Race in Electronic Music & Festival Culture

10-13 minute read

Ahead of our 2018 event I discussed gender inequality in the festival industry, and why in a position of cultural influence it is our responsibility to promote equality through the medium of our online content, at the festival itself through discussion, and in the musical programming on our stages.

Broadly speaking, diversity is characterised by there being a large number of groups of people who are different from one another, and inequality sadly isn’t limited to the gender imbalance which overshadows almost all industry and society; it extends to sexual orientation, age, national origin, religion, education, disability and, race.

Britain is a hugely diverse country, with ethnic groups from all over the world choosing to live here. In the 2011 census London had a population of 8,173,941 people, 44.9% of which were White British; 37% were born outside the UK; 24.5% outside of Europe; and over 300 languages were spoken at home. It has created a vibrant city of cultural diversity, where different ways of living and being can exist and learn from each other.

However all this diversity amounts to nothing without inclusion, which by definition is ‘the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure’; a state of being valued, respected and supported. It’s about recognising the individual needs of each and every person, and creating an environment where all people have the same opportunities to realise their full potential. Diversity is the mix, and inclusion is getting that mix right.

I imagine (and hope) that if are reading this you do not actively engage in racism, and most likely don’t consider yourself a racist person. Excellent, that’s a good start! But who does consider themselves a racist? I ask this because those who are racist, rarely consider themselves as such.  

For example, if you were to approach a member of the EDL (English Defence League), or the German Far Right Party (AfD), or Donald Trump “Leader of the Free World”, you would probably be subjected to delusional overtures justifying their flagrant xenophobia as nationalism, or pride for their own country (see: “Make America Great Again” ). At the other, softer end of the scale, lies ‘casual racism’. I’m sure we’ve all heard this at some point in our lives from a peer, parent or colleague, in the form of a distasteful joke or negative ethnocultural observation, usually accompanied by the prefix “I’m not racist in any way, but…”

It’s fair to say that many forms of racism are blatant, American History X style, and can be easily condemned and outlawed by those of sound mind and reasonable intelligence. Racism is defined as ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior’ and ‘the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races’.

In pop culture music of non-white ethnic origins has been sampled, rehashed and recycled for decades, often making the “rehashers” millions and the original composers nothing at all. A prime example being the Rolling Stones, who have been plagued for their entire career by accusations that they have made their fortunes ripping off and commercialising African American Blues musicians. Indeed their first album, The Rolling Stones, included just one original track, with the remaining eleven songs covered from artists such as Rufus Thomas, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed; all African Americans.

Of course this doesn’t make Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie and Brian (R.I.P) racists. However the fact that white Americans refused to buy the music of African American musicians due to their ethnic origins, yet were happy to buy the exact same music from a group of White Englishmen by the millions of copies, is racism on a grand scale.

Cut to present day, and as new genres pop up every week – see Desert Techno, Crunk Core and Lento Violento (not a coffee brand) – the topic of cultural appropriation is hot off the press as producers sample anything and everything to add that little je-ne-sais-quoi to their latest tracks. In an article entitled Does sampling count as Cultural Appropriation?from online music publication ‘Magnetic Mag’, writer Tanya Dracolakis cites an incident where “..in an amusingly tone-deaf gaffe, a European DJ (Dax J) at Tunisia’s Orbit Festival played a track that included the Muslim call to prayer, causing the government to shut down the nightclub where it was played and commence investigations. Soon thereafter, another artist, interestingly named The Scumfrog, wrote an intelligent and considerate Facebook post about his stance on the subject, having previously (and unsuccessfully) solicited a Navajo tribe elder to deliver a sunrise prayer during his Burning Man set. From these two interactions, it seems religious leaders in other cultures aren’t too keen on Western culture appropriating their rituals for the purpose of dance music.”

You can’t help but smile a little when you imagine Mr Scumfrog approaching the tribal elder, covered in Playa dust and an unacceptable amount of (biodegradable) glitter, begging him to chant through a handheld tannoy at Robot Heart in Black Rock City to a load of gurning middle class hipsters. I’d probably have politely told him where to go as well!

Dracolakis does however raise an interesting question: Is art in the form of sampling exempt from the boundaries of cultural appropriation, or are there standards of awareness to which everyone should be held?

Legally speaking the use of ancient religious or ethnic sound samples is a hazy area when it comes to royalties. For example – and this is based on a Music Law module I took whilst at university over a decade ago – if an artist writes a song which copies in excess of twelve notes in a row that are the same as another artist whose music is still in copyright (50 years from the composition of the original song), it’s considered an infringement of copyright law and the “thief” can be sued and fined. There are many high profile cases of this happening in recent years, and Marvin Gaye’s estate seem to be filing suits every other week, and winning.

But how does one get sued for sampling something such as the call to prayer, or an ancient Arabic chant, or a Navajo elder’s song which has been passed down by word of mouth through millennia, covertly recorded by a hipster Burner at a sweat lodge retreat near Joshua Tree? Or indeed how would an artist go about paying royalties for a piece of music which is not subject to copyright laws? It’s a tough one.

