In the middle of March 2020, as stay-at-home precautions went into place across the United States to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, New York City-based platform, collective, and booking agency Discwoman sent out a tweet asking for donations on behalf of their roster. Last year was poised to be the agency’s biggest year yet, with some of their artists preparing for their first European tours, but over one hundred shows got canceled within the span of just a few days. Discwoman exclusively represents cis women, trans women, and genderqueer artists; most of whom are people of color. The group’s co-founders — Emma Burgess-Olsen, Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, and Christine McCharen-Tran — knew that many of their artists would soon find themselves in dire financial situations as a result of this unexpected domino effect.
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Much to their surprise, however, the tweet ushered in a wave of backlash from the industry at large. Some claimed that their artists didn’t deserve the money within the larger matrix of need, while others thought that Discwoman was attempting to spin a time of acute collective suffering into some sort of cash grab. For the three co-founders, it was a painful moment that would fundamentally reshape Discwoman’s future.
“None of us were expecting that, especially because we felt like it was very clear that so much of what we do is based around community and helping others,” Hutchinson says from Berlin just a few days shy of the one-year anniversary of the tweet. “In that kind of moment, you’re forced to reflect on the industry you’ve been a part of. Why were we giving so much in an industry that clearly doesn’t care about us at all? How much can you do to deserve respect? What do marginalized artists need to do in order to be understood and valued in this industry?”
In spite of the backlash to the tweet, Discwoman did get some donations. After divvying up the money, they were able to redistribute just a few hundred dollars to each of their artists as a stopgap to help them get through the month. But the hostility to their efforts shed light on something more sinister within the world of dance music. Burgess-Olsen still loses thousands of followers every day as her feed becomes less about her travels on the international party circuit and more about local mutual aid funds. “So many of the people engaging with this music don’t want to talk about racism because they see it as separate — they purposefully seek out dance music to not deal with this stuff.”
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Since its founding in 2014, Discwoman cemented itself as a vital force pushing for more inclusive dance floors and equitable rates for women and genderqueer artists in the electronic music scene in New York City and around the world. Discwoman’s roster has grown to 17 artists. There’s DJ and visual artist Juliana Huxtable, 700 Bliss, the experimental collaboration between Philadelphia based-artists DJ Haram and Moor Mother, and Chicago-based artist and Smartbar resident Ariel Zetina, to name just a few.
The core of Discwoman’s work has always been community-oriented, which is precisely why the backlash to that tweet last March was so difficult for them to stomach. They’ve donated thousands of dollars to organizations like the ACLU and the Sadie Nash Leadership Project over the years, and they raised more than $19,000 this past summer for mutual aid organization Equality For Flatbush through the third installment of Physically Sick, a fundraising compilation that they created in 2016 alongside New York DJ Physical Therapy. Hutchinson says that in some ways, the protests and activism that arose out of the death of George Floyd vindicated their initial call for help. “It only gave a fuller picture to understanding the depths of the fucked up-ness of people trying to drag us asking for help. And in turn, all these people who tried to drag us needed help themselves,” Hutchinson says.
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It’s because of these tendencies that Burgess-Olsen thinks of the future of Discwoman, and the future of nightlife in general, as a much more guarded place. She can’t imagine playing to thousands of people in a cavernous European club at any point in the near future, even if things do start to open up more. “I feel like there will be a return to the underground that maybe existed 10 years ago in New York, where you’d find yourself at very small parties sort of randomly.” She says it’s been hard to motivate herself to dig for new music when there’s no party at the end of the tunnel. She’s been focusing her energy on more private pursuits, like setting up her new studio space where she’s carved out a small listening room where she can casually play records with her friends. “I’m finding that this smaller-scale community space means a lot more to me than trying to fly all around the world every weekend,” Burgess-Olsen says.
McCharen-Tran says that in some ways, as the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily jettisoned most of the business side of her interaction with the artists on the roster, she’s been able to foster more intentional relationships with the Discwoman signees. “It’s brought me closer with a lot of them, and it’s shifted the way we communicate. There’s a lot more, ‘Are you comfortable with this?’ and ‘What are all of the things that you need me to ask?’ ” Burgess-Olsen finally had some time this past year to study long-term organizing. “I’m now realizing how detrimental it was for us not to spend that time really honing in on what our vision was and what we wanted to provide for others,” Burgess-Olsen says. “We just didn’t take that time because we didn’t feel like we could. We would maybe all be in the same room together three times a year, and we just laughed about it instead of realizing that there was a problem with that.”
Hutchinson views the pandemic as a sort of double-edged sword in terms of Discwoman’s future; on one hand, her fatigue is setting in, but she wonders if this is just a result of being physically disconnected from her community. “I think when you’re just sitting in your room by yourself, it’s easy to feel that the world is against you, but when you’re around like-minded people on a dancefloor — nothing matches that feeling, and I think that could bring some of my drive and energy back.” Her enthusiasm isn’t completely gone, but she’s tired of being one of the few people talking about these issues. “I think we need the next generation to step in with that energy, which I’m seeing happen. There’s so many enthusiastic new collectives that line up with our vision. There absolutely could be more pushes for change in the industry,” Hutchinson says. “But maybe it’s not us,” Burgess-Olsen interjects before Hutchinson finishes her thought: “Maybe we pass the baton.”
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