An Ode to the juke party: The Midwest Get Down

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| September 02 2016,

09:30 am


When I watch The Get Down, I'm in awe of how it shapes the story of a budding New York City subculture built mostly around the energy of poor, black and brown people. That subculture grew into the global hip-hop landscape that exists today. By honestly bringing forth the queer spaces that supported hip-hop in its infancy, The Get Down also shed a light on how important those underground spaces were for young people coming of age and developing a sense of identity

Even though I wasn’t born until a decade after the events that inspired the show, nearly 800 miles away in Chicago, I can tell you a thing or two about growing up and finding black joy in a city that otherwise makes little room for young, black folks. During the late '90s and early '00s, the thriving subculture was unfolding in basements, project apartments, skating rinks and community centers all over Chicago’s South and West sides, and eventually all over the black Midwest. Anyplace dark with little-to-no adults, a loud enough speaker and some juke tracks could create the infectious atmosphere that defined my adolescence: The juke party

What Midwesterners probably think of first when they remember a juke party is the grinding that coupled dance partners did, which was a huge part of the scene. Sure, you can go to any party or club and witness two people grinding on the dance floor. But until you’ve seen the toe-to-ankle-to-knee-to-hip coordination that’s required to juke and the tricks and flips that come with it, you might as well have been watching somebody hit the Carlton

Yes. It was explicit. It would have made most parents clutch their pearls to witness. I won’t front like juking wasn’t — at times — a fully clothed simulation of a kind of sex more outrageous than any I’ve had as an adult. And I’m also not flexing as if these events were completely outside a context of desire and sexuality. Just like The Get Down, juke parties document the story of a city, its youth, their gender performance and their coming of age. My friends and I were navigating desire and sexuality when just about everything else had been sorted out and decided for us. Juke parties were the formal courting rituals for those of us who couldn’t afford to be debutantes (and some of us who could, but still liked to bust it open on the weekends). We didn’t reject respectability politics, we flipped them on their head. It was in these spaces that we created and defined ourselves

But being cute and looking for bae weren’t the only things that happened at juke parties. These parties were the spot for creative expression and showmanship. An emerging circle of guys, and sometimes a few girls, meant that a footwork battle was in the works. This complicated freestyle dance was masculine and often cheered on by a homie holding up the collar of the dancer’s white tee to give the impression that his feet were dangling off the ground. Unofficial bobbing and hip rolling competitions were also in full effect. These required feminine precision but could be pulled off by guys, too. After practicing at home and in your neighborhood for weeks or months, juke parties were where you showed up and showed out with your peers as judges. It was a way to make a name for yourself in your community, an aspiration that many of us had just as Dizzee did as a young tagger

I remember the feelings of anticipation for an upcoming juke party at the skating rink near my house. I would look at my outfit laid out on the bed three or four times during the day. I would be giddy and anxious with excitement while the hours seemed to drag by. I could expect one of my homegirls to knock on our door attempting to sell a stolen disposable camera so that she could pay her own admission for the festivities. I would stay out of my mother’s way to avoid giving her a reason to say I couldn’t go. I would dance around the house all day to make sure my moves were still in order. It was an escape. Even though I usually dressed comfortably enough to dance and fight, I always felt safe. I never felt more in control, more independent and more free than I did walking onto that dance floor with my homegirls

For young people today, desire looks like a subtle squint in the eye, a filter that singes the skin with an unnatural glow or a perfect pout in the lips. Admiration and respect are measurable entities, quantified via the amount of likes and heart eye emojis, or an intentional private, direct message on a social network

Subcultures often become mainstream commodities thanks to the internet. Juke culture was gritty, but it feels sacred to me. I love that the closest you can get to witnessing it is grainy videos with bad sound posted by Wala Cam. With so much black cultural production being credited to the South and the East Coast, this Midwestern girl is happy to say that juking was ours. It was a beautifully explicit mashup of creativity, expression and connectivity. I carry both nostalgia for it and a yearning for the kids I’ll have one day to have a similar space that will make me sick with worry about what they’re doing, but grateful that they can get down, too

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