Dance music is at a very unique moment in its storied and complicated history. The coronavirus pandemic has found them in dire need of profound self-examination; starting from the economic front, where the lockdowns and general lack of live events and ticketing activities sent a vast majority of DJs and artists into precarity, but most crucially, regarding its issues as a communal experience, where most promoters have proved unable to provide the health and safety requirements for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, the electronic scene’s situation has reached a critical stage.
The pandemic, like every other crisis of capitalism, has shown the entire world the devastating effects of inequality and discrimination. Those who are most exposed to harm — the working-class, racialized, and LGBTQ communities — have been, as always, the most affected, and this is exactly the case in dance music, where, on one hand, we see the mainstream publications covering the lavish lifestyles of the highest-earning DJs, while on the other, ticketing services get the green light from governments to create shows that, without the appropriate health restrictions and harm reduction measures, become super spreader events.
Nevertheless, a wave of activist movements within’ dance music, most of them coming from marginalized communities, is beginning to make waves, pressuring governments and event promoters into creating new measures that ensure the necessary safety requirements for everyone equally, but also working to reverse the white-washing of the dance music universe, mainstream publications’ harm portrayal of the scene as an upper-middle-class entertainment centered on white artists and producers.
But every activist movement needs its intellectual, theoretical component. French writer and cultural critic, Jean-Hugues Kabuiku, is one of the leading voices in the field of Techno Materialism. Its thesis consists of taking the Marxist principles of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, the postcolonial perspectives of theoreticians like Frantz Fanon, and the praxis of Autonomism, and apply it to the analysis of Techno, dance music, and club culture. He also produces music under the alias Amazinggaijin. He currently resides in Berlin.
Other proponents of Techno Materialism (and collaborators of Kabuiku) include Dr. Mathys Rennela, and DJ/lecturer Aloiso Wilmoth (HE_VALENCIA), who has a more Anarchist reading. Techno Materialism’s activist side tries to re-establish the basis that club culture is both an Afro-diasporic innovation, and an Anti-capitalist movement, created by people on the margins of society.
I spoke with Kabuiku via Zoom, where we discussed the COVID crisis, the infiltration of far-right activity in the electronic scene, Operaismo, and more. – Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa
So, you’ve been in the dance music and electronic music scene for a while now, and you have been writing also for a while, but specifically on your more active writing, from early 2020 until now, and especially since you opened your Substack newsletter, What motivated you to write in a more active capacity since that time?
Jean-Hugues Kabuiku: Yeah. So I usually was writing more laid-back articles and less on the activist side, even though I put some easter egg in there. I used to work for an investment firm, as an intern and all that shit, but I always had a critical eye into what I was doing, and what we were doing and work, and what we were doing in dance music. What but what prompted me to lean more into political writing is that I got kinda radicalized within the past five or six years, where I started, reading leftist theory more thoroughly, even though I had a really good theoretical education in terms of the classic Marxist theory, but it was more abstract… but then what happened? I guess, everywhere in the world, or at least in the West, we were seeing a new reactionary movement that was kind of attached to Thatcherism in the 70s. So we started falling into austerity and shit.
And I remember back in, 2009 or 10, even though we had a crisis and shit, it was still kind of easy to find a job and such. At least it was if you were working in Tech, it was easy to find a job and shit. But you were already seeing that a lot of people were losing their jobs and the states were taking harder austerity measures and things that you had a sense that there was a change of pace in terms of how capitalism was evolving in the West, because, for example, [in France, President] Macron has been in power for four years now, and since the moment he went into power, it felt we were falling into a sort of accelerationism. And then we had the Yellow Vests movement, and then everything that was happening with Police violence and feminicide in France, all these things radicalized me even further and made me think that “okay, the least that I can do is try to be more active with my writing”.
And, then, of course, the pandemic was another kind of breakthrough and another way to radicalize cause we saw the way that the government was tackling this pandemic was to save the socio-economic status of the wealthy class and leave everyone else to their own, and with measures that sometimes didn’t even make sense but that are looking into saving the economy instead of saving people. So this context made me go leaning into more activist writing, because the way things are going now, I don’t have much to lose, and I’m not linked to some office or working for mainstream media, So I can go all-in right now.
