Between Realms: The Black Lives Masquerade

Between Realms: The Black Lives Masquerade

Alex Werth and Rashad Pridgen

[Figure 1 – The Black Lives Masquerade in the Bayview, San Francisco, February 2017. Photo: Gino Abrajano.]

Opening the Portal

It’s a cold afternoon in San Francisco, gray sky meeting gray concrete. In the Bayview neighborhood, there are already plenty of reasons why residents might steer clear of the public realm. Situated in the southeast corner of the city, far from the towers and Twitters of Market Street, at risk of being either forgotten or gentrified, the Bayview is surrounded by the specter of factories and shipyards. The jobs departed long ago, but the toxins remain.[1] And on this day in February 2017, with the wind serving a chill from the Bay, there’s all the more reason for those who have a home or a car to use it.

Still, a crowd of some 60 souls, many from outside the area, coalesces on Yosemite Avenue in front of an old industrial building, home of Zaccho Dance Theater. As they arrive, people receive maps that mark out the route of the Black Lives Masquerade, a site-specific performance and communal dance ritual. But the simplicity of the line, the silent authority of the map, veils the multidimensional depth and emotional timbre of the experience about to unfold along the route it describes. The crowd awaits—quiet, disconnected, unsure.

Until the performers emerge. There are six dancers, three men and three women, and a drummer commanding a djembe in the rear. Together, they clear space, preparing the ground. The tones of the drum reverberate from the building, filling the loading bay like a cavernous mouth and releasing their song into the street. The crowd draws close, readying for the ceremony to come. Readying for the Masquerade.[2]

[Figure 2 – The Masquerade emerges from Zaccho Dance Theater. Photo: Gino Abrajano.]

Silently, the Masquerade slides into the clearing, riding the last vibration of the drum as it ricochets off the urban hardscape. It stands tall for the community to behold. The suit, covering head to toe, is comprised of overlapping layers of fabric panels. Some are decorative, adorned with silver, gold, and cowrie shell. Others are filled with images. Emmett Till sits at the top of the sternum. His smile, unspoilt by lynching, radiates from the peak of the suit. He’s surrounded on both sides by Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, who were martyred when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed their church in Birmingham, Alabama. Below, Sandra Bland rests in the front heart space, rather than the jail cell in Waller County, Texas where she was found hanged. On the back, she’s mirrored by Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian man who was beaten to death by skinheads in Portland, Oregon. The mechanisms that steal Black lives in America are many. The pains personal. The sorrows unique. But the figures are all ancestors now, taken before their time. All 50 or so.

Arms crossed, back tall, the Masquerade faces east. The performers do the same. Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho, steps forward into the clearing. As an elder, long-time member of the Bayview community and choreographer of site-specific works, she blesses the gathering, welcoming the ancestors of each direction. East, south, west, north, above, below. The participants and performers rotate along with her. This simple act of choreography gathers the group into a ceremonial circle—synchronizing individual bodies, minds, and spirits into a collective prayer. The portal is now open. Suddenly, the Masquerade departs for Third Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, drawing the crowd behind it.

[Video 1 – Joanna Haigood recites the opening invocation. Video: Taylor Mosley.]

But they’re not the only ones. Two squad cars, each carrying two police officers, quit their post at the end of the street and begin to tail the crowd. Some processions are led by the police, who clear the street to make room for sanctioned expressions of public sentiment, like patriotism or consumer desire. But in this case, the police pursue from the rear, intent on enforcing the conditions of the ‘special event permit’ issued to contain the placement and impact of the bodies assembled in this communal ritual. In San Francisco, as in other American cities, the ‘public realm’ is meant to be a space in which private, disconnected bodies circulate in a smooth and orderly manner. So when people and objects come together, linger, and generate sounds, scents, and other affects—or when they transgress the segregation of activities between the street and the sidewalk—then they violate the regulatory regime that orders the city, promoting some activities while punishing others.

Briefed on the protocols of the permit, the performers lead the procession on the narrow sidewalk. The crowd scrambles after them. Some participants fall in behind the performers, effectively forced into a single-file line that grows further and further from the action. But the Masquerade is magnetic, gathering power as it moves, beckoning the community near. So other members of the crowd abandon this orderly formation. They squeeze between cars, scurrying up the street to close the gap. Some dart across to the opposite side of Yosemite, seeking a choice picture or direct view. Meanwhile, a cast of volunteers, clad in yellow vests, struggles to corral the participants. But this puts them at odds with the spontaneous energy of the work, which begins to infiltrate and transform the public realm along with the growing ambience of tambourine rattles and bell tones. The volunteers make polite entreaties, encouraging people to return to the sidewalk, all while exchanging anxious glances with one another—and back at the police, their cars pulling ever closer behind.

