Bring Down The Walls, But Let House Music Stand

BRING DOWN THE WALLS is a documentary about a house music community, screening for Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. Viewed through the prism of America’s monstrous, profitable and industrious prison system, the film’s director, PHIL COLLINS (no, not the Genesis drummer) swaps questions for answers with 2SER’s PARIS POMPOR about his unique look at an enduring genre of dance music and its essential connection to Black, Latin and Queer people. Having worked with people incarcerated in New York’s Sing Sing maximum security prison facility, activist and multi-disciplinary artist Collins also set up a community space called Bring Down The Walls for those on the outside or transitioning.

Your film highlights the emergence of house music from disco and the strong connection that people and communities in the US have to house music. Being originally from the UK, what is your own relationship with the music and when/how did you discover it? I’m presuming you were introduced to it while growing up in the UK.

Guilty as charged, your honour. I grew up in the North West of England, and in ’86/’87 house hit hard in Manchester, the first place outside the States where it exploded on a mass scale and topped the charts within a matter of months. Like every major revolution in pop culture, it changed the temperature of the nation. First it was the sound, unlike anything that came before it – immersive, propulsive, emotional, futuristic – earthed in the hungry, insistent bass lines, the curling acid melodies, and the abrasive percussion of jackin’. The rest followed from there: the so-called Second Summer of Love, illegal warehouse parties, the mass availability and consumption of ecstasy, 20,000 ravers in fields across the country. A triumphant counterculture, joyful and communal, crossing the lines that have traditionally separated us. As a student I found myself in the midst of it. For a few years I worked at The Haçienda nightclub, in the cloakroom and the bar, and I went out almost every night to the clubs in Manchester and nearby towns and cities, like Warrington, Blackpool and Liverpool, which all seemed to rock to the same beat. 

It’s great to hear one woman in your documentary talk about how she’d been to Studio 54 and other well known clubs, but it wasn’t until she climbed the stairs of the Zanzibar that all the lights went on inside her and house music came alive for her. Do you have a similar moment of revelation connected to music, film making or the other artforrms you’ve been involved with or love?

Too many to list. The first time I heard the Velvets, Grace Jones, Mark E. Smith, Sister Nancy, or Fingers Inc. The first time I saw a show by Michael Clark, Forced Entertainment, The Wooster Group, or the videos of Alex Bag and Marlon T. Riggs. The first time I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Audre Lorde, Jean Genet, Peggy Phelan, bell hooks. One memory, maybe because it’s connected to the future formations of desire, remains especially vivid: myself as a child transfixed by the cover of an older cousin’s copy of Aladdin Sane, praying that no one would come into the room as I traced my hand over the record sleeve, unable to tear myself away from this alien apparition whose existence I was utterly unable to explain but who told me – mysteriously, lovingly – that there are other worlds out there and that I, in fact, could change.

Your film feels as much like a ‘call to action’ or a ‘political schooling’ for viewers, as it does a documentary about the communal space you established called Bring Down The Walls and house music’s early years. Would you agree and was that your intention? In other words, did you set out to use cinema as a vehicle for progressing the idea that like corrupt police forces the world over, the US prison system needs a radical shake up, or better still a complete dismantling?

I’m glad if the film reads like a call to action because it is rooted in an abolitionist imaginary. After access to Sing Sing was revoked, I continued by focusing on the movement for prison abolition and the liberating nature of dance music. In 2018, over four weekends in May, we established a communal space in the heart of Manhattan’s court district dedicated to radical thought and the struggle for social justice. During the day, it functioned as a school, with discussions, teach-ins and workshops led by people who have been directly impacted by the prison system as well as those working to dismantle it. At night, the space transformed into a dance party hosted each week by a different New York City club collective. All programmes were free and open to anyone, and on the last weekend the space ran round the clock for 24 hours. Here, the coexistence of two fields of knowledge – intellectual and sensory, discursive and embodied – combined through an abolitionist approach was crucial for advancing an argument against the prison industrial complex. There are other ways to imagine what justice can be, aside from locking up people in cages or reforms which merely sustain the existing order.

How did the concept for the film come about?

The film is one of the results of a wider project which looks at mass incarceration in the US and its devastating effects on large segments of society. Since 1970s the prison population has skyrocketed to more than two million which, today, makes ‘the land of the free’ the world’s biggest jailer. Through privatisation and disproportionate targeting of specific communities – people of colour, the marginalised and the poor – the criminal justice system has been used as a tool of oppression and a source of corporate profit. The prisons and jails, after all, are not filled to bursting with rich white bankers. It is a system designed to discriminate, exclude and fundamentally damage the lives of millions, and a problem which should be important to us all. I’ve been working on this topic for a decade and the film came out of years of intensive research, of conversations and exchange with activists, community organisers, campaigners, formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, as well as a group of men who I met and spent time with visiting over a number of years in Sing Sing.

The prison system in the US is a largely privatised, institutionalised system that profits from the incarceration of people, and thereby must be seen as being in collusion with not only the police and court system but also with a succession of US governments. How much do you know about the system in the UK and how would you compare the two? Do you see them as largely the same? In Australia, we have similar long running calls to dismantle the police and prison systems, with ongoing overrepresentation of Black and indigenous detainees (certainly well above their percentage of the greater population). Here in Australia there is long running campaign to end Black Deaths In Custody, but even after a Royal Commission into the issue, which handed down many recommendations that have not been implemented by successive governments over the decades,  the system here is in many ways comparable to the US.

