Pushing for a more diverse dancefloor

by Alisa Yamasaki

Contributing Writer

When the acclaimed end-of-year techno party Future Terror announced its full lineup of DJs in December, there was a notable omission among the 19 names: There were no women.

This wasn’t the first time Tokyo’s clubbers have been presented with an all-male roster. The new Tokyo Techno Society party meant to showcase the city’s best talent only includes male artists so far, and the celebrated outdoor music festival Labyrinth has hosted only two women on its stage in the past three years.

Female artists around the world have been directing attention to inequality in dance music for the past couple of years such as through New York’s Discwoman collective. The bill at music and technology conference Moogfest this year will focus on female, nonbinary and transgender artists with the aim of highlighting often-underrepresented talent.

On Dec. 11, Tokyo’s Sapphire Slows took to her Twitter account to express her frustration over the Future Terror lineup.

“I felt like if I didn’t speak out, nobody would have paid attention to the issue,” Slows says during a roundtable discussion at The Japan Times’ office with fellow female artists Mayurashka and YonYon. “Some people thought that I was attacking (event organizer) DJ Nobu, but that’s not what I was trying to do. The Future Terror lineup is emblematic of the entire Japanese techno scene, one that’s skill-based and has a strong hierarchy. That’s why I wanted to bring up this problem.”

For his part, DJ Nobu addressed Slows’ tweet by saying it wasn’t the organizers’ intention to have an all-male roster, adding that the names of nine female artists came up in the initial booking process but those women weren’t confirmed due to scheduling conflicts and budget restraints. The organizers also did not approach lesser-known artists, male or female, as they didn’t want to risk technical errors spoiling the party.

YonYon, a Tokyo-based Korean DJ and producer, nonetheless expresses some concern that the event could only come up with nine potential acts.

“I couldn’t help but think, ‘Only nine?'” she says, speculating that if Future Terror ended up with 19 male artists, they likely whittled them down from a list of around 40. “Cases like this highlight the fact that there aren’t enough female DJs in the scene. And if you think about why that may be, it brings up even more issues that need discussing.”

Considering the absence of women in other areas of Japanese life, it’s not surprising that certain attitudes trickle down into the realm of entertainment. In 2017, Japan fell even further behind in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, ranking 114th out of 144 countries in terms of gender equality across fields including politics and economics.

Those in the club scene who say all-male rosters are unavoidable often come at the issue with a “skills first” stance, according to Mayurashka and Slows. Both women warn, however, that if you encounter a party with no women performing, as an artist or a fan, there may be more factors at work than just a lack of talented female DJs.

“Of course skill should come first, but I want people to widen their scope and listen to more female artists in order to get a broader perspective,” Mayurashka says. “Every party has its philosophy and tastes, but there should be more opportunities for women. Many people say they only judge artists by sound and not by gender, but if that were true there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be seeing more equality.”

“I hear people say they don’t want to book artists who ‘aren’t skilled’ because it ruins the flow of the event,” Slows adds. “But, for example, if a techno festival claims it’s the best in the world and only books the highest-quality artists — and if there are almost no women there — we need to think about why, and why it happens repeatedly.”

The one-woman lineup is about as common in Japan as the all-male one, and it’s something all three artists have experienced. In those cases, even when women are booked to perform, the trio agree they aren’t given the visibility their male counterparts may enjoy.

Despite a 15-year career as an artist and DJ, Mayurashka still finds herself opening for younger guys who are making their debuts. Such scheduling raises questions, especially since the Japanese music scene tends to reflect the wider culture with its respect for seniority, meaning older, more experienced artists get the better slots.

“I like playing opening sets, but I notice female DJs taking on that time slot a lot,” Mayurashka says. Playing an opening set means playing to a small crowd at the very beginning of the night. “It’s a bit disappointing and it leaves me thinking that I’m maybe not good enough.”

Slows adds: “And then if you’re not confident in yourself, you don’t play well. You start thinking that you’re not skilled enough for the main floor or that you haven’t tried hard enough to earn a prime slot on the bill.”

YonYon agrees: “There aren’t many people who even recognize this as a problem to begin with, both on the artist’s and audience’s sides. People who understand the problem need to educate others and spread the word. The most basic thing you can do is to raise your voice.”

In Seoul, speaking up on such issues led to some of the most exciting parties of 2017, according to YonYon.

“Seeing (all-female and majority-female) lineups in the Korean club scene last year was a major breakthrough,” she says, adding that those parties — Circles by Act Around and Censored? — didn’t just provide a showcase for female artists but also a space where female clubbers, who are often subject to harassment, felt safe and comfortable. “Clubs have never really been great environments for women but all-female DJ crews worked to make clubbing a safe experience, a place where women could have fun and feel free.”

This is where an effort to bring diversity to the dancefloor should be of interest not just to women, but to everyone who wants to see the club scene in Japan thrive.

“If we don’t actively give women chances, we won’t be able to foster a new generation of talent,” YonYon says.

“And they won’t go to the clubs,” Mayurashka adds. “Compared to 10 years ago, I think there are far fewer people who come out to events. It used to be so common for a club to reach capacity.”

Slows suggests changing the Japanese scene might be difficult when opportunities are relatively plentiful overseas.

“From all the stories I’ve heard, if you’re a female artist trying to make it in Japan then you’ve likely been disrespected or have experienced some pretty traumatic things,” she says. “If you gain recognition outside of Japan, it’s hard to come back here and have to deal with those problematic situations and behaviors again — and why would you want to? There are a lot of incredible female artists who are internationally recognized for their talent, but I don’t think Japan will be able to keep them here if things don’t change.”

Despite this admission, Slows says she hasn’t given up on Tokyo just yet.

“When I speak out it’s only because I trust the person or people I’m criticizing and still hope to work with them in the future; I see value in expending the energy. No one wants to be the one who speaks out, to be honest,” she says with a laugh. “People will think you’re a pain. It takes up time and uses up your energy. Still, if we don’t talk about these things, they’re never going to change.”

You can keep up with these three artists on Twitter at @sapphireslows, @mayurashka and @yonyonsan_j.