n.b.: a timely post on a song would have looked to Lou Reed’s catalog, but since it takes me days to eke out these posts and revise them amid working on a dissertation, applying for jobs and post-doc positions, among other work, these posts are rarely timely. One day soon I’ll write about Reed’s New York album or maybe why I love “I’m Waiting For My Man,” but until then, enjoy some Eddy Grant.
I love Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.” I think I first heard it on a mix my older brother, an erstwhile DJ, made with a friend. Or I may be conflating that memory with many of the other songs I was exposed to through my brother’s love of music. Regardless, it was the kind of song that put very vivid pictures in my head, but those pictures, I later thought, might ultimately have little to do with the song itself.
I was probably 10 or 11 when the song came out. My image of the song was someone (sometimes me) walking down a street leading a group of people towards an avenue with an elevated subway line—literally, an electric avenue. It was a cartoony vision, with the figures doing the walking appearing something like Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’” dude in their long-striding strut. For a kid living in a frequently sketchy 1980s New York City, it seemed just natural that Grant would be singing, “Out in the street there is violence / and lots of work to be done.” I was part of a poor-working family—single mom trying hard to get more hours to have full-time work and sometimes benefiting from food stamps and government cheese, older brother and sister who had after-school/weekend jobs from the ages of 12 or 13, there was a couple of gangs that enjoyed doing their rumbling outside our apartment window and used local abandoned buildings as their headquarters, knew people who’d been jumped and severely beaten, kid at my school caught a stray bullet while waiting for the bus with his abuela, buying stuff you couldn’t afford on lay-away was a way of life, and so on—so it made sense to equate having to get work done despite the violent circumstances of our environment. To “rock down” seemed like the perfect response to these circumstances—to live life with gusto and feel a kind of pride despite our arbitrary fate to be born into these neighborhoods. I am of the first generation of kids to embrace hip hop culture and it seemed to me that “rocking down” (or perhaps “up-rocking”) was how you best cope with a Reagan-America that didn’t give a shit about us, where the infamous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” was a formative part of our 1970s childhood memories. I can’t say that I ever knew most of the rest of the lyrics to the song back then, but looking back at some of them now—“Workin’ so hard like a soldier / Can’t afford a thing on TV / Deep in my heart, I abhor ya / Can’t get food for the kid”—they still work with what I was thinking then.
A recent discussion of the song led me to look up what it was really about, and found out that it is a reference to the Brixton Riots of 1981, but from what I can tell the circumstances the Afro-Caribbean community were dealing with in Lambeth, South London weren’t too different from what I was experiencing in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It strikes me that however different the particular circumstances of my life might have been and the obvious geographic disparity between what led Eddy Grant to write the song and what was happening to black and brown and poor people in New York City, my interpretation was still based in the kind of social and economic circumstances that led to the uprisings. Without realizing it, I was sonically participating in a kind of expanded socio-economic framework that brings to mind Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. I may not be Black, but as a Puerto Rican I am part of a cultural tradition informed by Blackness (and sometimes, sadly, a rejection of Blackness – I’d argue that the 75.8% of Puerto Ricans who self-identified as white in the 2010 census says more about how the census is worded than actual self-identification). It can be hard to make sense of your own racial and cultural identity when you look at your family and see the wide range of complexions and features scattered through different generations at the same time that you see a shared relationship to the dominant culture with other poor brown folks. Despite growing up in New York City, I still have a sharp memory of the cognitive dissonance I felt when I realized that my assumption—that even if Black people I encountered didn’t speak Spanish, surely they had a parent or grandparent back home that did—was wrong. What I didn’t know as a kid and wouldn’t come to understand for a long time because there was no one who could (or would) explain it to me, was that there is no easy line of demarcation between Black experience and the racial experience of Latinos from the Caribbean and parts of South and Central America, even for those who are hincho (as the word is used in Puerto Rico) like me. As Gilroy writes,
Music and its rituals can be used to create a model whereby identity can be understood neither as a fixed essence nor as a vague and utterly contingent construction to be reinvented by the will and whim of aesthetes… Black identity is not simply a social and political category to be used or abandoned according to the extent to which the rhetoric that supports and legitimizes it is persuasive or institutionally powerful… [I]t is lived as a coherent (if not always stable) experiential sense of self. Though it is often felt to be natural and spontaneous, it remains the outcome of practical activity: language, gesture, bodily significations, desires. (101)
While Gilroy is writing specifically about Black identity, the vagaries of race and ethnicity mean that there are no clear borders where music and rituals begin and end when people’s share historical circumstances influenced by African cultures and an Atlantic slave trade. Nor are those borders made any clearer by contemporary circumstances for socially and/or economically marginalized people in places like the United States, where waves of immigration have made the historical/cultural/economic origins of disparate peoples re-converge in urban centers like New York City.
Instead, I like to appreciate the overlap—even if sometimes discriminatory practices and racism are what keep that imbrication alive—when experienced through emotionally resonant art like music. Sure, it is important to learn the historical specificities of different people and keep them in mind as to not make assumptions about the experiences of others or ignorantly appropriate their cultural traditions, but it is equally as important to search for and hold close those cultural spaces and practices that we share and hopefully allow us to collectively challenge the forces that have served to bind us together. We exist in a tension between the predatory policies and tragic events that shove us together and the pleasure to be found in that togetherness. Thinking on it Eddy Grant is a superb figure to represent the Black Atlantic, what with his Guyanese British origins and his work to develop Ringbang, which he characterizes as “a bridge that allows us to stop being insular; it is a concept predicated on our being able to communicate with one another.” In other words, we meet in and through those places and conditions that seek to hold us up, but then we rock on down, and then we take it higher. . .