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How David Bowie Fans Transformed Brixton with a Street Party

By CHAR ADAMS

Valerie Gritsch had never considered herself a huge David Bowie fan, so she was shocked by how much the singer’s death, on Jan. 10, 2016, affected her emotionally. She mourned along with the rest of the world, and caught a glimpse on social media of a massive street party in Brixton with scores of fans celebrating the singer’s life in front of a mural of Bowie himself.

With that, Gritsch, an M.A. student at The Graduate Center, CUNY, was inspired to look deeply at the moment and its impact on Bowie’s South London hometown. Her article, “How David Bowie Fans Transformed Brixton After His Death,” was recently published in a special issue of The Journal of Popular Culture.

“The celebration really never ended as David Bowie’s beloved Brixton was transformed and solidified into the ultimate tourist destination for his fans,” Gritsch writes. “Coupled with the fact that Brixton was where he was born, it is also the original place to connect with him.”

Gritsch presents Bowie fans’ connection with the Brixton mural as the perfect example of fandom. Fans come from around the world to leave gifts at the memorial mural and to stand in the place where hundreds gathered and partied in Bowie’s name in the wake of his death.

“This was a popular, well-known mural that had been painted and it happened to be in his hometown,” Gritsch tells SUM. “There’s this overarching need for fans, like, ‘I need to be near this person that meant a lot to me.’”

She describes fans’ journeys to the mural as a pilgrimage — a trip she’s taken six times over the last three years.

“It’s very similar to what people find in religion … there are people who go on these sacred journeys to connect with the center of their faith,” Gritsch explains. “I find there’s a lot of completeness in music fandom. It’s a great community to be a part of, you can find a lot of support from other fans, friendship.”

Punk rock fans have long associated Brixton with The Clash’s classic song “Guns of Brixton.” The area was also the site of riots in 1981 when its beleaguered Afro-Caribbean community faced off against police following the stabbing of a young black man.

For all the benefits that the Bowie connection has brought to Brixton, Gritsch highlights a downside to the fandom-focused destination. “These layers of mediation cement the identity of Brixton as the place to think about David Bowie and his fans,” she says. “The flip side is that these mediations of Bowie and Brixton are eclipsing the neighborhood’s rich African‐Caribbean history and signaling gentrification and safety to would‐be pilgrims.”