Drummers at Soul Summit, New York, United States, Credit: Annette Bernhardt (Flickr), 2012

Assemblages of Difference: Place-making and Utopian Agonism on the Open-Air House Music Dance Floor

By Kavita Kulkarni

The sound of the drum circle is unmistakable: claves, congas, djembes, shakers, cowbells, a tambourine. I hear it as the scene fades in, and realize it’s one of the grooves that has this woman with pigtail dreadlocks twirling in the sun. Another comes in about 20 seconds later, and from the clip’s title, I know it’s being offered by Black Coffee, a world-renowned South African DJ playing a guest set on the decks that afternoon. The beat, bass, and vocals from his track fill the air, resonating from speakers out of view and playing in time with the live percussionists. The camera pans right, almost 360 degrees, until the entire dance floor comes into view. Hundreds of largely black and brown bodies of different ages, shapes, and genders—shielded from the summer heat by a canopy of trees. Most are dancing; some are standing and watching, heads bobbing to the music; a few are holding cameras above their heads; one man maneuvers his way through the crowd with two fistfuls of Poland Springs water bottles in the air. Not all the dancers are partnered up—many seem to be dancing by themselves, for themselves. A deep voice bellows over the system: “Yeeeah… How many of you feelin’ Black Coofffeeeeeeee?!” (The crowd cheers and dozens of hands rise into the air.) “Soul Summittt, Two Thousand Eleven!!” The camera pans left and settles on two dark-skinned men in white t-shirts dancing next to each other, sweat towels tucked into their hands and pockets. As the camera pans back right, the drum circle comes into view, and next to it, a blonde white woman dancing solo, rocking her torso and hips, her arms swinging and undulating in formations you might find in West African-derived dance. To the right of the drum circle, a cipher has formed, and a dancer donning a black t-shirt, cocked red baseball cap, and white sunglasses moves into the middle. After a few seconds of energetic footwork, the dancer falls backwards toward the ground, and, much to the audible delight of the spectators, catches themself at the last minute, jumps back up, and spins, elbows extended, their hands resting coolly on the back of their head…

The scene described above, archived as a YouTube video by user Picha Dis, is from the 2011 season of the Soul Summit Music Festival: a free, open-air, and open-to-the-public house music dance party that has taken place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn since 2001 (Kelley 2011). The event—as envisioned by the party’s organizers, DJs Sadiq, Tabu, and Jeff Mendoza—harks back to the neighborhood block parties and park jams of the 1970s and 1980s that contributed to the development of contemporary black urban culture in New York City and beyond. As a dance party dedicated to soulful, underground house music, Soul Summit also recalls the aesthetic and ethical sensibilities of the black and Latino gay underground cultural movements that gave birth to house music during those same decades in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Newark, and other urban centers in the East Coast and Midwest of the US. Of particular interest to this article is the political potential of the assemblages surrounding the conjunction of song and dance in open-air house music culture, and how various forms of participatory co-production within these settings work to counteract the spatiality of peripheralization and the temporality of extinction imposed on black urban life in the US. This article also notes the movement of house music culture from underground nightclubs in the 1970s and 1980s to public parks in the 1990s and 2000s, and considers the implications of this move in terms of how various bodies in attendance at these events mediate their participation through music, dance, and documentation. Indeed, one could say that the social and political significance of these events center on their participatory nature, but in the case of Soul Summit, it is not just who participates, but also where—in public space and in a historically black, rapidly gentrified neighborhood—that matters.

Figure 1. Before the party starts—a view from the DJ booth. Photograph by author.
Figure 2. “Black Coffee Soul Summit 2011 Fort Greene Park.” YouTube video by Picha Dis

Soul Summit and the Gentrification of Fort Greene, Brooklyn

I remember clearly the first time I came upon Soul Summit. This was a few years ago when I had moved to Brooklyn from Ann Arbor after graduating from [University of] Michigan. I was visiting Fort Greene Park that day, completely unaware of the party that was taking place. As I walked around, I was drawn to the sound of beats emanating from the top of the hill. The music grew steadily louder as I climbed the hill, and when I reached the top, I was shocked by what I saw. Here, tucked away in this hidden enclave surrounded by trees at the summit of the park, were hundreds of black and brown and queer bodies, dancing, sweating, and celebrating to house music. Men on roller skates, children, young folks, everyone. I was overwhelmed by what I saw; it was alluring. I felt welcome and drawn in to this space and invited to join in a way that I hadn’t before, possibly ever. It was a time in my life when I was still negotiating my identity as a young, black, queer woman. I was negotiating my difference and coming to terms with the fact that I was living my life against the norm. But here was a space where that difference didn't seem to matter. This was a celebration of difference—of being brown, of being queer, of loving house music.

Fieldwork Interview with Nicole Lewis, June 2013

In the summer of 2001, New York City DJ Sadiq Bellamy, along with his two partners DJs Tabu and Jeff Mendoza, organized the first Soul Summit Music Festival. Bellamy and his partners had been immersed in house music and DJ culture in the tri-state area for two decades, and were growing tired of the club scene with its black painted walls and underground existence—it was time to bring this culture above ground and on the radar for a wider audience (fieldwork interview with Bellamy, September 2012). The organizers chose the neighborhood of their residence, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, as the venue for this outdoor dance party. Fort Greene, a neighborhood that had been historically black since postwar white flight took place in the 1960s and 1970s, was home to a vibrant black arts movement and community in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s.[1] In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the neighborhood started showing signs of what geographer Neil Smith termed “third-wave gentrification,” in which the remake of inner-urban areas occurs at a greater economic scale than before (corporate capital investment instead of small-scale capital) and with greater support of state policy, resulting in a “comprehensive class-inflected urban remake” of city landscapes that produces “whole new complexes of recreation, consumption, production, and pleasure, as well as residence” (14). In 2001, the first year of Soul Summit, evidence of these changes to Fort Greene was minimal: according to interviews conducted by the New York Times, the opening of a sushi restaurant and a corporate real estate office that summer were indication to some residents of what was to come (Newman 2001).

