Issue #132 Don’t Take It Away: BlackFem Voices in Electronic Dance Music

Don’t Take It Away: BlackFem Voices in Electronic Dance Music

Alexander Ghedi Weheliye

Sez Party,Berlin, 1996. from the series Zeitmaschine, 1991— 1997. Copyright: Tilman Brembs |


Issue #132
December 2022

Given the whitening and cishetero masculinization of techno since the 1990s, what might it mean to reimagine techno—both in the limited and general sense—with not only Blackness, but also Black queerness and transness at its center? Is this reinvention even possible, let alone desirable in 2022? Why aren’t the electronic dance music genres most important to Black queer and trans folks included in the category of techno?

Despite some recent community work of groups like Black Techno Matters (Washington, DC), Rave Reparations (Los Angeles), Dweller (New York City), and Mamba Negra (Brazil), as well as short films such as Jenn Nkiru’s Black to Techno and Wu Tsang’s Into a Space of Love, techno remains removed from Blackness and queerness in ways not true of house music, kuduro, ballroom, amapiano, Jersey/Baltimore club, UK garage (which is having an interesting renaissance among young Black producers in NYC), jungle, etc. Despite being appropriated and exploited by outsiders, all these dance music genres have maintained strong connections with Black communities in ways that techno not always has.

Maybe the problem is techno itself—perhaps not necessarily all the music that falls under this banner, but the designation and the ways it has been historicized as both resolutely cishetero and doggedly disconnected from both antecedent and concurrent types of Black music. House, by contrast, has not only consistently remained tied to its queer and trans roots but has also maintained connections to other Black musical genres such as disco, gospel, and R&B. Thus, it is not only essential to halt and reverse the whitening of techno and other forms of electronic dance music, but also to work against the relentless and tiring centering of cishet masculinity, as evident in the almost exclusive focus on and intense veneration of Detroit techno and the Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson) at the cost of Black queer and trans DJs and producers (Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Honey Dijon, and Ron Hardy, to name only the most glaringly obvious examples).

Part of the reason for this situation stems from the relentless ways techno has been understood as something entirely new and its creators as genius auteurish innovators, in ways that most other electronic music genres have eschewed. Take, for instance, the localization qua making white and cishetero—a reracination rather than a deracination—of techno in Berlin and many other places in Europe in the early nineties. I say “reracination” here to highlight how the whitening of techno in Berlin—but, of course, also as a general rule—is not simply the erasure of Blackness but a violent imposition of different racial and national orders, with their attendant modalities of gender and sexuality. This has consisted of numerous active processes, rather than a mere sleight of hand. It happened alongside the extreme violence that Black and other non-white communities experienced after of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification a year later. These public forms of violence against Black and other non-white people in the years around reunification are now vigorously expunged from the celebratory historiographies of techno in Berlin and the founding of the “Berliner Republik.”

My own experiences as a teenager with the clubbing scene in West Berlin as well as the fundamental anti-Blackness of German society in the 1980s and early nineties provides the spark here, since the retrospective considerations of techno in Berlin through recent oral histories and documentary films, which started appearing around 2010, have rarely addressed the presence of Black music in the city before the advent of techno and have seldom mentioned the violence against non-white people during the time of reunification, when techno exploded in popularity in the city. Both the violence and the presence of Black music in Berlin disrupt the celebratory narrative that techno music offered a common musical ground for the frictionless coming together of young (white and straight) Germans in the East and West after reunification.1 This fervent whitening of techno has worked so well that any form of oontz oontz music (an onomatopoetic rendering of four-on-the-floor dance music) is now thoroughly associated with (cishetero and European) whiteness in the US, just as occurred previously with rock music. To take one obvious example, it was not until 2020 that Haitian Canadian producer and DJ Kaytranada became the first Black artist to win a Grammy award in the Best Dance/Electronic Album category.

