After Optimo's recent Autonomous Glasgow party raised over £6,000 for the city's food banks, we look at how far clubbing can affect change in a community.
Today we are together, we are unified and on one accord.
Because when we are together we got power and we can make decisions.
Today on this programme you will hear gospel and rhythm & blues and jazz.
All those are just labels. We know that music is music. All of our people got a soul. That is why I challenge you now to stand together, raise your fists together. Do it with courage and determination.
I am Somebody. I am somebody. I may be poor, but I am somebody…
These words echo out at the beginning of JD Twitch and JG Wilkes’ now hallowed BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix from 2006. They are, of course, a segment of the poignant invocation given by the Reverend Jesse Jackson to a crowd of more than 100,000 people at the 1972 Wattstax music festival. In their context they serve as a resonating rally-call for civil rights and equality, while their inclusion in Optimo’s mix pulls the focus towards music and the unifying power it has in bringing people together, forming the profound and momentary bonds that happen when bodies and minds collide on dancefloors.
Merging the two of these perspectives brings you into the peculiar territory where politics and dance music converge. It’s a terrain that Twitch has been negotiating a lot recently with his involvement, alongside Midland, in Autonomous Africa, a record label and events campaign that has raised some eyebrows but mostly gathered support from activists and ravers alike. Now, disheartened in the wake of the Scottish referendum and disillusioned by the Council’s inability (or refusal) to grapple with the incongruous levels of poverty in their home city, JD Twitch and JG Wilkes have begun to sow the seeds for a community-led initiative Autonomous Glasgow.
In 2014, 41% of children in central Glasgow lived below the poverty line, with a city-wide average of 33%. That’s over 36,000 children living in households that survive off 60% or less of the UK-wide median household income. The number of people dependent on food banks for sustenance has risen dramatically in Scotland in recent years. In January of 2014, the number of people requesting help from food banks was equal to half of what it had been in the whole of 2013, and it's estimated that the Trussell Trust, which operates the largest network of food banks in Scotland, provides help to more than 7,000 people a month in Scotland.
Though the UK government deny that the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 is directly implicative to the nation-wide increase in food bank use, the bill, which places tighter restrictions on benefit claimants, has come under criticism for coming down harshest on those that are already in the most need, casting the nation’s poorest into further destitution. Autonomous Glasgow is a reaction to this. "It seems clear that our current political system is completely failing the people who are most in need in our society," says Twitch on the Autonomous Glasgow open Facebook group. "We can no longer rely on politicians or our so-called leaders, so it would appear the only option is to do our utmost to make the communities we live in the sorts of communities we actually want to live in. The core reason for Autonomous Glasgow existing is very simply to be a means of pulling resources together within our community to help those most in need."
Unlike with Autonomous Africa, Twitch won’t necessarily be at the helm of Autonomous Glasgow. The initiative is presented more as a call for community action. He acknowledges that at the moment the initiative is "just an idea but as people become involved they can shape what this idea might become." One suggestion is to get somebody that doesn’t align themselves to any political party elected to Glasgow City Council, which has been controlled by Scottish Labour for 60 out of the last 65 years. The mantra bequeathed by Twitch to the initiative reads a lot like the Reverend Jackson’s invocation: "Individually we may have little power, but collectively the power is ours. It is possible to change things ourselves and especially if we come together in significant numbers. You've got the power!"
Fast-forward 43 years from Wattstax to a rainy 11pm on a Friday night at Glasgow’s Art School. Perhaps change that middle section of the Reverend Jackson’s speech to "today on this programme you will hear gospel and rhythm & blues and jazz and disco, industrial, rock, experimental noise, house and techno…" and you could very well have the opening speech for tonight’s proceedings, a fundraiser event that – in classic Optimo style – sticks two fingers up to the idea of genre fidelity, thrown by Twitch and Wilkes in support of Glasgow’s numerous food banks and as the first Autonomous Glasgow event. If you want a case in point of how dance music and politics can combine for change in the modern day, then perhaps this is it. With a lineup that would look more at home on the bill of an all-Glasgow takeover of Fabric than at a community fundraiser (Optimo, Sub Club residents Ha Domenic, Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, and Nightwave, to name just some of the acts on the bill), it hits home how significant an event this is, how much it means to the people of this city and just how much massive the potential music has, when used as a unifying force.
