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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why the Right Can’t Boogaloo

The Right is ignorant about the rich history of “Boogaloo,” which evokes celebration, music, and dance, not violence.

In far-right vernacular, the word boogaloo is code for “civil war”—and not too subtly synonymous with “race war.” It emerged in the early 2010s in far-right online networks like 4chan and came to flourish on Facebook. Its adherents are no joke. Going by the names “boogs,” “boojahideens,” or, most commonly, “boogaloo bois,” they have been spotted at rallies against gun legislation and quarantine measures, decked out in tactical gear and assault rifles as if ready to defend their liberty against tyrannical “commies.”

It’s hard to say just how many “bois” there are, or what they’ll do next. They are a loosely affiliated network of “decentralized cells” whose existence is mostly online, but whose members have been arrested for crimes as serious as murder and terrorist plots. They adhere to variants of libertarianism, if not neo-Nazi white supremacy, and came on the scene publicly in 2020. Indeed, their idiosyncratic look made them hard to miss. For however much they resembled the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Patriot Front, and Three Percenters, these boys had theatrical and whimsical flair. They’re identifiable by their Hawaiian lūʻau shirts, and their name harkens back to the b-boy of break dancing or the sensuous music that is Latin soul (bugalú). In a 2020 report on the word boogaloo, NPR wrote, “The word’s racist cooptation by the far-right has a strange irony: boogaloo was developed by and for black and brown communities.” How, then, is a casual observer not be astonished, even a little amused, by these bois?

Frightened, too, no doubt. Theirs is an aesthetic that says I’m a bit foolish, but not to be trifled with. It bespeaks irony, yes, but also somberness and outrage. This can all be read, no doubt, as members’ reaction to the relative demise of American economic and military power and, with it, anger that white people’s historic privileges have never been in greater jeopardy. These bois find themselves in a society in which the mainstream media is more eager to flaunt its “woke” credentials than to challenge power in its refusal to provide affordable housing, education, and healthcare—let alone a healthier environment—for its citizenry. Emboldened as much by the Trump presidency as by the mythical aura of the American Revolution, they and their far-right allies are clamoring for a “revolution,” which, like its predecessor, won’t come about peacefully.

Whatever it is they admire about Trump’s maverick brand or the supposedly heroic past of America’s militias, these bois embody a form of prankish cosplay that belies their violent potential. As the New York Times reported in 2020,

Boogaloo groups may also have seized on the Hawaiian shirt for reasons other than signaling their association and intentions. … [D]oing so may be an attempt to bait the less informed into assuming the group means no real harm. That they are, really, in effect, a goofy bunch of boys despite their military-grade weaponry. This interpretation is shared by Patrick Blanchfield, an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, who regularly writes about the far right. He views the use of the Hawaiian shirt as yet another attempt by far-right groups to create an ‘undefinable space’ with ‘in-your-face absurdity.’ “It’s by design,” Mr. Blanchfield said. “That confusion is what they’re trying to exploit, which means it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture, or what’s right in front of you. If you see an image of a man wearing tactical gear with a gun and a Hawaiian shirt, the most salient thing there is that the guy has a gun and tactical gear.”

Those shirts and quirky names are, in other words, a far cry from the hospitality of an “aloha” or the sensuous merriment of a “fiesta.” Indeed, they’re a far cry from the artistry and ethics at the heart of lūʻau, breakin’, and bugalú.

It’s these bois’ aesthetic choices, after all, that fascinate (and infuriate) me. For aesthetics matter. We all know that a unique constellation of hairstyle, shoe brand, and apparel, let alone body art and piercings, can readily announce one’s “tribe” and one’s “vibe.” It’s no small measure of how we hail our “kin,” loosely put, and stake out our likes and dislikes—even, arguably, our life philosophy. The leather vests, braided beards, tattooed arms, and scowls of bikers cry out a menacing free spiritedness, as does the black ensemble of goths a nihilistic iconoclasm. Without uttering a word, they use their “look” to speak volumes.

That such choices are politically consequential should not be underrated, however mundane the aesthetic. Rare, for instance, is the senatorial or presidential candidate who doesn’t embrace corporate America’s dress code—slacks and a dress shirt, khakis and a polo shirt, or a suit (pantsuit for women)—as if to say that they ascribe to its ideological credo of profit-maximization and competitiveness, too.