The initial response to and attendance of these weekly, open-air parties was overwhelming, prompting the organizers to change its venue soon after its start in order to accommodate the roughly 600 people that were turning up at each event. With the help of the late Brooklyn City Councilman James E. Davis, the party moved from the smaller Cuyler Gore Park on Fulton Street to the much larger Fort Greene Park, which was, according to Bellamy, still a fairly undesirable public space in 2001, the site of occasional gang and criminal activity. In spite of these conditions, Soul Summit was produced for many years as a weekly event over the summer season. It took place every Sunday during daytime hours and was thus likened to the practice of “going to church” by its participants. In fact, to this day, the party has not deviated from the tradition of taking place on summer Sunday afternoons and ending around sundown. The frequency of Soul Summit, however, experienced a distinct change in 2007; the once weekly party took place only four times that summer, and since 2010, has taken place on average twice a summer in Fort Greene Park. According to the party’s organizers, this notable change in frequency was due primarily to the increased permit, insurance, and security requirements imposed on events taking place in the park by the Parks Department, which seemed to mirror the gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood (fieldwork interview with Bellamy, September 2012). These new regulations—such as a $2 million liability insurance requirement—created formidable bureaucratic and financial obstacles for this grassroots endeavor, motivating Soul Summit’s organizers to start holding their events in other—and, in most cases, less regulated—outdoor public venues in New York City, such as the Coney Island Boardwalk and Restoration Plaza in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The irony of being “priced out” of the park was not lost on Bellamy, who noted in an interview that before the existence of Soul Summit, “no one wanted to use Fort Greene Park,” and that it was the consistent presence of music and dance culture—brought to the park in no small part by Soul Summit—that contributed to the dying down of criminal activity and subsequently to the park’s appeal as a venue for arts and community events. Despite this partial displacement from the park, and undergirded by the tireless efforts of its organizers, Soul Summit continues to receive global recognition amongst house music aficionados for its success in bringing this culture—along with its emphasis on inclusivity, community, and celebration for racialized and LGBTQ minorities[2]—to a wider and intergenerational audience.

Figure 3. The dance floor at Soul Summit 2013. Photograph by Arnold J Browne-Bymsha Browne Photography

Urban Public Space and Utopian Agonism

Open-air block parties and park jams in New York City have a history that is intimately tied to black urban culture and, rather famously, to cultural formations such as hip hop, whose development as a genre of music, dance, and visual art depended on public space both as a platform for performance and as a site of struggle against private and state interests.[3] Dating back to the mobile DJ movement in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens that took place in as early as the late 1960s, block parties and park jams provided entertainment to those who could not afford, were too young for, or otherwise could not access private clubs and discos.[4] These free, outdoor events were also public demonstrations and celebrations of collective racialized difference and cultural counter-hegemony. Through mixing and sampling, DJs performing at these events would weave together multiple genres of black and Latino music, including R&B, soul, rap, funk, conga, and salsa: genres of dance music that stood in sharp distinction to the European forms of electronic dance music that were dominating mainstream nightclubs in New York City in the 1970s. What’s more, the embodied freestyle expression of street dancers, as well as the “illegal” art of graffiti artists, countered the notion that art must follow certain Eurocentric traditions,[5] or be situated in particular venues to be legitimate. According to hip hop scholar Tricia Rose, these various modes of cultural expression “developed a contradictory relationship to dominant culture” (Rose, 1994: 50), and “produced internal and external dialogues that affirmed the experiences and identities of the participants and at the same time offered critiques of larger society that were directed to both the hip hop community and society in general” (60). Certainly, the political potential of these public events was also ushered in by their open and free participation, the immediacy of a face-to-face experience, the lack of separation between performer and audience and between art and everyday life, and their challenge to models of governance that center on private property. I would like to make the case, however, that the public performance of ‘utopian agonism’— a phrase I evoke to gesture toward the kind of autonomous world-making that presents “oppositional ideologies that function as critiques of oppressive regimes of ‘truth’ that subjugate minoritarian people” (Muñoz, 1999: 195)—carries political valence in particular for communities assuming a lower status in the hierarchical social ordering of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, disability, and citizenship, and that these events demonstrate the stakes such communities have in linking a politics of space to a politics of difference.[6] That is, in the realm of urban spatial politics, and particularly when it comes to issues of gentrification and the displacement of minoritarian communities and culture, such events offer an alternate mode of political expression and participation.

