Does electronic music like Techno and House stand for more than just hedonism and partying? Should music be political in general? Or does this ruin the last “safe space” we have besides all the horrible stuff that’s going on in the world? Let’s discuss!
When Artists Have To Raise Their Voices
On the 25th of May 2020, the world had to observe yet another victim of racist police brutality: George Floyd. The death of the 46-year-old African American resulted in worldwide protests against racism and systematic oppression of the black community especially (but not only) in the United States.
In times like these, the question comes up whether artists have to publicly speak out against what’s clearly wrong. Should music be political or is that against its core function in culture? Isn’t music the last safe space we have besides all that’s going wrong in the world? Don’t we all need a mental shelter that helps us escape from all the bullshit in life?
I believe that in some cases (like the one of George Floyd), artists have an obligation to raise their voices. Remaining silent in and of itself is a political act. To quote someone much wiser than myself:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
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Whether music should be political or not is the wrong question
Music and art in general cannot be non-political. It’s an illusion. Remaining silent, in most cases, means that you’re passively supporting the cause of the ones who execute political power.
“The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.“ – George Orwell
In essence, “should music be political?” is the wrong question. Instead, we have to discuss when and why you have the moral obligation to speak out as an artist. Commenting on every political matter can be annoying to your audience and effectively reduces your impact during times when it really matters to speak out against injustice. Furthermore, if you only do it to sharpen your artist brand, you‘re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Techno, House, and politics
Electronic dance music genres like Techno and House are strongly related with parties, hedonism, and nightlife culture in a broader sense. Doesn’t sound very political, right? Wrong!
In her brilliant article “Electronic Music Is Black Protest Music”, Whitney Wei writes:
“Nightclubs, as it so happens, bear a long legacy of being one of the very few spaces in society where Black and Brown people are able to freely express themselves, where they are able to, for a few short hours, reclaim the bodies that are systematically regulated, attenuated, and deliberately destroyed by the state.”
Detroit Techno and Chicago House are rooted in political movements. The name “Underground Resistance” wasn’t born as a marketing-slogan but as a bold statement of musical counter-culture. So how does it make you feel when you look at the yearly Resident Advisor DJ Charts and all you see is white, straight, male faces with a few rare exceptions in the top 100?
As an electronic music artist these days, you have an obligation to speak out against racism, homophobia, sexism, and everything else that goes against the roots of dance music culture. Even the idea of a hedonistic, 4-nights-in-a-row party at a Berlin Techno club is in and of itself political. It’s a safe space to be who you want to be and express yourself creatively. Anything goes, as long as you respect other people’s boundaries.
The political and social power of music
What was the first band that influenced you? Which song has made you think deeper about a certain topic? What was it like to experience an illegal underground rave for the first time? Certain moments in our lives truly shape our believes and values for decades to come. Most of the time, they are connected to music and the counterculture connected to it.
For me, one of those critical moments was when I started to listen to my generation of melodic hardcore bands: Rise Against, Strike Anywhere, Propaghandi, and Boysetsfire. These bands truly gave a damn, they publicly spoke out against what was going wrong in the world. From gender topics to animal rights, from religious extremism to homophobia. They played fundraiser gigs to support causes and they donated a part of their sales to organizations they believed in.
Listening to these bands and their lyrics, reading the stories in their album booklets, and absorbing every interview I could find has truly shaped who I am today. I do give a damn about certain topics and I‘m not shy of speaking out against racism, homophobia, inequality, and other topics.
Music has always been connected to political movements
From blues to political folk songs like „We Shall Overcome“, from hippie anti-war hymns to Hardcore Punk, from Hip Hop to House and Techno. Many genres of music have been strongly associated with political movements and social issues. This doesn‘t mean that every song and every artist has a political message. It also doesn‘t mean that you can‘t enjoy a worry-free club night.
But looking at genres like Techno and House must always include its roots and they are clearly political. The music itself might not always contain rebellious lyrics or socio-political slogans. But that doesn‘t mean there‘s no connection to a certain movement.
The socio-political aspect of modern Techno and House
So what does contemporary electronic music stand for? I must admit that it has been harder to spot in the last decade. This has to do with the mainstream attention that these genres have gained. Superstar-DJs, big festivals, and EDM as the „ugly sibling“ on mainstream radio.
But still, there are other aspects in our scene that are clearly related to socio-political matters:
- Underground club and festival culture, celebrating diversity and equality, trying to create a safe space and a parallel society within society (at least for a few days). As a whole, this is a cultural statement against racism, homophobia, and sexism.
- The LGBTQ movement inside the Techno and House community and gender-equality related collectives, parties, and labels.
- A new generation of feminist collectives, individuals who speak up, and scene-wide discussions about female representation in electronic music.
- A relatively new approach of eco-friendly partying that can be seen at small festivals with minimum-waste concepts and educational side-programs.
Is all of this going well? Absolutely not. And this brings me to the final point of this short episode about the question whether music should be political or not.
Why it matters to fight
Let‘s be honest here: We‘re far away from equality on the dancefloor. Subconscious and open racism, homophobia and sexism are still finding a way into underground Techno clubs. They get around the bouncer while the black or queer person gets sent home again.
Festival line-ups and yearly DJ charts are still a laugh when you look at them from a diversity standpoint. And most guests don‘t really give a damn about it and are more interested in swallowing funny little pills (not knowing the dose) than in drug-testing and safety.
But that‘s exactly where YOU come into play.
As an electronic music artist, you have the power to shape the direction of this scene. Do you want to still neglect the socio-political component of Techno and House or are you willing to speak out against what‘s going wrong? Your audience, no matter how big or small, matters. Your true fans are ambassadors of your cause. The artists around you are collaborators, not competition.
If you haven‘t taken a stance yet, it‘s time to do so. The death of George Floyd can be your wake up call. Music is political and you as an artist have the power to change society. Use it.
Putting it into action: The socio-political power of Techno and House
So what can you do as an electronic music artist? Here are three action steps that you can implement.
1. Educate yourself on the socio-political roots of electronic music
- If you haven‘t already, make sure to read, watch, and listen to everything that‘s publicly available on the origins of House and Techno.
- Try to understand how this is related to what‘s happening today.
2. Dare to speak out against things that aren‘t in line with your core values and the roots of our scene
- Use your influence on social media but also in personal conversations and take a stance. You don‘t have to post one annoying rant after another. But take the time to leave at least a clear statement so your true fans know what your position in the discussion is.
- Also, don‘t think you have to have an opinion on everything that‘s going on politically. You don‘t have to participate in every little discussion. This would be tiring and doesn‘t serve a bigger purpose. But when it comes to the really big, important topics, make sure to speak up.
3. Take action and put your money where your mouth is
- Make sure you support positive causes. Take part in demonstrations, play gigs at fundraisers, and donate to organizations that are facilitating positive change.
- Don‘t use something like #blacklivesmatter as a tool to promote your artist brand or boost your career. This is not what this is about. The world needs your authentic engagement in these matters.
So that‘s it for this episode. Now I‘d love to hear from you: Should music be political in your opinion? How are you personally taking action and speaking out?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything.