A Conversation on the Bleaching of Techno: How Appropriation is Normalized and Preserved

This Conversation between Axmed Maxamed and Mathys Rennela took place in November 2019

Pictured above: Radio Noet Noet

As friends who have known each other for years and bonded through electronic music, We have had many conversations about our experiences with racism in Amsterdam’s dance music scene, and decided recently to write down some of our most regular grievances. The following conversation took place before the on-going wave of protests, and in spite of the recent reckoning with anti-Black racism of a lot of white actors in the scene, the challenges and issues mentioned are still very relevant. Although the Dutch scene is the primary focus of this discussion, similar dynamics can be observed all across the world.

Axmed: Cultural appropriation, artists using ‘Black names’ and appropriating Black cultures, stories of outright and endemic racism within the dance music scenes, … those are topics that we’ve discussed a lot in the past few years.

Mathys: When it comes to music circles, it goes much further than cultural appropriation. Especially when there is so much musical production which comes from the continent of Africa and also from the diaspora and people of colour in general. So many traditions and musical work are just completely taken over and whitewashed by the industry. For some white artists, it is really about adopting a Black artistic identity, which I find really really interesting. I was at Dekmantel last year and I think it was Friday or Saturday…

Axmed: I remember you mentioning it.

Mathys: Yes! I remember how excited I was to see some of the artists from the African continent on the line-up, such as Ugandan Methods and there was also a duo named after an island in the Pacific.

Axmed: Nu Guinea

Mathys: That’s the name. So I was excited to see them, but then when I turned up I saw that both duos were white guys. Then when I shared my surprise on Twitter a lot of PoC were especially surprised about Ugandan Methods. I checked more of the artists and I was really surprised when I realised that Kamaal Williams is not Black. If you hear the name Kamaal Williams, you automatically make the connection with Black America, especially in combination with his music. 

Axmed: And in addition to that, he has a label called Black Focus Records and when I saw that, I thought ‘what is going on here?’. I know that he chose the name Kamaal when he converted to Islam, not sure where Williams came from and he then started using Arabic letters in artworks, for example for his label.

Mathys: I really wonder what is the real motivation behind adopting a Black identity. As a dj you already have access to records by Black artists and you can make a career, like a lot of people have done, just by playing music from the African continent or Carribean music. So I wonder what the incentive is to adapt a Black identity. To me, it’s really similar to the ‘sex sells’ trend in EDM, where attractive and barely-clothed women are used to advertise for parties and festivals, as it is culturally accepted that the two are related. The episode of the Code Switch podcast ‘Give it up for dj blackface’ discusses the fact that House & Techno originated from Black artists and that adopting a Black identity creates legitimacy. However, the whitewashing process of House and Techno has been fully completed. As they also mentioned in the podcast, if you ask the average white European about the history of House or Techno they are more likely to say Daft Punk than Jeff Mills.

Axmed: Yes the ‘bleaching’ of House & Techno has definitely been completed and not only white people think it is music that has always been white, but even Black people believe it. The history has been deeply erased even though it is relatively recent. I remember the reaction of a lot of people who are not involved within dance music when Black Queer & Trans Resistance NL shared the Code Switch episode you mentioned.

Mathys: Although, adopting Black identities to gain some legitimacy is far from a recent phenomenon. A good example is Italo Disco. To gain more legitimacy bands like Change consisted of entirely Black vocalists and dancers, in spite of having white producers. You can argue that it was important for marketing purposes to feature predominantly Black faces. Even Luther Vandross was part of this band for a short period. And it is not a surprise that the beginning of Italo Disco coincided with disco being ‘outlawed’ in the US, with anti-disco events such as the Disco Demolition Night on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago. This anti-disco movement was a real whitelash, led by cishet white people against the growth of music genres pioneered by queer communities of color.

Axmed: Yes and this was part of the rise of Eurodisco and what was also called ‘post disco’ and bands such as Boney M came out of, which is also a project of a white producer while all the band members were Black. It’s a whole different discussion but it’s worth pointing out how disposable a lot of the Black band members were. Fundamentally, it was a white person calling all the shots.

