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DJ name changes
Illustration Callum Abbott

DJs changing their problematic artist names isn’t a fix for industry racism

The Black Madonna and Joey Negro are changing their aliases, but this shouldn’t paper over wider issues within the electronic music scene

When I was about 10 years old, I remember grooving along to a new house hit with a signature vocal courtesy of a mystery chorus of female soul singers on BBC Radio 1. “That was Joey Negro with ‘Make a Move on Me’,” the host announced, glibly. “Did I just hear that correctly?” I remember thinking. “Did the radio host just say ‘Negro’?” 

I may have only been 10 years old, but I was already hypersensitive to racialised language, as I had already been on the receiving end of racist slurs at that young age. Joey Negro could have been some ultra cool US house DJ, his name simply a joke a la Afroman (though arguably in much poorer taste), but that wasn’t the case. He was a middle-aged white man from the Isle of Wight. Worse still, he was called ‘Dave’ – a name so innocuous that there is a terrestrial channel in the UK of the same name, because “everybody knows a bloke named Dave”.

I’m not the only one who took offense to the stage name ‘Joey Negro’. Last week, Dave Lee announced that he would no longer be using the ‘Joey Negro’ moniker, in response to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows a move by his fellow DJ, The Black Madonna, bowing to pressure to change her name and becoming ‘The Blessed Madonna’, and Montreal-based producer Patrick Holland explaining that he dropped his ‘Project Pablo’ name due to its problematic connotations. Outside of electronic music, musicians like Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks recently announced that they would no longer use problematic aliases either (the former opening a can of worms in the process).

So why is this happening now? As the Black Catalogue founder Monty Luke wrote in a petition asking for The Black Madonna to reconsider her stage name, “Cultural appropriation is the process by which aspects of one culture are copied and used (appropriated) by members of another culture. This phenomenon can be especially problematic when members from a dominant culture appropriate from a minority culture… Through the use of aliases, artist names, song titles and even clever publicity and media schemes, there have been countless examples of white artists appropriating aspects of black culture to their benefit.”

In changing his name, Dave Lee commented that he had “not felt comfortable with the Joey Negro name for a while”, and only kept the name as “establishing a new name as an artist isn’t easy” (the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy begs to differ). Yet, Lee was still releasing music under the moniker as recently as July 10 this year – I guess those 11 days were very uncomfortable. 

“Changing a problematic name is akin to streaming services removing old episodes of sitcoms with blackface in them, while the system that allowed this racism and cultural appropriation to perpetuate in the first place remains intact”

I do welcome these name changes, as do many others, but they feel long overdue. Why is it that a white man only decided at the age of 56 in the year of our Lord 2020 that going by the name ‘Negro’ maybe wasn’t the wisest idea, or that it took a literal petition for The Black Madonna to respond, given it’s been something that people have called her out over for a long time?

But these moves arguably take away from a much more prescient issue within electronic music – systemic racism. Changing a problematic name is akin to streaming services removing old episodes of sitcoms with blackface in them, while the system that allowed this racism and cultural appropriation to perpetuate in the first place remains intact. Given that the very foundation of the electronic music that we hear today was cultivated by Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ communities, the gatekeepers and those who ultimately hold the most financial power are completely unreflective of this, drawing heavily from a pool of white, middle class men.

In an open letter addressed to Resident Advisor and the electronic music industry at large, the DJ and producer R.O.S.H. points to a series of club nights catered to a predominantly Black and working class audience that met their demise over the course of the last decade, with little to no fanfare beyond their clientele. To succeed in the electronic music scene, there’s a game that needs to be played, and many Black club owners and promoters simply aren’t allowed to play. Forced to fend for themselves, they create often short-lived fringe events and grassroots collectives, not because they want to, but because they have to. You could glamourise this and suggest that it’s indicative of the very origins of genres like house, disco, and techno, which catered to those not welcome or unable to afford mainstream clubbing, but it places a glass ceiling above those who deserve much more.

With the horror of COVID-19 impacting the hospitality and nightlife sectors, electronic music is suffering. DJs are performing mixes in their living rooms, earning a fraction of what they would’ve done before, while venues and festivals are permanently closing their doors. With artists of all races fighting to make ends meet during the pandemic, it may not seem like the time to engage with issues like sexism, classism, and racism. But rather than deflecting with performative gestures, now is arguably the best time to talk about this. The industry needs to adapt to the changing world and assess the problems of how it was working before. The calls for things to ‘go back to normal’ are short-sighted when ‘normal’ wasn’t working. The scene that we knew before was not fit for purpose, and now presents an unprecedented opportunity to effectively rip it up and start again. It’s time to get the house in order.