Tag Archives: Blackness

The Moving Blog

Modern Moves Research Road Trip (The US Edition)

On October 24th 2017, half of the Modern Moves team travelled to the U.S. for a month long research trip through the sounds, textures and aesthetics of black street dance cultures and its environs. We set out with an eye towards J-Setting, hip-hop, queerness and other urban styles. With stops in New York, New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi, Los Angeles and Atlanta in that order, and combining traditional archival research with observation and interviews, the goal of the trip is to think through ways black street dances, fashions and aesthetics emerge and circulate – while tasting all the local foods in the process. In what ways are black creativity, ingenuity and imagination linked to questions of duress? How has black innovation been co-opted by capitalist-imperialist structures, and in what ways can black genius be experienced and conceived beyond harmful colonialist stereotypes that have always had the goal of naturalizing differences between the races?

The first stop on the trip was a pump through New York City and several important archives centered on questions of blacknesss. At the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, we delved through the Hip Hop archive of Steven Hager, an important New York impresario, writer, and cultural critic who is largely credited with “introducing” hip-hop cultures, dances and styles to a broad, mainstream audience. In 1984 Hager developed Beat Street, a Harry Belafonte-produced film that offered one of the first inside looks at the culture of hip-hop. Perhaps one of the most interesting if problematic aspects of his collection at the Schomburg was the way in which he is framed (or, actually, frames himself) as the expert on hip-hop. As one of the first hip-hop journalists, Hager is said to have brought conversations about hip-hop and break-dancing to the mainstream. But white folks are so often credited with “discovering” black creative cultures – straight up Columbusing.

The Steven Hager Hip-Hop Archive at the Schomburg Center contains intricate details of the publication of Hager’s seminal Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History of Break-Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti (1984), and the records show notes, comments, and ephemera connected to the why and rise of hip-hop culture. As Hager describes in his book proposal, at the time hop-hop was “a movement that started in the working class and was so dynamic and vital, it pushed it’s way across the country and around the world.” Reading this I was surprised and annoyed, as if working class folks don’t already carry the burden of creative innovation and imagination in global popular culture, and as if working class folks are so hemmed in and imprisoned by capitalist structures that they can’t bare to be creative or imagine other ways of being in the world. Indeed, one of the central theories that grounds our research excursion is Black Marxism, a concept spearheaded by Cedric Robinson in a book of the same title and further developed by critics like Greg Tate, Robin D.G. Kelley and Daphne Brooks – a set of theories that recognizes black political struggle at the same time it creates space for black innovation and imagination.

As interesting as the Steven Hager archive was, particularly with regards to the juicy publication details of Hip-Hop – the proposed advance of $30,000-$80,000 in the mid 1980s…just how much of that went back into the community? – we found the commercial aspect of his interest in the spread of hip hop somewhat unsettling. A good deal of the archive had to do with sales figures and marketing – how popular hip-hop culture was in New York, how far it had spread internationally, and the fact that Harry Belafonte was involved with Break Beat. So what? Can’t black cultures survive on their own, without white discovery/celebrity narratives?

How to Breakdance view finder, part of the Michael Holman Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

A far more interesting archive was the Michael Holman Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Library’s first hip-hop archive. Holmam, an important figure in the hip-hop, break dancing and downtown music scenes, wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film Basquiat and was a member of the experimental noise band Gray, co-created by Basquiat. The Holman archive is massive and there wasn’t enough time to scroll through every item, but I can say with confidence that my favorite thing from the collection was the “How to Break Dance” view finder. In the 1908s the view finder was a visually immersive device that, before iPhones and Facebook, allowed you to scroll through a cultural scene and really imagine yourself there. You placed the view finder over your eyes – like binoculars – and you inserted a thematic circular “disk” anchored by a wheel of tiny photos enlarged only by the view finder. Scroll through and the action appears to happen before your eyes, right then and there. The archivist was extremely strict that I could in no way, at all, whatsoever open the package of “disks” in order to pop them into the view finder, so I had to imagine the scenario. “How to Break Dance,” the package of disks reads, and as I looked at the pictures I imagined what the moves and choreography would be.