You mentioned something very interesting about this reactionary turn in the political landscape. For example, I live in Mexico, so we’ve been severely hit by austerity since the late 90s-early 2000s. So it didn’t have to take a global crisis for us to start looking at this reactionary turn. We have the Narco Wars, which was a byproduct of this austerity, and of course the awful trade agreements between us and the USA. But for us to build a kind of resistance solidarity movement, it was super difficult because everything, our whole lives are controlled by about 10 companies that already have things arranged with the government. So the government is everywhere and it’s those companies that are in charge of everything that the government does anyway.
So this neoliberal elite hegemony that’s been in place in Mexico for decades has ruled our lives for a long, long time. And it had to take climate disaster, the 2017 earthquake in Mexico City, and then the floods here in the South of Mexico that we started seeing a wave of movements of active resistance. And of course, the feminicide crisis originating since the beginning of the narco war has mobilized women. And it’s women that are leading the charge for resistance. So in that sense, I understand that our context is different from Europe’s, but I see that these resistance spheres are originating pretty much at the same time. So it’s very interesting to start covering them, writing about them.
And you mentioned the European context and I was going to redirect you into the place you have been involved with more visibly, which is the electronic music and dance music community. What can you tell us about the current state of the dance music community in France, and now that you’re in Berlin, how your perception of the dance music scene has changed in the past year, especially since the pandemic hit? What’s the current state of affairs?
Jean-Hugues Kabuiku: That’s a really interesting question. The thing is that last summer when people, especially in France, were thinking we had this kind of window open to going back to “normal”, the government said “oh yeah, you can do [events] and gather up to five thousand people and blah, blah, blah. So you had people from Berlin flying to Paris to party because Berlin wasn’t resing parties officially yet, even though I reported to Resident Advisor when it reopened briefly, and even then they had this kind of limitation in regards to how many people can come, and it was way less than in Paris with the 5K people.
I don’t know the logic of this. They didn’t tackle this from an epidemiological aspect, for sure. And so I was reporting on that and how they were doing harm reduction, trying to wear masks and such. And that was interesting because, in Berlin, people were coming from “red zones” in Europe. So it was people flying in just for the party from Spain or Italy when those countries were riddled with the pandemic. So that was a little bit scary. And in Paris, it was irresponsible. So I wrote a piece for Dweller which was called, “What the dance music can learn from Italian Operaismo?” where I explained a little bit that there was this promoter called Possession, one of the biggest techno promoters in Europe that was doing this huge party, and they were listening to that government recommendation of bringing up to 5k people, which was weird. So I had the person on the phone, a PR person, and they said there were a little bit less than 2k people actually at the party. And, and that was irresponsible in the sense that they weren’t doing any kind of harm reduction. Of course, I can kind of understand that it’s kind of hard to tell people who are partying. “Oh yeah, you need to wear a mask and blah, blah, blah”. But they weren’t even trying, you know, no one was wearing masks. And then what had to happen, happened.
It’s a double-edged sword because you throw parties. After all, the government tells you that it’s possible, but when a new outbreak starts, you will be held accountable for “restarting the pandemic”. Right. So what happened? The pandemic restarted, we went into full lockdown. We got this 6:00 PM curfew and blah, blah, blah, and blah, blah. And now things are slowly beginning to restart. So in Paris is, it’s, it’s full-on and it’s irresponsible, all of it. And again, Possession is involved in it. And they are throwing those huge warehouse parties. I got Instastories sent to me, and I don’t know how many people were in there, I will say [there were] at least 1000 people, in a warehouse, wearing no masks inside, of course.
