Image courtesy of Nick Minieri/Beantown Boogiedown
Baratunde Thurston, who came up doing comedy and writing in this area while studying at Harvard, may have put it best at an area book reading last summer for his bestseller, How To Be Black. “Boston,” he joked, “hides its black people.” Thurston may have put a humorous spin on things–a former director of digital media for The Onion, he’s quite good at that–but considering that he’s a former resident (and Dig columnist), Thurston has the first-hand experience to validate his observations. For many in the crowd, it was an empowering moment. Such things are rarely openly discussed around here.
While conversations about race and institutional oppression are common, they often focus on politics, economics, and education. As for the social scene–nightlife, in particular–not so much. Still, clubs, bars, and partying are central aspects of the city’s segregated reality, as well as venues through which people can, under the best circumstances, catalyze cultural change.
Of the bunch that do cater to a multicultural crowd, the biggest common denominator–the blood pumping through the heart of Boston’s diverse party experience–is dancing. It’s a phenomenon that’s hard to peg with statistics, but if you hit the clubs and ask around, you’ll hear the same song over and over. The dance scene speaks to Boston’s ability to buck bigoted stereotypes and resist social segregation.
Highlights aside, this isn’t an entirely romantic tale. A lot of Bostonians–especially transient ones–would use the old Facebook cop-out to describe their relationship with downtown and all its choice destinations: “It’s complicated.”That noted, in the name of the nightlife issue, we visited some of the Hub’s most culturally eclectic institutions to see what they’re doing right.
Ask any friend who’s likely to be found on a dance floor where they spent their formative years in Boston, and they’ll likely point to Soul Revival, a regional standard-bearer for attracting rainbow coalitions, and one of Boston’s famously long-running nightlife standbys. Billed as “more of a social movement designed to attract those under-served in our entertainment scene,” the regular jam, which was primarily held at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in Boston’s South End, ran for around 20 years under a few different names (including its first moniker, Bohemia), and was honored as one of the best parties in America by Rolling Stone.
“Soul Revival was an act of social activism to overcome racism and racist practices in the entertainment scenes,” says Courtney Grey, the party’s creator. The whole idea stemmed from Grey’s experience as an African-American who’d been unfairly turned away from clubs in the ’80s. To correct that trend, his event included not just an evening dance party, but other cultural, artistic, and social justice-oriented activities during the day.
“I remember this one time people were chanting, ‘Freedom’ to the beat,” says Enoch Lambert, a former Soul Revival regular. “It was [a] really powerful experience.”
As inequities still loom in the wake of Soul Revival–just four years ago, for example, an incident at a downtown club spurred City Councilor-At-Large Ayanna Pressley to put the issue on full blast at City Hall–those soul revivalists who remain active emphasize the importance of the music being played at downtown spots. Whereas many club owners forbid their DJs from playing hip-hop, the most successful melting pots, quite contrarily, feature everything from r&b and disco to break beats. Even Soul Revival, which began rooted in its namesake genre along with all the aforementioned avenues, became an integral part of Boston’s house music scene, which hit a peak in Boston in the ’90s and rode high into the early 2000s.
In short: the multifaceted appeal brings heads together.
“The house scene is one of the only scenes where it’s multicultural, where you can add anything to it anything and make it your own,” says Eddy Morency, better known as DJ Bruno. A one-time head selector at The Loft, one of the Hub’s hottest house clubs in the halcyon ’90s, Bruno says, “House doesn’t have any boundaries … I fell in love with house because of how it brought people of all colors, races, and nationalities together. If we can dance together, we can live together.”
Though Boston’s dedicated house scene has significantly dwindled, notable traces remain in some eclectic pockets.A number of modern dance experiences offer a universal vibe, with nights like Pico Picante at the Good Life leading the way. Pico’sresident DJ, Sarah Skolnick attributes the vibe to the “melodic, poly-rhythmic” nature of global bass, which she says “makes the music really easy to dance too.” The music she spins packs lots of African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, which she claims are “rituals designed for dancing and moving in space.”
