Suspect Desires for Diversity in Electronic Music: Progress or a Tool to Hide White Ethnocentrism?
American sociologist William Graham Summer defined ethnocentrism in 1906 as “the tendency to assume that one’s culture and way of life is superior to all others”. Take jazz, rock, rap, Latin, or African music; all created by non-white communities and as they became popular, were integrated into spheres where cultural understandings are different. Once these musical genres were integrated and developed through a different ecosystem, (making them mainstream and integrating them into a larger, scalable economic dynamic) its players, social markers and cultural codes change to prioritize the "new" culture's behaviors and desires. The latest iteration of this cycle lies at the feet of electronic music, where we are now witnessing a rewriting of history and the collective imagination, as when ABC wrote in 2018 that the French artist David Guetta "helped bring house music to the United States."
Let's not forget that the genre's creation is attributed to Frankie Knuckles and Marshall Jefferson, black queer American DJs in the late '80s. Diversity and inclusiveness in the world of dance music has been the subject of much discussion online since the pandemic, but who is it really benefiting?
Instead of reaching to Google for another sort of ahistorical definition, I asked Chat-GPT to tell me what it thought about diversity in dance music:
“Dance music, a genre that originated in African-American and Latino communities, has come a long way from its roots to become a global phenomenon. However, despite its popularity, the dance music industry continues to lack diversity, both in terms of the artists behind the music and the audiences who enjoy it. This lack of diversity has far-reaching consequences, both for the dance music industry and for society as a whole.”
After such a technologically diplomatic response, I decided to ask my human counterparts in the world of dance music on Twitter, to direct me to producers from marginalized communities (e.g., non-white, non-binary, women, trans). Usually what comes out when you ask these kinds of questions is a list of 5 to 7 black women artists, producers, and DJs alike. The answers presented an indication of just how binary many of our world perceptions can be. We hear it so much, but what does "diversity in dance music" even mean?
The public seems to see artists as Pokémon cards. Each one has a main characteristic, the look is important, and above all, they are replaceable (fungible). The fact that when we try to put forward (“to make visible”) artists when we talk about a lack of diversity, the first-order response is most often a woman. Then when we seek to push a little further the reflection, we tend toward a racial notion, and we realize that the artist in opposition compared to the established system is then further articulated into someone representing an intersection of systemic marginalization: maybe a black woman, potentially queer.
It's an interesting thought if we think about the antagonistic representation, which is the one of the omnipotent white man in our western societies. It’s too often in this search of the artist symbolizing this systemic alternative, we ideally go towards someone from the popular classes. But at a time when we realize that one of the biggest artists of the moment, Fred Again, did not arrive there by chance and that, in the UK, studies show that the number of creative people coming from the working class is extremely poor (7.9% only and we might as well say that most of the developed European countries function within the similar social models). Is the fantasized image of the counter-cultural artist, this anti-system token, realistic?
This raises a real question when we talk about the lack of diversity or the need for representations: for what purpose? In a system like ours, where economic values tend to determine artistic choices and the visibility that is given to them, why this need for aestheticized diversity?
A "NEW" PHENOMENON
When we look at the issue, it’s clear the subject of diversity does not date back to the summer of 2020, when in the middle of Covid-19, we saw the emergence of these conversations taking over the internet sphere (see: IG black squares). At that time, Techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson, spoke out about how the Scene still fails Black Artists and the racial disparity within the American dance scene.
But before these events, in 2018 in Mixmag, the question of diversity was addressed via the prism of sexism and intersectionality concerning Queer, women and LGBT non-white artists. Jeff Mills had, during an interview in 2019 for France 24, mentioned that electronic music had become too middle class:
"The make up of the people back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s was very mixed between gay and straight, people from everywhere, it was a melting pot.”
During this moment of awakening consciences in the middle of a pandemic, whether it was out of guilt, pure strategic calculation, or because this moment allowed us to talk about the subject without feeling pestiferous, no one with a smartphone and/or interested in the world of dance music passed by these questions without producing an opinion. Was it because we were locked down at home and we could no longer pretend we didn't see the problem? Was everything (including our susceptibility to hollow discourse engagement) amplified by this phenomenon of quarantine?
Leaving France in 2013 for Canada, I had discovered what house and techno really was, something far from the stereotypical white clichés I had been confronted with all my life in Europe. I was a DJ for the Montreal ballroom scene and was happy to see so many non-white DJs and producers active in the US/UK club scene. At that time, Instagram was the main social network in terms of putting forward one's persona-avatar, in terms of visuals and socio-political expression. It is obvious that for any person belonging to a marginalized community, certain subjects are discussed within that same community. We know that our words will not be accepted outside of it, because all our life, the outside world has wanted to make us invisible, that our speeches were too embarrassing to exist in the public debate.
