(Un)equal access to the dancefloor
Agathe Blume (DJ name Äggi Blu) is a Korean-born DJ based in Berlin. Having begun her musical journey a few years ago, she writes a personal piece about the trials and tribulations of being a female immigrant in an often white male-dominated scene, the multi-faceted layers of discrimination she has experienced, and why she’s still determined to keep going on.
This piece contains descriptions of sexual assault, and of racial and gender-based discrimination.
What attracts many of us to dance music is the feeling of connection and equality on the dance floor—the feeling, that who we are in the daylight matters not. As long as we are stomping to the same rhythm under the same roof, we are all human, equalized in the moment.
Though the beauty of this unification remains nonetheless palpable, some of us, unfortunately, don’t get to conveniently leave our identity at the coat check. Perhaps none of us really do, but some are reminded more often, and more harshly, of how our identities belong in the periphery of the scene, be it as a musician or a party-goer.
Before further illustrating the obstacles many of us must overcome in order to access the dancefloor, I would like to offer some transparency: I am an Asian able-bodied cis woman, and this article is largely pertinent to my own anecdotal experience of race and gender. That is to say, I cannot claim to understand and represent the experience of all marginalized groups in this piece. However, I do write in the hope of encouraging others to share their experiences. My intentions are not to vilify the ‘scene’, but rather to facilitate an empathetic understanding between partiers, and to discuss how we can build a more inclusive community moving forward.
Before I began making music, I attended one of the largest music festivals in Japan with a friend who at the time was working as a booking agent for a prominent producers in electronic music, and therefore stayed at the designated artists’ hotel. As my friends and I were grabbing beers at the hotel bar, said producer and several other agents and artists joined our table. All of them were Western men. I was the only woman at the table who was neither a girlfriend nor a wife. The conversation was also divided between genders, as though the men and women were sitting at different tables. That first glimpse of the electronic music industry made it difficult to imagine my future place at the table as an industry professional, as opposed to the romantic partner of one.
The Western music industry is not alone in creating barriers to success in the music scene. Korean culture also tries to pull me away from it. One day, I was practicing on CDJs at a studio when I received an angry text message from my mother. She had found out that I was DJing and threatened to disown me if I did not stop and cut myself off from the music community right away. In Korea, clubbing is often demonized by those who don’t partake. Young women are especially stigmatized for going to clubs. Typically, young people in Korea live with their parents until they get married, and most Korean parents feel entitled to setting curfews for their adult live-in daughters. Once, when I was back in Seoul for the summer and staying at my parent’s house, I was invited to a top techno club by a well-established local promoter who booked major international DJs. It would have been the perfect opportunity for me to network with other industry professionals, however, my mother was extremely offended that I would so much as dare to suggest going to a club “at such ungodly hours”. In the end, I could not go to that particular event. I’ve been lucky enough to move to Berlin and enjoy my freedom, but it’s impossible to know how much young Korean talent is kept away from the scene based on gender. Even for those like myself who were able to get away, it means that being part of electronic music scene comes at the cost of potential alienation from family.
Eventually, I began DJing friends’ parties in Berlin. In prior experience, I had perceived DJs as possessing of a certain power over the crowd, at least for the duration of their set. I quickly realised that this power was exclusive to male DJs. While DJing at parties, men whom I barely knew advanced upon the booth and felt at liberty to touch my body, putting their arms around me during my set. This behaviour is intrusive, particularly when I’m concentrated on mixing and therefore oblivious to a stranger invading my personal space. On other occasions, men have approached me in order to explain the different functions of the CDJ. It’s needless to say how insulting and condescending this is. Sadly, technical lecturing on CDJs mid-set is something that happens even to internationally touring female DJs. Such exhibitions signify the dissolution of normal dancefloor power dynamics once the gender of the DJ changes.
Consumers in the industry are not impervious to hurdles, either, with the most obvious barrier embodied in the bouncers holding selection authority over who gets into a party and who doesn’t. This is especially true in Berlin’s notoriously selective clubs. And don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for a vetting process that aims to ensure a safe and fun club experience. But more often than not, admission is entirely based a clubber’s visual presentation. While people can convey a great deal about themselves in their personal style, and club bouncers depend on this information in order to decide who is worthy of the rave, problems arise for an Asian woman who doesn’t represent the ‘Berlin clubber’ archetype, much less a typical DJ.
I often face rejection, unless I turn myself into a fetishised, sexualised version of an Asian woman that translates as identifying with a particular subculture.
It saddens me to choose between dressing to express myself and accessing the dancefloor, and furthermore, be expected to appropriate the look of a subculture that I don’t belong to. In order to see some of my favourite female DJs play in clubs, I need to dress myself according to the white male gaze, in order to not lose the valuable learning opportunity of seeing a talented artist play live.
