How Dance Music Collectives Are Shaping Our Future
How Dance Music Collectives Are Shaping Our FutureFebruary 6, 2020
When Eliabe de Freitas walked into his first Batekoo party, at a heaving club in central São Paulo, he felt like he was opening a door onto a different life. This was a new kind of party for him: surrounded by bodies of all shapes, sizes and states of undress, mostly black, mostly young, mostly queer, and all dancing their asses off to music that he knew belonged to all of them. At the time, de Freitas was going through a transformation of his own, working out his own sense of identity as a light-skinned black Brazilian; after years of cropping his hair short, he’d recently decided to get long braids put in – a simple cosmetic adjustment that changed how he felt in his body. Finding Batekoo, he says, was a revelation. “It was the first party where I went and felt comfortable in my own skin. I saw so many different shades of black, and so much acceptance.” He spent the night whipping his braids alongside dozens of sweaty, half-naked bodies like his own.
That night, de Freitas knew that the dancefloor could be a site of transformation and affirmation; not just for individual faces lit up by flashing strobe lights, but for entire communities who rarely feel seen at all. That’s something no DJ can make that happen on their own — no matter how good the music is, or the sound system, or the setting. The Batekoo parties, put on by queer, black Brazilians to serve their own community, show that if you want to change your situation, there’s strength in numbers. In recent years we’ve seen a slew of DJ collectives emerge to demand better treatment and greater visibility for marginalized artists and communities – particularly for the growing numbers of women, queer and trans DJs on the scene. Whether they’re throwing parties, training new talent, launching record labels or agitating for safer dancefloors, DJ collectives are popping up all around the world. And wherever a new collective emerges, it tells a unique story about a local culture – different people, different pressures, and different solutions to bring unheard talent to the stage.
The logic of “strength in numbers” transcends nightlife, of course. It’s obviously the case in a normal workplace: if your office is toxic, your boss is a nightmare, or your workload is impossible, you won’t change much acting on your own. But by teaming up with colleagues, joining a union, or going on strike, major change is possible. But what if your workplace is a nightclub? Most of us think of the dancefloor as a refuge from horrible bosses. But for the mighty few who make it their mission to put on parties for the rest of us, the logic of strength-in-numbers is becoming increasingly visible.
If you’re an aspiring DJ thinking wondering how to start your own collective, the short answer is — you just start one! There’s no set way of doing things, and every collective has to arise in response to its own specific context. But with so many existing collectives ready to share their knowledge, there’s no harm in cribbing from the experts. So we’ve spoken to DJs from four collectives: Batekoo in Brazil, No Shade in Germany, NÓTT in Colombia and Oramics in Poland. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of similar collectives emerging worldwide, but these four are not only throwing some of the best parties around, they’re also having a significant impact on their communities – all with varying levels of skill and experience, and with subtly different aims.
No Shade was founded in 2017, not as a party, but as a training programme to bring more women and non-binary DJs into the scene and help them get professional bookings. But the collective doesn’t exist just to put more women on lineups. Like many DJ collectives worldwide, what unites them is a feeling that they can’t easily break into their local scene as individuals, because they don’t fit the acceptable, familiar mould. And in Germany, that’s still a straight white male with a pocketful of USBs. Like many other collectives, No Shade are fundamentally intersectional in their thinking, aiming to bring together artists of all different sexual, gender and ethnic identities. The lack of representation of people like them on club lineups reflects a deeper sense of marginalization on the societal level, but they believe that dancefloors are a space that can be moulded and shaped – not only to make dancing more accessible and safer, but to nudge the rest of society towards their egalitarian ideals.
As No Shade points out, politics is present in every aspect of life – including DJing. “The bottom line is that for an individual or a collective to claim to be apolitical is not realistic at all,” says Folly Ghost, who joined No Shade after moving to Berlin from Rio de Janeiro. “That’s actually a huge privilege. Every action you take, whatever your identity represents, it is a political statement. We cannot get away from that. No Shade isn’t an activist collective, but we are aware of the effect we have on the Berlin scene and on the lives of people close to us.” But mere representation is just the beginning for most collectives. Coming together as a unit offers solidarity and community for beginners, and can give them a glow of legitimacy through association with a larger organisation. And as a collective grows in size and stature, it provides bargaining power to the DJs as workers, which can actually change the nightlife environment for everyone.
