“It’s a joke that’s also serious,” Fernandez tells me of the hat meme. Despite starting as an online joke, the popularity of the hats was enough to warrant the use of clothing to promote the message of Make Techno Black Again.
Sitting in my childhood bedroom on a video call with the three members of the Make Techno Black Again group, one of the several important lessons I am being educated on is the importance of community and connections in counterculture scenes.
Fashion and Social Media: The Creation of Make Techno Black Again
Make Techno Black Again is the result of a meme that snowballed in popularity and the crossroads of the clothing brand HECHA / 做 and the musical project Speaker Music. HECHA, founded in 2016 by Luz Angelica Fernandez and Ting Ding, is a sustainable and empathy-driven line of clothing that specializes in philanthropy as much as it does fashion.
After a meme created by Fernandez that depicted a hat adorned with the phrase “Make Techno Black Again” (A parody of the “Make America Great Again” hats popularized during Donald Trump’s presidency) received significant attention online, the hat was created and sold, and the Make Techno Black Again line of clothing was officially born.
“It’s a joke that’s also serious,” Fernandez tells me of the hat meme.
Despite starting as an online joke, the popularity of the hats was enough to warrant the use of clothing to promote the message of Make Techno Black Again. The HECHA duo was soon joined by techno artist and theorist DeForrest Brown, Jr. (AKA Speaker Music), who noticed the hat at a talk/performance he was giving that Ding attended and had what he described as “an ah-hah moment,” thus turning Make Techno Black Again into the trio that it is today.
Over a video chat, I caught up with Make Techno Black Again as they weather the storm of the pandemic in New York City, Ding and Brown, Jr. joining from Manhattan and Fernandez from Brooklyn. “It hasn’t been easy for anyone, I guess, I don’t know,” Fernandez says with a weary laugh. “There’s not much to do in times like this except try to hold on,” Ding adds, offering a look into the mindset of New Yorkers and Americans trying to get by as the coronavirus pandemic worsens by the day.
“It’s been hard not being able to meet in person,” Ding continues as she describes the toll the pandemic has taken on HECHA and the ability to host in-person events for the brand, an impact that has been brutal on the techno scene and its reliance on close contact and large groups of people. “As the clubs shut down, I think we need to rethink the format in which techno can live and continue to exist even if there is no more dancefloor. If there is no more club to host the music, where do we put it?” says Ding.
The Black Origins of Techno Music
Prior to learning about the Make Techno Black Again project, I had been unaware of the black origins of techno music in Detroit and came to learn that this lack of knowledge is a prevalent issue.
“I remember talking to lots of different people in the techno scene about learning more about where it comes from and trying to start reframing the way we talk about it and view it,” says Fernandez of her own education on the black origins of techno music, which she discovered after only being able to look at techno culture through a European lens while living in Berlin. “That’s basically why we started in the first place,” Fernandez continues speaking of Make Techno Black Again, “the intention was always to start those conversations with people, because once someone sees the hat there will be so many moments where people are like ‘what does that mean? What are you talking about?’
Even still right now, online, there’s tons and tons of conversations about this topic that so many people are still super, super ignorant and unaware about or even resistant to believe or respect.”
The lack of awareness and respect for the black origins of techno music is emblematic of how black culture is received and treated in the United States, as millions of white Americans continually take in all genres of music for their pleasure often without wanting to acknowledge that none of these genres of music would exist as they do today without the past innovations of black artists.
“It’s focused in the reinstatement of funds, paying respect to the origins, and educating people about this music that they readily consume without a thought. It’s a culture that so many people consume so freely and almost selfishly, I guess I could argue, without any thought or respect to it,” Fernandez says.
The Whitewashing and Gentrification of Techno Music
Although prior to learning about Make Techno Black Again I had been unaware of the whitewashing of techno music, I had not been unaware of the fact that most music genres have suffered the same gentrification.
I can’t help but glance off camera and down at my arms that are decorated with tattoos for my favorite rock bands, all of them white and all of them having been directly or indirectly influenced by the black blues artists of the past. I mention this to the trio and get responses of agreement.
“It’s not just techno,” says Ding, “it started with techno as the starting point, but really if you start tracing the history it goes all the way back to the slave trade. Ultimately with any sort of music industry, the industry itself is not a sustainable practice.”