In early-nineties Berlin, the segregation between house and techno didn’t initially happen sonically. There weren’t that many techno productions from Berlin itself, and among those that existed, a lot sounded much more house-y, pop-like, and soulful than one would now think (for instance, Cosmic Baby’s “The Space Track” or Kid Paul’s “Take Me Higher”). Only around 1992 and later did Berlin productions emerge that had a lot less swing, a lot less funk, that had a steady, metronomic beat and aspired to create very stereotypically Teutonic or Germanic sounds (records such as 3 Phase featuring Dr. Motte, “Der Klang der Familie” or Tanith’s “T2”). Also, Berlin’s early nineties reverence for Underground Resistance—who are, in contrast to earlier Detroit techno producers, explicitly political and put themselves in a lineage of Black nationalism and Black freedom struggles—was based on the group’s politicization of primarily instrumental music. UR’s sound also fed into an independent punk rock ethos that was prevalent in Berlin at the time. The reception of UR in Berlin also suggested that Blackness and Black music could be enthusiastically celebrated, so long as it didn’t involve Black Germans. It took place under the assumption that Blackness was foreign to Germany. The UR records that were successful in Berlin were not vocal recordings. The UR discography, however, is evenly split between the tracky, industrial recordings, and vocal, oftentimes Gospel-inspired house tracks (such as the label’s very first release, “Your Time Is Up” feat. Yolanda, or the massively successful “Transition,” to name a few). For UR, these things existed side-by-side, but that wasn’t where the folks in Berlin took their inspiration from. In Berlin, the popular UR releases (Riot EP, “Sonic Destroyer,” “Panic,” and so on) emphasized the former at the expense of the latter, since vocal and house were perceived as both “Blacker” and more “feminine.”

Tresor club, Berlin, founded in March 1991

There was a tendency early on in Berlin, as well as in Cologne and other places in Germany, to say that techno might have been “invented” in Detroit but “we’ve made our own and no longer need to look to other places.” In the early nineties, some major players in the Berlin techno scene even used a different spelling, Tekkno, to clearly distinguish themselves from Detroit. The more melodic, feminine, queer, and Black sounds associated with techno and electronic dance music went instead into the genre of Eurodance, which is very clearly delineated from Berlin techno because the latter was an underground, independent, hardcore phenomenon and the former associated with the feminized inauthenticity of the mainstream.

It’s important to link these two formations because they are so similar—perhaps not culturally similar, as Eurodance numbers by Snap! or Real McCoy were produced for the pop charts and not necessarily for clubs, but nevertheless they used a lot of the same production techniques as the early techno. Originally there was a lot more overlap between techno, house, and Eurodance. It is important to me to bring these two strands together, given that in Eurodance you see a lot of Black German and Black queer performers. They were acceptable and even necessary for the success of that genre, but not in Berlin techno, which distanced itself from both Blackness and queerness. The whitening of techno in Berlin and other spaces went hand in hand with expunging the genre’s ties to any vestiges of queerness and femness. Moreover, veering from “benign” neglect to downright denigration of singing and vocality in electronic dance music, especially when performed by BlackFems across gender and sexuality spectrums, contributes significantly to both the whitening and cisheterosexualization of techno and other forms of Black music.

I want to counteract these tendencies and imagine electronic music with BlackFemness at its center. I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the often-nameless BlackFem voices that sound across so many forms of popular music, but especially electronic dance music, where we find a long history of integrally using BlackFem singing voices without crediting them, whether it’s through session work or sampling.2 This centrality of the disembodied BlackFem singing voice also amplifies the deep connections between R&B music and electronic dance music, especially house and techno. Frequently the sampled BlackFem singing voice, especially when disembodied and decontextualized, remains the only vestige of Black queerness in many forms electronic dance music. For white cishet electronic music producers and DJs, the BlackFem voice remains ready to hand, an infinite “natural” resource, always available for exploitation without any acknowledgement, credit, or renumeration.3


Sometimes I fantasize about the existence of alternate dimensions which consist only of different dance clubs with each milieu playing one track over and over and over………

I imagine slipping into one of these parallel universes through a portal of sound à la Sun Ra in Space Is the Place, where the sound system is flawlessly calibrated to channel the warmth and complexity of great basslines. The interplay between the lights and sound takes on synesthetic qualities, the crowd is relaxed and there to dance rather than stand and gawk, and the dancefloor is packed just enough to give the impression of losing myself in the crowd but not so much as to require subtly fighting for my spot on the floor (IYKYK). This story explores one of the tracks I hear playing in that imaginary perfect club geography over and over and over………

Though DJ Pierre (Nathaniel Pierre Jones) is credited with and celebrated for giving the world the genre of acid house, which completely changed the UK club and youth culture landscape in the late eighties, his work from the nineties has received far less attention. These recordings, released under his name or more often under pseudonyms (Photon Inc, Joint Venture, Darkman, etc.) are subsumed under the micro-genre of the “Wild Pitch” sound, in turn a subcategory of NYC house, which itself is a sibling of Chicago house.

