By Linnea Convington
Over a thousand people, bumping music, performances and public speakers in will gather Tompkins Square Park for the annual Blackkat May Day celebration on April 29. Geared towards bringing political awareness to the party crowd, this celebration started in 1986 and has been organized by the local group Blackkat for nine years.
Crafted by DJs Jason Blackkat (BK) and Arrow Chrome in 1996, Blackkat is a collective of artists, dancers and DJs who throw parties that embrace activism while being entertaining. “There is a subtle political idea in doing these events,” said BK. “It’s about music and art itself that is challenging and boundary pushing.”
While Blackkat does not push a particular agenda, the group’s goal is to promote political consciousness in the party scene. The May Day celebration is their best-attended and longest-running event. “There are multiple things we are trying to accomplish with May Day,” said Chrome. “One thing is to celebrate the radical and bohemian culture of the Lower East Side.”
The tradition of International Workers’ Day traces its roots to the original struggle to obtain an eight-hour workday in the late 1800s and commemorates the Haymarket labor strike in Chicago, that began May 1, 1886. According to BK, the Tompkins Square Park event was founded a hundred years later by the Lower East Side squatter community and originally overseen by Jerry the Peddler, a long-time squatter who still does all the legwork to obtain permits from the New York City Parks Committee. Though Jerry was unavailable for comment, according to the New York City government website, it can take up to a month for the application to go through. BK confirmed that the process to obtain park permits was long and uncertain. In the past, he said, the group has been hassled by undercover cops at their events in order to arrest people drinking alcohol or taking illegal substances.
Trying to introduce young people in a party scene to politics has roots in BK and Chrome’s own experiences in the punk rock scene during the 1980s. “It was my exposure to punk rock lyrics that opened me up to the concept of environmental and social justice philosophies,” said Chrome. “Punk rock did that for my generation and the new rave culture didn’t seem to have much of a political prospect — especially in America.”
Blackkat’s political activity is centered around repealing the city’s cabaret law and the federal Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, popularly known as the RAVE Act. “[We are] one of the only regular party throwing groups that focus on the non-corporatization of music and [the cabaret laws],” he said.
The New York City cabaret law, which prohibits entertainment in clubs and bars, was initially enacted in 1926 mainly to target the jazz scene. The law had been dormant for decades until 1997 when former Mayor Giuliani created the Nightclub Enforcement Task Force, which conducts sweeps of bars and clubs and fines venues where more than three people are found dancing (illegal under the cabaret law). Since then, fewer than 300 bars and clubs in the city have undergone the lengthy and expensive process to obtain a cabaret license.
The much more recent RAVE Act was signed into law April 30, 2003, purportedly to protect minors from illegal substances. Despite the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s claim that the act does not target dancing or music, there are many accounts of it being used to shut down parties, clubs and bars. One episode occurred May 30, 2003 when a venue in Billings, Montana canceled a benefit concert for the local chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws after it was threatened with a $250,000 fine if anyone was caught with, or thought to be using, illegal substances.
“We live in a city where money and getting your name out there is more important than actual content that’s provided,” said Amok, a musician and two year Blackkat collective member. “This is what makes Blackkat so very different, it puts content first always … which is something that other crews unfortunately forget to do.”
In the past, Blackkat has joined forces with other groups including Dance Parade New York, the Madagascar Institute, The Danger, DanceSafe, Renegade Virus and Havoc Sound. Events have included a fundraiser for the 2005 Biotour benefit, numerous festivals and parties in various warehouses such as 3rd Ward and the now closed Lunatarium and 38Nine (in Queens).
“The main point is that it is vital that people come together in a creative community and we hope that these events can be part of that community,” said Chrome. BK added, “They have to be fun to be effective.”
The May Day Celebration is Sunday, April 29 at Tompkins Square Park (2pm-6 pm) with an after party at The Delancey Bar & Nightclub, 168 Delancey (between Clinton & Attorney), 212-254-9920, blackkat.org.