But a more radical politics calls for a more spectacular aesthetic. Think of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, that socialist and internationalist vanguard that took on police brutality and stormed the country’s collective consciousness in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their black berets, leather jackets, flamboyant hair, and street swagger all but voiced the slogans “Black is beautiful!” and “All power to the people!” Try to imagine the force of those slogans and their party’s Ten-Point Program and Platform—which, notably, demanded housing, education, full employment, food, and safety for all Black people—without their militant style.1

Conservatives and fascists are no strangers to beauty and the sublime, either. The Nazis had appreciations for Greek drama, symphonic music, and neoclassical art; so, too, for (what they considered to be) racially superior bodies with fair skin and blue eyes and for military uniforms. Be they formal dress or battle fatigues, military uniforms connote power and virtue. Not just an index of someone’s trained capacity (and license) to kill, they also say, This is what a patriot looks like—what valor, loyalty, discipline, and sacrifice look like. Uniforms distinguish and recruit. Think, too, of the Ku Klux Klan. Although haphazardly clothed in its early years, the Klan eventually decided on white robes and canonical hoods, thanks in no small measure to D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. It’s anyone’s guess whether they chose that look to convey papal-like purity or ghostly terror—if not both simultaneously.

But perhaps this is why the boogaloo bois’ stylistic bravado stands (or stood?) out amongst the Right. All the others are so unimaginative! Take the well-known Proud Boys: juvenile name, frat boy-esque look. Those black polo shirts embroidered with a gold “PB” and the ever-present baseball cap look more like the “uniform” of college tailgaters than a heroic militia. All in all, not terribly inspired. Or take the Three Percenters, easily one of the largest militias in the U.S. Their name, to be sure, has some historic gravitas. It’s based on the claim that only 3 percent of Americans fought in the war for independence. Reputable scholars put that figure closer to 15 percent, insofar as you count (ironically enough!) the militia, not just the Continental Army. And even that figure does not include all the noncombatants (customarily, women) it takes to wage, let alone win, a war. But identities, all of them, are rarely predicated on sound research or coherent criteria. I won’t knock Three Percenters for being seduced by a myth that ennobles their deeds and dispositions. Who among us isn’t occasional prey to righteousness, if not vanity? Three Percenters think of themselves as carrying on an honorable tradition. And the allure of that makes sense.

But it doesn’t redeem their aesthetic mediocrity, let alone their politics. All that gruff and grit aside, their aesthetic is an amateurish copy of the U.S. armed forces, an army surplus store-like spectacle of camouflage, Kevlar helmets, and pseudo-official patches. In other words: all too predictable and, the sincerity of their convictions aside, a bit pathetic.

All of which brings us back to those Hawaiian-themed shirts. After learning the word “boogaloo” was synonymous with (the threat of) mass violence, news and social media outlets began to censor accounts that used the word. As a consequence, far-right networks started to use analogous-sounding terms such as “Big igloo” and “Big luau.” This best explains their black-and-white logo (with igloo) and the shirts.

And a fortuitous choice it was. Those shirts and all the quirky nomenclature helped the bois announce their “movement” with unrivaled flair. It caught the eye and conveyed an irreverent, anti-authoritarian sentiment. They couldn’t be as easily mocked as angry white guys with guns. In lieu of solemn names like Three Percenters or Oath Keepers, let alone scary white masks like those of the Patriot Front, here stood these bois in “uniforms” that connote beauty, festivity, and hospitality—were it not, of course, for all the lethal paraphernalia.

It’s no meager scandal, akin to that which haunts the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white nationalists marched on the scene with tiki torches, an icon of tropical pleasantry rendered tool of terror. For the record, lūʻau isn’t just a tourist gimmick with swaying dancers shrouded in tiki light and floral leis. It’s the Hawaiian word for “feast,” one that often features a kalua (barbecued) pig and poi, a staple of Polynesian food derived from taro root. It’s a celebration, accordingly, in which violence is disavowed (save for the slaughtered pig, of course), a social ritual that fosters cohesiveness, gratitude, and enjoyment. Even in its most commodified forms (e.g., the lūʻau shirt or a resort’s fabricated lūʻau), it’s an invitation to mellow out and have a good time—as if to say, enjoy the succulent food, the soothing music and dance, the hospitality and the seaside splendor.