In this section, I draw from theories on radical democracy by David Harvey and Chantal Mouffe to set up the “why” in regards to thinking together struggle (agonism) and utopian politics. In turn, I offer a provocation that addresses the “how.” I argue that the performance of utopian agonism offers a minoritarian model and practice of political utopia predicated on the free expression and celebration of an essentially subaltern difference. This model can be distinguished from the more neoliberal, multicultural models of political utopia based on the institutionalization of equality and thus the neutralizing of difference—an “adaptive hegemony” in which institutions use “difference to foster capitalist distribution while curtailing social redistribution for underrepresented folks” (Ferguson, 192). I argue that house in the park events, like Soul Summit, exemplify this politics of utopian agonism through the performance of certain relational and participatory sensibilities on the open-air house music dance floor, which are furthermore sustained through new formats of mediation such as user-generated video. In addition, I argue that such public assemblages of utopian agonism not only have political value for minoritarian subjects in particular, but that it is precisely this alternate ethos of utopian politics that is foreclosed when urban public space is regulated, surveilled, and policed through the tools of liberal bureaucracy that essentially serve to neutralize spaces of difference.

The study of utopian politics has much relevance to the field of urban geography, and particularly to the study of the design and use of public space. David Harvey traces the connection between utopian thought and urban space in Part III of his book Spaces of Hope (2000) entitled “The Utopian Moment.” Harvey outlines the changing imaginaries associated with “the city” from the time of Plato to the contemporary era in order to demonstrate that “urban politics is fraught with deeply held though often subterranean emotions and political passions in which utopian dreams have a particular place” (157). Harvey goes on to characterize two types of utopian thought: utopianism of spatial form versus utopianism of social process. The former emphasizes physical space and geography; the latter, time and history. Harvey is critical of projects of utopianism that center on spatial ordering because these utopias have in practice “been achieved through the agency of the state or capital accumulation,” and are “typically meant to stabilize and control the processes that must be mobilized to build them” (173). Utopianism of social process, on the other hand, such as Marxist historical materialism or Hegelian thought, “have the habit of getting lost in the romanticism of endlessly open projects that never have to come to a point of closure (within space and place)” (Ibid.). Harvey’s resolution is to posit a dialectical, spatiotemporal utopianism in which “the idea of imaginative spatial play to achieve specific social and moral goals can be converted into the idea of potentially endless open experimentation with the possibilities of spatial form” (182). This spatiotemporal utopianism, according to Harvey, can be thought of as a sort of world-making that never ends, and that it is up to us to “recognize that societies and spatialities are shaped by continuous processes of struggle” (189). This dialectic mode of utopianism is, then, fundamentally agonistic, or, at least, connotes a utopic spatiotemporality that is never fully resolved.

As argued by political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, cultural practice and artistic expression are perhaps the most appropriate and necessary performative interventions to ensure the achievement of a spatiotemporal utopia in this mode of struggle and conflict. Mouffe sets up her argument by establishing the political as essentially agonistic (based in struggle and conflict), and positing that it is neoliberal ideology that suggests that political issues are “mere technical issues to be solved by experts” through rationalist and individualist thought (2008, 6–13). In modern liberal society, the essentially agonistic ontology of politics is mediated and neutralized through hegemonic ordering and the “expression of a particular structure of power relations” at the exclusion of others (Ibid., 9). At the core of a true, vibrant democracy, however, resides a strong sense of this agonistic struggle and a coming to terms with the notion that opposing hegemonic projects can never be reconciled rationally. Accordingly, this agonistic model of politics positions public space as a “battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation” (Ibid., 10). In this battleground, critical artistic practice—that is “art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure” (Ibid., 12)—plays a decisively combative role, contributing to the interrogation of hegemonic structures or worldviews. Indeed, Mouffe argues that art can be distinguished as “utopian experimentation, attempts to imagine alternative ways of living: societies or communities built around values in opposition to the ethos of late capitalism” (Ibid., 13). This disruption of public space by artistic production is a performative gesture; it is not the content nor even the form of the production that is most significant, but rather its function to unsettle the dominant hegemonic ordering of the space and the social relations that are sanctioned by this ordering. I wish to take this line of argument a step further by insisting that in the realm of urban spatial politics, the normative relationship between urban public space and utopian agonistic experimentation, as put forth by either Harvey or Mouffe, must be triangulated by the spatial history of minoritarian cultural expression, as it is the social status and sensibilities of production associated with minoritarian cultural expression in particular that allow utopian politics to maintain their agonistic edge.

Assemblages of Actionability: the DJ, the Dancer, and the Documentarian

August 10, 2014. It’s about 5pm, and a couple thousand people have made their way to the summit of the park, many of them dancing on the packed, 50 by 100 foot concrete dance floor, some standing on the periphery as spectators, many more in the picnic areas surrounding the dance floor, lounging on blankets, sitting in folding chairs, chatting, laughing, filling up plates and cups for friends, loved ones, and perhaps even strangers. The vast majority of the crowd is black: African American, Afro-Carribean, a mixture representative of the black and Latino communities living in central Brooklyn and New York City in general. Sadiq has invited me up to the DJ booth during his set, a 15 by 40 foot tented area a few concrete steps above and to the north end of the dance floor. He has just mixed in a classic contemporary house track—“I Love Days Like This” by British soul and R&B singer Shaun Escoffery, remixed in 2001 by Brooklyn’s own DJ Spinna—and the crowd responds with enthusiasm to the familiar chord sequence that starts the song off, a simple but seductive exchange of C major and C minor syncopated steadily against the 4/4 beat]. Many in the crowd seem to know the lyrics, and sing or lip-sync along as they dance, their voices collectively audible every time Sadiq brings down the bass on his mixer, which he tends to do during the soulful and exuberant chorus—“I love days like this, yeaaah! I love days like this!”—turning it back up for the break and throbbing bass line—“Here comes the suuuunnn… I love the suuuunnn…”

