Disco is much more than what they say it was. Grounded in multivocal Blacknesses—funk and gospel, rock and roll and rhythm and blues—with new technologies and new arrangements, the disco we follow here contains multitudes, no part of which is corny or anachronistic. Our disco later came to be called club music, then house (in honor of the Warehouse in Chicago), or garage (after New York’s Paradise Garage) with numerous streams. Today—especially as we celebrate and critically assess the recent reintroduction of Black gay aesthetics to popular audiences in Beyonce’s “Renaissance”—one way to productively understand these formative disco histories and habits of mind (resonant with critics like Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Daphne Brooks, and Craig Seymore) is to ask: What does it sound like at the end of the world (and the beginning of another)?
Consider the opposition to disco and attempts to diminish its importance. When they said “disco sucks”—including the “Disco Demolition Night” mob scaling the walls of their own treasured institution, Chicago ’s Comiskey Park, to blow up a crate of records on July 12, 1979—they were (are) really saying: “Shut the fuck up already!” “Go back where you came from!” “All lives matter!” They were trying to “make America great again” and “stop the steal” (of popular music and culture).
Disco did provide a soundtrack for one world ending and another beginning. But it started earlier than they think, and it has never left us. Just as the smoke of the 1970s had begun to clear—and the devastation of AIDS dawned harshly—folks began to fuck, organize, make art, and dance under the banner of “Black gay.”
It is this intramural transnational Black world that is the focus of my book, There’s a Disco Ball between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life (Duke University Press, 2022). It tracks practices and habits of mind that emerged during what I call the long 1980s (1979–1995). Hot takes on the recent so-called revival of house music miss the point if they do not acknowledge that while, indeed, House is a “feeling;” disco is the affect. Black gay is the habit of mind through which both emerge.
A playlist cannot adequately capture the rhapsody of dance floor congregation in the hands of a prodigious DJ or mixmaster. Still, there is medicine in this music. I have compiled a small offering of an in-progress playlist of about 22 hours of music referenced in the book, or representing its soundscape. Below, I offer a few annotations, excerpted from the book, until we meet on the dance floor again.
I was ten years old when Chic’s second album, C’est Chic, was released. Before presenting myself at the club six years later—where I eagerly traded the cool elegance and glamour that I thought I desired for what the club actually offered—it was the “sophisticated” look and sound of Chic that called to me. In my basement. In my bedroom mirror: “I want your love.” The carillon chime chords pealing the melodic line (“iwantyourlove / I want. Your love”) combined with the singularly funky bass line, defining disco.
My adolescence emerged at the exciting beginning of the rap era in New York City. But I had no desire to go to hip-hop jams at Montebello Park on Springfield Boulevard or the forested Brookville Park (each equal walking distance from my home), and I certainly never entertained a double-transfer bus ride to Queensbridge or bus and subway to the Bronx.
Instead, I imbibed the fantasy that Chic (and early-disco-era Ashford & Simpson) promoted so well. Their music sounds like a highly stylized version of New York urbanity—even amid epic unemployment, garbage strikes, and legendary crime—the feeling that New York is the center of art and culture in the global North.
By the late ’70s, white folks were just a couple years out of major economic recession in the global North. Black and other people of color and poor people continued to push through hard times and “structural adjustment” all over the worldwide ghetto. Disco timing seems out of sync with political economy. Chic made their seductive call for “Good Times” just a few years immediately preceding the time we were imprinted with (a new) fear, as the first cases of what we now know as AIDS surfaced in 1981. But Marvin K. White “propose[d] that disco was a medicine, disco was a balm, and disco was a healing.”1
If I were a DJ, “Bourgie Bourgie” is the main musical theme to which our There’s a Disco Ball between Us club night mix would keep returning. It sounds like how I fantasize my own writerly voice. Expansive and lush. Languid and capacious. Up-tempo with just enough funk. I love those strings that feel … luxurious.
This gorgeous instrumental groove remained preferred in the clubs. Even though, by 1980, Ashford & Simpson added (catchy, critically sharp/shady and funny) lyrics for the popular hit they produced for Gladys Knight & the Pips:
Livin’ the life
You’re a jet-setter
Livin’ the life
You’ve got it all together
Hold the pose, turn the nose.
Some fancy struttin’
It’s a fact you from across the tracks
You said you wasn’t.
[then the infectious hook] Everybody wants to be
It was in the 1985 season, at the tender age of 17, that I made my Paradise Garage debut. I was an unlikely clubgoer. James—worldlier than me—first heard about it. He was much braver than I was, but my determination to dance was stronger.
