The Politics Of Dancing: Club Culture As An Agent Of Change

Re-building a sense of underground resistance...

Over its brief history, dance music’s various geographical outposts, multitudinous sub genres and formative scenes have swung between being a distinct form of protest to a hedonistic escape from anything political.

Given where we find ourselves in 2017 – still reeling from the EU referendum and US presidential votes on either side of the Atlantic, with yet more potentially populist polls on the horizon – it seems an opportune time to assess what the industry could or should be doing.

The early days…
Developing almost simultaneously in the warehouses of Chicago and discotheques of New York, the industry’s 4/4 beating heart of house music became a saviour and sanctuary for the cities’ marginalised gay, black and Hispanic communities.

Certainly, those that frequented such spots were instrumental in making a stand against the institutionalised racism and homophobia of the 70s and 80s, but arguably it wasn’t until Detroit’s darker, faster techno beat brought the likes of Underground Resistance together that there was an overtly political force to be reckoned with.

Jeff Mills and ‘Mad’ Mike Banks railed against corporate label culture, the causes of urban decay and discrimination against young black men, much like Public Enemy before them via the medium of rap. As Laurent Garner recounts in his memoir Electrochoc, Mad Mike reinvests all UR’s profits back into the community:

“He is an urban guerrilla, a man haunted by the suffering of his city. Mike has chosen music to fight against the problems of daily life and takes his inspiration from the Afro-American struggle of the 1960s. Mike is a resistant, ‘a pure product of Detroit's black culture,’ as he says.”

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In the UK, rave culture exploded in the 1988 ‘summer of love’, with embryonic acid house and unlicensed parties springing up all over the country.

A reactionary red top media pushed the police and then government into overkill action and in 1994 the Tories introduced the infamous Criminal Justice Bill, which specifically banned groups of ten or more people from “the right to assemble on private land if the gathering is for the express purpose of listening to music typified by the excessive repetition of a number of beats”.

This was of course bitterly protested by those running and frequenting the free party scene, in a cultural rejection of Thatcher’s political and social ideology.

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A cultural rejection of Thatcher’s political and social ideology…

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One of the most celebrated soundsystems of the time – Keith Robinson’s Gulf War-protesting Desert Storm – even took that peace and love rave ethic international, accepting an invitation from Bosnian aid workers to put on a morale-boosting New Year’s gig in the country at the height of its mid-nineties conflict.

Fifteen years later, over the border in Serbia, students in Novi Sad organised a protest-cum-festival called EXIT, partying for 100 days against the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milošević. Moving to the picturesque Petrovaradin Fortress the following year and gradually becoming bigger and more corporate every year since, it is perhaps an easy metaphor for how the political aspect of dance parties has softened as the industry embraced the mainstream.

Dance music as a commodity peaked at the turn of the century with the first wave of superstar DJs, clubs and brands, then again more recently as America embraced the music it largely invented; albeit in the pop-and-drop form of EDM and massive Molly-fuelled stage shows.

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History repeating itself…
As the latter bubble expands though, there is evidence of authorities in certain countries looking to crack down once more.

Last April judges in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires banned “all commercial activity involving dancing with live and recorded music” following the drug-related deaths of five people at the Time Warp festival. This preceded the tragic shooting at BPM Festival in Mexico’s Playa Del Carmen earlier this year, which resulted in the mayor cancelling all future events.

Meanwhile, Down Under there has been protest against ‘lock out’ laws introduced in New South Wales, forcing licensed venues in Sydney’s city centre to close their doors at 1.30am and serve last drinks at 3am. In California, lawmakers are only now considering extending clubs’ licensing hours from 2am to 4am – due in part to sustained activism – while it was just two years ago that Japanese authorities overturned a 67-year-old ban on dancing in clubs after midnight.

Closer to home, the closure of London’s long-running fabric nightclub caused uproar not only locally, but among the global clubbing community, with more than 200,000 people raising well over £300,000 to mount a successful legal battle and save the venue.

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan went on to appoint the capital’s first Night Czar, building upon the work done by the London Night Time Commission, while Philip Kolvin QC is pushing for fundamental changes to licensing laws in order to maintain Britain’s vibrant night time economy.

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The closure of London’s long-running fabric nightclub caused uproar not only locally, but among the global clubbing community…

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On other issues too, the dance music community has come together to stand up for its generally left-leaning and liberal beliefs.

