It was the week leading up to April 28th and my Facebook feed was buzzing about Klockworks’ multi-sensory event series, Photon. I checked out the lineup made up of Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann, Dax J and Etapp Kyle for the US debut in Brooklyn. I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. Of all nine Photon shows, this was one of the five that had been all white and all male, including the one on October 21 in Amsterdam.
Techno has made some huge strides on the diversity front in the last few years, but events like Photon are stark reminders of the structural inequality that still plagues the genre. Out of the nineteen artists chosen for the various Photons, sixteen are white men and nine aren’t even on the Klockworks label. Newa, the only female artist who is on the label, has played two Photons so far. For these reasons I was a bit apprehensive to purchase a ticket, not to mention offended by the advertisement, featuring a woman dancing under a spotlight.
No thoughts were given to much of the population involved in techno, how they might feel to see a white, cis-gender lineup of techbros in a world already dominated by said category. The objectified woman under a spotlight only further highlights how females have been treated in dance culture for so long; as marketing schemes first, artists and industry leaders second. The music was founded as a movement of solidarity by black creatives in Detroit, Michigan. Why, in this frightening political climate, are events like Photon carrying the opposite message?
ALKHEMY, a Brooklyn techno collective made up of Felton Cortijo, Christina Hernandez and Jose Buzzi, remind people of techno’s roots in political activism. Their notorious rave, The Black Hole, always features artists of color and women. In response to the Photon event, Cortijo started a discussion on a separate Facebook thread:
“What's up with this all-white dude line up and what's up with Output being ok with this all-white dude line up? i get that this is a Klockworks label night type of thing, but they could have included Sterac and/or Newa.”
It was insulting that these artists weren’t included, especially in such a culturally flourishing city. Dax J, who had already played Photon twice before was prioritized over Sterac, even though Sterac is just as popular, who has nearly 20K more likes than Dax J on Facebook.
The discussion continued:
“Most club nights are blinded by their own internal booker's taste. If only clubs/venues worked with outside promoters on nights, and not just the small handful of promoters they play favorites to. You'd have diverse lineups and a diverse community instead of the same headliners over and over again,” one user replied.
Klock, whom I reached out to for comment and got no response, once stated that “Music is the first thing and absolute most important,” when discussing the concept behind Photon on an Electronic Beats interview. It’s a statement I hear very often, commonly used as an excuse for booking all white talent. Sadly, the artists that appear on these bills often mirror the people that vouched for them, so a change of who is off stage is needed just as much as who is on. I continued to read more responses to Cortijo’s statement:
“It would be great to see a Jeff Mills or K-Hand headlining an event of this caliber but it’s just the nature of the biz man.“
“Are you saying that there has to be a color formula for parties? Do you really think the people who booked this party did this for racist reasons,” said another commenter.
As these Facebook comments suggest, this lack of inclusion isn’t usually intentional, it just isn’t a thought. It seemed like Klock was favoring what’s familiar, a psychological association of ‘like attracting like’ so common in the relationship-driven music business. Well, it is precisely this cycle that has caused raves to resemble square dances for so long.
The last few years have seen a huge retaliation to the male-dominated industry with all female and female-identifying techno platforms, such as Brooklyn’s Discwoman and Berlin’s Female:Pressure, removing that “it’s who you know” barrier and encouraging more open conversations. Although there is still much to be done, the LGBTQ community and women in the Brooklyn underground techno scene have been building strong foundations, but when it comes to discussing race, many people still remain uncomfortable. This is ironic if one considers this genre of music was founded by black men.
“You could look around and count numerous amounts of artists of color that weren't getting put on bills with other big names,” Hernandez and Cortijo remember why ALKHEMY’s mission for inclusion was created. “We wanted to let people know that this was a bigger deal than what it seemed.”
In Brooklyn, many collectives prefer to leave discussions about race outside of the music or not discuss it at all even though as long as people of color are being treated less than equal in the United States, it will remain a relevant topic. Fortunately, ALKHEMY recognizes an image they have as minorities and the obligation that comes with that image.
