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TAJA CHEEK ON CABARET LAWS

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Nightlife, 1943, oil on canvas, 36 × 47 3/4".

NEW YORK CITY has been haunted by its cabaret laws for more than ninety years: An artifact from Prohibition-era Harlem, these regulations targeted black and interracial jazz clubs by requiring venues to jump demanding bureaucratic hurdles in order to both sell alcohol and host dancing. Today, only a fraction of the city’s music venues have managed to secure cabaret licenses. And in the wake of last year’s Ghost Ship tragedy, in which thirty-six people died in a fire at the Oakland, California, warehouse, clubs continue to get shut down for being too loud, too gay, or too black under the guise of not complying with legislation.

But “underground” music venues, made hysterical by fears of police raids, surveillance, and infrastructural decay, also perpetuate the violence of gentrification and surveillance in their everyday operation through reactionary measures taken in the service of self-preservation. This past summer, for instance, a Queens club posted ads for expensive, newly renovated apartments next door, promising tenants guest-list access to shows. In the fall, during a police raid of a popular venue in Brooklyn, a young black woman working the bar was arrested and later fired for unsuccessfully keeping the cops at bay. Boring, ordinary gestures—going to work, finding an apartment, using social media—are always necessarily shadowed by acute political implications, outside of the theater of strikes and picket signs.

The au courant neoliberal slogan “Now more than ever” has a confessional tone for those who know how to listen for euphemism: “Now [that fascism directly affects me, I recognize injustice] more than [I] ever [have before].” This rallying cry tiptoes around the giant elephant of white supremacy, which, through phrases like “the politics of the everyday,” reveals the tautology of its violent banality. I wonder, thinking of Gramsci and others, if there can be anything but an everyday politics. Why does empathy have to be catalyzed by the grisly chaos of electoral politics or the grievous surprise of tragedy?

Taja Cheek is a Brooklyn-based musician and curator, and a curatorial assistant at MoMA PS1.