decolonizing techno: notes from a brooklyn dance floor

April 17, 2019
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Did Dweller arrive too late or at a perfect time? In 2019, while the cultural and sonic diversity of electronic dance music continues to broaden, the extreme under-representation of Black artists and audiences has resulted in moments of gross mis-recognition. There was no better example of this than last fall’s howler, when ABC’s Nightline wrongly posited David Guetta as “the Godfather of House,” a title that had for decades been properly reserved for pioneering Chicago house DJ, Frankie Knuckles. The ethos of electronic dance music is routinely situated in the cultivation of space and feeling, and freedom of expression outside of society’s expectations. It is a political act to have bodies of similar cultural and ancestral understanding come together, to  form bonds and make a space — even as that act appears to be fun and casual. Especially if those bodies are Black.

Russell E.L. Butler performing at the Dweller Festival in Brooklyn, February 2019. (photo: Ting Ding)

And it must be clearly understood: dance music, in all of its various forms, was born in Blackness, patterning itself after the communities, spaces and shared skills that were built in hopes of finding a specific kind of respite, and an alternate future. Techno in particular has been a music riddled with misconceptions and distorted histories, whose global popularity has unfortunately scrubbed away its origins in Black American culture. Fundamentally, techno is a rhythm and soul-based music developed in 1980s Detroit, using Motown studio production techniques, jazz and funk. Though largely adjacent to house music, techno is distinctly from Detroit, whereas house was rooted in Chicago; and both share their technologically progressive, DJ-based DNA with hip-hop, forming the holy trinity of Black dance-floor Utopias of the late 20th century.

With this history in mind, any time to inaugurate the Dweller Festival would have been perfect. Dweller was a six-day celebration of underground Black musical talent in New York City, taking place during February for Black History Month. Curated by Frankie Hutchison, co-founder of Discwoman, a Brooklyn-based women’s DJ/producer collective, and a booker at Bushwick’s community nightspot, Bossa Nova Civic Club, Dweller presented an imperative for shared representation of techno as Black culture.

Dreamcrusher performing at the Dweller Festival in Brooklyn, February 2019.(photo: Ting Ding)

“When I first starting working in techno I had no idea of the roots of the music,” Hutchinson said. “This always felt like something that had been taken away from me, so it’s always felt like a duty of mine to be able to push that history. I wanted to do some kind of event focusing on Black artists in electronic music for a while, but never found the time. Yet once I was offered the job to book at Bossa, it was the one thing I wanted to do.”

Dweller was the first festival of its kind in the deeply gentrified Brooklyn dance-club scene, with a stated mission of “celebrating Black underground artists,” offering a stretch of time for Black bodies to ruminate over the fragmented history of techno’s origins. The festival’s very name is based in the lost history of Black people, referencing 1992’s Deep Sea Dweller, a seminal release by Detroit techno outfit Drexciya, whose extensive mythological concepts were built on the sentiment of making radical noise from the invisible margins. For most of its career, Drexciya was anonymous, playing few live shows, but its story and sounds live on beyond the project’s lifespan. Similarly, Black life in contemporary dance music and DJ circuit, can feel lost in a sea of foreign voices. Not to mention the feeling of being the lone Black dancer on a crowded, white dance-floor. Hutchinson’s curation of Dweller considered this.

Khallee performing at the Dweller Festival in Brooklyn, February 2019. (photo: Ting Ding)

Frankie says that her primary impediment was not a lack of talent — “Having worked with so many Black artists since moving to Brooklyn, it felt like a no brainer” — but trying to produce such an event without community or structural backing. “We definitely need more Black folks in booking positions at clubs,” she says. “There’s an overwhelming amount of White bookers everywhere in NYC, which definitely affects opportunities for Black artists. However I think there’s been a general positive shift in places attempting to book more diversely, but right now there really is no excuse.” And when Dweller did start to coalesce, Hutchinson says “it fell together quite effortlessly,” a meeting of minds between Frankie and Bossa’s other Black residents, consolidating their schedules into an organized effort.

Some pieces fell naturally in place. Atlanta-based producer and AFROPUNK ATL veteran Ash Lauryn, was already set to come play at Bossa Nova. And Confused House, a long-time, open-format monthly curated by Nicholas Dawson, who DJs and produces under the alias Bookworms, was already goingto take place during the Dweller dates. Other collectives like Hardcorset and Halfmoon, the latter an online streaming radio project founded by young Black  and Brown minds in the New York area, rounded out Dweller’s core. Somewhat multi-generational, the festival was able to occupy Bossa Nova Civic Club with a variety of sounds while keeping the lineups consistently Black. Black Music not as genre, but as social context.

Ash Lauryn performing at the Dweller Festival in Brooklyn, February 2019. (photo: Ting Ding)

According to Hutchinson, Dweller’s success of reaching an audience while making itself financially viable lies in “giving booking power to folks who’ve already brought diversity to the club space, like Bookworms, Ash Lauryn, Ase Manual, and DIME, etc.” Working with the current group of Brooklyn artists who have either played at or brought talent into Bossa, Hutchinson arranged a very clear narrative and organically tapped into a market of Black DJs and musicians who were there all along. “Putting them in charge of curating their own nights, opens up a whole world of bookings,” she said. “So it’s not just focused on what I like, but on what a variety of people like. The best part about this is that there is so much we didn’t cover, which makes it such an exciting, endless project.”

