Before too long I moved on to the band’s debut full-length Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair—an album as audacious and lofty as its title—and I loved every second of it. While listening to Somewhere something happened; I was connecting to lyrics and the stories they told along with the music. It was album experience like I had never had before. I was gripped by the over-the-top dramatic nature of the stories being presented and shocked that an album could hold connective thematic threads throughout. I pored over each and every song, connecting themes and motifs together, unpacking all I could from the tales of love, death and community. To me at fourteen, Somewhere was the Sistine Chapel or King David; this was the pinnacle of art.
When La Dispute’s Wildlife was released in 2011 I had followed the curiosity and wonder of music that Somewhere had sparked, listening to music of almost all kinds and attending as many shows as both my budget and parents would allow. With Wildlife, La Dispute again went above and beyond where I thought art and music could go. The album had a harsher and more somber aesthetic than the relative bombast of Somewhere and was organized as a collection of short stories that explored the topic of loss in various forms—economic, faith, familial and otherwise. It was an album very much placed in Grand Rapids, featuring locational and thematic references specific to the city I had grown up in and was just becoming to know. The songs had a lived-in quality to them that felt particularly Midwestern. Like a house in Eastown that’s been through the economic ringer or the pothole-afflicted road that has seen one too many harsh winters, Wildlife felt inseparable from the setting of Grand Rapids.
By the time Wildlife was released, La Dispute was a renowned band within hardcore music, but in the beginning they were at the mercy of their city and its ability to provide a space and audience for their art. Luckily, there was an infrastructure in Grand Rapids of DIY spaces and punks with basements ready to support a band like La Dispute as they brought forth a masterful expression of their experience and environment.
These are good things. But…
As a white man who was raised in the Christian Reformed Church from the greater Grand Rapids area, the odds were always in my favor when it came to finding local art that spoke to my experience. This is not the only experience in the city, however, and it would be a detriment to its art if this were the only perspective being supported and thriving. Grand Rapids is very segregated city and it often seems like just a few pockets of the city are fueling its cultural and artistic heart rather than a more complete whole.
There is no quick-fix response to unbalanced representation within art. Tradition and inertia when it comes to art spaces is an understated force: it’s difficult to attract people into places where they don’t normally go. But if any change is going to be made, representation has to be a priority of the venues and spaces: Those booking shows can cast a wider net than just artists in their network of friends and friends of friends; Spaces can make sure that they’re a safe and welcoming space for those outside of their regular audience; a clear and concise mission statement can be crafted and made visible, so those entering the venue know its priorities and goals.
Grand Rapids is changing quickly and its changes are casting uncertainty around how DIY spaces will fare. This sounds threatening, but perhaps it will provide an opportunity to change how spaces function and whom they function for—to operate outside their normal mode. Can any of these changes be harnessed for the betterment of the community? Food is becoming a more diverse facet of Grand Rapids—can this be used as a method of collaboration and disrupt demographic inertia in art spaces?
I don’t have the answers. But when I look at the ways in which bands like La Dispute have enriched my life, I hope that I try as hard as I possibly can to make sure that those outside of my experience have the opportunity to be enriched also.
Some local artists to support:
Alynn Guerra (visual)
Jes Kramer (music)
Yessy Dance Company (dance)
Vox Vidorra (music)