[Figure 3 – The Masquerade pauses on Yosemite Avenue. Photo: Gino Abrajano.]

The Black Lives Masquerade

This essay retraces the ritual of the Black Lives Masquerade to discuss (a) the aesthetic and participatory principles that order this and other tradition-derived, urban-centered ceremonies and (b) the tensions attending the translation of such Pan-African practices into the socio-political environment of American cities. These rituals, which are receiving increasing interest and institutional support in the realm of socially engaged art, offer profound opportunities for communal transformation and care. But at the same time, they are challenged by the aesthetic and administrative norms of contemporary audiences and governments. Our appreciation of these dynamics emerges out of a collaboration that crosses our different ancestral and methodological lineages. We thus point to the benefits of crafting reciprocal relations between geographers and site-specific performance artists.

The Black Lives Masquerade took place in the Bayview in February 2017 as part of a series of site-specific works created by Rashad Pridgen in the Bay Area. Rashad is a performance artist whose work spans dance, theater, music, fashion, video, and film. He’s the artistic director of the Global Street Dance Masquerade (GSDMQ8). The GSDMQ8 is a transdisciplinary dance performance ceremony that both honors de/colonized Pan-African and Diasporic traditions of the full-body masquerade and remixes them through timely rituals in strategic urban environments. It centers a street-dance philosophy that pays homage to the roots of hip-hop movement culture (breaking, locking, boogaloo, and party dance) while incorporating the freestyle techniques of Afro-urban and Afro-house dance.

As a form of creative direct action, the GSDMQ8 moves from struggle to solution. Performers identify and investigate an urgent issue impacting Black communities in the United States. Gathering communal wisdom, their investigations inform the creation of a full-body masquerade suit that responds to the matter at hand. The suit is then sent out to communicate with residents and ancestors in an urban environment that embodies a given theme through an emergent activation that can’t be reproduced. The GSDMQ8 is thus an Afro-futurist intervention; it engages traditional practices from Africa and its Diaspora, as well as other forms of masquerade and processional dance from around the world, to address the issues confronting Black communities today—including AIDS, displacement, gender, and gun violence. In addition to the Black Lives Masquerade, the GSDMQ8 has presented the Bio Spirit Safety Suit; Babylon Is Burning Denim Dogon Suit; Masquerade 4 Prince; and Dontuntrah: Afro Queer Masquerade.

In 2017, the GSDMQ8 mounted three site-specific works in San Francisco and Oakland with support from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and SOMArts Cultural Center. Once a militant working-class and counter-cultural mecca, since the first Dot Com Boom, San Francisco has become the single most expensive rental housing market in the country. In the process, its once-affordable districts have been subjected to a combination of eviction, redevelopment, and policing that—for its young men of color, and residents denied shelter and mental health care—has become lethal.[3] The displacement of Black residents in particular has built upon decades of state-led and state-sanctioned violence, including the devastations of urban renewal, mass incarceration, and AIDS. The city’s Black population has fallen from a peak of around 14 to 4 percent, with most remaining residents living in public housing, such that t’s now one of the least Black big cities in America.[4]

The first event, the Black Lives Masquerade, took place in the Bayview in February.[5] It was around a year after Mario Woods, a young man from the neighborhood, was shot more than 20 times near Third Street and Fitzgerald Avenue by San Francisco police, ushering this mythically liberal city into the era of Black Lives Matter. But this was also a neighborhood that James Baldwin visited in 1963, where he encountered a community at its boiling point because of systemic police harassment and unemployment. “There is no moral distance…between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham,” he concluded.[6] The second event, the Masquerade 4 Prince, took place in the Tenderloin, the city’s skid row, that April. Prince Rogers Nelson may not have resided in the neighborhood. But given its landscape of music venues, sex clubs, and sites of queer and trans liberation, the Tenderloin embodied the social issues and aesthetic qualities that reverberate in his music. The moods of the two events were quite different. But both called upon African-American ancestors whose lives had been taken too soon to visit blessings and guidance upon the Black, queer, trans, and un-housed communities under siege in this hyper-gentrified cityscape.


