I am not quite sure whether theater, cinema, art, literature or even poetry have or should have political power – and as a DJ and producer of electronic disco music, I do not claim to be an expert when it comes to art and its political power and potential. I leave that to the artists, who have to decide for themselves whether they want to make a political statement or not. Some art is politically motivated, and some isn’t or isn’t aware of it. I like some political art because of its intentions and dislike some for the same reason.
I don’t think that merely addressing politics in art can be equated with actual political power. I doubt that art can change or guide politics, but there is one place where it comes very close: nightclubs.
Can fun be political?
As a DJ who has spent a good deal of his life in nightclubs, I do have some expertise in that, and I have wondered more than once: Is it possible that something as fun as disco could have a political dimension? Or even political power?
I do not want to be subversive here. I know that clubs are not flawless and don’t function like modern kolkhozes. Sadly, racism, sexism and elitism can still be found in many discos around the globe. And, let’s face it, in most cases, club music’s sole aim is to make people dance, not to spark political debate.
Still, it is indisputable that the success story of disco culture has always been closely linked to political movements. Just like the Green Party movement, today’s club culture is a heritage of the 1960s, and political movements like the American Civil Rights Movement, the gay emancipation movement or the psychedelic hippie communities have been essential to disco music’s success.
But people often tend to forget about that. Recently, the great Nile Rogers (a former member of the Black Panthers but better known as the head of the band “Chic”) reminded us of disco music’s power by arguing that disco music has done more for world peace and international understanding than any other musical genre.
Back in 1979, in his essay “In Defense of Disco”, gay Marxist Richard Dyer described clubs as temporary utopias where life can be lived as it should be – if only for a short while. These “utopias” had to be short-lived because of their intensity and the risk that they might “catch fire” if they were to be sustained. With his essay, Dyer tried to defend disco music from the accusations of the Left, which has traditionally been more inclined toward rock music.
The reproach of escapism that clubgoers, dance music and dance venues have always faced annoys me. To think that clubbers strictly decline to participate in political protests, don’t vote and never buy newspapers – if that’s the yardstick for political participation – is simply erroneous. If art has any kind of power it can only be in the form of motivation or resistance, a power concerning real life rather than political education.
This is where disco music is powerful: people can still visit the temporary utopias that Dyer described, enjoy their weekends in places governed by just and egalitarian principles, where people, led by uplifting music, can deal differently with each other. You just have to know the right spots.
Apartheid was danced away
The great film “Amandla! – A Revolution In Four-Part Harmony” by Lee Hirsch is an astounding example of the power of music and dance at work. The documentary shows how the South African apartheid regime was simply danced and sung away over decades. Of course, there were several other factors that brought down apartheid, but still: the film conveys the power of music, uniting people in a common fight against oppression and injustice.
For us Europeans, it has been difficult to develop a sense of the liberating potential of disco music. We are not living under oppression or enclosed by barbed wire fences (at least not in Cologne, where I live). But we should foster our sensitivity to the power of music.
OK, now I’m being a little subversive.
Translated from German