Sexism in Dance Music: what to do after Radar Radio’s downfall

In April, a polemic blog post written on Mixed Spices London [by Ashtart Al-Hurra] was published to highlight the practise of gross misconduct by Radar Radio. As quickly as 36 hours later, Radar Radio was essentially finished with two-thirds of their DJs, MCs, and presenters leaving the station stating they could no longer work with an organisation who cared so little about worker welfare.

As made clear by the original blog post, Ashtart was an unpaid worker who was at the subject of numerous instances of sexual harassment and assault — reportedly being told by numerous colleagues that “boys will be boys” — and her blog post shined light on the indifference that was frequently practised in reaction to such behaviour.

It is both unfortunate and sad that it took one brave voice to speak out in order for justice to be served (and for people to follow), but the way in which the radio station reacted to Ashtart’s consternations were undoubtedly shameful: lawyers were brought in from outside the company solely to intimidate and silence her with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). A naive, stupid act of unprofessionalism (perhaps there are more which are unreported) has cost a lot for a radio station which did a lot to help young, aspiring creatives reach their potential, despite much of the funding criticism it has received. However, the issue remains that Radar’s behaviour is not the exception, but has seemingly become the rule.

object blue’s insights into the situation

Naturally, one has attachment to their community, but I’m keen to stress the idea that community does not impose you to practise corrupt, unwavering loyalty (the very same loyalty which caused the indifference by those who were aware of Ashtart’s situation). Whether you are bound to someone by friendship or family, or work and love, there is never any excuse not to call out vile behaviour as such. The situation reminds me of R-Kelly and how his lewd past was met with relative indifference until Vince Staples asserted his problematic nature in an interview. And how many in the industry will go unheard of, or unchallenged? There was no condemnation by the A$AP Mob on A$AP Bari’s malice, Riff Raff’s recent accusations also suggests that problems are persisting along with the recent video from the Mode FM scandal. Loyalty to a friend, a group, or even family is never appropriate justification for keeping silent over such matters; in a scene where we pride ourselves on our progressive ideals, there seems to be a real lack of progress in situations which need it.

And what is the core-thread of the culture that’s so celebrated in dance music? Is it not that it’s progressive, reformist, and modern in its ideals? Isn’t the very act of raving, of crate digging, and sending and sharing tunes all based on this idea that we all share creativity? The crux of the ‘Radar effect’ (as we can call it for now) is this: if you are going to use reformist culture to do good by the wider community, you must use the same ideals within your own workspaces. The Mixed Spices blog post was keen to mention Radar’s biased stance towards minority-born music but remained critical of the way in which it handled the anxieties and dread of a worker from the demographic(s) they apparently represented.

This one blog post on Mixed Spices is not the first and certainly not the only piece of writing on this topic. In times of increasing discussion — and with more and more artists speaking out about women’s hardships in the industry — I have provided (at the end of this post) a database of online literature written on similar situations within our industry. One lone voice is not enough, and this ‘Radar effect’ should be nothing but a wake-up call: this is not an anomaly.

Critics have been quick to realise the hypocrisy prevalent in scenes as such: in her paper written in 1993, Barbara Bradby found dance music “particularly problematic given the utopianism that has surrounded dance culture, which has a ‘post-feminist’ side to it in its claims to have moved beyond sexism.” Yet here we are 25 years later and for some ridiculous reason we are still having to highlight the same problematic behaviours Bradby addresses, and stupidly enough, when we hear of such accusations (running so deep against the grain) which are spoken of “so starkly, and so ‘honestly’ in this way, it…[becomes] quite shocking.” Where is the progression we pride ourselves in? We’ve certainly moved onwards, but the questions that Bradby posed nearly 3 decades ago still exist as the ‘elephant in the room’, though the elephant is certainly being talked about more and more, little by little.

But are baby steps enough? If the presumption that music is a ‘boys club’ is true then these same boys need to do their part too, as Andrea Domanick has written in her recent analysis of harassment: “public outcry drives home an uncomfortable truth for the business: Those in power need to be doing more.”And it’s true, along with those in power, we all need to do our own thing to eradicate such indifference. It may be impractical and awkward to address but Mixmag’s weekend editor Jasmine Kent-Smith had articulated the ‘elephant in the room’ phenomenon for me which has haunted nearly all creative scenes: “working in industry and in such a small club culture bubble like London you tend to know a lot about artists and individuals who you may not even know personally so a lot of these rumours and alleged actions […] tend to remain between social circles rather than aired out on public, which is a prime example of ‘the elephant in the room’ as you put it.” But as I stated earlier, communities or social circles, or even friendships do not suitably justify the indifference which has often plagued us throughout history. Jasmine did however make the point to differentiate between online indifference, and real life indifference:

“In a club, I’m sure men and of course women and any rational human being would call out shitty behaviour if it happened to their friend or whoever they came to dance with. But online it gets weird because often people are scared to stand up for others in such a public space in case they are seen to be aligning themselves with someone who isn’t as, say influential in the scene compared to the shitty person, so it’s just a selfish choice.”
HUB 16 co-founder, Samantha Nelson (right)

HUB 16 co-founder Samantha Nelson also offered insights as to why this ‘elephant in the room’ exists, she attributes it to “a combination of things from high rents, the culture of working for free and huge amounts of nepotism meaning paid jobs in creative sectors — especially music are highly competitive…Perhaps over the years less people feel they can speak up or be seen to ‘rock the boat’ as again it’s seen to be disagreeable and you may not get employed. In the UK especially for anyone born in the 80s or before this is probably rings very true.”