One thing I bookmarked for future research was Holman’s band Gray, an experimental industrial/noise/sound/punk band that straddled the boundaries between the art world and the music world, traipsing between sound, art, visuals, aesthetics and the sensorial. I am always interested in lost histories of black music, particularly with regard to punk, techno, goth, and noise, and there was a great deal of material related to Gray’s staging, performances, cueing, and track-listing that I would be keen to dive through and engage with as part of a separate project. But for now, it was delicious to go through these archives and to know this material exists.

Obligatory 6am post Brooklyn techno rave portrait.

No research trip on dance and nightlife would be complete without a pump to the club, so we ventured to Brooklyn to a warehouse party and danced until nearly 7am. In the process we thought a lot about music, soundscapes, sound, space and blackness – or lack of blackness. What does it mean, for instance, for DJs to perform black/queer music to a sea of white bodies, particularly in a Trump-led America? How do white bodies connect to the ghosts of black creativity on the dance floor?  It’s no secret: part of my personal interest in this topic is to take electronic musics back from white audiences, to re-center black and brown bodies in the process. Reclaim the BPM.

From New York our travels led us to New Orleans, Louisiana where we found a Second Line and dropped into the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Leyneuf made her way to the Amistad Research Center by way of the New Orleans street car, which was quite a ride in the sense that the areas through which the street car went were of course former plantation owner houses and had a grand but morbid presence to their architecture, an incredibly haunted presence. At Amistad, she tried to find specific work on second line. What she did stumble upon was the Second Line Journal which however was more about jazz manifestation in New Orleans throughout the 50s and 60s as opposed to the second line dance form. She moved on in terms of hip hop research and found fabulous hip hop comic books documenting the history of hip hop in a sci-fi type of aesthetic called Hip Hop Family Tree – Fantagraphics Comics on the History of Hip Hop Vol 1-3. Of course, on her way back to the French Quarter from the the university, she went to the Chilli Museum where she must have tried 50 different chilli sauces, bottles marketed from goth to vodou to creole aesthetics. Of course it wasn’t the only time she went – she had to go back.

Continuing our travels through the deep south, we trained-it to Jackson, Mississippi – by all means the highlight of the trip — where we attended the homecoming festivities of Jackson State University, an historically black college. We went to the football game, waited for a Step Show, saw the homecoming parade and ate some good old Mississippi bar-be-que. Jackson was the highlight of the trip because it was cold hard evidence of black joy, ingenuity and creativity — it was a celebration of blackness.

In Los Angeles, we primarily visited the Cheryl Keyes archive at UCLA where we listened through her interviews with early hip hop pioneers — everybody from Russell Simmons to Queen Latifah. Afterwards we decided to have a walk along Sunset Blvd, of course, and get a taste of the feels on the way checking out the bookstore Booksoup, stopping for mexican at Pinches Tacos on Sunset blvd and speculating on the overall aesthetics of LA architecture. Following that we went to the fabulous Underground Museum, launched by Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph’s recent brother’s community project curated by Joseph and his wife Onye Anyanwu, both of whom worked on Beyonce’s Lemonade. The exhibition: Artists of Color, was a phenomenal immersion in experience through color and the senses and had an immense despite quiet insertion into the skin of experience. We spent significant time in the bookstore after the exhibition, had a chat with the museum staff and became enthralled with their literary collection. Of course, they seem to host the most phenomenal and upcoming black thinkers and artists whilst the museum itself having a seemingly different performative aspect to it’s integration in the predominantly black and latino community of the neighborhood. When we spoke to the museum staff, they articulated that the whole point of the Underground Museum was to bring high quality art to disadvantaged communities.

For the last leg of the trip, we headed to Atlanta specifically to find out about Freaknik, a black spring break party that was the pinnacle of black expression in the 80s and 90s but which was vigorously shut down and policed by the City, who felt it conveyed the wrong image of a city that was about to host the 1996 Olympics.

