How History, Wealth and Nepotism Determine Access in South Africa’s Segregated Dance Music Industry

Posted by Mandy Alexander


What started out as an investigation to find out how access to music equipment may hinder growth amongst marginalised DJs and music producers, resulted in me discovering how South Africa’s cities' segregation plays a massive role in how different genres of music are heard. The past and current spatial planning undoubtedly influence how music travels and who gets to transport and play particular sounds.

In 1950, South Africa’s Group Areas Act (SAGAA) was enforced, this act divided urban areas into racially segregated zones where people of one specific race could live and work. SAGAA consequently displaced hundreds of thousands of people which can still be seen and felt to this day. If you pay attention to a city such as Cape Town and it’s spatial inequality, you will see how aesthetic quality and strategic geographic placement of certain groups of people still remain in place. But what about sonic segregation within electronic dance music? I believe access to equipment, the music industry networks, wealth and credibility, and who gets to represent South Africa, globally, may all be linked to the ever-present sonic segregation. When wealth dictates credibility, it directly affects the transmission of music.

Robin Would is one of the finest DJs and music collectors that Cape Town and South Africa has to offer. Talking about the issues that plague South Africa’s electronic dance music industry, Robin provides his perspective on whether race is a huge factor that prevents BPOC DJs from accessing spaces and gigs. The question that often comes to mind is how Cape Town and Johannesburg differ, as well as how the two cities might be the same in terms of BPOC feeling welcome in various spaces. Would says, “In Cape Town, it’s not so much a racial thing. It’s more of a clique thing.” Once you’ve frequented the Mother City, you’re bound to hear someone say that Cape Town is very cliquey. We need to interrogate what that looks like in our music landscape. It definitely begs the question of who gets to access certain spaces and networks, based on class and what you can offer others such as status and money. This hinders diversity in DJ lineups and opportunities for young up-and-coming DJs. “If you don’t fit this particular mould or you can’t infiltrate the circle then you aren’t welcome,” says Would.

Robin Would by Ashiq J Photography, LoveAll, Cape Town 2014

Even as a punter, you quickly realise that the actual music comes last in the quest for recognition, especially, in a music ecosystem that’s rotting from the core. It’s more to do with people and business, which in my opinion, takes away from the purity of what music offers. In pursuit of credibility, rather than honing their skills, many DJs had to play the game of appearing marketable and chiselling away at what perhaps made them unique. Something that stands out for me is how you’re not told about the real roots of house and techno, you have to research and interrogate that for yourself. Black artists and the queer community are cast aside when it comes to telling the story of house and techno - at least in Cape Town. If you dare to look beyond the façade and forced PLUR, you will see the business model that aims to get as many people through the door while delivering the same lineups and all too familiar playlists. This echoes what Would says about the distinct difference between a scene and a culture. “A scene is something that is on the surface and it’s superficial. Whereas culture is something that is bred. It goes beyond any class and race. It’s something that’s intangible.” As a BPOC DJ and music producer, playing into the scene definitely affects you on a mental and spiritual level. “We grew up with the community spirit. You know all of your neighbours and you feel like you are a part of this community, whereas, a scene isn’t that.” When it comes to establishing yourself in the scene, “you’re not going to find your way just by being a good DJ or producer. There is a game that you have to play and you’re either prepared to play the game or not,” says Would.

To bridge the gap between being an aspiring DJ or producer and inserting yourself within South Africa’s sonic landscape, mentorship would help on so many levels. “As a younger person, it’s valuable to have somebody who can guide you. You might lack the tools, the knowledge, or the expertise to build yourself as a DJ or an artist. So, learning from somebody who has already been through it is literally the best way to do it,” says Would. In spite of the lack of mentorship, it is reassuring to see young people take the initiative and daring to take up space through their collectives and music projects. The music duo, Surreal Sessions is a perfect example of this current music landscape. As a BPOC existing in South Africa, you quickly learn that waiting for opportunities will keep you stagnant and it is necessary to take the leap, even if it means failing and learning from those experiences. At some point, you realise that complaining is wasted energy that could be used to radicalise, create your own path and reach out to others who have similar intentions. It also points to the older generation of DJs and music producers. It begs the question of what their role and responsibility is pertaining to ushering in younger artists and establishing a firm foundation and local scene.

