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Sonic Architectures of Chicago House Music: Black Atlantic Memory and Monument in the Urban Landscape

Jada-Amina Harvey
Independent Scholar, Chicago, Illinois
jadaaminah@gmail.com

Keywords: Spirituality, Culture, Ethics, Transformation, Meaning, Symbolism, Church, Theology

Figure 1: Members of a Pentecostal church engaged in worship, Chicago, IL, 1941. [Library of Congress]

Abstract

Amidst the imposing skyline of housing projects, prisons, and pervasive carceral systems, House music emerged in the late 1970s in Chicago as a dynamic response and form of resistance1. This paper explores ‘sonic architectures’—spaces of sound that facilitate communal experience and identity formation within the broader cultural context of the Black Atlantic.

Introduction

The “Black Atlantic,” as conceptualized by Paul Gilroy, encapsulates the transnational and intercultural exchanges among people of African descent through the Atlantic. This paper examines how House music, emerging amidst the socio-political complexities of Chicago, acts as both a cultural expression and a form of resistance. It explores how House music reshapes identities and narratives within this diasporic space, examining its role as a symbolic and literal space of liberation and belonging.

This research delves into the concept of “sonic architectures”—vibrational spaces created by the communal qualities of House music that act as living monuments to the memory and resistance within the Black Atlantic. These sonic structures facilitate communal experiences and identity formation, transcending physical boundaries to echo historical resistances and envision future dialogues.

By engaging with theoretical frameworks like José Esteban Muñoz’s “Black Ecstatic,” which highlights transformative experiences within Black cultural practices through sonic expressions2, this study illustrates how House music embodies and amplifies these dynamic interplays of past and present suffering and joy. Through a detailed analysis of House music’s rhythmic and lyrical elements, the paper highlights its profound impact on communal and individual identities within the African diaspora.

Figure 2: Gullah Praise House and Rev. Henderson, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 1995

Sonic Architectures

Sonic architectures manifest as ephemeral spaces where memory and identity merge, redefining communal spaces through the lens of the Black Church and emphasizing sound as a medium for ancestral connection and spiritual transcendence. Grounded in José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of the Black Ecstatic, this framework explores the transformative potential of House music. It links it to a broader understanding of Black spirituality and community dynamics. It challenges traditional narratives by moving beyond romanticized pasts to present the complexities of contemporary Black life.

House music acts as a conduit for Black spirituality, manifesting through call and response, hand laying, and intricate footwork—movements mirrored on the dance floor and in sacred church ceremonies This continuity of cultural practices extends back to precolonial Africa, where similar expressions of dance and spirituality were prevalent, demonstrating the enduring nature of these traditions across time and space.

Ethnomusicologists actively investigate Black sonic traditions, delving into their rhythmic intricacies and cultural significance as they resonate with and respond to the spiritual essence of the African diaspora. Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit offers a critical framework for analyzing how the diaspora shapes these musical traditions.

By bridging geographical and cultural boundaries through shared aesthetic articulations, House music serves as a medium for cultural continuity and transformation within the Black Atlantic. This research underscores the transformative power of House music, showcasing its role in shaping and sustaining the cultural identity and communal bonds of Black communities worldwide.

House music reflects and extends the spiritual traditions of Black sacred spaces. Even as the world navigates the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, House music helps forge new worlds and memories, serving as a modern monument to collective identity and resistance. House music creates an immersive experience that resonates deeply with ancestral memories, linking individuals to a collective spirit reminiscent of the Holy Ghost’s transcendence. House music connects individuals and reinforces the communal bonds foundational to Black sacred spaces.

Sound as Resistance: Black Radical Traditions

The research emphasizes preserving Black radical traditions3, particularly within House music’s cultural narratives. By highlighting sacred communal spaces and unsanctioned cultural preservation sites, we explore how these spaces contribute to Black cultural identity and spiritual revival. By redefining the understanding of sacred communal spaces, this research seeks to honor the enduring legacy of Black Radical and reclaim narratives of belonging within House music culture.

House music’s communal and spiritual aspects echo the traditions of Black sacred spaces, such as hush harbors and the Black church. Hush harbors served as clandestine gathering places for enslaved Africans in America to worship away from the oversight of slaveholders—spaces of spiritual resistance and solidarity. Similarly, the Black church has been a cornerstone of Black American spiritual and communal life, offering solace and communal strength.