Figure 4. The dance floor at Soul Summit 2012. Photograph by Annette Bernhardt / Flickr
Figure 5. Drummers at Soul Summit 2012. Photography by Annette Bernhardt / Flickr
Figure 6. Dancer at Soul Summit 2012. Photography by Annette Bernhardt / Flickr

In this section, I argue that the relational and participatory sensibilities of open-air house music culture, as well as its modality as a counter-hegemonic expression and celebration of subaltern difference, serve both as a model for politics and as a political enactment through the performances of three central actors: DJs, dancers, and the documentarians whose mediated participation through informal videography serves to protract these functions into the online world through social media. In order to do justice to the political potential—or, ‘actionable’ elements, to quote Thomas DeFrantz [7], [8], [9]—within this expressive culture, my proposal of and approach to this triangular configuration of the DJ, the dancer, and the documentarian draws inspiration from performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz when he wrote, “Performance studies, as a modality of inquiry, can surpass the play of interpretation and the limits of epistemology and open new ground by focusing on what acts and objects do in a social matrix rather than what they might possibly mean” (1996: 12). This mode of identifying what texts, objects, and acts do rather than what they mean recalls the recent turn within urban studies toward methodological approaches that rely on theories of networks and assemblages, in which actors, objects, spaces, and practices are understood to continuously interact to generate complex and contingent urban experiences. This approach to scholarship serves well to uncover in a way that also cultivates the dense and dynamic, participatory and relational assemblages of utopian agonism that underlie the democratic potential of minoritarian cultural formations in urban public space.

The DJ’s Dialectical Challenge

The house music DJ curates a non-linear timeline of historical and cultural artifacts, i.e. tracks within his or her set, that presents direct material and audible relationships between the past and the present of black music. While the choice of music and subgenre differs with each DJ and/or event, the focus on black electronic dance music—that is, dance music that evolved from the musical traditions of the African diaspora, including but not limited to gospel, soul, jazz, funk, salsa, samba, bossa nova, and reggae—is a standard across house music parties. The relationality of the track list is achieved through the basic modus operandus of the DJ, namely by intermingling their set with tracks from the distant and recent past with those of the present in a demonstration of their rhythmic, melodic, and/or other syntactic connections. For example, a popular up-tempo funk or jazz track from the 1980s—Stevie Wonder’s 1982 “Do I Do”—might be mixed with a deep house dance track produced in the 1990s—such as Scott Grooves’ 1998 “Expansions” featuring Roy Ayers—and it is the seamless blending of the two that produces a relationality in which a powerful cultural artifact from one time period is retrieved, remembered, and given contextual relevance within and in relation to another. There is a relational aesthetics at play here in the practice of the DJ: the work of art is not a static object but rather an open-ended provocation that exists first in the continuous dialectic between tracks that is only temporarily resolved in the act of mixing, and second, in the DJ’s dialectical challenge to listeners to identify and take pleasure in the set, who may then perform one of a variety of embodied responses (eg. dancing, singing, leaving the dance floor, etc.). This practice of mediated relationality by the house music DJ serves to sustain the collective memory of an imagined black community by bringing trans-temporal artifacts associated with black culture into the mix. And, as is often the case, it is not just the musical qualities of the chosen track that reverberate with the crowd; mutual recognition and celebration of a track as part and parcel of the history of black music and of the experience of blackness begets a mode of participation that unifies and strengthens the relational bond of an imagined community whose physical proximity on the dance floor is but one commonality.

Affective Agonism on the Dance Floor

The embodied experience on the dance floor exemplifies the performance of relational and participatory sensibilities within house music culture, as well as of house music’s agonistic expression of counter-hegemony. This happens both in the mode of social dance, in which participants dance together on the dance floor, and in the mode of “ciphers”—circle formations of dancers on the dance floor in the middle of which individuals take turns showcasing their moves. DJ Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music” who passed away in 2014, addresses the potential of the former when asked to describe the sensation of spinning records for a crowd and hitting that “sweet spot”:

Collectively the room becomes one. Everyone's vibes connect. It's like a cosmic, invisible umbilical cord, and I'm the ‘Mothership.’ Nothing but love and respect is fed to the crowd thru the music I'm playing…. At this point it becomes a ‘LOVE AFFAIR’ between me and the folks in the room. Together we all fall in love. (“Frankie Knuckles”)

This affective experience of participating in a crowd of people dancing together in the same groove, in which the experience of the individual is relinquished, if temporarily, to the sensation of collective being, is what performance studies scholar Jill Dolan would call the “utopian performative” in which “utopia can be imagined or experienced affectively, through feelings, in small, incremental moments that performance can provide” (460). These sensations are compounded by the delight—and difficulty—of moving poetically, gracefully, and often assertively on a dance floor thick with other twirling bodies. Moving to the music means simultaneously respecting the movements of others physically close to you, so that the dance floor becomes a dynamic, extemporized organization of bodies and gestures both synchronized to the beats and differentiated by individual modes of expression. In this mode of “dancing together,” there is no singular star that is determined to be the leader. Even in the configuration of a “cipher,” a dancer with the right amount of bravado and skill can usurp the limelight from another dancer for a moment, but, again, no one figure assumes a permanent position of prominence.