Reciprocal Relation as Method

Rashad first engaged Alex Werth, a geographer and DJ, during the run up to the Black Lives Masquerade. We had a series of conversations about how to represent not only the route of the procession, but also its relationship to neighborhood history and ceremonial order, in cartographic form. Rashad then invited Alex to serve as an usher for the event. This gave Alex the unique experience of participating in the work as both a member of the audience and someone responsible for enforcing the stipulations of its permit at the same time. After this, Alex joined the cast of the Masquerade 4 Prince as a sound geographer. Carting around a mobile speaker, he used a range of Prince recordings to draw out the architectural, acoustic, and social resonances of the Tenderloin cityscape.

Throughout the rest of 2017, we met regularly to reflect upon the social, aesthetic, and spiritual impacts of the work. Rather than simply dissect ‘what happened,’ each of us drew upon our distinct backgrounds and methodologies to expand the field of co-learning with one another. Taking a cue from the ancestors, Rashad encouraged each of us to connect with a specific ancestor that served as a guide for this decolonial creative and intellectual process. We researched these individuals, sharing their stories with one another, and communed with them for support and direction. Rashad also assembled an archive of images and videos from the performances. Prompted by the visual materials, Alex asked Rashad about the traditional inspirations and contemporary intentions that crystallized in the design elements of the work. Alex, on the other hand, drew a series of maps that overlaid the performance itineraries upon the layers of urban history and socio-spatial politics that have formed the neighborhoods in which they took place. In particular, he accentuated the invisible matters of urban regulation and soundscape. This allowed us to visualize significant nodes or crossroads of activity; it brought to light locations where the architectural, historical, spiritual, and experiential contours of the city reverberated with one another in ways that neither of us could’ve understood independent of the other. Together, these collaborative activities amounted to a relational, transdiciplinary method of inquiry into contemporary Afro-Diasporic aesthetics and the concrete urban spaces and political issues that they respond to and redress. They revealed how geographers and site-specific performance artists can support one another in cultivating a relationship to place that’s simultaneously sacred and substantial.

This co-authored essay is a record and re-presentation of our relational inquiry. It retraces the route of the Black Lives Masquerade—pausing at a series of moments that, as revealed in our reflective exercises, embody the potency and politics of conducting a Pan-African ritual in the context of under-invested and over-policed American cities. In the spirit of the GSDMQ8, the text aims to convey the ineffable, experiential qualities of the performance as openings into the more detached rites of intellectual analysis. It ends with some concluding thoughts on the value of co-learning between geographers and site-specific performance artists.


Between Realms

The name of this essay, ‘Between Realms,’ points to the liminality that animates not only the GSDMQ8, but also our collaborative relationship. In West African Yoruba tradition, as in many Indigenous communities, a masquerade is a communal ritual that opens up a powerful connection between the world of the living and the world of the ancestors. The Masquerade is neither fully human nor spirit, hovering in between the above and the below. It becomes a ‘medium’ in the sense that it’s both in the middle of two realms and a conduit for spiritual beings.

The GSDMQ8 dwells in this space. While inspired and structured by traditional practices—primarily, but not only, Yoruba in origin—it’s a contemporary form of site-specific performance. It draws upon and responds to the street-dance styles, aesthetics, and social needs of the communities of color in which it occurs. It’s thus a medium for Indigenous, Afro-Diasporic, and American concerns. This creates certain tensions. The tradition of the masquerade emerges from cultural and geographic contexts designed to accommodate such ceremonies. In coming to American cities, however, such practices must adapt to a fundamentally distinct—and often hostile—architectural and regulatory context defined by the everyday regimes of Whiteness, capitalism, and colonialism. The GSDMQ8 thus dances at the crossroads between Pan-African cosmology and municipal regulations that frame it as a potential ‘obstruction’ or ‘nuisance’ in the ‘public realm.’ In addition, as a form of site-specific performance art that masquerades in an art-industrial milieu, the GSDMQ8 has to navigate a problem endemic to contemporary performance: the tension between creating a spiritual, collective, and decolonized experience versus an objectified art work to be re-presented, analyzed, and commodified. Indeed, this tension resounds in choosing to write this text in the first place. We thus try to center rather than displace it from what follows. Finally, as an academic geographer and a site-specific performance artist, the transdisciplinarity of our collaboration relies upon our differences. In working together, our methods, expectations, skills, aesthetics, racial experiences, and at times even aims seem to diverge and converge all at once. The alignment of geography and performance can’t be assumed in advance. Their meeting can be challenging in the sense of creating conditions for both emergence and frustration. These tensions animate the remainder of this essay, which aims to explore rather than resolve them.