The spirit of Jack in House music, as cited in the classic track “Can You Feel It” by Mr. Fingers4, represents a lineage of communal spirituality, transforming the dance floor into a space of liberation and transcendence, much like the transformative power of communal worship in hush harbors and churches. The dance floor thus becomes a sacred space—a new gospel of liberation where the spirit of Jack is palpable in every footwork and gesture. This space engenders dissent and deviance, where those who have been made fugitives reclaim agency and empowerment through movement and sound. Paralleling Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s inquiry into the queer Atlantic5, “Can You Feel It” transforms the dance floor into a space of profound significance—a contemporary oasis akin to the communal bonds forged in the holds of slave ships. Here, amidst the bassline and melodic harmony, new worlds are built, forging new ways of being with spirit, self, and community at once.

“Can You Feel It” is regarded as one of the first deep house records6. his is solidified by Chuck Roberts’ speech, which first appeared on Rhythm Control’s 1987 track “My House.” 7 Roberts embodies the voice of a preacher, proclaiming House music as a universal language that transcends all boundaries. “I am the creator, and this is my house,” he declares, drawing a parallel to sacred spaces and emphasizing the inclusivity of House music.

The track serves as a narrative foundation, continuing the tradition of the griot—storytellers and oral historians— Rappers and Emcees in cyphers, blues singers in juke joints, and preachers in pulpits-all “spreading the gospel”. Through its mythologizing of the Holy Ghost-like figure of Jack, “Can You Feel It” addresses the essence of Chicago House music and its cultural lineage. Jack embodies a dance movement—jacking one’s body—that mirrors the ecstatic motions seen when people catch the Holy Ghost in church, with footwork, raising hands, and visceral expressions.

Drawing from Saidiya Hartman’s narrative of a prison riot led by Black women at the Bedford Hills Reformatory in 1919, we witness how the sounds of revolt reverberated within captivity, transcending physical boundaries to assert new spatial narratives of defiance and liberation. This narrative underscores the crucial intersection of sound and space in Black resistance, highlighting the transformative power of sonic expressions in reclaiming agency and reshaping spatial dynamics.

The Gospel Truth: Interdisciplinary Approaches and Methodology

This research explores the spiritual dimensions of House music through the lenses of decolonial science, ethnomusicology, cultural theory, and urban sociology. These disciplines illuminate how House music’s sonic complexities and cultural resonances mirror African diasporic traditions. This study is part of ‘The Gospel Truth,’ a collaborative project with cultural worker Anisa Olufemi, to document and contextualize the cultural significance of Chicago House and D.C.’s Go-Go music scenes.

This interdisciplinary approach addresses the connections between architecture, ritual, community, music, and memory, offering profound insights into the transformative power of music within the Black Atlantic tradition. This approach captures the impact of music on individual and communal identities and involves creating cultural artifacts such as talks, interviews, mixtapes, space-making projects, parties, and workshops. These activities enhance our understanding and engagement with house music’s artistic and spiritual significance, documented through various sources, including interviews, photographic documentation, and video captures.

Figure 3: Revelers at The Warehouse, Chicago, 1980s. Image provided by Robert Williams, sourced from 312soul.com. Photographer unknown.

Conclusion

House music is a living testament to a collective memory that invites future cultural dialogues. This theoretical narrative enriches scholarly discourse, celebrating the enduring spirit of the Black Atlantic. Asserting House music occupies a space and symbol of cultural identity, faith, and ecstatic communion, we emphasize its significance within Black communities and the broader cultural landscape.

This research delves into specific locales steeped in the Black diasporic experience, illustrating the profound depth of intergenerational, Black sonic realms. This convergence of spirit and sound shapes the cultural identity of these spaces, transforming them into sites of cultural dialogue and exchange. It also demonstrates the identity and significance of House, shaped by cultural geography and sociopolitical environment, integrating global influences, faith, and ancestral resonances, particularly within the context of the Black Atlantic.


1 Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

2 Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYU Press, 2009.

3 Cedric J. Robinson, “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition,” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

4 Larry Heard (Mr. Fingers), “Can You Feel It,” Trax Records, 1986.

5 Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14, no. 2 (2008): 191-215..6 Deep house is a subgenre of house music characterized by its deep, soulful melodies, minimalistic beats, and atmospheric textures.

7 Rhythm Control, “My House,” Catch A Beat Records, 1987.

References

Blesser, Barry, and Linda-Ruth Salter. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

Butler, Mark J. Unlocking the Groove. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Crang, Mike, and Nigel Thrift. Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World. London: Routledge, 2000.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992.
Jow, Sydney Megan. “Chuck Roberts Reworks His Iconic ‘My House’ Sermon Speech with Terry

Hunter.” Mixmag, May 18, 2018. Accessed 2023. https://mixmag.net/read/chuck-roberts-reworks-his-iconic-my-house-sermon-speech-with- terry-hunter-news.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1994. Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1984.

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