Benin City: protesting nightclub closures with music
04 Jan 2018
Anyone who is an avid going out-er will know of the diminishing club and rave culture in the UK. Half of the nation’s nightclubs have been shut down since 2005 and London is no exception, with half of its own clubs being systematically closed. The social, economic, and cultural impact of this loss to nightlife is reaching a climax. Why is this happening and what can we do to help? I talk to Shanaz Dorsett from Benin City, a band who use music and dancing as a form of protest.
Last year, popular spot Passing Clouds was shuttered after property developers bought the land, leaving many unemployed and destroying the community that the owners spent years developing. Angered by the closing of the venue which was close to their hearts, Benin City wrote ‘All Smoke, No Fire’. “[Passing Clouds] was really important in the birth of Benin City as a band,” said the band’s vocalist Shanaz Dorsett. “Josh and Tom gigged there and built the band’s sound and vibe there. There’s something really poignant about it being closed right when I joined, so I never actually got to experience such an important place in Benin City’s musical lineage.”
“The song plays out the scenario of trying to get into your local bar and being turned away because your ‘face doesn’t fit’. It’s a familiar experience for a lot of Londoners in the midst of being driven out of our own communities,” said Dorsett.
Small and mainstream clubs are being targeted by the influx of widespread housing developments. Now there are relatively few clubs, and because of their popularity, they have become harder to regulate and police. Across London, there is little consistency in the rules, making it hard for new club owners to secure the appropriate licensing. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is thankfully aware of these issues and has appointed a Night Czar, Amy Lamé, who is responsible for keeping the peace and establishing a middle ground between TfL, emergency services, and nightclub owners.
“The backlash following the closing down of Fabric is an example of how people truly believe in the importance of social spaces and the culture that nightlife brings to the city”
In 2016, Fabric temporarily lost their licence after two people died of drug overdoses. The knock-on effect cascaded through the industry as local authorities attempted to crack down on illegal substances throughout London’s bars and clubs. After a heavy protest, Fabric was allowed to reopen but with much stricter regulations. Fabric and Passing Clouds alike bear a huge cultural importance that was not considered before their abrupt closures, which Dorsett notes.
“The backlash following the closing down of Fabric [in 2016] is an example of how people truly believe in the importance of social spaces and the culture that nightlife brings to the city.” When one of the largest social and diverse hubs in the world experiences a cleansing of its nightlife, it is important to view these clubs not just in isolation but as a whole industry.
Club culture has changed drastically. The smoking ban of 2007, popularisation of student nights, and an increase in alcohol prices have all contributed to what it has become today. “Rave culture is sort of rising from the ashes after a decade of decline,” said Dorsett. “Raves are mirroring what’s happening socially – some of the best nights out are as much safe spaces for marginalised groups as they are parties. You have nights like BBZ and Pxssy Palace that are so celebratory, queer-friendly, diverse – it feels like uprising or protest.”
“With music being consumed mostly online, I hope that young people now are able to experience music and bass in the context of a public space”
Dorsett believes nightlife is at its best when it reflects intersectional culture built online, offline. “We’d like to see clubbing to remain in the physical world. With music being consumed mostly online, I hope that young people now are able to experience music and bass in the context of a public space and shared energy. I’d also love to see safety for women/non-binary folks prioritised as policy so that we can skank out in peace without fear of being harmed!”
Benin City is a group of mixed race women, Nigerian men, and gay men. They represent a snapshot of the wider population who need to express themselves without fear that within a few months, their bashment rave will be replaced by a £4-for-a-coffee artisan bakery. Music, in this case, would serve as the most powerful vehicle for change and awareness around what is happening, which is exactly what Benin City is advocating. However, gentrification and the council are not solely to blame. The reduction in nightclubs could be related to the change in habits among young people.
A good night out is broadening in the eyes of millennials. Many would rather invest in a festival overseas; cheap flights and accommodation, significantly cheaper alcohol, and access to an array of new artists and DJs. There is now an appeal to staying in, where online streams such as Boiler Room and NTS mean you don’t even have to leave your bedroom to enjoy a Friday night. There are attempts to coax young people out; clubs and bars are reinventing nights out with rooftop bars and Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar-themed nights. Granted, they do draw a huge crowd.
“It’s our job as storytellers to highlight the importance of local culture, and also to encourage communities to support local business.”
The rave cycle is slowing down, going through changes that we could not (or didn’t want to) predict. It is hard to see which part of the cycle we are on, but it is encouraging to know that bands like Benin City are using their music to renew perceptions of what clubbing is:
“It’s the people’s way of coming together and saying ‘we are here’. The world is a bit fucked at the moment but we won’t be robbed of our safe spaces to let go, move, get in our glad rags and sweat them out. It’s our job as storytellers to highlight the importance of local culture, and also to encourage communities to support local business.”