London’s Silverlining (aka Asad Rizvi) who is of mixed Indian and Pakistani origin, shares his experiences of the electronic music industry with other South Asian and Middle Eastern artists and looks at how they have overcome the implicit biases that often emerge.
As a child of mixed Indo-Pakistani heritage, growing up amidst the social war of attrition that was Thatcher’s Britain, one quickly learned the many shades of racism. The ‘hardworking British Asian’ emerged in the 1980s as a scapegoat for the nation’s ills and was regarded widely with belittlement and scorn. While street slurs were easy to brush off as other people’s problems, it was the silent exclusion that would be most mystifying.
When 1990 came around, the unity engendered by acid house rippled into pop culture making advances in mainstream society. Yet racism still continued to hang densely in the air. As a teenager getting into the scene, I found myself being greeted by some with open arms, while other pockets were cliquey and standoffish for reasons I could not understand. All I knew is that my identity did not conform to some people’s narrative of dance music.
After 9/11, belittlement turned to outright fear, and by the 2010s, media portrayals of Asian and Middle Eastern identities embedded the combined emotional force of both fear and antipathy. Far from being confined to the public spaces and airports, the ghosts of colonialism that lingered through my upbringing silently permeated areas that I previously thought to be safe havens, including the electronic music scene.
This begs the question, to who does electronic music belong?
The genesis of house and techno was an act of altruism by small collectivities of marginalised LGBTQ+, Black and Latino Americans in Chicago and Detroit. By misusing electronic instruments in ways unforeseen to their manufacturers, these hacker-pioneers sparked a flame that could evaporate the pains of difference and discord, within the refuge of the dance-floor. As the late Frankie Knuckles stated, house music is neither black nor white, while Kevin Saunderson maintains that his music was made for all the world to enjoy. To these originators, the global electronic music community owes everything. This includes an ongoing collective responsibility to preserve this music as an inclusive space for all identities.
More than 30 years later, it’s fair to say that these values receive plentiful support by the scene. The black square meme, initiated by the music industry, was a powerful show of hands against racism. Explicit displays of intolerance do not go unnoticed for long in the scene, with call-out furores regularly emerging, for better or worse, as a weapon of cultural self-regulation.
However, differential treatment and invisible systemic blockages continue to clog access to opportunities. Artists such as Jeff Mills and Kevin Saunderson have eloquently vocalised the experiences of black artists in 2020, sometimes with vitriolic responses online. Saunderson recalls a conversation with a booking agent who brushed him off, evidently oblivious to his seminal input to dance music. This is the kind of experience that I and many other persons of colour recognise clearly. Some of the organisations that have shouted loudest about BLM have gone on to reveal post-lockdown line-ups conspicuously absent of diversity. These patterns are nothing new, with persons of colour, women, LGBTQ+, and other ethnicities only accommodating a fraction of the available air time. Lots needs to be done to rebalance the black-white binary in dance music, but considerable work is needed to encourage fair opportunity to those not on that axis too.
Thankfully, I have been lucky enough to build many treasured relationships with DJs, producers, labels, distributors, booking agencies, promoters, journalists, pluggers, punters and more. Not a second of thought needs to be given to issues of bias when working with these exemplary people, many of whom I call friends.
However, there is another segment of the industry that reveals its biases in a multitude of ways. I compared notes with a few DJs, as well as Berlin’s Open Music Lab (OML), a non-profit that supports marginalised groups in the electronic music community. Their experiences were uncannily similar to my own. OML’s Gaby D’Annunzio states that “there are so many small ways bias manifests – in door policies, line-ups, label-rosters – but ultimately it reflects a bigger problem of inequality and prejudice, and that needs to be addressed head-on.”
This is exemplified by Deep Dish, who both note that despite decades of success, they have been continually cold-shouldered by major gatekeepers of the scene. Sharam adds, “it seems like we have to continually prove ourselves over and over again.”
London’s Mohson Stars, describes how set-times can often be moved, or available door revenues withheld in the name of exposure. D’Annunzio adds that one OML student found that his Arabic name caused “discrimination that permeated almost every aspect of his life,” including gigs and guest-lists. After adopting a white-sounding name, these issues all but vanished.
New York’s Taimur recollects that very few promoters would offer opportunities due to his being an outsider, causing him to start his own events. My personal experiences echo many of the above. At gigs, you might not be believed by security that you’re the DJ; or hear terrorist ‘jokes’ after people have had a couple of drinks. You might hear the remarks of surprise when you don’t fit someone’s narrow image of what a DJ should look like. In the press, you might be side-lined, shunned or omitted entirely from musical histories of which you were a part.
These accounts are consistent with reams of formal analysis into bias. One survey found that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people were three times more likely to be ejected from a venue than white patrons; in another, CVs from European-sounding names received twice as many interviews than those with black names, while in another, BAME graduates were between 5% and 15% less likely to be hired than their white British peers. These dynamics are the by-products of social upbringing and unfortunately drift over into the music industry.
When you bring these matters up, some say that you’re imagining things; that it’s not down to racism. Perhaps this is not racism in the classical name-calling or violent sense. But when differential treatment occurs it is the effect that matters most, even when well-meaning individuals make spontaneous decisions that contradict their better judgment. This has been widely explained over the last decade by implicit bias, or what academic Jean Moule refers to as ‘blink-of-the-eye racism’, where spontaneous, unconscious prejudices emerge from environmental input. We know from the innumerable police shootings in the USA and elsewhere that this sort of bias can be deadly. These instinctual decisions can also be the difference between lifelong struggle and economic survival for so many.
However, implicit bias discourse has been questioned for providing a convenient buffer behind which racism can hide. Legal academic, Michael Selmi, suggests that this explanation relates only to snap decisions made within a few seconds but not to deliberative decisions, which can be controlled by reasoned thought where a person is motivated to do so. Implicit bias informs reason but is not the final word. What this suggests is that with just a little effort, we all can check ourselves to ensure that our decisions and views are not being animated by external pre-conditioning.
Our stories are but a few among many you might hear from other identities that make electronic music the vibrant community it was always supposed to be. What we really need now is more first-hand narrative, rapport building and self-reflection. Progress begins within and we must all audit our decisions when working with others to ensure better judgment prevails.
The good news is that perseverance works. Many of us have found that the most effective way to counter the negative effects of privilege has been to cultivate the one reason we’re in it: the music. Nesa Azadikhah’s Deep House Tehran is a portal that is rapidly helping to dissolve perceptions about Iranians in electronic music.
It’s for all these reasons that artists such as Subb-an, 16B, Deep Dish and myself have needed to be so prolific with our releases: simply to be heard. “I’m not bitter,” Dubfire states, “success is the best revenge.” Sharam adds, “Perhaps it’s our geographical, cultural or racial background that enables us and motivates us to fight harder through the challenges and break down any perceived walls to get our music heard. So in that sense, I consider myself privileged.”
We just hope the next generation does not need to face the same hurdles as we did. Listen to their music for what it is, but please do listen.
Main photo Leonie Bradly
Silverlining is on Bandcamp & Twitter.