African Aesthetics, American Regulations

[Video 2 – The Masquerade leads the procession, attended by performers with cowbells. Video: Taylor Mosley.]

The Masquerade sets off down Yosemite, carried by an enveloping current of cowbell tones. The performers hammer on their instruments, which, ringing in a high register, activate the air around the Masquerade, allowing spirits to move freely among the altered frequencies. The melodious tones serve as a siren. But not the sort mounted atop the police cars that monitor the crowd from the rear. In a neighborhood that has suffered the traumas both indicated and induced by the routine sound of squad cars and ambulances, these bells send a signal of a different sort. They alert residents that spiritual, rather than state, powers are approaching the area.

Turning the corner onto Third Street, the Masquerade starts to encounter some of these residents. It hails them, honoring their humanity, in an embodied dialogue between relations. A young man leans to the side, his shoulders drawn back as if to get a grip on this unfamiliar sight. The Masquerade does the same, mirroring the man’s embodiment in a way that reflects the sacredness of his being in the Suit. “I am you, and you are me,” it seems to say, as the situation moves from opposition to unity. Another encounter occurs in front of a senior apartment complex, where the crowd comes across two male elders. One, apparently reluctant to engage with this extraordinary presence, rushes inside. The other stands still with strength and solemnity as the Masquerade approaches to pay its respects with a reverent dance. It starts low to the ground, tumbling, as if swept up in forceful currents. But it revives itself from this downcast state, taking up a stance that mirrors the elder’s in its dignity. Then, the Masquerade dips toward the ground once again. Only this time, it prostrates itself on the sidewalk as a sign of recognition and respect, rather than defeat.

[Figure 4 – The Masquerade engages two residents on 3rd Street. Photo: Gino Abrajano.]

As this ensemble of bodies ambles down Third, it traces the line inscribed in the itineraries carried, but rarely consulted, by the participants. The map is a matter of what Rashad calls the GSDMQ8’s ‘choreographic design.’ It’s the prayer that orchestrates the ceremony. The script for a ‘cast’ that’s meant to go way off-book. This isn’t to say that the ritual lacks structure. Far from it—all of the design elements that can be considered are. But if the work is in fact working, it’s meant to reveal the undetectable, unpredictable, unmappable by becoming a conduit for spiritual forces. The map, then, is a text that allows the magic to transpire. It charts a sacred sequence of activities across a constellation of sites selected for their aesthetic resonance and communal significance. But what occurs en route can’t be determined in advance. Nor can it be calibrated to the secularized regime of time that dictates individual schedules and governmental permits. The actual experience of the masquerade—its real meaning—is realized at the crossroads of communal feeling, social/ecological context, and spiritual emergence. The map is thus a spiritual flight path, planned with utmost consideration and care through a climate of variability. This atmospheric uncertainty doesn’t impede the journey. It is the journey. Because the masquerade is more than improvisation. It’s inspiration.

This procession, then, is an act of design. But as a socially and ecologically responsive set of collective possibilities, it differs from the rigid landscapes, zoning regulations, and rights/rites of public conduct that—backed by urban police powers—typically structure the public realm in American cities.[7] This open-ended orientation toward space and time is indicative of what Rashad calls the GSDMQ8’s “African aesthetic.” Such cultural practices center the collective, village, and ancestral and future generations and decenter the individual architect, professional artist, and theatrical event. In the Pan-African traditions that serve as the template for the GSDMQ8, performance is embedded in the everyday social and spiritual relations of the community. It’s thus meant to uplift, educate, and doctor the social whole rather than accumulate symbolic and economic capital for the individual artist(s). While the performers in the GSDMQ8 need to prepare, then, the point of rehearsal is to cultivate a sensibility that can respond to the emergent energy of the Masquerade in situ, rather than to train the body to replicate a series of movements prescribed in advance.