This is, I’ll admit, to reiterate a somewhat exoticized account of Hawaiʻi and Polynesians, a stereotype as old as “noble savage” discourses about the so-called New World and as contemporary as Moana. It says little about the dispossession (and resistance to it) of Pacific Islanders throughout their history. Not much more than 10 percent of the Hawaiian Islands’ residents are native Kānaka Maoli. At that, Kanaka (and other Pacific Islanders) have legal title to only a small percentage of their ancestral lands and are socioeconomically worse off than white and Asian settlers. If anyone has the grounds to chant “You will not replace us!” it’s Kanaka and indigenous peoples throughout the world. Perhaps that’s why the Boogaloo movement was drawn to the lūʻau shirt. A libertarian tribute, call it, to a people’s anti-colonialist fight for their freedoms. Maybe, in fact, some boogs have taken island “de-tours,” those that tell the story of Hawai’i (or Guam, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, etc.) from a decolonial perspective.

Again, I jest. The phrase “Big luau” and the lūʻau shirts are, as best as I can surmise, sheer folly and coincidence, not a form of decolonial subversion. Or to be exact: it’s a perverse appropriation. These bois evoke no lūʻau ethos, and their white supremacist tendencies run counter to what Hawai’i might symbolize as the most multiethnic and multiracial state in the Union. The islands are home to native Kanaka and to a sizable number of peoples of Filipino, Puerto Rican, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Chamorro, and Samoan ancestries—let alone all the combinations thereof in second and third generations. To wit, Hawai’i has the smallest per capita percentage of white Americans in the Union. It can’t be a coincidence that in 2021 white supremacist propaganda was reported in all U.S. states except Hawai’i!

The boogaloo bois seem to have a mixed relationship with white supremacy. (The same could be said of others, like the Proud Boys, whose leader is the AfroCuban Enrique Tarrio.) Bois in their trademark lūʻau shirts attended Black Lives Matter rallies as voluntary “security” and some wrote social media posts that decried police brutality, be the victim white or Black. Nor would it be fair to say they are totally “anti-government.” If we take their word for it, it’s a hatred of illegitimate government that unites the Right— though this is a bit of a tautology when it comes to socialism, since it is for them synonymous with “tyranny” and “totalitarianism.”

Either way, maybe this gets us a step closer to what their aesthetic actually communicates: namely, “I’ll do as I damn well please!” That may be a crude paraphrase of libertarianism, but it’s not wholly inaccurate. And this, too, I’ll admit, has its charms. What would life be without periodic eruptions of sound and fury? Without invitations to rage against our bureaucratized lives? In a sense, rock, metal, and especially punk are the musical embodiments of that sentiment. Just think of punk’s less polished, almost cacophonous sound, all that aggressive volume, speed, and feedback that says to hell with melodious decorum or sentimental jingles. Indeed, just think of the “dances,” so to speak, that these kinds of music elicit, not least the shoving and thrashing about known as moshing. But moshing and the mosh pit are a circumscribed risk that one voluntarily assumes. It begins and ends with the music and the space of the concert and concertgoers. There’s even a measure of trust that the harm done won’t be irreparable (though, at times, it is). Just enough pain and licensed unruliness to remind you that you’re alive and not alone.

Whatever we make of it, varieties of punk and metal do seem like the most consonant music (and dances) to the far-right’s projected persona. Country music and line dancing are much too melancholic or docile. And hula music and dance are much too seductive and beautiful. Hawaiian scholar and cultural activist Mary Kawena Pukui taught us that hula has several genres, from the sacred to the frivolous. Some are used to praise (fertility) gods, recite epic histories, or lament a loss, while others are used to cultivate the arts of music, poetry, and mime-like dance. We’re most familiar with the ukulele-inflected hula and the swaying of (women’s) hips, the arms and hands that resemble the ocean’s waves or the breeze caught in coconut palms. All in all, it’s an aesthetic that conjures, Kawena Pukui would have insisted, the “aloha spirit.”

It’s noteworthy, in this regard, that “aloha” has a spiritual and ethical significance not often acknowledged. We know it as that cheerful salutation that tourists receive at the airport or coming off cruise ships. But to be exact, it’s the Hawaiian word (along with Polynesian variants) for “love,” “mercy,” and “compassion.” That makes it a salutation more akin to the Hebrew shalom or the Arab Islamic as-salamu alaykum than to a generic “hello”—let alone an invocation to war!