And when there’s this Delta variant going on. And oh yeah, you can throw parties, but you have a 2:00 AM curfew and they will look if you are vaccinated or get you tested, and they will limit the number of people you let in. I think it is 1000 people here in Berlin, which is a little bit more responsible and way more leaning into harm reduction. But it’s also linked to the story of sex parties, and in sex parties, you do all these harm reduction awareness measures, and such. Also, one thing to note is that, in France, and as far as I know, everywhere in Europe, due to medical recommendations, after when you get vaccinated after 14 days, you are considered “immune”, and then you have your QR code and you show it, and in France now they’re reducing it to seven days. And that doesn’t follow any scientific logic, it’s just purely economical. So the less people have to wait — so they can go consume in a bar or in a club or whatever —, the better it is for the economy. And this shows you how Macron France is working right now. It’s fully neoliberal, liberal. It’s all about the economy and about what’s going to make money despite the medical recommendations. And you know, in September or October, when the pandemic hits with another outbreak in France, it’s not going to be a surprise, because what they do is negotiate with the virus in an area where they can’t negotiate. If you have the vaccine and it gets you immune within 14 days, you can’t tell people seven days is all right. That doesn’t make any sense.
So this denouncement of what the electronic music scene is doing now, and especially how cowardly mainstream publications have covered it, which the pandemic has made more evident, but it has happened for a long, long, long time, leads me to the next topic, which is “the new thing”, the recent thing.
You published this piece about Dominic Fernow (Vatican Shadow), and his links to the far right, his constant co-signing of artists that have far-right implications and have been convicted for far-right and extremist activities, and how silent the mainstream media has been, how little has been solved in that matter. The first question is, have you encountered more harassment from followers of Dominic Fernow, or from other publications following the publication of that piece?
Jean-Hugues Kabuiku: I had a little bit of harassment from these edgelords and some full-on Nazis that are fans of his music. And what is interesting is that they try to change the narrative into something about moral purity in dance music. So they went through to look into tweets that I posted when I was 19. And they were “look, he was listening to black metal” or “look, he was saying problematic stuff”. And what is interesting is that English is not even my first language and I’m French.
And some of the stuff that was posted, of course, there were some problematic words because I was 19, but some of the stuff that I posted is stuff they don’t understand because it’s in English but within a French context or making a real niche joke. And even some of the harmful words were directed at me, it wasn’t me targeting a community or something, but, of course, there was problematic stuff. I mean, it was 2010 and I was 19, but it’s interesting because they use techniques that intelligence agencies will use, you know, to smear or dissidents or something, they were acting like some secret police or whatever.
Also what is really interesting is the lack of logic that they have in the brain. They’re attacking me for stuff that some of their favorite artists do; wearing a Burzum t-shirt in 2010 when Surgeon was wearing one two or three years ago, you know? But it doesn’t make sense. You know, Nazi trolls don’t make sense. But also, we need to remember what the post was about. It was about the links that Dominic Fernow has with the far-right in Germany and Scandinavia, involving someone called Absurd that murdered someone; he did a hate crime and then got extradited in Germany because he killed a Jewish person. And that was someone that Dominick Fernow was playlisting, shouting out.
And also, his links with Mikka Aspa who’s literally on an Antifa watch list. Mika spread hateful messages about the Romani community in Finland. And, of course, the problematic stuff I posted should be acknowledged and so on, but this is all made in a sense to smear me. How you’re going to compare a 19-year old posting, problematic things with someone literally linked with Nazi terrorists?
But what is sad is that all those people were aware of it for a long time, so why didn’t they say anything? Why did they let a literal Nazi infiltrate the scene? That’s bizarre. What I did with my article is basically compile the evidence and call out music journalists for not having scrutiny. So that information was out there for a long time. People were just pretending it wasn’t there. And also the conversation is not about if Dominic Fernow is a fascist or not, I don’t give a single fuck about that. The thing is that he platformed far-right militant activists and music journalists helped him do that. And so the conversation is “Why music journalists let this happen? This is a serious matter.
And also what is interesting is the answer of Pitchfork, because I was in contact with Brandon Stosuy who wrote pieces about him, and we had calls and emails. He tried to, undo his mistake by being the contact with me through Pitchfork, and he donated to the Anti-Defamation League and other anti-racist organizations and showed me the receipts. He took out Dominique Fernow from his book. He took out the Dominique Fernow interview. He had it on his website. And the answer from Pitchfork is “we’re not gonna do anything. We’re not gonna do an addendum.” And that’s horrendous. And they’re the ones who should get the heat for doing that because now there are several pieces out there from Electronic Beats, from The Quietus that reference my article. So at this level, they’re legally obliged to do something about it, because they can’t pretend that they didn’t know. And now even antifascist organizations are on this.