This turn in discussion piques my interest as to why Make Techno Black Again focuses on techno music specifically when any music genre could use the same attention, and my question is answered by Brown, Jr., who is sitting next to Ding sharing a computer screen, “It’s the money. If you look at the music industry, the genres that fund the entire music industry were all stolen from black people,” says Brown, Jr. as he, Ding, and Fernandez list numerous genres of music to prove the point.
“When it first launched, we just did a really small batch of hats, like 20 hats or something, and it sold out,” says Ding of the progress of both the clothing line and the conversation about making techno black again, “we didn’t really bring it back until in 2018 we did a more official launch, and DeForrest jumped on and made a mix for it, and even now through this whole time I feel like the narrative has definitely started changing a little bit and there’s less resistance than before.”
Brown, Jr. chimes in as well, “It is getting better, because the situation is so dire. After seeing George Floyd have someone knee him on the neck for nine minutes, I think people started to go ‘how has America been treating its black people for the last 400 years?’”
Even with the benefit of some progress for respecting the black origins of most of the music industry, there is still much more ground to cover than has been made up.
“The thing that techno was about with Juan Atkins was trying to consolidate these giant bands and orchestras into a single machine, into a single person, and the first person to be sold this way in the music industry was also doing this, and this is because black people weren’t allowed to read or write,” says Brown, Jr. of the direct link between slavery and the black origins of techno music, referencing the slave performer Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins as the first musician marketed in the one-man-band style of techno music.
“My great grandfather couldn’t read,” continues Brown, Jr., “my grandfather can kind of read, I read probably the best in my whole family and it’s a generational struggle to just read. When we talk about techno being stolen, for me it’s the most futuristic and potent example of the African American language besides, say, jazz.”
Fighting European Colonialism: Music and Counterculture
Now better informed on the origins of techno music and its subsequent gentrification, I ask the group what the primary source of blame for this whitewashing might be. “European colonialism,” Brown, Jr. says. “What colonialism is is a bunch of white men that start businesses without having concrete rules and conversations about how to distribute what they’re calling products. It’s not even about techno, it’s literally about stopping colonialism, and our weapon of choice for now is music and counterculture.”
Ding speaks to this as well, likening America to a startup on the brink of collapse, “My day job is as a business analyst for an app company, and basically, I see it all the time where it is the structure of taking something and optimizing it. You optimize it, which means you disregard the people involved, any sort of emotions or anything that is human, and you optimize it to make it the most efficient, lean, and computer-like structure.”
The effort of Make Techno Black Again to spread their message is rooted in the idea of centering the black body of techno music and bringing the attention back to the African American community that created the genre. “One of the kind of positive things that I’ve noticed about this year and centering around the black body within techno is that I feel like I’m starting to see a little bit more of that,” says Fernandez, “but it’s still concerning about the way it’s happening.
I’m definitely noticing a little bit less of an interest and attention for white DJs, and these days because of the George Floyd protests and everything that has happened this year, labels, brands, businesses, and publications are trying to do their part. It’s really obvious that they’re trying to do their part and start to focus on people of color a little bit more, and specifically black people, but it ends up seeming really shallow and like tokenism.”
With so many positions of authority in the music and advertising industries being held by white people, it is difficult for people of color to have direct and meaningful input and impact in the fields they are trying to change. This issue is where the musical project of Brown, Jr., Speaker Music, comes up in conversation.
I ask Brown, Jr. if he feels any better about the state of techno culture today given his own musical presence in the scene with his newest album Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, which has received critical acclaim, and he sounds ambivalent about his own success. “
No, because I know all the critics that are writing about it and some of them owe me one for not answering pitches that could’ve helped pay my bills over the years. Some of them are people that are finally kind of getting it, some of them are nice people, and so it’s one of those things where I’m seeing instead a lot of the people focus in on me, the loudest voice, with this company backing.
What they see is branded content, and not helping other musicians through Make Techno Black Again, through live performances that HECHA has done, through my own curation as an art curator. We’ve been trying to put other artists forth, and it’s the people in the industry who just refuse to give an equal representative eye to everybody.”
“It’s not just the music industry,” Ding says, “I think it’s an American problem in which there is a focus on the single one. We have a difficult time splitting our attention towards more than just the singularity, the monopoly, the president, and it’s difficult for people to focus on more than one thing.
