This year marked the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade and the arrival of 20-30 West Africans to the American continent. In August, The New York Times Magazine, led by staff reporter and investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, published the first edition of The 1619 Project, a collection of essays, poems, fiction and photography that re-examines and begins the slow process of revising American history with correctives on instances of structurally- and socially-ordained civil and economic oppression of black people. This shift in race discourse inevitably spilled over into the global electronic music scene, as direct and legible reminders of the extraction and erasure of black culture through callouts and social media backlash.
The music industry has always lacked nuance in regard to cultural sensitivity and acknowledgement. In 2019 the need for a collective understanding of the importance of representation and accountability appeared to be more publicly imperative. As the heavy historical burden of America’s vexed past is put into context by, mostly, black academics and thinkers through a public institution, the meaning and value of American culture and commodities were also called into question.
The term “techno” was coined by futurist and businessman Alvin Toffler in his 1980 book The Third Wave, which describes “developed” nations, like America, and their economic transitions from industrial production to data-driven labor. Techno, as black music and methodology, is coded with industrial economic terms and engagement with market distribution. Its emphasis on beat patternization lends itself to being interlocked with other tracks — a good metaphor for American fantastic futurism, as well as operating as a literal cultural assembly line, not too unlike the black folk-tradition of storytelling.
Toffler’s use of techno was directly in reference to technocracy, or a governing system led by an elite class of technical experts who build platforms of production for a class of largely skill-less consumers. Toffler warned technocracy had the potential to destabilize class mobility and social communities through a “technocratic divide” which favors the “informed” opinions of technical experts over a marginalized, and presumably unreliable, general public. When factoring in the specificity of African-Americans’ 400-year-long history of oppression by means of an exclusively white European colonial governing body, the understanding of technocracy looks a lot more sinister.
Juan Atkins, who originated the techno sound in the group Cybotron, first encountered Toffler’s writing in a high school course called Future Studies. In the midst of Detroit’s failing automotive industry and the aftermath of the race riots of the 1970s, Cybotron’s music reflected the industrial boom and decline of the city which was meant to be an example of an American capitalist utopia. Detroit’s collapse into dystopia prompted white people to flee to the suburbs, taking jobs and resources with them. The futurist ideals of Toffler’s writings, along with his notion of the “techno rebel” who would not feel restricted or defined by technology, inspired Cybotron’s music as they used available technology to push for innovative results. In 1981, Juan Atkins wrote Cybotron’s ‘Cosmic Cars’ with the intention of it being a “unique and adventurous piece of synthesizer funk, more in tune with Germany than the rest of Black America.” That same year in 1981, Paul Lesley and Sterling Jones’ A Number of Names released ‘Sharevari’ which is often considered an early example of techno.
Both Cybotron and A Number of Names’s music had their tracks broadcast on WGPR, 107.5 FM’s Electrifying Mojo, a radio show with a predominantly black audience and eclectic playlists including music by Prince, the B-52s and Kraftwerk that influenced much of the Detroit sound. A year later, while on a visit to New York, Atkins heard Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ and saw it as a better example of his sonic vision. In 1988, Derrick May, a known innovator of techno and ex-Northern Soul DJ and Kool Kat Records boss, Neil Rushton, compiled an album of early Detroit tracks called Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit for Virgin Records UK imprint 10 Records, which would put the term “techno” into circulation among music-buyers and journalists.
In July of this year, Mixmag ran a cover story titled, “How Richie Hawtin transformed electronic music again and again and again”. The British clubbing publication, which released its debut issue in 1983 with American black disco group Shalamar on the cover, supposedly formalized techno for global consumption, according to a 2015 retrospective in The Independent; techno and acid house were not imported into the UK until 1988, a year after Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’ was released. Much of electronic music history favors the work of Hawtin as the most influential Detroit DJ and producer and decades after the “invention” of techno in Detroit, Mixmag staged Richie Hawtin as the standard for what an electronic music icon could look like.
The story, written by longtime music journalist and previous FACT contributor Joe Muggs, describes Canada-native Hawtin’s technical expertise and how he “dreamed of releasing on Derrick May’s Transmat or Juan Atkins’s Metroplex but [was] unable to get the attention of [his] idols” and instead founded his own label, Plus 8, in 1990.
Five years after the label’s inception, James Stinson of Drexciya asked a vital and an unanswered question while being interviewed by Melody Maker: “Why do Richie and his Plus 8 family come down here and throw parties in downtown Detroit?… [He] brings in all these kids from the suburbs and from Canada and that shows a lack of respect. I’ve been to every one of those parties and I’ve never heard an Underground Resistance record, a Cybotron record, a Model 500 record or an Eddie Fowlkes record. It’s a total lack of respect and it’s got to stop.”
