Discwoman: Power In Numbers
From the outside, New York’s Knockdown Centre doesn’t look like much. But when you get inside the sprawling arts and performance space, with its vaulted ceilings and windowed walls, you can understand what a feat it would be to try and make yourself heard there.
On a night in December last year, Discwoman – the New York collective founded by Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, Christine McCharen-Tran and Emma Burgess-Olson, who DJs and produces as Umfang – hosted a screaming workshop at Knockdown. In collaboration with separate events in London and Warsaw, led by progressively-minded techno crews SIREN and Brutaż respectively, the event was intended to be a therapeutic group exercise, allowing people to release whatever emotions they were feeling in the midst of distressing political events. ‘It struck us that we can’t scream together’, the event description read. ‘Come and build a wall of noise with us. Together, let’s take up space, express our rage, feel powerful and be LOUD’.
The event didn’t go exactly as planned. Richard Kennedy, the NYC artist and singer who led the workshop, suggested that those in attendance sit down and have a conversation instead. “It was something that started out as people screaming, to sitting next to each other and listening to each other,” Christine tells me. “It was really nice. It’s such a beautiful metaphor.”
“There was so much space!” Frankie exclaims. “It was like, wow, this is a moment when we can actually sit and unwind for a second, because there isn’t any fucking space in NYC. But there’s tons of it here.” Creating necessary space for one another – across local, global, physical and digital arenas – is a theme that comes up several times throughout my conversation with Discwoman. I’ve met with the collective’s three founders in a Bushwick bar on a cool summer evening, and they’re cheerfully recounting the genesis of their organisation. As they laugh together and finish each other’s sentences, Frankie, Emma, and Christine’s interactions are a joy to watch.
All the music you hear in the club today has foundations in queer black and brown communities, yet straight white men are making the most money, getting the most press, and being offered the biggest bookings. This trickles down to the audiences, too – hostility seeps into even the most self-respecting dancefloors. Discwoman’s message was, and remains, clear: to advocate for those marginalised by the white supremacist patriarchal structures of contemporary dance music and its culture, and to offer producers, DJs, and club-goers the opportunity to reclaim their space. “I think we even underestimated how much people needed that,” Frankie reflects. “It came out of an urgency.”
“We wanted to find a way that we could get women paid effectively, and it's worked” – Christine
This September marked the third anniversary of the party that started it all – a two-day showcase of 12 women-identified DJs including Volvox, Shannon Funchess and Lauren Flax, at cosy techno spot Bossa Nova Civic Club, with the proceeds going to a local non-profit. The festival was intended to be a one-off, but the press quickly picked up on it, and soon they were collaborating with local organisers to throw Discwoman parties in Boston, Philadelphia, and Puerto Rico. Discwoman was off to a whirlwind start, and nightlife institutions immediately began to take notice.
“And now we’re all jaded,” Emma adds, half-kidding. “Sometimes in New York, you’re in a bubble where things feel progressive and open; you think that the culture has started to move on. But once that reaches more people, you hear more stories and understand that this is actually something that everyone needs to talk about and was afraid to talk about, and now we realise that we can be a voice for spreading that message.”
About six months after the initial party, the trio founded a booking agency, DW Artists. Emma jokingly suggested that Frankie become her agent. She did, and now the DW Artists roster (which reps exclusively women and genderqueer talent) boasts nine artists – Bearcat, DJ Haram, Juana, Mobilegirl, SHYBOI, stud1nt, Umfang, Volvox, and Ziúr. Based in New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Berlin, each DJ and producer puts their own experimental spin on house, techno and various other genres of club music.
Unlike larger, more corporate booking agencies, DW Artists is based around the principles of personal connection and community. “Rather than being like ‘I like this because it’s techno,’ [it’s more like] I like this person, I love what they’re making, I love where it’s from, I love their context,” Frankie explains. “That connection between who they are and what they make is so amazing. Like Emma’s record [Symbolic Use Of Light], for instance. That record is her personality, and it’s really cool to see that.”
In an industry that tends to screw over artists financially and creatively – through exploitative contracts, sensationalist media coverage, and wholly profit-driven partnerships – Discwoman’s relationship-based business model is particularly refreshing. In the beginning, Discwoman didn’t pay artists. Instead, they donated money made from events to local charities that provide resources to women, like the Sadie Nash Leadership Project in New York, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Centre, and Puerto Rico’s Proyecto Maria. But ultimately, people needed to pay rent and eat, so the crew adjusted their practices and created a more sustainable model. “We wanted to find a way that we could get women paid effectively, and it’s worked,” notes Christine, who handles event production and business logistics. “[DW Artists] has probably been one of our most successful ventures.”
