Ravers 4 Justice
Wednesday, 12 August 2020 11:47

From Seoul to Detroit: Techno Amidst Protest and Pandemic

Published in Music

John R. Eperjesi outlines the connections between techno, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter. The article is in memory of Mike Huckaby

 So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - Jeff Mills

We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most. - Samuel Delany

Techno music is global music. Every city around the world, big or small, has a techno scene, and there are more than a few countryside techno crews out there. Seoul’s vibrant underground techno culture was recently on display, literally, with the online streaming event “VFV Club” (www.vfvclub.live/about), which brought together 22 DJs from the city’s three underground techno clubs, Vurt, Faust, and Volnost, giving people who tuned in from around the world some much-needed machine music to help them get through the coronavirus pandemic, while donations helped struggling artists and venue owners earn some desperately-needed income.

JE1 Club Directors

Club Directors: Yoojun (Vurt), Marcus L (Faust), Jungtak Moon (Volnost)

But while techno is now global, this music first emerged in the early 1980s in local African American communities in and around Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is a predominantly black post-industrial city that is still recovering from the flight of well-paying auto industry jobs, first to the white suburbs starting in the 1950s, and then overseas. Population and job loss, combined with racist segregation and job discrimination, has resulted in racialized patterns of inequality in which black people experience significantly higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Economic inequality, combined with underfunded public schools, health and other social services, has made cities like Detroit especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And yet despite all of this, African Americans from Detroit created one of the most exciting and important genres of music to emerge in the past 40 years. A recent viral YouTube video (above) shows a motley crew of Black Lives Matter protesters in Detroit marching and chanting through the streets while techno beats blast from a stereo, similar to the way that Korean pro-democracy protests are energized by the singing, dancing, and percussion of pungmul. A handmade sign declares, “Techno is Black! Police are Wack! Ravers 4 Racial Justice!” Black Techno Matters is a local community organization that works to remind people that, “the very roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit”. So who are some of these artists?

History

There is some debate over which African American artists from Detroit created the first techno song, “Sharevari” by A Number of Names, or “Alleys of Your Mind” by Cybotron, both of which came out in 1981. The title of the former refers to an upscale clothing shop and party club (spelled Charevari), and captures the Europhile fantasies of upward mobility and conspicuous consumption – fine wine, Vogue, Porsche – that characterized the African American high school party scene in late 1970s and early 1980s Detroit. The latter takes dystopian tropes of science fiction, paranoia and government mind control, and unleashes them on the dance floor.

In contrast to Motown, the pop soul music institution that grew up in Detroit and left a cultural void in the city when it departed for Los Angeles in 1972, these two songs offered a new style of post-soul electronic music which drew inspiration from the robot pop of Kraftwerk, the synthesizer-driven Eurodisco of Giorgio Moroder, and the futuristic funk of hometown heroes Parliament-Funkadelic.

Also in 1981, a DJ collective, Deep Space Soundworks, began to play an eclectic mix of dance records at parties around Detroit. Three members of this collective, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, are routinely venerated as the founders of Detroit techno, often referred to as the “Belleville Three,” a reference to the high school outside of Detroit where they met. But any narrative about the origins of Detroit techno that excludes Eddie Fowlkes, who was also a member of Deep Space Soundworks along with Art Payne and Keith Martin, is incomplete.

Juan Atkins had already been producing electronic music as a member of Cybotron, along with Vietnam War veteran Richard “Rik” Davis. Deciding to go solo, Atkins renamed himself Model 500 and quickly created his first solo hit, “No UFOs” (1983). This track was a hit on dance floors both in Detroit and in Chicago, where a new genre of dance music, acid house, was also incubating. After gaining attention in Chicago, the electronic music produced by Atkins, May, Saunderson, and Fowlkes began to travel across the Atlantic to dance floors in the UK and Europe. Fowlkes’s banging “Goodbye Kiss” (1986), May’s euphoric “Strings of Life” (1987), and Saunderson’s soulful hits “Big Fun” and “Good Life” (1988), all became anthems in the new rave culture that began to emerge across the Atlantic during the late 1980s.