Of the times when I do make it onto the dancefloor, it’s hard to recall a single night that went by without sexual assault and/or racial harassment. One of the more benign occurrences was at a festival in Italy where I repeatedly heard people remark, “Oh my god, it’s Peggy Gou” (I’m flattered, but I’m actually Äggi Blu). I tried to dismiss this as cute, though problematic, for the sake of my mental health. In more sinister memories of the same festival, someone groped my breasts and another person whispered “come f**k me” in my ear. Such experiences taint what would have otherwise been a beautiful memory of attending a festival and dancing to my favorite artists.
One of the most deplorable transgressions still makes me feel violated even after two years. The offense transpired at Japan’s largest music festival (the one mentioned earlier). I was losing my mind to a gabber set by a well-known English producer, and much of the audience was also Western. While I was dancing, an Australian guy began to flirt with me. I found this endearing at first, as the music had put me in a good mood. That soured when other men (who the Australian called his “brothers”) surrounded me on the dance floor. Together they began pressuring me to come to their hotel room for group sex, at the same time touching my body from every direction. I panicked, feeling unable to move. My friends couldn’t see what was happening through the taller men surrounding me on the crowded dancefloor. In the end, I excused myself by saying, “my friends are waiting”. I left the stage area to search desperately for my companions. I was terrified by the realisation that that these men had come to Japan with the expectation of fulfilling a Japanese gang-bang porn fantasy, and I was chosen as someone to satisfy their fetish based on my race and gender, because hey, what did they care if I were Japanese or Korean as long as I looked the same and made the same noise? I had been enjoying the music, and was unjustly forced to leave mid-set because others felt the right to violate my body based on my race and gender. As I left the venue, I saw them preying on another Asian woman.
The saddest truth is, although the degree may vary, I do not know a single woman who has not experienced sexual assault or harassment on the dancefloor. Many of us personally know more than one woman whose drink was spiked at a party. Having our bodies violated on the dancefloor in some way is more of a norm than an exception for many of us. Many of us understandably stop coming to raves because they feel unsafe. To those of us still dancing in in spite of that, infringement on our bodily autonomy shouldn’t be a price we have to pay in order to be a part of the dance music community. A dancefloor should be a place where everyone is able to move their bodies freely with the flow of music, and there needs to be a minimum level of trust that our bodies will not be violated, in order to openly let go and enjoy.
The problem lies not with a few sexist and racist people ruining the fun for everyone else. None of the male artists and agents sitting at the table at the festival were villains, and neither were the bouncers who rejected me. They were people who loved (and created) the same music that I loved, yet failed to notice anything wrong with the picture, as it looked exactly how it had at the beginning of their careers. Acceptance of this stasis brought us here, and now it’s time to create friction against the inertia.
We need to recognize that racism and sexism are not exceptions committed by monsters, but rather defaults that we have internalized from a young age.
Unless we actively unlearn harmful societal messages, we will continue to make mistakes and succumb to discriminatory bias. We must be held accountable for educating ourselves and challenge the harmful status quo (although, I am perfectly comfortable with vilifying these particular Australian ‘bros’ that touched me at the Japanese festival. Go to Vegemite hell where there is no WiFi to watch your Japanese porn).
That’s why we want to begin with a community-based approach. It takes more than improving women’s representation in festival and club line-ups to change things, although it is a necessary first step. As long as the label owners who have the power over whose music is worth publishing, the venue owners who have control over the space, bookers who have the power to curate the programs, the agents that communicate on behalf of these artists, and the bouncers that choose who gets access to the dancefloor stay in the same mindset as ten years ago, marginalized artists will still experience additional impediments. We can no longer be satisfied with booking a few token female (and PoC) artists here and there and expect them to do the ‘diversity work’. It is rather the task of others in the scene to make sure that we are procuring an environment where marginalized musicians can equally and safely thrive without having to earn their place through additional activist labour.
Broadening the community-based approach from the industry professionals to the entire dance music community, we must act as ‘accountable strangers’ and look out for safety of others on the dancefloor. Checking in on others, if anyone looks like they’re in an unwanted interaction, or looks abnormally high, and reporting problematic conduct to the bouncer. Perhaps the dancefloor will never be completely rid of creeps. But as long as I can rely on community of strangers to stand up with and for me in such circumstances, I’ll feel much stronger and safer. I want to be that accountable stranger for someone else on the dancefloor, too.
Why am I still in the music scene despite the negative experiences? Because of the community of people who encouraged me to keep playing; who kept inviting me to play at their parties; who kept listening to my mixes on their commute; who kept showing up and dancing to my sets; who kept mentoring me without patronizing; who connected me to other empowered femme musicians; who let me be inspired and let me inspire them; who believed in my music, and in me. And because I believe in the better part of this community, I believe that we can change the status quo for the better.
I object to leaving in defeat. Together we can reclaim the dancefloor.
This article was originally published in a print zine for the collective Displaced. Edited by Siobhan McKay.