The Fire and the Lotus: Proto Disco in New York

Photo: Camilo Jose Vergara

When I think about disco in New York in the 1970’s I think of the lotus flower.

You can get so lost in the complexitiy of its beauty that it’s easy to overlook the murky waters the flower emerged from.  We are entranced by a mythoized notion of disco marked by flashing neon lights and ribald excess, but beneath the surface loomed a gritty New York which was an isolated, abandoned wasteland in the early 1970’s.
Photo Credit, N.Y. Times, Dec. 2006
By 1975 (NYT Drop Dead headline, Ford) the city was nearly bankrupt when the New York Post ran a headline that read: “President Ford Tells NY to Drop Dead.” It was a punch in the gut of an already battered and beaten city.  Crime was rampant, schools were underfunded, and middle class flight led to the destruction of abandoned buildings destroyed by arson and crooked landlords looking to collect insurance money.
Survival Guide handed to tourists by police in NY in the early ’70’s. Photo Credit: the Guardian 
In a post Civil Rights New York, the era produced lingering discontent among residents of color who were still marginalized. Police brutality was rampant and fueled by officers intimidating tourists into preparing for doomsday scenarios by handing out Fear City survival guides.  It was also during this time the LGBT community came to fruition post-Stonewall.
Under these conditions disco and hip hop originated and fluorished in clubs and parties that served as the primary vessel for amplifying both genres of music.  With roots in soul and gospel, disco music became the aural glue that brought communities together.  Parties became social constructs that served as shelters for free thinking, fellowship and survival (ie paying the rent). An earlier iteration of disco music created in the early 70’s is now called Proto Disco.
For more on Proto Disco, including a mix of some quintessential proto disco cuts, check out “The House that Proto Disco Built” on TONDI.

SUPERNOVA: The Rebirth of Disco

Supernova 7 1024 x 768 (300 ppi) neon TONDI FINAL

I have a slight obsession with disco.  I honestly don’t know where it began but I’ve loved it since I was a little girl.  Because of my love for disco, I get very defensive when it is routinely dragged as a vapid musical art form.


My quest to answer this question led me to a number of books, interviews, documentaries and movies that shed some light on the history of disco.  Guess what? Its history doesn’t have anything to do with glitter, gloss or white polyester suits and it doesn’t have much to do with Saturday Night Fever or Studio 54 either. Yeah, I said it.  Those are the very things that define and malign disco to this day.

So over on TONDI for the rest of the month I’m taking a deep dive into the world of disco.

Here on Culture Shock Art I’ll post links to music and photography that speak to the heart of disco and for those of you who want to learn more I’ll provide links on TONDI to some B-side content that highlight the social and political context that shaped the genre.

Since the Netflix series “The Get Down” debuts this week on Netflix, my goal is to give readers some historical context to the show and to show some love for music that we have forgotten.