So if they think they can just wait until this thing goes away, that’s not gonna work. And I have the report that people who were supposed to release stuff on Dominic’s label Hospital Production will cancel it. So this goes way further than platforming far-right militant activists. It’s a whole network of record labels, booking agencies, websites, blogs, the whole structure. And now they have to deal with the aftermath of a revelation.
Have you received any follow-up from other mainstream publications after the article you published?
Jean-Hugues Kabuiku: Yeah, so I talked with the editor in chief of Electronic Beats and they made a statement about Dominick Fernow that was on the homepage. The Quietus kind of put a statement out. I’d say they’re gonna put an addendum as well on the article covering, Dominik Fernow, but besides them, nobody followed up. Pitchfork and Resident Advisors should write something, especially Pitchfork, of course, because they platformed those far-right people in that article and especially Mikka Aspa.
I guess they’re playing time and staying silent until things go away. But It’s not going to go away like this, especially in Berlin, because for example Dominick Fernow, under his alias Vatican Shadow, is signed to the Ostgut Ton record label and booking agency. So you can’t ignore this; especially if you are “trying to tackle discrimination and racism within dance music.” And this silence is affecting them because a lot of promoters now are trying to avoid their ticketing service. After all, horrendous shitshow. Now a lot of writers don’t want to work with them anymore, a lot of artists don’t want to do interviews with them. They’re just destroying their credibility, even more doing this.
Now that you mentioned Resident Advisor, of course, that leads me to the place where some of their scandals have been published: your newsletter, which is required reading for everyone. We’ve read interesting pieces from this network of collaborators that you’ve built; people Mathys Rennela, Axmed Maxamed. and of course, Tianna. You have formed a writing community of resistance, so tell me how has this moment in time motivated you and other people to start collaborating in this way?
Jean-Hugues Kabuiku: I think the thing that really started the engine was the aftermath of the crisis in Minneapolis and when publications started to pretend that they cared about black people and started platforming more black artists, doing reviews about black artists. But it was all performative of course. So we got in contact; Mathys is based in the Netherlands and he’s French too. And we talk a lot with Axmed as well as he is in the Netherlands. And we reached out to Tianna, too, who is based in the US.
So it’s a group of people who are in the same state of mind regarding social justice. And I’m also interested in fighting the status quo. So yeah, with this network of writing the idea is to put pressure into the kind of complacent mainstream storytelling that music journalism has been doing for a while, where critique in its purest form doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just fan service, PR, and such. And the idea is to bring back a critique that shows how inequality in dance music is linked to your material conditions, with racial discrimination at play, of course. And I’m really glad a lot of people are starting to fight back and now are willing to put themselves out there because, especially as a black person in dance music, you will just burn bridges sometimes.
There’s this goal, of course, to really challenge the status quo, but in a short-term matter. We’re not winning anything from putting ourselves out there and criticizing those huge media platforms and those huge artists, you can get blacklisted and stuff, but what is kind of making me hopeful is that booking agencies, artists, and fans are beginning to rise up against this system as well. So many people got radicalized from the pandemic and from the uprising in Minneapolis, and then these publications will just come and write about “oh yeah, last night’s Los Angeles party was so good”. They should read the room.
That’s the problem with mainstream publications and mainstream websites. I think the root of the problem is the economic interest in it. The fact that they can’t even try or even say they try to cover the real world. And as you say, they should read the room or read the moment, but doing that while at the same not challenging their economic interest is impossible. And then of course, if they wanted to do criticism in what actually matters, they will have to address that contradiction and they have continuously failed to do so.
And most importantly, all of us people of color are paying a very high price for what the media does, not only by platforming people that are actively harmful, but also by enabling harmful measures made by economic powers, and also how they enable the recklessness of governments, Macron in France and the current local government in Mexico. With Capitalism the most vulnerable are always the most affected. So, to wrap up this interview, you wrote a piece a while ago called “What’s the future of music after COVID-19?” You wrote it back in 2020. Now that it’s summer 2021, how has your perception of what you mentioned in that piece change if anything, and what are the most urgent things to solve and even abolish in that capacity and in that sense?
