MusicOpen LetterPolitics

“on resistance” by hanif abdurraqib

July 24, 2018
By Hanif Abdurraqib, for AFROPUNK


On July 13th 1977, the lights went out all over New York City. When darkness comes unexpectedly and lingers for longer than what seems to be natural, it invites mischief — and a deeper, more particular type of mischief when wedded with heat. On this summer night, the children of that union were predominantly disenfranchised, or forgotten, or marginalized, or looking for a way to leave their mark on a community or country which had left them behind. So for a little over 24 hours, swathed in darkness and heat, there was broken glass and looting, people taking what they needed in order to survive, and then a bit more.

Culture and history are never this linear, yet when the lights came back on and the city began to crawl back to restoration, there were new musical sounds being made in the parks and at the house parties. Hip-hop began to put its roots down before the blackout, but it needed a push — even if the push was DJs getting access to equipment by ill means, from the electronics stores which had been broken into. Hip-hop might have found a way to grow organically, of course. But its explosion in the late ‘70s, starting in the Bronx and sprinting outwards, was a result of circumstance: people who had the skill and vision but not the tools, got access to what they needed, and the cultural moment aligned.

Or, consider the way Soul Train originated. The iconic television program of the ‘70s and ‘80s grew, in part, out of the need for a dance show that was different from the black and white images of swaying white teens, dancing to hit songs by radio-friendly white artists, who often repurposed their music from black musicians. By filling a void and acting against the traditional, more buttoned-up dance show, Soul Train went on to be a defining venue for trends in black culture, music, art, fashion, and, of course, dance.

This is what Resistance looks like in a less pointed yet still political manner. For some of us who’ve lived entire lives within a marginalized group, the mass awakening after the 2016 election has been a major point of exhaustion. The problem with the concept of “Now more than ever” in regards to actions of Resistance, is that for some people, “Now” has been ever-present and constantly shifting. Now has been generational, passed down from some other Now which haunted someone else long before our own arrival. Now has been immovable, regardless of who’s in office, or what laws they’re trying to push through. Make absolutely no mistake, there is a uniqueness to the current set of policies, and the people implementing them. But to assume that everyone is in the collective “We,” new to the fight and eager to figure out every possible way to resist the forces and institutions of oppression, is to misread history.

To be fair, any measure of Resistance needs those people too. But in our post-election groundswell, those people were looking to lead, rather than take notes from veterans who’d been at the forefront of movements – political, spiritual, and emotional – for years before our current Now. Another problem with the collective We is that not every community looks the same. Therefore, not every community has the same needs. And even when needs might intersect, the way those needs are obtained may shift. By generation, by geography, by class.

In my mind, ideas of Resistance are best met when the approach is rooted in both broad problem solving, and by filling as many individual voids as possible (in an attempt to solve specific problems). The people on the ground floor of hip-hop — or Soul Train — were participating in a type of Resistance: they were giving people something they needed in order to feel more alive. They were providing an outlet for when the world became too much. The best Resistance is one which offers the collective several ways to be nourished, without placing the entire burden of fixing every problem onto a single group; or without demanding a swath of labor from a group which may not be your own, even if you want the best for them.

Ultimately, no one can resist anything when overwhelmed by the massiveness of the world’s ills. To resist is to push back, sometimes with aggression and volume, in protest and in difficult conversation. It is another day when people who have been fighting this administration are being told that they’ve gone too far. The president’s press secretary Sarah Sanders was not served at a restaurant recently, and there are people who think that the idea of Resistance has gone too far – that civility is what, ultimately, will win the day. This idea is being sold to us by people who seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what civility can and cannot achieve in the face of a vast, eternally shifting hate. To imagine the idea of Resistance as singular, and only existing on the front lines of a fight, limits what the lineage of resisting has looked like. It is impossible for me to separate the body, and movement, and song, love and lovemaking from ideas of what pushing back means. Resistance, below all of its other meanings, is a body getting what it needs in order to keep fighting for what it needs.

Michael Jackson died nine years ago last month, and in Columbus, Ohio, the summer was hot but still hopeful enough to have its joy rocked to the core by this celebrity death. Both social media and the political landscape were different than they are now, when such events loom large, briefly, until the next massive wave of bad news hits. In the summer of 2009, the people I knew and loved were less tuned in to that which might slowly pull us closer to our natural cynicism, and Michael’s death was something that felt like a grief we would never be able to recover from. For many of us, Jackson was passed down during the ‘80s, directly from a parent who first watched him in the ‘60s or the ‘70s. So to lose Michael Jackson was to lose a small part of connective thread between you and the people you came from.

What I recall most fondly about the hours after the news was delivered and we all sat in our heavy, exhaustive sadness was the DJs, walking down the block with speakers on their shoulders. They packed crowds into the basement of a bar, which had seen enough of misery and moping, and insisted on hosting a dance party where only Michael Jackson songs would be played. There would be no limit on which songs, or how many times in a row they might be heard. An hour of just “P.Y.T.” if someone pleased, as long as there were enough people still dancing to warrant it.

In that hot, packed room with several bodies moving at once, dancing becomes more narrowly defined into making whatever movements you are afforded with what little space you have. Your dance partner is the person able to wedge their body in between you and the nearest wall, which, if the groove is felt for long enough, will be as sweat-soaked as the shirts backing up against them.

This is what I remember of the day Michael Jackson died: dancing until I was a mess of perspiration – my own, and that of strangers. Dancing until my legs hurt despite not being in love with the idea of dancing. But mostly, I remember what it was like to step outside, well after Midnight, and letting the cool air whistle its way along my wet skin. I think of the idea of how we resist, and how it really can be that simple. Sometimes it is making a barricade between the police and the body of someone more at risk than you. Or sometimes, it is spending hours calling politicians who send you straight to a voicemail machine which you shout at until you no longer have a voice.

But sometimes, it’s the other thing. It’s finding a place where you don’t mind letting loose for a little while, and dancing until you shake the cloud of heartbreak from overhead.