“On one hand, we have the value of artistic expression, which often angers people of the religious ilk.” Dracolakis writes. Yet this comes with the territory of working in a (on the whole) progressive industry whose professional participants strive to span cultures with their music, versus religion which looks to history for its inspiration and guidelines.  

So when it comes to sampling, where does the line fall between cultural appropriation and respectful ingenuity? I would hazard to say that chucking the call to prayer over a shitty EDM track (because it’s all shitty, that’s not open for discussion) is unskilled, disrespectful, and appropriative. I say that because the artist clearly hasn’t spent any time researching the culture, history or religion which they are choosing to sample from. At best it’s provocative and ill-informed, at worst, racist.

At the other end of the scale you have artists such as Daft Punk, who although are of white ethnic origin, do come from similar cultural traditions as the Disco artists they sample. They take hundreds of sound bites, processing them almost beyond recognition in some cases, then piece them together to create some of the best tracks of the past two decades. They live it and breathe it, and are entrenched in multiple scenes which they are beautifully representing and paying homage to, via the medium of intelligent production and music. They are not simply taking a Marvin Gaye vocal stem and dropping it over a Deep House track which would otherwise sound like many other Deep House tracks. Lord knows Marvin’s estate would have something to say about that!

In the words of Simon Reynolds, “To take a chunk of living time – which is what a sample is – and chain it into a loop isn’t just appropriation, it’s a form of enslavement. But to pluck several different segments of live playing from separate space-time contexts and force them into unholy congress with each other … that’s sorcery.”

So perhaps that is the line between appropriation and respectful ingenuity – when sampling is done with skill and subsequent cultural respect, rather than just taking a single standalone sound bite and dropping it on an underlying track; the lowest common denominator.

Artists should research and learn about the culture which gave birth to the music they are sampling, and despite their own progressive values or “Western” viewpoint, they should respect the sanctity of religion and beliefs. At the very least so they can engage in the discussion with and support their opinions in a concise and educated way, whether or not others – you and I – agree with them.

Let’s divert back to race in Electronic Music. There are tens of millions of pounds worth of royalties owed to black producers who gave birth to the genres we know and love today, and whilst I was aware of this through my own research and studies both at university and more recently in my years at Noisily, it is not what would be classified as common knowledge for most people.

Did you know that the most sampled piece of music of all time is from the song Amen Brother, which was on the B-Side of the Winston’s 1964 LP, ‘Colour Him Father’? There is a six second drum loop which is the basis of thousands of Drum & Bass tracks, and arguably gave birth to the Breakbeat dance music scene in Europe. The Winstons haven’t seen a single penny for their track, yet artists from NWA, to LTJ Bukem (playing at Noisily 2019), to The Prodigy and Aphex Twin have sampled and resampled the exact loop for decades.

Frankie Knuckles is another example of an artist and producer who is widely regarded as the original creator of House music, yet has barely seen a penny for his genius whilst white producers have adopted the sound and turned it into a multi million pound industry on this side of the pond.

The long and short of it is that a great deal of the Electronic Music we listen to nowadays may seem as though it’s written first hand by our favourite producers, but its origins stretch back through history far further than we may think.

For those of us with a connection to the industry or a desire to learn, you may be aware that the entire structure of our dance music scene, Electronic Music, and indeed the basis for our Festival Culture, can be credited to non-white ethnic groups from around the world. This is a diversity that we should celebrate, but beyond that, we should be exercising inclusion across the board and giving the recognition that these groups deserve.

One of our cornerstones at Noisily is ‘Inclusion’, and we are by no means exclusively a white middle class festival, welcoming attendees from countries all around the world. However we feel that whilst our society may boast enormous diversity, it doesn’t yet foster the inclusion we would like to see realised. As a result of this ongoing ethnic separatism, we haven’t benefited from the cultural potential which is out there as much as we would like.

It’s not limited to the UK festival scene either. Burning Man is built upon 10 principles by which its attendees are supposed to conduct themselves; 1 of these is “Radical Inclusion”, meaning everyone is welcome, yet of the near 70,000 attendees a mere 1% are black. An article entitled ‘All But Invisible: Black at Burning Man’ published in The New York Times and written by Adeel Hassan in August 2018, contains a short documentary by filmmaker Gina Levy – ‘In Pursuit of Happiness: Black at Burning Man’. In the film Ms Levy interviews several black “Burners” about their experiences at the festival, gaining an important insight as to why there are so few black attendees, attributing those figures to the constructs of external US society. It’s 10 minutes long and linked below.

We welcome discussions about the subject of Race in Electronic Music & Festival Culture, and would love to hear any ideas on how you think we can make Noisily more inclusive, superseding the disparity which is prevalent in our culture and industry, to catalyse positive change in both.

Diversity is inviting everyone to the party, inclusion is getting them on the dance floor.

See you in the woods.

Charles, co-founder of Noisily Festival.