All of that might seem like a far-off goal for a collective that’s just starting out. In the beginning, most collectives are simply a group of friends getting together to throw parties where they know they’ll be on the lineup. For Colombian DJ, promoter and illustrator Juliana Cuervo, her first taste of working in a collective was a response to the cliquey nature of her local techno scene in Medellín. The 13-person collective Move was founded six years ago as a way of throwing secret parties away from the usual nightclubs and attendant police corruption, offering cheaper entry and – for a change – some women DJs. Around the same time, she had opened a record shop in the city with her husband and fellow DJ, Santiago Merino. Making money from imported vinyl proved too difficult in their niche market, and the shop closed after two years. But in that time, only a handful of women ever came into the shop. Barely any women DJs were being booked for parties in the city, either. The situation was the same across the rest of Colombia and, Cuervo realised, across most of Latin America. So in 2016 she teamed up with two friends, Marea and Andrea Arias, to build a database of all the women DJs in the region. That way, when promoters tried to argue that, of course, they would book women, if only there were enough of them available, Cuervo could simply point them to the database and prove that lack of supply was not the issue.
With its explicitly feminist aims, NÓTT confronts a culture of chauvinism with a kind of boiled-down rationality that can’t be argued with. In order to challenge this “macho image of the Latino man,” says Cuervo, “we have to confront it with this idea of the empowered woman. When we started, the main situation was that women were afraid to start a career in [techno]. There’s this idea that the technology is not for us. There’s this idea of woman as an object, particularly Latina woman. It was so hard for us to find a place.”
At the same time, NÓTT employs various other tactics to bring more women into the scene, including running workshops on building oscillators and designing visuals. There’s also a NÓTT residency on a Mexican radio station where they play mixes from rising DJs, and earlier this year they released Austral, a compilation of new music from Latin American women including Valesuchi, Sol Ortega and Kriss Salas.
There are certainly more female DJs in Medellín now, but they’re not afforded the same opportunities. The men who run the city’s techno scene don’t get it, Cuervo says. “They don’t understand that it’s important to open up space for others. They don’t realise these DJs are good. For example, when I started to get more attention from outside, people from Colombia asked me how much I paid to have my mix on Resident Advisor! And how much I paid for my Boiler Room set – nothing! Like I say, it’s a social construction, this idea that you have to pay for everything.”
In Salvador, Brazil, Batekoo co-founder co-founder Mauricio Sacramento was facing similar exclusion when he decided to throw himself a birthday party in 2014 – an event that became the founding legend of the collective. Though Salvador is home to one of Brazil’s largest black communities, making up over half of the city’s population, Miranda frequently encountered racism and prejudice when he went out at night. But in the five years since its inadvertent launch party, Batekoo has become a nationwide phenomenon and a haven for the country’s queer black youth, with parties taking place in multiple Brazilian cities, sometimes hosting thousands of people. De Freitas, who joined the collective soon after his first Batekoo experience and now runs its fledgling record label, points out that the collective is a celebration of the various facets of African diaspora in Brazil, where although half of the population define themselves as black or mixed race, the ruling class is dominated by the descendants of white Europeans. “Brazil has lots of black people – we are a country that was colonised. Slaves coming from Africa was the basis of our country,” de Freitas says, pointing out that Batekoo offers a counter-narrative of self-affirmation and celebration, where dancers can be themselves. Consequently, the crowd is full of people who are “very stylish,” he says. “We understand our aesthetics are very strong – people come with their natural hair and afros. We like people to feel free to dress up the way we want to. We wear very little clothing! We are very free.”
The collective’s identity is important not only in determining who comes to the Batekoo parties, but also in defining the music that gets played – often, genres that have been devalued because of their association with poor black communities. “The party is a representation of everything that we know as music, so we play black-influenced music,” says de Freitas. Central to that is funk (often known outside Brazil as baile funk), which was born in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, but you’ll also hear dancehall, trap, hip-hop and R&B. And as a further gesture of solidarity, ticket prices are kept as low as possible – typically a few dollars – and those who identify as trans can come in for free as “our special guest,” says Eliabe, “because these people need to feel safer than anyone else.”
In Berlin, No Shade has been transforming the city’s dancefloors from the inside out through its in-demand DJ training schemes. Being accepted onto the scheme is a bit like joining a guild as an apprentice. Not only do aspiring DJs get to learn a craft, they’re also supported in finding their first bookings, and can wear their No Shade association as a badge of quality. The scheme is open to women, trans and non-binary people, with two people chosen for each round. As well as learning the basics of DJing, newbies get an introduction to music theory and DJ software, and tutorials from DJs inside and outside of the collective, all culminating in a night where they have the chance to support an international headliner. Last year they had almost 100 applicants – next year they expect far more.