Boogaloo, it turns out, was the name of a 1960s dance associated with soul and funk music. None other than James Brown had a rendition of it, showcasing that footwork and those head nods that were proud, cool, and sensuous all at once. According to choreographer and urban dance scholar Thomas “T-Bopper” Guzmán-Sánchez, boogaloo emerged in the streets of 1960s Oakland and Chicago, where impromptu variations on soul dances started to include robot-like gestures that evolved into poppin’ and lockin’. Those dances then evolved into breakin’ and rap music, most famously in New York.

The mid-1980s movies Beat Street and Breakin’ popularized these moves. And curiously enough, they are relevant to our discussion. The sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo was a movie so bad it became a cult classic and its subtitle a parodic joke. Years later, that subtitle was fashioned “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo” in far-right online networks, becoming the catchword for an anticipated, if not eagerly provoked, civil war.

But to clarify, no one watched those movies for their plots or (abysmal) acting; they watched them for the dancing! It was contagious in its day, not least for urban youth of color: all those Black and Puerto Rican boys (and some girls) flaunting their athletic and choreographic prowess, without any of the rules or paywalls of organized sports and classical dance. Anarchical, raw, and impromptu, it was a stylized urban dance that stimulated camaraderie, pride, wonder, and joy—not violence. Indeed, so much of what was celebrated about breakin’ (and rapping) was that it functioned as an aesthetic surrogate for violence: no assault weapons or physical altercations, just creative exuberance against humiliation, irrelevance, and boredom.

And it had an aesthetic, too. From the dance itself to the b-boys’ and b-girls’ colorful jumpsuits and white sneakers, to say nothing of bedazzled or oversized accessories. It was an ensemble—the dance, music, and dress—that cried out for respect. Not incidentally were those movies premised on “turf wars” between urban gangs. Breakin’ and rap were born in a context of slum housing, violent crime, a crack epidemic, defunded schools, and precarious or illicit employment, if any. It was the dance and music of surplus populations marked for mass incarceration and whose social conditions sometimes led them to kill each other.

Breakin’ can of course convey violent potential. It puts on display the dancer and his crew’s physical (not just aesthetic) abilities—as if to say, “Yes, I did that … so you better think twice about fuckin’ wit me.” But it is rarely, if ever, violent. It doesn’t even involve contact, whether erotic (like tango) or bellicose (like moshing). Arguably, it’s best understood as an artful preemption of violence.

One could also argue that the boogaloo bois merely display their arms, that theirs is a rhetorical violence. The bois aren’t guilty of any shameless massacres or the like—yet. But the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who gleefully talk of a “boogaloo” are not few in number. And we all know those high-caliber weapons could be used—indeed, have been used. The list of racially motivated hate crimes and massacres in our day speaks for itself: the nine Black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015; the 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2018; the 23 victims (most of them Latino) at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019; the 8 victims (six of them Asian-American) at spas in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2021; the 10 Black victims at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022. Not to mention all the aggrieved families and communities or other incidents worldwide, such as the terrorist attack at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in New Zealand in 2019, which left 51 people dead and 40 injured.

The point stands: there’s nothing creative, let alone physically impressive, about carrying a six-pound assault rifle or pulling its trigger. But that’s precisely one of its most seductive powers. Even the most uninventive and unremarkable person can pick up a gun and command “respect”—that is to say, end life. They can feel potent (and be lethal) without the slightest aesthetic, choreographic, athletic or musical talent. It’s a facile and morbid pleasure, akin to the ease with which one can order that lūʻau shirt on Amazon and wear it without any accountability to Kanaka ethics and spirituality.

But procure pleasures it does. At rallies, the bois and their kin must feel potent and audacious. Armed to the teeth and taking a stand for something worthwhile (call it “liberty”), they create a spectacle that conveys naked power and affords a sense of camaraderie, purpose, and exhilaration. Not easy to resist, not by comparison to the drudgery or alienation that our contemporary world has to offer.

But those lūʻau shirts and that quirky term (boogaloo) bear no real resemblance to the blessed warmth or creative sublimation that lūʻau and breakin’ exemplify. Nor, lastly, do they live up to the spontaneous and sensuous fun—let alone the welcoming and inclusive spirit—that is boogaloo as a Latin music.