We get this with the collective as well, because we call ourselves a collective, but I think people often confuse, because there’s more than one person involved in this project, people either just think it’s him or us, they don’t think that it’s actually multiple people being able to work together. That’s what we’re trying to show, that people should be able to work together as a collective rather than this very individualistic American idea.”
Although the members of Make Techno Black Again cited European colonialism as the primary cause for the whitewashing of techno, the music industry is not blameless for turning its back on the genre and veering towards music that is lacking in black representation, which becomes doubly harmful when considering that black artists and techno artists like Brown, Jr. are already being underpaid by music streaming services.
“The music industry is moving towards folk music,” says Brown, Jr., “it is moving towards pop folk. We see it with Taylor Swift’s folklore, we see it with Waxahatchee. I’ve been waiting on that type of music to overtake techno in America for the last 10 years. Not because I wanted it to, but because I was looking at the numbers on the websites I was working at.”
Techno in Decline: Pandemic Related Venue Closures
The decline of techno’s popularity in America has been exacerbated by the pandemic and its toll on live music venues, with shutdowns of already struggling techno institutions sweeping New York City and putting Make Techno Black Again in a more dire situation. “There’s no funding here,” says Fernandez, “and everything is closed except for Nowadays, basically we’re the last ones standing, but we’re really struggling. There’s no actual support for any of these institutions to really exist in the first place and to be making the positive changes that we want to be because we’re constantly at the threat of closing.”
Unfortunate as it may be, times of crisis like almost the entirety of 2020 can call attention to issues that have needed it for a long time. The murder of George Floyd called worldwide attention to the already deeply ingrained problem of police brutality in America, and the coronavirus pandemic called attention to the failings of the United States government to protect and care for its citizens.
Although these events should never have happened, the fact that they did allows for groups like Make Techno Black Again to reach and educate many more people than before. Between the release of Speaker Music’s Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry and the launch of Make Techno Black Again clothing as a branch of HECHA, positive progress has been made. However, the life cycle of a news story is short, and mass coverage of the nationwide protests against police brutality has dwindled into borderline nonexistence.
Moving Forward: Sustainability, Race, and Techno
I asked the trio what they think the next best step is for Make Techno Black Again and for the world beyond 2020. “The planet!” Ding says, “We’re so busy fighting each other, the discourse is around race and people and liberals versus republicans, but have we all seen the weather lately? The hurricanes, the burning wildfires in California?
To take it back to HECHA, the brand is focused around sustainability, and for me the next step is to actually start taking care of the planet and to start with every person’s consumption habits and really thinking about how it is they’re living their lives.
Everything that we’re doing, including the vaccine, we’re just running away from an imminent total environmental collapse. I’m trying not to freak out, but I think we need to start freaking out. It’s been incredibly warm this winter, the weather is all fucked up, and that’s the conversation I don’t think anybody wants to think about.”
“That’s kind of the beauty of Make Techno Black Again being a sub header of the HECHA clothing brand,” says Brown, Jr., “is that black people’s rights are the bare minimum humans can do to make sure that the threshold for oppression and destruction that happens in your society is kept mitigated. If you’re treating black people like cattle, it makes that we would have a president that says the coronavirus is the China virus.
It makes sense we would have antisemitic outbreaks of attacks this year if we will allow black people to be assassinated in the streets by both citizens and police authorities. Black people’s deaths is the first environmental crisis we missed, and then there’s a waste crisis happening.”
Not for the first time in our discussion, I am made more aware of the connections between national issues in terms of race and discrimination as the trio explains the dark underbelly of the hopeful vaccine news, citing how much waste it will generate and the history of the government using black people like lab rats such as in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
“I can’t say the government has not poisoned Black people and created arduous environments for its white population as well. Looking forward, it’s just getting into bigger issues, getting into more planetary issues. We won’t stop because there’s nothing else to do, Netflix isn’t that entertaining.”
Brown, Jr. says, concluding the interview on an enlightening and humorous note in keeping with the friendly and educational rapport of Make Techno Black Again throughout the video call.
If bigger and more planetary issues are the next step for Make Techno Black Again, the group is well poised to take these issues on, with growing popularity and media attention for the stylings of Speaker Music and HECHA due to the chaotic amalgam of 2020 and, hopefully, the readiness of more people in positions of power to finally start listening.