Of course, claims that politics and dance music don’t and shouldn’t mix can’t be simply batted away. For many, the allure of clubbing is the release from the daily grind and the opportunity to get lost in a moment amongst anonymous faces and music. It is a ritual that millions follow every weekend to escape the mundane things in life, but it only takes an event like Friday’s food bank fundraiser to remind us that all the electronic dance music that we lose ourselves in today has roots in politically marginalised communities and that dance music as a coagulant of community is a motif that can seen throughout its (relatively short) history.
At the beginning of Maestro, a 2002 documentary by the director Josell Ramos, the Paradise Garage is described as "a family living room" that provided "complete safety from the social restrictions of the outside world." Here, under the musical guidance of the high-priest of disco that was Larry Levan, the gay and black communities of 1970s New York found a place where they could congregate and be free from the judgement of conservative American society. While the Garage symbolised freedom and escapism, it also provided the ground upon which these marginalised communities could stand together in defiance of their oppression, and, as long-time Garage patron and friend of Larry Levan, Mel Cheren puts it, "One important thing that the Garage did, which is not being done today, is to bring together black and white, straight and gay in one place. When people learn to dance together, they can get along." In today’s world, where dance music is as globally prevalent and thus politically numbed as ever, it’s easy to forget just how politically significant its beginnings, in places like the Paradise Garage, were.
Later, and over in the UK, to a whole generation of working class ravers in the late '80s and early '90s, rave culture, again meant not only the opportunity for escapism, but also defiance and political statement. Taking over the disused factories, railway arches, and warehouses that had been closed down under the Thatcher regime, where they and their parents had, up until recently, earned their living, the acid house generation, in a way were reclaiming something that was, or should have been theirs. The music and attitude that sound-tracked this movement in the UK paved the way for something incredible to happen in South Africa a few years later. As Jesse Stagg recounts, the sounds of acid house and rave made their way to the elitist, white fashion parties of Capetown in 1988 via "white kids lucky enough to get a vacation in London (and) experience the dancefloor revelation." Here it was to lie dormant until the shackles of Apartheid had been lifted. Amidst a surging wave of radical and community led insurgence against the nationalist and racist government, the South African President, F.W De Klerks, caved to the growing pressure and announced on February 2nd, 1990, that the political parties that had for the last 40 years been banned were now legalized and that political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela were to be freed. What happened next was remarkable.
As Stagg puts it, "The children of the architects of apartheid were creating their own reality." The cross-polination of white and black music and dance scenes accelerated. People like Stagg and Danny Schreiber began throwing "mystery bus tours and bacchanalian beach parties." Rave had arrived in South Africa and acid house served as the soundtrack to white and black communities uniting on the dancefloor in the face of recent apartheid. The burden of Apartheid of course still lay heavy in the air and levels of segregation and inequality in South Africa to this day are still significant, but UFO’s World Peace Party in Capetown in September 1991 saw 3,500 ravers of different ethnicity and tribe collide for a 36-hour rave that went by without a single incident of violence. Here, again, the dancefloor provided the chance to escape the differences that people had been taught meant that they couldn’t mix. In doing so though, they ultimately (at least temporarily) thwarted the very dogma that they were escaping. The legacy of this period of course can be heard today in the Nation’s soundtrack of Kwaito that introduces African elements to the four-four formulas of house music.
Of course tonight in Glasgow is different to these instances of outcast communities finding shelter from oppression in music. Here, the dancers aren’t the persecuted and the possibility that the charity being shown here is self-congratulatory or uninvolved is worrying. Ultimately, the struggle to rid the city of the need for food banks should be a priority but the funds raised here tonight provide a very powerful (if temporary) solution to a pressing issue.
At The Art School tonight there isn’t any staunchly anti-establishment rhetoric on the dancefloor – if you don’t count Twitch’s t-shirt declaring "Fuck Jim Murphy", leader of Scottish Labour. Instead of revolution, people here tonight are coming together to find resolution, in a way that seems a bit too good to be true. Tackling reality by escaping it may sound like a contradiction, but it’s a contradiction that can work. More than 600 people moved in unison in Glasgow last Friday and in the process raised over £6,000 to help support the city’s poorest residents.
With the creation of Autonomous Glasgow, Twitch and Wilkes have used their respected positions as DJs and cultural icons to galvanise the people of Glasgow to come together on the dancefloor and raise funds for the city’s neediest. In doing so though, they appear to have laid the grounds for something bigger than this fundraiser. Autonomous Glasgow is a call out for movement by the people for the people. From Wattstax to the Paradise Garage, through the raves of the late '80s and early '90s, and this fundraiser it’s clear that aside from distraction, dancefloors also offer the potential for solidarity. Music is Music and all of our people got a soul.