Think Politics and Dance Music Don’t Mix? Think Again
Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, some dance music fans still maintain that political beliefs and the music they claim to love should be kept separate. But let’s be clear from the start: it is not possible to separate dance music from politics.
Naysayers might rely on the argument that not all entertainment has to be viewed from a political standpoint, and that’s fine. It’s perfectly okay to enjoy music for its composite parts: beat, melody, and texture. But in the case of dance music, it’s futile to remove the creation of the music itself from the context in which it was created. By their very nature, disco, house, techno, and the myriad subgenres that they’ve spawned are products of political and social oppression; their souls lie in the beauty of defiance.
This ideology can be traced back to New York City in the late ‘60s when disco emerged from predominantly black, hispanic, latino and queer communities. Marginalised by mainstream society, these groups found salvation in a subculture that belonged to them. They were liberated by the extravagance and euphoria that accompanied 4/4 rhythms, and united in the face of discrimination and police brutality. In fact, it was the 1969 Stonewall Riots, when police raided popular Manhattan gay bar and dance club Stonewall Inn, that proved to be one of the most pivotal moments in the scene’s history: the riots that rose up in response resulted in a gay liberation movement that swept the United States.
The birth of house music rode the same wave before exploding like a tsunami in the gay and black clubs of Chicago in the early ‘80s. Championed by figureheads like Larry Levan, Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, it was in this city that beats, basslines and samples became the signifiers of an evolving house sound. A few years later in Detroit, and another iconic trio, the Belleville Three, were responding with music to the socioeconomic struggles and death of the American Dream in their predominantly African American hometown. Their futuristic sound, flecked with the industrial echoes of drum machines and synths, hinted at something deeper — an interrogation of what it means to be human, particularly when considered within the framework of a racial and cultural crossroads.
With all this in mind, it’s particularly baffling to see the ire on social media posts criticising brands and DJs in support of causes like Black Lives Matter. Comments like “Stay out of politics, stick to music” — which as, already established above, is a contradiction — have again become a constant refrain. But this idea denies the history of the music, and rejects the music itself. Even more troubling is the repeated appearance of “All Lives Matter” — a response which ultimately fails to recognise that right now (and always) it’s black lives that are in danger and need protecting. Or to use a simple analogy, when your house is on fire and the fire department shows up, you don’t suddenly scream “all houses matter!” — you focus on the house that’s burning down.
Techno pioneers aren’t excluded from the barrage. Jeff Mills recently posted a video of David Bowie calling out systemic racism on MTV in the early ‘80s, and dishearteningly, some of the ensuing comments veer towards claims of so-called “reverse racism.” This entire concept riffs on the idea that rather than being deeply entrenched within systems designed to oppress, racism is primarily a curse of the mind, and by that logic, isn’t a barrier to equality. The George Floyd protests that erupted on streets across the world suggest otherwise. So too, do the declarations of support from brands and DJs promising to address the whitewashing of an industry founded on black excellence.
But collective rage isn’t limited to the topic of racism. As Len Faki discovered when he shared a photo of himself giving a thumbs down outside Trump Towers, many dance music fans believe their favourite DJs shouldn’t make reference to politics at all. Some commenters were genuinely outraged, pleading with Faki to climb down from his ivory tower and stop preaching to the common people. It clearly hit a nerve, compelling him to respond. “Techno…has always been political. And actually, this is one of the reasons I became part of the scene in the first place,” he said. “I don’t want any haters, homophobes, sexists or racists… neither on my page nor on our dance floors. You cannot play ‘unity’ on the dance floor but betray everything this culture stands for.” Similarly, as a DJ whose role is irrevocably intertwined with an industry born from the wounds of persecution, you cannot overt your eyes from Trump’s crimes and say nothing.
Nevertheless, what some fans fail to realise is that dance music is and always has been an incubator for new ideas, concepts and experiences that challenge the status quo. Yes, its roots lie in escapism, but that must never be confused for mindlessness. Like all good art, dance music affects how you think and behave in the world, which means even the most insignificant dance floor epiphanies can become meaningful political acts.
When you dive into the adventure that this idea presents, you’re acknowledging dance music history. To enjoy it, in whatever form, means to profit from its reason for being, and with that comes a responsibility for every listener, artist and DJ. We gain nothing from quietly mulling over our own indifferences about cultural and societal injustices, but when we embrace dance music’s core values, we can plant seeds of revolution that spread throughout the world.
“It’s funny how times change [but] at the same time how they don’t,” Derrick May recently posted alongside a Langston Hughes monologue. That fact needs to be rectified, once and for all.
Abby Lowe is a freelancer living in London. Find her on Twitter.