi­cal) his­to­ries are. Reusing those musi­cal ref­er­ences can affirm and rep­re­sent the lis­tener in a way that builds col­lec­tive emo­tional con­nec­tions. In the con­text of mass polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tions, these tools are espe­cially impor­tant, to gen­er­ate the inclu­siv­ity that is the con­di­tion for any mean­ing­ful dia­logue or connection.

The fail­ure to build these con­nec­tions has been one of the major weak­nesses of the Occupy move­ment, which set its camps up against insti­tu­tions – like the police – that many com­mu­ni­ties were already in strug­gle against. It’s not sur­pris­ing that Occupy had repeat­edly repli­cated the racist, sex­ist, nativist, and eth­no­cen­tric atti­tudes of main­stream soci­ety; it just requires a con­scious effort to resist. Part of the solu­tion is to more care­fully define the prob­lems fac­ing Occu­piers, to con­nect them to exist­ing strug­gles over, for exam­ple, police vio­lence or indige­nous rights. And another part of the solu­tion is that these same strug­gles take place over the role of music.

The great protest songs were pow­er­ful not only because the lyrics were true, and forced peo­ple to respond, but because the music called out to con­nec­tions that already existed, named real­i­ties and iden­ti­ties that were already lodged in people’s mem­o­ries, in their own expe­ri­ences and tra­di­tions. That force is lost if music is sub­or­di­nated to a pas­sive vision of “mes­sage” and “protest,” or a homo­ge­neously com­mon strug­gle. Attend­ing to music’s cul­tural res­o­nance, and the social dynam­ics around its prac­tice, can make it a pow­er­ful force for shar­ing plea­sure, trust, release, and pur­pose across mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, and forg­ing a rad­i­cal, broadly par­tic­i­pa­tory movement.

Author of the article

is a legal ethnographer, educator, journalist, public speaker, and DJ, who teaches Media Studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and Sociology of Law at Brooklyn College. She has written for WireTap, the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, and other publications, and has contributed chapters to Bits without Borders: Law, Communications & Transnational Culture Flow in the Digital Age (forthcoming, Elgar, 2012), and Dreaming in Public: Building the Occupy Movement (New Internationalist Publications, 2012). As DJ Ripley, she has played in 19 countries across 3 continents over the past 16 years.