Fast-forward to October 2019. Siberian DJ/producer Nina Kraviz posts a picture of herself on Twitter wearing cornrows, prompting significant critique. When confronted, Kraviz responded: “Facts checking [sic]. For those who didn’t know. I am not white european [sic]. Braids is [sic] a part of many cultures. Heres [sic] is an opinion from a history teacher.” The “opinion” was delivered via a screengrab from Quora, a user-edited question-and-answer website. Braids and cornrows are known traditional African hairstyles that became functional during the transatlantic slave trade and were eventually used as a mode of secret communication between slaves through designs that could replicate maps to free areas in America. Kraviz is not the first to receive backlash for appropriating hair-braiding – one Kardashian or another has been heralded for pioneering different braided styles throughout the decade – nor is she the first to deny acknowledgment of the hurt in the callouts that follow, opting to declare the backlash an instance of reverse-racism. [Ed. note: There is no such thing as reverse-racism.]
Two months later Mixmag honored Kraviz by putting her in the no. 6 spot on its Top 10 DJs of the Year list. Her entry, which has since been amended, read: “She endures. The Siberian DJ may have triggered a minor tweetstorm with her ill-judged response to criticism of her hairstyle, but she remains the single biggest festival draw on the planet and genuinely innovative, emotional and evocative DJ of singular vision and accomplishment. Still Techno’s brightest star.”
An honest revision of techno’s history would follow a trail of themes like white extractive capitalism, white flight and re-urbanization and the economics of cultural theft. Technocracy relies on the withholding and hoarding of information and resources to uphold standards set by a controlling an often immoral elite class. An item or an experience is given value by certain standards within a technocracy and by decentralizing current narratives and allowing for creators to tell their own stories, there is opportunity for a more even and ethical cultural exchange across the unfortunate circumstance of an economic market established by violent and willfully ignorant white European colonial ideology. Moving forward into 2020, a few prominent voices of a new generation of Black Techno share their experiences and hopes for a decolonized dance music culture.
Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson
It’s always felt like a duty of mine to be able to push [the black] history [of techno] and push black artists. I had been thinking about doing an event like this for a long time but it’s hard to just do this event without any community backing or structural backing. Having worked with so many black artists since moving to Brooklyn and now as booker at Bossa Nova Civic Club, it just felt like a no-brainer. Dweller was also such an easy event to organize but we definitely need more black folks in booking positions at clubs. There’s an overwhelming majority 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. There really is no excuse.
This was a pivotal year for the Black Techno community. Within my immediate circle in Brooklyn, I’ve seen my peers and I blossom through our unapologetic approach to reclaiming and revitalizing the often-ignored black narrative of the genre. Our engagement with techno has directly channeled the underground, political ethos in its rawest form to permeate the homogenous scene and dismantle white patriarchal frame that has circumscribed the genre for way too long. As a black woman in a scene where I am highly visible, yet invisible at the same time, it’s been extremely inspiring to see that the contributions my peers and I have made to perpetuate change on a domestic and global scale.
Being able to tour internationally this year has helped me strengthen and reevaluate the intentions behind my engagement with techno as well. While I’ve had the opportunity to play at places that are seen as crucial techno venues like Berghain’s Saüle in Berlin, I’ve come to realize my role as not only an instigator of change, but also one of a healer and educator. To be able to play the music of black artists I respect so much, like vets Robert Armani and Mike Dearborn, in the venue’s context, it felt more potent, given the complicated history between Berlin and the US as it pertains to techno. Experiences like these have given me the opportunity to bring more attention to the black, POC and queer elders and ancestors who laid the foundation for me to do what I’m doing right now. To me, there’s something special about digging through the archives to retell the stories of my elders in order to heal the severed roots of the genre and to provoke people to decolonize their minds when it comes to their perception of techno.
“Representation matters, our words matter, our music matter, and our lives matter. People need to know that whether they like it or not.” – Ash Lauryn
Some of things that have been inspiring me the most are the hard-working DJs of Brooklyn’s current nightlife communities, particularly the POC and QTPOC communities. We’ve all been working together to create spaces for ourselves in global dance music. My reason for releasing so much music this year is a bit more personal. It stems more from my desire to maintain autonomy over my art and the narratives surrounding my art. Each release is different and is released for a different purposes, despite the output. Getting the music to the people without a buffer is something that motivates me, as well. More of my peer group is releasing music to be added to the canon of black techno and dance music. I feel that all of us want to see more positive changes for POC in dance music globally. What better to do that than by making the music that starts new conversations? Techno roots can’t be denied. There is a new generation of black DJs and producers that now know those roots and want to contribute to the legacy of black dance music in North America.
Although house and techno music has seen somewhat of a resurgence of black and brown youth as of late, there is still an incredible amount of work to be done. I am grateful to be a part of the scene at a time where many are done being silent on issues that matter to us. There are a lot of great people doing great things all in hopes of preserving the rich black roots of dance music, and I consider myself to be one of them. Through my platform Underground & Black, my goal is to elevate and inspire the future generations of black dance music, and I can most humbly say I am doing just that. Representation matters, our words matter, our music matter, and our lives matter. People need to know that whether they like it or not.
DeForrest Brown, Jr. is a New York-based theorist, journalist and curator. He produces digital audio and extended media as Speaker Music and is a representative of the Make Techno Black Again campaign. His most recent writing can be found in Afropunk, Artforum and Hyperallergic.
Find all of FACT’s year-end coverage here.