Author: Mathys Rennela
Abstract: Reflecting on the recent social reckoning around the dance music industry’s anti-Blackness problem, this essay outlines the pitfalls of an industry which only seeks to tame social progress and profit from Black artistry.
Illustration: Detail of Hackney Peace Carnival Mural (Ray Walker, 1985).
Intro: Negrophilia, still a double-edged infatuation
On November 21st, 2021, Missouri-born French performing artist Joséphine Baker was buried in Paris’ Panthéon, joining a short list of people in this mausoleum dedicated to honouring French citizens for distinguished services.https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2021/11/30/josephine-baker-entre-au-pantheon The decision is political: Baker is the first Black woman to enter the Panthéon, at a time when France is struggling with the social reckoning which followed George Floyd’s murder, especially in the context of France’s own police brutality problem, and in a country in which police violence and extrajudicial killing are still labelled as “police blunders” (bavures policières).Mathieu Rigouste, La domination policière: une violence industrielle.
From the massacre of Algerians in Paris of October 17th 1961 (on the orders of then Paris police chief and former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon),The French state police, as we know it today, was instituted in 1941 by Vichy France, the Nazi collaborating French regime. For a complete account of the history of the French police, we refer the … Continue reading to the 2005 French riots,https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2017/6/12/clichy-sous-bois-a-suburb-scarred-by-2005-french-riots and more recently the police rape of Théohttps://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38957953 and the death of Adama Traoré in circumstances comparable to George Floyd’s, the conversation around the 2020’s Minneapolis protests took a very local dimension,https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57176500 in a country which still struggles to acknowledge the ethnic and racial diversity of its population.https://www.npr.org/2020/06/04/869877701/no-justice-in-france-either-french-protest-police-killings-in-u-s-and-at-home?t=1660296423255
In this political context, Baker’s entry in the Panthéon can easily be interpreted as a cop out. The French government’s failure to address police brutality, added to the overall political climate of social unrest and labour movements in protest of harsh life conditions, weakened President Emmanuel Macron’s public image and “neither left nor right” rhetoric, and contributes to threaten his political ambitions of “reconciling” France’s left-right wing political divide.https://www.lemonde.fr/en/politics/article/2022/04/10/thomas-piketty-we-will-not-see-the-peaceful-return-of-a-reassuring-left-right-divide_5980204_5.html
Additionally, the “Panthéonisation” of Joséphine Baker revives the Parisian elite’s obsession with Black American culture and the lived experiences of Black Americans, an obsession which has a long history that Baker was herself part of. As Petrine Archer-Straw explains in her book Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, "Avant-garde artists and writers courted black personalities such as Josephine Baker, Henry Crowder and Langston Hughes for their sense of 'otherness', Picasso, Brancusi, Giacometti, Leger, Man Ray, Sonia Delaunay, Bataille, Apollinaire and Nancy Cunard, among many others, enthusiastically collected African sculptures, wore tribal jewelry and clothes, and adopted black forms in their work. Their 'African' style influenced a larger audience anxious to be in vogue." This cultural phenomenon was given the name “Negrophilia.”https://philpapers.org/rec/STRNAP
In a Guardian article about her work,https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/sep/23/features.weekend Archer-Straw describes Negrophilia as a “double-edged infatuation”, pointing out to the thin barrier between Negrophilia and Negrophobia, as Black people have “historically become objects of affection or derision, and continue to be.” She adds further: “Negrophilia is thus about western culture exploring its perceptions of difference in such a way that best reflects white people rather than their exoticised subjects.” This infatuation with Black Americans and Black American culture contrasts with France’s vilification of its own Black population, an attitude which is a legacy of the French colonial empire’s assimilation project.In the 19th and the 20th century, France’s relationship with its colonies was shaped by a policy of “colonial assimilation” (assimilation coloniale), in which the colonised individual’s … Continue reading
But overall, it was the contrast between the otherness of Blackness and the mundanity of Parisian life which attracted so many white patrons. Archer-Straw makes the parallel between Paris’ 1920s Negrophilia craze and the regained interest for Black American culture in 2000: “The black image in movies, magazines, videos and computer games is now an icon of modernity. But even as it is being lucratively marketed worldwide, there is still discussion about its "negative" influences.”https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/sep/23/features.weekend
While Archer-Straw’s modern day analogy focused on hip hop and sports, Negrophilia is also highly relevant in the context of the dance music industry. After all, as techno has now been instituted as the sound of modernity and Blackness, Negrophilia is entering its final form. This essay develops how Negrophilia enfolds in dance music, through an analysis of the cultural, political and socio-economic aspects which lead to the commercialisation not just of Black art, but Black performing artists and Black communities as a whole.