But this approach runs counter to the spatial regulations—the zoning codes, sound ordinances, and so on—meant to segregate and synchronize bodies, activities, and affects into pre-ordained paths and containers. The map is the essential instrument of this urban order, as it organizes matter into choreographies of permitted conduct. The masquerade map, on the other hand, charts a different set of possibilities. Mimicking the form of the cartographic plan, it performs a masquerade of its own. Municipalities, however, aren’t designed to accommodate the shape-shifting and time-bending nature of such ceremonies. The City of San Francisco, for instance, makes no affordance for rituals in the public realm. Rather, it forced the GSDMQ8 to apply for a ‘special event permit’—a one-time writ of permission that allows bodies to move as a coordinated group through the streetscape so long as they stay within their prescribed route, out of the way of traffic, and limit the range and volume of sounds they make along the way. This points to the subtle ways that urban art and performance take place within a set of spatial regulations that privilege certain aesthetic traditions and, by extension, the raced and classed bodies that make and consume them. When classical European performance is staged within an enclosed, purpose-built theater, it’s literally entitled to exist by a zoning code that allows for ‘public assembly’ in the name of ‘culture’ as a specialized activity so long as the crowd is contained within a zoning and building envelope designed with that use in mind. Once a theater is approved and built, in theory, it’s allowed to stage an unlimited number of performances without going back to the city for additional approval or supervision.

But what about other forms of performance? What about when the artist can’t access a private theater due to the cost of real estate or curatorial exclusion? What about when the artist doesn’t see culture as a bounded object that needs to be segregated from the street in order to be appreciated, but rather an integral part of communal healing and re-membering? Post-industrial American cities are increasingly interested in promoting new investment through ‘public art.’ But a close reading of any zoning code reveals that the type of art that’s typically encouraged is sculptural or visual. It’s silent. It isn’t meant to make a joyful noise. It isn’t likely to attract a crowd. By centering the African aesthetic, then, the GSDMQ8 is inevitably out of order. It’s designed to inspire collective spiritual experience in realms of the city that are at once neglected and surveilled. As a result, it’s not entitled. It has no right to exist. Not, that is, without a special permit. In a deeply troubling continuation of the American Black Codes and South African ‘pass laws,’ the African aesthetic is only allowed to make its way through the city by authorization of the municipal master.

Back at the Black Lives Masquerade, the need to get a permit is what invites the supervision of the police. Two squad cars tail the crowd to enforce the conditions meant to corral the bodies and sounds of the participants on the sidewalk. As the group moves onto Third Street, the squad cars race back and forth along the busy thoroughfare. Their presence lends a tense feeling to the procession. An ironic one, too. In America’s system of racial governance, the police are summoned to oversee the rituals enacted as a creative response to their violence. The African aesthetic remains fugitive in the American city.


20 Batás for Mario Woods

The procession reaches its lowest point, geographically and energetically, at Third and Fitzgerald, where there’s a memorial to Mario Woods. Print-out images adorn a corrugated metal gate, along with a poem entitled “I Am Mario Woods.” Here, Mario smiles for the camera, surrounded by loved ones. There, he appears again, illustrated both for guerilla posters and posterity by Oakland artist Oree Originol—whose Justice for Our Lives  series has gone viral, indelibly marking the visual landscape of anti-racist social movements in the Bay Area and beyond. Messages of peace and power are scrawled across the sidewalk, residues of a recent event honoring the one-year anniversary of Mario’s murder. The wind picks up. The temperature drops. Like the volume of the bells. Like the mood of the crowd. The procession circles up at the gate. For the first time, the participants huddle together in order to squeeze into the narrow sidewalk in front of the memorial and protect against the wind. In the silence, the drummer sounds 20 ritual notes—or batás, named after the traditional Yoruba drum—as if to mend the tear in the fabric of life created by each of the officers’ fatal gunshots.

In contradiction to the event permit, the crowd stills, circles, and holds space on sacred and yet desecrated ground. The procession becomes an ‘obstruction,’ making it impossible to pass without stepping into the nearby traffic lane, where cars continue to race past. Fortunately (by the grace of the ancestors, perhaps), the squad cars are, for the first time, nowhere to be found. One of the performers, Rasika Govinda Das, sits on the pavement in the center of the circle and begins a tarpana ritual—offering water, rice, seeds, and flowers to the spirits in order to cleanse the site. Tears begin to flow among the crowd. But chanting peacefully, adorned in his Hare Krishna robes, Rasika offers the divine light of solace to those in mourning.

