ActivismMusicThe Womxn Movement

bringing womxn and black people back to techno

March 12, 2020
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If from this day forward Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson did nothing more in her career as a rave producer, promoter and techno evangelist, the Londoner-turned-New-Yorker would still be regarded as a leading club activist, and an extraordinarily influential figure, in the city’s nightlife culture over the past half-decade. Although her success may seem limited in the scope of the multi-million (-billion?) dollar business of dance music, Hutchinson has been instrumental in creating a pair of powerful dance-music institutions doing the great work that all social cultures aspire to by imagining community solutions to global problems. And changing teh nature of the conversation around race and gender in the club.

What’s she done?

In 2014, recognizing the lack of opportunities for women DJs and producers in New York’s clubs, she and partners Christine McCharen-Tran and Emma Burgess-Olson (better known as the techno DJ/producer Umfang), co-founded the women’s techno collective, Discwoman. What began as a one-off, all-women-musicians event by the same name, quickly mushroomed into a monthly party at Brooklyn’s Bossa Nova Civic Club, an all-femme-talent booking agency, one of the best DJ mix series in progressive dance music, and, with Hutchinson’s always-firing Twitter feed, an advocacy network and louspeaker for women in dance music. The club bros have been put on notice ever since — and on a few occasions, taken down. The result has been a much more femme-friendly New York techno scene, both in front of and behind the decks. 

In 2019, Hutchinson tried to do the same for Black (under-) representation in the dance music space. Having long lamented the lack of Black bookings at clubs and festivals — this despite the fact that contemporary club culture, from disco to house to techno, is a largely Black-community construct — she decided to subvert the industry’s historical erasure and start an all-Black techno festival, Dweller. (Read DeForrest Brown’s write-up of the inaugural year.) For this year’s second edition, Dweller expanded beyond Bossa Nova Civic Club (which is an epicenter of Brooklyn’s club scene, and one that Hutchinson is now the head booker of), turning it into a multi-venue event. The word-of-mouth has been off the chain.   

We’ve long wanted to talk to Frankie about how she gets shit done. So, with the second Dweller wrapped, and Hutchinson taking a momentary breather between projects, AFROPUNK caught up with her to discuss Discwoman, Dweller, her relationship to the industry, and the way forward.         

So let’s just start at the beginning. How did you get involved in dance music, electronic music and in clubbing? 

Right. I’m definitely a raver. When I was at school in England, my university used to throw kind-of raves at the back of my campus. That’s how I first connected with it. I must’ve been about 18, and I was like, “What is this whole culture?” For me, it was maybe less about the music and more about the environment, just being exposed to a lot of things I’ve never really been around, whether it’d be drug use or people staying up super late. It was very, very new to me. 

What kind of music was it around? What kind of music first attracted you to this culture? 

To be really honest, back then, I just didn’t really think about music like that — in that sort of fun way — particularly electronic music. I wasn’t that well-versed in the differences. So my entry level was definitely hedonistic rather than, like, a passion for music. But I was quite inspired and captivated by the element of meeting people through music. That was really powerful, and I think that’s kind of carried into my life throughout. Now I have more of an interest in music, but I still wouldn’t say like I’m a music head. I’m definitely more into the core of creation of spaces and environments, for people to connect in and to be with each other. 

So the social aspects of what we do in music and dance culture… 

Exactly. I think that’s definitely where more of my skill set is. Like, I’m not a DJ (obviously). It’s not like I have no interest in it, but, like, I just don’t have the patience for it, honestly. I’m really into the creation and curation of those spaces.

There’s so many roles to be filled in the job of musicking — some of it is people making the music and some of it is in creating the environment in which the music gets made.  

Totally, and I think there’s a little bit of an imbalance, honestly. There’s probably a lot more DJs then there are people in other roles. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: I think there’s a lot more focus on that than on the other parts of the industry. 

You’re from London. What brought you to New York?

I moved to New York in 2009. I was able to come because when my mother remarried, it was to an American, and at that point, she was able to petition for me to get a green card, as I was under 21 at the time. During that process, I visited New York and I just completely fell in love with it — just so addicted to the whole place. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was graduating that year and was like, “Fuck it, I’m just going to go. I have the paperwork essentially, and I’m gonna just use it.” I didn’t really have much of a plan to be honest. I just skipped my graduation and left. 