Mathys: For a long time rap, especially gangsta rap, was music that could only be made by Black artists, then it was marketed to a larger (predominantly white) audience, with the rise of white rappers such as Eminem and now the genre is partially disconnected from the socio-ethnic background it originated in. I feel like in dance music, we reached a point where it has been so white washed that it shouldn’t be necessary anymore for white artists to adopt a Black identity. So I feel that it is not just about marketing and credibility anymore, it is also about making a statement. 

Axmed: Interesting that you say that, because then the question is, what is the statement exactly? I honestly think that you are giving some of the artists too much credit in thinking that they put a lot of thought in their use of Black identities. I’d argue that it is more about white artists seeing the world as their playing field and not caring about the consequences and the impact of their choices on Black and brown artists and partygoers. When it comes down to it, it is about the scene not caring about Black people, which is of course a product of the society we live in. 

In addition to that, there are still ways that adopting Black identity is a selling point. A good example of that in the Netherlands is Beesmunt Soundsystem, who used the name Tanzania Soundsystem for one of their releases, along with Swahili words and phrases for the track titles:

Msichana = Girl

Mdomo = Mouth or lips

Ngono Kijiji = Sex in the village

Upotofu = Immoral or shameful

One of the tracks uses Maasai singing and the others are ‘remixes’ of classics by Tanzanian rumba bands such as Juwata Jazz Band, whose members are still alive as far as I know… Were they paid? In the press release, Highlife [label] doesn’t link the release to Beesmunt Soundsystem, but instead refer to ‘the mysterious Tanzania Sound System’. The cover picture is two unrecognizable Black figures in traditional clothing and the Tanzanian flag. 

This is also related to ‘the diggers scene’ where mostly white djs and label owners want to be the first one to ‘discover’ music from ‘far lands’, taking away people’s cultures without understanding the meaning behind the music, and marketing it to mostly white audiences. And of course they benefit from it as well. We were for example talking recently about Awesome Tapes From Africa.

Mathys: It’s in a way a reflection of neocolonialism. When people think about music from the African continent which is actually interesting in the context of dance music, they do not think about all the new up-and-coming South African musicians, all the innovations in the Nigerian scene, etc… They have a certain idea of what “African music” is supposed to sound like, and this goes through the white gaze: it has to sound authentic, low-tech, and if there’s any tech involved, it has to be salvaged. It has to convey the idea that someone made the music out of nowhere, in their village or in the bushes, with little resources, and their music was lost and found by a white European.

Awesome Tapes From Africa isn’t just a guy who went to a record store and found some African music. He has an academic background which gives him some legitimacy. This isn’t just about the music but also about the story, and this is what a neocolonial approach looks and sounds like. A label locally run would be much more ethical, without as much focus on this neocolonial narrative of “discovering” gems, whose value was underestimated before they were “re-discovered” by a white man. There’s nothing that people love more than a good story of a lost record being found. But in practice there aren’t many of such stories. 

Axmed: I think it also has to with entitlement, because why is there focus on that one artist who can not be found or ones who want nothing to do with the music industry, for personal reasons. Instead of respecting that, a lot of energy is spent into convincing and coercing them. So in some cases it is not about the artist but the white label owner or white music journalist demanding a product that has a ‘great story’ attached to it. And let’s not forget about the colonial history which white artists knowingly or unknowingly benefit from, which makes it problematic on a whole nother level.

Mathys: Some of the appeal for African and Caribbean music comes from its exoticism, and it tends to be taken out of context and seen through a white gaze. Musicians from the African continent or the Caribbean Islands often feel restrained in the expression of their art. Their music is really defined by the way it is consumed in the Western world, which is mostly without any context. 

“Selectors” rarely engage with the culture. I see this with French Caribbean music, which becomes increasingly popular in its instrumental form (without lyrics). I remember hearing a song in French Creole about Caribbean pride at a festival. It was a weird experience to hear a song about self-determination, with lyrics explicitly inviting to “free oneself from the white man”, being played by a white DJ to a very predominantly white crowd. I remember being confused to hear this song so full of rage and sadness being played in such a “joyful” way. Some DJs actually take the time to learn about the context of the music they play and really reflect about their praxis, especially when they accept to be held accountable for their mistakes. But it is certainly not the norm. 