[Video 3 – Rasika Govinda Das leads a tarpana ritual at the memorial to Mario Woods. Video: Taylor Mosley.]

Here, the Masquerade stands solemnly among the group. The faces that make up the suit meet the ones taped to the wall, creating one continuous shrine to the ancestors, one continuous circle of memorial. The portraits gaze at one another with dignity across the chasm of space and time. The suit itself embodies another crossroads between Pan-African convention and urban iteration. In Yoruba tradition, and in contrast to colonial norms, the Masquerade is understood to be a distinct entity comprised of multiple deities and spirits. It exceeds the individual, which can’t exist without its ancestors, community, and a range of non-human allies. Hence, while the suit is worn by an initiated dancer, the full-body structure is meant to mask individual identity and form. In this vein, the Black Lives Masquerade suit is designed to confuse the distinction between front and back that’s used to distinguish humans from other beings. This, too, embodies the African aesthetic of the work.

But the suit is meant to speak to its contemporary context as much as traditional forms. The difference lies in those silent, smiling faces. Traditionally, the Masquerade is constructed out of small items that belonged to the ancestors: a bit of fabric, rubber from the sole of a shoe. These items allow the suit to become animated with the spirits of their former owners. The materials of the suit, in other words, are for the ancestors themselves, who find their way into the ritual through everyday items that are known to them. For the Black Lives Masquerade, however, Rashad was inspired to construct the suit with photos. This marked a shift from designing the suit for the ancestors to doing so for the residents of neighborhoods like the Bayview that the suit would visit. For Rashad, it was important that a resident who came upon the procession could understand its meaning by, in a sense, recognizing the grammar of the garment. As indicated by their presence at the memorial to Mario Woods, such portraits are central to the visual culture of honoring victims of gun violence, whether killed by the police or not. These images circulate as memes and murals, on posters and t-shirts. They’re synonymous with the call, as Oree Originol puts it, for “Justice for Our Lives.” Indeed, later on during the procession, the Masquerade encounters an elder from the neighborhood. The man pauses, pointing at the center of the suit. “That’s Emmett Till,” he says. “I remember when he got killed.” The man touches the place on his chest that matches the location of the photo on the suit. In this moment, Emmett, the Masquerade, and the man are all one.

[Figure 5 – An elder resident recognizes the image of Emmett Till on the Masquerade. Photo: Gino Abrajano.]

Activation, Not Occupation

After the cleansing ritual, the mood begins to rise. The wind seems to die down. The cops are nowhere to be found. But as with most ceremonies with Pan-African roots, the most powerful change comes from the drum. The performers move from playing disorganized tones that activate the airwaves to organized ones that coalesce into driving hip-hop beats. The participants follow them up the opposite side of Third Street. The chill disperses and bodies begin to warm as the drums start to vibrate through the crowd. For the first time, the somber and solitary act of walking and witnessing becomes more joyful, active, and collective. Walking turns to strutting. Strutting turns to dancing. Bodies relax. Smiles emerge. People begin to feel safe enough to see one another. To see oneself in the other.

This break is part of the piece’s choreographic design. As planned, the dancers draw upon another urbanized ritual from the African Diaspora: the New Orleans jazz funeral. In traditional funeral processions in Black New Orleans, the immediate circle of mourners trails a brass band from the site of the service to the cemetery as the musicians play solemn spirituals and dirges. Once the deceased is interred, however, the music and the mood heat up. The band begins to play popular, uptempo dance songs, moving the mourners—as well as the emerging ‘second line’ of community members—to a collective catharsis.[8] This form is reflected in the itinerary of the Black Lives Masquerade, which descends down one side of Third to the memorial and then ascends up the other. This design might be evident to anyone who glances down at the map in their hands. But the switch of the drums directs the emotional path of the ceremony more than any spatial plan.

The energy begins to reverberate throughout the streetscape as the performers activate more and more of the built environment through their music and dance. Their hands move fluidly from cowbells to window grates and railings as they hammer out rhythms across the expanding instrument of the city. Tuned in to the acoustics of the street, they use architectural elements like recessed doors and large windows to create, echo, and reverberate tones amidst the airwaves. In a creative twist, the site-specific and highly material conditions of urban disinvestment—lots of hard surfaces, little vegetation—enable a joyful noise to resonate throughout the neighborhood. Metal, brick, and glass become the circuitry of an urban drum machine and amplifier. One dancer jumps on top of an electrical box, turning it into a stage from which to lead the procession in a popular repertoire of pro-Black resistance chants: “Black lives matter,” “We gon’ be alright,” and “Hell you talmbout.” In the tradition of hip-hop culture, the mix of drumbeat and call-and-response turns these political messages into a means of orchestrating participation and unity among the group.