Negrophilia in nightlife works under the assumption that, for a night, for a day, for a single fleeting moment - white supremacy can be checked at the cloakroom and one can escape from structurally oppressive societies through entertainment. Modern-day clubs in the West are venues in which white people get to interact for a night with Black performers, and develop parasocial relationships with the very same Black patrons and entertainers who are denied housing, jobs, and so on, outside of the dancefloor.Dean Blunt & GAIKA reflected in Crack Magazine on the reality of performing for a white audience, when anti-Blackness is so apparent outside of music venues: "DB: We’re living in that kingdom … Continue reading
Any form of awareness raised in front of the DJ booth does nothing to materially support Afro-descendants.The use of the term ‘Afro-descendant’ is explained and justified at the end of this essay. The dance music industry cannot tackle systemic racism and extra judicial killings because banking on Blackness is a core of its business.
Section 1. Banking on Blackness
“BLACK DEATH IS A BUSINESS. Millions and millions flowing through the hands of these organizations in the name of Mike Brown yet we don’t see any of it coming into our community or being used to help our youth. I’ve been calling out this shit for months (…) People see this as an opportunity to not only build a name but make bank at the expense of the lives of people like me.”
This paragraph is taken from a Facebook post published on May 25th, 2015 by Ferguson activist Darren Seals, in which he highlights how the death of Black Americans has become a commodity for professional activists who enrich themselves at the expense of the United States’ Black community. A year later, the then 29 years old activist was found dead in a burnt car, and his murder remained unresolved to this day.https://thecorrespondent.com/5349/meet-darren-seals-then-tell-me-black-death-is-not-a-business/1512965275833-fe73c5b1
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Adama Traoré. Names change but the dynamics remain the same. Not only are those senseless deaths exploited for profit, but corporations have perfected over the years the art of offering feckless statements of support. In 2021, Fortune reported that “American companies pledged $50 billion to Black communities. Most of it hasn’t materialized.”https://fortune.com/2021/05/06/us-companies-black-communities-money-50-billion/
The systemic oppression of Black Americans is something that US corporations periodically acknowledge, just to move on as soon as the focus of the public opinion allows it. This becomes a global issue as US media is so ubiquitous that the US news cycle inevitably ends up putting a spotlight on every single country’s anti-Blackness problem.https://thefunambulist.net/magazine/decentering-the-us/black-america-and-us
Police brutality takes a particular dimension in the dance music industry, as dance music is Black music. Nowadays, the failure to address that Afro-descendants face oppression on the dancefloor (and outside of it) gets industry actors in trouble.https://pitchfork.com/news/amsterdam-club-de-school-faces-sexual-misconduct-and-racism-claims-drops-security-team/ In this context, the on-going wave of Negrophilia in dance music is directly related to the way in which the industry treats Blackness as an artistic trend.
