Techno music, Detroit and social change: a critical geographical exploration through the lens of race and class

By Celia Garcia de Medina-Rosales, University of Sussex


Garcia de Medina-Rosales, C. (2022) Techno music, Detroit and social change: a critical geographical exploration through the lens of race and class. Routes 2(3): 155-162


This article critically explores the role of race and class in the emergence of techno music in Detroit, and the relevance of the genre in contemporary social movements. Using comparable geographic theorisations of music and place that favour an interconnected and multi-scalar analysis, I will firstly situate Detroit’s socio-economic situation in the 20th century within broader national and global processes. Then, I will examine the different racial and class-based phenomena that gave rise to Detroit techno. Finally, I will discuss the capacity of techno to cross borders and serve as a tool of protest for different social justice issues, focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement but also addressing women’s struggles internationally.

1. Introduction

‘Geographical issues of economy, polity, society and culture are present in the production, performance, transmission and consumption of music’.

– Leyshon et al. (1995, 4)

Techno music is a fast-paced and mostly instrumental electronic subgenre that emerged in the late 1980s within the black community of Detroit in the United States. Yet, as it is mostly white European artists such as Dave Clarke that headline major festivals today, considerations of techno as ‘Black’ and political are overlooked (Deforrest, 2020). Through the lens of ‘race’ and class, this paper critically explores the inception of techno in Detroit in the context of broader changes that were occurring in the national and global landscape. Firstly, I will use relational theorisations of place and music to contextualise Detroit and understand its socio-economic decline. This will allow me to delve into the different racial and class-based phenomena that shaped Detroit techno and its subsequent use as an instrument of protest. Lastly, I will discuss its relevance in contemporary social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter (hereafter BLM) protests in Detroit and observe how its migration has related to concrete action nationally and other protests internationally. 

2. Theorisations of music and place in the context of Detroit

2.1 Music

As opposed to other visual and more static forms of art, music serves as a medium to express what cannot be seen or spoken, suggesting a particular transgressive potential that highlights the complexities of aspirations of those who produce and consume it (Smith, 1997).

Reflecting on the increasingly globalised flows of cultures and ideas including music, Gilroy (1993) asks: 

How are we to think critically about artistic products […] which, though they may be traceable back to one distinct location, have been changed […] by their displacement, relocation, or dissemination through networks of communication and cultural exchange? (p.80)

Connell and Gibson (2003 p. 83) agree that anywhere music occurs, ‘it contains multiple networks’, yet, they also suggest that every musical genre presents ‘its own internal musical structure, its particular technology, performative contexts, and social and political environment’ (ibid p. 191).

Although the founders of techno, African-American high school friends Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (the ‘Belleville Three’) were from Detroit, they were introduced to electronic music by local radio host DJ ‘Electrifyin’’ Mojo who brought pioneer German band Kraftwerk to Detroit in the 1970s (Bush, n.d). This historical juncture allowed the trio to create Detroit techno as a distinct style by adapting their external influences on their local musical environment in which soul and funk prevailed.

2.2 Place

Connell and Gibson’s (2003) theorisation of music follows a similar logic to Massey’s theorisation of place (1994,1995). As opposed to place having an essentialised, static ‘identity’ preserved through closed borders, Massey (1995, 121) views places as ‘porous’, because they are ‘constructed through the specificity of their interaction with other places rather than by counterposition to them’. Furthermore, the internal dynamics of place, as shaped by social processes, render place a site of contestation (Cresswell, 1996). Moreover, to observe how a place’s identity evolves over time, it is important to adopt a ‘multi-scalar and relational’ approach (Rogaly, 2020, p. 2).

Detroit’s socio-economic development is rooted in national and global processes. For instance, although Detroit is identified as being the birthplace of the American automobile industry, this required connections to other places as ore and leather came from Minnesota and the Mid-West respectively (Johnson, 2002). 

The urban crisis of Detroit is often portrayed as resulting from the 1967 riots that took place within the city’s borders, triggering ‘white flight’ to the suburbs and subsequent economic decline (Chafets, 2013). However, as Apel’s (2015) critical historical account demonstrates, the city’s decline was actually initiated in the 1940s due to the segregationist policies of urban planning that favoured white owners in the suburbs, while neglecting public housing and transport. In the auto factory, the workforce was divided along racial lines, with black workers being the ‘last hired and first fired’ (Apel, 2015, p.44), thus becoming the most vulnerable to labour automation. It was this reality of African-Americans being excluded from, yet used for the wealth generated that led to the riots (Johnson & Lubin, 2017).

