I watched this whole thing at 4a and was legit crying for most of it. Venus X on segregation in nightlife, appropriating music and making derivative versions of it, Mad Decent’s bullshit (seriously, fuck Diplo), negotiating online and real life existence, creating nightlife and new economies, and disrupting frameworks is one of the deepest and realest things I’ve ever heard.
I’m trying to start my own party series in Chicago, and GHE20G0TH1K is one of my main sources of inspiration because I similarly want to create a space for marginalized music to be enjoyed and respected and for marginalized people to feel safe to fully express themselves. I have so much to think about after listening to this talk, I don’t even know where to start. But I’m excited!
I was lucky enough to get to listen to Venus X talk about this stuff on a panel at the EMP Conference at NYU this past spring, and she is brilliant and totally on point and this is an important video.
Even more important for those of us who failed to get into that panel and had to stand outside straining to hear every righteous Diplo slam.
I was at that panel, and Venus X rules. That said, I’m inclined to say that she misrepresents Diplo’s approach, and therefore miscategorizes what is and is not problematic about him. In particular, in economic terms, Diplo is not the enemy. Which is some shit, but it’s true.
(First, let me clarify: none of what I’m saying holds true for moombahton, about which I don’t know enough to speak. Venus X seems to imply in this interview that she’s not impressed with moombahton—that it masquerades as fusion but it’s really just rebranded reggaeton. To the extent that this is true, none of my critiques below hold in the slightest.)
Her issues with Diplo’s “imperial approach” ignore the economics that are playing out. I’m going to quote a few sections here. When she is talking about having worked for Shakira she laments:
Diplo’s okay to bring sounds—different cultural sounds—but why can’t a person from that country—why isn’t there a Brazilian person bringing us the Brazilian sound? Why isn’t there an African person bringing us an African sound?
I’m not sure how much you can blame Diplo for being the Tim Wise of tropical bass. I’ve never seen Tim Wise speak, nor have I particularly cared to, but from what I understand he implicates in his speaking engagements whoever hired him for hiring him because he was a white dude even though the field of expertise is anti-racism. And yet he keeps getting speaking engagements. Venus X talks about Mad Decent artists’ fortunes rising and falling but Diplo remaining at the top of the pyramid. I’m not sure that there’s anything Diplo could do to change that. And yet she hammers home that point about 32 minutes in:
But what happens after? So we go to the party, Diplo throws it, it’s a lot of fun. But what happens to the people in the different places where this music is coming from? Have their lives changed? Have there been more opportunities for them as musicians? Have our perspectives as Americans, or as, you know, “first world” people in music, and consumers, changed? Are we more open to purchasing music that isn’t produced by Columbia or being pushed by Atlantic or that doesn’t have a million commercials and advertisements everywhere? Is that a part of our progress or is it just, you know, creating a brand that literally makes it cool to look like you care about the whole world…but you really don’t, because it’s still poor, it’s still angry, and it’s still unacknowledged?
And near the end of the video she adds:
I think culture is about business though. For the people on the ground that are making it, in countries where he’s going to get it, they’re very concerned with money. They need it. They don’t have it.
But all her talk of Diplo’s “lack of humanity” ignores that when he produces recorded music, he works with the tropical bass artists who inspire him (which she implicitly claims he doesn’t) and gives them equal credit. One example, which Erin MacLeod mentioned at the Pop Conference panel: Vybz Kartel has a co-writing credit on “Pon de Floor,” and therefore also “Run the World (Girls).” MacLeod speculated that Columbia never cut Vybz Kartel that check because he probably never bothered to ask for it and they probably wouldn’t give it up unless he did ask for it. Diplo’s approach certainly looks imperialistic, but his own best practices are such that the only economic difference between his approach and Chief Boima’s is that artists who work with Boima will not make as much money on the project. Unless we’re talking about complete systemic reform, tropical bass doesn’t need more “ethical” spokespeople. Tropical bass needs an entertainment lawyer. (See: Day, Wendy.)
Of course, Venus X can go in on Diplo because she doesn’t produce recorded music. And yet for all her talk about transience she also talks about artifacts. Again, in purely economic terms, her “brand” and Diplo’s “brand” as DJs are almost identical. None of the artists whose music they play see money for that.
Of course, last year’s “Twitter beef” (ugh) lays bare the real issues here. (She discusses the situation at 17:42, and FADER ran a contemporaneous roundup of the relevant tweets.) It’s obvious that Diplo feels threatened by Venus X. Look how shitty his tone is in those tweets and how defensive he got. Diplo could never throw GHE20G0TH1K, because its utopic aspirations are completely at odds with music as a business. And it’s when one considers tropical bass as a rallying banner—as a communal music by and for people of color—that Diplo is a Problem, because he has no place there (nor should he). In this Venus X draws an contrast between Native American clothing sold by Native Americans and knockoffs sold at Urban Outfitters, implying that Diplo is the latter. The economics of that analogy don’t hold, but just to riff on that comparison: in terms of appropriation, Diplo is more like the white girl in the war bonnet.
So fuck Diplo for that.
Sidenote: Venus X also criticizes Mad Decent as a label for failure to provide artist development, specifically mentioning Maluca, with whom she toured. Across the board, record labels have been reducing the A&R role to scouting and leaving the responsibilities of artist development to the artists themselves. Nevertheless this is an area in which Diplo could prove his commitment to tropical bass. In Diplo’s mind, though, he’s already losing money just by putting the records out, so why spend all that money paying extra staff? This is the one way in which Diplo could be a better representative of tropical bass within the music industry that we have today. Which is to say that in every other way, it’s bigger than Diplo, and Diplo actually tends to be pretty “ethical” within an unethical (but hopefully not immutable) system.