When Lithuanian DJ and producer Mario Basanov – rising to prominence under his Ten Walls moniker – posted a homophobic rant on Facebook in June 2015, he suffered consequences of going against an industry built on sexual freedom and expression.

Gigs were cancelled and LGBT activists protested his words, with Smart Bar resident DJ and influential producer The Black Madonna responding: “If dance music isn’t about taking too God damned much ecstasy and becoming heteroflexible and completely cool with it, I don’t know what is.”

Then as Donald Trump’s rise culminated in him winning the presidency in November, Thomas Dunkley, a talent booker at New York club Schimanski, suffered a similar wrath – and ultimately lost his job – after posting a pro-Trump message on his social media.

As politics have swung to the right in recent months, many DJs and producers have become more outspoken on Twitter and Facebook – often with the response being fans and foes calling for them to keep opinions to themselves and stick to making/playing music.

Since Trump’s inauguration, both techno don Dave Clarke and Monolake man Robert Henke publicly gave up future shows in the US, with the former stating “I simply cannot consider coming to the US professionally when there is a misogynist, narcissist, racist President in office”, while the latter wrote: “If scientists, doctors, students, and refugees cannot enter the US anymore, I don't want to be on the mercy of perhaps having the privilege to be allowed in because someone randomly decides I am not a threat.”

Any administration that seeks to curb migration will of course impact touring DJs – as evidenced by the new president’s travel ban, which has already stopped Iranian-born spinner Darius Syrossian from playing scheduled sets in the US.

“Although I am a British Citizen, passport holder, and the holder of a US work permit, I was born in Tehran,” he explained, adding: “I am not going to let this put me off travelling to America. The ‘orange turnip’ will not be able to stop me.”

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What to do?
Swedish DJ and producer Kornél Kovács was on tour in the US during election night, witnessing a divided country first hand. “I’ve been in six cities across North America and everyone seems to have been very strongly opposed to Trump – but yet he won the election, so that proves how big the gap is,” he explained.

“I really like the idea of dance music as escapism, but lately the political aspects of our wider culture have been getting much more overt and obvious, starting with the clear stand against homophobia from participants of dance music culture, all the way through to being against Brexit and now of course with Trump, then elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year, which are all very dangerous potentially, as all three are very important places for dance music.”

Studio Barnhaus co-founder added: “That’s been very much the thing this year – I’m happy and proud of the industry at least trying to be aware of its role, trying to be a force for good, with a lot of participants being outspoken, instead of just taking more drugs and ignoring the situation.”

Less optimistic about the industry’s capacity to drive political change is Alex Smoke, the Scottish former Soma stalwart, now creating everything from ballet scores to film soundtracks.

“Clubbing is about letting go, it’s essentially quite shallow in the fact that you go out to listen to music, get inebriated and forget about everything else. Some like to think it’s deeper than it really is, but the majority of people are there just to have a good time at the weekend, not get clobbered with some political messages.”

He admits to having been as guilty his peers, in tweeting political outrage but not following up with any actual action, instead putting forward the likes of fellow Glaswegians JD Twitch and JG Wilkes from Optimo as examples of those leading by doing, as they regularly throw benefit parties for good causes.

“The thing is, people are just overwhelmed, there seems to be so much bad news at the moment that many don't know how to react; society is more atomised and angry than ever before,” added Smoke.

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New York native DJ and producer Gunnar Haslam recently wrote a lengthy treatise on this very issue, stating that techno must reassert itself as an active agent of political change.

He followed up on Twitter by asserting that just listening to the music and going to parties is not the answer. “Consumption is not political, but techno provides a major source of community, which can be organized to move people who feel a similar way into political action,” rallied Haslam.

Crucially though, most people don’t go clubbing to get angry in the same way that those attending a politicised rock gig might do; something compounded by the fact that very few dance tracks contain enough lyrics to get much of a message across.

But while it’s maybe inadvisable to try and create a new line in techno protest songs, arguably DJs and producers can potentially change some minds through their social media reach. While some fans (and trolls) might tell them to pipe down, there’s no reason why their words and preferably actions can’t help affect change.

Maybe it’s too much to expect young ravers to rise up, but as a few small victories recently have shown, there’s an increasingly connected community of clubbers that can come together behind a cause close to their hearts.

Booming divas have long been espousing positivity and hope during the breakdown, but in the face of a distinctly uncertain future for clubs and clubbers, it might be time to dig in against a political and corporate elite which clearly cares not for the vibrant night time culture that has been built over the last 25 years.

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Words: Peter Walker

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