Space Is Our Place: Notes on Southern Electronics

by Ryan Clarke

A tweet from a dear friend kickstarted so much thought in my head for how to give context to concepts I had in mind for my thoughts on Southern Electronics. The tweet is in response to someone longing for the powerhouse vocals we once heard on the radio decades past; “ …it’s bc nobody go to church and everybody has 6 roommates, so we just gotta whisper now”. On its surface, this perfect comment alludes to the new stream of Black soul that has all but branded this mood-vibe-kickback generation of Black people but also speaks to a ruthless stripping of space and a culture for where we have to make do with what little space we have left. I’m no hater of the whisper singers, but it’s a perfect analogy of just how much space dictates the art we in turn value so much. In the past, there was enough leeway for the Black diaspora to create their own spaces with churches and the like. Even prior to this, as we continued to labor in bondage, Black folk created transcendence in the cotton field. What was done to help to pass the time for our elders became the spaces in which most popular music around the world bases itself off of. 

As time went on, we later found space outside of rural areas and into cities. These metropolitan areas of yore allowed for spaces for black creatives to trail-blaze sounds unheard. In New Orleans, proto-jazz was documented to be in Congo Square, an area where slaves were allowed to convene and dance to various percussions and hand-me-down brass instruments every Sunday. Later on in the Treme, Jazz proper was crafted by brass players playing late club night riffing alongside sex workers and dancers in these bars. It is from these seeds of which Black music (see: soul) propagated upriver alongside coastlines, and into northern industrial cities. Gospel, RnB, Soul, Funk, gave turn to Disco, House, Techno, Bounce, and Garage.

And as much devotion we lend towards these genres, we must also give respect for the spaces in which they inhabit. Black ownership of the Church lent itself for its true exaltation; one without worries of being too loud or hoping a landlord wouldn’t peek their head in and ask not-so politely to turn it down a little. Barry Gordon of Motown fame owned Hitsville, USA outright and could bring whomever he so pleased into the studio to begin working on whatever they wanted to. Robert Williams, owner of US Studios, colloquially known as ‘The Warehouse’ thrived not only due to the legendary DJ’s like Frankie Knuckles having residency there but because they felt safe enough to call it that space home in the first place. Detroit techno ballooned into its worldwide machine it is today from due to shells of automotive production warehouses. Places like the Packard was a petri dish to cultivate experimental sciences and sounds that those into the techno scene now still use as a blueprint for the culture today. The Packard contained so much space (even a bomb shelter two levels below the surface; enough space to play raves from sunrise to set to rise.) where multiple DJs can bounce energies off of each other for hours without worry. White people in Berlin did something similar with Tresor but they bought the property outright, therefore still being able to play many a show there, unlike in Detroit. Once those in power saw the value they had once willingly exiled in their own great migration of white flight, these properties were stripped from us under the guise of imminent domain only to sit as lifeless brick shells once again. Reggae as a movement became what it is today not only due to the forerunners that created the sound and soundsystems, but had a whole island to experiment on.

The northern-most Caribbean city, New Orleans, bled experiments through project walls across the wards citywide that, for better or for worse, white people wanted nothing to do with. After Katrina, demolition, speculation, and the gentrification that followed collapsed all the monuments that can now only be heard on the songs of the 80’s and 90’s (Calliope Projects, Magnolia Projects, and streets like Melpomene are now overrun by too expensive art galleries. The density of the UK cityscape forced musicians to escape into the forest for night raves where in 1992 concluded in a laundry list of electronic genres still being spoken about 30 years later. Soon this was taken away from us with the crackdown on electronic music in the 90’s. Even intangible space can be taken by those in power by looking at Pirate Radio as an example. Boats offshore spread the revolutionary notion of free music being signaled into homes. Space, even airwaves, have the innate ability to breed culture and if the space can be taken and rewritten, so can our culture. 

