Chelsea Faith Dolan’s music as Cherushii was exceptionally layered and beautiful, with a fealty to classic techno that is rarely made with such precision. Her Queen of Cups EP, released in 2013 on the Los Angeles boutique dance label 100% Silk, was a gleaming example of how purely emotional techno can become, and her more recent work explored new ways to infuse heart within instrumental house music. Last year, she collaborated with fellow electronic music producer Maria Minerva on the dreamy “Thin Line,” an immensely vibey track with a lithe swerve.
Dolan died Friday in the Oakland warehouse fire at Ghost Ship. In Minerva’s Facebook memorial to one of her best friends, she called her “one of the most talented producers I’ve ever known.”
The loss of life was absolutely devastating in its scope. At least 36 people, most in their 20s and 30s but one as young as 17, are missing or confirmed dead. By all reports, one thing that almost everyone had in common is that they were artists in some form—people who contributed beauty to the world, and who believed in nurturing their local community.
The party that night at Ghost Ship has been unfairly characterized as a rave, a term that, for many people, still inaccurately conjures images of drugged-out, orgiastic heathens at play. That depiction has vilified the underground music-event scene at the worst possible moment, as if curbing illegal venues and parties is the key to preventing tragedies like this. That depiction also ignores the necessity of underground venues in the flourishing of local, non-corporate artists and community figures like those who were victims of the fire. It doesn’t consider the fact that these venues exist because more often than not, it’s almost impossible to make music, visual art, film, etc. without the buttressing force of corporate support, which not incidentally rarely contributes to the health of communities.
On Sunday, while Maria Minerva was waiting for news of her friend Chelsea Faith, she streamed a video on Facebook Live. Through her fear and grief she articulated the importance of underground spaces to musicians who might not be able to fill a stadium—or even a more modest venue—but who are still deeply important to culture.
“It really made me think about why are these people at that space? And I obviously know, or I think I know, the answer,” says Minerva, explaining that astronomical rents in San Francisco and Oakland force people to “live like rats... [but] people live at those kinds of places, because they have nowhere else to go.”
Like Minerva, many within the Oakland arts community and beyond it have pointed out that rising rents are the primary reason that underground dance parties and other music events of varying scales are forced into the margins. And most of those of us who enjoy this kind of music and live in cities have been to warehouse spaces not unlike Ghost Ship—empty spots repurposed because the costs to rent a sanctioned space, or even to book at a proper venue, are prohibitive. Given the option of attending an event in a sketchy space or not going at all, most of us will choose the sketchy space every time. It’s a risk weighed against a sacrifice. Astronomical rents are not only pushing all but the rich from American cities but they are destroying the arts communities that make American cities places that people want to live in.
This has been said time and again, about New York and the Bay Area in particular—the two most expensive cities in the United States, both which have both seen gentrification at unfathomable rates. And in the East Bay Express, writer Sam LeFebvre points out rightly that underground spaces are usually, as a rule, more inclusive. In Oakland, three trans women artists are among the confirmed dead, including 22-year-old Cash Askew, from a band called Them Are Us Too; Em Bohlka, 33, a poet; and Feral Pines, 29, an artist and musician. That the spaces where marginalized people—and again, artists without some kind of corporate backing are often marginalized—can congregate are increasingly marginalized themselves is an urgent and related fact. And these beautiful ones are gone, in part, because of it.