Having spent more than half of my life navigating the world of music as an artist, I know that any argument put forward is not that innocent, and even more so in the digital age, it can often be used to support an image that one is trying to develop, and sometimes even to fill an artistic void. This is, in part, why for many non-white artists, there often lies a cognitive or cultural dissonance between being an artist or an activist, maybe both; not knowing which hat to wear. Navigation between the will to change the world, and the will to exist only for our creative talent.
Let's be clear, do it if you want. We are part of a system where we have to be profitable to survive and exist. But the annoying thing is when someone deliberately uses this token card in a selfish way, while saying the opposite in public, and is never confronted with their contradictions in the community.
THE ILLUSION OF GREAT CHANGE
The events of the summer of 2020 were a liberation for many because is gave people the social momentum to express openly and often about the flaws of a system that takes advantage of black, Latino, LGBTQ culture by refusing opportunity to its artists, while copying them and making them invisible.
It was for many people, including me, perhaps a moment that felt like things would finally change. It was finally going to be realized how much silent suffering is carried by non-white, gay, trans, non-binary, disabled people, who ruin themselves emotionally, psychologically for the love of art. We saw the criticism of labels like R&S for their racist behavior, or artists who used terms like ghettotech, sampled the N word, appropriated black culture and its codes; like Partiboi69 who was criticized by Jensen Interceptor and who never seems to have responded to Resident Advisor's requests on the subject since. In this day and age of immediacy, just avoid a topic, wait for the wind to blow and everyone will forget about it anyway.
In all honesty, less than a year after this latest inclusivity craze, I didn't believe in it anymore. In fact, during this time, I was contacted, like other black artists, by R&S to release some music on their label. If you're wondering what it's like to be a token, this is it. Knowing that we are being used as a tool to "look good" in the eyes of the world is all the more distressing because it can make us question our worth, trigger psychological pain and feelings of isolation. As clinical psychologist Jo Eckler explains so well: "When someone experiences tokenism, they may feel alone. That loneliness can be the result of not having anyone who understands you or your identity.
Of course, there were articles about the topic, we talked about diversity clauses for DJs, it seemed to have a popular desire to be more fair. Then 3 years later in 2023, it's not really a subject anymore. The world has opened up again, we tell ourselves that Covid is over, we can go back to the way things were before. Just put a woman on a lineup and you fulfill your obligations as a promoter. So let's put a white woman on the flyer. Talented collectives or artists who would have been criticized in 2020 for exploiting a culture that is not theirs, or for their lack of inclusion, don't even seem to think about this. I'm thinking of the so-called "Business techno" that kept a low profile during the debates, and are now just going about as if nothing had happened. Tokenization is much more visible today, as the artist Work of Intent has written, detailing the problems and structural flaws.
WAS IT ALL FOR NOTHING?
We can still be satisfied with the fact that at least we are trying to put some black femmes forward, whether they are tokens or not. That there is an existing representation for a lot of young girls who didn't recognize themselves before, or didn't know that they had a place as artists in this world.
I'm thinking of OliveT who told me on Twitter:
"I used to make playlist n mixes and stuff but then I stopped caring, got jaded . Lots of hope for the next generation & those that keep going tho ! "
But what about all those creative people who make electronic and dance music? There is certainly no room for everyone if we are talking about profit. We know that wanting to make a living from streaming is heresy. There are more and more people making music, wanting to get gigs, but where is the willingness to discover, to look for new talents in the queer community for example? What about these non-white artists, not tokenizable enough to be on lineups?
I laugh when I hear promoters in France think that by putting more women of color in their lineups, they will attract more non-white audiences. I can't imagine the 16 year old me, who is not part of this universe, having 0 performances, coming to this kind of event, because I don't even know these artists exist anyway. The change is not only created in the club, but also outside.
I can't blame the press for trying. They’ve tried to do their part. From lack of government aid since covid has resulted in lay offs for a lot of its employees, they continue to fight to exist and maintain its legitimacy as explained by Shawn Reynaldo.
Do I expect structural change in an individualistic world driven by the need for profitability as an indicator of relevance? Not really. Is that a reason for me or other artists to abandon their quest for the impossible and stop shining in a world where they are constantly told they don't belong? I don't think so. That brings us back to the reason we make music: for whom? There is still evidence that things can change, even if it's very slow and takes a lot of effort. There have been some developments in the last few years as well, like the focus on sexism and safe spaces, or real discussions about safer spaces for drug use, although there is still work to be done to make that a norm, both with the public and with those in these scenes.
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