Politics on the Dancefloor: Octo Octa and Resonant Body
I don’t know about you, but I like to start each day with a quick scroll of Twitter to check what new crisis I need to update myself on. It’s exhausting. There’s a pressure to make sure you’re equipped with that day’s hot take to avoid social exclusion. That pressure is amplified for artists with really any type of following. The consequences are even graver; taking the wrong side in the latest culture war may cause ticket sales to stall, having a measurable impact on one’s livelihood. Expecting our favourite musicians, authors and directors to navigate the media landscape unscathed in 2019 is unreasonable. Demanding accurate, nuanced responses to that day’s crisis while removing the opportunity to learn through making mistakes – is a perverse contradiction.
Similarly, it is those same figures we turn to in times of uncertainty and unrest. It is their view of the world, which manifests itself as art, that can put as at ease, or inspire us into action. How art is exhibited is also political, as is its context. A lazy example is Dublin’s attitude towards its cultural spaces- their closure, and the public response, cannot be separated from the politics of the situation. One of the deepest wounds inflicted on Dublin’s creatives was the closure of Block T in 2016, which contained over 70 artist studios in Smithfield. Even if the music or DJs that played District 8 stayed away from politics, there was a lack of recognition from political actors about the space’s cultural significance. Anyone who demands artists stay away from politics displays a deep ignorance about how the two spheres constantly inform one another.
One artistic space that cannot be removed from its political origins is the dancefloor. House and techno owe its current ubiquity to the clubs and communities of 70s and 80s Chicago and New York. Specifically, the black and gay communities that cultivated these scenes as spaces they could go to dance and get high without fear of violence. One DJ and producer who embodies the counterculture roots of house and techno is Octo Octa, who’s new album Resonant Body, was released earlier this month. It’s a record that, removed from context, presents itself as blistering reinterpretation of classic house and breakbeat. Track two, ‘Move Your Body’, is a call to action. Octo Octa relies on a simple ‘tension/release’ dynamic to emphasise a blistering synth motif. The penultimate song, ‘Can You See Me?’, would just as easily fit into a headline closing set. The central message of “I know exactly how you feel” is a nostalgic sentiment repeated constantly in dance music. In this instance, it’s drawn alongside playful arpeggios and busy hi-hats.
Resonant Body could be one of the year’s best records based on these uncontextualized merits alone. However, it is only when we consider the circumstances behind the work that we begin to understand its potential political and cultural impact. Octo Octa came out as trans midway through her career and, together with her trans partner Eris Drew, released Resonant Body on T4T LUV NRG, a label they co-own and operate. Suddenly, a line which seems lazy at first glance, “I know exactly how you feel”, becomes a bridge between the artist and listener, a mutual reminder of the strength and support of the queer and gender non-conforming communities. At the same time, the statement could be read as an insight into the artist’s past, as her ability to empathise with oppression comes from a life lived in the margins. The closer, ‘Power to the People’, is an overtly political statement in these circumstances. The track revolves around a field recording of a crowd chanting- what exactly is unclear- but their tone is ecstatic. The sample conjures an image of what is left when the turntables are unplugged, and the club lights are turned up: a group of strangers announcing their admiration in unison. The music in ‘Power to the People’ is just as resounding, a throbbing bass line rings in a sticky chord progression played on organ. The instrumentation choices are intentionally pointing to a comparison between the relationship of preacher/congregation, and DJ/dancefloor. In this space, a trans woman like Octo Octa is not only accepted – she is worshipped.
When we entertain calls to keep art and artists away from politics, we concede the first battle in gaining support for a public good. Depoliticising cultural spaces like nightclubs justifies the argument that their closures are merely the market eliminating those that can’t compete. More worryingly, entertaining depoliticisation is another means of revising the role played by black and queer people in laying the foundation for modern dance music. The dancefloor cannot become another restricted area for the marginalised, but the doors will remain firmly open to all as long as DJs like Octo Octa and Eris Drew are given their dues.
Niall O’Shaughnessy – Former Music Editor