“House is our release, house is our sanctuary…can you feel it like I feel it?”
The quote above is taken from a track that I play every now and again.
For those of us whose lives have been changed from exposure to house music, the quote captures a great deal. I am a father, a husband, a professor, a writer. But with the exception of the birth of my children, the closest I’ve come to God was on the dance floor.
Closer than jazz, closer than the finest art, closer than even the most powerful sermon.
When I need to work, I use house music to give me laser-like focus --- most of my academic and non-academic production was accompanied by a driving DJ set. And its had this effect on me for almost thirty years.
Going back to the roots of the word "religion" (religion refers to the act of binding or fastening together), house music is my religion. When the DJ is on -- one thing that today’s excellent Tell Me More piece doesn't capture is the fact that house music is not consumed song to song, but rather the DJ chooses from literally thousands of songs to create one uninterrupted set that may last anywhere from one to twelve hours -- the strangers in the club become the most intimate of friends. I've often considered videotaping the responses of ecstatic househeads and those deep in the throes of traditional worship.
In my mind there is no difference. I remember having a particularly rough patch in 2008, a patch so rough I didn't know if I'd make it out. During that time, a set mixed by an east coast DJ named Jovonn was so powerful I would listen to the first hour alone on the way to work as an act of cleansing, tears streaming down my eyes as elderly black women looked on, telling me it'd be okay.
Given that my first book examines the connections between hip-hop music and black politics, some might find this strange. It isn't. For me rap and hip-hop work best as martial musics, as clarion calls to aggressive action -- even if that aggressive action is nothing more than the statement, "I am here. Don't ignore me."
House music -- the beats, the lyrics, the way the DJ combines tracks and manipulates them -- does something else entirely. It creates what could be called a "counterpublic." One that is, in its own way, as aggressive as hip-hop, but one that aggressively promotes a loving other world. One where your ability to dance doesn't matter. But more importantly, one where race and class doesn't matter. One where gender and sexuality doesn't matter.
What matters is love for the music, and the belief that another world is possible, even if only for a few hours. I've been writing about, teaching about, and in my own way fighting for another world since I've been an adult. And house music in the hands of DJs in DC, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and Detroit, has helped me every step of the way.
Do you feel it, like I feel it?
Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. His book Stare in the Darkness: Rap, Hip-hop, and Black Politics will be published in August 2010. He shares his insight on his blog The Future is Here.