Dancing to “Bourgie Bourgie,” my extensions—hip flexion, arms in arabesque, fluid with the music—called for solo. For me, the Garage was a sweaty cotillion, and the club’s famous ramp was a gateway. Later in my dancing life the nasty, deeply libidinal bass-heavy grooves that I took to so organically (con muelleo; back flexing) at Better Days (NYC), Tracks (NY, DC), Paradise (Baltimore), Traxx and Loretta’s (Atlanta), Sound Factory Bar (NY), Club Boi and Sugar’s (Miami) took hold of me in the most elemental and irresistible ways. But in 1985, at Paradise Garage, it was only my feet that had been turned out. In first position. Extending. Then twirling.
“Bourgie Bourgie” has the most delicious, lush orchestration. “A what, wow!” I imagined Sister Sledge dressed in pale-pink Stephen Burrows gowns would exclaim when they saw me. Was their Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards 1979 lyric “he’s the greatest dancer” about me, as my shoulders kept time to the bass line, my feet the drums—hands articulating and gesturing, melodically? Or (“a what, wow!”) was it the men? The legion of fine-ass dancers I was afraid to touch beyond the boundaries of the club floor. Suspicious and frightened even of the ubiquitous sweat.
We believe Nikki Giovanni: “Black love is Black wealth.” Still, HIV/AIDS uniquely challenged how we would love, under what conditions, and what consequences might come.
If Joseph Beam was my first love and Melvin Dixon’s scholarly contributions prefigured what I would later hope for my own, GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent) was the first to invite me to begin to compose the self that I have come to cultivate in adulthood. My first Friday Night Forum, which must have been in 1987, demonstrated to James Jefferson and me that we were not alone, that there was a community just a Long Island Rail Road ride and four quick subway stops away from Laurelton. Cue Chaka:
Chaud sont papillon, we were very young
Like butterflies, like hot butterflies
Chaud sont papillon, we had just begun.
Like yours and mine, dear listener, Chaka’s memory trip is induced by archival evidence. In the song, she cites
a faded photograph I mailed to you
with feelings I don’t want to face
And a love song of surrender in blue
… I remember when you took my breath away.
I have already told a piece of this story, rhetorically stumbling—hopefully with a bit of grace—out of the blue-black club light, or out of a Friday night GMAD forum, to find what I may have missed from this moment of incipience.2
Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Shame” is not about the affect that animates (white) queer theory. The speaker/singer in this bop is unashamed of her sexuality. Rather, she is lamenting, in 4/4 time, the possibility of losing a relationship that keeps her “burning … [her] whole body yearning.” It is the dissonance between libidinal impulses (which she does not question here) and social expectations that has her “so confused / It’s a shame.” After all, “Mama just don’t understand / How I love my man.” This will certainly preach in the club. People who have been bludgeoned with the lie that their desire is a cause for shame and disease will shake their asses in alleluia.
The significance of the disco—the club or the bar—for Black gay communion in the long 1980s cannot be overstated, any more than can the centrality of the Black Christian church in the United States’ long civil rights movement. The limitations are similar too: not everyone attended these institutions, and neither is a perfect model of accessibility and democracy, despite the fact that many of us were (re)formed by them and insist on waxing rhapsodic about our spiritual, political, and sexual conversion experiences ( after all, “in the beginning was Jack …”). Still, the club/disco/bar was the central meeting space of what folks thought of as a community.
From our positions—perched at the bar, twirling on the dance floor, shamelessly flirting, testing our sexual power—we easily found our ways to parades and protests and letter writing and workshops and interventions and civil disobedience and consciousness raising—and spiritual reconciliation with new goddesses in new languages and on new lands, where we connected with those on similar paths. This life in-between, constrained as it is, is also a site of potential freedom—most centrally because it has to be.
The invocation to ceremony in Sylvester’s “Over and Over” takes place in one abrupt drum clap. The opener of the way and guardian of crossroads in Yoruba spiritual tradition, Eleguá needs no introduction. Brass blaring. Four-on-the-floor drums. Then, Erzuli—the coquette and apothecary, a dangerously seductive party girl—arrives, laughing, gleeful squeals and hollers in the background: it is a party from the first bar. “Over and Over” is funk sped up.