Earlier this year, Discwoman was featured on Forbes’ prestigious “30 Under 30” list, much to their surprise. “It was really cool, because people don’t normally talk about [the business aspect],” Christine continues, “and how that’s important to the whole operation and infrastructure at large.” Emma goes on to discuss a follow-up video profile Discwoman shot with Forbes in August. “We collectively decided that this reaches an audience that we don’t know how to reach. But in that sense, why not share our message with people that really need to change their minds?” Capitalistic business practices and media portrayal won’t suddenly change overnight, but gradual steps like this one offer, at the very least, a hopeful vision of the future. Though there are many ways to go about dismantling oppressive structures, Discwoman have successfully managed to work both within and against the system, to the benefit of their platform and their community.
In that same vein, Frankie is also a co-founder of Dance Liberation Network, a small organisation dedicated solely to the repeal of New York’s Cabaret Law, which was originally enacted in 1926 with the purpose of breaking up black jazz clubs. The law continues to be selectively enforced against marginalised groups, whose events seldom receive institutional support, thus forcing parties and gatherings into unregulated, potentially dangerous spaces. Further, the law prohibits dancing in all establishments without a cabaret license, which is nearly impossible to, and there are fewer than 100 licensed spaces within the city’s five boroughs.“
“The point isn't ‘oh, these people are bad, they've never booked a woman.’ Everyone makes mistakes, it's about how you deal with it and how you're willing to change” – Frankie
It would be so great to overturn policy under such a highly conservative government,” Frankie says. “[It’s] something that directly affects all of us – the right to dance. I can’t even put into words how it would feel to overturn a law that’s been around for 96 years, oppressing black people for ages.” The past several months have seen many town hall meetings, hearings, panels, and talks with city council members, and at this juncture, the repeal of the law seems just within the realm of possibility. Under Trump and the carceral state, the necessity of tangible political change is felt more than ever, so witnessing community-based initiatives like Dance Liberation Network and Discwoman survive and thrive feels like a victory.
As the profiles of their artists rise, Discwoman’s assertive presence has furthered and publicised dialogues about inequality in club culture. They’ve been met with cynicism and misogyny – “Who knew that trying to stick up for women would be equated with ruining people’s lives or careers?” jokes Frankie – but for the most part, the response to the crew have received support across the world.
Last September, Umfang and Volvox played their first sets at Berghain and Panorama Bar, respectively. “It’s such an institution for techno, so the fact that we got in there felt huge,” Emma recounts. “It was a really early on stamp of approval. Not only did they book us, they took a chance on us, before anybody else in Europe was really going for it.” Back in August, Frankie, Emma, and Christine all travelled to Amsterdam for Dekmantel, where Volvox and Umfang brought the house down with a 90 minute back-to-back set of high-octane electro mixed on three CDJs and two turntables. With Frankie dancing alongside the duo behind the decks, Discwoman’s positive energy proved to be contagious among the crowd.
Since Discwoman have been operating, in New York the local scene has shifted a lot. More conversations are being had about wage gaps and uncomfortable situations in club culture, and Discwoman has been forward in calling out promoters whose bookings are mostly comprised of white men. A lot of people in the scene are recognising what they’ve done wrong in the past, and now they’re actively trying to find ways to improve their parties and spaces. “Promoters [are] coming out and saying, ‘I’ve never booked a woman before, what can I do?’” notes Emma. Frankie elaborates: “The point isn’t ‘oh, these people are bad, they’ve never booked a woman.’ We just want to make people open to it. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s just about how you deal with it and how you’re willing to change.”
Discwoman’s ability to change and adjust to the needs of their community, while staying true to themselves and their ideals, is what will continue to keep them inspired. DW Artists is growing in both scale and reputation, and their merchandise (often emblazoned with the words ‘amplify each other’ – a mantra born out of the screaming workshop) is now frequently spotted in clubs and festivals. “It’s cool that I wake up everyday being like, ‘alright, what’s gonna be in the inbox? What’s gonna happen?’” says Emma, smiling.
The crew is looking towards the future, but also rooting themselves in the immediacy of the present; working within oppressive structures to ultimately undo them. There’s power in the ability to occupy two places at once. Discwoman reminds us that we can scream, and we can also have a conversation. Any noise we make together is meaningful.
Photography: Cait Oppermann
Photographer’s Assistant: Athena Torri