ADE Talks Review: Shifting the Diversity Dialogue

This is a short series of articles, considering the most important, most resounding panels of Amsterdam Dance Event conferences. A collection of observations that span the conversation in the industry for the rest of the year, the heated discussions and knowledge that is worth special attention. To scan through or read thoroughly, as always is your choice, but we decided no to listen through and spread the gospel.

This time, I’ll be analysing the panel presented in the ADE Pro programme by Mixmag: “Shifting the Diversity Dialogue”, which had a truly diverse set-up (naturally), represented by Coco Cole (GB, DJ/Producer), Gina Turner (US, DJ/Producer), Olga Zegers (NL, Former Music Director at ID&T), William Djoko (DJ/Producer/MC) and Carlos Valdes (NL, DJ/Producer/Promoter of “…Is Burning), moderated by Mixmag’s Nick DeCosemo (Mixmag, US), that was aiming to look at the state of diversity in the music scene.

Is this an actual issue?

Indeed, diversity is a highly addressed topic recent times. To a point you stop doubting it’s a problem at all, considering its origins and the general accessibility of music as an art form. If so, why are we even talking about lack of inclusivity and diversity? Maybe the process of diversification is in fact taking place right now, as William Djoko expressed: “[…] making music is open for everyone no matter what race, gender or sexual preference you have in life”. Based on his opinion, the situation for females is changing rapidly too: “There are so many upcoming female names in the market: Kim Ann FoxmanSassy J, not to mention Tama Sumo and Steffi already doing a helluva job in Berlin…”.

Well, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of the world’s highest paid DJs are Caucasian male (sources: Forbes). Even if you disregard the financial reward as a measure, just think general appreciation and evaluation. Just take a look at this years RA top 100 and count the number of women there, or don’t bother – it’s actually 6 out of 100, the first one comes as the 20th from the top. Guess, neither Steffi, Tama Sumo or Kim Ann Foxman are among them.

Gina points that women are “stuck” in the support act position, rightfully so, when was the last time you remember a woman being a festival headliner? Meanwhile William himself shares that for his Dj’ing and dancing career, being black turned out to his advantage: “I was the token black DJ of the evening, which sometimes felt like, is it really me?”.

According to Olga Zegers, the main problem lays not in the real underground scene, but in the commercial and mainstream electronic scene: “I think there is still a club scene in a lot of places where there’s lots of room for diversity. But as soon as you look at the bigger things, huge festivals, commercial sounds, i think that is when its noticeable that there’s hardly any women, coloured people, etc.”

What are the causes of the reign?

Thus apparently yes, simple facts show, Caucasian male hold the scene. However, it is still unclear whether that is a consequence of discrimination or lack of talent and abilities? Same controversial question that arose with the Affirmative Action laws all around the globe. Mixmag’s Nick DeCosemo pointed to a struggle we as a media player identify with, which is one of those chicken or the egg questions: “Even if you choose to promote women proactively, the first criteria for anything is talent, then everything else comes after that – Are you good? Cause if you are not doesn’t matter what colour, gender you are.”

Thus are the possibilities exactly equal? Carlos points: “The criteria for talent should also be strict for the guys. There are a lot of people that are not talented and are still on top.”. Indeed, men DO have it much easier, as male Dj is an established precedent. Olga and Gina, both mothers of daughters comment that it is important to dupport children’s education, that one can become anything they want: “If there is no example for girls, they need to see that is possible, thus it needs to start with education and visibility. And support is important, that when you are at a certain level, support is very important.”

Gina comments here that women are stuck in getting booked as support acts, then there is no way to showcase yourself as a main act. Here, William points, that generally guys are more assertive to fight for the position. Olga (Former Music Director at ID&T) agrees: “Girls do tend to step up and take the lead way too less!” ID&T’s power-woman shared to have been criticised at work for being far too modest. Here William added: “And if a girl doesn’t behave as modest, then all of a sudden she’s perceived as a bitch.” According to the panel not only there are fewer possibilities for, the perceptions towards the minorities are in fact different.

Now here we can come to a certain conclusion, that every rising artist always deals with perceptions, has to draw his own inspirations and be assertive. Yes, the reality is that it will require a strong personality for artist of any gender or race to be assertive and rise to the top in this scene which is becoming a mainstream scene. Because a true artist should not care about perceptions.

Meanwhile, based on her experience in ID&T, Olga states that curating line-ups of big festivals, at a certain point there aren’t so many choices of women, and the big acts are predominantly white: “There is room for women to move up, because you can’t program someone totally unknown for a spot that needs to cater a huge audience so there needs to be some recognition and visibility. So we need to look at the path for people to be able to get there that needs to change.” What Olga wants to say here, I believe, is not that females aren’t good artistically, it’s that simply there aren’t enough marketed and popular female Djs.

Thus how do we push this change to happen?

Now the question is how can we improve this path? Is it through positive discrimination – proactive support of female Djs or stick to the talent comes first philosophy? And so which part of the industry should change first: is it the artists themselves, the artist managers, the media, is it the people booking the artists in clubs and festivals?

To answer this question, I believe a systematic change as such requires effort from throughout the process. Starting with the artist himself in being who they truly are. While both PR managers and bookers taking bold choices to highlight artists, personalities, instead of “marketable products”.

When it comes to media, I believe, media has to be the most critical, to be able to highlight talent and artistic personality. However following the same reasons as the Affirmative Action, media can be assertively finding creative ways to discover and highlight artists of more diverse backgrounds. However, not positioning females as female DJs, as Coco Cole points to media often using the catchphrase “What’s it like being a woman in the industry?”.

Thus, I wanted to round up with the words of Olga Zegers: “No one in general wants to be seen for their capacity, what they’re able to do in their work, rather as being the token female or black or whatever, no matter what you do.”