Issue #132 Editorial: Black Rave

Editorial: Black Rave

madison moore and McKenzie Wark

Issue #132
December 2022

McKenzie: What should we call our issue? Our working title was “Black Techno | Queer Rave.” I think we got an interesting mix of responses to that, which maybe changes the focus a little. We’ve found some interesting extensions of Black sound studies towards techno and towards queerness. I think we got some interesting voices on techno, transness, queerness, and Blackness. And I think we have some connections also to ballroom, and how one can’t really think about these things without it. I’m so happy with how this collection of texts, images, and mixes pushes the culture forward, but what shall we call it?

madison: Yes, I have been thinking about this, playing with titles that captured the essence and breadth of the submissions. I was thinking about “Black Dance Floors,” but what do you think? What’s the best way to capture all these directions? What about “Black Raving”?

McKenzie: I love “Black Raving” or “Black Rave.” Back when the Black Lives Matter insurrection was happening in New York, I asked a friend who was going out after the police curfew how it was going. The answer: “It’s a Black rave.”

madison: “Black Rave”—that’s a great way to think about the sonics of insurgency, a phrase that brings politics back into dance music and culture. Electronic dance music comes from a place of politics, as much as musical purists and Twitter trolls love to insist that “race doesn’t matter” or that “it’s just about the music,” never mind who gets booked to play that music. In the issue, Blair Black and Alexander Weheliye do a wonderful job reminding us of the strategic ways that Blackness and queerness have been removed from electronic music. Which is why the word “rave” is such a racialized one, even as Black people have been raving from the jump.

McKenzie: In his book Energy Flash, Simon Reynolds thinks the term “rave” was probably introduced into the UK by West Indian immigrants of the Windrush generation. “Rave” meaning one-off, all night party. Might be a start to rethinking the Blackness that permeates that term too.

madison: This is fascinating because at the time, Black folks were often unwelcome in London clubs and so took to the long-standing Black tradition of the rent/house party or shabeen to come together. Steve McQueen portrays this underground world of Black partying beautifully in his film Lover’s Rock, in his Small Axe film series, which traces a single night at a house party in a Caribbean household in West London. The party is full of food, a powerful sound system, lots of fashion, singing. The most interesting part about the film is that it takes place almost entirely inside the world of the house party. The characters rarely go outside at all, and when they do, the implication is that the threat of white violence awaits them—literally as in police surveilling the neighborhood and a pack of menacing white boys who look like they are ready to cause trouble. It’s not to say there’s no danger inside the house party, or that the house party is a perfect space or even a utopia—it isn’t. But the tender feeling of togetherness you sense in that film beautifully captures the poetry of Black dance floors.

McKenzie: I think that’s connected to the recoding of “rave” we want here.

madison: I’m glad to have this space to think about dance floors from many different perspectives—techno of course, but also ballroom, and how ballroom is also techno. When I’m DJing, I love when the children start voguing. Julian came to one of my sets in DC way back in 2019, I think, and I will never forget the way she got possessed by the beat and vogued down. Like, all the way down. Caused a scene, and it was a wrap after that. Other Black queers and femmes started voguing to these ferocious techno beats and I was living. That’s when Julian told me, “If you can really vogue, you can vogue to anything.” I’ve never forgotten that.

In Alex Weheliye’s piece, he talks about how the very forms of Black music that Black queers enjoy dancing to—Jersey club, house, ballroom, etc.—get excluded from this purist notion of “techno,” which is also part of the project of racializing musical genre.

McKenzie: Yes, I think we have some perspectives that unpick how both race and sexuality are in different ways elided by genre, with techno as the example of that genre, but which resonates with how we see that with other genres. On the other hand, TYGAPAW wants their music to be heard through techno as a genre but is sometimes denied that, on their account—because they are a Black artist.

madison: Yes, exactly!

McKenzie: And coming up in TYGA, Jasmine, and Julian for example is how ballroom is the other adjacency to techno, one that brings in transness and queerness in different ways to the adjacency to house music cultures, a story that’s maybe better known.

madison: Such exciting work. Maybe we will have “techno studies” after all! But you’re also a raver, and most of the writing on rave culture privileges youth. There’s this idea that once you reach a certain age, job, responsibility, status, etc., you’re supposed to kick off your techno boots and stop going out. I love the idea of one day being the older queen in the club—fifty, sixty, seventy years old—getting my life and maybe also shading the new children with a cocktail in hand, lol. With that, I wanted to ask how and why this topic of Black Rave feels urgent for you to address?

McKenzie: One answer is already in my thinking the Black Lives Matter insurrection in New York as a “Black rave.” On a personal level, I came back to raves when I transitioned, as it’s the only thing that works on my low-level ambient gender dysphoria. Techno works best on that. Eva is so right about transsexuality as an experience of noise. But then, this being America, one can’t not feel that at the heart of anything to do with culture is race. Techno is Black music and I feel like I am an uninvited guest in that sonic space. How can I be a good guest under the circumstances? How to be conscious also of the dangers Leo picks up about the white romance with Blackness.

