Electronic music is all about a good time and celebration, and this month, there's no better way to celebrate than to recognize and applaud the women and gender-expansive people of color that have paved the way for new talent.
In the beginning of the 80’s, electronic music started combining with Disco Music, taking its soul and funk and giving birth to a brand-new genre, house music which later became Techno. This music was most popular in Black, gay clubs located in big U.S. cities such as Chicago’s Warehouse and Muzik Box in New York City. The story of electronic music has been defined almost exclusively by the men that influenced the genre, such as Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan and Ron Hardy. Moreover, the women and gender-expansive people who have had pivotal roles in this world are often left out of the conversation.
The creation of electronic music dates back to the 50’s, with the practice of manipulating live acoustic instrument sounds with technology and electronics. Technology was seen as a liberation by the women involved in this movement, since its implementation allowed these women to transcend the Western Classical compositional traditions. An example of these early female pioneers is Japanese experimental musician, Michiko Toyama. In 1956 she came to North America to study electronic music in what is now known as the Computer Music Center at Columbia. She was able to record her only album, Waka and Other Compositions: Contemporary Music of Japan in 1960. In this project Toyama blends classical Japanese poetry, spoken word, and electronic effects she created that sounded like the Japanese mouth organ.
Even though Toyama had great success in her studies, she was not able to escape the stereotypes, misogyny, and biases upheld by the male academic world during the Cold War. When she applied for a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to further her studies, she was denied and the feedback on her application read, “Toyama is a somewhat unfeminine Japanese lady with scraggly hair and scratchy voice but apparently knows her music well,” (Pitchfork Magazine). Toyama went back to Japan and shifted her career towards technical acoustic research.
Another incredible role model in house music is Sharon White, often referred to as ‘The Architect’ of the House and Disco scene. White worked tirelessly in the 70’s and 80’s playing in different gay clubs in New York City such as Studio 54, Palladium, Sound Factory Bar, The Roxy, The Limelight and The Saint. Working 12-hour days were normal for her, but, at the beginning of her career, White was usually called only when her male counterparts were unable to make a shift. When asked by Mixmag about the challenges she faces as a gay,
Black woman on the scene, White replied that in terms of her sexuality she had always been comfortable with herself and, thankfully, the underground scene was accepting towards everyone. However, she faced many challenges in that environment because of the color of her skin. She mentions, “One night Natalie Cole was coming to see me and she came in a limo and [the doormen] were like ‘No’. So I went down and took her and her friends up to the VIP lounge and went to the owner and I said: ‘This is Natalie Cole and your doorman wouldn’t let them in because he’s got an issue with their color. You need to get him straight. And everything that they want, put it on my tab, thank you,’” (Mixmag, 2020).
Last but not least, we have to mention another amazing queer, Black female DJ, Detroit’s Stacey Hotwaxx, well known as “The Godmother of House.” She’s been influenced by icons such as Princess Julia, who taught her how to beatmatch, and Mrs Wood. Hotwaxx played at Apollo, The Warehouse and Studio 54, where her sound continued to evolve into what is now techno. At the beginning of her career, she was recruited to play with Duncan Sound, a collective of DJs in New York City, which gave her a residence at The Lady. She mentions the erasure of women’s history in this industry and that by telling the stories of these people we continue to keep them alive and celebrate their influence. In her later career, Hotwaxx continues to mentor young people venturing into music production, and she also founded the Lesbians of Color Support Network.
What electronic music represents for the queer community and minorities is freedom, diversity, and a break from everyday life. However, its industry continues to perpetuate biases against precisely the groups of people that have helped make electronic music be what it is today.
-Written by Valeria Orrantia
Herrera, Isabelia “The Secret History of Women in Electronic Music Is Just Beginning to Be Told” Pitchfork Magazine 29 Apr. 2021 https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/the-secret-history-of-women-in-electronic-music-is-just-beginning-to-be-told/
Jaguar. “The Unsung Black Women Pioneers of House Music” MixMag, 19 Oct. 2020 https://mixmag.net/feature/the-unsung-black-women-pioneers-of-house-music
Jarreau, Renee “Black Women Helped Build House Music. Their Credit Is Often Left off Records.” Zora, Medium 10 Jul. 2020 https://zora.medium.com/black-women-helped-build-house-music-their-credit-is-often-left-off-records-8fc505300bd1