To The Party Members

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 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.