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Honey Dijon: Searching for a safe space

honey dijon ballantines resetting the dancefloor aspect ratio 16 9

Numbers rarely lie. Many corners of the global club scene are in serious trouble, and it has nothing to do with the pandemic recovery or battle to save venues from a worldwide push to redevelop our cities.

Simply put, for all the posturing around respect, unity, and open-mindedness, many events, promoters, and the crowds packing their dancefloors, are failing on inclusivity. Taking in responses from more than 2,300 party people across four continents, a new survey found 1/3 reported experiencing some form of prejudice while attending a dance music event.

Perhaps more distressingly, 84% said they witnessed it happen to others. The figures are worrisome enough for Ballantine’s True Music to establish a new six-figure fund to help support those working to establish or secure safe spaces, and platform those most at risk of exclusion.

A number of key faces from the electronic music scene have been drafted to spearhead this conversation. Each has been given £10,000 and asked to select an organisation working for real equality in dance music to take the money. Honey Dijon is one of the names tasked with choosing a recipient and pushing the project forward. Suffice to say, few people are better qualified for the role.

The Chicago-born transgender DJ and producer spent her formative years in the Windy City under the tutelage of luminaries Derrick Carter, Mark Farina and crossover outfit Greenskeepers. Relocating to New York in the late-1990s only added to her musical influences, and did nothing to change a fundamental understanding of what makes a good party. And by that we mean great tunes, from golden-era disco and stomping house to motoring techno, and an open-armed welcome for anyone who wants to get involved.

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Artists have a lot of influence on how to create a safe space for people to party in,” Dijon replies when we ask if she believes there is a collective responsibility on everyone inside a venue — from the booth to bar staff, crowd to security — to ensure the atmosphere is genuinely all-embracing. “A good place to start is to try to build a sense of community. If artists can also educate and inform, people on the dance floor may also understand and explore marginalised culture in more depth and realise that this all started from a community that was a safe space for people that were marginalised from mainstream culture.

It’s worrying not everyone will understand what she means, given the relationship between disenfranchised people and electronic music runs deep. House and techno music have roots in the Black queer communities of Chicago and Detroit respectively. But there are similar stories elsewhere. Drum & bass and jungle, for example, were born from a nascent UK soundsystem culture during the early-1990s, which in turn was a direct result of migration into Britain from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, once part of the Empire.

Discussions around the whitewashing of all these genres, with many pivotal figures and crews all-but written out of histories, reveals how quickly grass roots movements that nurtured specific, non-mainstream identities can be reappropriated by forces that — consciously or otherwise — don’t continue the legacy of diversity. Instead, they claim ownership by establishing dominant narratives which only pass on their side of the story.

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“The birth of this culture comes from marginalised people who had to create their own spaces, so yes, in these circles the parties and communities were more open and diverse, but the problems we are facing today have always existed,” Dijon replies when we ask about the authenticity of memories, specifically those that suggest inclusivity has been lost at some stage in the decade-spanning dance music explosion.

Suffice to say, gatekeepers of history have much to answer for in terms of which tales are allowed to be retold, which are downplayed, and what is completely redacted. Clearly, blame can, is, and in many cases should be levelled at the cultural media. 2020’s Black Lives Matter marches catalysed a huge push to cover a broader selection of artists and events, whether that meant more people of colour or more reports from LGBTQIA+ raves. But in turn, this raises serious questions about the state of play before the protests forced those in positions of influence to take an honest look at their work, and its impact.

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“On the one hand, today’s artists need to carry the legacy of those who came before and whom the media have largely ignored. Established mainstream media may never fully support marginalised people, so I believe Black and queer people today need to carve out their own narratives, build their own record labels, their own festivals, their own media and support each other,” says Dijon, before explaining how this can catalyse real change in the discourse. “As I have always said, once we have people from marginalised communities in positions to make real change then the narratives will shift.”

Ultimately, it’s about making sure those at risk of exclusion from mainstream storytelling stay in the picture, and bringing those who have already been erased back into the conversation. And a lot of that comes down to visibility, which makes true representation crucial, whether that’s DJs on the bill or faces in a crowd. Without this, the risk of colonisation returns, casting an omnipresent shadow over events. And as the past has shown, it’s a threat that often manifests in actively destructive ways — homogenised bookings, a lack of non-white non-CIS people in positions of power, tickets bought by attendees who effectively all look and think in the same ways.

It’s no wonder Dijon has been known to cite her friend’s fact-of-the-matter phrase which, in terms of ethnicity at least, speaks volumes about a cycle of creation and re-appropriation that dates back further than recorded music itself: “You know, people love black culture. They just don’t like black people”. One look at her ideas on what a positive cultural reset looks like reveals how extensive and urgent the necessary changes are.

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“I think we need to dismantle white supremacy, oppression, patriarchy, religious dogma. We need to dismantle a lot of things for our lives to be able to be lived fully and completely on our own terms,” Dijon recently told Dummy Magazine. “ I don’t think music is any separate from art or politics or anything. It’s all intertwined, and it’s all interconnected because music reflects the human experience. And so, when one of us is free, all of us are free.”

The sad thing is, while anger and frustrations at the status quo have long-since boiled over, and the fact the dance music industry is having these conversations at all shows progress, wholesale, constructive, permanent change takes time. But it always begins with what is achievable right now, and elevating those who have been consistently overlooked is feasible and within easy reach. One example is ensuring the Ballantine’s True Music Fund reaches communities that not only need it, but have an established platform with which to use it. Hence Dijon’s choice for her portion of the fund.

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