The integral components of the sample-heavy Wild Pitch house sound consist of long extended mixes that gradually introduce distinctive sonic elements to create intense euphoric effects. Different sounds coalesce at certain points only to then be stripped away so that the stacking can begin anew. To call these mixes hypnotic would be simultaneously true and an arrant understatement.4 Here’s how Pierre describes his work: “In the beginning, it might not seem like anything. You don’t know what it is. But as you’re layering stuff on the track, it starts to tell you a story, it starts to build into something that you can really nod your head to and dance to. By the time you have them all in there, it sounds BIG, like an incredible energy.”5

The DJ Pierre–produced track “Don’t Take It Away” was first released in 1991 under one of his aliases, Audio Clash, as part of the 12” single Don’t Take It Away / Electro Rhythm, on prominent NYC house music label Strictly Rhythm. The second track on the A side, “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix),” made it onto a 1994 CD compilation of DJ Pierre’s ten best Wild Pitch recordings.6 That same year, I purchased a used copy of the CD for $7.99 at Princeton Record Exchange. I listened to the whole CD countless times but would often press the “RPT” button when “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix),” the last track, came on.

When I began to digitize all my CDs around 2001 or 2002, I hadn’t listened to the DJ Pierre record in a while and was enormously thrilled about the prospect of being able to hear “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix)” on my then newly acquired iPod—insert annoying and extremely loud record scratch sound effect here and a very loud aht aht followed by boisterous laughter. The computer played and encoded all the tracks from the CD except the last, which was, of course, my most beloved. I tried everything: cleaning the CD, using different computers to rip the CD, legal and extralegal download options to acquire the track, all to no avail, which meant that “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix)” as a musical object was in many ways lost to me at that point. I rediscovered the track in 2012, in the early days of Spotify in the US, which is ironic because so much dance music history of the eighties and nineties still cannot be found on the big streaming services in 2022. But after I found “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix)” on Spotify, I spent weeks consuming the song on repeat. This process of reacquaintance happens every few years, and I’m still in awe of the track’s deep spiritual and physical healing powers.

So far, I’ve offered you details about everything but the music itself, so let me attempt to give you some idea of what makes all seven minutes and thirty-two seconds of “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix)” perfect. The recording commences with what sounds like steam being released from an engine, or the launching of a small rocket ship. The sound gets slightly louder as the sample progresses. (The sample weaves in and out of the track for the first three minutes, and then reemerges intermittently towards the end.) Next, the all-important resonant kick drum enters, accompanied almost instantaneously by congas and snares, creating a dialogue between the three distinct drum sounds. After this we encounter handclaps and a beautifully rubbery bassline, followed by a brief synth line and a sample of what sounds like a bird, but which could very well be a pitched-up recording of a human voice. (This sample disappears at 2:50, only to rematerialize at the end of the track.) Then we hear piano stabs and drum rolls—so fundamental to house music—and very goth-sounding strings that are taken (I think) from the house music group Ten City. At the 3:54 mark, a sample of a BlackFem voice sings the following lines:

don’t take it
don’t take it
don’t take it awaaaaayyyyyyyyy

After being first introduced, the vocal sample and the strings alternate to create tension. Later, DJ Pierre will modulate the vocals so that sometimes the “don’t” repeats, while at other times “take it” assumes center stage rather than “awaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.” A few other notable shifts: Around 5:30, the beat drops and comes back in very soon after. At 6:13, a breakbeat that sounds like the beat from Lyn Collins’s 1972 funk song “Think (About It)”—a beat that was popularized by eighties hip-hop and was later indispensable to Baltimore club music—enters the scene. Although the sampled vocal snippet, when it first appears in the track, lasts only thirty seconds, it exerts an immense influence on the second half of the track in the different ways it flickeringly recurs and transmogrifies, creating a relational tension between opacity and transparency.7 Of course, once one is familiar with the track, the vocal sample also shadows the first half through the listener’s anticipation of what is to come. In this way, the vocal snippet and its varying (re)iterations haunt the Now of the track’s seven minutes and thirty-two seconds in toto. I’m not even sure that I’ve scratched the surface of what happens on this track, given that its alchemy depends so much of the interaction between the song’s distinctive sounds and frequencies.