Jean-Hugues Kabuiku: It’s kind of funny because when I write stuff when I do predictions about the future, I’m really trying to do a thorough analysis, and not really predict what is gonna happen, but really say “this is the state of affairs right now, and if it stays like this, this or that is gonna happen. And unfortunately, after that piece was published nothing changed because in that article I was pushing for people in dance music to take responsibility and in a radical way challenge the status quo. It could be by going on strike, because the refusal of work, especially during a pandemic, is really a bad look because not everybody gets the booking, and when your colleagues are getting less booking and you’re one of the privileged few getting an opportunity, you could just refuse in solidarity.
We are in the middle of a pandemic and the vaccination rate in Europe is still not sufficient to curb the pandemic because you will need to, for example, in France, you will need to vaccinate 90% of the population, and we are far away from that. Only 30% of the population of France is getting vaccinated. So most of them just jump back into work because you internalize capital and its logic that your work equates to your value as a human being. It’s really worrying because you are supposed to be in a scene that was started by people in the margins, people that were fighting the status quo. Like the radical rave scene, they were fighting Thatcher and so on. And then you’re gonna throw events, feeling like some kind of rebel, but, really you’re just making RA rich, because you use their ticketing service, and giving your government service because they say you’re helping, uh, the economy resuming a little bit.
People within the dance music scene need to know who is their enemy, who is working against them. And that notion is still not in people’s brains. I did a panel back in Lyon that was called European Lab. So they brought a few speakers and talked about the future of music. They would speak about, for example, ecology within the dance music scene. So there was someone that went “oh yeah, I’m touring on a bike, that’s how I tackle the ecology.” And there was this older guy who said “I’m not using commercial flights anymore, I’m just using boats and that’s how I tackle ecology”. But commercial flight, [according to] the list of the biggest causes of CO2 emissions, ranks fifth, but it’s nothing compared to the real deal, which is energy, agriculture, and construction. It’s so ridiculous that if you’re trying to tell me you are trying to curb commercial flights to reduce your CO2 emission, it only tells me that you don’t understand the extent of the climate collapse. And that’s my issue with this kind of neoliberal “personal responsibility” narrative that is gaining a lot of traction in the dance music scene.
You put the responsibility on the individual where you should tackle the corporations that are killing us with impunity. And there’s this political party, the Greens, they’ve been just playing in front of people’s faces and people are not asking them for accountability. The German Green Party is trying to implement a “carbon tax” where rich corporations will pay the state so they can pollute more. And that’s what they’re offering. Nobody is tackling this and we already have this in France. And that was the biggest financial scandal because of course, corporations have people in their teams to do financial optimization, so they don’t have to pay that new tax that the state implemented, you know?
So the issue is that in dance music, and politics in general, people tackle politics because they don’t understand scale. And so, for example, when we talk about doing a strike in dance music, that strike should be international, right? It should be across countries because if people involved in dance music will refuse to play in protest of all this inequality going on, and most importantly, [because] the pandemic is not taken seriously by the states, it will create pressure. You have countries like the Netherlands, that make events where close to 1000 people were infected. So, what kind of DJs will go into the Netherlands, which, since the start of the pandemic, is a “red” country on the epidemic scale, and they just go there, they play, and they get their cash?
So, when I wrote that article about the future of music after COVID, it was really about the depoliticization of dance music and how we should politicize it back, to push for progressive measures, to decommodify the dancefloor. But unfortunately, the political state of affairs within dance music is not going towards the decommodification of the dancefloor, but towards “how we can make the most money”.So this kind of behavior should be called out and talked about because this ain’t what electronic music is about, what techno is about. And, if you’re LARPing and being “Oh yeah, we are techno, we are the heirs of the rave movement”, but you’re doing events with a mega-corporation, somebody should call you out and nobody is doing that. And it’s really, it’s worrying. And it’s like people just accepted the fact that we are going to live in a dystopian neoliberal future. So, the fact that there are only one or two writers here and there who write about this is worrying.