Outside of the embodied configurations on the dance floor, house music dance styles themselves offer an antagonism to dominant Western institutionalized notions of legitimate dance production, particularly in house music’s mode of improvisation, or freestyling. Brian Polite, a dancer and founding member of New York City’s dance collective Afro Mosaic Soul, describes the openness of dance styles that can be found at events like Soul Summit, and how this sensibility can be traced back to The Loft, a dance party organized by DJ David Mancuso in New York City beginning in the 1970s:

You had people with modern dance backgrounds, people with martial arts backgrounds, people with African dance backgrounds, salsa, tap, freestyle street dancers—it was one of those things where people brought their own styles however they danced to the Loft, and because everything was open, you could modify however you felt… And you’re watching these basically reject-ballerinas and world modern dancers that are just like, screw what they say at the school—I’m gonna dance how I want to. And they’re letting loose and changing up styles that weren’t supposed to be changed, that were supposed to follow a particular school or technique. And they’re creating their own.

Whereas, by definition, minoritarian bodies and cultural expressions are denied full legitimacy within a hegemonic paradigm because of their essential “otherness,” the ability and imperative to employ creativity, innovation, deviation, and virtuosity on the house music dancefloor grants the minoritarian dancing body a pleasureable freedom in its agonistic performance against such limitations.

Figure 7. “Soul Summit Music Festival @ Fort Greene Park 7.13.14.” YouTube video by Sick Syn

The Counterpublicity of Informal Documentarians

While the formal documentation of dance and performance has a history as extensive as the history of dance and performance itself, the type of documentation I am interested in aligns more with what Muñoz described as “acts that are representational and political interventions in the service of subaltern counterpublics” (1999: 147, original emphasis). Informal videographers that are present on the scene of open-air house music events like Soul Summit are themselves participating and performing bodies that contribute to this public assemblage of utopian agonism. Their acts of documentation are actionable in more than just the realm of representation; they also perform “counterpublicity” by producing the very subcultural circuits in which the demonstration and celebration of minoritized difference and cultural counter-hegemony are able to circulate, particularly through social media. These videographers, who proliferated on the house music dance floor with the advent of digital video technology and video sharing websites like YouTube and alongside the revitalization of open-air dance music events, became a common sight at Soul Summit and other house in the park events in the mid 2000s, participating alongside dancers on the dance floor. By “disassembl[ing] that [majoritarian] sphere of publicity and us[ing] its parts to build an alternative reality” (Muñoz 1999: 196), these videographers sustain and transmit the utopian agonistic sensibilities of house music culture online and through social media. Currently, a search for “Fort Greene Soul Summit” on YouTube yields close to three thousand relevant results. The scenes within these videos vary, ranging from high-angle shots that depict the immensity of the crowd packed on the concrete dance floor; to point-of-view shots that convey a sense of being on the dance floor amongst the dancers; to clips of the ciphers, the drum circles, the DJ booth, and of picnicking participants off the dance floor. Together, these videos comprise a digital archive of this cultural site, event, and of the practices within the culture of house in the park. It is an archive that is constantly updated and reorganized according to user inputs, uploads, downloads, and the proprietary algorithms of YouTube. As argued by media and cultural studies scholar Sheenagh Pietrobruno, this practice of “social archiving could potentially capture intangible heritage as an ongoing process that might challenge the distinctions maintained by official safeguarding practices” (2013: 1260). Interviews with these documentarians indicate three primary functions of their practice—identification, transmission, and global kinship networking—that render them cultural co-producers and mediated participants of open-air house music culture.

The first is the ontological identification of the event as culturally significant and one that merits documentation. The recognition on the part of these archivists that the significance of these events is greater than the sum of their parts (i.e., dancing, listening to music, and picnicking) pays homage to the particular value this cultural phenomenon has for the marginalized communities that have historically participated in it and to the surrounding neighborhood as it rapidly changes demographically. One YouTuber—Lekule, an African American man who has lived in Fort Greene since the early 90s—discussed his desire to capture the spirit of the neighborhood of Fort Greene through his video recordings of Soul Summit, much in the same way that Spike Lee, one of his greatest inspirations, captured the spirit of black Brooklyn in the 1990s through his films:

Soul Summit is like literally my backyard. I tell people about this experience, but … you can’t put it in words. [My YouTube Channel] became me logging that, cataloguing that…. Being in there, and being enraptured in the music and experience, it kind of made me feel like [Spike Lee’s] movies. It’s a spiritual kind of… it’s an experience. That’s why I wanted to capture it.... And I felt like I should be documenting it. After a while, as things started to change, like after 9/11 happened, and then all the baby carriages started coming, and then I was looked upon like the outsider—really I started to be looked at like, what are you doing here? So by 2004 or 2005, it was really like, now I’m just invisible.

As Lekule describes, the act of recording is itself an ontological device that allows him to make tangible, to bring into existence beyond the event, the ineffable spirit of Soul Summit and of the surrounding neighborhood. And the importance of this act of identifying, or “cataloguing” in his words, is amplified by the changes he has witnessed and the invisibility he began to feel as a resident of a gentrifying neighborhood.

A second function of these informal videographers is the transmission of house music culture’s embodied heritage for the sake of education and the creation of future histories. With the onset of video-sharing websites like YouTube and relatively inexpensive recording equipment, participants, particularly those who wished to safeguard this culture for future generations, began to record events that were foundational to house music culture and share them online. One Soul Summit YouTube archivist—Alejandro, a Puerto Rican and Dominican man who was born in Brooklyn and has been in the dance scene since 1990—discussed how YouTube has allowed him to pass along the heritage and tradition of house music culture to others:

Basically, I love sharing what I love [and] connecting people to the legacy. Because, like I said, I’m second generation and [house music] got passed on to me…. And as much as I love technology… and can be a techie, there’s still something about tradition that’s so vitally important, and for me it just nurtures my spirit in a way when I feel connected to the legacy and to something traditional. I like being connected to something from the past, something that gets passed down, and I guess that this is my way of passing it down.