Inspired by the immense popularity of the music coming out of the Motor City, a compilation for 10 Records in the UK was initially going to be called The New House Sound of Detroit, but when Juan Atkins’ delivered his contribution, “Techno Music,” the title of the compilation was changed to Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988). For music critics, this new dance sound contributed to an older tradition of Afrofuturism which connected Detroit techno to the free jazz explorations of John Coltrane and Sun Ra, to the space rock of Jimi Hendrix, to black science fiction writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and to films like John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet (1984). On the question of why black science fiction, and by extension Afrofuturism, is important, Samuel Delany explains, “We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most.”

Underground Resistance

Often described as the Public Enemy of techno, the Underground Resistance music collective and record label was started by Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, and Robert Hood in the late 1980s. Underground Resistance wanted artists to have complete artistic independence and to be protected from exploitation by record companies, and their music is wide-ranging, including everything from the gritty dystopian loops of Revolution for Change (1992), to the jazzy outer space utopianism of Galaxy 2 Galaxy (1992).

JE3 Underground Resistance Logo

Techno DJs, producers, and fans around the world are inspired by the militancy and authenticity of Underground Resistance, and the UR symbol has become rebel chic, a Che Guevara for techno heads. The militant style of UR has been linked to the Black Panthers, an association confirmed by Jeff Mills in a 2006 interview:

All the black men you see in America today are the direct result of those actions: all the freedoms we have, as well as the restrictions, refer back to the government and the Black Panthers in the '70s . . . So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - (Daily Yomiuri)

The title of Riot EP (UR 1991) alludes to the 1967 Detroit Uprising, also known as the Detroit Rebellion or 12th Street Riot, when the histories of racism and economic inequality erupted into clashes between black communities and the police that lasted for five days. Ideological conflicts over the naming of this event, whether it was an uprising, a rebellion, or a riot, is something that the people of Jeju and Gwangju can definitely relate to. With Black Lives Matter protests emerging all across the United States, Riot EP is once again in heavy rotation.

JE4

Mike Banks often appears in public wearing a mask, as does UR artist DJ Stingray. The mask is a symbol of resistance to the promotion of egotism and narcissism in commercial dance music culture, and visually alludes to the Mexican insurgent and former Zapatista and Indian resistance leader, Subcomandante Marcos. Mike Banks has two legacies of oppression and resistance in his family background, as his mother is Blackfoot Indian and his father is black, a biographical detail that can be heard in a song like “Ghostdancer” (1995), which refers to a resistance movement first practiced by Nevada Northern Pauite Indians in 1889 and quickly spread across the Western United States. Underground Resistance proves that you can be anti-racist and anti-imperialist and still rock a dance floor.

Protests and Pandemic

On April 24, 2020, the Detroit techno community lost one of its most beloved figures, the DJ, producer, and educator, Mike Huckaby, to complications resulting from a stroke and COVID-19. He was only 54 years old. The pandemic has devastated African American communities around the United States. Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population, yet 24% of COVID-19 deaths, nearly twice their proportion of the population.

While African American communities are fighting to survive this novel virus, a very old disease, the extrajudicial murder of black people by the police, has once again surfaced, this time in the form of an 8 minute and 46 second video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin methodically choking the life out of George Floyd, confident that he can calmly execute a black man in public and not be punished. The murder of Mr. Floyd has triggered one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States, led by the movement Black Lives Matter.

Thousands of people gather for a peaceful demonstration in support of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and protest against racism, injustice and police brutality, in Vancouver, on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

With historic Black Lives Matter demonstrations gathering in streets and parks across the United States, and around the world, people who care about techno music, whether at home or at the club, as a critic or dancer, as a producer or DJ, should take some time to understand both this movement to end systemic racism and this history of techno, because it is all connected. The roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit, but those artists have often been aggressively utopian in working to imagine racially and economically egalitarian futures.

From Detroit to Seoul

Local music scenes matter too. Underground, independent, non-commercial music, from folk to techno, and from jazz to house, is the heartbeat of every community. People often go to underground dance music clubs to escape their everyday lives for a brief period of time. As the soulful disco group Sparque sang in their 1981 hit for West End Records, “Let’s Go Dancin’:”

Working hard just ain’t no good

Do something else if we only could

The only chance we get to come alive is after our nine-to-five.

