Don’t go offline yet – there’s an opportunity to discuss deeper issues around race, politics, power, and electronic music. Guest writer BELP delves into the core of the challenges in those issues – and invites more discussion.
To anyone who wants to question whether this conversation belongs here, let me answer that directly – I see this as fundamentally and obviously in tune with the mission of exploring ideas for futuristic music. Apart from being an ethical responsibility and the right thing to do, for any of us who love music, here’s a chance to learn and expand music making and remove some very ugly obstacles that many of us otherwise will help perpetuate.
(See last week’s discussion for why the issue of race in electronic music blew up at that particular moment on social media. I’d also argue that Twitter in 2019 counts as relevant music tech as much as the production tools, for better and for worse.)
BELP responded via Twitter that he was working on a text to deal with some of the more nuanced dimensions of these questions.
BELP’s production and curation is a stand-out of an up-and-coming scene in Munich. He’s a self-described “DJ / Producer from Munich, Europe, having released several albums with electronic music, focussing on broken beats, ambient & noise. Involved with running the JAHMONI Music / Schamoni Musik label and as an artist member of the SVS Records collective.” (Seriously, check out the diverse Munich musical scene at the moment – and “stick to the music” crowd, uh, yeah, go listen to BELP and other Munich cats and don’t waste time trolling our comments.)
So that gives us a musical soundtrack, not just words (more links at the bottom of this story):
There is an open invitation to develop this text over time, not just from BELP’s own perspective. And my favorite phrase: “you can still be a genuine human being acting normally.” (Yes, please do that.)
By BELP, November 2019
White Privilege and the (Electronic) Music Artist
As seen from a european perspective
I would like to share my thoughts on the recent debates on white privilege and the electronic music scene, especially in Europe. This is not intended to lecture you. I am simply documenting my (current) position and thoughts. By doing so I am not implying I have more knowledge than you or anybody else. Nor do I think it will make me immune to criticism. It might appear self-centered, and maybe it even is – at the same time, the debates around white supremacy, structural racism, inherent white privelege, western dominance and collective colonial responsibility will not go away. I believe they will even intensify further. This is why I believe being silent and ignoring all this is not going to help. So here is what I, as someone from the electronic music scene in Europe, currently believe is worth pointing out.
Reducing yourself to being just a single individual saying you treat every person as equal (regardless of race/origin/ethnicity/etc.) is simply not enough.
As a white person and a member of a western society, you cannot simply opt-out and reduce everything to yourself. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings. You do have some collective responsibility. We profit from past and current colonialism, as well as structural mechanisms in place that ensure western dominance and wealth. Even if that wealth is not with you personally on your bank account you still very much profit from all this indirectly.
Multiculturalism is great, but its only great when every culture is coming from a more or less equal position.
And this is very often not the case. As a (white) member of a western society, when you engage in multicultural artistic work, even if you have people of other ethnicities involved directly within your work or even if the work itself is a mixed-race effort to begin with, you as a member of a (white) western society have inherently more power and responsibility associated with yourself (your options, your behaviours, your ability to express and distribute yourself) than members from an oppressed group, a member from a different ethnicity and/or part of the world with less access to resources, wealth, power and rights. You must be aware of that, and not pretend everything is okay, even if you meet (and work) in real-life with these people as human beings and show respect. You must not be over-apologetic or excuse yourself and do weird things, you can still be a genuine human being acting normally, but when you see an opportunity to counter-balance this imbalance of power you should rather try and make it happen than rather not try to make it happen. This means understanding other perspectives and making room for non-eurocentristic voices and individuals in your (musical) work with the consent of those, if you can and it is appropriate.
If you are not directly involved with individuals from a different cultural background in the work you are doing (which is totally fine), you can split things up, while still being honest about references and giving credits where stuff comes from in your work (knowing where you profited e.g. from black culture as an influence and being honest about that), on a personal/private level you try to understand those perspectives, you have those debates and try to help, within your circles, where you possibly can, to reduce these inequalities, acknowledging that this tension is generated by the imbalance of power, and not dismissing it.
Nuanced criticism vs. Defensiveness.
Having said the above, things are still incredibly complex here. One of the issues I found is that people (of all backgrounds) are coming from very different places in this construct called the Western World pretending to be able to apply the same principles and supposedly commonly shared values and background knowledge in debates on The Internet. The so-called West is a somewhat artificial construct that is very much linked to american (cultural) imperialism. On the other hand, it becomes very real with military / economic power structures (e.g. NATO) and a shared cultural domain (Netflix / Pop Culture), while non-US-western nations often do a poor job differentiating / distancing themselves when necessary.