In an essay on the valuation of art, Diedrich Diederichsen argues that generating discourse is an essential aspect of the valuation of new artistic trends, but success (here defined as an increase in the capital value of the art) can only be attained when the art reappears in a more familiar form: “It took Kippenberger and Basquiat to die and be quiet, literally, to get the high prices they fetch today.”Diederich, Diederichsen, On (Surplus) Value in Art
Let us apply this reasoning to dance music. If Blackness is an industry trend, and if stabilising discourse is essential to art valuation, then the death (or silencing) of Black artists is an essential aspect of the valuation of Black dance music. This industry trope appears in at least three different ways. The first one is that narratives around radical Black performing arts are sanitised and repackaged as relevant to the present, without making the effort of considering how it applies to the current socio-political context.As explained in Roshan Chauhan’s letter to the UK music press: “Black music is a moving target. To anchor it so heavily in a particular sound and a particular time could become another incidence … Continue reading
Secondly, this capitalisation of Black dance music shows up in the commodification of Black artistry post-mortem. From Gil-Scott Heron to K-Hand, the death of a Black performing artist allows the dance music industry to fix the narrative surrounding their artistic production, and facilitates an endless marketisation of their identity and (perceived) lived experience.
It is the third dynamic that I observe within the dance music industry that I want to explore in this essay: the relationship of Blackness with a form of otherness (shaped most visibly and shockingly by US police brutality) is the main selling point of what is presented as “authentically Black art” to predominantly white audiences.
Section 2. Club activism, Black authenticity and the rise of Anglo-pessimism
Is clubbing radical and revolutionary? Observing the narratives pushed by its press and creative agencies, the dance music industry seems to be overwhelmingly convinced that the answer to this question is yes. Take for example the anonymous op-ed “Tbilisi proves the power of club culture” published in 2018 by Resident Advisor,https://ra.co/features/3241 which defends the idea that club culture is “a cultural phenomenon so powerful that people risk violence and arrest to protect it, putting themselves and their city in the global spotlight, and possibly shaping the course of history.” In a thinly veiled advertisement for Tbilisi’s burgeoning techno tourism,Will Lynch’s article is consistent with a pattern noticeable across most Resident Advisor features (especially those on party locations): while those articles often discuss general topics, they … Continue reading Will Lynch wrote for Resident Advisor that “dance music is the soundtrack to social change” in the capital of Georgia.https://ra.co/features/2666
Four years later, and with many opportunities to witness that political awareness does not automatically translate into political action without actual political organisation, one could think that this rave-as-revolution narrative might be harder to push. Yet in June 2022, in a Carhartt-sponsored article barely distinguishable from a satire, The Face magazine asks whether club culture could have achieved world peace.https://theface.com/music/carhartt-wip-magazine-tresor-berlin-techno
Club activism seems shallow. The dance music media defend the idea that performative representation of marginalised performing artists is activism, in spite of the fact that it does nothing to improve the material life conditions of marginalised partygoers. What does “activism” stand for in dance music, besides being a keyword to enhance ticket sales?
There is an easy analogy between the fight against conservative art aesthetics and the fight against conservative politics: both aim to challenge the status quo and the established elite.For French sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger, people who defend the idea that avant-gardist art is inherently political tend to make the assumption that the evolution of artistic productions (through … Continue reading In a 1963 televised panel discussion, Malcolm X cautioned against the very idea of Black entertainers’ leadership on social issues, as their class interests do not necessarily align with those of the Black working class.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSZcvcrfmoo Nearly sixty years later, Black entertainers are still expected to be community leaders, in industries which exploit the entertainer-turned-activist narrative. And this formula has been replicated to all marginalised identities, taking the 1960s US Civil Rights movement and its current day ramifications as blueprints.
The focus on Negrophilia, white guilt and visible Black representation has crystallised in what I call Anglo-pessimism, an anti-racist ideology which capitulates to racial capitalism and its institutions, in favour of a status quo. Anglo-pessimism seems very progressive on the surface but it actually ignores the difference between the lived experiences of marginalised people, promotes standardised marginalised identities, and avoids any form of wealth redistribution.
Anglo-pessimism facilitates the reappropriation of radical theory. It is a framework which helps maintain the same people and institutions on top, while diversifying the workforce at the bottom. In short: Anglo-pessimism is social justice in name only. I identified nine tenets which shape Anglo-pessimism as an ideology.I am intentionally leaving out concrete examples of the application of those tenets in cultural industries, in order to encourage the reader to actively seek such examples in their personal … Continue reading
Nine Tenets of Anglo-pessimism
(1) Ontological bigotry:
Anyone who wields privilege is bigoted towards those who don’t; in particular, white people are irremediably racist.