The central question that framed our trip had to do with how black expressive traditions allow us to think through the tensions, pressures and contingencies of living while black. One term that grounds this work is Lauren McLeod Cramer’s vision of “liquid blackness,” where “liquid blackness” means the excess of codes that constrict the movements of black bodies in space, as well as the possibility of reprogramming the racial order. “Liquid blackness” expresses the aesthetic and political possibilities available when blackness is understood not as a locatable, definitive set of codes but as an expansive force, not only in scholarship but in praxis.

The value of this trip lay in the fruitful conversations we had about aesthetics, blackness, and performance — in the archives, on the street and with taxi drivers. But it was also about the rare opportunities we had to visit archives and areas of the country we would likely have not made it to under other circumstances.

Leyneuf Tines and madison moore

Moving Stories

Voguing In Berlin

During July and part of August I spent a month in Berlin to start a brand new project on the cultural history of Saturday night. It’s no secret to anyone that Berlin is currently one of the world’s hot spots for creative nightlife, where innovation in electronic music meets extensive nights out. I’m always amused when I tell people that my new book project is on club culture because their initial reaction is always something like: “Huh. That’s a topic?”

I’ve wanted to write a book about nightlife culture ever since I taught a self-designed junior seminar at Yale called “Dance Music and Nightlife Culture in New York City” back in 2010. This nightlife book, I imagined, would be a trade book for an informed mass audience about the power of parties and pleasure. The idea for this book came after news coverage of my junior seminar hit the international airwaves and gossip pages, leading some conservative pundits to criticize Yale for allowing me to teach such a course, paving the way for others to criticize me for offering such “nonsense” to Yale undergraduate students. The strand of criticism was so thick that I even received an email from a prominent Yale donor who said “shame on you for bringing Yale’s name into the mud.”

I thought my days as a Yale graduate student were over.

Each time I saw a new critique of the course I grew more and more frustrated because you can learn a great deal about people, time, place, and politics by studying their nightlife cultures. That’s because the history nightlife is always a history of resistance to legal sanctions, a history of musical and artistic innovations, a history of the underground, and a history of self-expression.

This is the anecdotal backdrop that frames my new book project A Cultural History of Saturday Night where I aim to think about why people party and what they seek from Saturday. Of course, a book about Saturday night can’t just be about Saturday, as people party and dance and drink on any night of the week, but there is still something special historically about Saturday. How did Saturday night come to be so special? How are Saturday nights experienced by different people in various parts of the world? How does one place become a nightlife destination over another?

A major draw for me in Berlin was the Berlin Voguing Out Festival, now in it’s second year. The folks behind the Festival are at the razor edge of the voguing scene in Germany, and have done much to introduce the dance form and culture to Berliners. Knowing that Berlin will play a central role in my “Saturday night” book, working on the voguing culture in Berlin as well as the increased internationalization of the black and latino queer culture of voguing is a real opportunity for original research. I have already done some work on the US voguing scenes, but now that I am based in London this is a great opportunity to pivot my focus to the Euro voguing scenes, as to my knowledge there is not very much scholarship being produced on the topic.

The week-long Voguing Festival included a screening of the 2006 film How Do I Look, a more recent portrait of the Ball scene than Paris Is Burning and a talk back with DJ Vjuan Allure, runway coach Archie Burnett, and Berlin-based editor Jan Kedves. The screening took place at a cinema in Mitte and was packed with scholars, voguers, and various people interested in the culture. During the Q+A Archie Burnett talked about learning voguing in New York in Washington Square Park. I remember seeing voguing for the first time in the West Village on Christopher Street and along the Hudson River pier, where underage black teenagers emerged from New Jersey on the PATH train and hung out because they were too young to go to a club.

Today, cupcake shops and bougie candy stores have replaced the saucy gay sex shops and pumping black gay bars that used to line the street. So during the Q+A at the film screening I said that if Archie learned voguing in Washington Square Park and if I saw it on Christopher Street, now that New York is so gentrified what does voguing look like now? Where has it gone now?

