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Another day, another dickhead: Dealing with bigots in dance music

Sirin Kale explores the uneasy relationship between dance music and problematic DJs

  • Sirin Kale
  • 6 February 2018

It seems like barely a month goes by without yet another DJ being outed for racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or transphobic behaviour (or some combination of the above).

Typically, a mechanism I’m terming the “outrage-feedback loop” ensues. A DJ posts something crass online or is reported making offensive comments, like when Giegling’s Konstantin made sexist remarks to a Groove journalist. Social media picks up on it and the DJ is widely condemned within the dance music scene. Record labels, festivals and club promoters drop the DJ, who then releases a tone-deaf non-apology (“it was a joke”, “I was misquoted,” “I have gay / black / female friends”) and limp on with their careers. Then we all move on.

To the casual observer, dance music might suddenly seem full of dickheads, like a bath left running and overflowing. But dance music has always housed abusers and those with abhorrent views, same as any other profitable, male-dominated industry. It's especially troubling, given that dance music was historically founded by minoritised communities, but unsurprising given how much the core values upon which the scene was built — peace, love, unity and respect — has been distorted by commercial interests.

Why are we seeing more dickheads crawl out of the woodwork? Well, their itchy trigger fingers on social media make them easy to spot and progressive social attitudes mean that we’ll condemn hateful speech more readily than we would have done a decade ago. Social media allows for rapid, quick-fire social condemnation.

But what does this call-out culture actually achieve? Not very much, if you’re trying to tank offending culprits — most outed bigots go on to resurrect their careers, even if they’re considered persona non grata in more progressive circles.

It’s tempting to believe that being outed as a bigot is the equivalent of sticking a Do Not Resuscitate order on a DJ’s career, but this would be naïve. Many men can, and do, recover from offensive statements and go on to build thriving careers.

Ten Walls, who made homophobic comments in 2015, is still being booked to play at clubs around the world. Last year he played in Singapore, Mauritius, and Bogota, and he even appeared at ADE. Far from being the victim of a career-ending boycott, he’s maintaining a lucrative career.

So if call-out culture doesn’t actually prevent DJs from being booked for more than a few weeks, what’s the point of it all? Calling people out online is an easy way to assuage our collective guilt about being complicit in a sexist music scene, without actually having to do anything. Plus, it’s fun! As Jon Ronson documented extensively in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, there’s pleasure to be had in a collective pile-on, especially when you get to shame people from behind a keyboard with no real thought for the consequences.

Symbolically casting out individuals with problematic views is an imperfect response to a much bigger problem

But if we really care about building an inclusive, progressive dance music scene, we might question whether casting out people whose views or values don’t align with ours is the best approach.

When you respond to hateful people with hatefulness, you only entrench their vile, offensive views. Extremism is typically built out of social alienation, ignorance, and despair — just look at the men’s right movement, which is forged in the fires of hatred and contempt for women. Does this mean that dance music lovers have a responsibility not only to challenge misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of discrimination within the scene but to also help the people holding these views to understand why they’re wrong? Maybe. It’s not an easy approach, but what’s effective is seldom simple.

Levon Vincent’s second album, ‘For Paris’, dropped last year alongside the statement “I just have one word for you: Peace. I will be thinking on it and I hope you will too” after the artist faced a backlash for urging his followers to arm themselves in the wake of the attacks on the Bataclan. Before the LP’s release, he took to Facebook to apologise, explaining he’d taken time out to read widely and was now embracing peace, inspired by Gandhi and the Tao Te Ching. Ten Walls also made numerous apologies before premiering a new track with transgender vocalist Alex Radford via Lithuanian LGBT website LGL (the second time the pair had worked together).

Whether or not you’re willing to forgive artists is up to you: and most importantly, whether you judge these apologies to be sincere, rather than calculated PR stunts. For many, Ten Walls’ homophobic views are beyond the pale, and simply can’t be forgiven — which, given the anti-LGBT laws which blight his native Lithuania, is understandable. But an artist engaging in discourse about their negative behaviour is much better than them simply deleting social media posts and carrying on as per usual, as many do. If you hold up your hands and say you were wrong, should we liberal clubbers forgive you?

If we’re serious about change, that means people need to be given space to grow and renounce hateful views, like Stormzy did recently which he apologised for homophobic tweets he’d posted earlier in his career. “The comments I made were unacceptable and disgusting, full stop. [They’re] comments that I regret and to everyone I’ve offended, I am sorry, these are attitudes I’ve left in the past,” he wrote. We don’t need to tolerate hateful views, but if we won’t accept a genuine apology and acknowledge efforts to grow and change, how are we living up to those values we claim to want for our culture?

And while it’s quick and easy to slam someone online for being a racist, transphobe, or bigot, it’s much more difficult to be thoughtful and considered about your own behavior.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we shouldn’t single out egregious examples of abuse, and condemn the individuals responsible. By all means boycott a problematic artist’s showcase if you can’t forgive their actions. But once you’ve fired off your incendiary tweet, take a moment to consider how you fit into all this. Are you a promoter who slams misogyny in dance music without ever actually booking any female headliners? Congratulations, you’re also part of the problem.

Viewed properly, misogyny and prejudice is like a massive iceberg, floating beneath the surface of dance music. Occasionally, something rises above the surface and grabs our attention, like Konstantin being a jerk. But we shouldn’t just look at the tip of the iceberg, we should view the whole, frozen structure. Symbolically casting out individuals with problematic views is an imperfect response to a much bigger problem.

If we want to move beyond boycotts in 2018 to create positive, meaningful change, here’s a tip: next time someone says something gross, challenge them, reach out to them, try and engage with them — and then look in the mirror. Only then will we melt the iceberg that hulks beneath us all.

Sirin Kale is Associate Editor at Broadly and a regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow her on Twitter

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