A Tale of Twerk Cities: Miley vs. AfroPunk

My week began with talking about race and has continued to be about race. In my part of the Internet, a Silicon Valley bigwig warned against funding people with “heavy accents.” The anniversary of the March On Washington brought on some great live-tweeting of Harry Belafonte interviewing Martin Luther King as Belafonte sat in as the host of the Tonight Show — but also a boneheaded tweet from a golf organization). And, of course, there was Miley Cyrus’s “twerking” incident at the Video Music Awards.

Big Freedia at AfroPunkFest. Photo by Sachyn Mital.

Big Freedia at AfroPunkFest. Photo by Sachyn Mital.

My week began with two days of music: one, QTip from the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest DJing a set just blocks from my house (this actually happened, I am still weak in the knees), and two, the second day of the AfroPunk Festival.

Normally, for me, AfroPunk is just fun in the sun with what feels like my tribe — a bunch of weirdos and visionaries who transgress the boundaries of what is expected of them based on their skin color, gender, age, etc. But the juxtaposition of the VMAs and Afropunk is poignant. It deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten, and there are also still things that need to be said about race in my neighborhood, Inwood, Manhattan. Let this white girl have a go at it:

Sunday, AfroPunkFest. Big open fields gone to August dustiness, with stalls full of tattoo artists, piercers, and vendors of African wax cloth, vintage clothes, balms and ointments, and T shirts bearing the faces of revolutionaries or rhinestone assertions of the beauty of Afros. Food trucks with Japanese tacos and fresh-pressed juice. A skate park, and an area for custom Harleys. A table full of supplies for making posters, which made their way into the crowd: “I love black women,” “Free Kisses for Cute Lesbians” (held by a hopeful girl looking like it might be her first time), “Save The Whales.”

Two big stages of African-American music which fits no marketable envelope called “R&B” or “urban” or any of the ways marketers still codify what they used to bald-facedly call “race music” — that stuff my dad listened to as a kid growing up near Motown, the music I still think had a lot to do with why I grew up outside a church. (When he was sixteen, his mother’s preacher told their Royal Oak congregation that black people were inferior to whites. Dad got up and walked out. Sunday mornings, we listened to Gospel; we were atheists, he said, “but if Grandma asks, we’re agnostic.”) AfroPunk showcases metal, punk, funk; last year Reggie Watts weaving his beatboxing magic (see above) and Janelle Monae running her “emotion pictures” about androids.

I missed the Saturday acts, and I’m particularly sad to have missed Unlocking The Truth, the group of sixth-grade boys whose heavy metal band has been busking in Times Square and generating buzz on the Internet. Can you imagine what it must be like, to play a genre of music most of your peers have never heard of, and to be elevated to a stage in front of hundreds of grownups headbanging to your stuff? But like I said, QTip was playing IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD, about which more later.

Both days I was out with my friend Adriane. Adriane and I met in the community African dance classes that happen most nights of the week somewhere in Harlem some years go; we were both in one of Miss Esther’s performances, and got to talking as we took the same train home. Adriane is from Indiana, and I think we bonded because we moved to the city around the same time and were still feeling like foreigners (you mean there’s a bus system that doesn’t shut down at a ridiculous hour here?!).

She’d come straight to AfroPunk from ushering at church. I know church is a biggish part of her life, and one of the things I love about her is her periodic revelations of things that strike me as un-churchy: how she wrote on the faces of drunk friends in college, or how much she was into Nine Inch Nails back in the day. Most of my best girl friends are contrary, perverse, or pointy around the edges like that. I’ve always felt those of us who don’t fit into a box tend to recognize and honor that in others. (It’s something I think E.M. Forster summed up well — his aristocracy of “the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.”) It’s why both of us feel at home at AfroPunk.

Crowdsurfing and bike stunts at AfroPunk 2012. Photo by Versus And Company.

Crowdsurfing and bike stunts at AfroPunk 2012. Photo by Versus And Company.

We were joined at one point by John, another usher from her church who is maybe 15 years older than us. He had just sent his son off to college. Adriane was surprised to find John there. “I just wandered in here,” he said, bemused. “What kind of event is this?” We explained that it was sort of an exploration of alternatives to the mainstream. For a moment it looked like he felt alienated enough to just wander back out, but Adriane insisted he stay, and we took him to get a shave-ice from People’s Pops, which makes really good natural popsicles. He seemed to be enjoying just looking around at all the people. “I’ve never seen so many different-looking people in one place,” he mused, watching the parade of sculpted ‘locks, booty shorts, collared shirts, piercings, face paint, thick glasses, mohawks, rainbow beads, leather armbands, sandals. In the end, he said he was glad he’d come. “It’s a shame my son wasn’t here. I think he’d really like it.”

