Posted on March 18, 2020

‘Make Techno Black Again’: A Social Experiment Subverts Whitewashing in Clubs

André Wheeler, The Guardian, March 18, 2020

How did house music become so whitewashed? How did a black musical art form pioneered by black DJs during the 80s and 90s in black neighborhoods become so detached from its origins?

In recent years, these questions and conversations around the gentrification of techno, house and rave music have increased.

“House music’s co-option has followed a similar pattern to that of other black musics,” said Micah Salkind, author of Do You Remember House?, a collection of over 60 oral interviews. “Black DJs – and in particular black gay DJs – were some of the primary instigators and innovators; white DJs followed and attempted to replicate their successes.”

In 2014, Chicago DJ Derrick Carter wrote on his Facebook page: “Something that started as gay black/Latino club music is now sold, shuffled and packaged as having very little to do with either.”

Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, co-founder of Discwoman, a New York-based collective and DJ booking agency focusing on DJs of marginalized backgrounds, criticized the lack of diversity at Dekmantel and Awakenings last year, two major rave festivals held in the Netherlands. “It’s so weak how people would rather blame those who are excluded than actually interrogate how it’s fucked to have a techno festival of over 100 acts with only 5-10 black acts,” she tweeted.

Last year, the documentary Black to Techno examined the birth of techno in inner-city Detroit and how white DJs from Canada and Europe whitewashed the genre. Elsewhere, black media theorist DeForrest Brown Jr launched apparel adorned with the call-to-action, Make Techno Black Again last year.

Of course, the gentrification of these genres and spaces fits into the larger relationship straight, white culture holds with the work of marginalized communities. White musical acts have adopted black sounds forever: from the Rolling Stones adopting the sounds of blues and jazz music to Australian rapper Iggy Azalea facing criticism for adopting a “blaccent”. The history is long and complex.

Welcome then Rave Reparations, a self-described “social experiment”, demonstrating the power of small-scale reparations. Formed by New York transplants Amanda Williams and Alima Lee, the creative duo is working to combat this gentrification, striving to make it easier, and safer, for black people to attend Los Angeles dance parties, held at secret underground locations across the city.

The problem is LA’s pre-coronavirus shutdown nightlife scene – once home to a host of standout black queer venues, including Jewel’s Catch One – has grown increasingly homogeneous, overtaken by “white DJ bros”.

Rave Reparations places a distinct focus on tasking white people to help their cause. They work closely with party promoters to offer discounted tickets to black, brown and queer people (typically 50% off full price), and organize crowdfunded donations for free tickets.

“We’ll go down a list and ask, ‘Who is the most marginalized body in LA?’ So we start with giving free tickets to black queer trans femmes,” Williams tells me.

Lee and Williams also reach out to trusted white party promoters and ask them to vouch for and support up-and-coming black promoters (who often struggle, disproportionately more than their white counterparts, to rent out club spaces).

“Navigating the underground economy [of throwing parties in LA] is difficult because there is no Better Business Bureau,” Williams tells the Guardian. “There are no rights or protections that black people have to not face discrimination for rentals. Sometimes owners will just say to black promoters, “We’re not sure about the crowd you’ll bring in.’”

At its core, Rave Reparations is about highlighting how tangible labor and sacrifice is needed from white people to combat racism and exclusion. “This is based on a history,” Williams argues. “The struggle for national reparations is slavery. The struggle for Rave Reparations is based on something that occurred literally within Alima and I’s lifetime. My cousins share stories about attending Frankie Knuckles sets when they were younger, years ago.”

Williams and Lee say they were inspired to start Rave Reparations after feeling isolated and overlooked at many of LA’s parties.

“That’s why we set up these pricing schemes for parties that prioritize people who come from the diasporas of the music being played at each event,” Lee explains of Rave Reparation’s passionate attempts at restorative justice.

“You don’t feel comfortable at these events,” she adds. “You’re trying to dance and people are staring at you and wondering what you’re even doing there.”

Lee explains the unique and subtle microaggressions black people can face on the dance floor: “They’re literally standing there and blocking you from moving and won’t make space for you and your marginalized body.” She pauses, emotional and frustrated. “Rave Reparations grew from us wanting and needing more space for our bodies.”

The work of Rave Reparations fits into a larger trend. In a short time span, reparations has gone from a far-fetched pipe dream to a concept discussed during the 2020 Democratic presidential debates. Reparations – defined by Merriam-Webster as, “the act of making amends” – is an increasing form of advocacy for black people today. The conversation has touched on everything from monetary payment to direct descendants of African slaves to more naps.

Even if large-scale reparations fail to materialize in the near future, the conversations hold power. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, is largely credited with re-popularizing reparations through his 2014 essay, The Case for Reparations. After that essay was published, congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee presented HR 40, held a hearing on reparations and invited Coates to read his essay.

However, reparations still confuses many.

Lee and Williams are often asked, “What is the ultimate goal of Rave Reparations? Does money really fix racism?”

The true power of reparations is not about solving structural racism through money, they say. It’s having black people’s struggles seen and understood. Lee explains: “To be seen, felt, and heard – that has the biggest impact on queer, black and brown people.”