Cultural (re)Appropriation: Afro at the DISCO!

There is a new(ish) nightclub in Soho, London simply called “Disco”. I visited this venue last month for a friend’s 25th birthday. She had been trying to plan an event for months that would be fitting turning quarter-of-a-century-old and eventually through her search she found that this club had just opened. From a quick glance at the website, you’ll notice that this club takes a high-brow approach to their own promotion of the musical genre disco, stating that Afro wigs and flared trousers are not welcome at their establishment. This impressed my friend, who you may remember from my previous club review has high nightclub standards. However, I would like to point out early that this piece will not necessarily serve as a “review” as such. Having said this, one aspect of our night out at the Disco needs to be discussed.

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On the website for Disco Soho, a long history of the genre is featured, claiming its roots are in a movement beginning in ‘clubs that catered to African American, Latino and Gay communities.’ This passage ends with: ‘Here at Disco our mission is to celebrate the music, the culture and the diversity of this unique movement in all its many forms and over it’s many decades. Join us on the dancefloor.’ Funnily enough though, you will notice after spending about 30 minutes in this club that it unfortunately caters to a white yuppy clientele while only employing black members of staff on the door and in the toilet.

The music was also a disappointment.The DJ did not know Tom Browne’s Funking for Jamaica, but instead played ’90s classic Groove is in the Heart. Despite the good intentions of the song, this is NOT what I nor any real fan of disco would call celebrating the music or the culture of this genre. Then again, neither is serving cocktails in the head of a black man honoring the origins of the genre of music as this clubs claims to. Unfortunately, Disco seemed to think that Michael Jackson is/was synonymous to the “Disco” era. True, the Jacksons as a group helped to make Disco music more mainstream and accessible and acceptable to a younger audience throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, however the brothers arguably jumped on a musical bandwagon – kind of like the Bee Gees with their contributions to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – prolonging the popularity of disco rather than initiating a movement. Additionally, Michael hardly built a solo career out of disco music; his use of the genre beginning and ending with his Off the Wall album.

Nevertheless, four Michael Jackson songs were played throughout the three hours or so we spent at Disco. Surprisingly, the first track was actually the title track of his aforementioned solo album, providing an alternative to the more predictable dance tracks Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough and Rock with You. However, what followed was unfortunately not so surprising. The DJ resorted to his copy of Thriller, playing no less than three songs from the album – and yes, one of them was Thriller… Of course it is possible that we were just unlucky and attended the club on an evening when an inexperienced DJ was playing. What is more likely however, is that rather than actually celebrating true disco music and culture, the club would prefer to crowd-please by re-defining the era as well as its sound, all for the purpose of a great night out, but at whose expense?

The Jacksons have always been the most acceptable African American family to white America and apparently, even in 21st Century London, in order to host any disco event, one must do it on the backs of the Jackson image. This was illustrated to a painful degree when we noticed the “MJ” (short for Michael Jackson) on the cocktail list, which is served in an black man’s afro (see above). We concluded this decapitated mug must be a pitiful attempt at Michael (pre-plastic surgery), although to be honest the sculpture looks more like Jackie Jackson. I digress. Basically, it would have been more fitting for more of the true disco classics from the early 70s, before the genre went mainstream to have received some ear-time, however honoring disco music was really besides the point.

The very fact that the pretty young things from neighbourhoods such as Chelsea could strut their stuff over to Soho and drink out of a dead man’s skull while dancing to some of his biggest hits, regardless of the genre, demonstrates the authority white individuals still have over the redefinition black and Latino cultures to suit their own needs, pleasures and night-life discourses.

There’s a level of irony in exploiting the image of the family who immortalised the ‘fro and bell-bottoms look in the 1970s and then banning that very look from the establishment and all the while using the same image to conflate the disco movement. And while the apparent musical taste of this establishment left much to be desired, the more worrying issue at hand lies in the way that mainstream “celebrations” of otherwise marginalised and/or underground movements and cultures serves to re-write history to suit majority preference and further exclude minority individuals.

 

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