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Photography Deion Squires, Emily Switzer

BAMBII reflects on the future of dance music

The Toronto-based DJ and producer reflects on her formative experiences navigating a stratified electronic music scene and the creativity held in the experience of being marginalised

In this personal essay, Toronto-based DJ and producer BAMBII reflects on her formative experiences navigating a stratified electronic music scene and the creativity held in the experience of being marginalised 

In 2014, creatives complained that Toronto had an identity crisis. The city felt undefined, awkwardly piggybacking off of some impression of New York or maybe L.A. For some reason working at American Apparel was an honorary badge for suburban kids that vowed they were alternative and trap was ironically blasted from hipster bars that would cringe if more than three Black patrons walked in. I'm really not a names and dates person but the indie rock scene seemed to have a chokehold on the downtown core. Invisible borders that delineated the elusive “cool”  ran through the music and club scenes and no one wanted to admit they were obviously based on race and class.

Despite all of this, I managed to find my stride DJing. Dropping out of university meant I was an intermediate level party go-er. By the time I started playing I had loyal friends I met in the bathroom stall that would follow me anywhere. I was twenty-something with pink braces that somehow worked for me. I eventually gained enough traction and was playing at almost every Toronto bar, club, and DIY spot you could think of. 

When it had been a couple years of working as what my mom calls a “professional DJ” I thought I was well on my way to avoiding an existential midlife crisis. Momentarily DJing as a medium felt pliable and creatively freeing. On good nights it still does. But like everything, I quickly realized that even something as boundless as music could be superficially reduced and my creative career possibly truncated by the pitfalls of corporatisation and conformity.

Thrown into the electronic world via my first European tour, I orientated pretty quickly. Describing genres and all their superfluous subheadings can get boring so I’ll try to be brief: Techno and EDM, an institution gate kept by white men like King Arthur's round table, makes the EU an epicentre for anyone developing a relationship with electronic music. At the time, I was non-committal, unpretentiously playing baile funk, nostalgia-inducing ballroom and jersey edits, techno, and global club while rarely dipping down to slower tempos. My style had landed me club gigs all over the EU but later I would find there were major limitations. 

In 2018, DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list only had six women – and five the year before. I already caught wind in Toronto that being a woman – particularly a Black woman – meant not only a pay cut, but constant preconceptions. I had inherently less believability in a realm dominated by white men, and the more I zoomed out, I started to recognise the same borders that stratified music in my hometown. Like many other Black and brown artists, I found myself in a restrictive two-step with the omniscient alternative; simultaneously being tokenised and sometimes hesitant to express the full range of my sound for fear of being reduced by purists as ‘urban’. 

Meanwhile, I watched electronic white DJs freely cross-cultural and sonic lines without hindrance. It became clear that Techno and EDM – successfully appropriated forms of music now widely considered white – had the infrastructure and legitimacy (festivals, labels, and media coverage) it’s Black and queer by-products like footwork, jersey, and ballroom might never have. I heard DJ sets that brought digital memory to reality – recontextualising everything from R&B, cult pop and rap stretching over breakbeats and diasporic polyrhythms. This music set crowds on fire but rarely made it to the acclaimed main stages at festivals. 

“The second part of your life only truly begins when you become disillusioned as an artist” – BAMBII

It felt like everyone was so caught up in the over-intellectualising and attempts to out-techno each other, that no one had noticed the irony of a supposed counterculture becoming the thing it swore it would never be: conformist and pretentious. I learned a lot of hard lessons. Firstly, never date a DJ especially if he’s from Berlin and takes you to Berghain as a first date; and, more importantly, how to travel alone, assert what I was worth, and collaborate with difficult personalities. Along with these lessons came the realisation that there was an illogical hierarchy between genres and styles that had either birthed or influenced each other – and that navigating the industry would be more than difficult. I’ve joked that the second part of your life only truly begins when you become disillusioned as an artist.

When marginalised as an artist, you have an acute awareness of where your opportunities end and actual creative freedom begins. Eventually after a couple tours and being on “10 Female DJs you should follow right now” lists,  the ceiling becomes visible. It’s frustrating but can subsequently lead you back to the invaluable space of being unbothered by tradition. If you can make it past the Boiler Room comment section, there’s a realm of DIY movements led by Black, Brown, queer and allied people around the world that embody what DJing, at its best, is about. 

People and collectives like Pussy Palace, Uniiqu3, Lady Shaka, Teeno, Chippy Nonstop, Moonshine, OSSX, LSDXOXO, New Currency, and more, through experimentation and intentional collaboration, contribute to what I would call the queering of electronic music; their shape-shifting sets are a refusal to adhere to a subcultural boundary or singular sound. I am not merely describing sexual identity, but rather an all-encompassing creative approach that echos the fluidity and futurism of queerness. This re-rendering proves genres and sounds as connective rather than restrictive, breaking false binaries and using DJing as the unpredictable and borderless medium it is. These elements of open format, playing and reinterpreting sounds into new contexts, have been the approach many past pioneers like DJ Rashad or Frankie Knuckles have used to create new sounds.

With music venues mostly closed for the past couple of years, I spent a lot of time mourning. When I finally reached the seventh stage of grief I started to think about my trajectory, community, and the formula of success in the DJ world. We’ve all had to shift to adapt to new circumstances. The ways artists interact with supporters, how music is released, and the operation of venues and festivals have all had to change.  

While imagining new ways the industry can thrive, it might be a good time to analyse the divisions that are used to statically define something that in essence can never stay the same. This idea of queering music can also be applied to the formalities and structural inequity in the industry. The predictable festival line ups, gate kept venues, purism, and non inclusive media all beg the question– not only if the industry is discriminatory (obviously it is) but whether or not the industry is actually interested in the innovation and experimentation it boasts.

The fact is these hierarchies and formulas marginalise particular artists and threaten the most magnetic and redeeming aspect of music: the ability to catapult us, whether willingly or not, into the future.