Frankie Knuckles is considered the Godfather of house music. / Image by renaissancechambara is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Black Queer Influence on Experimental Dance and Electronic Music

With the release of Beyonce’s album “Renaissance” and the popularity of documentaries such as “Paris is Burning,” Ballroom culture and, subsequently, the Black origins of house music have come more into the forefront in recent years. Despite this newfound mainstream popularity, a lot of important contextual information and prominent figures can still be pushed to the wayside by the general public. If you ask someone at a party or DJ set to name an electronic artist they like, more times than not they will name a non-Black artist due to the white washing of the genre.

One could argue that this goes all the way back to disco. In the genre’s height, we had Soul Train as an outlet for unashamedly pro-Black joy, fashion, culture. and beautifully curated sounds. Disco died once it made its way to white audiences who sought to destroy it … literally. Former ‘70s radio host Steve Dahl openly said that he viewed disco as a “disease” so he, along with the promoter for the Chicago White Sox, hosted an event in the team’s baseball stadium where people were encouraged to show up and burn disco vinyl records. 50,000 people attended the event shouting, “Disco sucks!” as they set countless records ablaze. Much of this hate was due to anti-Blackness (like much modern anti-rap rhetoric) and homophobia.

Fast-forward to the early ‘80s where house music is starting to make a name for itself and become a more widely recognized genre. As noted in an article from LGBTQ Nation, “house music is disco’s revenge.” The genre came about during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, so house music and Ballroom culture were inherently political and existed as refuge for exiled and grieving queer Black and brown people. Frankie Knuckles, who is considered the Godfather of house music, says that he first saw records labeled as “house” at some point between 1980 and 1981. The genre is based in part on the mix of disco, gospel, funk, and soul tracks Knuckles played at his parties in his Chicago club, The Warehouse. Other prominent figures of the time were DJ Larry Levan of the legendary Paradise Garage club, Stacey “Hotwax”, DJ Sharon White, Ultra Naté (house vocalist and DJ), and DJ Ron Hardy (who actually predates Knuckles). You can read more in depth about this era in “House Music Is Back. Let’s Remember Its Roots” from Harpers Bazaar.

House is usually the only genre people discuss on this topic, but Black queer pioneered and were major influences for other electronic genres as well. More broadly, the concept of sampling in music is used uniquely by Black queer people to recontextualize media in a way that blends ideas of identity, community, pop culture, and politics into the music, creating relationships between pieces of media that wouldn’t have any sort of connection otherwise. But, as with disco, house, and most other genres pioneered by Black people, as queer POC electronic music grew, the umbrella term EDM (electronic dance music) was created and the genre became white-washed. According to Blair Black in her paper “The Queer of Color Sound Economy in Electronic Dance Music,” “Starting in the mid to late 1980s, the acid house movement – created by the Chicago-based African American group Phuture – made its way into Europe and influenced new generations of British, Dutch, German, and Belgian DJs who subsequently created new EDM genres. These DJs were affected by the African American DJs playing techno in Detroit and the dub and soundsystem cultures of British Jamaicans. Consequently, trance, house music, and techno became fixtures within largely white heterosexual club scenes and the music subsequently departed from its queer and African American sensibilities… [T]he discursive shifts in European dance music scenes muted the liberatory politics central to the Black queer underground scenes in the US. This was especially the case in the Dutch house music scene where they envisioned dance music scenes as escapist youth culture that ‘has no messages and gives no comfort.’”

So, how do we counteract this? In recent years, Black queer people have started back up the DIY roots of the genre to create inclusive and revolutionary musical collectives that not only put on shows but support their communities. In Los Angeles: A Club Called Rhonda, Mustache Monday, Wildness at the Silver Platter, and Rave Reparations. Mustache Monday and Wildness at the Silver Platter later combined to become the New York-based label Fade to Mind, which Kelela used to be signed under. Chicago used to host parties and events in the north side, but since the area has become more and more gentrified, queer Black and brown folks have been pushed to the south and west sides of the city. But the places that persist despite the rapid gentrification of the city are Jeffrey’s Pub, Club Escape, TRQPiTECA, Party Noire, and the record label Futurehood. Party Noire hosts dance events specifically for Black femmes and has the Femme Noir Grant, a grant to help support Black femmes in creative fields. As for New York City: GHE20G0TH1K (which sometimes collaborates with Mustache Mondays and Fade to Mind), Papi Juice, Discwoman (a collective  and booking agency for queer women and femmes), For The Gworls, and DisCakes. All of these NYC collectives host parties and event as fundraisers for important causes within their respective communities as a form of mutual aid and genuine community involvement.

In Atlanta, we have Malware Cafe, Sucia, and Club Morph (which specifically supports Black creatives) that cater more specifically towards queer DJs and dance artists of color. Some Black queer Atlanta DJs and electronic artists to look out for are Tori (@techemprex), Final First (@final.first), Park (@frankconsent), JSPORT (@jsport_), ILOVEDADDYZ (@ilovedaddyz) and Zaida Zane (@1zaidazane). Black DJs and electronic artists are recreating space for themselves that was previously overtaken, and it’s about time we get recognition for our contributions to electronic music, both then and now.