“Community” is a word we use too much, until it doesn’t mean anything. “The dance music community.” “The electronic music community.” And then in extreme moments, it’s a word whose meaning again becomes plain. That was the sense for a lot of people over the weekend, as news rippled of the people lost in Oakland.
Friends grieve their friends and lovers. They grieve lost role models and sources of music and inspiration. These events touch people who were intimate — and touch people who were strangers. A person you played with once, a person you heard once … or your best friend, your partner. For me, it was the experience of watching from the other side of the world as countless dear friends of mine went through immense pain, first and foremost, beyond my own shock at who was gone.
You never want to hear this kind of news, but here’s the kind of voice you want to hear when you hear this kind of news – Josette Melchor of Gray Area:
"We are missing so many important people" — Josette Melchor, who knows 6 people missing after the Oakland fire https://t.co/dibZZnhQT9
— New Day (@NewDay) December 5, 2016
Then, in other circles, reading about a fire in a warehouse party raises alarm bells. It could have been me – a party I went to, a party I played. It could have been a party I ran. (At least one headline asks this directly.)
To my friends feeling this loss right now, I can only say I’m so sorry. I hope you can find some places of comfort and someone for company.
To everyone else, I can suggest skipping a lot of the news and reading the following.
In the Ghost Ship aftermath by Marke Bieschke of 48hills is a poignant piece from someone who knows the people involved.
Kimya Dawson sums up this conflicted connection between loving music and entering risky spaces to feel safe, beginning:
“I have played in so many spaces with precarious floors and beams and stairs and not enough exits and certainly no sprinklers. Warehouses, squats, basements, rooftops, barns. Playing music saves my life.”
I won’t touch on the sensationalism and ugly reporting in some news channels, let alone the nasty viral comment trolling that shames victims and music culture in general. I expect there will be a lot more of this, now that these forces have mobilized. And there is a job to be done by larger news outlets, a job that at least some of them in fact are doing admirably – the ones who understand what a warehouse party is and treat the situation with professionalism.
But here’s where “community” comes into play again. And this can’t be purely abstract. The question to ask ourselves is, “what is my community?” “Who is in my circle?” “How do I want to respond with other people?” “Who should we add to that circle, or what other circles do we need to reach?” And those connections in the past days were real – the strangers you respect, the friends you feel close to. Not a social graph constructed by a giant Silicon Valley company to calculate your most valuable advertising demographics, but the people you wanted close.
I can say a lot of people in my circle are asking “how can I make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
This is not to blame or shame anyone involved in Oakland, but to take on more serious responsibility for ourselves, as event organizers, as media, as people making and playing music. There are already, for instance, architects and planners volunteering to assist with safety in off spaces. There’s a real and urgent cry for discussion of the housing crisis, particularly in the Bay Area (but relevant elsewhere, too). There is the potential for a serious discussion around what a safe space really is – and we’ll need close-knit communities to nourish that conversation.
Past mass casualties offer some instruction – a lot of it cautionary, as they didn’t necessarily yield any new focus on safety.
Buenos Aires and Budapest have each faced mass deaths at club events (here, clubs rather than warehouses). The response in Romania to tragedy was deeply problematic.
But I believe part of what defines a community is people coming together collectively to work on the things they care about. And if finding free and safe ways for artists to live and celebrate isn’t a collective need, I don’t know what is.
Here’s a response that isn’t cynical: an attempt to organize people with knowledge around organizing care and making genuine safety a priority:
But I’ll leave you with some music from the people we lost this week, because that’s vitally important. We’re fortunate in music in that we get to share so richly the experience of being alive.
To support the community, Josette Melchor on behalf of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts has set up a fund. This fund is run by a respectable 501c3 — one I’ve even gotten to work with once upon a time, and one that’s invaluable in the international scene — and has clear and structured goals to make sure the money reaches the right place.