Jackie Queens by Andy Mkosi, taken at The Rhythm at Carfax, Johannesburg 2019

Jackie Queens, the Zimbabwean-born house music vocalist and entrepreneur has been at the forefront of voicing the role that women play in the South African dance music scene, and how they are seen or often go unseen. She says, “South Africa is very segregated and I think you see this more in Cape Town than in other cities where the political economy of the dance music industry is white-owned, and within that is also segregated markets.” Queens makes an interesting point in regards to the blatant difference in audiences as you move around a city like Cape Town. “There’s a separation in audiences and an acute separation in ownership of venues and entertainment properties,” she says. In terms of space and event ownership, there is a huge difference when looking at a city like Johannesburg. In Johannesburg, a lot of Black people own events. In Cape Town, however, in addition to the lack of diverse event ownership, the context of location of a space and your socioeconomic mobility also plays a huge role in how you navigate the dance music industry.

On a surface level, many people might take their privilege of mobility and access to certain spaces for granted. Queens says, “The types of gigs that you play will depend on the people you know and resources you have access to.” In terms of access to equipment, it should be noted how the lack of access to studio space and various music equipment can influence the extent to which you can develop your craft. Many DJs and music producers that I spoke with have mentioned how they watched Youtube tutorials to learn how to navigate their way around CDJs. For most people, the only time that they get to practice their craft is when they’re playing at a gig. The absence of day-to-day access to resources like CDJs can certainly hinder the confidence of many aspiring DJs. Although, depending on your hustle, many will find ways to get CDJ time, but it is worth mentioning that the logistics of practising your craft shouldn’t have to be so difficult.

With all the heaviness and isolation that took place in 2020, I believe there was a shift in thinking regarding issues such as gatekeeping and who the power players are. Many people, including myself, adjusted their gaze from pinpointing and blaming systemic issues and the people who are still enforcing it for their own gain. Now, we’re invested in finding and creating our own solutions. Queens reiterates these sentiments and says, “I’d rather go and find a solution or speak about it in a way that moves the conversation forward. Two or three years ago, I started a party because nobody was booking vocalists.” This kind of initiative is a reminder to not ruminate in the blame-mindset as ultimately, that is wasted energy and time. Instead, reach out to people within your surroundings who are talking about the same issues and rather than being reactive make the choice to act, no matter how small the deed is.

Jonathan Ferreira, taken at Red Bull Studios, Cape Town 2018

Stacy Renecke is a team member of Not Sorry Club which is femme-centric and established with the goal of bringing underrepresented talent to the forefront. Stacy describes herself as first and foremost a punter. She says, “NSC is a big part of me and who I am on the scene now. So I should add ‘promoter/events organiser’.” Along with her NSC partners, Nadia Sanetra and Anthea Duce, they help make it possible to access the spaces that are run by the so-called “boy’s club”. Her on the ground perspective places her at a good vantage point in terms of confidently voicing what is lacking in the electronic dance music industry. When looking at things like wealth and credibility, you sort of hit a brick wall as the people with the money and power are clearly not going to initiate any change if they don’t see any benefit for themselves. It’s interesting to see how pockets of the dance music scene regularly become defensive in light of any criticism regarding line-up diversity and, as of last year, the ethics regarding plague raves. Renecke notes that the issues are multifaceted; an issue that is discussed in silos but should be publicly aired is how BPOC DJs, no matter their age and years of experience, are almost always at the mercy of gatekeepers. The alternative is to go against the grain and sacrifice playing to large audiences at big festivals or pursue collaborations with people in other countries, which feels like some kind of musical exile. It’s a vicious cycle that sees some of South Africa’s biggest DJs still living from gig to gig. Renecke says, “I hate the fact that gatekeepers [people and institutions with the money and venues/festivals] dangle livelihood in front of people. It’s not fair. It’s short-sighted and it’s short-term gains.” Leaning into the issue of segregation, Renecke mentions how geographical barriers are still in place which prevent certain groups of people from accessing certain genres and DJ experiences. The issue of public transport infrastructure and safety greatly impacts how punters and DJs get to and from music spaces.