Unfortunately, a lot of DJs refuse to take constructive criticism from their peers or from their public, and instead really engage in performative allyship: appearing at protests for selfies, making statements on social media in support of some communities without committing to help out its members within the scene, taking up space in activist circles without acknowledging people who actually put in the hard work, etc. There are ethical ways to engage with the music, and it is up to DJs to go through the process of finding their own work ethics. It’s about being self-conscious about what you’re playing. 

Axmed: The most common reaction to the type of criticism that you’re mentioning is often “So I’m not allowed to play music anymore?” It sometimes triggers aggressive and even violent reactions, when it’s really not what the criticism is about. It’s not unreasonable for people to expect you to be Black or from the African continent, if you’re using a name which suggests that it is the case. Taking again the example of Awesome Tapes from Africa: he’s been aware of the criticism for years; criticised on social media for having this name while not being African, his snarky answer was “I’m not a tape either”. He’s someone who understands the dynamics and the criticism, but still chooses to not answer for it.

When artists reach a certain level, they are sort of untouchable, or at least they feel like they don’t have to explain themselves anymore. This happens for example with Cairo Liberation Front. It was highly problematic for two white guys to use that name but they reached a point where their parties were sold out. Nowadays, they do book artists of Arab descent but they started in a very problematic way: defending the name, having belly dancers on stage and exploiting stereotypes about the Arab world, initially calling themselves “Nobody beats the Dürüm”. They never publicly addressed this past behaviour, and by not acknowledging the fact that it was wrong, they opened the door to other collectives to adopt similar problematic approaches.

Mathys: I feel that when you have a certain project, on which you’ve worked for years, even if it starts a problematic way, even if the criticism only arises as a byproduct of commercial success, it is important to reflect on your project’s past and think about the message that you’re trying to convey. And it has to be a very personal answer.

Axmed: Some of those projects started very small, but before you know it, end up at big festivals. Radio Noet Noet for example, an all-white DJ collective which focused on music from the African continent and engaged in cultural appropriation, was never held accountable by Dutch music journalists, nor by the Black people around them. It’s a project which did not need to be well thought through for it to be successful.

Mathys: And because those projects are not well thought through, they are prone to biases. They ultimately gain some legitimacy through some association with people of color. Which makes it harder to criticise them, because there are so few spaces which actively welcome people of color as music creators within the dance music scene. It’s a perverse tactic that shields them from accountability, by pitting the people of color who criticise them with the people of color they “help”. One pernicious consequence of this is that the white people who pursue these projects end up being idolised and in leadership positions in communities of color that they are not part of. From that point, there is no space to unlearn problematic behaviours.

One of the issues is that the desire to change has to come from a place of actually caring without being forced to. Take for example the producer Thug Entrancer who is probably the only example I know of a DJ with a problematic name who decided to drop it on his own, after reading a VICE article about white producers co-opting Black culture. Later, in an interview, he mentioned that no one actively asked him to change his name, but he noticed that some people were uncomfortable with it, and that was enough to push him to change.

Situations where there is no accountability open the door for more problematic behaviours, and this is when “calling out” becomes crucial and inevitable, as a way to move the scene in a direction which suits everyone. Unfortunately, such call outs are often taken too personally: it becomes about egos being bruised, rather than growing as a community.

Axmed: Spaces, resources and communities are limited. There’s a lot of energy being put into creating new platforms, especially by queer POC, who continue to be very marginalised within the scene, and end up in unsafe spaces for lack of better options.

In absence of proper accountability, this process, which has been going on for a while, will continue to go on. The people in charge still lack the competences to address this and rely on unpaid labour from marginalised groups. When a controversy pops up within an institution, it is often ignored unless it’s too big not to be addressed. Diversifying one’s team and engaging with local communities are important ways to cover blind spots but it is also important to recognise the existence of such blind spots. I am at a point where there is no space that I would recommend to POC within the city of Amsterdam, and it is really a shame.

—- We thank Zoë Beery for feedback on an earlier version of this transcript.

One thought on “A Conversation on the Bleaching of Techno: How Appropriation is Normalized and Preserved”

  1. Adopting a muslim name after converting to Islam is very common for newcomers to the faith (though not obligatory) and many do so as a sign of respect and as a token of submission to Allah. Saying “if you hear the name Kamaal Williams, you automatically make the connection with Black America” highlights an issue with your thinking, not with Williams himself. It can be very easy to take offence from something that should not be cause for it and devalues your wider thoughts.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s