New York City is awash this month in the confluence of Black culture, forward-thinking art, and utopian vision known as Afrofuturism – which is also the name of a citywide festival Carnegie Hall is presenting, offering a Black perspective on the ideas of sonic and science fiction with music 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 more youthful, energetic vision of Afrofuturism can head to Brooklyn, where a festival called Dweller is showcasing a community of Black artists playing techno music to packed dance-floors. Techno, a nightlife staple from London to Tokyo and a driver of tourist economies in Berlin and Tulum, is firmly rooted in the Black American experience – specifically the “hi-tech soul” music of Detroit of the 1980s and ‘90s, when groundbreaking artists such as Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig and the group Drexciya were building a post-industrial sound world with electronic equipment.
Techno has long been a creative cauldron for musicians and cultural thinkers alike, 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, the music has united a young community: largely Black and Brown, female, queer and non-binary. Dweller, inaugurated in 2019, is its homecoming.
Dweller’s story begins at Bossa Nova Social Club, a small Myrtle Avenue bar with a dance-floor and a DJ booth.
“It opened in 2012, and has been a neighborhood spot of emerging artists and talent,” said Dweller founder Frankie Hutchinson, the talent booker at Bossa Nova Civic Club since 2018. “A lot of people have kind of found their community and careers through playing and frequenting there.”
Hutchinson moved to New York from London in 2009. Like many young Brits, she had developed a love for electronic club music in primary school, but was unaware of its Black American history. At Bossa, Hutchinson was schooled that techno’s pioneers were in Black communities in Detroit.
“You wouldn’t know that from looking at the way it’s presented now,” she said. “That’s the issue, that’s where I was like: something isn’t right. So it kind of planted a seed — but I wasn’t at a place where I could make something at the time.”
The first thing she made, in 2014, was Discwoman, a talent agency that represents female and non-binary DJs and producers, which Hutchinson co-founded with two other members of her Bossa community, Emma Olson (globally known as the DJ Umfang) and Christine Tran. Very quickly, Discwoman became a force for bringing issues of gender inequality and racial discrimination to the DJ booth and the notoriously white male-heavy scene. In Brooklyn, the change instigated by Discwoman’s rhetoric was readily apparent by the late ‘10s, with an influx of young, women and non-binary artists and audiences of color storming the borough’s clubs.
Discwoman’s rising visibility in the industry also helped surface great female and non-binary musical talent around the world. When Hutchinson became the booker at Bossa, one of those musicians initiated the idea for what would become Dweller. Ash Lauryn, an Atlanta-based DJ from Detroit, wanted to play Bossa during Black History Month on a bill with another Black female DJ, Brooklyn’s Olive T.
“And then I was like, why don’t we just do five or six days of this?” Hutchinson recalled. “I mean, why not? I do the bookings of the club, I know a wealth of Black talent, Bossa is booked with DJs every single day. So why not just make those DJs Black every single day for that period? It’s really not a hard lift. And I think that’s been one of the things that was so striking to me initially about it: this is so simple. People want to do it and people want to support it. So let’s do it again, let’s make it bigger. That’s kind of where we’re at now.”
Where they are now is five nights of programming that started on Wednesday, at five locally and independently-owned and -operated clubs around Bushwick and Ridgewood – though 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; Chicago’s footwork dance scene representatives RP Boo and Jana Rush; and musicians who were part of the New York’s Black queer and trans techno flowering of the ‘10s but left the city for better economic climates, including multimedia artist Juliana Huxtable and producer LSDXOXO.
Yet Dweller’s bread-and-butter remain the locals who first helped this community flourish, 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 Tygapaw. They are a Jamaican immigrant who came to New York to study art at Parsons, and fell in love with techno partly because of how this Black electronic music affirmed their identity.
“There’s a truth to it,” McKenzie said of the sound. “It’s so powerful, and there’s so much flexibility to it as well. As a pure form of expression, I feel whole in it, I feel very complete, and that’s the first time I’ve ever felt that way, in exploring my art.”
Tygapaw spent much of the last decade developing a safe inclusive club space for gay, trans and non-binary Carribeans in Brooklyn. Their club night Fake Accent, established in 2014, alongside parties such as Papi Juice and iBomba, built a community with like-minded DJs and promoters including Discwoman, recognizing “a wave of something happening in New York.”
At the same time, Tygapaw senses the artistic growth taking place around them.
“While I’m DJing, I’m playing a lot of my friends’ music out, and I’m discovering something in the the sound exchange that’s happening within these spaces,” they said. “And that’s what I wasn’t quite expecting to discover, what we were creating and building – that we were starting a whole sound movement and a shift and a change. That happened quite naturally, because the environment was created to nurture those sounds.”
According to cultural critic DeForrest Brown, Jr., who also performs live techno under the name Speaker Music, the nurturing environment that informs the creation of community is exactly what has always separated Detroit’s techno culture from other dance-club scenes around the globe. There are social, often historical intentions that manifest themselves in this music alongside the great beats.
“The world experiences techno as a kind of dance music, as a form of release,” Brown said. “But when we go back to Detroit as a city, there’s an over 100-year long musical lineage tied to a near 400-year-long African American vernacular and musical tradition, that’s been more or less made high tech. The hope with something like Dweller is that you actually walk away with a sense of, for one, community, but also with a story – and particularly a 400-year-long one that runs consistently with the stories that were put into the fore by groups like Underground Resistance and Drexciya in the 1990s.”
Those heady expectations are very much Dweller’s goals. Its website, edited by Ryan Clark, is full of techno-futurist texts and anecdotes written by both academics and members of Dweller’s global online audience. Numerous talks and educational panels are part of this year’s festival, bringing the conversation into the club. (Clark and the Ghana-based curator Enyo Amexo helped assemble the 2022 Dweller program.)
Yet Frankie Hutchinson is the first to say that the simple balms of dance-floor camaraderie are also Dweller’s core values.
“In the announcement of this year’s [festival], I felt such love and a need for it to happen, because we have kind of been through so much in this time — especially the Black community, specifically the Black community,” Hutchinson said. “And, you know, we just wanna have fun, and feel love, and respected and valued. And that’s what I hope that it could offer.”
Dweller takes place at various clubs in Bushwick and Ridgewood through Sunday night.