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How DJ activism can actually make a difference in real life

Fighting for political and social change goes way beyond activism on social media

  • Words: Abby Lowe | Illustration: Tiago Majuelos
  • 5 February 2020

One of the refreshing things about dance music right now is how unafraid artists and DJs are to engage with politics and social issues. If some mainstream pop stars and celebrities still remain unwilling to risk upsetting elements of their fanbase, most DJs and artists are unafraid of sharing their opinions about everything from Brexit and Trump to climate change and feminism.

But while there’s no doubt social media can help organise protest and mobilise the masses, the sheer volume of online noise is hard to penetrate – and going to battle with the troll armies is famously equivalent to playing chess with a pigeon. “Social media is a useless echo-chamber for enacting political or social change,” says Gideon Berger, founder of music protest group R3 Soundsystem. “But dance music reinforces and encourages positive communication and relationships that are the foundation of politically engaged activism.” When dance music has inspired change it’s when it’s taken the values of a united music scene beyond social media and ‘IRL’.

Rewind to Berlin in 1989, and Dr Motte was hatching plans for Love Parade, a protest with a rallying cry of ‘Friede, freude, eierkuchen’, or ‘Peace, joy, pancakes’ set to a soundtrack of techno. In the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall it created a movement without barriers, assembled with the sole aim of dancing for a better world. “Here, we all can move as we want,” roared Dr Motte during one of his many famous speeches. “We want to keep this place for ourselves, our children and all the others who will be on this planet after us.” It was a message that reached over 500,000 people at the party’s peak, helped bring the youth of a previously divided city together as a community and laid the foundations for the city’s thriving techno scene today.

Read this next: How the fall of the Berlin wall created an anarchic techno scene

When Section 63 of the Criminal Justice Act was introduced in the UK in 1994, it gave police the power to shut down events ‘characterised by repetitive beats’. DiY, a collective at the heart of the illegal rave scene responded by forming an alliance with other soundsystems called All Systems Go, which raised funds to help young ravers get to London to join a series of marches. As many as 50,000 attended, all keen to contest the outdated policies set by an establishment not designed to serve them. The money raised contributed to fighting court cases, and the movement helped change attitudes about rave culture. It’s now seen as a respected cultural movement.

More recently, in Tbilisi in Georgia, the #RAVEolution saw thousands of young clubbers stand against heavy-handed policing and unfair drug enforcement. Taking to the streets after a raid on the city’s techno cathedral, Bassiani, demos led by the club’s founders and resident DJs, as well as groups like White Noise, proved to be a catalyst for a wave of wider protests that eventually resulted in the Prime Minister resigning.

And individual DJs do have it within their power to make a difference. Blond:ish’s ByeByePlastic initiative has added to the pressure on clubs and festivals to increase their sustainability – especially with 1,500 DJs signing up to her plastic-free ‘eco rider’. The Black Madonna, a fearless advocate for social issues online, is on the road with her ‘We Still Believe: Choose Love’ tour, raising both money and awareness for the plight of LGBTQI+ refugees around the world. Eris Drew and Octo Octa’s T4T LUV NRG, which toured a handful of global venues last year combined a message of positive inclusivity with a requirement for positive change in the venues they visited, from safer space policies to unisex toilets. For the party’s gig at Wire in Leeds, for example, the club hired a consultant to train bar staff and security in issues impacting employees, performers and attendees. As well as creating a legacy at the venues on the tour, others have also adopted the party’s non-exclusionary policy regarding the use of body imagery in decor and advertising. “Collective action is important to harness the apparatus of club culture for broader social impact,” they explain. “And our intention is to create lasting change.”

Read this next: How clubs and festivals are striving for sustainability

Sometimes, the act of creation can be activism in itself. Jeff Mills’ attitude, personal success and quiet rage, initially as part of Underground Resistance, challenged stereotypes about colour, culture and even geography. “Our goal was to bring attention to the freedom techno provides to anyone trying to extend their ideas and voices to the rest of the world,” he says.

Mills believes that the present moment has the potential to be monumental – not just for individuals but for the planet as a whole. “We’ve spent the past thirty years trying to prove the legitimacy of our actions and it’s really only in the past three years that people have begun to understand why we chose to keep at it. Now, perhaps by feeling more assured, we might then turn outwards to the rest of the world. This is my hope.”

The key is to channel the energy embodied by club culture into a real-life force for good; to go beyond saying and into doing. Eris and Maya agree. “A life spent raving can make a person kinder towards others, connected with their heart, and connected with nature – but only if they let it.” The results can be a long time coming, but the fight is never less than worthwhile.

Abby Lowe is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

Tiago Majuelos is an illustrator and animator, follow him on Instagram

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