“It was the music… It made you do unwise disorderly things. Just hearing it was like violating the law.”
-Toni Morrison, Jazz
I’m not so sure what led me to the giant warehouse in Brooklyn—a location kept secret until the day of the rave, held within an emptied skeleton of industrial capitalism—but it had something to do with the darkness it promised. Some sort of cover from normal society.
A couple hundred people, sweaty and heterogeneous, moved amongst the ambient red lights, the slow strobes, the plume of fog that hovered over the dance floor before being sucked outside through the bay doors. Everyone was enveloped in the modulating synths, claps lightly reverbed, and tightly-wound kicks. Some were alone, some with friends or lovers, most among strangers. A few of them seemed a little sad despite their swaying.
Look at it poetically and everybody there was a discrete morphological unit, an expressive totem of their personal truth-as-movement. Anthropologically, they were a swarm of different races and genders and genres, all doing this really strange human ritual we call dancing. From a judicial point of view, they were breaking the law: out of the tens of thousands of drinking and eating establishments in New York City, this was not one of the 88 that has a Cabaret License.
The Cabaret Law—which amounts to a ban on social dancing in bars and restaurants without the license—has a long, variegated history. At times, it’s been weaponized against subcultures; at others, barely enforced. Olympia Kazi, a member of the NYC Artist Coalition, says that the Cabaret Law’s loose enforcement is exactly where the peril lies. “The reports I’ve heard, especially from DIY venues, is that whenever they’ve had a hip-hop show that’s more likely to attract African American youth, then they will get the NYPD at their door.”
The Cabaret Law is just one manifestation of a framework that is meant to police black lives and other unwanted cultures, starting with black and interracial clubs in 1920s Harlem. With fascism and anti-fascism ascendant once more today, there is a new challenge to the law, one that seeks to mine its historicity and offer political alternatives. The campaign against the Cabaret Law is tied into the larger narrative of resistance against the far-right, and dancing in New York is intimately conjoined with the identity politics and economics of every cultural era, from jazz to techno. But merely repealing the law will only be a small victory for proponents of the freedom of dance, and of freedom itself.
published in Affidavit, September 11, 2017