Superstar DJ The Black Madonna has changed her name to The Blessed Madonna. Beloved disco-house DJ Joey Negro has dropped his stage name and is now simply Dave Lee. Huge dance clubs are facing reckonings over sexist and racist management and door policies as well as hella shady COVID fleecing. Labels are shuffling in more diverse rosters. Music journalism is starting to talk about privilege and access.
Whew, it’s invigorating! These are sudden-seeming changes which may seem unnecessary or “too much” to some people. Simple accountablility and empathy, in a scene supposedly built around such things, has been vilified as “cancel culture” and other reactionary buzzwords that melt into air upon the slightest scrutiny. Yet all it takes is a glance at the white supremacy outrage when Jeff Mills—the Black genius without whom techno would not be possible—simply gestured at a Black Power symbol on his profile during the George Floyd protests to tell you how much the “inclusive” scene we love has devolved over the past few decades.
Things like adopting “racially ambiguous” identities when you’re white and barring Black people from participating fully in a scene they created have been harmful especially to Black people, but also to the dance music community as a whole. While fluid identities, cultural exchange, diverse communion, border-transcendence, and experimental expansionism are some of the great strengths of dance music, taking advantage of people to get ahead is definitely not. And re-evaluating names and brands in light of how they come off today, in a world waking up to that harmfulness, is healthy. The dance floor is always pushing to the future while reinterpreting the past. (We’re not free of mess in SF, either, including racist door policies from venue owners who are anything but “cancelled.”)
People have been putting in work for years to create change in an industry which profits off Black innovation and adjacency to Black cultures. In the past decade, the (absolutely true, if sometimes over-idealized) fact that techno, house, disco, and practically every other genre of dance music were created by Black, often queer, people has come thrillingly to the fore. We’re seeing a blossoming and underlining of Black voices and artists like never before in my experience—and I threw the first raves in Detroit and have been writing about nightlife for 30 years, eek—although we still have a long way to go to reach any sort of equity, either underground or in “the industry.”
Above, seven Black DJs and writers discuss the future of the techno community.
What’s different right now is the prominence of social media as a relatively equalizing means of conversation—especially when no clubs are operating—and the outspoken advocacy work of a group of whip-smart commentators. (This piece, “A Conversation on The Bleaching of Techno” by Axmed Maxamed and Mathys Rennela is my nomination for best read of the year.) We’re finally hearing and deferring to voices that have been marginalized and silenced as dance music has grown into a billions-dollar global behemoth—in much the same process that Pride underwent during its assimilationist commercialization. It’s not all perfect and, like I said before, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Cosmetic changes are one thing, institutional change is another. But I hope it has genuinely started.
It’s difficult for many to hear these voices and have these necessary discussions. It’s tough to examine knee-jerk reflexes to support the status quo or protect our own privilege and complacency. But it’s also exhilarating to make space for others in this scene and see + hear the fascinating innovations a wider spectrum of voices is bringing. This doesn’t mean people from all backgrounds can’t participate or that there won’t be clowns of every color popping up. Just make some damn room. Imagine closing your eyes, lifting your hands, and letting Black people steer their own ship for once. Not so much different than what happens on most dance floors, to be honest.
This wave of accountability also extends to music writers like me, of course. I’ve met Dave Lee and I’m friends with the Blessed Madonna. I’ve written about them both. I’ve participated in a techno festival system that is, shall we say, less than diverse and run by questionable characters. I’ve gone to all the clubs, and built a career writing about Black music. I hope I’ve pointed out some important things that need changing, and sometimes they’ve actually changed! I always try my best to push marginalized voices and make connections to the true roots. But I failed to hear Black voices on some very specific, important things, privileging my access over controversy. That’s a bummer. I apologize. Feel free to slap me when you see me. I will work to listen harder, and please let me know when I am slipping.
I remember coming up when techno was getting started and seeing how Europe was taking to the sound like a house afire. Suddenly, my Black friends were being flown overseas to play stadiums and make bucketloads of money. While the US mostly turned its back on techno and house in terms of commercialization, white people a continent away were going nuts over it. The general sentiment was to not “rock the boat” about the scene expanding, sometimes erasing Black contributions. People definitely talked about it and were mad about it then. But now even the originators of techno are speaking out more publicly about how generations of silence about that issue have harmed the scene. How about we listen and support? And then shut up and dance?
PARTIES OF NOTE
Up Your Alley goes up your laptop Sun/26 We’re rapidly losing our few sex clubs here in the COVID times, so what our biggest little fetish block party—from the same people as Folsom Street Fair—to do? Get digital on your sweet ass, of course. Dress up in your favorite leather maid outfit or rubber beagle accouterments and log on and in all weekends for BDSM demos, vendors, DJs, and more naughty bits. More info here. (PS pup pre-party Fri/24!)
The Stud’s Twitch channel is alive with pleasure, and I’m DJing Sat/25 Besides our uproarious weekly Saturday drag show Drag Alive (I’m DJing this week to open the whole shebang starting at 7:30, and I’m playing some post-punk gems, followed later by the fabulous Chuck Gunn)—we’ve got a whole regular lineup of astoundingness, including Black-centered drag show Reparations, the amazing Turbo Pageant, the Princess party, and so much more. You can always see the weekly lineup here. Watch everything go down here.
Community Bread Launch Livestream New York-based, but featuring several loves of the Bay Area including Jasmine Infiniti, Cali Rose, Mike Servito, Xiorro, and more for a “streaming global event with international DJs and artist conversations circled around otherness, collaboration & community. In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, we will be raising money for the Trans Women of Color Collective as well as the artists.” Also there will be a ton of crunchy acid, you know it. Sat/25, 4pm-11pm, more info here.
Tenth Aesthetic 1YR: JGarrett (LIVE), Binah, Max Gardner The wide and deep world of West Coast techno on display—with reps from Vancouver, Seattle, and SF—to celebrate the first anniversary of the Tenth Aesthetic party, which specializes in “the experience of unadulterated techno in intimate, hazy, dark spaces.” In this case, pull down the blinds, tug on some leather gloves, and wantonly feel your own face. This is what unadulterated means to me now. Broadcast via Kremwerk, for extra techno bonafides. Sat/25, 7pm-midnight. More info here.
As You Like It Coast to Coast: Atlanta, GA The possibly only great nightlife thing about this whole situation is that people can tune into your party from anywhere. The Bay Area-based As You Like It crew is broadening out itself and hosting some of my favorite DJs from down south: Ash Lauryn, Kai Alce, Vicki Powell, BEYA, and more. Atlanta’s techno scene is so, so lovely. Sun/26, 5pm-10pm, more info here.
H Transmissions: David Harness – One A – JMS visuals I love the Housepitality party, and online as H Transmission it’s super-cute as well (although I don’t get into nearly as much trouble in that crazy mirrored room at F8). Soulful house legend David Harness is joined by One A—who led the effort here to get the Blessed Madonna to change her name—for a night of dip and spin. Wed/29, 6pm-10pm, more info here.