But increasing the number of womxn in the scene isn’t just about helping a few chosen winners to get bookings and make money. True diversity and inclusion has benefits for any industry, they point out. “It’s no secret that the music industry is dominated by cis men, so giving people an opportunity to change that is something that benefits the music industry,” says Kikelomo, chiming in on a four-way phone call with fellow No Shade crew members Folly Ghost, PERIGGA and their resident VJ, Bad Juju. “With diversity, you get broader perspectives. You’re inspiring a new generation, so you get new sounds.”
“It’s not like we just want more female, non-binary and trans people out there,” adds Tres, AKA Folly Ghost. “It’s not positive to be just the one trans person on the lineup – those people will feel like they’re the ‘token’, that they were booked for their identity not for their awesome music. So the training programme is structured so that people can develop a DJ career afterwards. It’s about enabling people to get to the next level.” More than simply a collective of friends from the same background, No Shade functions as an industry network, providing support as they face challenges in the music industry and in their own lives. “Within the economy that we live and with the precarisation of work, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and stressed, especially when you have other layers of discrimination [to deal with]. So it’s very important to team up,” adds Folly Ghost. If No Shade refuses to take part in a gig or a panel discussion, for example, that’s not just one rejection – that’s 16 rejections. Organizers have to think hard about why an entire group would refuse to participate in their event. “So there’s a lot of power in numbers for people who find themselves in similar situations.”
“Many people have reached out to us to say they were inspired to start their own collectives. We are not the only ones doing this, but we’re part of this movement.” — No Shade’s PERIGGA
After bringing many new DJs into the fold, No Shade now wants to extend the training programme to include visual art, radio shows, podcasts and other aspects of club culture. As the collective grows, so do their skills, knowledge and experience, which means that they are more likely to thrive for longer, they explain. But their growth has limits. “We reached 16 members and started facing logistical difficulties,” says Julia, AKA Bad Juju, explaining that DJs who finish the scheme are no longer automatically part of the collective. “Now it’s still the same intensive programme, but we are the core and the people in training are alumni. They’re related to us and we still invite them to play and do guest mixes, but they are orbiting the core.” Compared to Batekoo, whose huge, nationwide success is all part of the plan, No Shade believe that there’s value in pulling back and limiting your focus, so that those who are involved feel valued and integral to the project. The ideal outcome is for other DJs to start forming their own groups too.
Excitingly, collectives like theirs seem to be having an impact on the rest of the music industry. “I wouldn’t be mega optimistic because we are in our own bubble, but a lot of other festivals are getting more diverse,” says Nathassia, AKA PERIGGA. “Many people have reached out to us to say they were inspired to start their own collectives. We are not the only ones doing this, but we’re part of this movement.”
In Poland, the collective known as Oramics – named after the female electronic pioneer Daphne Oram – forms a multi-city web of connections between women, non-binary and trans DJs. One of them is Monster, a DJ also known as Moli. “I don’t actually understand why the scene was dominated by men for such a long time. Men aren’t actually better at DJing,” she laughs down the phone from her home in Poznań. One of the top priorities for Moli and the Oramics crew is to create the feeling of safety on the dancefloor. “If you have a diverse lineup you will have a more diverse audience,” she explains. “Every time I go to one of those techno parties where the line-up is 100 percent male, then 90 percent of the dancefloor is male too. And when there are so many men around you just don’t feel safe. Having more women creates a better atmosphere on the dance floor.”
As well as running a DJ mix series and offering workshops in music production, DJing and audiovisual performances, Oramics is now going a step further and relaunching itself as a booking agency, creating a formal portal of representation for their DJs. By placing a buffer between DJs and promoters, Moli hopes they will have more bargaining power and be able to demand better working conditions from clubs and promoters – whether that’s requesting the implementation of safer space policies, demanding a minimum number of women, trans and non-binary DJs on a lineup, or simply getting paid the same as their male counterparts. “That’s not an obvious issue yet for some promoters,” says Moli. “We also decided it’s too hard for us as artists to run the bookings by ourselves. It always feels a little bit uncomfortable if you have to ask people for better conditions. It’s better to have someone whose job it is to get it done.”