[Video 4 – The Masquerade performs some footwork using a small curb. Video: Taylor Mosley.]

The performers take advantage of the landscape in other ways, too. Little bulb-outs where the sidewalk meets the crosswalk become small, circular spaces in which to stage a cypher or a solo. A disregarded curb separating the sidewalk from the parking lot of a McDonald’s becomes a balance beam, where—drawing upon forms of Black street dance, from double dutch to juking—the Masquerade shows off a bit of footwork. Likewise, the recessed entrances to storefront institutions like the Jazz Room create small-scale prosceniums for moments of performance and witness.

One such moment occurs when the crowd assembles in front of a barbershop. There’s a poster in the window with a photo of a cop. “Wanted for Racist Murder,” it reads. Under his silent surveillance, a participant steps into the circle to offer her own spontaneous movement. In a moment of inversion, she dances for the dancers, her hands extending out in an expression of appreciation and praise. Her dance eventually becomes so forceful that she ends up on the ground, exultant but exhausted. This moment reveals that, in a traditional masquerade, the energy can tend towards chaos as well as beauty—violence as well as healing—in a dance in which opposites come into being through their relation to the other. Continuing the cycle of connection and reciprocity, the female performers return the kindness by caring for the soloist with herbs and embraces. The smells of burning sage and agua de florida introduce new scents into the space, as the roving ceremony continues to transform the sensory landscape of the street. Inside, an elder barber steadfastly cuts the hair of the man sitting in his chair, as if nothing at all extraordinary is going on outside the window.

[Figure 6 – The performers embrace a woman from the audience after she performs an energetic and emotional dance. Photo: Gino Abrajano.]

A little further up the way, the masquerade crosses paths with another ritual. The procession stops across from a craft store called the African Outlet, where a group of men play the drums on the sidewalk. In no time at all, the drummers on each side of the street align their rhythms with one another, creating a joyful, polyphonic conversation between complementary musical voices. Here, the drums call out their ability to communicate between groups across vast spaces. This long-distance dialogue—which, rooted in the African aesthetic, resides in not only the GSDMQ8, but also the neighborhood—runs directly counter to the dictates of the municipal sound ordinance. The latter, after all, is structured so that sounds can’t be heard more than a certain distance from their source. But the energy of this call-and-response is magnetic. Two of the dancers surge into the street, moving towards the men across the way to offer them a dance of appreciation, before they notice the onrush of approaching traffic and scurry back onto the sidewalk. The sound of the other drum crew continues to resonate throughout the neighborhood, setting the tone as the procession makes its way towards its resolution at the Bayview Opera House.

This last part of the procession points to the ways that site-specific rituals such as the GSDMQ8 have the potential to energize spaces on a material, collective, and spiritual level. This stands in stark contrast to the problematic notion promoted by city planners that public art should ‘activate’ areas that, often inhabited by poor people and people of color, are perceived as ‘dark,’ ‘depressing,’ and ‘dangerous’ by White, middle-class visitors. It also stands in contrast to the ways that static forms of public art, like the massive sculptures that dot San Francisco’s Financial District, actually displace more democratic use in what Rosalyn Deutsche calls an “occupation” of a public space that’s otherwise multiple and open.[9] The GSDMQ8 departs from this colonial paradigm in that it draws upon aspects of the African aesthetic, which allow artists and audiences to build relationships with the neighborhood through practices that are essentially responsive to its material, social, and spiritual vibrations. As revealed in the encounters between the procession and residents throughout the course of the masquerade, this aesthetic already lives in the fractured but foundational Diasporic cultures of Black communities in the U.S. By channeling sounds—both sacred and secular, and often against the dictates of local law—the masquerade brings out the latent potential of urbanized bodies and landscapes to call out, sing, and respond. These vibrations alter the materiality of place, releasing static particles to undergo a process of transformation, however molecular.

[Figure 7 – The Masquerade shares a joyful moment with a resident on Third Street. Photo: Gino Abrajano.]