But at the same time it should be said, many of these debates are coming from a US-domestic background, with specific (segregated) racial situations happening in the US, and are being extrapolated 1:1 from there on to everything that is remotely associated with The West or even just “white”. While many things can be applied and linked, some cannot. Those distinctions are unfortunately currently not really being made. There is for instance a specific european version of collective colonial responsibility that is slightly different than the US-version. There is a specific real-life mixed-race day-by-day practice being lived in a city like London that is slightly different than in some other metropolitan area in North America (e.g. Brooklyn). And German colourblindness is slightly different than American colourblindness (due to different historical backgrounds), etc., etc. I am not saying anything is better or worse by-the-way, just different, without us even really knowing about those differences well enough when those debates happen. This is just one of the reasons why there can be such really big misunderstandings / shitstorms on the internet, currently (apart from a definitive level of ignorance, unawareness and defensiveness electronic music artists certainly have).
But this last point especially brings me to why I believe it is so important to get involved, to try to understand and follow those debates, to reflect, to question yourself – because for instance, copying US black activism debates 1:1 onto your local (european) community will not really work and not really help. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have similar issues and problems over here in Europe as well we really need to discuss and fix. You should be able to understand those issues better and be able to engage in those debates with our own, nuanced position and perspective, instead of remaining completely silent or being defensive.
Most producers I personally know actually have good mechanisms, ideas, views how to navigate within a multi-ethnic / multicultural artistic space, but they lack the terminology, buzzwords and background knowledge that would currently be necessary to engage in these debates on a global (US-dominated) internet scale. I encourage you as a fellow artist and musician to not be too afraid here. Speaking up is important, learning is important. Only through communication we can slowly make this a more fruitful debate for everyone (and bring positive change), instead of remaining silent and waiting for the next shitstorm in this US-style callout / cancel culture to happen and then just go duck and cover.
Disecting what was not meant to be disected: What is the goal – Inclusion or exclusion?
Personally, I believe segregation is never ideal, should not be the goal. I realise that sometimes things go so bad, that separation remains the only option. Just like in personal relationships, there can be a point of no return where ending contact and communication becomes the only way out. But this is then the last option, and very sad. A lot of things went wrong before that.
White supremacy far-right groups want racial purity and segregation. As a result and consequence, communities of other ethnicities and cultural backgrounds living in these western societies where white supremacy ideologies are particularly dominant (e.g. the US under Trump, but not only) want to largely distance themselves, be left alone and peacefully do their own thing, as far as this is possible within that particular western society. I have total sympathy for this. It must be possible in a democracy “to leave” and be left alone, for self-defense and self-healing reasons.
But is this the case everywhere in the so-called West? I don’t even really know, and I am of course not entitled to make a qualified judgement about this here since I do not belong to a marginalized group, nor do I have enough knowledge about how things are in each and every western society. But must we now a priori assume this new bottom line of de facto segregation – regardless, for a moment, whether one group agressively called for this initially or its the other group‘s reaction being under attack – as the default setting behind every white privilege / white supremacy / cultural appropriation debate on The Internet? Can we still believe in integration (as opposed to assimilation, segregation or marginalization)? Is the mixing of cultures always by default harmful – a “sell-out” of a “weaker” / oppressed culture towards a dominant (white / western) culture?
It is complicated. Personally, when you want segregation in principle, I would like to respectfully disagree. If you want segregation only as a (temporary) consequence of past and current oppression and harm, I fully agree. So to me, the intention, the end goal, is the important thing. I am okay to be called out for cultural appropriation I may have done, for my white privilege, etc. as an intermediate, temporary step to overcome inequalities (by pointing them out, so we learn) and to even perhaps take a step back from all this mixing and integration (multiculturalism) for healing, self-reflection and adjustment for a while, as long as this is not meant to be the ideal situation forever and later we can perhaps mix again (culture-wise), when we as the (white) dominant western society have learned how to do this in a less (and hopefully zero) aggressive way.
If we assume for a moment, that throughout the so-called Western World, we have different distributions / ratios of whether you believe in inclusion or exclusion, whether you believe segregation is the way to go in the long run, or not, and different views and lived practices of exactly what level of (cultural / racial) mixing / integration is good and where to draw the line, what happens when you say, publish or post something reflecting one background setting from some part of the so-called West, without any geographical delimiter or mention of any scope, to all other parts?
Lets try and go further towards specifically the (Electronic) Music Artist in Europe, while not questioning that some basic, broad argumentation lines (intentionally kept a bit vague here) do indeed apply everywhere in the so-called West, e.g. western dominance / imperialism, eurocentrism, colonial damage & responsibilities (+ reparations) and inherent white privilege, but not pretending that the so-called West is a mono-ethnic, mono-cultural, monolithic bloc where everything is the same everywhere just because The Internet might imply that.
Easy to assemble, hard to take apart.
Before we go there, we need some background. This entire debate is very important, it is an opportunity to finally bring some very important issues on to the table. After centuries of colonialism, Europe & North America – The West – are under serious attack, and very rightfully so. Rarely has any western culture taken full collective responsibility for anything. In fact, Germany’s understanding of its responsibility for the Holocaust, albeit this not being enough and past achievements being currently reversed, is one of the few exceptions. But even Germany is completely ignoring the genocide of the Herero and Nama in its former colony Namibia, unwilling to make a connection between extra-territorial white terror & genocide as a predecessor, a “prototype”, for european domestic genocide at a much larger scale later on, unwilling to officially accept this earlier genocide on african territory and pay real reparations, instead of half-heartedly “foreign aid” as merely a form of White Saviour Complex.