With new DJ collectives springing up all the time, Moli suggests that this broad turn to collectivism is a response to an increasingly “individualistic, DJ-idolising scene.” “Clubbing did not start out like this – it started with raves where very often you couldn’t even see the DJ,” she points out. “So I feel like there’s a wave of collectives trying to make it less individualistic, where it’s not about the DJ, it’s about the experience of the party.” Collectives like Oramics are able to expose the politics inherent in rave culture by displacing the lonely figure on the podium and bringing attention back to the bodies in the room, ensuring that they are valued and celebrated as much as the DJ. “Nightlife and club culture is inherently political,” agrees No Shade’s Kike, AKA Kikelomo. Though the Berlin crew are wary of defining their politics beyond specific demands for the dancefloor, their egalitarian ideals naturally affect their responses to other issues, like gentrification, rising rents, the lack of appropriate spaces for art, and the impact of transnational capital on a generation of precarious artists. Attempting to be apolitical in dance music inevitably means endorsing the status quo – and the status quo simply does not match up with the supposedly egalitarian ideals of raving.
But in Poznań, where Moli is based, the situation is more unusual. Though Poland recently re-elected a right wing populist party, Poznań is known as one of the country’s most progressive cities. So much so that it would be embarrassing to reveal that you support the ruling party, says Moli. “When you go to clubs here you don’t have to worry about some right-wing people attacking the party or anything like that. There are gay clubs that are completely safe.” Even professing to be apolitical is unacceptable. Last summer a controversy broke out after one local promoter tried to claim neutrality following a right-wing attack on a Pride march in a different city. “They had to cancel their festival, they got so much shit for it,” says Moli. But elsewhere in Poland, organising safe, queer-friendly parties is still a challenge. “I think a lot of people are aware that [clubbing] is supposed to be an inclusive environment, but there is an atmosphere of homophobia that’s popularised by the media.” A similar religious conservatism is at play in Colombia, where women like Cuervo are constantly fighting an ingrained set of ideas about how they should behave in public. “For my mum,” says Cuervo, “it was so hard to understand that I would not get married, that I’m a DJ and I’m travelling the world right now. It’s something really strange and new for her, and for my country.”
And in Brazil, Batekoo’s existence feels even more vital since the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, a self-declared “proud” homophobe. Brazil has the highest LGBTQ+ murder rate in the world, with a person killed on average every 19 hours; most of these victims are black. The murder rate has risen dramatically in the last few years. But, says de Freitas, “what we learned from last year’s election is that we are stronger than ever. It’s really difficult to fight alone, but we saw that being together and caring for each other was the most important thing we could do. The hardest time was before the election, when there was all this tension, people saying really bad things. We were scared, but we couldn’t do anything else but resist, right? Being together brought us some light and some focus.”
And despite the broader political context, Batekoo is thriving. As well as bringing thousands of people to their parties nationwide, the collective is launching a record label to showcase black artists whose music represents an undersung heritage, from house cleaner-turned-funk carioca star Deize Tigrona (who was sampled by M.I.A. on “Bucky Done Gun”) to feminist ragga vocalist Mis Ivy. “If we had not created our own label, these people would not have had the same opportunities,” says de Freitas. “Whatever we do, Batekoo Records is all about black culture, and these women represent a very important factor of black culture in Brazil.” There’s also an increased focus on education and the business of music. In fact, Batekoo has gone official, with partners and a board. “We work as a company, we have meetings, we sit and design strategies for the things we want to do,” says de Freitas. It’s very corporate in this sense! We go to the office every day, we have our financial goals.”
By turning the collective into a proper company, de Freitas hopes that Batekoo will be able to have an even more transformative effect on Brazilian society, blazing a trail for the next generation. Corporate partnerships and sponsored events are a major part of this development, as Batekoo works to bring in big money in order to throw events at scale. But they’ve been canny about who they work with and what they demand from these deals. Potential partners usually approach Batekoo in the lead-up to Pride month in June and Black Culture Month in November, says de Freitas. Recently, instead of taking corporate money to sponsor their Pride parade, Batekoo persuaded a company to invest in a permanent physical space for the collective, where they can host projects and courses on DJing, event security, running a bar and all kinds of cultural entrepreneurialism. “We know very clearly what we want and where we want to reach,” says de Freitas. “We don’t back down, you know? There are some companies we won’t work with because it would be too far away from our values.”
DJ collectives need to understand their strength, he points out. “We are a collective, but we have the vision of a company, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We are still working for our communities, and we won’t change that even though we have strategies and goals. I don’t think any collective wants to be seen as philanthropy.” It’s a lesson that applies to anyone who’s thinking of starting their own DJ collective.
Whatever strategy you take, whatever rules of engagement you follow, the hard truth is that the energy, strength and vision of the collective will always be exponentially larger than any assortment of random DJs in a scene. That’s powerful, and valuable. As de Freitas points out, Batekoo’s sponsored projects can only be seen as a mark of their success. “People think they are helping us,” he laughs, “but it’s actually the other way around.”
Chal Ravens is a freelance journalist living in London. Follow her on Twitter.