The slow cancellation of the future Mark Fisher now legendarily wrote on in his seminal writings on Hauntology are inherently connected to the introduction of late stage capitalism. Land acquisitions, predatory building zonation, gentrification in cities, land loss, sea level rise, water toxicity, flooding and resource rationing are functions of a system that could care less about the cultivation of culture. The banning or shuttering of, pirate radio, warehouse raves, and clubs that provide a space for people who feel like they can’t be themselves or a community in any other capacity are shining examples of this bleak future we’re in. These clubs are our churches and the parasitic virality of capitalism builds the walls to separate us— turning our powerhouse vocals back into whispers. 

But we have the ability to wreck these walls and find ourselves in an open hall once again to yell as much as we want to. This future can be in front if you choose it to be. To continue to take note from Mark Fisher, his ideology of Acid Communism can guide us into the coming days now increasingly becoming more unsure. Acid Communism is a mindset in which to imagine new ways to imagine our future. To begin to think of ways of finally moving past of the dreadful dead end of capitalism and all the poison that spawns from it. To disregard what capitalism as done for what we believe to be the path ahead.  We can no longer imagine our future as a dystopic repetition of cultures past, but something wholly new and unseen. To break past how we even view what a future looks like. In many ways, our current moment is a ripe breeding ground to imagine new Black futures. We have the to ability to imagine something better for ourselves than this present moment and we must commune into a power strong enough to build our own possibilities. 

And as Black people we have so much reason to fight. Southern Electronics is the overarching theory that recontextualizes the past, present, future as being completely dictated by the creation of Black art. Black people are the dependent variable in the progression of civilization, not a function of it. Turntablism in the 80’s, instrumentation across time, recording equipment, sound-systems have found advancement solely due to fervor and demand as Black people create the necessity for these products. Japanese products such as the direct drive Technic’s turntables, Pioneer CDJ’s, and Roland drum machines have no reason to exist and/or improve without us. They want we have. Building actual speakers that resemble the function of Jamaican sound systems, improvement on vinyl from wax cylinders to 78 rpm to 33 rpm to better hear the jazz better we made, technology is most in dialog with black people. So for our future we should connect with this technology to find a space where we can prepare for futures unknown.

DeForrest Brown Jr.’s ‘Assembling A Black Counter Culture’ speak directly to need of imagining a black future disconnection from the overwhelming weight of capitalism, using Techno and its elders as astronomical guideposts in the discovery of what it means to consolidate our power into a better future unavoidable. We hope that this platform can stoke that ember in you and be yet another sire in the fog to call more people into this Black acid future. Join Us. Help us capture the ephemeral yet again. Help us remember what we’ve always known.

Louisiana-born Ryan Clarke is based in Louisiana. He’s currently studying for his doctorate in coastal geology at Tulane University. Knowing intimately the ways in his home is at great risk of physical and cultural erasure, he finds way to not only quantitatively document this loss in his research, but also qualitatively with works that try to personally unpack the plethoric connections Black people have with the Mississippi Delta and its tributaries. Through the lens of Jazz, New Orleans Bounce, Detroit Techno, and Chicago House, he views the progression of technology and culture at-large as byproduct of Black innovation under the theory known as “Southern Electronics”.

4 thoughts on “Space Is Our Place: Notes on Southern Electronics”

  1. Yooo, thank you Ryan. This was beautifully written 🙌🏾✨
    I’m currently reading Alvin toffler’s the third wave and have had ideas of black futurism swimming in my head. I think you make an amazing point about the intersection of black autonomy, space, innovation and technology. We are the future no doubt.
    This made me think of WEB Dubois data visualizations “Visualizing Black America”. At the beginning of the book they touch on his short story “The Princess Steel” in which he imagines a telescope like machine able to view the “Great Near”. Blackness, the Future, and Tech seem to be inseperable though


    1. the system keeps trying its to keep black people from participating in the proliferation of the future and out of the economy of new tech. We aren’t going anywhere though:)


      1. just not seeing these messages! still getting into wordpress as you can see. To your point on “we are the future no doubt” im happy to take that a step further and we’re the structure on which the past, present, and future is dependent upon to progress. Before our common concept towards what we consider technology, we were technology! definitely the first humans to experience a post environment/modernity/humanity. and theres so many cases to say that we still are the technology. a bunch to say on that but black futurism/accelerationism is all too real…

        ill have to dive into those books sometime soon


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