Why Representation Still Matters for Minorities in Dance Music

Though it’s been a hot topic for years, Samantha Warren argues that there’s still ample reason to strive for better minority representation in dance music.

12 min
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Mar 5, 2021
Samantha Warren

In 2018, psytrance artist Khromata was teaching a young girl to DJ. The student was doing great, but one day, out of the blue, she announced she wanted to quit DJing. “I’ll never be any good,” she said, “I don’t see any girl DJs, so boys just must be better.” Those words were spoken as if they were a matter of fact, and the student was only nine years old.

I’m pleased to report that the little girl didn’t quit DJing. But her blunt honesty — the kind that so often only a child can wield — gets at the heart of why diversity in dance music is still such an important topic.

In fact, we still don’t see many women working on stage or behind the scenes in dance music. Men comprise 80 percent of bookings at most of the world’s main electronic music’s festivals, and 94 percent of the DJs playing the world’s top clubs were men. In the wider music world it’s the same, with only one woman among 25 nominees in the 2020 Brit Awards, UK, and male producers outnumber women 37 to one in the U.S. Billboard charts. And most of those few women are white.

Psychology research has a lot to say about the power of role models. They represent the range of potential modes of being, offering clear examples of paths toward success for whoever they represent. But for too long, white men were overly represented on stage, unwittingly keeping the door shut for marginalized groups.

Studies show that occupational gender and ethnicity stereotypes are ingrained in kids before they’re even seven years old, reinforcing the need for greater representation in all walks of life. Through my work with In The Key of She, I’ve been researching gender in the electronic music industry for two years, and after 56 interviews with womxn from across the scene, one thing is clear – If you can see it, you can be it.

“It was the Kemistry and Storm DJ-Kicks mix which was a massive turning point for me because these were two females who looked cool, played hardcore music, and you could just tell that they were going to do what they wanted how they wanted. This was such a massive monumental shift for me in seeing two empowering women represent that music.”BTraits speaking on In the Key of She, March 2020

So what does dance music look like? Research by Marcus Barnes published by Beatportal in 2020 on the racial makeup of festivals confirms that over three-quarters of the artists we see at festivals are white. This is replicated in other music media too, which feeds our unconscious bias, forming a picture of “normality” in our mind, whitewashing our expectations.

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Samantha Warren, courtesy of the author.

It’s true that there are improvements in the gender and racial make-up of the music industry —with female:pressure’s FACTS survey showing the number of female acts at festivals rising steadily, and Barnes’ 2020 research finding a good level of racial diversity in city-based festivals . But based on current percentage rises from the most reliable data we have, it will take 90 years to achieve a 50/50 balance between male and female music producers, 43 years to achieve the same for songwriters, and even longer for artists and producers of colour. That snail’s pace is not acceptable. We need interventions to improve the representation of minorities, and that means taking positive action.

Positive action is referred to as levelling the playing field. If one team kicks the ball downhill, while the other is running up the slope to shoot for their goal, the game is patently not fair. But unlike a sloping sports field, being on Team Privilege is often something we don’t notice:

“I am a white male with work experience so things will probably go easier for me even though I might not directly feel it. Like cycling with the wind in your back.”Respondent to the 2020 AFEM Gender Diversity in the Electronic Music Survey

But positive action is also controversial. Many are appalled by the idea that their gender or race might open doors for them. They see this as insulting to their music, and a favouritism they don’t want. It can also mean the credentials of successful minorities are called into question, with assumptions that their success is for reasons other than talent. And so the old claim that “good music is good music, regardless of the artist’s gender or skin colour!” is trotted out time and again.

But this argument assumes everyone has equal access to the social, financial and technical know-how required to make and perform dance music – that we’re all on that level playing field. But, as Marcus Barnes noted in his 2020 piece on race and representation, members of marginalized communities are often starting from a place far behind their white peers.

“A lot of [white] musicians started out with grounding or the support they needed to become what they are. The emphasis on being an artist isn’t quite the same when you’re from a POC family because they’re worried about how you’re going to survive in the world. You can’t just think you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to have a degree to fall back on.

Even access to instruments and things like that [can be a barrier]. A lot of people of colour have a lot to deal with before they can commit to music. The reason why there’s white male dominance is because they have the resources, the time, and the support.”Dee, in Race, Representation, and Reshaping Festival Culture

So let’s be clear — it’s privilege that enables talent to flourish, as much as any innate ability. And increasing the visibility of minorities does not mean compromising on talent. It means working a little harder to find the talented minorities who might not pop up through the usual networks. Because they are definitely there.

Before Toolroom Records started their We Are Listening campaign, they rarely received demos from women. But when they specifically called for womxn made tracks, 80 were submitted overnight. They’ve since signed music from Maxinne, Lizzie Curious, and Carly Wilford as a result of their mentoring programme. Fresh new producers for a talent-hungry label means strong revenue streams and a wider fan base. What’s not to love?

So maybe there isn’t a shortage of minorities making music, but instead they’ve been taught it’s not worth coming out of the shadows. Research on why women quit jobs in male-dominated careers confirms this supposed “lack of ambition” is a learned response. Why run up the hill if you know you’ll be exhausted before you even get close to the goal?

Exhaustion for minorities comes in many forms. The attractive young singer-songwriter sick of being hit on by the male producers she hires. The black DJ refused access to the stage even though she’s wearing an artist wristband. The woman in her 40s editing wrinkles out of every Instagram pic to protect her career. These are all real reports from my research. Even those who say that “nothing bad” has happened to them describe not being taken seriously, having equipment mansplained to them, being trolled online, and so on. It is these “nothings” that chip away at self-confidence, reinforcing that you’re different, and requiring stamina to keep running up that slope, instead of cycling with the wind at your back.

Dance music is powerful. It gets under our skin, into our hearts and moves our bodies. It’s emotional fuel, and a community force with great potential for social inclusion, busting the stereotypes that limit aspirations.

If you DJ, run a label, throw parties, or are just a dance music fan, you can help. Play some music by women and artists of colour in your DJ sets, and check out initiatives like Without Exception Motherland, female:pressure, or any of the many collectives that have sprung up to platform minority artists. Call for minority artists to submit their music to your label, post requests for DJs in female-focused social media forums, and refuse to be part of all-white, and/or all-male conference panels, parties, and advisory bodies. These are all great ways to help raise minorities’ visibility and help move us towards a dance music industry that’s as inclusive as the crowds on the dance floor. We all have the power to change things, and now, with the pandemic offering a unique chance to “reset” dance music, we truly have the chance to.

Samantha Warren, PhD, is a Co-chair of the Association for Electronic Music’s Diversity and Inclusion group, a Professor of Organization Studies at University of Portsmouth, and behind the In the Key of She research project. Find her on Facebook.

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