Growing up in the predominantly white suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in the 1980s, the soundtrack of my daily life was rock, and the face of rock was always a white dude. As a brown, proto-queer teen with nerd tendencies, it was natural then that I would gravitate towards techno instead. Rock was the triumphant voice of my parents’ generation, and therefore deeply embedded in the human, all-too-human dynamics of oedipal rebellion. Rock was an ear worm that followed me everywhere; it was the row of preening dude faces on the covers of new albums in the display window of Schoolkids Records.
Techno, on the other hand, was a faceless, wordless music that seemed to emerge directly out of the inhuman void. Techno was hard to find in the record store and had no household names associated with it. It emanated from DJ booths staffed by introverted guys in sunglasses and baseball hats, hunched over knobs and platters. They weren’t making the music in any traditional sense; they didn’t even seem to be controlling it. It seemed like they were being controlled by it. And so were we in those places where I found it, on the dance floor, late at night, in some illegal rave or club I was too young to be at. We were its ecstatic recipients. We were the robots.
Joy in depersonalization is sweet amongst the teenage, who have just discovered the terrible burden of being an individual and are quick to shirk it. But there are different ways of merging into the masses, and I did not fit into the most common ones. I held as active a fantasy life as books could take me: which was anywhere in the known universe and beyond. I was almost a complete nerd except for one grace: an eye for the horizon that had me always wandering off looking for trouble.
Dancing into the ecstatic was to be another fortune of mine from an early age, when my older brother helped me sneak off to Bubbles discotheque at thirteen or fourteen, in Nairobi, Kenya. It was at Bubbles that I first heard Chaka Khan and Black Box, Madonna and Rick Astley. I tasted lager, decided I was wholly uninterested in “tuning chilays” (flirting with girls), and turned instead to the dance floor to find the true love of my life: getting lost in music.
Bubbles was a proper disco, part of a casino no less. There was no enforced drinking age (nor driving age it seemed) at that time and place, so the children of privilege got to pull up in daddy’s Benz and swagger through Kenya’s best approximation of Casablanca on the way to a round dancefloor, rimmed with booths and spinning lights. I recall some half-hearted tension between us and the “tyutes”—aka the South Asian kids who all excelled in school, we grumbled, because they hired tutors. Who was truly Kenyan, and who just an outsider? Don’t ask me the answer to these questions since I don’t ever want to know. This was too brief a flash of time for me to remember anything gay about it other than me. But chatting with age mates about it now surfaces a more indelible memory of partying two, three times a weekend for the better part of a decade before the casino finally closed it down.
Back in Michigan a few years later, I took my little sister to see Bruce Springsteen in a stadium. I was impressed but unmoved. …….