The Dichotomy of Dance Music: A Weekend at the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival

This year’s edition of the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival highlighted just how broad the church of what we call “electronic music” is in 2015. With a bill encompassing everything from banging EDM to deep house, the diverse and often dichotomous nature of contemporary electronic music was on full display. Indeed, it was the dichotomies that left the most lasting impression: everywhere you looked, there were divisions. Divisions of gender, divisions of class, divisions of age. It made for a disjointed but often interesting festival experience, with new sounds to discover and familiar ones to dance to.

The four-day festival—hosted by a handful of clubs on Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Northside—featured performances from dozens of DJs and electronic musicians as well as four panel discussions with industry insiders. There were hangover-friendly brunches, sweaty backroom sets, late-night sessions that bled into the morning light, and even an exclusive Fool’s Gold party at a strip club in Sunset Park.

Snakehips performs at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY © Wesley Fulghum.
Snakehips performs at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY © Wesley Fulghum.

But it’s the divisions, the dichotomy of the electronic dance music experience, that really stood out. There was certainly no single archetype of BEMF festival-goer, but the crowds at certain sets seemed segregated. Situated in the archetypal gentrified yupster playground of Williamsburg, the crows for sets at venues like the Music Hall of Williamsburg (Snakehips) and Verboten (Armin Van Helden) skewed heavily white, asian, and affluent. Packed dancefloors at superclub Output seemed awkward and inhibited; as huge talents like Disciples and MK pumped hypnotic beats through the venue’s lauded Funktion-One soundsystem, everyone faced the stage, staring at the top of the DJs’ heads, slightly swaying with minimal interaction with the rest of the people around them. One man walking around in a flannel and a t-shirt with a graffiti-style screenprinted dollar sign seemed to be unaware that he had tapped into the true zeitgeist of the industry that supported such an event.

This contrasted greatly from the more out-of-the-way parties like George FitzGerald’s late-night set at Greenpoint’s Good Room, or the wild 5am jam in East Williamsburg hosted by Blkmarket. In a perfect example of how distinct the crowds at each set could be, one need look no further than house stalwart Honey Dijon’s Saturday night set at Cameo; while SPANK played tunes to a handful of disinterested attendees for two hours before Honey Dijon’s set, within five minutes of her debut on the decks, the small room was packed wall-to-wall with sweaty shirtless men, and the focus became the party around the music.

Honey Dijon’s participation in the festival was undoubtedly a highlight, and serves as a convenient window into the culture of dance and electronic music in 2015. The New York-based artist/DJ/producer travels the world “entertaining drug addicts, sex addicts and alcoholics,” and has roots in Chicago’s legendary house music scene. She spoke on the panel “The Invisible Woman: Gender Equality in Dance Music,” which featured other high-powered women in dance music and touched on the challenges and struggle of being marginalized, whether it be for being female, queer, or of color. The stories were only revelations if you haven’t been listening to women’s stories for the last few decades, but Honey Dijon’s perspective as a black trans woman was particularly illuminating. Most of the women on the panel spoke of the hope that their involvement would one day be considered “normal,” that they wouldn’t be relegated to hosting parties with all-women lineups just to get their voices heard and music celebrated. They want it to be “normal” for two black women to walk into a meeting and be taken seriously, without the presence of a man or a white colleague. But Honey Dijon was having none of that.

Honey Dijon perfoms at Cameo, Brooklyn, NY. © Wesely Fulghum.
Honey Dijon perfoms at Cameo, Brooklyn, NY. © Wesley Fulghum.

“I hate that word normal,” she says, “That’s just me. One of the reasons i got into dance music was because it was one of the last places you could be…whatever. I don’t want someone else to validate my existence, or normalize who I am.” Whether it be in New York, Chicago or Detroit, the vanguard of dance music has always been queer, and typically, led by people of color. The whole point was a rejection of being “normal,” of creating safe spaces for artistic expression, and its identity was formed around being unapologetically the “other.”

In 2015, the status quo in electronic dance music is quite the opposite; it’s dominated by straight, white, male DJs, playing to a predominantly white, affluent audience. The women on the panel spoke of the subtle forms of systemic sexism, and appeared to be in agreement that they were more important to discuss than the outrage over an ugly tweet. They spoke of taking different approaches to their common struggle against being marginalized: Michelle Lhooq (Thump) and Ruth Saxelby (The FADER) write about it on large platforms, Kerri Mason tries to change it “from the inside” as a correspondent for Billboard and now an executive, and Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson created a business (Discwoman) to promote the work of women and book them on shows. Their experiences were different but united by the commonality of marginalization, and seemed like it reaffirmed the resolve of some of the women in the audience. But one thing was sorely lacking from the discussion: The responsibility and participation of men.

Women should certainly be leading the charge of diversity in dance music, but to think that their goals can be achieved without the participation of men is naive. Men still hold most of the executive positions, still dominate the recording industry, and hold most of the pursestrings that could be pulled to make more room for women. And ultimately, men have a responsibility to not perpetuate the shittiness that marginalizes women, people of color and LGBTI artists and businesspeople. Is not some of the onus on men to help change the status quo, to self-police those spaces that women are often physically excluded from? But it wasn’t discussed, and the silence rang even louder at the next panel, “What The Streaming Wars Mean For The Future Of Music,” which focused on the future of distribution (streaming) and was absent of even one female voice. Expert panels that focused on how to better the industry were not immune from segregation. Even the first panel, “Future-Proofing Tomorrow’s Technology,” which was ostensibly supposed to be about the future of creation in electronic music, eventually devolved into old-school artists waxing philosophic about how much the old vintage synths are better than the laptops and Ableton controllers of today. The youngest participants were in their 30s.

Tjani performs at Baby's All Right, Brooklyn, NY © Wesley Fulghum.
Tjani performs at Baby’s All Right, Brooklyn, NY © Wesley Fulghum.

One might argue that rock clubs like Baby’s All Right and Music Hall of Williamsburg aren’t the best venues for music centered on the dancefloor. Or that an event in the beating heart of Urban Outfitters culture that has such buzzwords as “Brooklyn” and “Festival” and “Electronic Music” in the name is bound to draw a more square crowd than artists like MK or Honey Dijon are used to playing for. But most festivals aren’t ideal venues for the music they celebrate, and it’s still possible to discover wonderful music, regardless of its context. Disciples’s punishing Friday night set of bass-heavy deep house at Output was a highlight, as were Tjani’s video-game sounds at Baby’s All Right on Saturday. And if it wasn’t already clear, Honey Dijon’s take on Chicago house was a revelation.

For now, the separate but unequal doctrine seems to be held firmly in place, with old school house nerds relegating themselves to hip underground parties and ceding the superclubs to the gentrifying dilettantes. And the Honey Dijons of the world will continue to pack rooms with superfans from the gay club scene, regardless of whether the mainstream recognizes them or not. But what if everyone had a seat at the table? Can the Snakehips’ khaki-pants crowd co-mingle with the Honey Dijon’s shirtless hardbodies? Can we get Frankie from Discwoman on the same panel with Nick Catchdubs of Fool’s Gold? Will the current culture of exclusion ever return to the inclusiveness of the culture’s roots?

Maybe. But there’s still a long way to go.