Alejandro, like many other Soul Summit YouTubers, recognizes house music culture as part of his identity, and ensuring the continuity of this culture meant that he was connecting this part of his identity to something greater—a tradition that was passed down to him and that he desires to pass on to future generations.

While this second function is focused on preserving the roots of house music culture, the third function is geared more toward its routes, particularly in the production of kinship networks surrounding house music dance. That is, the informal archive of shared online videos as a whole has contributed to the extension of house music culture—spreading to places in Europe and Asia especially over the past 10 years—and plays a role in the continuous recreation of what house music dance is and looks like. Dancers turn to YouTube to explore different styles and individual expressions of street dance, whether through battle or cipher videos, instructional videos, or videos of individuals dancing to overlaid music tracks. The creative expansion of house music culture is ushered in by this dynamic form of archiving, fostering its diversity and continuous evolution as dancers artfully interpret and build off of what they watch, and, in turn, produce their own videos to upload. One YouTuber, Sick Syn, a young African American man born and raised in Brooklyn who has danced in the NYC house music scene since 2003, discussed the importance of viewing and producing YouTube videos as a dancer:

Once I started listening to the music, I was like … I want to see more, so of course I just went on YouTube and typed in “house,” “house music,” and “house dance.” And the first video that popped up was by this guy named Conway, and it was him dancing in his hallway and out in the street…and from there I just looked at the related videos…. I watched a lot of videos… and found out that battles were taking place in like Japan, France.… As far as house, YouTube is just great because you see all the stuff and you get inspired…. I filmed my first video at home, I posted it up, and was like, alright, time to do more, and it’s been on since. Getting the views and hits was never a big thing for me.… The 300 [followers] that I do have, they like what’s going on, and surprisingly out of that number were dancers … from Paris, Japan, a lot of followers from Russia. To me that is greater than having 3,000 followers in America. People overseas looking at this and actually commenting, that actually gives me a bit of a drive.

For dancers like Sick Syn, the growing, dynamic, and global archive of house music culture on YouTube serves as a source of education, inspiration, and opportunity to contribute to the future of its practice.

Like house music culture itself, there is a participatory and relational sensibility to this informal digital archiving practice. Videographers and YouTubers of different ages and backgrounds participate in the continual reconstruction of this archive by their video uploads and downloads, as well as other user inputs. And by tagging uploads with various search terms that then group them with other videos—as well as by accessing YouTube’s “related videos” function—YouTubers are able to affirm the relational organization of this archive and of YouTube as a whole. These new social techniques of “tagging,” “liking,” and “being liked” offer new ways of social interaction, and create subcultural circuits that produce virtual counterpublics that work in conjunction with the liveness of house in the park events.

Figure 8. “SOUL SUMMIT MUSIC FESTIVAL @FORT GREENE PARK; BK.” Youtube video by Sick Syn

The Politics of Place-Making and the Participatory Affirmation of Difference

When people amass on the street, one implication seems clear: They are still here and still there; they persist; they assemble, and so manifest the understanding that their situation is shared, and even when they are not speaking or do not present a set of negotiable demands, the call for justice is being enacted. The bodies assembled “say” we are not disposable, whether or not they are using words at the moment. What they say, as it were, is that we are still here, persisting, demanding greater justice, a release from precarity, a possibility of a livable life.

Judith Butler (2011:1)

On May 23, 2011, The New York Times’ online supplement, The Local, published an article that confirmed what many long-time residents of Fort Greene had been witnessing over the past decade, that, according to census figures, “Fort Greene and [neighboring] Clinton Hill’s black population [had] declined by a third since 2000,” (Cozier) from 65 percent of those neighborhoods’ cumulative population in 2000, to 47 percent in 2010. Two months later, The Local published an article recapping Soul Summit’s “first, and second-to-last” dance party of the season. Noting that it was the second summer in a row that the party happened only twice in the park, the author explains that “[t]he popularity of Fort Greene Park has limited events like Soul Summit from being held more frequently,” and cites a statement from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation:

Fort Greene Park has received many permit applications for events of all kinds, including concerts, which Parks now limits to two per summer for any applicant, in order to accommodate the high demand for events in this park (Rohwer, July 20).

The majority of comments responding to this article, as well as to other articles covering Soul Summit in The Local from 2010 to 2011, speak to one interpretation of this phenomenon:

DIMPLES: I was raised in Fort Greene and yes the neighborhood has changed drastically. There were never bike lanes in our neighborhood, nor were there a trillion dogs running through the park unleashed…. when other events go on no one complains about it but let a bunch of people of color get together to enjoy a day of relaxation and there is a big hoopla. (Rohwer, July 11)

ROBERTO: …i’m sorry, to consider ending Soul Summit is pathetic. particularly given the history of fort greene as an african-american arts enclave… (Hill)

BONITA APPLEBUM: … before ft greene became what it is today-take that any way you wish- we had more free events and very few complaints… (Eckert)

KIANA: Let’s just keep it real…..GENTRIFICATION…. (Hill)

LEE HAIRSTON: Now that the real estate has attracted a “new element” to the neighborhood, the systematic “reduction” of the Soul Summit parties in Fort Greene has become the focus for many of the “newly revised” community. How arrogant to come into a community, rich in a pre-existing culture, and work to weed out any & all “undesirable activity” THEY deem inappropriate. This, in my opinion is activity rooted in classism & racism. TRAGIC. (Hill)

NJVISUAL: I wonder why is everyone is tap dancing around the real deal. i remember when Fort Greene was wonderfully afrocentric, full of wonderful well read and artistically creative, people of color. During one of my drives through Fort Greene on my way to soul summit and looking for a parking space last summer. IT dawned on me that the complexion of the community was radically altered. Suddenly there seems to be a bombardment of white, stroller pushing yuppies who have been priced out of manhattan and now “this neighborhood looks real good” … and in very typical fashion has decided that this is now theirs and they will run it the way they want. (Hill)

With inflections of disappointment and indignation, these commenters read the foreclosing of Soul Summit from Fort Greene Park as symptomatic of the greater trend of racial, economic, and cultural displacement in the surrounding neighborhood.