Vjuan Allure jumped in immediately. “It looks like this,” pointing back out to the audience and reminding everyone how white the room was – full of young, white hipsters. He didn’t say it was a bad thing; just that this is the way culture always proliferates. He wasn’t at all concerned about the appropriation of the culture, because “by the time you all catch on to voguing, which we have been doing for years, we will have already moved on to the next thing.”

In other words, blackness and queerness are constantly innovating new aesthetic forms.

The festival also included a weeklong series of workshops on voguing, runway, floor performance, old way, and new way. At 25 euros a pop the courses were quite expensive so I was only able to participate in the runway workshop, which was taught by Archie Burnett. Burnett, a legend in the Ball scene, has made a career of traveling around the world and offering similar workshops, particularly in Europe and Eastern Europe.

There were only about 15 people in the workshop, some wearing heels others in more comfortable shoes, six guys (all of us queer) and the rest girls. The point of this particular workshop, as with all the others, was to give people the needed tools to compete successfully at the vogue ball – so they wouldn’t get chopped.

We began by doing our normal walks, from one end of the room towards the mirror. This was the most important task, he told us, because even though a model walk doesn’t seem natural, it should feel natural. We were told to walk like we were in a hurry to meet our friend for a drink. We were told to walk like we were on our way to a hot date. At all times he told us not to walk the way we think models are supposed to walk, and to me this was his way of allowing everyone to tap into their inner confidence.

There was something very empowering about the runway workshop because it was all about having and selling confidence. “Don’t walk to the music, walk to the attitude.” “You’re worth it,” he would say as we walked towards the mirror, and it did actually make you feel worth it and like you had a sense of value. “Own the runway” and “Own it” were his critiques to me during the class, suggesting that I needed to give just a little bit more to fully unlock myself on the runway.


After the group exercise of walking towards the mirror with various scenarios, we did a runway show where each person walked on their own to music to show off what we learned. I’ve never been more nervous than I was then. As much as I like wearing ridiculous clothes and being on display, I actually do not like being on display when I know everyone is watching – especially not when all the lights are on! The same anxiety I have about dancing alone in a drum circle, or in any type of circle, is the same anxiety I had when we had to walk down the runway on our own to “show off our stuff.” But the experience was cathartic in a lot of ways because people cheered you on and the act of walking down the runway did usher in some confidence.

Coming away from the runway seminar really taught me how much voguing and runway work (werk) are about confidence. That much seems obvious, but in fact loving yourself as a black or queer body has a much more pronounced impact when you live in a world that is constantly attempting to devalue your sense of worth. That’s why the incorporation of runways and walking runways and selling looks on the catwalk is such a powerful trope and mode of expression. You’re worth it.

It’s hard to underscore just how white the voguing Ball was. I’ve attended balls in New York, Paris and Washington, D.C. and though there is always a white person or two, balls are mostly full of brown, queer bodies. So it was a real shocker to go to this ball and see how white, and not always queer, the space was. I looked around the room and wondered how many guys were bisexual or gay or queer, if any, and I wondered how many of the girls were lesbian or trans. But it wasn’t just the audience that was 95% white – it was the performers, too, who hailed from Sweden and Italy and Slovakia and Russia.

“I went to my first vogue ball in Paris a few months ago and as soon as I walked in everybody had their arms crossed, like, ‘Who is this white bitch?’, but then when I danced they were more at ease and saw that I was one of them,” Sarah, one voguer told me. The anecdote really gets at the internationalization of the voguing scene, and when I asked her about why the room was so white and straight she told me that a lot of the guy attendees come because they are there supporting their girlfriends, so they might not have any direct connection to queerness or queer culture except this.

Interestingly, the panel of judges, all legends from the New York ball scene, did a lot of work to teach and educate the audience about ball culture. They reminded the room that this is a black queer culture. They did a lot to preserve the culture in terms of specific dance moves and performance categories to insure that the integrity of voguing and ball culture didn’t evaporate, even in its cultural translation. Given how quickly and how expansively voguing has spread around the world I think it’s great to try to preserve the culture, using cultural transmission as a pedagogical tool, too.