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‘Music to riot with’: An exploration of Detroit techno, Afrofuturism and anti-colonialism

Honi Soit Writing Competition 2020 non-fiction shortlist.

The power of music and art to disrupt, critique and explore societal structures is well-known, with the best of it imaging how we can effect societal change. This has never been more important than now.

It’s in this maelstrom that Detroit Techno (DT) and its utilisation of Afrofuturist imagery and themes is profoundly relevant by providing us with a radical and timely exploration of racial oppression, colonialism and imagined futures.

DT is the genesis of all other forms of Techno, with its origins beginning in the mid-1980s underground electronic dance music scene of Detroit, Michigan – a city with a vibrant culture and long history of Black resistance. The genre’s emergence is generally understood as beginning with Juan Atkins’ releases under the Model 500 name. Atkins’ early DT work was primarily influenced by the electronic instrumentation used by German Avant-Garde group Kraftwerk, the funk rhythms of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and the futurist concepts of writer Alvin Toffler. These influences of Atkins led to DT being founded by the use of ethereal synthesisers, steadily pushed forward by the rhythms of drum machines, notably the Roland 808. The establishment of a prominent Techno scene in Detroit began with Atkins’ collaborations with fellow young Detroit producers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Critical to the emergence of DT was the context of a post-industrial Detroit, where the prominent automobile industry had been gutted and Motown Records had left for Los Angeles. Writer Cristoph Schaub argued that the move of Motown Records “symbolically confirmed the city’s cultural decline”, providing a context in which the originators of DT were compelled to disrupt and explore new sonic avenues.

 Foundational to DT’s origins is Afrofuturism, a broad cultural and philosophical movement that explores distant futures, alternate realities and technological development founded in the images and philosophies of African National and diasporic tradition. The struggles of African diaspora, with its horrifying history of slavery and oppression, is critical to the formation of Afrofuturism, as Afrofuturist artists, writers, and theorists often seek to reclaim the past and find optimism for the future. Afrofuturism uses science-fictional depictions of technologically advanced African diasporas to critique the White cultural depiction of ‘primitive’ Black peoples, and instead imagines a future that is founded in “cosmic liberation”: a reality where technological possibilities have enabled Black empowerment and the destruction of race-based colonial structures. In this imagining of the future, Afrofuturism is not merely a triangulation of Black culture with science fiction, but a creative exploration of the possible futures that challenge the oppression faced by Black people, including the systematic exploitation and injustice perpetrated by the police and prison systems.

The links between Afrofuturism and DT is important for understanding the ability for music to be a tool for liberation. The futuristic imagery, ethos and album themes of many early DT artists invoke Afrofuturist themes. There is a constant motif of futuristic artist names and album titles in the DT scene, like the artists “Model 500” and “Drexciya”, as well as the album “Interstellar Fugitives” by Underground Resistance. These artists all used explicitly science fiction and futurist inspired names alongside representation of robots, aliens and interstellar civilisations, as an attempt to occupy and reclaim the future for the African diaspora.

Emblematic of the prevalence of Afrofuturism in DT is the mythos of DT group Drexciya, with their formation of the race of ‘Drexciyans’, as developed in the sleeve notes to their 1997 album ‘The Quest’, an underwater civilisation of an aquatic human species who descended “from ‘pregnant America-bound African slaves’ thrown overboard ‘by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo’”. Drexciya’s depiction of America-bound African slaves rising up and thriving from the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade explicitly attacks colonial structures. The new race of Drexciyans disrupt the functions of colonialism and slavery by adapting and overcoming the immense hardship faced, establishing their own society, which is not only technologically sophisticated, but is outside of the colonial gaze, a society which is unknown and therefore unable to be colonised.

The anti-colonial thematic concerns are also prevalent within Underground Resistance’s (UR) 1998 release ‘Interstellar Fugitives’, where in its sleeve notes they conceptualise a future “in which colonialism is recasts in… cosmic proportions”. It is in this mythos where UR use a fictional report by the ‘Intergalactic Bureau of Investigation’ to conceptualise DT as a mutant gene called R1, which has been spread through ‘sonic parasites’, by the ‘rhythm-machine’ of Detroit. UR develop this concept further by acknowledging that this R1 gene has mutated from its cousin gene, rhythm, which “was created during a period of time ranging from the 1400s to the late 1800s in colonized areas throughout the world and especially in the new world of the Americas”. The framing of R1 as a ‘parasite’ as written by the Intergalactic Bureau of Investigation, seeks to directly critique modern colonial structures such as the police, with R1 being viewed as disruptive to colonial powers due to its ability to invoke liberation from and revolt against the Intergalactic colonialism prevalent within this future. It is here where UR directly explore thematic and conceptual possibility for music to be a means of liberation, as well as how the police act on the basis of maintaining colonial structures and directly attacking Black individuals and their culture, through surveillance, threats and violence. UR explore the thread from African rhythms to DT with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the institutions of slavery once again being “ground zero” on which both DT and anti-colonial struggle have been built. UR’s use of Afrofuturist themes further develops how sound and culture can be utilised as a means to directly fight against and attack colonial structures, as metaphorically explored by the R1 gene.

By exploring the mythos surrounding the work of both Drexciya and UR, through the use of Afrofuturist imagery and fictions, I have aimed to explore how we can understand and view DT as directly attacking colonial history and its own mutation into the modern world as systemic and institutionalised racism.  

There are significant links between the anti-colonial and Afrofuturist sentiments held in DT and the various Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements occurring across the world. Critical to the BLM movement is a critique of the police and their role in maintaining colonial structures that directly exploit and attack Black individuals and communities, as well as the recognition of the ways that systemic racism is encoded not only in both American, Australian and colonial culture but in our economy, our institutions and in every-day life. It is in this context where DT becomes important and profoundly relevant, as it imagines alternative futures that exist away from the continuing colonial gaze and exploitative structures such as the police. Just as the BLM movement articulates an agenda of change by defunding police and redirecting resources towards more constructive policies and programs, DT music and culture creates its own reimagining of the future where colonial structures are dismantled and Black empowerment is promoted. DT has even been played at BLM protests in Detroit as rhythmic fuel against colonial oppression. DT is not merely dance music, but, as the theorist Kodwo Eshun put it, “Techno becomes an immersion in insurrection, music to riot with.”