A Case for Politically Active DJs

There is a prevalent and troublesome view held by many fans of dance music that DJs shouldn’t speak about politics. The phrase “just stick to the music” (or variants of this sentiment) is rampant in comment sections across the board whenever a DJ takes a stance on a current political issue, as though the opinion expressed by the DJ is somehow discredited by the mere fact that they are not a qualified academic, politician, or, in the case of the below example, a “monk.”

The post that this fan takes issue with is from The Black Madonna, one of the most successful DJs of our time and one who has never been shy about expressing her political opinions. In this instance, a photograph of a man wearing a shirt that says “if you voted for Trump, yes, you are a racist” prompted a polarising response from her fans. Of course, a DJ as successful as The Black Madonna will always draw a fanbase large enough that mere probability dictates the spread of backgrounds and political leanings that may or may not agree with her liberal, left-leaning, Trump-bashing politics. It also goes without saying that dance music, like any performance art, doesn’t only attract enlightened, considerate, and politically-engaged people who all agree that Trump is a bad egg and Brexit sucks (to put it VERY lightly).

That being said, it is completely unreasonable to expect DJs to remain silent on the issues that matter. Celebrities (if we want to call them that) across fields are often vocal about their political views, usually attracting a mixture of praise and criticism from fans and the media. Whether or not you agree with that celebrity on what they have to say, the right to express that opinion in public should go unchallenged and the mere idea of a public figure simply sticking to the one thing that they are famous for while foregoing the right to express themselves on an issue they believe in makes zero sense.

Telling anyone to “stick to _____” is audacious and petulant, but there is a marked irony when this is directed towards DJs as dance music is a genre built out of political movements. Chicago house, the scene that shaped The Black Madonna’s sound, was quintessentially black and queer, a sound emanating from the clubs that created safe spaces for these oppressed minorities in a post-Stonewall era of tentative liberation. Berghain, the most famous and revered techno institution in the world, started its life as Ostgut, a historic Berlin gay club that is intrinsically linked with the atmosphere of freedom that came with the tearing down of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the re-appropriation of post-industrial spaces.

That being said, acting like dance music is only historically rooted in politics doesn’t quite cover it. In 2018, Tbilisi’s Bassiani and Café Gallery, two of the most important clubs in the city’s burgeoning club scene were raided by armed police in a whiplash government response to drug deaths that had taken place in recent months. 60 people were arrested and some allegedly beaten in a dangerously authoritarian act that threatened Tbilisi and its nightlife. Other emerging scenes in Palestine, Moscow, and Kiev demonstrate the necessity of respecting the politics of dance music. In the UK we can take for granted that we have the freedom to dance unquestioned and uninterrupted by the state. In some parts of the world, this is a right that has to be fought for.

Thankfully, many DJs themselves are unapologetically political. Though some may seek to silence them, this doesn’t hinder events such as Stop Brexit Now! soundsystem, an event to be held in the midst of October’s People’s Vote demonstration that features a powerhouse lineup that includes Midland, Floating Points, Daniel Avery, Bicep, and The Chemical Brothers.

Another example is the Never A Land Without People project, an experimental and leftfield techno compilation album featuring up-and-comers such as Object Blue that was compiled to raise awareness of the brutalities committed by Israeli forces against Palestinians along the Gaza strip and West Bank. Profits from the album, priced at $10 or more, are sent to Adalah, a Palestinian-run non-for-profit that works on the front line of the conflict and provides legal aid for peaceful protestors that would otherwise be silenced.

For some people, politically active DJs present the difficult reminder that the public figures and entertainers they enjoy don’t necessarily share the same ideas as their fans. For others, politics in dance music is something of a fly-in-the-soup, a corrupting influence on an otherwise pure form of art that is enjoyable for its aesthetics alone. Any such perspective is driven by denial and a wilful neglect of dance music’s rich political past and present. While many DJs are willing to engage with politics, sometimes the fans lose sight of what’s important amidst the strobe lights and dry ice. The music is there to be enjoyed first and foremost, but can’t be heard without the echoes of the rallying cries that drive the scene in the first place.

by George Stamp



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