Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What do they know of music who only music know?

Democracy and Hip Hop is an interesting project, with informed critical thinking of hip hop culture starting from the position that 'Hip-hop is an inherently democratic organism. Anyone, regardless of race, age, gender, location, or economic status is able to participate within it and to offer it new dimension. This is evidenced by the fact that hip-hop is not only a national, but a worldwide phenomenon and has literally left no country, race, or social group untouched.In addition to hip-hop’s global existence, it is also breaking down traditional categories of identity, whether of race or nationality, and of what people can become".

D&HH avows its key influence to be CLR James (1901-1989, pictured), the Trinidad-born radical intellectual. James developed an open-ended Marxism based on the principle of self-activity rather than top-down party politics. His interest in popular culture is best shown in his celebrated book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary. While he wrote little specifically about music and dancing, his insights are certainly relevant here. His famous quote 'What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?' could equally apply to music. After a period in the States, James settled in his later years in Brixton, where he was a big influence on the Race Today Collective - including dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Dancing: the test of anti-racist politics

In a 1949 article, Road Ahead in Negro Struggle (in this period 'Negro' tended to be used by radicals, 'black' was seen as being a racist term), James quoted approvingly from a 1930s steel union organiser's report: “... held a couple of bingo games and a dance all of which Negroes attended in force with their ladies. At the dance, held in the lower section of the city near the Negro district, there were no restrictions. Dancing was mixed, racially and sexually, Whites with Negro partners. I danced with a Negro girl myself. Negroes enjoyed themselves immensely and there were no kicks from the whites. This lodge will soon have a picnic which will also be mixed.”

From a similar political background, Charles Denby wrote of his experiences in the car factories of Detroit before the second world war: 'The union was giving a social at the Eastwood Gardens Ballroom... One of the Negro women asked me if it was a dance where the Negroes would dance on one side and the whites on the other. The Negro women said they had heard white women saying that they'd be dancing separate from the Negroes... The union called a special meeting and about one hundred workers attended. Ray [the union organizer] spoke: "If whites and Negroes want to dance together at the social they will dance. And my wife will dance with whomever she chooses. Those who don't want to see this don't have to come." I went to the social and he introduced me to his wife and said if we wanted to dance to go ahead. We danced one or two dances. Some mixed couples were dancing but the majority of whites danced to themselves' (Denby, Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1979).

Denby later left the US Socialist Workers Party because they tolerated members who opposed black members going out with white women, and again noted that that at their social dances 'The whites crowded around on one side of the hall and talked among themselves'. For black radicals like James and Denby, dancing was a key test of how serious a movement was in confronting inequality. Writing in a period when black and white workers (men and women) were moving North from the segregated Southern states to work alongside each other in factories, both saw the potential for new forms of non-racist organisation and sociability. Both too were aware that organisations that encouraged black people to join but put up barriers on the dancefloor were not to be trusted.


Snowball said...

Interesting stuff - and congratulations on a great blog. CLR James also briefly but succinctly discusses jazz in 'American Civilization', written around the same time as the article you note.

Transpontine said...

I haven't read this, but I gather James had a collection of jazz records in Trinidad.

Anonymous said...

What's happening?

Just wanted to say thanks for the plug on my blog. I'll definitely check you out and throw you up on the links section.

You'll have to tell me what your interest is in James. And I have read American Civilization as well. I wrote a review of it last Summer as a matter of fact. It has been the most influential book I've ever read.

Thanks again,

Krisna Best