DJ diversity: Reclaiming rave culture

One year ago, you would never have caught Aydin Quach at a rave. Currently working towards his master’s in history at UBC, Quach’s introverted nature and sensory sensitivity made him skeptical of the scene.

“I didn’t understand the concept of raves. I was like, ‘why would I go to a place that costs $400 to stand in a crowded space and jump up and down?’” said Quach.

But his perspective began to shift when he met friends who shared his Queer Asian identity. Soon enough, Quach realized that several members of his new-found Queer community had one thing in common: they loved to rave.

As a scholar, Quach sought to understand what drew his friends to raves. When he got sick with COVID-19, he spent his quarantine listening to electronic dance music (EDM) and watching videos of major rave festivals. It was that moment, sitting in his bedroom with a Twitch stream and a wicked cough, which eventually led Quach to his first rave.

Now, Quach now attends raves at least once a month, and has even undertaken additional research on the topic through the School of Journalism. His interest in the subject has gone from academic curiosity to an immersive exploration of identity.

“When I go to a rave with my Queer friends, we always end up as a super mega-gay group ... It’s just a giant blob of Queer Asians altogether, partying it up ... and if you’re in the centre of this blob, you’re surrounded by Queer people, and you just feel so seen,” said Quach.

But what happens when you leave the blob of Queer bliss and face the music?

Despite the positive experiences of Quach and his friends, many Queer and Trans BIPOC find Vancouver’s rave and nightlife scene to be unwelcoming at best, if not downright hostile.

Lineups tend to be dominated by straight white men, as do audiences. For marginalized individuals, this begs the question: how liberating can a space truly be when it’s not made with you in mind?

The very Black, very Queer history of electronic music

Raves and the electronic music that fuel them are a multi-billion dollar industry. Major festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas have drawn crowds as large as 500,000, solidifying the EDM genre as a mainstream success. However, these colossal, capitalistic events couldn’t be further from the origins of electronic music.

In the 1970s, underground clubs began popping up in cities like Chicago and New York. These clubs were founded and frequented by Queer Black and Latino people, as an alternative to mainstream spaces that shunned them. These clubs pioneered electronic music — DJs began splicing and mixing tracks together, drawing inspiration from Jamaican sound system culture to keep partygoers dancing all night long.

In the 1980s, QTBIPOC continued to move the needle on electronic music. Frankie Knuckles, the first musical director of the underground Chicago club The Warehouse and a gay Black man, played a large role in developing and popularizing what is now known as house music.

“So, it’s not like people of color have [ever not] been involved. They pretty much invented it, but most of us don’t remember that part,” said M Gillian Carrabré, a sessional lecturer at the UBC School of Journalism who studies Canadian rave music and culture.

“This is the music of people who have been marginalized, and it’s sort of been whitewashed. But the essence of it is still there. And the importance of having Queer spaces is always going to be there.”

Barriers for marginalized communities

Despite this rich history, DJs with marginalized identities often struggle to break into the scene, even in 2023. As electronic music and raves become increasingly commercialized, artists that encapsulate the spirit of early rave culture tend to be shut out from participating.

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint a precise explanation for this exclusion, Carrabré attributes it to the realities of living in “a hegemony that is white, cisgendered, and male.”

The DJs who book large venues are often those who have access to expensive equipment and networks of similarly privileged and powerful people, perpetuating a cycle of inequitable opportunity.

“You can’t become equal to the people who have all those links, so the people with the privileges and the money [are] going to keep operating in a vacuum,” said Carrabré. “Men in the scene tend to gatekeep, and they don’t let you in on any of their knowledge bases [or allow you] in to any of the collectives.”

Bringing back the underground

This mainstream exclusion means marginalized artists often have no choice but to create alternative pathways for themselves– which is precisely what Vinson Ng and his fellow execs at Normie Corp are doing.

Ng, like many other QTBIPOC, knows what it feels like to be underwhelmed and unwelcomed by rave culture. In addition to his lack of enthusiasm about the music itself, Ng said the “monolithic” lineups were “part of the reason why [he] didn’t go out to raves” often.

“Pre-pandemic especially, you would go to a show and ... it would be like ... fully white dudes.”

Normie Corp began in 2020, when pandemic guidelines were strictest. To help fill the void left by in-person events, Ng and a few friends began organizing online gatherings that platformed QTBIPOC DJs and performers.

In a post-restriction world, they’ve been successful at making these digital parties come to life, hosting in-person events across Vancouver. Normie Corp’s diverse DJ lineups are an answer to the current state of Vancouver’s nightlife scene.

Normie Corp isn’t alone in their efforts to diversify DJ lineups: in recent years, many clubs and festivals have tried to be more inclusive. However, unlike many other nightlife spaces in Vancouver, Normie Corp’s events are by and for QTBIPOC, with just as much representation behind the scenes as there is in their lineups.

For DJ Sebastien Prophete, this makes all the difference. Upon moving to Vancouver, he was taken aback by the lack of diversity in the music scene. As one of few Black tattoo artists in the city, Prophete is no stranger to standing out in white-dominated spaces. But, he hadn’t anticipated this alienation to extend so strongly to his DJing. Normie Corp’s events are one of the few places where he can practice his art without feeling tokenized.

“I don’t know that many Black and Indigenous DJs in Vancouver that play at major venues ... so it’s kind of cool seeing Normie do that,” said Prophete.

What’s next?

Normie Corp has garnered a significant following and the scale of their events is constantly growing. However, this growth hasn’t come without challenges. Finding venues has proven to be difficult, especially ones that are “affordable to people in [their] communities,” said Ng. Normie Corp is committed to keeping their events low-cost, but renters tend to be exceptionally unwelcoming to newcomers.

“It’s harder for Queer people or people of color to get spaces,” said Ng, “because there’s straight white folks that they know can fill a room and ... drop a lot of money for alcohol.”

If this is still an issue for a collective as successful as Normie, it’s even harder for smaller, up-and-coming organizers to secure venues.

In spite of these challenges, marginalized artists continue to band together to break barriers. Ricecake, which platforms Queer Asian performers, and Van Vogue Jam, which supports the vogue and ballroom scene, are just two of many Vancouver QTBIPOC nightlife initiatives.

These local events are a far cry from the massive raves that partiers like Quach enjoy, but perhaps these smaller gatherings have something different to offer: an extension of that blissful Queer “blob” that drew Quach to raves in the first place.

After all, if you trace electronic music back to its roots, that’s exactly what you’ll find: a group of people in a crowded room dancing, defiantly celebrating the parts of themselves that others don’t.