This relates to Cedric Robinson’s (1983) concept of racial capitalism, which portends that the justification of expropriation and exploitation for capital accumulation relies on an unequal differentiation between the value of racialised human beings. In Detroit’s post-industrial cityscape, racial capitalism manifests in the way Detroit’s ‘authenticity’ as a black space is capitalised upon by companies that preserve old building facades to attract a whiter ‘alternative’ population, while neoliberal practices of privatisation render it hostile to long-time black residents (Kinney, 2016). 

Detroit’s industrial decline did not exclusively follow an economic logic (Surgue, 2004). Ford, the leading automobile company, initially moved to the white suburbs because workers were organising despite racial divides. It was only subsequently that the company relocated to the Southern states and Mexico to benefit from cheaper manufacturing costs and deregulation (ibid). Shaped by such local, national, and global forces, Detroit’s historical trajectory was of a  city crippled by corruption and inequality (Steinmetz, 2009). In the next sections, I will discuss whether can techno present a challenge to this.

3. Motown’s collapse and the rise of Detroit’s techno community

The relationship between Detroit and music is illustrated by Detroit’s nickname ‘Motown’ which is also the name of the first black-owned and very successful American record label, ‘Motown Records’ (Smith, 1999). Coupled with the 1967 riots and labour automation, the relocation of the automobile industry also affected the displacement of the music industry. The loss of Motown, an important cultural political centre involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, nurtured the image of an empty inner-city Detroit now surrounded by robots and machines (Albiez, 2005). 

The cultural aesthetic of using science fiction as a positive form of escapism from the African American experience is known as Afrofuturism. As Rietveld and Kolioulis (2019) explain, Afrofuturism does not seek to return to an essentialised blackness rooted in tradition but imagines future black identities through technology. For example, the repetitiveness of percussive beats in techno mimics the sounds of machines in the assembly line while echoing the significance of drums in the transatlantic African diaspora, used as a communication device amongst enslaved people (Black to Techno, 2019). 

The upbringing of the ‘Belleville Three’ in the mostly white affluent Belleville suburb explains the initial lack of intent to protest Detroit’s decline through music (Tsitsos, 2018). The trio did not witness invasive forces such as highways cutting across their neighbourhoods, or the city’s neglect jeopardising their homes (Tsitsos, 2018). Furthermore, DJ Derrick May evokes feelings of cultural shock triggered by the behaviour of his fellow black students in his high school canteen. Besides racial segregation, his feeling of disconnection was also rooted in class difference (Tsitsos, 2018). This de-territorialised experience led the Belleville Three to create music inspired by a declining inner city in which they did not grow up and which did not affect them personally. This may explain their wish to create a post-racial world and why contemporary accounts often overlook techno as black-born. 

Nonetheless, the spatial recapturing of Detroit’s inner city through illegal parties in abandoned automobile factories served as a catalyst for city-wide cultural revival. Rather than solely focusing on the future, techno’s repetitive beats and intimidating sounds were increasingly used as a way to protest the present. This marked the distinctively politicised second wave of black techno artists in the 1990s: Mike Banks, Robert Hood and Jeff Mills (Dalphond, 2018). They founded ‘Underground Resistance’, an anti-corporate techno collective whose ethos points to a form of black radicalism, characterised by ‘the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being’ (Robinson, 1983, p. 171). Indeed, the group’s initials also refer to the ‘Underground Railroad’ whose station in Detroit was pivotal in the liberation of enslaved people in the mid-19th century. The collective’s black-owned distribution company, Submerge, also featured the historical name in one of its 1994 flyers (Shaub, 2009). 

Vecchiola’s (2011) ethnographic research on Submerge reveals the ways ‘local community-building can be buoyed by reaching across regional, national, and international lines’ (ibid p.6). Their focus on local black community outreach was demonstrated by hosting youth educational workshops about the industry (Vecchiola, 2011). Located ‘at the centre of a social terrain of disregard’ (ibid p.6), Submerge operated through a network of regional independent labels that facilitated the development of artists with limited resources by managing with care the distribution of their mail-orders, especially overseas. By attracting thousands of international techno enthusiasts, Submerge’s cosmopolitanism offered valuable intercultural exchanges, begging a further question: can techno’s multi-scalar nature serve as a tool to express dissent?

