As one of Detroit’s worldwide ambassadors and an unapologetically straight-talking figure, Carl Craig was one of the first artists I called. Over the course of his career Carl has taken his music into venues where, historically, it would never have been considered that a Black artist may one day perform. In April 2019 he played a sell out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall, afterwards telling me, “When they built the Royal Albert Hall, they weren’t thinking somebody like me was gonna be playing there.
“When everything was popping about why there weren’t enough female DJs, there became a division where there were the people who jumped on board, and maybe even over-jumped on board, and the people who were pissed about it,” he says, referring to the way in which some promoters were seemingly trying to compensate for a historic lack of female representation. “What was happening then is similar to what’s happening between Black Lives Matter and ‘All Lives Matter.’ It was a stupid conversation because there wasn’t a necessity for people to jump on the bandwagon, it should have just been that inclusion all the time.”
Carl’s been involved with music since the late eighties. He’s part of the second wave of Detroit techno innovators, and spent a prolonged period in the UK in his early twenties where he witnessed the whitewashing of jungle music. He speaks about tokenism and the ways in which people feel obligated to put women or people of colour on their lineups to meet quotas. “You say, ‘You haven’t got any Black people on your lineup’ and they say, ‘Well we’ve got Carl Cox,’ like what the fuck?! It’s like Token from South Park.” He says Time Warp is “glaringly out of step with the world view in relation to what they see as the Mannheim view,” citing his own very public calling out of the festival via Twitter. (I had an exhaustive off-the-record chat with Time Warp founder Steffen Charles, but he did not respond to questions sent to him via email).
He also mentions Dutch events Mysteryland and Awakenings. “Awakenings did an online thing recently and the only person of colour they had on there was [Loco] Dice, and it blew my mind because there’s so many Black guys that make techno in Holland!” he laughs. “You couldn’t pick at least five guys to do an Awakenings stage in a time when it’s becoming such a big deal?” Awakenings announced the 2020 timetable on June 22nd, roughly two weeks after the event shared a black square in solidarity with the BLM movement on Instagram and Twitter. While the lineup was likely booked long before this year’s protests, the online backlash was immediate. It’s unclear why Awakenings didn’t make any last-minute adjustments to the event, which was broadcast online. Awakenings provided no comment for this story.
We move on to discussing the way Black artists and genres can sometimes be segregated on their own stages, rather than share the main stage. “There’s a ghetto-ising that I think people try to do with festivals, too,” he says. “In order to show that they have representation in the Black world, they’ll do a drum & bass stage or something and put Black artists on there.” Some of the festivals analysed in the data section avoided this ghettoisation by presenting a variety of genres on their main stage, with a few giving music of Black origin (and its proponents) prominence across their lineup and stages.
It must be noted, though, that some genres attract very few Black or female artists, which can make it difficult for festival bookers. Take Bang Face for instance. The annual weekender, which usually takes place at Pontins in Southport, focuses on niche and often novelty throwback rave-style music. For whatever reason, few people of colour or women operate in that field.
Which brings us to the topic of representation as a workable concept. What does representation actually mean? Should festivals all over the world always aim to book lineups that include black and indigenous artists of colour, even when the host country’s population is majority white? Is it a case of looking at the ethnic breakdown for each country and addressing diversity from that angle? Or do you simply aim to create, and stick to, an internal policy? Or should there be an industry-wide policy? These are questions that festival owners, bookers and promoters need to discuss and find answers to. Canvassing attendees and artists, instigating conversations and continuing to experiment and refine their approaches are important steps in making progress towards a better understanding and implementation of equality and representation.
Similarly, how do you attract people of colour to your events when many minorities come from low-income backgrounds? Or how do you cater to differences in cultural needs and expectations? Addressing these differences can play a key role in attracting more diverse crowds. Techno, for instance, has been whitewashed for so long that its Black roots have almost been forgotten. Certainly, there are less Black people on the average dance floor of most techno events than there were when the music was conceived. There’s the question of whether young Black people even care about the music. A whole generation clearly view it as “white people’s music,” so how many of those even want to reclaim it or be encouraged back to the dance floor when they’ve naturally moved on to other types of music that they identify with more than techno?
Representation matters on the dance floor just as much as it matters behind-the-scenes and in the booth. The dance floor can act as an industry pipeline, inspiring a passionate new generation of ravers to get involved as DJs, lighting specialists, sound engineers, PRs, agents, journalists, bookers, or any number of roles. Diverse crowds also produce a certain kind of energy that is ineffable. And minority representation and inclusivity lies at the heart of original club culture, which sprung up in the mid- to late-eighties. And although commercialism and consumerism have heavily infiltrated our culture, the universal essence of the dance floor can still be maintained with proper cultivation and attention.
“When I did the lineups for the first two [Detroit Electronic Music Festivals] here in Detroit, my aim was to present a global view of the music,” Carl Craig says. “It would have been very easy for me to say, ‘Ok, we’re only going to have Detroit artists,’ and it would have been a completely Black festival at that time. From my view, I knew it would not be inclusive enough to represent the music that influenced and represented techno.” He describes the “potholes” that can appear when considering bookings and, if there were only Black artists, perhaps it would echo back to a time when Black performers had to dance on stage for their food.
Traversing historical tropes and general cultural sensitivities can be fraught. But there’s no doubt that if you’re at least genuinely trying to present a more rounded lineup, and willing to learn, you’re on the right track. This often means communicating with the communities you are trying to represent. In order to make positive change, everyone I spoke to agreed that festivals need to begin reaching out, engaging, and creating open forums for discussion while listening to what is being said. So many marginalised people feel as though they aren’t heard and their needs are not met. Putting privilege and ego aside to make space for criticism, and responding to that criticism with grace and humility, is key.
Carl highlighted the fact that the ethnic portrayal of DJs in the media has shifted since the eighties, as media representations have become whitewashed, parallel to genres like house and techno. “I’ve been in the music business a long time now and what I understand most about it is that it’s a trend-based industry,” he says, describing his attitude to being overlooked by bookers. “Trends at festivals are based on the biggest records of the time or the biggest artists. So there’s the reality that there will be low points as well high points in every artist’s career.”
Trends also have greater influence over some festivals more than others. “Big corporate EDM festivals are less community-focused and are driven purely by ticket sales, which are reflective of the popular (trendy) artists of the moment, says Andrea Graham, co-founder of Canada’s Bass Coast festival. “So in these types of festivals, it’s very common to see the established white male stars as the majority on the lineup.”
“However, change has slowly been happening in the more community-focused festivals that support local talent and who believe in fostering community and art,” Andrea continues. “Women and people of colour are still the minority by far, However, as these artists are supported in the grassroots level, they will hopefully rise up to play the larger festivals.”
As such, it’s crucial that more festivals lead by example. Bookers, managing directors, staff, DJs, performers, editors, journalists, and everyone who has the opportunity to shape public opinion can plant the seeds of change. Trends don’t always have to be driven by public consumption. Festivals can dictate trends — especially the most revered and trusted events. If a major European techno event booked, say, Steve Rachmad or Benny Rodrigues alongside their usual lineup, it’s not hard to imagine that the majority of the crowd would trust the festival enough to enjoy both DJs without question. It’s up to the decision-makers to put more faith in the crowd, perhaps by continuing to book the big headliners that will help sell most of their tickets, then utilising the rest of the lineup to make space for lesser-known or underrepresented artists.
“If festivals can nurture a community that trusts their curation, they can book up-and-coming artists and it isn’t a risk,” Graham says. “There are so many black and/or female artists available who are talented and will deliver an excellent set. Change comes down to the festivals deciding to make it a priority.”