Figure 9. Ladies playing cards at Soul Summit 2012. Photograph by Annette Bernhardt / Flickr

The politics of place-making, implicated at the crossroads of urban spatial politics and the politics of difference, sits at the root of these comments and centers on a key question—who gets to decide the meaning of a space? These commenters gesture toward the notion that the imaginaries and sensibilities associated with Fort Greene and Fort Greene Park are ultimately being decided by the influx of newcomers (nonblack and higher income residents) into the neighborhood—newcomers who might acknowledge its cultural history but lack the will or ability to sustain its particular mode and ethic of sociality. The cultural capital of Fort Greene, afforded by its history as a neighborhood where black artists—jazz musicians, actors, visual artists, filmmakers, poets, and writers—lived and thrived in the late 20th century, eclipses the reality that the very bodies that work to sustain the imaginaries and sensibilities produced by assemblages of black cultural expression were in decline.

This article has argued for the importance of public spaces of utopian agonism, using Soul Summit and the assemblages associated with open-air house music as a way of understanding how these events offer an alternate modality of urban spatial politics and, in particular, one in which a participatory, relational sensibility facilitates, rather than forecloses, difference. That is, the relational and participatory sensibilities of open-air house music culture offer an ethics of space, time, and difference that activates minoritarian bodies through a democratic and agonistic mode of politics that is always in formation, never fully achieved—an ‘actionability,’ that is positioned to continually upset the existing social order. In effect, the organizers of Soul Summit, by providing a particular embodied experience and sensorium of Fort Greene and Fort Greene Park, incite an alternate sociality based on the acceptance and celebration of difference that counters the experience of minoritarian displacement felt within many gentrified communities.

As of 2015, the organizers of Soul Summit continue to bring the culture of open-air house music and its associated histories, imaginaries, and sensibilities to the residents of a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. While in the foreseeable future, the event will continue to take place at least twice a summer in Fort Greene Park, it has begun to disperse to other outdoor public venues where producing this event does not involve $2 million insurance plans, security bonds, or complex permit processes. Sadiq and his two partners make no money off their venture; instead of charging admission to their parties, they opt to expand their assemblages of production to include local fundraising efforts and sponsorship by small businesses within the community. It is important to them to keep the event free—donations are welcome, “if you have it, if not, just come on in” (fieldwork interview with Bellamy, July 2014). Through this ethic of radical acceptance, the organizers of Soul Summit, much like the original facilitators of underground dance culture for racialized and LGBTQ communities in the 1970s, offer an alternative imaginary and mode of participation for urban life and public space—a platform for the performance of a utopia that neither disregards nor reduces difference, but rather sustains it through a mode of collective, participatory celebration.


[1] See Nelson George’s illustrative account of the Fort Greene black arts movement and community in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s in his documentary Brooklyn Boheme (2011).

[2] The notion of house music culture as an embodied response to the marginalization of queer black communities, as well as a celebration of this collective marginality, is documented in a number of histories and ethnographies of the subculture, including: “You Better Work! Underground Dance Music in New York City by Kai Fikentscher (University of New England Press, 2000); Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making by Fiona Buckland (Wesleyan University Press, 2001); “The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music” by Anthony Thomas (http://history-is-made-at-night.blogspot.com/2008/04/expect-to-read-lot-this-year-about-20th.html); and “An Alternate History of Sexuality in Club Culture” by Luis-Manuel Garcia (http://www.residentadvisor.net/feature.aspx?1927). For an aural history of the origins and development of house music, see Midwest Electric: The Story of Chicago House and Detroit Techno produced by Afropop Wo rldwide (http://soundcloud.com/afropop-worldwide/midwest-electric-the-story-of)

[3] See Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey (New York: Grove, 2000); Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-hop’s First Decade (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002); Nelson George, Hip Hop America (New York: Viking, 1998); Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: University of New England, 1994).

[4] See Founding Fathers: The Untold History of Hip Hop, directed by Ron Lawrence and Hassan Pore (2009).

[5] See Naomi Bragin’s illuminating discussion of choreocentricity (and furthermore her excellent analysis of the politics of mediated black performance in the context of turf dance) in “Shot and Captured: Turf Dance, YAK Films, and the Oakland, California, R.I.P Project” in TDR: The Drama Review, Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2014, pp 99–114.

[6] The practice of utopian agonism that I am proposing is akin to the process of “disidentification” that performance studies scholar Jose Muñoz introduced in his book Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999). While Muñoz illustrates the performance of disidentification through examples from the performance, literary, and visual arts, I wish to present this notion of critical world-making in a different context—to consider scenes of utopian agonism that have a stake in urban public space and open participation as their site and ethos of production (respectively). In this way, I wish to consider how the utopian sensibilities of minoritarian performance problematize the tools of liberal state governance in urban spatial politics.

