Daily Conjecture: Funk, Hermeneutics, and the Realization of MLK’s Dream

Wild conjecture of the day: dancing is the key to civil rights progress and a brighter future for all of mankind. How do I plan to defend that ridiculousness? 

Everyone can dance. That’s not an opinion, that’s a statement of fact. But, sadly, we live in a culture where “to dance” means “to dance well,” to move one’s body in time to music in an aesthetically-pleasing, creative, and talented fashion. A culture that has brainwashed those that can’t, or think they can’t, dance up to a certain socially-defined standard into thinking that they are categorically incapable of dancing. What’s worse, these poor people come to believe that they shouldn’t dance. This is a crime, folks. Everyone can dance and should dance because through dancing we can create better selves, better communities, and better futures.

George Clinton, leader of the great Parliament-Funkadelic funk collective (whose tunes I hope you are grooving to now), once declared: “Funk is fun and it’s a state of mind…” This two-part conception of funk is key. Let’s start with the latter part: what does it mean for funk to be a state of mind? Among the many ideas of Martin Heidegger, influential 20th-century philosopher, was one unique take on how humans experience art (here translated from Heidegger’s abstruse prose for slightly easier digestion):

The work of a work of art, its truth, is to open up a world, a human dwelling place. The work is no longer reducible to a product of subjective expression or the object of aesthetic contemplation. It is less an object than an event that sets us free from what is merely timeless and fixed, inserts us into history, situates us together in an ongoing world.[i]

Put simply: when you read a book, you’re not merely processing words on a page, you inhabit the world the author has created. You envision it, you smell the odors, hear the sounds; emotionally you feel as the protagonist and his compatriots do. Finally, and most valuable of all, you live the moral of the story, which is why stories have been used as educational tools throughout human history. “I am upset that greed ruined the life of this person I’ve identified with, greed is bad and I should be more charitable.” It is this obliteration of the subject/object dichotomy and our participation in the work as an event which allows our selves to be transformed by the themes of the work. In essence, the book is a state of mind—when you dwell within the book you take on its mood and outlook.

And literature is not the only art with this power. Music is as powerful; we live within the sound-world created by the artist, connect with the composition on a deep, emotional level. “That song speaks to me, man. I cry every time it comes on the radio.” All great art has this power, but dance may very well be the most powerful. Why? Because, on top of the music and everything else, the dancer can dwell within the music bodily. And in losing their senses, emotions, thoughts, and body within the music, they lose everything, all “constrictions.” And all that is the music—its mood, its themes—becomes the whole world for the dancer, the only way to be, the only worldly truths.

Which is where the other half of funk comes into play: the fun. Funk is about being free and happy and optimistic and loving and united and dancing and cool and, well, everything good in the world. The music is these things, the lyrics espouse these things. And when we dance and dwell within the music, we are these things, as is the world around us. One Nation Under a Groove, as its concept, avers the power of Funk to do two interconnected things: help a person 1) become a more liberated and joyous human-being, and 2) dance well. That’s the beauty of dance as a way of life: dancing helps you become more liberated and joyous, and by being more liberated and joyous you dance better, and so on, continually looping us towards greatness.

And it’s not a false high, making us think we’re happy when we’re not. Dancing helps us navigate away from everything bad in our life. “Gonna be freakin’, up and down Hang-Up alleyway. With the groove our only guide we shall all be moved.” Many of us are trapped in Hang-Up alleyway—“Does she like me? Did I remember to pay my electric bill? Should I start getting my resume polished in case I’m laid off?” But with the groove as our guide, we shall all be moved free of its confinement (note the singer’s emphasis on all.) And because it engages you physically—causing your heart to beat faster and your brain to release dopamine—the reality of the sound-world carries over for longer into this reality, we bask in the afterglow of dance.

Funk engages us to be better towards others, to be happier and more-fulfilled beings. Funk engages us in a community of like-minded people: “One nation and we’re on the move. Nothin’ can stop us now.” The resemblance to Civil Rights marches and MLK’s rhetoric is intentional: “We are on the move now. Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.” The goal of funk is to get people to dance and be transformed, and to encourage them to get others to dance, to spread funk across the land so that, one glorious, sun-drenched day, we will truly be One Nation Under a Groove. And when that day comes, we won’t need to stop and ask, “Has justice been served?” “Does freedom ring from every mountaintop?” Transformed by dance, our new and better selves will not tolerate any less than the complete realization of MLK’s dream.

So I encourage you all to dance tomorrow, to mark the celebration of a life that worked tirelessly to bring joy and freedom to all of mankind. I encourage you to invite everyone you know to dance along—even the squares, the clumsy and awkward, the beat-challenged; even the stodgy old white men of Corporate America and Congress, the jackbooted SWAT teams of your city, all the forces of oppression and persecution. And have them invite everyone they know. Join forces on The One and we will shake the Earth with the thump of freedom. Of course, if Polka is your thing, dance to Polka. If Salsa, Salsa your ass off. And for any who still insist “no, really, I can’t dance.” Pour yourself a few drinks and lower those inhibitions. ‘Cause even if you’re Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk,“You will dance, sucker.” We will all dance.

[i] Gerald L. Bruns, “Heidegger, Martin”, The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, 2nd ed.  (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2005), 485.

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