Where are we now? Practising indifference seems eerily close to acting as an apologist for those perpetrators, yet as Jasmine pointed out people seem more comfortable in standing up for someone they know than for someone they don’t know in order to protect their existing — or evolving — reputation. But apart from repressing these problematic issues, we must ask: what else does this indifference do? Why do people do it? What’s the point in letting shitty things go on?

In her lectures and essays on institutions, Sara Ahmed describes working in house (or in an institution) and remaining silent as a restoration project, she describes this indifference as “institutional polishing” so the institution’s “furniture…appears less damaged” and things can resume as normal. Indeed, reports have suggested that silencing seems to be an institution’s favourite tool of tyranny and given the NDA which was imposed on Ashtart, it’s hard to disagree with Ahmed’s assertion that “professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it”, forceful silence becomes an “institutional loyalty” and “silence [is used] in case of institutional damage.” Ahmed does nuance her argument and seeks to understand and recognise the concerns as to why people may choose to remain quiet, but if one is “willing to reflect the good image the institution has of itself back to itself” then one must be “careful not to lose ourselves in the reflection.”

Feminist and queer scholar Sara Ahmed

The elephant in the room sucks, and whether the elephant is harassment, unprofessionalism, or even the indifference which we’ve got to work through, it’s ridiculously powerful in upholding this institutional polishing. Domanick’s research from a 2016 EEOC report showed that “at least one in four women say they have experienced workplace sexual harassment, but only around 30 percent of those people will talk to a supervisor, manager, or union representative. Even fewer — between 6 and 13 percent — ever make a formal complaint.” Entirely understandable given the backlash many get for calling out such conduct, yet Ashtart’s bravery cannot go unnoticed, and we can only hope that her post will inspire others in similar situations to do the same. Ahmed says that such “path[s] might be difficult and it can slow your progression” but it has also shown “how others are freed from that requirement to do the institutional work.” It can be incredibly liberating to speak against what’s wrong and people often risk lots and lots when they do so, however it’s not just the speaker who becomes liberated, it is also those listeners who are now wiser, better, and more learned from scandals like these ones.

What followed (the post) on social media was a clear singling out of those perpetrators who had been practising not indifference, but the harassment itself. Names like Ralph Hardy and Daniel OG were among the presenters and artists who had been accused of sexual criminality, and as bittersweet as it may be when you find out your favourite artist is a creep, it’s imperative to hold them accountable.

This ‘calling out’, however, opens up a larger problem in where we go once we’ve waded through indifference’s swamp-ish demeanour: Sirin Kale has written a particularly brilliant piece for Mixmag where she tries to articulate a solution to this bigger complexity. Although it’s tough, she recognises that “symbolically casting out individuals with problematic views is an imperfect solution to a much bigger problem.” Instead — as has been the crux of this article — she suggests that “next time someone says something gross, challenge them, reach out to them, try and engage with them — and then look in the mirror.” We all have a part to play in this, and what the Mixed Spices blog post described was no random incident.

Thankfully, things are looking up, and amidst the dusty, suffocating gloom of what we’re so afraid to address, we are slowly but surely feeling a beatific warmth emerging through the fog. There are an increasing number of female, queer, and LGBTQ+ members in the industry from presenters, DJs, producers, singers, MCs, writers, journalists, publicists, agents and more, and social media has been a great source of power in propelling these talented people’s careers higher up. In her chapter entitled God is a DJ: Girls, Music, Performance, and Negotiating Space, Geraldine Bloustein noticed that “with this increase in numbers they are gaining new levels of visibility via social networking sites. Several high-profile female rap artists and DJs, especially those from Indigenous and African-American backgrounds, have been among the first groups to break through some of the gender, ethnic, and class stereotypes.” The chapter was published two years ago; social media’s presence has only grown in importance since then.

Samantha Nelson has also noticed how “women [now] have outlets where they can express and share information on how they want to be treated and men have to learn new behaviours without any obvious examples. If celebrities and those in leadership behave badly and are still getting press and jobs then it must be okay to treat people lesser than and get away with it. We have YEARS of mistreatment to unlearn — and I think that’s where we’re at right now. A new era of accountability — for individuals, groups, organisations and leaders.”

It was reassuring to know that she also recalled “a lovely bouncer who used to run security…and he took even micro aggressions against minorities and women very seriously — he would try to illicit an apology and if the punter wasn’t listening they were asked to leave. I think often education even in the moment can do better than kicking someone out — depending on the severity of the situation of course. I’ve seen DJ’s stop the music and call people out — call out culture is often there by management.”