[7] Dance and African American Studies scholar Thomas DeFrantz argues that black performativity maintains a communicative ability through “expressive culture, including music and dance, that perform[s] actionable assertions” (66, my emphasis)—that is, black performativity involves gestures of expressive culture that incite action. The difficulty for scholars of black social dance, he continues, is that this actionability resists “inscription and interpretation from an exterior, immobile microanalytic perspective,” because only the “visual effects” of its “corporeal orature” are accessible by the analyst (67). While the figure of the DJ and the dancer within black expressive and urban dance culture has been extensively addressed within both popular and scholarly writing (see Endnote VIII) these analyses (with some notable exceptions—see Endnote IX) tend to be limited in their understandings of the actionable power of these cultural formations, as they are based on their explicitly discernible and historical elements, such as prominent figures, sites, lyrics, and the discrete physical movements of the dancers.

[8] See Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaires (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2010); Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010); Jonathan Fleming and David Mingay, What Kind of House Party Is This?: The History of a Music Revolution (Slough: Mind in You Pub., 1995); Tony Fletcher, All Hopped up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York, 1927–77 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009); Sheryl Garratt, Adventures in Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture (London: Headline, 1998); Tim Lawrence, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973­–1992 (Durham: Duke UP, 2009); Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979 (Durham: Duke UP, 2003); Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Berkeley: Soft Skull, 2012); Jesse Saunders and James Cummins, House Music—The Real Story (Baltimore: Publish American, 2007); Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (New York: Faber and Faber, 2005); Dan Sick, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010); Raven Smith, Club Kids: From Speakeasies to Boombox and Beyond (London: Black Dog, 2008); and C. J. Stone, Fierce Dancing: Adventures in the Underground (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

[9] In particular, You Better Work! Underground Dance Music in New York City by Kai Fikentscher (University of New England Press, 2000) and Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making by Fiona Buckland (Wesleyan University Press, 2001).


References

Arino, Lisa. “Get Out: Free Jazz and Spoken Word Series,” The Local: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, July 7, 2011. http://fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/get-out-free-jazz-and-spoken-word-series/

Bellamy, Sadiq. Personal interview. 21 Sep, 2012.

Bellamy, Sadiq. Personal interview. 14 July, 2014.

Cozier, Tamy and Anniesofie Brochstedt. “Census 2010: A Dramatic Decline in Black Residents,” The Local: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, May 23, 2011. http://fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/05/23/census-2010-a-dramatic-decline-in-black-residents/

DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Beat Made Visible: Body Power in Hip Hop Dance.” Of The Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory, ed. André Lepecki, 64–81. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Pres, 2004.

Eckert, Liza. “The Day: And Old Sign, Fundraising, Video and Art,” The Local: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, July 20, 2010. http://fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2010/07/20/the-day-an-old-sign-fundraising-video-and-art/

"Frankie Knuckles." Interview by Dayna Newman. Disco Music. DiscoMusic.com. Web. 18 May 2012. .

Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California, 2000.

Hill, Megan and Liza Eckert. “Soul Summit Has the Year’s Last Dance in Fort Greene Park,” The Local: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, July 22, 2010. http://fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/soul-summit-has-the-years-last-dance-in-fort-greene-park/

Kelley, Antonio. “Black Coffee Soul Summit 2011 Fort Greene Park.” YouTube. Uploaded by Picha Dis, 18 July, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB2DqrpX910.

Lekule. Personal interview. 21 Oct, 2014.

Lewis, Nicole. Personal interview. 23 June, 2013.

Mouffe, Chantal. “Art and Democracy: Art as an Agnostic Intervention in Public Space.” Art as a Public Issue: How Art and Its Institutions Reinvent the Public Dimension, ed. Jorinde Seijdel. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008.

Muñoz, José Esteban. "Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts." Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8.2 (1996): 5-16. Web. Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999. Print.

Newman, Andy. "In Fort Greene, Prosperity Is Bittersweet; Some Blacks Reap Profits As Others Lament Change." The New York Times, August 31, 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/31/nyregion/fort-greene-prosperity-bittersweet-some-blacks-reap-profits-others-lament-change.html

Pietrobruno, S. "YouTube and the Social Archiving of Intangible Heritage." New Media & Society 15.8 (2013): 1259-276. Web.

Polite, Brian. Personal interview. 15 Mar, 2015.

Reyes, Alejandro. Personal interview. 15 Oct, 2014.

Rohwer, Susan. “The Return of Soul Summit,” The Local: Fort Green/Clinton Hill, July 11, 2011. http://fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/07/11/the-return-of-soul-summit/

Rohwer, Susan. “Soul Summit Briefly Back This Summer,” The Local: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, July 20, 2011. http://fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/07/20/soul-summit-briefly-back-this-summer/

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: University of New England, 1994. Print.

Sick Syn. Personal interview. 11 Nov, 2014.

Smith, Neil. “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy.” Antipode 34.3 (2002): 427–50. Web.


Author Bio

Kavita Kulkarni is a PhD candidate in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Her research broadly considers how cultural activity in urban public spaces contributes to and is consequently displaced by the revalorization and gentrification of neighborhoods, and looks specifically at an open-air house music festival that has taken place in central Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park for the past 13 years. Prior to pursuing her doctoral degree, Kavita worked as a community organizer on various economic justice issues in Atlanta and spent time as a digital media strategist for IBM through the ad firm Neo@Ogilvy.

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