Adriane and her friends missed The Coup, a favorite band of mine whose album title “Sorry To Bother You” can’t help but sound bitingly insincere once you’ve gotten a blast of their politics. They were a trip — Boots Riley and Silk E devoured the stage. Silk has a delivery like Tina Turner in rage mode; we don’t see the likes of it enough these days. Even though they stuck to their more hard-rock tracks and didn’t play Your Parents’ Cocaine (which speaks to me on deep levels as a former scholarship kid in a college prep school) I loved it; performers enjoying what they’re doing can’t help but make you move.

But Adriane was in time to see Big Freedia, and I dragged her and another of her friends, Tony, to that stage. Tony also seemed non-plussed by the whole scene, and as the lead-in DJ to Freedia went on about twerking, Adriane also looked dubious. I warned her: Freedia was likely to be more of the same.

Because the truth is, when you think twerking, you ought to be thinking Big Freedia, and others from the New Orleans bounce scene, and also contemporary dance from around the Caribbean. Twerking clearly has a physical relationship to the Dutty Wine, a dancehall move from Jamaica; see, for example, this song which dates back to at least 2006.

Long before twerking showed up on the mainstream radar last year, dances like this were being done in clubs in Jamaica, down South, and on YouTube, in the way kids have dance competitions on YouTube, and probably plenty of other places my white ass doesn’t even know about.

Big Freedia The Queen Diva first showed up on my radar maybe three years ago when Bitch Magazine’s site ran a piece on the “Sissy Bounce” scene (scooping the NYTimes by some months). The scene was reported to be unusual in rap: reigned over by transgender women like Freedia, who were highly protective of the women who would dance with them, protecting them from groping while they did their intensive ass-gyrating dances. It was an inter-racial scene, too; by the time Freedia arrived at a Danger Party event in Brooklyn about a year later, there were some white girls, non-mainstream-looking ones, on stage with her, too. (At one point I was one of them.)

How universally true this description was, I’m not equipped to say. When I visited New Orleans that year, I was warned away from bounce parties by locals who said they feared for my safety. Some people within the scene reportedly balked at the “sissy” moniker, not wanting to distinguish it from the bigger “bounce” scene.

And certainly, as booty-bounce dancing spread and Freedia toured, the scene was reshaped and assigned new meanings by those who encountered it. The Danger Party took place at the Warsaw, the club at the Polish National Home in Brooklyn. In the arms of the Danger Party — a series of Situationist events with sensual elements, aerial acrobatics, hot tubs, attendants feeding you grapes, what have you — Freedia seemed very much of a piece; the space fostered pushing attendees’ expectations of what “a party,” “performance,” “gender” etc should be. But the Warsaw also attracts recent and older Polish immigrants who brought with them different expectations. On stage with Freedia, trying to get my ass to move like hers (how DOES she get it to go in a perfect circle like that), I was far more comfortable than I was with some of the comments and physicality of the concertgoers once I descended into the audience again.

Not from AfroPunk, but much like the Xhosa face paint on the woman near me. Photo by ntando marumo

Not from AfroPunk, but much like the Xhosa face paint on the woman near me.
Photo by ntando marumo

AfroPunk, again, felt like a good home for Freedia. Everybody was bouncing, totally crammed in each other’s space like any New York concert, but not (from where I was standing) there with the intent of groping or ogling anyone else. A heavyset girl near me, Xhosa-style white spots vivid on her beautiful dark face, caught my eye; we grinned as we shook it. Freedia brought the locals up on stage, male and female and not really caring which, any given race or none of the above, and asked “*WHO’S* GOT THE BACK-A-MAKE-THE-BASS–GO–BOOM?” and we could see they outdid all of the rest of us, but we all went rocky-rocky-rocky-rocky-rocky-ticky-tocky anyway because ultimately, all that matters is that moving your ass feels good.


“Now, when they talk about twerking,” Freedia told us, pausing for emphasis. “I’ve been doing this for fourteen years.” The crowd went nuts.