(2) Acknowledgement is absolution:
Acknowledging that one’s identity or part of one’s identity is irremediably bigoted is enough to absolve oneself from the moral burden of being an oppressor or holding privilege.
(3) Diversity in socialisation:
Failing to develop (para)social relationships with people that one wields privilege upon is a form of bigotry.
(4) Blackness is the Rosetta Stone:
Blackness is the blueprint for any marginalised identity.
Black activism is the blueprint for social justice work.
(5) Hegemonic gender roles are racialised:
Racialised women will save the world.
All racialised men yearn for assimilation into whiteness.
It is the white man’s burden to protect racialised women from their barbaric men.
(6) Existing is activism:
Being visible in spaces which historically lacked diversity is activism.
Being the “first one” to enter such spaces is revolutionary.
Marginalised people have an innate knowledge of their marginalised conditions.
This knowledge escapes rationalisation and does not need to be supported by any data.
(8) Identity is performance:
Any action taken, word uttered or work produced by a marginalised person is a political statement which impacts their community and reshapes the world.
(9) Achieving equality is a corporate-style exercise:
Structures of oppression can only be atoned for and dismantled through corporate-style procedures: it is through scripted dialogues, listicles, reconciliation and complaint management processes that true equality will be achieved.
Those tenets shape how cultural discourse (around marginalised communities) is produced, and therefore influences the capital valuation of artworks from marginalised people. In the particular context of the Black performing arts, especially dance music, Anglo-Pessimism creates a cultural landscape in which it is not enough to be Black to be perceived as such. Blackness as an identity has to be performed in a palatable and marketable way:
“White-led (or predominantly-white juried) initiatives look to promote and invest in artists who afford them the optics of diversity in a manner that is palatable (...) This is why when Black creators develop their own unique phenomena / platforms and reach viral popularity, leading industry platforms and players tend to aggressively seek them out for strategic creative partnerships. For them, it’s always a question of proximity to The Culture, and who they see as its most marketable avatar.”https://technomaterialism.com/2022/06/01/sweetheart-all-justice-is-a-dead-end/
Cultural assimilation into mainstream (white-dominated) culture is enforced through elitism and gatekeeping. It is not enough to just appreciate, engage and learn about another culture. The industry controls the narratives on the origins of every Black music genre, and defines what is authentic and who reaps the benefits of Black dance music.https://technomaterialism.com/2022/05/18/on-the-capitalistic-and-racist-dynamics-of-sampling/
Dance music barely exists outside of the white gaze,The white gaze is the assumption of a white audience and the consequences of this assumption in the way art is shaped. “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some … Continue reading in an industry in which non-Black people hold nearly all the means of production. The few Black individuals who manage to slip through the cracks are either outliers who face heavy institutional roadblocks, or active participants in the institutions and dynamics they claim to dismantle.
In a cultural landscape in which the means of production are still owned by white people, what does it mean to celebrate Black initiatives which are, in practice, designed to cater to white audiences? Black performing artists cannot escape the burden of representation without collectively renouncing any form of association with dance music’s institutions.
Outro. Escaping the white gaze industrial complex
The dynamics described in this essay are neither new,In the 1990 essay “Black art and the burden of representation”, art historian Kobena Mercer outlines how art critics tend to ignore aesthetic values of Black art, in favour of “extra-artistic … Continue reading nor exclusive to Black artistry or the dance music industry. Yet, the situation in which Black (performing) artists seem to be in is often portrayed as inescapable. Is it because there is something unique to Black identities? This question, in itself, would require a proper investigation on its own.