There’s a tendency to romanticize those stories — and it is still kind of romanticized in my head — about just getting up and leaving London and going off to find myself or whatever. At that time, it was a really fucking tough thing to do. I left England with maybe like ₤600. I was here for one month, and I had just rented one room for a month. I didn’t have a plan. I pretty much just applied for every job I saw on Craigslist, and ended up with two in the space of maybe a week, which was really lucky actually, because it saved me from financial crisis — but still, you’re making like $10 to $12 an hour, rubbing pennies together. There was a lot of really, I don’t know, difficult things that happened in that time. But looking back, there’s just been so much growth from that time and I don’t regret it for the world. 

What did you do — and what were you looking to do? How did you find your feet in New York culture and start getting involved in music and Discwoman and booking and all that?  

I just like did anything — food service, dry cleaners, food delivery. I kinda did not really know what to do, but I knew I had a love for writing and editing, so I was desperately trying to get shit published. But it was really fucking tough, especially at that time. And you know, when I felt so desperate for it, it was really affecting my writing too — the way that you articulate yourself because you just don’t really have much confidence. So it was quite hard to pitch my voice to people. Then I did get that kind of job in 2014. I was editor for a little magazine, Galore. That didn’t work out, but during this time is when I met Christine [McCharen-Tran] and Emma [Burgess-Olson], and me and Emma started having the initial conversations about Discwoman. 

Really, a lot of what Discwoman emerged from was the really strong connection that we made with each other. From there, we were able to have these really interesting conversations about power dynamics and how that’s affecting the women in our environment and how they’re not getting booked. And it just kind of evolved. It was a really large conversation that ended up in some kind of action we were going to take, and the action ended up Discwoman. It wasn’t expected to really be more than just like an event, and then we were like, “Wow, we should just keep on taking action, because we got so many people reaching out about it.” And then we were like, “We should start an [booking] agency.” And then that’s just kind of like how it developed. 

One of the things that I learned through my conversations with Emma was the history of techno music. I didn’t know anything about it when I met her. She was like, “Yeah, it was started by all these Black people.” And I was like, “WHAT?? AMAZING!!” So that became a point of obsession for me — I felt like I’ve been kind of robbed of something, robbed of a history that I could’ve really connected to. I always felt kind of like an alien, and there were a bunch of other aliens like me. It felt really amazing to hear that, but also really sad at the same time. And I think that’s been one of our points in the work that we’ve done: trying to correct what’s happened with this music a little bit, even it out some more, because at the moment, so many of the resources go to white people, and, even more specifically, white men. That’s an uncomfortable truth for the people who benefit from that. So, seeing all these kind of unsettling things around us, the fact that the history has been kind of whitewashed, that women DJs and producers in our environment aren’t getting booked or paid as much, these are really the driving factors for us to keep on going and keep doing stuff. Those are the kinds of conversations we were having. 

Before we started Discwoman, there was sort of a resurgence of raves happening in New York. I had been in New York for many years at that point, but I hadn’t really found techno music. That’s not to say it wasn’t happening, but I just hadn’t found it yet. And I remember being at a couple of raves before we started Discwoman, and I was thinking, “This music is actually great. This is what I’ve been looking for.” But there were still things that were uncomfortable about it. Overwhelmingly white. Overwhelmingly white male bookings. So there’s just some things that need to be tweaked [laughs] and I felt like we had the good vision to know what to tweak. 

Tell me a little bit about the formation of Dweller Festival. What led you to imagine that? 

Well, in a similar vein. Emma told me about the history of techno in Detroit. [Discwoman] started in 2014, and in 2015 we went to Detroit for the first time, and we did a party there during the festival weekend. I don’t even know how we did that, honestly. It was kind of crazy, but we did, and it was super-interesting and really important and instrumental to how we organize, how we envision what this music and these events should be like. We did events there a few more years as well, and I felt we needed to carry the history and energy from that to other stuff too; and make it clear that people know where this music comes from, and who the people that made this music are. It became a real personal project for me, to be honest. The young Black kids need to know that there’s this whole history here of amazing music that a bunch of people like me dance to. That’s just so important for Black people in general and specifically younger Black people to know. And through doing an event like Dweller, we’re able to refocus on that a little bit. 