Building a cohesive identity within the Brooklyn techno scene doesn’t have to mean distancing from other variations on the theme of finding oneself. So each of Dweller’s six nights corralled a different demographic, in a broad range of styles, dress and dance, all attempting to engage one another. Yet familial energy seemed to be a common sentiment shared by all of the events.

Akua performing at the Dweller Festival in Brooklyn, February 2019. (photo: Ting Ding)

On Halfmoon’s night — an event called “The Origin” — seeing the entire line-up, all situated in the booth by the CDJs together, rooting each other on, swapping tracks and smiles, made for an iconic moment. Halfmoon resident DJ Dee Diggs called the festival, “exactly the revival that we needed. Young, Black, cultural organizers, musicians, DJs, and dancers coming together to carve out a space and time to celebrate Blackness. I marveled at all the different directions of genres and number of collectives involved!” Dee used Dweller as an opportunity to bring in other members of the collective. Though she only moved to New York from Boston in the fall of 2018, Dee quickly found a community formalizing through Halfmoon, a grass-roots online radio platform catering to POC, LGBTQ and female-identifying DJs and artists. “From the first time I walked into the Halfmoon studio, I met amazing DJs and musicians, most of them young and people of color. So I asked Donis and Devoye to play, because they’re both amazing DJs who have a lot of personality and style. I’ve been delighted and inspired by them each time I’ve seen them play, separately and together”

“The Origin” also saw the trio’s sets staggered into longer a back-to-back format. “The result was that the night became a conversation between us,” said Dee afterwards. “We were able to listen, respond, and cover any gaps in the groove that we felt or heard.” The synergy between them streamed their styles together seamless, glazing across classic house, techno, ‘90s New York house and more. For Devoye, the sounds conveyed a sense of timelessness and continuity of Black music, and how a “majority of [it] was made in response to some form of resistance.” He mentioned how close friends asked what tracks he’d select for his set, and he found himself reflecting on what Black music meant to him. “I thought about artists like Bob Marley, Masters at Work, Kerri Chandler, J Dilla, Nina Simone, and what they represented.” Devoye introduced his set with a live rendition of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” explaining that he arranged sound levels in the mixer incidentally, paying homage to Marley’s techniques without realizing he played on Marley’s birthday. “It just lined up! I felt this overwhelming sense of unity in those moments knowing that we were going back to the source, the origin.”

Khallee performing at the Dweller Festival in Brooklyn, February 2019. (photo: Ting Ding)

Jessicunt who DJ’d at AFROPUNK’s ‘Brooklyn After Dark’ in 2018 said that her set was “a sonic diary entry that narrated my feelings in the moment — or of a moment passed.” Her response to seeing more white than Black faces on the Bossa Nova dance floor screamed “We finna get mad ethnic right now’,” and a set full of hard-hitting tracks like Uniiqu3’s remix of Cardi B’s “Money Bag” and Waka Flocka’s “Round of Applause.” For Jessicunt, such selections “felt like the necessary thing to do,” the claiming and preserving of the space for herself and others like her. “I hope Dweller returns next year,” she said, “because this work is necessary, and it’s a huge step in the direction of decolonizing dancefloors worldwide.”

Bookworm’s infamous Confused House night surged with a punk energy from start to finish, laying bare both the positive and critical perspectives visible throughout the festival. With a line-up featuring rapidly rising young vets Russell E.L. Butler and Akua (both part of AFROPUNK’s Best Black Electronic Music of 2018 round-up) alongside rebellious acts like Khallee and Dreamcrusher, Confused House felt like a centerpiece and a moratorium. Butler recounted a bill they shared in San Francisco with Yves Tumor and GAIKA as the first time any of them had been on an all-Black lineup. “It’s not like a bunch of Black people don’t get together all the time and play music, look at the hip-hop industry, look at the artifice of pop; but there’s this very monolithic attachment to what being Black is.” Butler’s crushing and distorted live set followed Dreamcrusher and Khallee, who were even more confrontational in their approach, leaving the DJ booth and standing in the crowd. A mosh pit even broke out! Dreamcrusher acknowledges themself as a fringe artist, rarely sharing an all-POC or -queer bill, yet recognizing the importance of such bookings. “When the bill is diverse, the audience is diverse. Minds get expanded that either need it or want it, but don’t get the opportunity. We’re being tokenized for our identities and not our work. I’ve been making music for over fifteen years and I’ve learned that visual representation is very important. We need to be seen by our own.”

Jessicunt performing at the Dweller Festival in Brooklyn, February 2019. (photo: Ting Ding)

And about that representation: While Bossa Nova Civic Club’s low lighting and hi-fi sound maintained a proper ambience, allowing the audience room to open up and interact, the question of space and how to properly maintain one’s identity within it was also fresh in the air. Hutchinson’s expectations and reaction to the Dweller’s turnout was overly positive; though the optics of who made up the audience leveraged the thoughts of both promoters and participants towards what the next Dweller festival could look like. Afterwards, Frankie acknowledged that there is still more work to be done. “I tweeted that I was disappointed I didn’t see some of the faces I’d hoped to, but I don’t want that statement to define what actually happened. It was more of an observation. Dweller is still some of the most fun nights I’ve had at Bossa, ever. It’s a reminder that we need things like this, but also that many people are still awkward when it comes to events focusing on Black people.”

(Photos by Ting Ding)