The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, August 11, 2022

Black artists pioneered electronic music. This festival celebrates them.
Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, the founder of the Dweller festival, in New York, in 2019. The founder of the Dweller festival, now in its third year in New York, started the event to center Black D.J.s and producers, “and imagine what we want.” Laurel Golio/The New York Times.

by Isabelia Herrera

NEW YORK, NY.- Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson had been awake since 5 a.m.

It was two weeks before the return of Dweller, a festival she founded in 2019 that celebrates Black artists in electronic music, and her anxiety was palpable. Hutchinson was munching on a bowl of fruit-topped oatmeal at a Brooklyn coffee shop. She wiped sleep from her eyes as she recalled her first memories of raving in England during her college years.

“I used to go to these raves at the back of my school, which were just insane,” said Hutchinson, who was dressed in a ripped gray long-sleeved shirt and burgundy leggings. “You’re flung into a rave environment, and you’re like, ‘This is crazy,’ ” she said with a laugh. “Like, white kids get a little wild to these electronic bleep bleep bleep noises.”

Those kinds of early encounters with nightlife incubated Hutchinson’s love for dance music, but it wasn’t until years later that she became fully aware of the genre’s roots and was inspired to create Dweller, which starts again Wednesday. Both didactic and celebratory in spirit, the five-day festival disrupts a landscape dominated by white DJs and producers by foregrounding Black artists and their critical role in dance music’s genesis. (This year, the event features 11 shows and panels across five venues that hold several hundred people in Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens.) In 2020, Dweller added a blog that publishes interviews with electronic music titans, as well as essays and reflections about the relationship between technology, Blackness and sound. Hutchinson started the blog with her co-editor Ryan Clarke, a graduate student in musicology at Tulane University.

Hutchinson’s own education about the genre’s Black history began in earnest when she moved to New York City in 2009. She met Emma Burgess-Olson, a DJ and a creative, and in 2014 they teamed with Christine McCharen-Tran to start Discwoman, a collective and talent agency for femme DJs and producers. It was Burgess-Olson who gave Hutchinson an introduction to the Black roots of techno, via the work of renowned producer K-Hand, known for her pioneering influence on Detroit house and techno.

“I was astounded that it had never occurred to me or anyone that I should know this,” Hutchinson said. When she stumbled across Jeff Mills, the Detroit trailblazer whose sparse, industrial techno earned him the sobriquet “The Wizard,” everything changed. “Why didn’t I know that this weirdo from Detroit was someone I could have really identified with as a young Black kid?” Hutchison recalled wondering, finding affirmation in a Black creative who pushed artistic limits.

The stories of techno and house echo those of other genres — like rock — born of Black struggle that were later usurped and glossed up, their cultural histories dissipated by a multimillion-dollar industry in which white artists are built into the biggest stars. The result smudges the memory of the music’s political roots.

LSDXOXO, the producer born Raushaan Glasgow, grew up in Philadelphia to African American and Dominican parents, and cut his teeth playing New York parties centering queer and trans people of color, like GHE20GOTH1K. “A lot of Black youth and POC youth think that dance music is not something that they resonate with because it’s not from their community, but it’s actually the opposite,” he said in a video call from Berlin.

Glasgow said he discovered dance music by surfing peer-to-peer file-sharing software like LimeWire and Kazaa as a child; he now has a deal with the label XL and hosts his own queer club night in Berlin. “One of the most important things that Dweller represents is in terms of shining a light on the fact that the history of dance music is actually Black,” he said. “It’s kind of like a way of reclaiming the genres that we were removed from.”

Hutchinson said the issue is not just effacement — historical neglect has had a material effect on Black artists in the industry. (In 2019, Forbes published a list of the highest-paid DJs in electronic music — none were Black.) In several of her professional roles — as a founder of Discwoman, a former booker at the Bushwick techno playground Bossa Nova Civic Club and a curator for many other projects — she has urged festivals and performance spaces to book more Black and women artists, and pay them equitable rates.

“We have to beg for just a slither of the same thing that a white DJ gets handed,” she said. When it comes to trying to get venues to book Black women, “it’s always like, ‘Well, OK, we’ll have ’em open,’ or ‘Oh, we have this much left,’ ” she explained. “It’s like the crumbs, and it’s disgusting.”

Although Hutchinson said she understands why appealing to white institutions may be useful or necessary, she made a personal decision to turn her attention in another direction: “Let’s think about what we can create. You know, let’s reframe the question and imagine what we want.”

Dweller demonstrates a curatorial commitment to the broad spectrum of Black aesthetics within electronic music, refusing a singular vision of race, sound or identity. For instance, there is a queer Black rave night scheduled right alongside a DJ set by world-building experimentalist Keiyaa. And while the festival does feature educational talks and panels, Hutchinson said that the team, which also includes blog editor Clarke and Ghana-based co-curator Enyo Amexo, strives to center celebration.

“That’s kind of an expectation for us, to always be talking through our problems,” she said. “I feel like the focus should be on us having a good time as well.”

This year, the festival’s theme is intergenerational connection. The lineup includes forbears like RP Boo, an originator of Chicago’s footwork movement; Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale, the godmother of house; and members of Underground Resistance, the formative Detroit techno collective known for its politically conscious politics and DIY philosophy.

But there is also ample attention paid to young innovators, like LSDXOXO and Juliana Huxtable. Hutchinson said the theme was intended to demonstrate “mutual respect,” rather than fall into tropes of intergenerational antagonism. “It’s an invaluable feeling, especially as a Black person walking through this earth,” Hutchinson said, “to know that there are people dialed into the same kind of (expletive) as you before you, like, makes you feel like you belong.”

Hale, who will perform Sunday as part of Nowadays Nonstop, a 24-hour marathon at the Ridgewood venue, played a vital role in house music’s evolution but has often been overlooked. In the 1980s, she became one of the first women to popularize mixing continuously, a now ubiquitous practice of DJing. She played influential Detroit clubs like Cheeks, defeated 600 other DJs and rappers in a citywide competition in 1985 and performed on popular public access TV shows.

“Can you imagine how many people have come up to me in my lifetime and said, ‘You’re a really good DJ for a girl?’ ” Hale said in a phone call from Detroit. “The world, especially at that time, was driven by men,” she continued. “I wasn’t on a mission to say women can do it, too. I was on a mission to say that I don’t want to be judged because I’m a woman.”

Today, Hale still performs and teaches production and mixing to youth through organizations like Girls Rock Detroit. She hopes to impart the love she carries for this music onto younger generations. “Respect the history, know the history,” she said, considering the global ascent of house and techno. “The music was definitely born here. I was watching it be birthed and I didn’t even know,” she said. “People have already forgotten it had Black roots and it’s up to us Black people to tell the story.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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