The exploitation of Black identities is at the very core of the dance music industry. With most music journalists coming from upper class backgrounds,Read it on DAZED and in a cultural landscape which is increasingly pushing out the working class,https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/56044/1/big-joanie-s-chardine-taylor-stone-on-being-a-working-class-musician Black dance music is written about and shaped for upper/middle class consumers in quest of an experience of “othering.” Very much like hip hop, Black dance music is produced and consumed by a predominantly white audience, for the benefit of institutions and corporations which are almost exclusively owned and operated by white people. Then, what is there to reclaim when Black people do not own any of the means of production?
Obstacles to Black ownership in dance music are numerous,After the license of his London venue was permanently revoked, Fridge Bar’s owner took to social media and wrote: “I have also seen the influx of new venues catering to that new demographic whom … Continue reading and Black-owned clubs tend to shut down in complete silence, while white-owned venues often escape closure through fundraisers and industry-backing.See the section “Fabric vs Black Club Closures” of Roshan Chauhan’s letter to the UK music press, which details the difference of news treatment between the closure of Black-owned clubs and … Continue reading
In most parts of the dance music industry, Black-led dance music can only exist and thrive within white institutions. The social justice focused segment of this industry has no intention to challenge this status quo. It pursues a feckless and self-serving assimilationist agenda which perpetuates the lie that it is possible to change dance music institutions’ from the inside.
Industry actors appoint obedient Black community leaders to shield themselves from criticism. Institutions have perfected the art of “raising awareness,” without ever getting anywhere near any action which would lead to structural change. Anglo-pessimism is the new normal.
It is pointless to expect a pathway out of Negrophilia from institutions which by design run on the exploitation of Black cultural capital. Now is the time to see dance music’s main industry actors for what they are: reactionaries whose only aim is to maintain the status quo. Black autonomy can only be achieved by gatekeeping them out of Black communities. Now is the time to burn bridges with existing institutions. Now is the time to start anew.
Racialisation is a sociological and political process by which ethnic and racial identities are associated to social groups and practices, for the purpose of maintaining structures of domination and social exclusion. Terms such as (BI)POC:
(1) fail to address and recognise this social reality, by conflating all ethnic and racial struggles, regardless of the way they originate;
(2) are incorrectly used as adjectives when they should be exclusively used as nouns;
(3) have grown to become synonymous of « non-white », focusing on genetic phenotypes rather than social constructs.
(4) are incorrectly used in contexts in which a specific ethnicity/race, most often Black/Black-American, should be used.
(5) are not born from self-determination, and instead reflect the will and needs of the dominant.
I have decided for all those reasons to make an effort to use the term « racialised people » instead of terms such as (BI)POC, and to use “Black people” and “Afro-descendants” contextually, depending on whether I insist on the racialisation process which created Blackness, or the common cultural ground which permeates the Afro diaspora. In my view, white people are not racialised, since racialisation is a process which requires an intent of subjugation.Reference on the origin of the term BIPOC
|↑2||Mathieu Rigouste, La domination policière: une violence industrielle.|
|↑3||The French state police, as we know it today, was instituted in 1941 by Vichy France, the Nazi collaborating French regime. For a complete account of the history of the French police, we refer the interested reader to Mathieu Rigouste's La domination policière.|
|↑11||In the 19th and the 20th century, France’s relationship with its colonies was shaped by a policy of “colonial assimilation” (assimilation coloniale), in which the colonised individual’s integration to the empire was tied to the adoption of France’ culture and social norms. The post-colonial policy of “cultural assimilation” aims to reshape France, its former colonies and its overseas territories: it aspires to the unification of the lifestyle of migrants and their descendants. While such policies have not always been strictly applied and contain a multitude of nuances, they continue to shape the discourse around national identity in France. Interestingly, this penchant for assimilationism seems to cross the left-right divide in France: A 2021 Pew Research Center poll about views on national identity in the US and the Western Europe suggests that, across the political spectrum, French people are more likely to believe that sharing national customs and traditions, and speaking the dominant language is very important to be truly French, while the left-right divide on the very same question is much wider in the UK and the US. See: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/05/05/1-national-identity/|