4. Techno as protest music

Alongside general noisemaking, music acts as a peaceful response to the violent (sonic) practices of law enforcement in the form of rubber bullets or sound cannons (Saher & Cetin, 2016). During the 2020 BLM protests following George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, a video of Detroit’s protestors marching to techno circulated around social media. 

Researching ballet dance and mobilisation after Birmingham’s ‘The Drum’ which was the centre for Black British and British Asian Arts, Noxolo highlights how the presence of ‘minorities’ in a space they are often marginalized from is powerful (Noxolo, 2018). This article further supports this by also stressing the collective occupation of an auditory space in which marginalized people are silenced. For example, techno founder Sanderson collaborated on his track ‘We All Move Together’ with ‘Detroit Will Breathe’, a youth-led militant movement ‘formed on the streets of Detroit in the midst of an international movement against police brutality towards Black lives’ (Detroit Will Breathe, n.d). The lyrics “you are now experiencing inner city History” allude to the reappropriation of Detroit’s city decline, but the reference to History also evokes how local and nationwide protests can trigger change for a racially just society. ‘Detroit Will Breathe’ contributed to this by overthrowing the 8PM protest curfew, exposing deaths in police custody, and creating ‘a space where dissent can be organized and expressed publicly in Detroit’ (We All Move Together, 2020).

Furthermore, protests have translated into restorative justice projects such as ‘Rave Reparations’ in Los Angeles resulting from the increased microaggressions that black people face on the dancefloor space (Wheeler, 2020). The initiative aims at raising awareness and offers discounted tickets. Although these monetary reparations appear insufficient regarding struggles for national reparations for slavery, city-level advocacy allows people to observe change in the present, as opposed to awaiting action from an unfavourable national government over which they have limited influence (Wheeler, 2020).

Finally, the lyrics of ‘We All Move Together’ stating “you can be anywhere on the globe” evokes techno’s ability to transcend borders. In solidarity with the BLM movement, Portuguese DJ ØTTA produced a hardcore techno track called ‘Silence is Oppression’ (Barrett, 2021). In October 2020, her track was played in Poland as women marched to protest the abortion ban by the far-right government (Alcoy, 2020). Anger and determination are easily expressed through restless and repetitive techno beats, and, according to DJ collective WIXAPOL, this was “kind of scaring away policemen and Nazis” (Rymajdo, 2021). Polish techno initially spread as an alternative to engaged genres such as rock in the 1980s (Rymajdo, 2021). However, as Rymajdo (2021) reflects, it is the dynamics of a repressive socio-political national landscape that redefine techno, which inevitably turns political as it becomes a tool to challenge, in this case, state violence against women’s reproductive autonomy. 

5. Conclusions

This article has critically explored techno music through the lens of race and class in Detroit, primarily using Massey (1994,1995)’s argument that places’ identities are constructed through their interactions with other places, and Connell and Gibson (2003)’s theory that musical genres are always influenced by a multiplicity of networks. These theoretical approaches elucidate on why Detroit’s connection to regional, national, and international events of suburbanisation and industrial restructuring tied to racism and exploitation has constructed Detroit’s identity as an abandoned city and shaped Detroit techno. They have further explained how, although the beginnings of Detroit techno or its international migration to Poland were not intentionally political, the specific spatial and historical junctures in which techno evolved, and its interpretative instrumental nature can also transform and adapt it into a powerful tool within social movements. For instance, by techno’s second wave artists to protest socio-economic inequalities, for racial struggles nationally and in women’s rights protests internationally. Music is shaped by and tied to the place from which it emerges, but as its de-territorialised essence spreads, it is redefined and adapted to other contexts in which it can be utilised for political mobilisation, as we have as seen, but also enjoyed to simply unwind a is mostly the case in today’s summer festivals or even in the early days of polish techno. As such, it would be interesting to conduct primary research on attendees of techno events and their motivations for listening to the genre, or further explore the absence of women and queer people of colour from the mainstream techno industry given its racial and subculture origins (Kupfer, 2020). Ultimately, it is precisely because of its multiplicity of objectives, drivers and influences that music presents an interesting subject of geographical study and debate. 

6. Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Professor Ben Rogaly for his continuous support and useful advice through my degree at the University of Sussex.

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