I remember Better Days on 49th Street in Manhattan. Five-feet-tall neon dicks were painted on the walls. Men grinding on the dance floor to Shep Pettibone’s mixes promised to disrupt the comfortable domesticity that I had briefly escaped via the Long Island Rail Road and a nervous subway ride two stops uptown. All to, hopefully, finally learn the “burdensome knowledge of carnal secrets” I longed to hold.3
Better Days is where I first heard “I Was Born This Way,” Carl Bean’s 1977 gay anthem (he later became Archbishop Carl Bean). A few facts of its production warrant closer consideration. The peppy original, sung by Black gay Broadway actor Charles “Valentino” Harris, garnered the number-one spot in the United Kingdom in 1975, and Bean’s version rose on charts in the United States. But how it came to be is even more important. Written at the height of the “disco era” by Bunny Jones—a straight Black woman and beauty-salon owner who sold the original self-published record from the trunk of her car—“I Was Born This Way,” distributed by Motown, has the distinction of being the first openly gay-affirming song to hit the charts. Ever.
If I were a DJ, “Bourgie Bourgie” is the main musical theme to which our “There’s a Disco Ball between Us” club night mix would keep returning.
Disco is cosmopolitan. At the edge of the end of the world, disco sounds like the Black British funk band Cymande’s “Bra,” released in 1972 and sampled and spun on dance floors ever since.
With one of the hottest breaks of all disco breaks (that cowbell at 2:53!), “Bra” conveyed its message in the music and in the lyrics (“But it’s all right, we can still go on!”). Years later, Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng”—his synthesized reimagination of Barrington Levy’s “Under Mi Sensi” and Yellowman’s “Under Mi Fat Thing” feels akin to the technique of early (Chicago) house music—young Black people innovating on inexpensive mixers, to create electronic beats. The sleng teng rhythm showed up over and over again each night in basements in Queens. You will find these on the playlist, along with Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” and “Bam Bam,” later brilliantly answered by Sister Nancy.
Today, there are a number of celebrated gay and lesbian clubs in Rio de Janeiro’s upscale tourist zone, where the thump-thump-thump-thump of “gay international” can sound and feel identical to what one would hear and feel in Buenos Aires, Berlin, Paris, or Los Angeles. However, Buraco, in Lapa, was different. Cue “Berimbau.” Here I refer to the 2007 favela funk version by DJ Sandrinho found on the playlist. Still, I cannot resist noting the earlier Astrud Gilberto version: “O dinheiro de quem não dá É o trabalho de quem não tem” (“The money of the one who does not give comes from the one who works but does not receive it”).
During the long 1980s, I remember blue lights in a dark thick-aired room above Flatbush Avenue, with dancehall, rockers, soca, and calypso all night; walls slick with sweat and nimble bodies on the smaller dancefloor of The Warehouse in the Bronx, where DJ Andre Collins gave us the closest thing to Better Days that New York had seen since the club closed in 1990 in the main room; and upstairs at Octagon, where Caribbean music played all night, with house on the cavernous main floor. At Miami’s Waterfront, and later Sugar’s and Club Boi, reggae and soca were regularly spun on the main floor.
All this took place just as rabidly violent homophobic lyrics began to appear in some dance hall reggae and hip-hop songs. Further complicating the issue, largely white groups called for a transnational boycott of Jamaica because of homophobic violence and violent homophobic dance hall lyrics; but they did so against the wishes of groups like Black Lesbians and Gays against Media Homophobia that had begun work before their emergence and advocated education and engagement. I used to dance to Shabba Ranks’s music with abandon, so it hurt me to exclude him from this playlist—less for his lyrics than his unrepentant rhetorical violence, parroting so-called Christian ideology that gay men ought to be crucified. Contradictorily, however, I have kept Barbara Mason’s homophobic/femmephobic 1984 entry in her epic R and B feud with Shirley Brown, “Another Man.”
So many contradictions within epidemic time. And there is so much more to say, some of which is chronicled in the book, and more that the playlist indexes.
Queers Growing Old and Young
The book ends with my final love letter to a dear friend, Nehanda Abiodun, the freedom fighter who escaped to Cuba, to “return home” to the United States only after her death in 2019.
Sister, we will always have “Love Is the Message” at your 50th birthday party. Daughter of Oshun, you were resplendent in gold. Appropriate, since you were our glittery Ambassador of New Afrika. Messenger of the new world to come. Light flickered in the warm glow of the Caribbean sunset, and we lit up the darkest part of that Havana night together, until sunrise. Time did not stand still, but neither did we. Between us, luz de mi vida, there will always be a disco ball. Love break Love break Love break. Love break.
Lights come up. The disco ball (still) turns.
This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and sponsored by the UVA Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.