I felt like doing some work, putting my editing skills to work, making a space for reflection. I wanted to center Blackness in thinking about queer and trans rave culture, and to then necessarily pose as a question and problem what the place of white queers and transsexuals such as myself is in relation to that. But without of course centering us! Keeping that open at the periphery and passing the mic. For me it was a way to learn. What I love in our issue is the crosscurrents among different kinds of Black knowledge and creativity that’s the center of the discussion. Which reminds me of the Steve McQueen Lover’s Rock film you mentioned. The different moods and styles on the Black dance floor in the film are a whole essay in themselves.

madison: It’s such a great film. To piggyback off what you said, this project is incredibly galvanizing for me because imagining a Black Rave poetics addresses the critical lack of conversation on Black people raving. There’s so much literature on raving and rave culture, but there isn’t much of it focused on questions of Blackness, transness, queerness, which only perpetuates the narrative that rave, raving, and rave music is a white male thing. Oontz oontz oontz. I loved the Make Techno Black Again campaign, such a simple twist on a phrase with an annoying origin, and I love the idea that the people making techno Black again are Black femmes, queers, and trans people.

Thinking about Black Rave is also important for me because in a moment when Black death is normalized by the state, as Christina Sharpe has so beautifully shown, raving points to a politics of ALIVENESS, what Kevin Quashie has recently called “Black aliveness” as a retort to a pessimistic impulse which asserts that Black lives have no meaning. That’s the thing I love about techno, its immediacy, its urgency, a music of living and getting life in. I loved the synergy between the ways TYGAPAW, Eva Pensis, BAE BAE, and Jasmine Infiniti all variously wrote about Black queer and trans poetics of literally just living—like living and l-i-v-i-n-g. Julian’s piece on the interpolation and Black queer frequency of the beat comes in here too.

McKenzie: Yes! Yes! Tavia and TYGA both write about being cut off from the continuum of Blackness in techno and I think also in complimentary ways about seeking out and making that aliveness. If you center Blackness as among other things a rave, it changes the ambient qualities of all these other things: queer, trans, techno, all jostling each other in the mix.

madison: Yes, absolutely! And for me, curating in a crew of scholars and DJs of multiple generations is really exciting. DJing and writing are not unrelated practices.

McKenzie: I’m always here for heterogeneous conversation, different kinds of knowledge, media expression, generations, all of it. So glad we went with your idea of including mixes, from MORENXXX and Femanyst. How are DJing and writing related for you?

madison: Because they are both all about storytelling, communicating a message, sharing a world, shaping an idea. I think about writing the same way I think about mixing—using the flow of the text to drive the narrative forward. I often get “DJ block” the same way I get writer’s block, where you have an idea of what you want to say but don’t know where to start, don’t know how to get started, so the loop keeps playing and playing while you figure out what to do with it. The difference between writer’s block and DJ block is that when you have a gig, you can’t just start over. The freeing thing for me about playing music for people live in a DJ set is that once your set starts, you’re on. You don’t get to stop and start over the same way you might delete/agonize over a sentence on a page. You’ve started the narrative and people are dancing and you’re juggling sounds, and mixing, and cuing, and sampling (citing), and the whole time you’ve got to push the narrative forward.

McKenzie: That’s interesting to me because I think of writing as time-based improvisation, like dancing or singing, although I’m terrible at both.

madison: Wow that’s brilliant, I love that. Writing as time-based improvisation. That is the most helpful thing I’ve heard about writing in a long time. I think that’ll really help me think even more closely about the interplay between DJing and writing. In a DJ set, you’ve got two, three hours to improv. If you make a mistake or make a choice you don’t like, you keep going, can’t start over. I think it’s incredibly helpful to think about approaching writing the same way.

As such a sound person and raver yourself, have you ever thought about picking up DJing?

McKenzie: It’s funny because before I transitioned, I was a music obsessive. About blues and jazz, but also various kinds of dance music, from so-called “Northern” soul to funk and reggae. A deep interest in the continuum of what Lester Bowie, the jazz trumpeter, called “The Great Black Music.” A taste shaped also by Paul Gilroy and the late and much missed Greg Tate. (The book I brought with me on the plane to New York when I emigrated was by him.) I was trying to understand America through Black music. That version of me might have thought about DJing but it wouldn’t have been techno.

After I transitioned, I got back into dancing, and reconnected with house and particularly techno. I’d been to clubs like Tresor back in the nineties and to the Sydney version of raves, Bush Doofs, usually outdoors. These days I’m much more of a rave bimbo. I just want to dance. There’s DJs I show up for—including you!— but I don’t care about track IDs. I like putting my trust in a DJ’s curation. In a world run by algorithms, having a human choose sounds seems important. But I don’t want to DJ. I want to dance.

madison: That’s gorgeous. I have to say, my favorite thing about DJing is watching you rave bimbos go off. I played a gig in San Francisco a few weeks ago and the image of the dancers in front of me going off is one I won’t soon forget. The other femmes and queerdos were in front, right by the speaker towers, and I loved watching them sweat, dance, work. I don’t remember the track, but there was one moment when one of the taller femmes in the room had their eyes closed and I saw them mouth an ecstatic, sensual “yes.” It seemed like that single, silent utterance might have been the most important moment they had all day.

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

madison moore is an artist-scholar, DJ, and assistant professor of Critical Studies in the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California and the author of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (Yale University Press, 2018). They are currently writing a book about rave scenes and queer-of-color undergrounds.

McKenzie Wark (she/her) teaches at The New School and is the author, most recently, of Love and Money, Sex and Death (Verso, 2023), Raving (Duke, 2023), and Philosophy for Spiders (Duke, 2021).


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