Bugalú, to use its Hispanized name, emerged in 1960s New York. It was the music of young self-taught musicians, most of them working class Puerto Ricans raised in east Harlem and the South Bronx. These were second generation immigrants who listened and danced to doo-wop, soul, rhythm and blues alongside rumba, mambo, son, and boleros, the same as they lived alongside Black American communities. They lived bewildering lives: born U.S. citizens but treated as foreigners, neither unambiguously white or Black, and generally neglected (when not stigmatized) in mainstream American media, they looked for artistic ways to reckon with their lives.

Albeit a short-lived craze, bugalú stormed the barrio dance halls in the mid- to late-1960s, out of which came hits such as conga drummer Joe Cuba’s “Bang! Bang!” and pianist Pete Rodríguez’s “I Like It Like That.” With their handclapping and choral chants, the ecstatic buildups and restarts, the songs are emblematic of a musical genre that conjures a raucous, festive spirit. It’s a participatory music in which spontaneity and pleasure are a promise for all, however much by innuendo. The it that one likes like that is, after all, “seductively ambiguous,” as critic Juan Flores pointed out: “whether it be the song itself, the way the band is playing, the dance moves, the party spirit, sex, rum, marijuana, whatever.”

That said, there’s nothing about that rhythmic piano lick and smooth brass interjections, the braggadocio of vocalist Tony Pabón or the women’s choral jubilance that says the it that one likes is a racist massacre or a governmental coup. Far from it. Bugalú is a musical inducement to sensuous pleasure and fellowship, whatever one’s ethnicity, sexuality, political affiliations, or so forth. Widely toured and played on the radio, it was enjoyed by audiences of all kinds. For it is an “aesthetic” of inclusivity and merriment, not violence. Anyone can listen and dance to it, in whatever way strikes their fancy. There are no set steps or agreed upon movement. But rest assured: you can’t listen to it and not want to dance.

What’s left, thus, is the boo in boogaloo: these bois and their “homies” are bogey (not boogie) men, specters that haunt our hopes to relate joyfully and peaceably with one another. They may have some well-founded grievances, and their mockery of liberals isn’t altogether unwarranted. Nor is their call for a “revolution” unwelcome! It’s just that there has to be “music,” so to speak, that we’d want to dance to. The only music firmly associated with the alt-right is so-called fashwave, a retro-futuristic music inspired by synthwave. It’s a sound more ambient and digital than rhythmic, better suited for a 1980s dystopian sci-fi or horror film than a musical festival or party. Enough said?

There’s every reason to believe, nevertheless, that these bois and kindred militants will strike again or even escalate their tactics. Many organizations may have withered in the wake of the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot and its investigations, but the same happened after the Charlottesville calamity and all the lawsuits that ensued, only for the far right to remerge in lūʻau shirts and flags with igloos. If anything, the conditions for fascism have only worsened: not only the economic precarity and inequality we continue to live with, but a visceral distrust in our electoral system. As sociologists of revolutions have noted, once faith in democratic legitimacy has eroded, all bets are off. There is of course copious evidence that our system is unreliable and unfair. But Citizens United, the electoral college, gerrymandering, etc., aren’t what the bois and sympathetic Republicans are furious about; it’s the “stolen” election of 2020. That narrative will fuel much of the 2024 electoral strategy for Republicans, and it will yield not just votes but new far-right militants. Under what code words, memes, and “uniforms” they’ll express their sound and fury by then is anyone’s guess. What’s next? A group of white libertarians calling themselves “Sons of Geronimo,” sporting “war paint” on their faces and crying out “powwow” as code for insurrection (and homage to the Boston Tea Partiers who dressed up as Native Americans)? Whatever the case, it’s safe to assume they won’t wage an emancipatory war on behalf of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Black Americans, or Puerto Ricans. It’s more likely that they’ll continue to take and travesty as they please and to categorically slander the word “government”—never mind “socialism.” Either way, we should brace ourselves for the worst, which might include the metamorphosis of these anti-government militias into pro-state paramilitaries.

Note: Aug. 31, 2023. Proud Boy leader Joseph Biggs was sentenced to 17 years in prison for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

  1. In 1969, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (known as COINTELPRO) took on the mandate to “neutralize” these radicals of color, some of whom were assassinated and some of whom still remain imprisoned

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