The Story Behind the Boogaloo
Updated: Jun 9
How cultural heritage was co-opted by a hate movement.
James Brown performing in 1973 (Source: Heinrich Klaffs/flickr)
Cultural heritage is an expression of cultural identity. Because of this link, heritage may be a source of unity and celebration, or it may be weaponized by one group to threaten another. Graphic images of the 2015 bombing of the ancient Graeco-Roman Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, depict not only the literal destruction of a site of human antiquity but also the symbolic destruction of multiple religious identities linked to the site. In the American South, the debate over the removal of Confederate memorials is caught up in the ethical implications of letting stand a threatening reminder of ethnic and racial subjugation. Today, heritage is again in the crosshairs with the appropriation of a living form of Black and Hispanic culture to name a white supremacist movement.
Historically, ‘Boogaloo’ refers to a collaborative Black and Hispanic musical art form that originated in the 1950s. In sharp contrast, the twenty-first century extremist movement of the same name is a form of white nationalism with aims to overthrow the government and start a race-based civil war. Mainstream media often credit the extremist use of the term to an internet meme, overlooking its deeper cultural implications. The supremacist movement brands its insurrection ‘Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo’, from the 1984 movie Breakin’ Two: Electric Boogaloo, which has become a jocular title online for any sequel in any context. While they are surely riffing on the meme, the extremists who have co-opted Boogaloo also clearly comprehend its broader racial heritage and employ the term for maximum impact.
Combining soul and R&B with Latin rhythms and lyrics, Boogaloo music and dance are classic, celebratory American art forms that gave rise to the twist, the robot, the moonwalk, and popping and locking. Boogaloo is also etched into the history of social activism of the 1960s. Boogaloo bands often played at Black Power and Black Panther rallies and took names like the Black Resurgents in solidarity with the demand for equal rights and an end to racial violence. The name itself likely originates from Bogalusa, Louisiana, where in 1965 a group of armed Black veterans called the Deacons for Defense and Justice confronted the Ku Klux Klan.
In disquieting contrast, the extremist Boogaloo movement’s social media reveal widespread white supremacist ideology against not only Blacks and Hispanics but also Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ, indigenous groups, immigrants, and liberals in general. A popular Boogaloo hashtag refers to the ‘Day of the Rope’, a reference from a neo-Nazi novel that depicts the extermination of all non-Whites in America. Boogaloo posts often refer to BLM protestors as ‘joggers’ in reference to the murder of Ahmaud Arbury by three white men as he was jogging in a suburban Georgia neighborhood. Boogaloo members have committed violent crimes, including the murder of two police officers, attempted terrorist attacks on BLM protesters, and plotting to kidnap and assassinate the Michigan governor. While some members in the movement claim to be race blind, the hate group–monitoring organization Southern Poverty Law Center points out that going on the record as not racist is often exactly what racist organizations do.
The relocation of Boogaloo from a space of cultural celebration to one of minority annihilation is a diabolically creative form of cultural erasure. Appropriating and inhabiting an expression of culture while advocating for the mass murder of that same cultural group is the stuff of nightmares. Searching ‘Boogaloo music’ on YouTube brings up a disturbing juxtaposition of thumbnail pics: here are Boogaloo artists in stop-motion dance; there are Boogaloo extremists brandishing automatic weapons. Combining something joyful and familiar with violence is a time-tested method to terrorize people. Horror movies do it all the time. Yet here, the terrorists hide violent intent behind an internet meme.
Throughout history political actors have harnessed the power of music as a call to revolution, war, or genocide. The bagpipes called armies to battle; the Bolsheviks claimed American Jazz as the official music of the Russian Revolution; and the Rwandan radio station RTLM was created solely to broadcast songs calling for the Tutsi genocide. Yet for the extremist Boogaloo movement, the music itself is not a battle cry. Rather, the music is part of the cultural identity of the intended victims, a stolen expression of cultural heritage to name the very movement that would annihilate the heritage practitioners. Calling out this malevolent usage may aid in returning Boogaloo to its rightful space, where, in the words of famed Boogaloo musician Jonny Colón, ‘Boogaloo was something that bridged people, that bridged cultures, that transcended cultures’.
Alicia Stevens [2017, Jesus] is PhD candidate in archaeology, where she works on questions of cultural heritage in Myanmar.