(photo: Ting Ding)

I think in general there has been more of a discourse around the history of techno. People have been talking about it a lot more in the last couple of years, that’s kind of how Dweller came about. I always kind of had my eye on doing something like that. And then [Atlanta-based Detroit DJ] Ash Lauryn was like, “I’m coming to do a gig at Bossa [Nova Civic Club]” in February of 2019. And I was like, “Why don’t we do something [special]?” Cause she does her Underground and Black thing. This just seemed like the right thing to do. Then, it just kind of spiraled from that. 

How much do you see it already affecting people? With Discwoman, I can definitely see the gender shift, behind the decks, on the dance-floor and at techno events in general, that is already taking place. How much do you see the embrace of the history of Blackness in dance music? How much do you see it affecting and attracting younger people?

I don’t genuinely believe that the festivals and clubs that are in place — the majority of them at the moment — are able to do the work that needs to be done to be more inclusive [as spaces]. Honestly, I think we should focus on doing our own things. But you know, that’s hard too. It’s really tricky to start your own thing, not everyone can do that. I’ve been able to kind of piece that together, but that’s definitely not a lot of people’s situation or position. I’ve been dealing with large clubs, institutions, festivals for many years now; and you can knock on so many doors and still feel like an outsider to this bigger thing. I don’t know how to crack that. 

I think the only way it could be fixed is if the clubs, festivals, institutions or whatever, took more accountability for the fact that this pie is majority white attendees and majority white lineups. People need to speak up about it. And it can’t just be the people who are pushed to the margins who are yelling all the time, because people get really tired of that, people discount it, you know? “Oh, they’re angry again. Oh my God, here we go again. Politics and dance music!” And roll their eyes. But it’s actually so sinister — people don’t want to look. And, you know, I get that too, but what can we do? It’s just tough. So for me to stay hopeful and not get really depressed by the lack of action that I think a lot of people could take — whether that be promoters, organizers, DJs, whatever — I just try and focus on doing the Dwellers and whatever agency work, and keep working with the people that I want to work with, because that’s literally the only way I don’t get completely defeatist about this industry. But that’s my position, that’s not everyone. So I completely understand when people are even madder than me, you know? 

Besides the obvious, what do you think the concept of a women’s DJ collective, or an all-Black electronic music festival has brought to the world that wasn’t there before? Or that could change the environment? 

A few things. One is hopefully embarrassment to other festivals [that book] like that. Because it’s just really embarrassing. With Dweller, we could literally book this festival a million times over. There’s just so much talent. It’s insane. And it’s embarrassing that no one’s really got into it. Honestly the most important thing for me isn’t even about how it’s gonna affect others looking in, and what are people gonna “learn” from it. I don’t actually care that much. I really care more about the people who are for it, and want to be there. It’s so crucial to the whole experience that this is about Black people, and our enjoyment and just having a really good fucking time. Black people want to speak about issues and stuff like that, we just kind of get branded as… 

I don’t know. I just really just want it to focus on us connecting with one another, being, watching each other play and building that foundation at the festival, being that kind of space where we can connect with each other and appreciate what our history has created. That really is what meant the most to me. If through that sort of demonstration of love, connection, respect, people can learn from it, and want to emulate it in their own spaces? That’s fantastic. But that isn’t the main reason for creating it. It’s for us, you know? And if people want to come and support? Great. That’s fantastic. But it’s not like a tool of activism. I mean it is, but that’s not what I’m…

….not overtly so. 

Exactly. Because someone asked me, would you take Dweller abroad? And I don’t even know, honestly. It’s really hard to sort of translate this in another country. I mean, it would have to be with the right people. New York is just such a specific place for this kind of thing, and these kind of projects and festivals are mostly welcomed with a lot of warmth in the city. I don’t know if that would be the same for every other place. And also, it wouldn’t be in my interest to do an event with somebody who didn’t understand what it is. 

Last question. In 2020, what keeps you excited about electronic music and dance music and these environments that you help create and work in?

My relationship with people. I’m very lucky to have some really dear friends, and like, honestly, raving with those people, pretty much never gets old to me. So that just keeps me going. I feel lucky to have that in this world. And Dweller has kind of ignited a new sort of creative fire for me and I’m really excited. I have to start working on the next one immediately already. And so that’s really fun to be able to like keep that up during the year. It’s really just embroiling myself in the stuff that I do already and that I love doing. So I feel thankful about that and hope it can just stay that way. It’s almost about maintaining and just holding it together.