Geographical Performances, Performative Geographies

The GSDMQ8 thus aims to learn about, respond to, and energetically activate a place, rather than occupy or represent it. This process of inquiry opens up the opportunity for performance artists to collaborate with diverse geographers. By geographers, we don’t mean academic or scientific experts. On the contrary, we mean anyone whose creative medium or lived experience offers them a way to understand the layered nature of their literal place in the world. In the urban U.S., these geographers can be community leaders, old heads, mothers, street dancers, artists, un-housed residents, Uber drivers, and more. In this sense, site-specific performers and performances have the potential to become geographical as well. In turn, such performances have much to offer those involved in the open-ended praxis of geography. One of the core values of the African aesthetic, after all, is reciprocity.

As this essay has shown, the material, social, and spiritual characteristics of place are central to the actualization of the GSDMQ8 as a performance ritual. In that sense, the work is enhanced by geographical research of a conventional sort. Who lives here or uses this space? How did this area come to be? Who and what were displaced in the process? What are some of the communal landmarks that embody these individual and collective histories? The choreographic design of the Black Lives Masquerade wouldn’t have been as effective as it was without an awareness of the racialized history of the Bayview, the site where Mario Woods was killed, and the importance of communal institutions like Zaccho Dance Theater and the Bayview Opera House. These are the sorts of contextual data that are inscribed in maps, books, and interviews. At the same time, the GSDMQ8 reveals that not all aspects of place can be read or viewed ahead of time by the rational intellect. Neighborhoods like the Bayview consist of spiritual forces and sonic energies, too. And performance ritual offers a medium through which to engage these invisible conditions. It’s thus an invaluable mode of learning for a researcher like Alex, in that relating to the city through performance allows for a more spiritual and experiential geography to emerge in ways that archival documents and maps can never, and should never, capture. As a transdisciplinary practice, then, the GSDMQ8 reveals and responds to an urban geography that coalesces at the crossroads between realms.


Alex Werth is a doctoral candidate in Geography at UC Berkeley. His dissertation looks at the routine regulation of music, dance, and nightlife in Oakland, CA as arenas for the making of racialized dispositions and dispossessions since the Black Power Era. As an active curator and DJ, he has written on the urban politics of race, space, and sound for City, Sounding Out!, and Africa Is a Country. He’s also a Public Imagination Fellow at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Rashad Pridgen is a performance artist, creative entrepreneur, and artistic director of the Global Street Dance Masquerade: a site-specific dance ceremony presenting full-body masquerade suits in urban environments for diverse audiences. His work spans dance, theater, music video, fashion, and creative project making. Recently, the Black Lives Masquerade appeared in the music video for “Helicopters” by Sol Development and Dontuntrah: The Afro Queer Masquerade premiered in San Francisco’s historic Castro District. You can stay in touch with his artistry at


[1] Dillon, Lindsey. (2014). Race, waste, and space: Brownfield redevelopment and environmental justice at the Hunters Point Shipyard. Antipode, 46(5), pp. 1205-21.

[2] Throughout this text, the Masquerade is referred to in the third person or as a proper noun to recognize it as a super-human entity and resist the colonial norms of individuation. While the Black Lives Masquerade has been worn by different performers at different points in time, the human identities of those under cloth are incidental to the form and meaning of the ritual. The visual form of the suit itself, which moves in a similar manner regardless of who’s wearing it, embodies this very point.

[3] Maharawal, Manisa M. (2017). Black Lives Matter, gentrification and the security state in the San Francisco Bay Area. Anthropological Theory, 17(3), pp. 338-64.

[4] Fuller, Thomas. (2016, July 20). The loneliness of being Black in San Francisco. New York Times.

[5] The GSDMQ8 mounted another version of the Black Lives Masquerade, this one with an all-male cast, along East 14th Street (International Boulevard) in East Oakland in July 2017.

[6] KQED Film Unit. (1963). Take this hammer [Video Recording]. San Francisco: KQED.

[7] Mitchell, Don. (2003). The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press.

[8] Sakakeeny, Matt. (2010). “Under the bridge”: An orientation to soundscapes in New Orleans. Ethnomusicology, 54(1), pp. 1-27.

[9] Deutsche, Rosalyn. (1996). Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. See also Deutsche, Rosalyn. (1988). Uneven development: Public art in New York City. October, 47, pp. 3-52.