Dj Pierre - 1981 in the mix

If DJ Pierre’s track is a semi-anonymous, workman-like recording, like so many dance music releases now lost in the debris of former micro-presents from the past, at least we know that he was the one who produced it, thanks to databases like Discogs and WhoSampled. The same can’t be said for the unspecified BlackFem voice that is so central to “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix).” As hard as I’ve tried over the years, I haven’t been able to identify whose voice we hear in the sample, or what previous recording it was taken from. Given how much cishetero masculinity has been projected onto the history of electronic dance music, practically erasing the fact that R&B and BlackFem voices have been central to the genres that comprise this category, it is imperative to amplify the Black queerness and BlackFemness of electronic dance music, so they aren’t completely lost in the debris of history.

The vocal snippet on “Don’t Take It Away (Concept Mix)” stands in for all the other BlackFem vocalists, unnamed or named (and even if named, usually undervalued), who have sung lead or background vocals, who were sampled, or who sang reference tracks that were used on techno, disco, house, rock, Eurodance, pop, hip-hop, reggae, and R&B records.8 As a pushback against the violent ways this creative and affective labor continues to be exploited and disavowed, here is a very partial list of indispensable BlackFem voices that continue to carry so many genres of popular music: Carol Kenyon, Melanie Thornton, Adeva, Norma Jean Wright, Cynthia Johnson, Veda Simpson, Ashanti Shequoiya Douglas, Lori Glori, Chelonis R. Jones, Jewel, Ultra Naté, Kelly Price, Penny Ford, Jocelyn Brown, Alfa Anderson, Yolanda Reynolds, Loleatta Holloway, Paula Brion, Shatasha Williams, Byron Stingily, Paris Grey, Dajae, Kym Mazelle, Eric D. Clark, India, Caron Wheeler, Wondress Hutchinson, Kevin Aviance, Shara Nelson, Gaelle Adisson, Christa Robinson, Sabrina Johnston, Tania Evans, Michellé, Blue Raspberry, Luci Martin, Luther Vandross, Kym Sims, Claudia Fontaine, Joi Cardwell, Daryl Pandy, Martha Wash, Vernell “Vee” Sales, Barbara Tucker, Victoria Wilson-James…………………………


For extended consideration of how techno was whitewashed and heterosexualized in nineties Berlin, see Alexander Ghedi Weheliye, “‘White Brothers With No Soul’ – Un Tuning the Historiography of Berlin Techno,” CTM Berlin – Festival for Adventurous Music and Art .


The idea of BlackFem rather than Black woman or even Black femme results from desiring an alternative to other, limiting gendered and sexuated categories. As such BlackFem is capacious enough to include a wide variety of femininities that traverse gender, sex, and sexuality. For an instructive elaboration of BlackFem, see Chelsea M. Frazier, “Thinking Red, Wounds, and Fungi in Wangechi Mutu’s EcoArt,” in Ecologies, Agents, Terrains, ed Christopher P. Heuer and Rebecca Zorach (Yale University Press, 2018).


Anu Shukla, “‘An Erasure of Black Voices and Whitewashing:’ Unpacking the Ethics Around White Producers Sampling Black Music,” Resident Advisor, July 8, 2022 .


DJ Pierre’s mixes were usually between seven and ten minutes long, but in some cases, such as Joint Venture’s “Master Blaster (Turn It Up)” (1992), they clock in at fifteen minutes.


Terry Matthew, “DJ Pierre Describes Wild Pitch – And Some Straight Talk About Acid House,” 5 Magazine, May 4 2013 .


DJ Pierre, Strictly Rhythm, 1994.


See Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (University of Michigan Press, 1997).


See Renee Jarreau, “Black Women Helped Build House Music. Their Credit Is Often Left Off Records,” ZORA, July 10, 2020 ; and Krystal Rodriguez, “Ghost Voices: The Women of House Music,” TIDAL Magazine, March 18, 2019 . In a particularly egregious example of deeply racialized and gendered vocal theft, Austrian DJ Bobo sold millions of records across Europe in the nineties featuring the voice of singer Lori Glori, without crediting or properly remunerating her. See 321HAU, “Deutsches Museum für Schwarze Unterhaltung und Black Music: Black Voices – White Producers. Gespräch mit Lori Glori & Sarah Farina,” YouTube video, 2020 .

Music, Gender
Queer Art & Theory, Transgender, Blackness
Return to Issue #132

Alexander Ghedi Weheliye is Forbes University Professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where he teaches critical theory, Black literature and culture, gender and sexuality studies, social technologies, and popular culture. He is the author of Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (2005), Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (2014), and Feenin: R&B Music and the Materiality of BlackFem Voices and Technology (forthcoming in 2023). Currently, he is working on Black Life/SchwarzSein, which situates Blackness as an ungendered ontology of unbelonging.


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