The internet, as a result, has clearly caused a sharp increase of interconnectedness between women in the industry, in an article I wrote for Keep Hush earlier this year, I highlighted the incredible things that were being done in the UK to make our music industry more inclusive and progressive than it ever has been before. Organisations like HUB 16, New Scenery, Bristol Women in Music, and Club Comfort are all working hard to ensure we mitigate toxic indifference and call out this awful behaviour whenever we see it. And it doesn’t end there: DJ, producer, and workshop teacher Mina recently posted a stellar thread on Twitter (below) which highlighted many sources of funding that women creatives can sign up for, and the thread goes on and on. This doesn’t mean the problems of harassment are eradicated though, Bloustein says “The problems are still there, but girls and young women are clearly gaining the confidence and opportunities to take a greater role in creating, managing, and controlling spaces in the public sphere.” Similarly, according to Samantha “the internet ready generation born in the 90s or later…consider mistreatment outrageous and speak up a lot more. It’s great.”

Mina’s helpful thread regarding funding for creatives

So we’ve now find ourselves at the end of a long, much-needed discussion, but the anxiety remains that the issue is too complex, that this article has only scratched the surface of the deeper problems. With more and more companies and promoters adopting safe-space policies, this may appear to be the next best step forward in combatting harassment, but Ahmed’s work has me sceptical of such codified impositions: “Policies can be useful because they create an impression of doing something without necessarily doing anything.” Well sure, these safe-spaces can be useful to an extent, but this usefulness seems fake and half-hearted. Policies like this — rather than addressing the issue head on, rather than challenging it by brute force, rather than grabbing the foul beast by its horns to sever them completely — seems a policy of avoiding confrontation where it can. Now, this is far from un-useful, but when it really comes down do it, it does little to belittle the indifference we want to mitigate. It just pushes those we don’t want further away rather than seeking to help them see different, act different or be different.

The solution really remains (if there can be a simple one to such a complex topic) is to stop our indifference completely, but again, limiting our progress to calling out (or banning a certain type of people) just isn’t enough anymore.

We have to educate, provoke discussion and thought, and although we may come across ideologies, concepts, and even humans that we do not like or align with, it is so important — now more than ever — to listen, to hear, to understand the opposition, and to ultimately challenge, to explain, and to educate. Being part of a community should never suggest unwavering loyalty, and although many pride themselves on what they’ve created and who they connect with, who they endorse and who they affiliate with, it is vital to identify, isolate and dissipate the shameful indifference which no one wants to address. Remember: we are not progressive if we continue to ignore what is holding us back.

Silence has worked two-fold in this discussion. There are those who are silenced: the ones who are compelled to remain quiet so as to not disturb peace, to ensure no ‘unnecessary havoc’ is caused, feeling and knowing that if this silent was broken little could or would be done.

Then there are also those who choose their silence: the ones who witness the sinister workings of the camp, hearing savage rumours that haunt the hallways, and despite having the chance to raise an alarm, these are the silent folk who shy away from making a difference.

An insufferable dichotomy, one which we can all end.

DATABASE OF LITERATURE

Alena Mayer, Behind the Track: Mistreatment of Women in the Music Industry, (Odyssey, 2017)

Amy Zimmerman, Women’s Music Industry Horror Stories: Abuse, Sexism, and Erasure, (The Daily Beast, 2015)

Andrea Domanick, The Dollars and Desperation Silencing #MeToo in Music, (Noisey, 2018)

Barbara Bradby, ‘Sampling Sexuality: Gender, Technology and the Body in Dance Music’, in Popular Music, (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Geraldine Bloustein, ‘God is a DJ’: Girls, Music, Performance, and Negotiating Space, in Girlhood and the Politics of Space (2016)

Hayley Fox, How Women Are Smashing Misogyny in the Music Business, (LA Weekly, 2016)

Jean Mackenzie, Rape and abuse: The music industry’s dark side exposed, (BBC, 2017)

Kara Rynelle, Being a Black Woman in the UK Music Industry, (2018)

Laura Snapes, ‘Harassment is systemic’: why white roses won’t change the music industry, (The Guardian, 2018) — this article contains a really great analysis of the use of NDAs and silencing, although as a whole the article addresses numerous issues.

Lueda Alia, Music Industry Mistreatment Of Interns Is Closely Related To Exploitations Of Musicians, (Hypebot, 2014)

Michael Arceneaux, Why the Music Industry Hasn’t Had it’s #MeToo Moment, (Wired, 2018)

Nicole Pajer, New Report Shows Major Lack of Representation by Women in the Music Industry, (Billboard, 2018)

Nick Reilly, Female musicians speak out as report reveals ‘endemic’ sexual abuse and rape in the music industry, (NME, 2017)

Sara Ahmed, Confrontation? Doing Feminist and Anti-Racist Work in Institutions, (Cambridge University, 2018) — You can also visit Ahmed’s Facebook page where she advertises talks and lectures here.

Sirin Kale, Another Day, Another Dickhead: Dealing With Bigots in Dance Music, (Mixmag 2018)