Adriane, normally as wiggly as I am under any musical conditions, continued to stand skeptically still. I realized, perhaps a bit late, that she was coming to Freedia in a post-twerking age, and may not have been engrossed in the backstory of transgender rappers that had hooked me in. By the end of the set, I’d lost her in the crowd. “I went to look for Tony,” she said when I found her again. “He took off. He’d rather be at the Video Music Awards. That’s more his scene.”

Those were, of course, the VMAs at which Miley Cyrus did what Freedia was doing, what the whole crowd was doing, but put it on stage in a context utterly alienated from its roots, utterly divorced from the people who developed it, from whatever reasons they developed it (and data from my own participant-observation in the scene suggests those reasons are “moving your ass feels good” and “outdoing others by moving your ass in extreme ways they can’t achieve also feels good”). She and her handlers put the dance up there in the plexiglas coffin that is American corporate media, and by doing so they made us into particular kinds of museum-goers, and the dance and dancers into a particular kind of exhibit, and frankly Tressie McMillan Cottom has summed it up better than anyone else can and I have nothing to add about how awful it was.

All I can point out is that it seems significant, to me, that these two instances of twerking happened at the same time, in different places.

There was a blue blimp hanging in the sky, stage right of the AfroPunk compound, as the evening progressed; as Chuck D told the kids off for calling each other “nigga” instead of “black,” earning amens from the older folks but driving some youth out of the area; as ?uestlove began DJing a remarkable set that Adriane noted may have been his syllabus for his semester teaching at NYU: he played a beat which everyone started to holler along to, thinking it was a recent popular track, then switched to the older track it sampled from — Sister Nancy, Tina Turner, Jackson Five.

The blimp, I am certain, was positioned there to cover the VMAs. If it had any cameras, they were not paid to transmit what Chuck D was saying or what ?uestlove was spinning. They were not there to make kings of Unlocking The Truth. They were there to prop up the tyrannical, hemophiliac Cyrus bloodline for another generation. Tony, who had left us, had made a choice. A concertgoer can’t be in two places at once.

This pretty much sums up Boots Riley at AfroPunk: levitating and throwing the fist. Photo by http://www.sachynmital.com/

This pretty much sums up Boots Riley at AfroPunk: levitating and throwing the fist. Photo by Sachyn Mital.

We all have that choice. We can keep chewing over the latest stupid, trolling stunt from whatever microwave-warmed star the old American mass culture machine wants us to focus on. Or we can Just. Go. Talk. About. Something. BETTER. There are alternatives out there. AfroPunk is a beautiful one, presenting an incomprehensibly vast range of possibilities of how to be a musician, an artist, a human being of any race or gender, a member of a culture. The longer we spend critiquing the cheap mainstream trash without also hyping the good marginal stuff to the high heavens, then the longer justice is not done in art, music, film, and in everyday culture.(1)

If we don’t choose to spread the good alternatives as loudly as we can, there will be people, particularly young ones, out there who never know that there is any alternative to garbage. They won’t know that there’s a history behind the dances they see, or that there are other ways to see them. They won’t know that there are other people out there, who may be just like them, who are playing kinds of music they’ve never even heard of. There will be older people, too, like John, who maybe have less of a sense of the actual meanings younger people are creating for their lives.

We have an Internet. It’s there to help us do what the mainstream media used to do: spread culture. We are the transmitters, now. Please, in the interest of developing smarter, more nuanced ways to talk about about the possibilities of race and gender — let’s do better.

I always think of the Simpsons singing about advertising mascots:

Disclose.tvjust don’t look

(Oh, I promised I’d talk about QTip. I guess I’ll have to do that in a second post. I do need to go from the global to the local in talking about race, because that concert very much drove the issue of race right home to my own neighborhood. Come back soon. Meantime, here’s two artists I want to see at AfroPunk next year, whose music I will do anything I can to spread: Rita Indiana and Santigold.)

(1) Sadly for twerking, I don’t mean to praise it as the best dance we can possibly do. It’s kinda simplistic, from a dancer’s perspective: one isolated body part, doing a couple of moves. Meh. Hip hop dance has historically done much better, and my bias to African dance says that’s because of that moment in the ’80s when hip-hoppers were drawing on West African dance like Lamban (below). But daily, we still see plenty of creativity from any given kid dancing on the street or subway; in New York things have evolved into inventive contortionism and juggling.

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