The contemporary dance-music scene and the underground arts community have been in mourning since Friday night, when a fire destroyed Oakland underground arts space the Ghost Ship during a show, killing dozens—as I write, the official death toll is 36, though that number is expected to rise. The tragedy has forced a conversation about Oakland’s housing crisis into the national press, and it’s brought the issue of unlicensed venues to the attention of people who may not have even known they existed. Underground and DIY spaces provide a home to musicians who can’t reliably feel welcome in commercial clubs, bars, and venues—whether because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their art and its message, or some combination of the above. Many of these artists make music with no intention (and no hope) of realizing financial gain, and frequently lose money by recording and touring. People who host underground shows often don’t recoup their expenses, and do so at personal risk—booking events in a nontraditional space, especially when you live in that space, endangers your stability because you can be fined or evicted.
Anyone the least bit invested in outre contemporary art should have some knowledge of these realities, and that knowledge ought to make the decision to host unconventional events in unusual spaces (and sometimes illegal spaces) seem like common sense. But the Ghost Ship fire thrust this subculture into the public eye, introducing it to people who are ignorant of if not hostile to it. In the desire to find someone to blame for the loss of life, some will surely point the finger at the underground scene—it already feels like a crackdown is imminent. On Monday, the city of Baltimore condemned and closed a DIY recording studio and performance space called the Bell Foundry. The Baltimore Sun reports that the shutdown came as the result of a complaint filed against the building that morning, and that officials claim their decision wasn’t directly related to the Oakland tragedy—but the article certainly makes it look like there’s some sort of connection, despite the denials.
Because I’ve felt uniquely at home in DIY venues, the Oakland fire was more painful and personal to me. I’ve never been to the Ghost Ship (or to Oakland, for that matter), but I’ve spent lost of time in similar surroundings, crammed into basements or warehouses with people driven by a passion for nonmainstream music and art. Since Friday night I’ve often thought, “That could’ve been me.” But I’ve also felt fear for my safety at licensed venues—the one and only time I went to a show at the Congress Theater, I hung close to the exits as the crowd overwhelmed me. I was reminded of the 21 people who’d died in a stampede at Chicago nightclub E2 in 2003—months earlier, a judge had ordered the club’s owners to close its second floor due to building-code violations, but it stayed open. Tragedy can strike anywhere.
My thoughts return to the victims of the Oakland fire, many of whom remain unidentified. All weekend I scanned Twitter for any sign that experimental house producer Chelsea Faith Dolan, aka Cherushii, might be alive; she was scheduled to perform at the show on Friday, and had been missing since the fire. I interviewed Dolan via e-mail for my July preview of Smart Bar’s Daphne festival, which celebrates female, female-identifying, and nonbinary electronic musicians. Cherushii headlined the first night of the festival, and both Daphne cofounder Marea Stamper (aka the Black Madonna) and Smart Bar talent buyer Jason Garden spoke about her with admiration and respect. We put her on the cover of that week’s issue.
Yesterday, officials identified the body of Chelsea Faith Dolan. Since then I’ve had the title track of her 2015 EP, Nobody’s Fool, on repeat. Its bubbling percussion, cascading synth melodies, and four-on-the-floor hi-hat provide what feels like an endless supply of energy. This is the kind of music that inspires people to do things their own way, and I hope it will continue to encourage young artists excluded by mainstream touring circuits to create safe spaces for themselves.