You’re also thinking about your safety and comfort in certain spaces. Kyle Russouw, a DJ and multifaceted roleplayer in Cape Town’s dance music scene, says, “I was always focused on DJing and music but at some point in my career, let’s say 6 or 7 years ago, I needed to go into spaces where I was also marginalised. But in my mind, I was going out there to represent where I’m from and what I’m about.” Russouw’s mission to penetrate the city’s music scene feeds into the duality that BPOC DJs and music producers face when encountering opportunities. There’s always the need to remain authentic to yourself while accessing the scene. The mandatory mental health check-ins are necessary in a scene that can quickly consume you with no regard for the context of where you’re from. Just to be in these spaces and have a say is a mental and emotional hazard but it has to be done to make some sort of change from within. “When I started playing techno, I was probably one of the only Brown people playing techno at the time.” Russouw mentions Cape Town Deep House Movement which exposed him to a vast array of super-talented artists. Many of whom do not have the same exposure and praise today. Once again, geographical location influences who and what gets heard and the sound that is pushed in South Africa. Russouw says, “A lot of the time, people who were running the industry were not doing the groundwork. Because of segregation and the way our city is built, there were many limitations in place.” It was all about who could speak in Rand currency. “Money talks. Your flyer had to look a certain way, you had to manage to get the best venues, and in this way, you also got to determine which way the sound was going. What good music supposedly sounds like,” he says. In a way, the DJs and music producers who didn’t want to be a part of this were kind of left behind rather than encouraged to weave a city with diverse sounds.

Kyle Russouw, Unknown, Cape Town 2019

This also feeds into the prevailing problem of tokenism in South Africa and the lack of groundwork that is done to find talent across the country. It’s so easy to find and build the career of one BPOC person and expect them to represent an entire community. However, it does not address the systemic problem. In my opinion, tokenism can also be seen as a cover-up for cultural appropriation. Where a sound that is unique to a particular marginalised community is suddenly seen as profitable but no money and resources are given back to that community. Instead, only one or a handful of people are strategically selected to present a palatable sound within the capitalist context.

Nodiggity, the vibrant DJ continually educating through sound, is a testament to how the tides are turning. If you want to see a change in the electronic music industry, you have to do it yourself. “I felt like every time I was going to a party, I never saw someone that looked like me playing music that was made by people that look like me, and I was getting frustrated,” she says. I think for many marginalised people in the dance music industry, DJing becomes a necessity to take back a sound and take up space. Nodiggity says, “I wanted to in some way contribute to curating an experience (even if it was just for 45 mins to a 1-hour set) that was somewhat inclusive, and that encouraged Black and Brown women and femmes to take up space on the dancefloor.” For BPOC DJs, getting to curate various sounds on CDJs and turntables can be seen as a communication tool. While we’re living in a post-apartheid South Africa, with many social ills, being behind the decks becomes a place of power and influence. Nodiggity says, “We’re taking up space that wasn’t [necessarily] constructed for us. So, once we get on that platform and we’re able to use this equipment in front of us, that in a way is some sort of “equalizer’’ and we’re disrupting, right? That disrupting, it’s a message that comes firstly with our bodies in that space, and then secondly, the way we’re able to use our hands to connect to the music, and from that music, we connect to the people in that space. It’s beautiful and at times transcendental.”

Access to music equipment was also difficult for Nodiggity when she started out. “I didn’t really know anyone who was DJing to ask for help or support. I had to make a plan and that meant consuming a lot of Youtube tutorials and taking gigs where I knew that the promoter was someone to judge desktop DJing and it was daunting as heck.” When Nodiggity was based in Cape Town, she managed to attend workshops held by Not Sorry Club. While she is currently in Johannesburg, she mentions Pussy Party who also provides the necessary space and access to music equipment for women, femme, non-binary, and queer aspiring DJs. In terms of resources, it’s quite evident that South Africa doesn’t lack music equipment. She says, “The equipment is here, it really is. It’s just not here for everyone. There are opportunities being created by platforms like Pussy Party (JHB) who from what I have seen have done the most in creating access to equipment which I’m really grateful for.” Nodiggity continues to share her profound perspective on how we can address access to music equipment and space, “I really think we have opportunities to encourage different formats to play music for people, this isn’t a monolithic portal, there are so many ways to engage with the craft. Maybe, because we’re so fixated on naming things (shout out to colonisation), we box ourselves and close off to the boundlessness that comes with music and sharing it with others.”

One thing is for sure! There is work to be done. Formulating and vocalising these grievances is only the beginning. We need to engage with each other and put words into action. Be willing to look at your position of power in the electronic music industry. Clearly, race is not the only factor that disenfranchises people. Lastly, be willing to acknowledge and discuss your privilege and see how you can address issues at a systemic level.

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