Another prime example is the pop-up experience Clandestino, an “alt Latin dance party” and, according to its creator, Christian Hinojosa, “an exercise of tolerance,” or Uhuru Afrika, a unique Afro house and Afrobeat soiree with live percussion and visuals. The party, which returns on March 14 to a new venue–Red Fez in the South End–offers far more than just entertainment. “When people come here they know will meet others in an openness and like-minded spirit and mentality,” says Adam Gibbons, the creator of Uhuru. “When you know you are walking into a space like that, boundaries and walls you put up are broken down.”
While dancing and nightlife can disrupt barriers, Boston is far from a diverse utopia. Rather, a common narrative goes something like this: fighting or violence that happens in or outside of white clubs is easily dismissed, whereas venues and neighborhoods that cater to mixed crowds tend to be more controlled. Or policed even. While threads of quality cultural cornucopias exist, like virtually every other metropolis, the Hub is dominated by entitlement.
Terry Marshall, a Boston native with roots in Barbados, notes his experience growing up in the center of Boston nightlife: “At a club with black folk, there is no time to sit and gather, because the security comes out … My friends and I would go to a street over, and it would be all white kids. We would go over there to watch them fight. Multiple fights would break out, but no one is screaming at them to move. The idea was that black people need to be policed–that black people use violence, yet there was all this violence at white clubs.”
Raven Winter, a Chicago native who has been in Boston for just over two years, recalls a time outside a downtown space that’s well-known for its diversity and dance nights. She describes the crowd at the event as “a mix of mainly young black people, artists, a little hipster … that spanned a wide range of cultures and generations.” “There was no noise or fighting,” she adds. Still, Wonder-Luster says police shut down the party with no real explanation. “People were crying. There was lots of anger and dismissal … People were just looking for an answer.”
By comparison, Winter recounts a scene outside a predominately white club in the Theater District weeks later. “It’s just mayhem,” she says. “A bunch of drunk, white dudes running amok, and the police are just looking around … And it’s not just a color thing, its woman thing. I’m watching this group of three or four drunk men grabbing and grasping at this woman who is clearly upset about it. The police are just looking around, standing and watching.”
Among the dozens of Bostonians interviewed for this piece–a mix of party-goers and promoters, DJs and music fans of various ages and backgrounds–there is consensus about how downtown clubs can avoid problems. For starters, they can stop by stereotyping certain kinds of music.
“When you have things segregated, it’s protective,” says Anara Frank, a co-owner of the Boston and Cambridge-based MetaMovements Dance Company. “A place that attracts so many different nationalities, you have to have positivity to make it work. When people are dancing, they are full of joy and that snowballs … in that type of space, there is less room for fighting, and less room for things that spiral down into negativity.”
“People who are into violence or ‘macho foolishness’ seem to be turned away from our spaces,” says Andre Edwards, a Boston house scene gatekeeper for more than 20 years.
From venues like the Good Life downtown, where Pico Picante pops, to the wildly eclectic nights at ZuZu, Phoenix Landing, and Middlesex Lounge in nearby Cambridge, there are clear trends toward the better. Still, it’s an uphill battle. Especially as dance-oriented parties have historically been marginalized since clubs rely so heavily on cocktail sales, and active dancers often drink less than your average customer. Nevertheless, many of those interviewed for this project are hopeful that, in the spirit of Soul Revival and all parties that are geared towards more than merely entertainment, organizers will be throwing more and more such events. An hour of salsa, for instance, could segue into a house medley, and then some reggae to wind down, and so on.
“What I feel like we need more of in Boston is more partnership,” says Steven Garcia, a local dance floor scenester. “We need all kinds of music in a party: the mainstream club heads, r&b heads, hip-hop heads–all people. Like an eclectic scene with different and all kinds of music playing … one unified scene. I would love for Boston to connect like that.”