|↑13||Dean Blunt & GAIKA reflected in Crack Magazine on the reality of performing for a white audience, when anti-Blackness is so apparent outside of music venues: "DB: We’re living in that kingdom now. When these things become news stories (Editor’s Note: immigrants teeth getting measured) it can be irritating because you feel this stuff way before it becomes a headline, it’s in the air. And it’s always felt. On a ground level, that’s where it exists daily and that’s where it’s felt. G: With the Bristol show we played, was it a particular thing which made you feel like ‘nah’? Because I have a feeling about playing some UK shows. Like why the fuck would I wanna go to some place where, ultimately, I’m not welcome? DB: Yeah, they like to ideally consume what you do, but not necessarily have you be there." https://crackmagazine.net/article/long-reads/hackney-vs-brixton-conversation-dean-blunt-gaika/|
|↑14||The use of the term ‘Afro-descendant’ is explained and justified at the end of this essay.|
|↑19||Diederich, Diederichsen, On (Surplus) Value in Art|
|↑20||As explained in Roshan Chauhan’s letter to the UK music press: “Black music is a moving target. To anchor it so heavily in a particular sound and a particular time could become another incidence of ignorance. Resident Advisor is scrambling to commit more resources in telling the tales of house & techno gone by, an important story for sure. But it must not continue its trend of ignoring the innovative movements happening in Black communities now, regardless of however indirectly they believe it might fit into that lineage.” https://itsrosh.nfshost.com/letter/|
|↑22||Will Lynch’s article is consistent with a pattern noticeable across most Resident Advisor features (especially those on party locations): while those articles often discuss general topics, they quickly zoom in on particular party collectives & clubs in order to promote their parties. This is an economic imperative for Resident Advisor, as Resident Advisor’ magazine is an advertising tool for its parent ticketing company. For an analysis of Resident Advisor’s financial structure: https://technomaterialism.com/2021/10/16/on-resident-advisors-culture-recovery-fund|
|↑25||For French sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger, people who defend the idea that avant-gardist art is inherently political tend to make the assumption that the evolution of artistic productions (through the “transgression” of established norms) mimics exactly the dynamics of social change. Avant-gardism art presupposes the opposition of a “progressive” art production which precedes the public demand, to a “conservative” art production which satisfies the on-going demand (the status quo) and benefits an established elite (the bourgeoisie). See Pierre-Michel Menger, The Economics of Creativity.|
|↑27||I am intentionally leaving out concrete examples of the application of those tenets in cultural industries, in order to encourage the reader to actively seek such examples in their personal experience, and to learn how to identify Anglo-pessimism and push back against it. Some of the tenets overlap with recent essays which are more specifically about gender and sexual identities: https://thenewinquiry.com/on-heteropessimism and https://www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/56749/1/the-future-of-heterosexuality-sex-shon-faye|
|↑30||The white gaze is the assumption of a white audience and the consequences of this assumption in the way art is shaped. “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one's race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be 'universal' or race-free?” (Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark).|
|↑31||In the 1990 essay “Black art and the burden of representation”, art historian Kobena Mercer outlines how art critics tend to ignore aesthetic values of Black art, in favour of “extra-artistic issues concerning race and racism.”|
|↑32||Read it on DAZED|
|↑34||After the license of his London venue was permanently revoked, Fridge Bar’s owner took to social media and wrote: “I have also seen the influx of new venues catering to that new demographic whom I am certain will get all the help they need ... unlike other venues who catered for the original demographic in this area who received only condemnation. Being a Black business owner in the night time economy you realise very quickly that you are on your own. You also realise that your business can be destroyed at anytime by circumstances completely outside of your control. You realise also that this system is antithetical to black advancement.” As cited in: https://itsrosh.nfshost.com/letter/|
|↑35||See the section “Fabric vs Black Club Closures” of Roshan Chauhan’s letter to the UK music press, which details the difference of news treatment between the closure of Black-owned clubs and white-owned clubs. Read more|
|↑36||Reference on the origin of the term BIPOC|