“2020 is not only marked as the year of covid-19, it has also been a pivotal year in the fight against systemic racism.” No statement could more accurately assess this past year that has felt like a lifetime, and it served as the perfect introduction for the KU Leuven and Horst panel discussion on decolonizing music and nightlife culture. It has become increasingly apparent over the past several months that no societal or cultural institution can be separated from the conversation of systemic racism and the stifling of minority voices, least of all music.
Countless music genres and the scenes that have sprung up around them would not exist without the innovations and contributions of black artists, yet much of music history is looked at through the lens of white European artists that have been influenced by the sounds of black musicians and passed off black-created genres as their own. Techno music has been put through the wringer of colonization and received little of the attention that it deserves, an issue brought to light in this panel discussion featuring Souria Cheurfi, DeForrest Brown Jr., Zana Etambala, DTM Funk, Axmed Maxamed, and Zelda Fitzgerald.
In an enlightening keynote introduction, DeForrest Brown Jr. established the seemingly hazy connection between generations of oppressive history in America and the modern colonization of techno music and nightlife culture, citing the likes of renowned activist James Boggs. Brown Jr., an author in his own right and an Alabama native, cited Alabama-born James Boggs as the first notable example of African American people leaving the south after being freed just enough from the bondage of Jim Crow to disperse across the country. Boggs ended up in Detroit, Michigan, and witnessed as a factory worker what Brown Jr. would in this panel discussion describe as the direct evolution of slavery to industrial factory work to the creation of techno music.
Brown Jr. traced techno music back to as early as the 1970s, when Motown abandoned Detroit and left behind the idea that music could be created in the same fashion that automobile parts could be built on an assembly line, just as the systematic nature of slavery work on plantations initially inspired the concept of mass production via the assembly line. Band models were assembled and crunched down into something potent and efficient, and black people began to keep the idea of Motown pop alive with techno music.
In opening the conversation to the rest of the panel to discuss how techno music became colonized, Brown Jr. proposed a powerful analogy of a disliked child living in a basement and making toys out of scraps. When the well-liked children come down and see these crude toys, they go back upstairs and recreate them in a slightly different way and take all the credit for the innovation of the toys. The panel members collectively concluded that this is the way in which music created by black people is colonized and appropriated by white Europeans, who take the music of black people and filter out the historical context of pain and suffering, leaving only a collection of fun dance beats that earn white artists fame and fortune while the black creators are left with no credit stolen music devoid of its true meaning.
To begin the process of decolonizing techno music and nightlife culture, the panel agreed that it should be treated as any other issue addressing systemic racism and made to be the burden of the oppressors, not the oppressed. The intensity of the new civil rights movement in 2020 has led to a surge of false activism in which millions of people post about protest and change on social media and proceed to take no action towards this change, leaving the African American community to continue to do the heavy lifting and urge people in positions of privilege and authority to educate themselves.
Education was the step towards meaningful change most discussed by the panel, with all members pleading white people to read books, watch videos, learn from people willing to teach, and even take a step back from positions of authority to allow black people to attain these positions and promote true diversity.
The scenario of white people relinquishing authority to black people is the most direct way for the history of techno music to stop being told through a white European lens, but it is also the most unlikely to occur. Even if it did, the systems of authority that have been built on years of exclusion would not be ready to receive black people in important positions, a fact reinforced by Brown Jr. and his firing from a music magazine just months after his replacement of a former white employee. Panel member Zelda Fitzgerald exasperatedly explained that after countless failed attempts of black people to help educate white people, the burden can no longer weigh on the shoulders of African Americans and white people claiming they want to work for change must prove it and work for it themselves.
Concluding the panel discussion, Zana Etambala drew upon his experience working in the Congo after its liberation from Belgian imperialism and mused that decolonization, be it in music or any other walk of life, will never be an overnight process. Decolonization takes years of constant work, desire, and dedication from all people to achieve even small beginning levels of positive change and to begin the healing process against the ingrained mindset of colonialism. Black people may have come a long way from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, but this does not mean much when there is still so much further to go. Etambala stated that there is a fine line between freedom and total mental and societal independence, and the decolonization of techno music and its culture is just the beginning.