If you want a take on exactly how Black innovators have influenced music, look to this full-length lecture (and performance) from DeForrest Brown. It’s your free ticket to sit in at Harvard.

Full video:

Part of why this is so thoroughly enjoyable to watch, apart from DeForrest’s personality as a speaker, is that it goes well beyond a superficial statement like “all dance music is Black music.” (It’s not that there’s not an argument to be made there – there absolutely is – just that the statement itself is relatively meaningless if given no context.)

No, DeForrest’s work is crucial because he talks about exactly what he means, what was happening when, and who was involved, and how he sees that innovation as being meaningful. It’s easy to be dismissive of academics I think with the “were they there” kneejerk reaction, but we need scholarship to give us this kind of bigger picture. No one person was there for all of it at once. Then we have something meaningful to debate.

This is a beautiful, exquisitely comprehensive trip through Black innovation from the perspective of the United States and Black Americans in music and technology and the combination of the two. It covers not just dance music but the industrialized music in general. Then techno – and technology – get connected to a larger timeline, one from which Black narratives have often been excluded.

I love the “MAKE TECHNO BLACK AGAIN” merch, but don’t stop there. DeForrest also has a poignant story to tell about generational trauma, which he connects to his own personal, familial history. And that gets into the topics the music press, which now is so reliant on generating ticket sales or brand partnerships, can’t really talk about. So then we get Theo Parrish asking “how do you dance when we still swing from trees, when we are still murdered in front of our loved ones? … You better learn to listen with your body, you better learn to play from your heart.”

It means you get context for AbuQadim Haqq saying techno “is something of a higher soul technology.”

And maybe most importantly in this moment, it means returning to Mike Banks on resistance – for De:bug, in 2007, which means my dear German colleagues, why is this perspective still so alien in Germany in 2024:

“The idea of resistance is very old. A more important question is what are the conditions that cause it? The spirit of resistance survived in us African-Americans throughout the ages and manifested itself into me and Jeff Mills as kids as it did in many of our friends. Our parents were educated and had survived the turbulent 60’s and supported the ‘resistant’ Dr. Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement and anti-war campaigns.

I’m sure all of these comments will resonate deeply outside the Black American or even American experience, especially in 2024.

There’s a lot more to say than I can fit in this story at this moment. I think we could spend a week on CDM on this image:

I did bookmark this video a while ago; I had missed when it was uploaded. But it takes on particular relevance at the moment because of the recent publication of Hubert Adjei-Kontoh‘s writing for The Baffler: “Dance Dance Revolution? Shilling utopia at the rave.” I think that’s well worth a full read, and the arguments deserve to be taken seriously. But without taking sides, it gives short shrift to the work DeForrest and others have done and some of the legitimacy to the revolutionary narrative. I think actually if you do go back and read DeForrest’s writing and put the Baffler piece in that context, then you can take on some of those critiques more fairly.

Maybe it’s fair to take points from Jeff Mills or DeForrest for work they’ve done that you want to argue with ethically (Saudi Arabia, Doritos), though I’m not certain that instantly negates someone’s entire story. But where there is genuine overlap, I think the arguments Hubert makes about “shilling” for Black music are compatible with the case DeForrest is making for a more complete history. I see more agreement here than I see conflict. The whole issue with just talking about sweaty nightclubs is that Black and brown people are part of the intellectual and political and revolutionary story, and the dance music framing becomes reductive and incomplete.

Anyway, some real credit to DeForrest – not everyone is doing scholarship mixed with performance. It’s fantastic and refreshing. There is a ton of material here for anyone who has found music consumption in its present state to be lacking in deeper meaning, activism, thought, and feeling. I’m actually especially eager to share it with people outside the USA, because I think some of the struggles and generational trauma will sound familiar from entirely different contexts – but still with anti-Black, anti-indigenous othering and generational violence

And hey, none of us had to take on any debt or deal with admissions to get into Harvard to listen. So thanks!

Full description:

A Black History of Electronic Dance Music: The Lecture Series Season One | Fall ‘23 organized by Prof. George Aumoithe (History/African and African American Studies)

DeForrest Brown Jr. is Alabama-raised and identifies as an ex-American musician, rhythmanalyst, theorist, and writer. Creating music under his own name as well as the moniker Speaker Music, Brown channels the African American modernist tradition of rhythm and soul music as an intellectual site and sound of generational trauma. On Junetheenth, 2020, he released the album Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry on the English electronic music record label Planet Mu. Brown’s book Assembling A Black Counter Culture published by Primary Information in 2021 followed. Both works explore topics like the Black American experience, industrialized labor systems and Black innovations within electronic or techno music. Brown is also best known as a representative of the “Make Techno Black Again” campaign and has appeared in Artforum, Triple Canopy, NPR, CTM Festival and Mixmag among many other publications. He has presented his work at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Camden Arts Centre, UK; Unsound Festival, Krakow; Sónar, Barcelona; Issue Project Room, New York; and many others.

Sponsored by the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative and co-sponsored by the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, the Mahindra Humanities Center, the Department of Anthropology, the Department of Music, the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies, the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, and the Committee and the Standing Committee on Theater, Dance, and Media at Harvard University.

There’s more in this course; I’ll have to also watch the rest. Description:

Electronic dance music. Mentioning the genre elicits questions over origins and boundaries. While oft forgotten, Black queer, femme, and non-binary people invented the modern-day genre’s arrangement, composition, production, and distribution, undergirding distressed communities’ sonic landscapes, enlivening social movements, and seeding multibillion-dollar markets. From disco to house to techno, each seminar will crisscross wide-ranging geographies including Chicago, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New Orleans, Berlin, London, and Manchester, United Kingdom. How did disco, house, and techno empower marginalized groups in these cities to cope with the organized abandonment of urban infrastructure and public life in the 1980s and 1990s? Why did local music scenes take on global significance? This lecture series asks leading practitioners, scholars, and cultural organizers to reflect on electronic dance music’s foundation in Black musical traditions and urban history.

Website bem.aaas.fas.harvard.edu

Mailing List groups.google.com/g/blackedm?pli=1

More reading:

How DeForrest Brown, Jr., Centers the Black Body in Techno Music [New Yorker]

Afrofuturist Techno Myths: An Interview with DeForrest Brown Jr. [Berlin ArtLink]

And of course, read his book – review:

Underground Resistance: Electronic Warfare For The Sonic Revolutions [The Quietus]