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.