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Cultural Capital

As the Clock Strikes 10:30, Dweller’s Reading Becomes a Rave

How the Black techno festival entices ravers into doing their homework.

JJJJJerome Ellis performs at Nowadays in Ridgewood (Adlan Jackson / Hell Gate)

God, I hate readings. They're the lowest way to experience writing, tragically swaggerless traps designed to humiliate the reader and audience alike. They seem unfair to judge: All I can feel is sympathy for writers obliged to impose their speech onto their writing, misspeaks and all. And yet, they're becoming a trend. Someone recently asked me if I would participate in one; I relayed all the preceding sentiments, but ultimately replied, "I’ll do it so I don't feel out of the loop."

Dweller, the Black techno festival, began on Wednesday. On Thursday evening, in an attempt to cover Ragga, the collective of queer Caribbean artists, and their DJ night, I decide to sit through the event scheduled just before, a reading titled, "Where Have I Heard You Before?" I figure that attendance is probably free, and that I can camp out until the party starts. I think I’m being sneaky, and sure enough, when I arrive, I get a wristband at no cost and slip in.

I actually recognize the person leaving the stage, a poet I know and like, S*an D. Henry-Smith. For all my skepticism about readings, when a diminutive Roxanne Harris parks a giant laptop on the podium and proceeds to live-code a DJ set that glitches out a sample of Amerie's "1 Thing" into an internet-y bop to a seated and politely attentive audience that begins bopping in their seats, it's hilarious in a good and intentional way. The next presenter is another poet I know and like: Benjamin Krusling, whose performance would make much less sense on the page. Through a microphone that doubles, pitches up, and auto-tunes his voice, he wanders through a wounded 15-minute reflection on Black art that would steal suddenly into a keening melody. 

The person next to me wears an oversized canary-yellow mockneck sweater and a palpably serene aura ("Is this your seat?" he asks me courteously). He ends up being the next performer, JJJJJerome Ellis, who drove up from Virginia with his mom and got a flat tire on the way, but made it. He's going to play the saxophone, but for the first several measures of his performance, he just breathes into the microphone. In those seconds of near-silence, seeing the audience—some of whom are wearing tube dresses or rave sunglasses—lean forward on their benches to hear the sound of Ellis breathing, I allow myself to admit that this may actually be what's up. 

(Adlan Jackson / Hell Gate)

A roundtable of all the presenting artists, along with veteran Detroit techno DJ Jeff Mills, follows the readings. "The text is a mirror," poet Gabrielle Octavia Rucker says. "If you read the same book at age 16 and age 35, those are different books." That's why I hate readings! Because they delete the conversation between reader and text. But Krusling says, "This is exactly the kind of thing I like to do—exploring an expanded definition of writing." ("I used to want to rap," he says, "but my mom told me I didn't have the voice for it.")

Mills offers that as words can become music, music can conversely be suggestion—in the course of a record's spin, the music's repetition can in fact become a form of single-sided conversation. Harris, the live-coder, concurs: "How much can I squeeze out of that sample?" she says. "How long can I get everyone into the pool?" That's what made her performance make sense, smiling intently into her giant laptop, making us bear witness to the transformation something familiar can undergo. Krusling recounts that in the European encounter with Africa, to Hegel it was an African's contentment with repetition that indicated their incompatibility with the capitalist mode of production, and by extension, civilization. Techno, Krusling says, is one refutation.

"Playboi Carti is techno," he adds. 

(Adlan Jackson / Hell Gate)

As the reading concludes, the cleverness of making broke ravers a captive audience for medium-bending performance art dawns on me. The rub that's happening here, now, where audiences or scenes are suddenly, and conveniently, presented with one another, is where artistic hybridity is born (programming multiple performances in a venue and only offering attendees partial admission being the tactic of cowards). We just jammed on the liminality between words and music, and the expansive possibilities of the logics embedded in dance music, and now a reading is becoming a rave in real time. This surely was a gloriously intentional programming decision by the Dweller team. "I think it was…?" replies S*an, who had helped organize the event, hesitantly. "Ryan can maybe answer that." 

But I never find Ryan. Nowadays staff are deconstructing the benches the audience was just sitting on with startling speed. Music starts, and the lights get dimmer and dimmer. One white guy with a buzzcut and a British accent daps up another. "We came for the party, [the doorperson] is like, 'There's a whole thing happening,'" I overhear. "The reading was from seven to 10," explains another person to their friend, who just arrived for the rave. "The homie did a set with live-coding and shit. She's so fucking talented."

Oh yeah, I’m actually here to check out a rave that blends two entirely different lineages of dance music, and hear how it'll sound to impose dancehall, which prizes confrontational immediacy, onto techno, which patiently builds structure through repetition. 

I ask people from Ragga, who are currently on ladders, hurriedly hanging strings of Caribbean flags, if I could bother them for one quote about that. "All these people who are important in other genres are actually of Caribbean descent. Look at Biggie. We always think we have to be like, I'm first generation, you're American, I'm an immigrant, I'm this, I'm that, when we're actually one big fucking family," says Neon Christina, Ragga's founder. "Ever since I started Ragga, I said, 'We're gonna do our Black-ass, Caribbean-ass thing, titties out and everything, and if you don't like it, put my titty in your mouth.' That's the quote."

Dancehall is built on a rigid machismo, but it's no match for Ragga's DJs. Voices are pitched up and down into genderless digital static, and exhortations to syncopated dance go to war with a relentless four-on-the-floor. The temperature rises and bodies get closer. The dance floor has filled with fog, and the Nowadays rule against picture-taking is now in full effect. I ask S*an, who's still milling around talking to friends, if they're sticking around for the party: "I'm actually going to Paragon."

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