I’m originally from the UK but I’ve been living in Germany for more than twelve years. One of my previous projects, in 2014, was in part filmed in Scotland’s largest prison, Barlinnie in Glasgow. I think the systems are comparable but are forged by national histories. Whereas the prison system in the US is an extension of structural racism and discrimination aimed at communities of colour and other minorities, in the UK – where these problems are equally as acute – this is manifestly premised on perpetuating the class hierarchy and deeply entrenched economic inequalities, which points to how they underlie questions of race, ethnicity, citizenship, access, and opportunity. In late 2019 and early 2020 I ran an iteration of Bring Down The Walls in Montréal with a focus on the systemic judicialisation of aboriginal peoples on Canadian territory, migrant rights and detention, and sessions with activists and community leaders who spoke about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The focal points change from one context to another, but what they all have in common is the fact that the carceral system, as we know it, is a relatively recent social invention introduced as an instrument of biopolitics, state power and domination.

Are you optimistic about real and lasting changes being made in the US in terms of a radical overhaul of the prison system? I imagine, like many of us, you welcomed the inauguration of President Biden (even if only because it meant an end to Trump’s presidency) and he seems to be already making a number of changes and reversals to Trump policies. Do you know anything about his willingness to redress the prison industrial complex and Black incarceration rates?

For the last fifty years harmful law enforcement policies have been pursued with equal enthusiasm by both Republican and Democrat administrations, so it’s a bipartisan issue whose ideological underpinnings are unlikely to melt away. It is a system put in place to protect the ownership of property and the rights of those who have at the expense of those who do not. Over the past year the pandemic has escalated to obscene new levels the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and severe destitution for so many. It has laid bare deep structural divisions, but also amplified the awareness that the only way to counter the lethal violence of capital is through the multiplication of voices and bodies united in a common goal. Amongst others, Black Lives Matter is a manifestation of this – a wide antiracist, decolonial, antipatriarchal, trans-queer-feminist front formulating clear demands against militarised state violence, containment and eradication. I think it is there, in coming formations of radical and progressive collectivities, that we should look for the new horizons of emancipation.

Your film is playing Queer Screen’s Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival this month, so many viewers here will be coming to the film with an expectation that a sizeable chunk of the documentary focusses on the queer community’s connection to the issues raised and more widely, their influence and connection to house music. How important was it for you to ensure that Black and non-white queer perspectives were represented in the film’s story arc and what specific issues do you think queer people in the US face in regards to incarceration rates and treatment today?

This is of course one of the pressing issues. LGBTQ+ communities are amongst the most vulnerable in the US prison system. As Ché Black, one of the contributors in the film, notes, growing up as a Black man in America can be grievous enough, so growing up Black and queer is an ordeal of a higher order, like a double adversity stacked up against you. Michael Roberson, activist, advocate and leader within the Black LGBTQ+ House Ball community, explains that mass incarceration is articulated predominantly through a Black, cis-gender, heterosexual male lens, often deliberately deciding to ignore how trans people continue to be brutalised and killed. But the movement against this is not only recent, it has been unfolding for decades though the work of figures such as Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and countless others at the frontline of social change.

In terms of the relation to house music, there is a connection between the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s and a new dance culture emerging from Black, Latinx, queer, and other marginalised communities which found themselves in the crosshairs of exceptionally hostile law enforcement policies, such as the war on drugs, as well as on the receiving end of the government’s indifference and refusal to acknowledge HIV/AIDS as a public health crisis. Dance clubs have always served as a haven of abandon and temporary relief in which, even for a brief moment, divisions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability can be suspended. In fact, house culture as a whole has historically often functioned as a lodestar of resistance, illuminating new understandings of community, solidarity and self-organisation. 

There’s also a companion album / soundtrack available on vinyl or download, with many classic house tracks remade. [Readers take note, includes a terrific version of Promised Land]. Can you talk the about the album and whether all the artists/musicians involved  have a connection to prison life, whether through family/friends or incarceration themselves?

The compilation album, which comprises cover versions of some of the most enduring house classics, is another aspect of the project. The connection goes back to the years in Sing Sing when conversations with the band repeatedly turned to house music and the simple pleasures of going out dancing – something all of us in the room shared and which gained a kind of heightened significance within the confines of such a harsh environment. To deepen the link, the next stage of the project involved producing a series of house covers with vocalists who have all been previously incarcerated. They are talented non-professional singers, between 24 and 70 years old, who I met through friends, personal contacts, and networks of re-entry programmes and campaigns. Each track on the album was recorded as a collaboration between them, individual vocalists, and different electronic producers and musicians, such as Empress Of, MikeQ, Ian Isiah, Kyp Malone, Nguzunguzu, Honey Dijon, and Seven Davis Jr.

The selection of songs hones in on expressions of joy, yearning, loss, unity, and defiance, which have always been central to house music. They are tracks which have been transformational for generations, and which form a backbone of dance cultural history. Bring Down The Walls, from which the project and the film take their title, is a 1986 classic by Larry Heard and Robert Owens, two original house legends. I was over the moon that Larry and Robert got on board, reuniting to contribute a re-work of their track in collaboration with vocalist Cameron Holmes from Philadelphia. Eventually, the album was released as a benefit compilation the proceeds of which went to the New York chapter of Critical Resistance, a grassroots organisation challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.

The entire soundtrack [of the film] comes from the compilation album, which was the anchor of the project. One of the [film’s] music sequences follows the making-of process, from meetings and try-outs to rehearsals and recording sessions. The album vocalists took part in discussions and talks, and, those who wanted to, performed their songs live during club nights, which are featured as well. So the album is woven deep into the fabric of the film, not as a standalone element but as one among a number of strands, junctures and connections.

BRING DOWN THE WALLS plays Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival on Friday February 26th in Sydney. Tickets here

Thursday 18th of February, 2021

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