As Ernst Bloch taught us, fantasies of escape are serious business, as they often contain utopian dreams of a better future. But while some people go to clubs to escape work, for others the club is a place of work. From musicians and DJs who often live gig to gig, to sound and lighting engineers, cleaning staff, door people, security, bar staff, managers, interior and graphic designers, promoters, a massive amount of labor – physical, emotional, artistic – goes into the functioning of a club.

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DJ Stingray at Contra in Seoul. Photo: John Eperjesi

With clubs in Seoul and other cities around the world shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis, venue owners who have devoted their lives and pocketbooks to their passion for underground music are really hurting. But there are some signs of hope. Earlier this month, the German government announced 12-month “Restart Culture” funding initiative which will provide the coronavirus-affected creative sector as a whole with €1 billion in assistance. $56m of that total will go towards grassroots venues. Hopefully the South Korean government, which has shown remarkable compassion and leadership during this difficult time, will find a way to devote some resources toward keeping the heart of the local, underground music scene beating. 

Mike H

i. m. Mike Huckaby, Detroit techno legend

Today the young people are marching in the streets
Wednesday, 12 August 2020 11:47

Today the young people are marching in the streets

Published in Poetry

Today the young people are marching in the streets

by Fred Voss, with image by Martin Gollan

The young are marching
young as the Golden Rule
the first human eye turned toward the heavens in wonder
young as a raindrop
a hammer blow cracking the Bastille
Blake
seeing his first angel
a knee is on our neck
but the young are shouting
strong and beautiful as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet
Billie Holiday’s croon
a knee is on the neck of the black man and the brown man and the homeless man
and the homeless woman and the working man and the working woman
a knee is on the neck of freedom
but the young are marching
young as Rosa Parks’ feet planted firmly in the front of the bus
Frederick Douglass
wrestling his slave-master down to the ground
Joe Hill yelling, “Organize!”
the dawn sun burning on Walt Whitman’s open road horizon
a knee is on the neck of George Floyd and the poor
and the poem and Vincent Van Gogh with a sunflower
in his paintbrush
and this story is as old
as Bessie Smith’s blues and James Baldwin’s sad eyes and every man
without hope who ever thought
of throwing in the towel but today
the young are marching in the street
marching for the homeless man trying to sleep on a sidewalk
the man from El Salvador
cheated out of his wages as he slaves
in a downtown L.A. sweatshop factory today the young
are marching and shouting and singing young
as Martin Luther King’s dream
and the flame of the human spirit that must never
go out.

Capitalism means that I can't breathe

 

Darkening
Wednesday, 12 August 2020 11:47

Darkening

Published in Poetry

Darkening

by Steve Pottinger

for george

under a darkening sky
we sit round a log fire
out there cities are burning
the planet is burning and

i can’t breathe

out there people are dying
in hospitals in care homes
alone in bedsits with the knee
of a cop pressed into their neck and

i can’t breathe

out there pepper spray nightstick
rubber bullet rage
the same wrongs the old injustice
complicity complacency and

i can’t breathe

in the darkness we search
for each other for hope
for the glimmerings of dawn
for words but what words are there
we haven’t used before?

listen     fucking listen

i can’t breathe
i can’t breathe
i can’t breathe

breath
Wednesday, 12 August 2020 11:47

breath

Published in Poetry

breath

by Fran Lock, with image by Martin Gollan

inside this symmetrical fiction of skins, we do not court
the carnivore attentions of a cop with eyes like bullicante
glass. we do not wear our reservoirs. we do not bear our
freight of names upon the face; find a dirty jest of us in all
the ugly campaign prosodies of power. death, persistent
and repeating. our dying, sanctioned by habit. this habit
of skin. yes, we've felt our paddy slanguage also choked.
but no: that cop will never twist our workaholic wrists
behind our back because. and just because. such luxury,
this silence. to breathe. if breath could split this pidgin
midnight into mercy. if poems could. if meter weren't this
proxy skin, a creditable flesh, i'd breathe. and breathe this
swift and futile morning out. whose name is not a slogan.
whose skin is not a flag. whose saying should be supple
love. this poem, that takes up more space on the page
than some people do in the whole wide world. white
space of the page. white space of a lung. could open
this pieta! into seeming air.