New York City is awash this month with the confluence of black culture, avant-garde art and the utopian vision known as Afrofuturism – which is also the name of a festival at the citywide that Carnegie Hall presents, offering a noir perspective on the ideas of sonic and science fiction with musical events, film screenings and artist talks that connect history, liberation, technology and improvisation. Elsewhere, Assembly fills the Park Avenue Armory with choreographed multimedia works and performances by interdisciplinary artist Rashaad Newsome.
But anyone who wants to experience a younger, more energetic take on Afrofuturism can head to Brooklyn, where a festival called Dweller features a community of black artists playing techno music on crowded dance floors.
Techno, a staple of nightlife from London to Tokyo and a driver of tourist economies in Berlin and Tulum, is firmly rooted in the black American experience – particularly the “hi-tech soul” music of 1980s Detroit and 90s, when groundbreaking artists like Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig and the band Drexciya were building a post-industrial sound world with electronic equipment.
Techno has long been a creative cauldron for musicians and cultural thinkers, inspiring its own creative afrofuturist wing as well as an army of social critics who see in this music both a reflection of the contemporary technological world and the seeds of a future society. In Brooklyn, recently one of the most fertile outposts of techno music and culture, music has united a young community: predominantly black and brown, female, queer and non-binary. Dweller, inaugurated in 2019, is its return to its roots.
Dweller’s story begins at the Bossa Nova Social Club, a small Myrtle Avenue bar with a dance floor and DJ booth.
“It opened in 2012 and has been a neighborhood spot for emerging artists and talent,” said Dweller founder Frankie Hutchinson, the talent scout at Bossa Nova Civic Club since 2018. “A lot of people have kind of found their community and their career through playing and hanging out there.”
Hutchinson moved to New York from London in 2009. Like many young Britons, she had developed a love for electronic club music in primary school, but was unaware of her black American history. In Bossa, Hutchinson learned that the pioneers of techno were in Detroit’s black communities.
“You wouldn’t know from looking at the way it’s presented now,” she said. “That’s the problem, that’s where I was: something is wrong. So that kind of planted a seed – but I wasn’t in a place where I could do something about it. ‘era.
The first thing she did, in 2014, was Discwoman, a talent agency representing female and non-binary DJs and producers, which Hutchinson co-founded with two other members of her Bossa community, Emma Olson (known globally as the name of DJ Umfang) and Christine Tran. Very quickly, Discwoman became a force in bringing issues of gender inequality and racial discrimination to the DJ booth and onto the notoriously white, male-heavy stage. In Brooklyn, the change wrought by Discwoman’s rhetoric was evident in the late ’10s, with an influx of young women and non-binary artists and audiences of color storming the borough’s clubs.
Discwoman’s growing visibility in the industry has also helped bring out great female and non-binary musical talent across the globe. When Hutchinson became Bossa’s booker, one of those musicians pitched the idea for what would become Dweller. Ash Lauryn, an Atlanta-based Detroit DJ, wanted to play Bossa during Black History Month on a project with fellow black DJ, Brooklyn’s Olive T.
“And then I thought, why not make it five or six days?” recalls Hutchinson. “I mean, why not? I do the club bookings, I know a wealth of black talent, Bossa is booked with DJs every day. So why not just make these black DJs every day during this time? This really isn’t a difficult lift. And I think that’s one of the things that struck me the most in the beginning: it’s so simple. People want to do it and people want to support it. So let’s start over, let’s make it bigger. That’s kind of where we’re at now.
Where they are now is five nights of programming that began on Wednesday, at five local and independent clubs around Bushwick and Ridgewood – but sadly not at Bossa, which has not reopened since suffering a fire in mid-January. Participants include Detroit techno legends Underground Resistance and Stacey Hotwaxx Hale; representatives of the Chicago footwork dance scene, RP Boo and Jana Rush; and musicians who were part of New York’s black techno queer and trans bloom of the 10s but left the city for better economic climates, including multimedia artist Juliana Huxtable and producer LSDXOXO.
Yet the bread and butter of Dweller remain the locals who first helped this community thrive, and are now establishing themselves as the next wave of global black techno artists. Like Dion McKenzie, the trans DJ, producer and multidisciplinary artist who goes by the name of Tygapaw. He’s a Jamaican immigrant who came to New York to study art at Parsons, and fell in love with techno in part because of how this black electronic music affirmed their identity.
“There’s a truth to that,” McKenzie said of the sound. “It’s so powerful, and there’s also so much flexibility. As a pure form of expression, I feel whole in it, I feel very complete, and this is the first time I have felt that, exploring my art.
Tygapaw has spent much of the past decade developing a safe and inclusive club space for gay, trans, and non-binary Caribbeans in Brooklyn. Their club night Fake Accent, established in 2014, alongside parties such as Papi Juice and iBomba, has built a community with like-minded DJs and promoters including Discwoman, acknowledging “a wave of something happening at New York”.
At the same time, Tygapaw senses the artistic growth taking place around them.
“While I’m DJing, I play a lot of my friends’ music, and I find something about the exchange of sounds that happens in these spaces,” they said. “And that’s what I wasn’t quite expecting to find out, what we were creating and building – that we were starting a whole sound movement and change and change. It happened quite naturally, because the environment was created to feed these sounds.
According to cultural critic DeForrest Brown, Jr., who also performs live techno as Speaker Music, the nurturing environment that informs the creation of community is exactly what has always separated Detroit’s techno culture from others. dance club stages around the world. There are social, often historical intentions that manifest themselves in this music alongside the great rhythms.
“The world experiences techno as a kind of dance music, as a form of liberation,” Brown said. “But when we go back to Detroit as a city, there’s a 100-plus-year musical lineage tied to an almost 400-year-old African-American vernacular and musical tradition that’s been more or less made high-tech. The hope with something like Dweller is that you come away with a sense of community, but also with a story – and in particular a 400 year old story that goes hand in hand with the stories that have been pushed forward by bands like Underground Resistance and Drexciya in the 1990s.
These heady expectations are really Dweller’s goals. Its website, edited by Ryan Clark, is full of techno-futuristic texts and anecdotes written by both academics and members of Dweller’s global online audience. Numerous lectures and educational panels are part of this year’s festival, bringing the conversation into the club. (Clark and Ghana-based curator Enyo Amexo helped set up the Dweller 2022 program.)
Yet Frankie Hutchinson is the first to say that the simple balms of camaraderie on the dance floor are also Dweller’s core values.
“In this year’s award announcement [festival], I felt such a love and a need for that to happen, because we’ve been through so much in this time — especially the black community, especially the black community,” Hutchinson said. “And, you know , we just want to have fun, feel loved, respected and valued. And that’s what I hope he could deliver.
Dweller takes place at various clubs in Bushwick and Ridgewood until Sunday evening.