If you see something, say something… then dance.
That’s the underlying motto of Break the Chains. The all-ages, all-gender radical dance party is famous throughout Boston for bringing nationally touring queer and trans performers to a stage where activism and revolution are on everyone’s minds. This Friday, Downtown Boys headline at Make Shift Boston where it’s joined by multi-instrumentalist Bell’s Roar and the event’s usual house band, Kali Stoddard-Imari and Myriam Ortiz. While most come to have fun, the desire to create change after the lights go off is impossible to miss. Break the Chains is dismantling the system one dance party at a time — and this is their 12th time doing so.
It all started a little over a year ago when a co-op house in Jamaica Plain agreed to let Evan Greer—the series’ founder, host, and famous queer riotfolker—flood its rooms with musicians. “Back then, the goal was to create a space for queer people to enjoy live music,” she explains. “There’s lots of queer events in Boston and great queer dance events, but not a lot that have a mixture of live music and DJs for people of all genders to dance together while touring acts play.”
All genres really does mean all genres. Greer has booked everything from a singing cellist to hip-hop artists to a Spanish folk singer. “People appreciate the mixture,” she says. “We don’t have to bang our heads to punk music all night or shake our butts to pop music. We can do both.”
Greer understands on a whole range of personal levels. She’s a transgender musician who’s been touring for 12 years, supports her family, and is busy raising a 5-year-old child. “I recognize how difficult it is for queer musicians to find good-paying gigs,” she explains. Hence the creation of a dance party for LGBTQ musicians to perform to a great audience—and a dance party for queer patrons to feel welcome beside straight allies.
Downtown Boys are a natural fit for the dance party. Their music, of course, pummels listeners with energetic bass and frenetic horns. While they’re no strangers to Break The Chains—they played another edition in the spring of 2015—or LGBTQ acceptance, what truly gives Downtown Boys a welcome entry to the show is their unbending commitment to questioning the political state of America and the ways in which individuals have an impact on their local governments, local community, and—most importantly—local change.
“We believe in the content and the message of our songs,” says frontwoman Victoria Ruiz. “[Change happens] by being committed to working on something with other people and having intention about how you want it to be and look. Knowing there will be contradiction and failure to any fight for freedom is important. Personally, [activism] has just been really inherent in who I am as a person. There’s a misconception that activists have the answers or know what to do. We don’t. Or that we speak for any one community. We don’t. We are not claiming to be social justice warriors; we are people who believe that we need change to the status quo and we talk about that and work on it when we can.”
At their last Break The Chains performance, Downtown Boys played with a theater group that was working on Black Lives Matter. The wall between musicians and artists fell to the floor. At the same time, so did the belief that only government officials have the power to change societal regulations and implement steps towards progressive revolution.
“We can’t try an appeal to the morality of the oppressor now or ever,” Ruiz continues. “I’m not from Boston… [but] I would imagine there’s similar chains to those that I feel need to get broken in my own community and communities I have been a part of in regards to institutional race, class, and gender oppression. We need to break the chains of alienation. I wish we discussed what equality even means. Does it mean the exact same for everyone or is there this baseline we are thinking about?”
The thing about chains is there’s more than one loop. While Greer has proven her skill at throwing events that welcome LGBTQ crowds, she’s also looking to address other issues of equality that surround us. This month’s Break the Chains event, for instance, is wheelchair accessible—and it makes a point of promoting that.
“That first party was not wheelchair accessible, and someone called me out on it, actually,” she recalls. “There’s so many people who get marginalized already in the world and further marginalized within our queer community, so my reaction to that initial experience was to make a commitment that every Break the Chains show—forever, for eternity, until the day it dies—would be wheelchair accessible. A safe space must be safe for queer people, for women-identified people, and calling it a safe space without safely getting people inside is ridiculous.”
Ableism often gets forgotten when it comes to events, musical or not, around the world. In that, it’s one of the most marginalized identifiers. We all continually play a role in marginalizing others when we fail to acknowledge and then remember the qualities that are framed as setbacks when they needn’t be. In a lot of ways, that’s what Break the Chains is about. Of course, the goal is to get people to come together to celebrate life, equality, and the opportunity to have fun. Its secret goal, however, is to highlight the ease and importance of activism.
“It’s awesome to watch a room full of people who were, moments before, sweating on the dance floor from wiggling, then pause and hold a moment of silence for the latest victim of police violence,” says Greer, “or listening to queer black poets or talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and then going back to dancing.”
That’s the issue. We often think of these things as separate, but each month’s concert draws them together effortlessly because the people themselves make it happen. Break the Chains doesn’t just bring the political and the entertaining together. It flaunts how snugly they fit together—and makes you wonder why we haven’t been combining them all along.
DOWNTOWN BOYS, BELL’S ROAR, KALI STODDARD-IMARI, MYRIAM ORTIZ. FRI 2.5. MAKE SHIFT BOSTON, 549 COLUMBUS AVE., BOSTON. 6PM/ALL AGES/$10-20. FACEBOOK.COM/EVENTS/559856964166063.