Be it in an underground bunker in Moscow, under the moon in the middle of the forest, or the fetish-parties of Berlin, rave culture can be a safe haven, a space to free yourself from the stress of everyday life, a fleeting moment where you can be whoever you want to be for a couple of hours. That being said, going raving may also come with feelings of insecurity, a lack of gender diversity in both line-ups and crowds, and the (constant) impression that you’re being gawked at. After my most recent stint at the club, I thought, in what ways are raves gendered? And if so, how do we make these spaces more accessible and safe for everyone?
Most people have forgotten that dance music (house, techno, drum and bass) originated in the black neighbourhoods of Chicago, New York, and Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s. This underground movement was led predominantly by black DJs and producers who took inspiration from disco and hip-hop, and the crowds were largely black, latinx of colour, women, and /or queer. Due to the police targeting people of colour and queer people, these groups created small (safe) pockets in the city’s harsh urban landscape—spaces where they could be themselves, feel safe, and let go of normative restrictions. This may be said to be raves’ true meaning and purpose. By the 1990s, however, as electronic music spread to the United Kingdom and Europe, the scene became more and more white and composed of heterosexual men, both with regards to DJs and crowds, pushing women, genderqueer people, and people of colour out of the previously safe spaces. Where does that leave us today?
If you think about the highest paid and most famous DJs, the bulk of the artists are white men: Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Tiesto, Fred Again, and so on. Women and genderqueer people are widely underrepresented in the scene. One organisation working to tackle this is The Jaguar Foundation, who has made it their mission to level the playing field in electronic music for emerging artists, especially those that are underrepresented. The report published by the Jaguar Foundation on their website, titled Progressing Gender Representation in UK Dance Music, showcases the sad reality facing non-white non-cisgender men in the music scene: a lack of opportunities, tokenism, sexual harassment, and a gendered pay gap to name a few. What started out as a safe haven, could be said to have been co-opted by white heterosexual men, thereby creating a number of challenges for both ravers and DJs.
The issue of under-representation is unfortunately plaguing every aspect of the electronic music industry. Looking at festival line-ups, radio airplay, and music from the Official Charts Company, the report also uncovered that just 5% of dance songs were made exclusively by women and non-binary artists whilst on the radio, this falls to 1%. There is a long tradition of men producing a track with a woman providing the vocals, but vocalists are often not credited or even named as a featured artist. Interviews with women and genderqueer DJs also exposed the pay disparity they face: they are often paid less for the same slots, are booked less, or booked lower on rave line-ups. Many artists even feel that when they are booked, it is mostly so promoters (usually cisgender white men) can tick their ‘diversity box’. Thinking about bigger rave spaces, like festivals, in 2022 only 28% of DJs identified as women or genderqueer, and hardly any of them were headliners. It is glaringly obvious that a lack of diversity exists in the rave scene, both on lineups and behind the scenes, leaving women – even more so genderqueer people, and people of colour, or anyone who does not fit into the white “boys club” on the sidelines. What was once a refuge for people at the margins is now an exclusionary space for many.
The gendering of raves does not stop there. Safety on the dancefloor is another ongoing conversation in the nightlife industry. People putting drugs in others’ drinks has been a widespread danger for some time, and in 2021, cities and clubs around the world saw a wave of needle spikings incidents. The combination of late-night travel, dark and crowded spaces, and intoxicated crowds makes for a dangerous cocktail. Even artists feel unsafe at times, as DJ Riva explains, “You can be DJing and are literally having to watch your drink at the same time. Particularly as a non-male artist because you just don’t know who’s going to do what and I feel like that doesn’t extend so much to male artists”. There are also issues with unwanted attention, mostly from cisgender men towards women. “Sexual misconduct/assault is really one of the deepest darkest problems in this industry that nobody discusses,” says DJ Paulette. You see posters in different clubs, “we do not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.”, but there are no tangible steps actually being taken to implement these policies. How can we fight this?
The lack of policies and practices in place in the mainstream rave scene has led to the rise of collectives in mainly queer and minoritised communities, where the staff, audience, and space can be safeguarded. Whether that is through door policy, running their own nights, a code of conduct for attendees, providing concession tickets for members of the queer community, and diverse line-ups that represent audiences, these DIY collectives have become reminiscent of the early rave scenes of the 1980s. In London, Nia Archives provides a platform for non-men DJs with “Bad Gyalz” rave, INFERNO run by Lewis G Burton creates a space for the queer community to dance, parties such as RIPOSTE or UNFOLD focus on diversifying representation in the rave scene. Artists are constantly holding promoters and collectives accountable for the lack of diversity: bigger artists are also being urged to demand better representation, asking for more women, genderqueer, and people of colour to be a part of line-ups, and refusing to play if the space is not safe for all.
There is so much good work being done behind the scenes to diversify spaces. In 2020, DJ Jaguar launched Future1000, a free programme to introduce 1000 women and genderqueer people into electronic music by 2022. This initiative teaches underrepresented groups how to DJ, produce music, as well as get started in the industry through networking and genuine opportunities in the scene. Pioneer DJ also started a series of workshops for underrepresented communities, especially the queer community, where attendees can learn to DJ from popular women and genderqueer artists. In Los Angeles, Rave Reparations is working to make raves more black through donations and 50% discounts (or free tickets) for black, brown, and queer people, thereby trying to bring raves back to their historical inclusive roots. Similarly, the collective Daytimers champions creatives from the UK’s South Asian diaspora, often using their raves or live-streams to raise awareness and funds for issues important to their community, such as the farmers’ protests in India in 2020.
Raves are safe spaces where one can lose oneself and experience a welcoming atmosphere that is different from mainstream clubs. Despite the existing gendered circumstances, there are so many success stories from underground and queer rave scenes of running events, workshops, forums, giving audiences a greater support network, and creating a sense of belonging. What you can do is support local artists, demand diversity in line-ups, hold promoters and clubs accountable for creating safe spaces, and let’s not forget to look out for one another!