The list of colonial aggressions and violence is endless. The ignorance and defensiveness to at least mention and remember those within western societies is immense, without even mentioning the possibility of reparations. A rise of (far-)right governments in western countries over the last decade, making this principle of ignoring past failures and aggressions even a state doctrine, made things even worse.
So there is a lot to unpack here, for generations to come. In the meanwhile, what can an ethnic group, a minority, living within The West, knowing all this, suffering from all this to this very day, having direct links thru its ancestry to past colonial oppression, even perhaps having been displaced by colonialism and stripped of its original culture by colonisers and now additionally (still) suffering from structural racism, actually do? For one thing, keeping, upholding, re-establishing and rebuilding their unique cultural identity and not giving it up to a general (white) culture surrounding them being associated with their oppressors, the colonisers.
This is the reason why multiculturalism is being attacked. Multiculturalism, from this perspective, is a violent “Mixing Machine”, it consumes all other cultures and integrates them into a single, bigger, more powerful, white / western culture. In fact it is the mixing of cultures, the assimilation of everything you throw at The West from elsewhere, that makes The West powerful. You can even make the picture look like: The West sucks everything else in, without asking for permission, like a black hole, not giving anything back. This is one of the aspects of modern colonialism, to many marginalised groups, today. First The West took resources and labour (slaves), now its culture.
At the same time, attacking multiculturalism is a very powerful sword indeed. The West would basically stop to exist if it ended multiculturalism. There is actually not much it really owns, not much it can truly rely on, in terms of any attractive pieces of truly own culture. Everything was mixed, or stolen, depending on how you look at it.
This entire idea of course depends on the model of Social Capital – the idea that cultures or cultural assets are owned by specific social and / or ethnic groups. You can dismiss this idea entirely, saying no-one owns anything, but doing so is only possible from a dominant perspective where there is little truly own culture people really want and more culture from elsewhere integrated you actually depend on to make yourself (also economically) attractive (apart from maybe Oktoberfest). If you are an oppressed and marginalised group with limited access, suffering from structural racism but with some attractive cultural assets you call your own, then of course you will want to protect that, and not give it away for nothing.
Has this something to do with copyright? Yes, also. Has this something to do with respect? Of course, always, but not only. The issue is, in the days of neoliberalism white western individuals do exactly what they are told to do within neoliberalism – act as individuals, only. It is precisely the musician, the artist, who often is reluctant to see these bigger connections and collective responsibilities and chooses to act on a personal consumer-level only: the consumption of cultures. Things tend to get even more ironic when those artists consider themselves as outsiders of society, believing it makes them automatically allies with truly oppressed groups.
It is nearly impossible for artists to escape their role, as this is a really fundamental, intrinsic mechanism to western societies – artists as scientists exploring ever new forms of mixtures of cultures for the advancement of western culture. When a (white) western artist or musician is for instance attacked for some form of cultural appropriation, this goes deep. It goes beyond not having understood inherent white privilege, it goes beyond not realising structural racism or not understanding western dominance or colonial collective responsibilities – it essentially questions himself entirely, his role within The West and The West in itself (and this is not meant to be any excuse in terms of white tears or white fragility, just the way it is).
Is this a good thing?
Not in terms of individual feelings, but as a system-wide end result when we think this further: Has The West f*cked up so entirely, that the only option is to dismantle it completely (or to at least slow down its machinery of cultural progression by limiting the possibilities for some key protagonists, the artists)?
Perhaps, yes. However, I find this to be too fatalistic and dark. Essentially, this is just a continuation / redistribution of already conducted (and ongoing) oppression and violence, even if its very legitimate to do so and probably hitting the right people when you come from a marginalised group. However, this cycle should be stopped (at some point in time). We ought to do better, as humans, not because we are supposedly nice people, but the entire business of applying limitations to humanity is fundamentally rather undesirable (for marginalised groups in the first place and key actors within western societies such as artists as a counter-measure and consequence in the second place), even if there might be really good reasons for doing so. It can only be the second best option, after we ran out of any better options, for everyone (and maybe, for the time being in this age of Trump, Brexit and the rise of far-right / nationalist movements, we did run out of better options).
I personally do understand that relaying / distributing the pressure a marginalised group experiences to a more privileged group through callout / cancel culture and sanctions will probably make that privileged group start to think and re-think for the very first time, which could well be the only reason why I am writing these words now, having seen this happening. That said, not questioning this form of resistance, not trying to end this process too quickly, not saying marginalised groups don‘t have really good reasons for being loud and making their pain under white supremacy, structural racism and colonialism visible by making other groups closer to the power structures of their oppressors feel that pain thru the few mechanisms they can actually use (within the domain of culture and this actually being a effective strategy), we shall respectfully try and move forward.
More on BELP: [because you should always be digging new music]
Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data provided courtesy of Chris Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center). Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense. More information on this image.