The Spirit of Detroit

Making the intangible, tangible.

I wrestled with what to write about during Movement this year, when it finally hit me. I want to make the intangible, tangible. To encapsulate the massive love and respect I have for Detroit. Because it’s such a visceral feeling, talking about it on the spot sometimes can’t do it justice. So many people have asked me what’s so special about Detroit. Why is it such a thing? I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had about it over the years. I might as well be a proxy member of the tourism board, which I’d be happy to be. What I do know is that my heart swells when I’m there and when I’m not, I long for its realness, vibrancy and determination. I reflected throughout the festival weekend and often paused to articulate those intricacies into my Detroit soliloquy:

I was born in Detroit and raised in West Bloomfield, MI in the 80s and 90s. Though they’re only 30 minutes apart, the dichotomy made it seem that they were on opposite sides of the world: the drastic racial divide between city and suburb, the socioeconomics, the schools, the urban decay Detroit’s known for and the cookie cutter construction in the burbs. The freshness of the air compared to the industrial smell that takes over when you’re driving down I-75 South. I’m certainly not hating on the suburbs. Growing up there gave me a cushy, safe life with many opportunities for which I’m enormously grateful. But from my first rave at the Packard Plant in 1995, I was hooked. Though it was the music and parties that initially grabbed my attention, my curious eyes and ears unveiled the city to me and made me fall deeply in love with Detroit.

It’s not just the locals who find it so. My sentimentality aside, it’s crystal clear that Detroit is extraordinarily special. I’ve listened to pronouncements of acclaim and life changing experiences from many who’ve spent time there. And more often than not, when people visit for the first time, a lightbulb goes off. There’s a paradigm shift as the city’s essence seeps into their senses and souls.

Detroit has birthed an abundance of prolific music genres that have reverberated around the globe and sparked massive cultural changes. There’s something about being in the vicinity of the sacred ground where countless beats, harmonies, and expressions that bare an artists’ soul, that lets you know more is possible. That’s especially relevant in today’s music culture which is predominantly driven by social media, appearance and the overproduced (or perhaps underproduced) sounds of which there is too much. This is the city whose people generated infinite joyful moments across the world. It’s simply wild to think about. Detroit’s music demands your attention and you can’t escape it even if you wanted to. It’s sonic quicksand that you’re delighted to sink into.

The city has an edge that lets you know that things don’t last forever, nor are they precious. It gives me a deep sense of value that helps me live more in the present. Detroit isn’t built for comfort. It’s as if it’s built for dancing. Not being in your comfort zone pushes one outside of their boundaries and allows for deep personal discovery. And the results can be rewarding and exhilarating. Just let your ears guide you and you might be delightfully surprised by the life that ensues.

Detroiters are hyper focused on the beauty of music and recognize that it’s the central and driving element of not just parties, but of life itself. Music seeps out of the city’s pores. Whether it’s a car rolling down the street or walking into a restaurant or store, what you hear out and about is eons better than what’s typically heard in other cities. And chatting with locals, there’s an authenticity to the conversations that’s rooted in pride.The city doesn’t create audio magic on its own, it’s the residents who are from there that bring that to life. Maybe it’s something in the water?! Detroit has evolved in so many ways since my time living there- it’s a perfectly imperfect city- but underneath the social and physical changes, its true spirit remains the same. 

Friday night is when I really got the time travel, snap back experience I’d been craving. The fresh and familiar sketchy excitement is simply exhilarating. There’s a password at the door. And a cunt one at that. The space is in the midst of construction and holds maybe 200 people inside. Hard floors made for dancing. A few red lights that glow warmly yet unobtrusively. It’s clear what the difference is. It’s proper. The most proper wormhole in the universe. It’s all about the music. Period. The music is the star. The nuances of the party that make the music central allows me to focus. There’s no fanfare surrounding the DJ. Yes, there’s chit chats and conversation but the music is in your face and your ear is the boss. The crowd is diverse and also small because there’s zero social media promotion. So people are here because they know the tea. Curated and crafted. The real reals. Gorgeous.

Saturday at the festival was, how shall we say, chef’s kiss. This curation this year was incredible. Beautifully diverse in a lot of ways and lots of the proper folks on the line up. Paxahau is simply (yet not simply at all) holding it down through its evolution. I had my requisite corn dog with mustard and freshly squeezed lemonade. Drinking the sugary delectable concoction and munching on the corndog in H(e)art Plaza is divine. I’m surrounded by music being played expressly for Detroit, with fam and friends old and new. My happiness barometer is popping off the chart. The only thing I could want for is more and more and more.

Saturday night and all the days that followed were the most perfectly imperfect parties on Earth. Because the best things are sometimes not perfect, but somehow they still are. The fundamentals are there and strong. Good music. Good sound. Good lighting. Good people. And they’re dancing, actually dancing. The realness of the people working who are repping the strong Detroit spirit to all that they interact with. Fleeting yet deep conversations with people that live the most interesting lives. People in Detroit are so open and warm. Midwest is best after all. And especially in Detroit, the auditory heartbeat of the planet.

I implore you, if you came to Detroit for Movement and loved it, broaden the range of your visits to other times of year. Experience the city like a local does, sans tourists. There’s so much more depth to be discovered about oneself without all the hoopla that surrounds the big festival weekend.

I recognize that folks on their virgin trip to Detroit during the festival may be overwhelmed. It’s a lot of people and a lot of energy. Many of the parties are packed, and while there’s an abundance of them, it can be foreboding for some. To those who felt something special but that weekend was too much, I offer the same advice- give it another chance and try going another time when it’s more chill.

And if you haven’t yet been to the mecca of music and are intrigued- well, do I really need to say another word?

Check out more of Tovah’s essays at