“It's kind of impossible to come into this scene as brown promoters and not at least be cognizant of the current state of POC artists,” Hernandez says. “Not to say that white promoters don't or won't, but it's easy to neglect things when they don't personally impact you.”
By setting new trends of inclusion and inviting discussions about racial inequality, other techno promoters can learn an alternative approach to booking.
“It's actually not that difficult to mix up your lineups and guess what? You can still sell tickets,” Hernandez says. “Do that once, twice, and suddenly people realize it's something they can try too.”
I take this as proof that questioning the status quo does lead to change. In the short year I have known the group ALKHEMY, I’ve noticed a more diverse dancefloor, not only at their parties, but others throughout the Brooklyn underground.
Having a diverse team also invites different experiences and approaches to achieve complex goals. In other words, innovation requires diversity. This idea should be much more urgent in techno, not only so marginalized groups can see more people that look like them, but to benefit the actual music.
“Without [diversity] the music is an oppressed sound and limited,” ALKHEMY producer and DJ, Buzzi says. “It’s more uplifting and more true when it is diversified. The sound is elevated and there are a lot more possibilities.”
Global research, such as McKinsey’s Delivering through Diversity report on different companies, agrees. The report found that homogeneous teams are less capable of targeting and serving underrepresented communities than diverse teams. One could conclude from a similar comparison that if promoters reached out beyond their inner circle, their events would be much more edgy. This would also end cultural homogeneity and make minorities feel included. Other promoters would be inspired to diversify their lineups too, ending the cycle of predictable, white-washed bills. The legendary Berlin club, Tresor, for instance, which has collaborated with Detroit’s Underground Resistance for almost thirty years and boasts a female head booker, continues to break barriers by working with artists such as Juan Atkins, Xiorro, Adriana Lopez and XOR Gate.
Though Tresor is in a community that is still largely homogeneous, its promoters seem to recognize that as leaders, they have a responsibility to represent techno’s diverse makeup.
Major publications are also observing the impact they have on techno culture with Resident Advisor (RA) ending its top DJs polls last year. They explained their decision in a statement: “At best, the lists misrepresented the reality of the scene; at worst, they helped to reinforce some of its harmful power dynamics, which still favour white men above everyone else. This is reason enough to make a change.”
The bias that exists behind the curtain in music is a deep-rooted psychological issue. If there is a specific model of what a producer or promoter is and that model favors male or white, individuals who don’t fit that model will have a hard time being taken seriously. This informs the power of image association and how deeply ingrained it can be in individuals without them even realizing it.
Similarly, ALKHEMY has experienced their own struggle coming up in a mostly white scene. “We already start off with a disadvantage being that there aren’t that many POC that listen to techno,” Cortijo says. “You have to have some sort of in with the white side of techno in order to get that boost to get them to notice you and come out to your parties.”
So what is the solution? From what I’ve seen, there is power in presence and voice. If we keep asking promoters why they are booking who they are booking and voicing out why having a DJ of color is important, more people can become aware of misrepresentation and be more encouraged to question it instead of accept it.
“Luckily, now the scene is much more open to the topic of race and aware of the disparity between POC and white promoters/artists,” Cortijo points out. “Work still needs to be done both locally and internationally, but it is a relieving feeling to see things opening up for us in Brooklyn.”
Change through awareness is already on the way. Big corporations are coming forward with diversity reports that vow to be annual, placing added pressure to correct their mistakes. Spotify, for example, released their diversity data report in June. The music corporation has created over 100 respectful workplace and unconscious Bias workshops running in offices across the world and diversity programs. The acknowledgment that they still have much ground to cover along with their data, such as the 50% white employee demographic in the US, feels like a genuine development and not some marketing ploy for their own beneficial gain.
It is transparency like these reports that will gain the trust of minorities and inspire other industry leaders to do the same. In the meantime, we should keep challenging the status quo of "booking your friends" so the genre can reflect the various backgrounds that make it up, both on stage and off. With platforms continuing to connect with cultures outside of their own, the future faces of techno will have something different to look up to.
“If you can see yourself in someone that has achieved success,” Hernandez says, “no matter how small that success may be, it makes your dreams seem more like a reality.”