For more on SUPERNOVA, head over to TONDI

Behind the Walls: The Art of the Favelas

Fireworks Explode Over Rio's Maracana Stadium During The 2016 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 05: Fireworks explode over Maracana stadium with the Mangueira ‘favela’ community in the foreground during opening ceremonies for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Rio 2016 Olympic Games commenced tonight at the iconic stadium. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images).  Image Credit c/o Quartz
After Rio’s shiny, spectacular Opening Ceremony on Friday I came across this sobering picture that quickly brought me back to reality and filtered my view of the Olympic games. Brazil’s honest portrayal of the slave trade and the upbeat, energetic favela portion of the ceremony obscured some of the horrific present day realities behind the historical and social constructs that created the favelas in Brazil. Behind the graffiti tagged privacy walls that NBC aggressively tries to obscure during their broadcasts, lies some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country.  This image serves as stark reminder of the societal costs of the Olympic games.
When artists choose to use their work as a platform for social commentary they open our eyes, hearts and minds to worlds that are unlike our own.  I started thinking about the Brazilian artists responsible for putting Rio’s street art scene on the map. Celebrated artists like Os Gemeos have been conspicuously absent from the 2016 games, despite their mural contributions to Athens in 2004. On the other side of the coin the Rio Olympics have done an impressive job of showcasing local art when they chose 13 Latin American artists to design the official posters for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Olympic Poster designed by Eduardo Kobra. Photo c/o Facebook, Rio 2016 and Fast Co. Design
Other artists like Paul Ito touched on the complicated political, social and economic challenges Brazil faced in the months leading to the 2014 World Cup, however that level of artistic public discourse has been absent in the street art in Rio thus far, however if anyone has seen work to the contrary, please let me know.
Paul Ito, 2014. Photo: LA Times, c/o artist
French artist JR was commissioned for some imposing public installation projects in addition to his work that decorates the Olympic stadium in wheat paste portraits. He is currently using his social media presence to provide his followers with behind the scenes look at Olympic competitions and he is also partnering with popular YouTube celebrities to showcase his work.
JR at the Olympics in Rio:  Image Credit:  JR-Art
Despite all of this, there is one little known aspect of JR that is not getting much attention, and that is his work in the favelas.  Long before his documentaries, museum shows, books and TED talks, JR opened Casa Amarela, a community art center perched high atop a hill in Morro de Providencia, Rio’s first favela.  Up until 2014, the favela was only accessible by imposingly long stairways; now it boasts an elaborate $35M cable car system.  The fact that the government prioritized a gondola system over basic infrastructure necessities like a municipal water supply or an interconnected sewage system is a mind-boggling conundrum that speaks to the complicated dichotomy that exists in the favelas.  They are simultaneously romanticized and demonized as areas of stunted development that are riddled with crime that co-exist with trendy cafes and favela tours which hint to a looming threat of gentrification.
Casa Amarela in Morro da Providencia. Photo Credit: JR-Art
And then of course there’s the art created by the center that beautifies the area.  According to Phaidon, Casa Amarela “offers stage design, photography, and reading classes to local young people, as well as a children’s library, and open-air cinema screenings”; most importantly, the space is a cultural and educational hub for the community and a source of pride. Community centers like Casa Amarela provide the local children with an artistic refuge in an area that remains vulnerable to redevelopment.  Luckily for now, the center has staved off those threats and was recently remodeled so that Casa Amarela can continue to provide local children with artistic and educational services and according to JR, up to 100 children from the area will have an opportunity to experience the Olympic games in person.
At the end of the day isn’t that really what we want the Olympics to be? A much needed, albeit temporary escape from our realities?  For two weeks we get to celebrate athleticism, strength, work ethic and national pride.  We can enjoy respite from politics, Brexit, elections, crime, the economy, healthcare, Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter and most importantly we get a break from a traumatizing media cycle.  For a few days we can bask in the glory of gold.  Admittedly, 100 favela children experiencing the Olympics is a drop in the bucket that won’t rid Brazil of its many ills, but for a few brief moments, these children will get to bask in gold without having to pine for it from afar.

The Legacy of Larry Levan, the Soul of Paradise Garage

Larry Levan

Legendary producer/ DJ Larry Levan’s birthday is today, so I thought I would pay tribute to the musical master by giving you a sneak peek  of a project I’m launching on TONDI soon.  This piece is best read by listening to Levan’s music and this 1979 live recorded set at the Paradise Garage is about as good as it gets. Happy Birthday Larry!  



To get inside you first had to either be a member or know one.  It sounds exclusive but it is anything but that.  This kind of membership didn’t depend on how you looked, what you wore or which celebrities you knew, it was different here.  Members could bring in 6 people at a time and bouncers were far more relaxed about letting you inside if you had a good story to tell and a great vibe.  This was no Studio 54.  Here it wasn’t about tastemakers, influencers or followers; this was an oasis that provided guests with an escape from the world beyond its doors.  Inside these walls lived a pulsing organism whose energy was fueled by music that took control of everyone who entered.  You felt it moments before you step inside–walking up the infamous ramp, the rhythms of deep bass settling deep into your chest and the flutter of excitement growing stronger as the music becomes louder with each step.  Finally a shining neon light beckons you inside, while the music levitates you onto the dance floor where euphoric Garage dancers welcome you with smiles and sweat.

Paradise Garage Logo. Image credit:  Soundlr

The music, the people and the sound of the Paradise Garage created a perfect storm on New York’s King Street lasting a decade;  while many clubs have since tried to imitate the vibe or duplicate the success, few have succeeded.  An architect can build a building, but a designer gives it its soul, and Larry Levan was the soul of Paradise Garage. As the preeminent DJ reigning supreme over the turntables and the masses at the Garage, Levan’s devotion to creating a sonic experience became the soundtrack for unforgettable evenings.  Just as Levan was the soul, Garage members were the spirit that kept this venue going strong between 1977 and 1987.

