Clubbing and its culture of escapism originated in Black and Brown communities. It’s time to understand exactly what this means.
About a year before George Floyd was murdered by white ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, the two were co-workers at Minneapolis latin nightclub El Nuevo Rodeo. 46-year-old Floyd, described by family and friends as “a gentle giant,” was a security guard at the downtown Salvation Army, but held several jobs, including driving trucks and, very recently, serving as an occasional bouncer inside at El Nuevo’s “urban” music nights. 44-year-old Chauvin, meanwhile, worked off-duty at the venue for over 17 years and patrolled outside. The two never met on the job and only crossed paths on that tragic Memorial Day evening.
The fatal event demonstrates Chauvin’s racist brutality at its coup de grâce, but a history of misconduct trailed him long before the incident. He had 17 civilian complaints against him during his two-decade-long career. El Nuevo’s former business owner Maya Santamaria told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press that she had to reprimand Chauvin after he went “overkill” during nights thrown by Black promoters. On occasion, he would mace the entire crowd and call for backup enforcement when a fight broke out. “The next thing you would know, there would [be] five or six squad cars,” Santamaria recalled.
Chauvin’s paroxysmal discomfort with Black communion and celebration comes as no surprise. Nightclubs, as it so happens, bear a long legacy of being one of the very few spaces in society where Black and Brown people are able to freely express themselves, where they are able to, for a few short hours, reclaim the bodies that are systematically regulated, attenuated, and deliberately destroyed by the state. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book-length letter to his 15-year-old son explaining the demoralizing realities of being Black in the United States, he describes the act of code-switching in corporeal terms, as if it were a constant, wearying dance. “So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason,” he writes. Coates’ passage describes a painstaking lifelong performance wherein the environment controls the Black body rather than the Black body willfully controlling itself.
Through this assessment, freeform dancing, the process of trusting an innate, rhythmic impulse that shirks a set of codified behaviors, then becomes a powerful gesture of resistance. It’s no coincidence that rave music and its surrounding culture of escapism originated in Black and Brown communities. These underground club scenes have traditionally provided a momentary refuge for sexual and ethnic minorities from persecution, but, even more powerfully, they have provided a space to cultivate the self-sustaining joy and pride that is so often stripped from them. Even the clandestine architectural legacy of secret warehouses, invitation-only lofts, and murky basements at the city’s fringes mirrors the marginalization of the identities that partied within. For these reasons, electronic music is another form of Black and Brown protest music.
Just before the birth of house music in New York and Chicago in the early to mid-1980s, The New York Times reported an alarming concentration of Black poverty across the United States’ 50 metropolitan areas. Census figures showed that, in New York alone, the number of poor African Americans increased from 311,841 in 1970 to 452,030 by 1980. Meanwhile, in Chicago, according to the Chicago Urban League, the wealth disparity between white and Black people was greater than in any major city. The emergence of house music also coincided with the rise of the HIV/AIDs virus—an epidemic that initially affected white gay men but, over time, disproportionately killed Black men by 1996 due to government inaction and fatal social stigma.
The buoyant, jacking propulsions of house provided an antidote to this grim reality; the uplifting lyrics within foundational 1984 house track “On and on” by Jesse Saunders, for example, begs the audience to “Just dance until the beat is gone/ Say you must go on and on.” If we consider the vocals within its historical context, it’s both a plea to stay on the dance floor, away from the racial and homophobic tensions outside, and a statement of urgent reprieve amidst chaos. Decades before people started referring to Berghain as “Sunday church,” house founding father Frankie Knuckles, who was both Black and gay, referred to the club as a “church for people who have fallen from grace”; Larry Levan, his best friend, also described the club as a healing space, coining the term “Saturday Mass” at New York’s Paradise Garage.