We love electronic music just as much as, if not more than, the next guy. (Check out our playlists if you don’t believe us.) Despite that, we get that our fave genre isn’t perfect, and can admit when there’s a problem. With it being Black History Month, we felt like now was the right time to have this conversation: electronic music is extremely whitewashed, despite its origins and background in the Black community.
Let’s start with a little history lesson. The electronic dance music (or “EDM”) scene started in the Black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in Chicago and Detroit in the late 70s to early 80s. What we know today as House music wasn’t born in Amsterdam, London, or Ibiza. Rather, think Chicago, and give thanks to the legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles. A pivotal figure in the Chicago club scene during a time when the concept of making music electronically was a brand new idea, Knuckles played marathon, hours-long sets at a variety of venues in the city using tech that’s a far cry from what we use today. Among them, was a members-only, primarily Black, gay club called The Warehouse. It was at his residency there where Knuckles played extended versions and created remixes of popular songs from a variety of music genres: from disco to R&B to punk, and beyond. Initially dubbed “warehouse music,” do we really need to explain what happened next? You guessed it, people shortened it to “ware music.” Wait…no. “House music.” That’s the one. It wasn’t long before the entire city of Chicago was going nuts for “house music,” from gay black men voguing on catwalks to, frankly, everyone else just doing their thing and enjoying the music.
Around the same time but further north, in Detroit, the “motor city” was coming alive with the advent of techno music. DJs Juan Atkins and Rik Davis (performing as “Cybotron”) led the herd of artists to come with their 1981 track “Alleys of Your Mind.” Cybotron’s rapid rise to fame inspired then-newcomers to the scene like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Saunderson, May, and Atkins’ tracks took over the dance floor in the states and in Europe, and the rest was history.
Now, do a quick Google of those names. What’d you notice? Weird, right? They’re all…people of color. Now Google “top House DJs in 2021.” Yep, still mostly just Black dudes…wait…no…that’s not quite it. So when did EDM become mostly just white people?
To answer this question, we at DRL turned to an artist who’s seen the industry change from its roots in the Black community to what it’s become today. Ann Saunderson is one of the original songwriters for Inner City, an OG soul-influenced techno collective from Detroit. The group also counts among its members Ann’s husband, Kevin (you might remember him from a few paragraphs ago…). True to her mystique, the lady Saunderson let us in on her view that the story of the evolution of electronic music has less to do with overt racism and more to do with, as she put it, “capitalism at work.”
This was an interesting, unexpected take, and honestly took us a little while to process. For us, the industry today is almost all white, so how is that not racist? But before we kneejerk, let’s think this through. What does capitalism mean in this context, and on whose part?
Whether it’s labels signing and promoting artists, or artists forming collectives or labels of their own and promoting themselves, ultimately, commercially successful music is distinguished from commercially unsuccessful music by one factor: the audience. Labels will sign and promote artists that the genre’s audience wants to listen to, buy from, spend money to see at shows, etc. Labels, at the end of the day, are businesses. They’ll invest where they see a return. It’s entirely possible that there’s a huge conspiracy amongst the labels, and also the streaming platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud, etc., to push down Black EDM artists and only support white ones. But that seems closer to fiction than fact. Right up there with 5G being used for CIA mind control. The truth is that labels and platforms exist to make money. If the audience demanded Black EDM artists, they’d be incentivized to sign and promote them, and so there’d be more of them in the public view, in our ears, etc. So what does that tell us? If there’s a “whitewashing” of EDM going on, it’s us, the listeners, the fans, the people who are in other areas of our lives very supportive of people of all races, colors, creeds, etc., who are to blame here.
Now pause for a second, because the above is a hot take. Let’s think that one out. Prior to Eminem, there weren’t a lot of white rappers / MCs taken all too seriously in the realm of hip-hop. (Vanilla Ice, sit down.) But really, aside from relative anomalies like Snow, hip hop was almost uniformly Black. Now, as audiences have opened up to MCs of other races (white, like Post Malone, Asian, like $tupid Young, Latino, like Bad Bunny, etc.), we’re seeing an explosion. But this watershed change came from where, labels? No. Us. The audience. We wanted Eminem, so we got Eminem, and a whole string of artists leading us to the veritable and real diversity we have in hip-hop today.
So spin it back to EDM for a minute. Do we really think that the people running Ultra Music, Armada Music, Anjunabeats, and the rest of ‘em are all a bunch of racists hellbent on denying Black EDM artists their due? We’re not ready to say categorically no, because, well, we don’t know those people personally, and so we can’t say for sure. But our theory is, no. They’re not. They’re just trying to make and hoard as much money as possible, because, like Ann Saunderson said it, it’s capitalism at work.
But before you go full-Bernie on us, think of the benefit of that. Capitalist thinking means you follow the money. Who’s the “money” here? We are. It’s democracy at work, baby. If we all get together and demand to hear more Black EDM artists, guess what we’ll get? More Black EDM artists. And same re: more Latinx EDM artists. And more Asian EDM artists. And more female EDM artists. And the list goes on.
And with the roots of EDM being interwoven within the history of the Black community in America, we couldn’t stay silent on the issue, especially not during Black History Month. As DJs and music curators over here at DRL, we had to put you on to some absolutely fire Black artists today who’re driving EDM forward. DJ Sliink (a/k/a The Jersey Club King) is moving to new heights with Skrillex’s OWSLA label. Recently, Sliink has been open about the overwhelming whiteness in the EDM world and is working to change the narrative with the Jersey Club movement. Singer FKA Twigs and producer Kaytranada have both popularized electronic music amongst mainstream hip hop and R&B audiences. Twigs has become known for her eerie vocals over experimental electronic beats while Kaytranada’s collaborations with soulful singers showcase EDM’s groovier side. Globally, we can look to producers like South Africa-based Black Coffee for creating a culture around the genre in their home countries. These are only a few of the Black artists taking EDM by storm, and there’s many more to discover, love, and demand to hear more from.
And, of course, in true DRL fashion, we made a playlist for you guys to check out some of the Black EDM artists mentioned here, and a whole host of others who’re putting out absolute bangers and deserve to be recognized. Go give it a listen on our Playlists page now, and we dare you to try not to get up and start dancing. You’ll fail, and yet it’ll be a total win. You’re welcome.
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