Many paths crossed at the Garage, gay/straight, black/latino/white, people finding themselves or losing someone else, it was a collective of open-minded indivuduals.

Some infamous artists called the Garage home and they all shared the same memory of it being safe and spiritually fulfilling yet equally outrageous and uproarious.

“You’d go to bed around ten at night, get up at four in the morning, go to the Garage, and leave at noon, refreshed to the soul…They called it the Church because a great Saturday night would end up on Sunday.”  ~Grace Jones

“I don’t know if you know how important the “Paradise Garage” is, at least for me and the tribe of people who have shared many a collective spiritual experience there.  I discovered the Garage by divine ‘accident'” ~ Keith Haring

“The Garage was my church; it was where I healed my hurt”  ~ Danny Tenaglia

“It didn’t necessarily have to reference outside beacons or whatever outside tastemakers might deem to be important.  The Garage crowd was into what was going on at the Garage.”  ~ Francois Kevorkian

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Photo by Bill Bernstein

As disco faded along with the 70’s, the Garage ushered in a new era of house music loyal to disco’s roots by using music to create togetherness from otherness.  Good DJs use their music to tell a story that connects them to their audience.   What separates a good DJ from an exceptional one is their genuine appreciation and respect for the music and an ability to create aural alchemy that fills tracks with new meaning and energy. The 1979 recording of one of Levan’s Garage sets includes a section of “Dreaming a Dream” by Crown Heights Affair (about 22 minutes in) that is acoustically pitched and imbued with such force that by the time the horns kick in you have completely lost yourself in the track.

The beauty of the Paradise Garage was that the music and innovative sound system were merely the vessels to create unforgettable experiences-Larry Levan was the guide, transforming music into a euphoric high for listeners.  The crowd, eager to leave the realities of life behind them, briefly found paradise at the Garage. Sadly, reality has a way of catching up with everyone, even in paradise.  The closure of the Garage in 1987 and Levan’s death in 1992 left musical and communal holes in people’s souls. While underground clubs in the 70’s and 80’s were a dime a dozen, the Paradise Garage created a winning formula that many continue to chase to this day.  Today, aging socialites name drop Studio 54 in a desperate attempt for attention and exclusivity, but when people talk about the Garage, they make you feel like you were actually there. That is inclusion.

Feature in Arts.Black: The Provocation of Agency and Ambiguity

5. Gaskin, Backstage at the Evisu Ball, Manhattan.jpg
Gerard Gaskin, Backstage at the Evisu Ball, Manhattan, 2010 c/o MoAD

Last month, one of my reviews on MoAD’s latest exhibitions was featured on Arts.Black.  Please click on the link below to learn more about The Grace Jones Project and Dandy Lion.


The Provocation of Agency and Ambiguity

I truly appreciate the efforts of Taylor and Jessica to amplify the voices of black arts writers. Check out their latest post that features a letter to filmmaker Marlon Riggs.

About Arts.Black 

Arts. Black is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue – a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee and Jessica Lynne.


Bullets to Hashtags

In the absence of words there are just images. Here are some of the more thought provoking photographs that have helped me think about, process and grieve the tragedies of this week.

Image Credit: Laini Madhubuti Bad News Women via Instagram
Image Credit: Artist Dread Scott via Instagram 
Image Credit: Yagazie Emezi, Nikisha Brunson via Instagram
Image: @KahlilTheIllah via Twitter


Image: Chuck D via Twitter


Image Credit: Antwaun Sargent via Twitter
Image of @urbanbushbabes by Modern Women @gottesss via Instagram 

Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile.

“There is no contradiction between supporting law enforcement…and also saying there are problems, biases to be rooted out.” ~ President Obama

Fred Martins Transforms Cultural Symbols into Historical Icons

Photo Credit: Design Indaba

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”- Marcus Garvey

Photo Credit: Design Indaba

Fred Martins, a Nigerian visual artist based in the Ukraine has recently completed a new series of images called “Orange, Black and Freedom”.  His work combines vibrant graphic design with photography through his use of digitally created hair picks that are transformed into African and African American leaders. In each image the individual teeth of the comb are aligned to outline the subject’s profile while a semi transparent black and while image of the leader is overlaid onto the pick.  I loved all 5 images in the series which include Fela Kuti, Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela. For more on the artist and the series see below.