Western Europe and North America have long dominated dance music's cultural narrative, but is this being challenged? Steph Lee reflects on how the past decade owes its newest sounds to other parts of the globe.
Perhaps as a result, I started to crave music that evoked an authentic sense of place. One that reminds me, as I scan through hundreds of tabs and hyperlinks per day, that the floor really is solid and people truly do speak and music has a meaningful story. I wanted to feel the passion of real scenes, fostered by people with the kinds of joys and struggles that force one to seek escapism through art.
Turns out, there are many versions of these people and this place. In dance music, we were just living in a bubble. One of the 2010s' most exciting changes was its focal shift from Western Europe to other places around the globe. These sounds and the individuals behind them combined electronic club music with culturally traditional styles, amounting to some of the freshest ideas I've heard in years.
To familiarize oneself with the array of non-western musical influences would require a long and lonely night on Wikipedia. There is, for example, gamelan, a type of Indonesian ensemble music that fed into one release on the Chinese label SVBKVLT; taarab and bongo flava, strains of Tanzanian dance music echoed on Ugandan label Nyege Nyege; tribal guarachero and costeño, sounds native to Mexico warped by Mexico City label NAAFI; and batida, kizomba, funaná and tarraxinha, styles developed in Angola that influence Lisbon label Príncipe. Top these off with titles and vocals in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Swahili and so on, and you've got a glimpse of global club music in 2020.
It's worth noting all these styles come from what the World Bank calls the Global South. An umbrella term that has replaced "third world," these Asian, African, Caribbean and Latin American nations are separated from those of the Global North, mainly Western Europe and North America, based on levels of wealth and economic development. Viewed another way, the North-South divide represents two categories that are loosely split between nations that were once colonizers versus former colonies.
We've heard this story before. The group with more money, more access and more power ends up controlling the systems and narrative. But this past decade, social media offered an accelerated route to change the score. From viral social movements to streaming data, which brought Spanish- and Korean-language pop to the top of the charts, we realized popular taste was not as tied to whiteness, maleness, straightness or the English language as once thought. Nearly every industry was left wringing their hands, realizing their blaring diversity problem—and how fast Twitter was coming for them.
In dance music, alongside gender parity, post-colonialism was one of the most serious topics to suddenly pop on the radar. In his 2015 feature on Mexican collective NAAFI, Max Pearl wrote about the idea of malinchismo, "one of the nastiest insults possible towards Mexicans who are ashamed of their own Mexican-ness—who have internalized colonial logic to the point that they reproduce its oppressive value systems." It plays out in the financial and cultural over-valuation of talent from outside Mexico, coupled with both an inferiority complex and the sense of being robbed. In Egypt, Tanzania, Uruguay and Tehran, artists and club promoters have said similar things about their nation's relationship with the Global North's dominance.
Recently, though, more voices have challenged this. In 2015, NON, a global collective of Afro-diasporic artists, set out on a mission to "decolonize the dance floor" with political texts, eye-searing visuals and even more chaotic beats. Last year, Chilean-born, Brazilian-based artist Valesuchi publicly criticized Dekmantel for its lack of Latin American representation. The Dutch festival, arguably the most popular new dance music event to emerge in the last decade, has built part of its brand off niche and lovable strains of Brazilian jazz and funk, holding two weekenders in São Paulo. Valesuchi called this one-way cultural exchange "pervasive colonial logic." "[Dekmantel has] the means to get to know our scene firsthand, visiting cities and mobilizing collectives that even we can't reach sometimes, and I wonder if they recognize this as a privilege that many of us don't have yet."
Conversations like this lit up social media. Played out on Facebook posts and Twitter threads, it became a monster truck rally of trolling, virtue signaling and genuinely moving bits of knowledge. I began to wonder whether the rest of my life would just be a filthy race to the bottom. But frustrating as it is, only when we understand where we sit in the systems, and how they oppress us, can real change come.
Perhaps the rise of the experimental festival circuit, another emerging trend of the 2010s, offered a healthier, physical space for fostering these conversations. Events like Kraków's Unsound, Berlin's CTM, The Hague's Rewire and global brand MUTEK have become hotspots for intellectual musings on the modern world, focused on the intersections between art, society, geo-politics and technology. Given such frameworks, these festivals owe a lot of their provocative material to voices from the Global South.
These artists' lived experiences seem to be the area of interest for many experimental festival themes. Take CTM's this year: "liminal." "We find ourselves in ambiguous spaces, somewhere between a past that is no longer valid and an ever-becoming future," the festival's website reads. While this can be applied to all kinds of experiences, it seems particularly suited to three topics that defined the last few years: migration, gender-fluidity and disruptive information distribution.
Artists from the Global South have some of the deepest perspectives on these experiences. They both discover and get discovered through the internet, coming from transnational or multi-racial backgrounds. Living or traveling across the North-South divide, they serve as individual vehicles for information exchange, exposed to both the North's social liberties and the South's restrictive socio-economic systems. It's a prism of identity that allows one to be more fluent in complex critical dialogues between disparate worlds. Perhaps this is responsible for new facets in experimental art.
Take Nkisi, born in the Democratic Republic Of The Congo, raised in Belgium and now living in Berlin. Her music refracts spiritual traditions from her birthplace through the hard European raves of her youth. There's also Deena Abdelwahed, born in Qatar to Tunisian parents, who currently resides in France. "I didn't have any musical education," she told RA in 2017. "So I don't respect Arab music or Western music. This allows me to separate everything and respect nothing." Shanghai's 33EMYBW says their music is deeply inspired by "technology, the internet and the city where [they] live." In its surreal, futuristic detailing, it shows.
Still, this decade's most original sounds were not necessarily born from multicultural and modern metropolises. On the contrary, they appeared like most new music styles in history: from black youth in isolated, often economically marginalized communities. There is singeli, a new type of soundsystem culture from Dar Es Salaam, characterized by its MCs, rowdy rhythms and fast tempos (anywhere between 180 and 300 BPM). Releases from its key artists, like Jay Mitta, Sisso Mohamed, Duke and MCZO, can be found on Ugandan label Nyege Nyege, which also runs a rare dance music festival in East Africa—with beautiful results.