From C-suites to festival lineups, it’s no secret that men dominate the dance music industry. While female DJs are featured on panels and in op-eds exploring gender inequality, meaningful progress has yet to occur. Billboard estimates that the 2018 rosters for the biggest U.S. dance festivals, Ultra in Miami and Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, feature fewer than 1 percent women. Blurred lines between working and partying also make women in the scene more vulnerable to assault and harassment.
With the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements provoking conversations around sexual misconduct and gender disparity, the underrepresentation of women in dance music is getting a closer look, and female artists are largely fostering this dialogue. Chicago DJ-producer Dani Deahl, Los Angeles producer KITTENS (born Lauren Abedini) and sisters Jahan and Yasmine Yousaf, who perform as Krewella, gathered in Los Angeles to discuss what they’re up against and what they’re fighting for. (This conversation took place before allegations of sexual assault were made against DJ-producer Datsik.)
How does harassment manifest in the dance industry?
Dani Deahl: For the most part, the places we perform are places people go to get fucked up. Women are hired to serve drinks in skimpy dresses. Women are given comped entry. Women in nightclubs are product. So when a female DJ enters a nightclub, there’s already the precedent that most of the women there are seen as product, not only by customers but also by the people in charge of the venue. That puts us at a great disadvantage.
KITTENS: There’s no human resources department for us to go to.
Deahl: There’s no real accountability. We’re freelance. If we make the wrong person angry, it can become a difficult situation. There’s the fear of being blacklisted, of having that person tell people, "Don’t work with her."
Have any of you been in situations that felt dangerous?
KITTENS: Oh my god, yes. Until recently I've been traveling alone. I've had times where I rolled up to a club, and they wouldn't let me in because they thought I was a groupie. I'm like, "That's my name on the marquee." I've had promoters pick me up from the hotel to drive me to the club, and at 3:00 a.m. when they were driving me back, say, "Isn't it really uncomfortable and scary traveling alone as a woman? Do you ever feel unsafe?" And I'm like, "I feel unsafe right now, bro. Can you not?" They're not caring of how sensitive [a female DJ] may be in that situation.
Deahl: I told a story on Twitter regarding Chicago DJ Tony Arzadon. A couple years ago we were both playing in San Diego on Halloween. He was playing later at a different venue, so after my gig I took everyone to support him. I thought, "We're both from Chicago; we're homies; we all know the same people back home -- let's do this." We went over to the Hard Rock, and Tony sees me. Instead of going in to hug me, he reaches out and slaps my breasts. I immediately started crying. The GM of the venue saw it and did nothing. He apologized on behalf of Tony. Nothing happened.
What happened then?
Deahl: I left, because I obviously didn't want to support that. None of my friends left with me. Then [Tony] was texting me and saying it wasn't a big deal; that I was overreacting because he does it to all the girls. The next day my manager at the time had a call with his management company, and they were also trying to say it wasn’t a big deal. It was really hard, because he's from Chicago; he knows my husband, who thought it was a big deal. But I told my husband he couldn’t make a big issue out of it if he saw Tony in public, which he did two days later. My husband had to pretend like everything was okay, because I didn't want to stir the pot.
Switching gears a bit, technology is obviously a huge component of producing electronic music. How does that influence this issue, given tech’s stereotype as “a guy thing"?
KITTENS I notice it big time when it comes to setting up my gear. The sound guy will put his hand on my back like, "Let me do it sweetie," like I don't know what I’m doing. That happens all the time.
Jahan Yousaf: Same.
Yasmine Yousaf: Same
Jahan and Yasmine, deadmau5 attacked you on Twitter by saying your equipment wasn't plugged in during your Ultra 2015 set. Undermining your technical skills felt particularly insidious on his part.
Yasmine: He was unfamiliar with our setup. I tried explaining it on Twitter, and he said, ["Your technical prowess is as apparent as the fuck I give"]. I was like, "You just wiped away all logic from this conversation."
Jahan: He’s dismissive of so many people. But Yasmine and I were sensitive to it at the time, because as women in the industry, there’s this assumption that you don’t work hard, that you’re not making any of the music and you’re not a creative force. If it happened today, we’d laugh, but at the time, we felt we had to fight to prove we were legitimate artists. [Update: After this interview took place, Krewella released a video for its female empowerment anthem “Bitch of the Year” that included an image of deadmau5. That photo was removed in a subsequent clip that came with a disclaimer noting, "Someone threatened to sue us for using their image in this video."]
KITTENS: I used to teach coed DJ classes, and the difference in confidence levels between men and women [was incredible]. The guys were like, "I got this," while they were still fucking up. The girls were so passive in the back of the room. It broke my heart. Now I do a series of workshops for only women called "PWR." A big focus is me talking about what these women can expect [as DJs] and how they can navigate that so it doesn’t crush their spirits and they can keep moving forward.
Do any of you believe you’re being booked or paid more, or treated differently given the current debate over gender inequality?
Yasmine: I don’t think that has changed at all. A lot of the women that are where they are in electronic music have had to have a co-sign or retweet from a man.
Deahl: You’d be surprised by how little things have changed. When I was getting into it, the people I looked up to most were Superjane, a female DJ collective in Chicago, and Women on Wax, in Detroit. I didn't recognize there was an issue because I had women to look up to, and dance music wasn’t popular. When it became popular, it became harder for women to enter the scene.
Why is that?
Deahl: Many forms of art through the years were born out of groups that were marginalized, then once they began to gain traction, co-opted by those in power, which, again, is historically white, cis men.
How are #MeToo and #TimesUp affecting the dance scene?
Deahl: The conversations are happening, and people are more willing to listen. We need to keep talking about it, because this is behavior that’s been ingrained not just in the guys running the industry or coming to parties. We're talking about centuries worth of behavior that needs to be reprogrammed. That's not an overnight thing.
I will say that for every story like The Gaslamp Killer that's told publicly, there are probably 10 more that have been told to me in private since the #MeToo movement has become a thing. These are women who are very high up in the industry that are still too scared to publicly say anything. We're talking about harassment from their own managers and agents, by agents of other A-list artists. There's the fear of being blacklisted, of just having that person tell other people "Don't work with her." The stories are there. The women still don't want to tell them.
KITTENS: The people in our industry who have the most power and the largest platforms are men, so I understand why women are still scared to speak out. Yeah, [women] have power, but in our own bubble. These guys are traveling the world at the top tier and have hits on the radio. I personally don't know anyone at that level who’s done messed-up stuff, but I wouldn't be surprised if I heard about it. I definitely get being scared of going up against somebody like that. These dudes are rich as hell. They can get lawyers and ruin your entire career. Nobody wants to be on their bad side.
What can people within the industry do to create change?
Jahan: Keep having the conversation; it’s really important. Also, Yasmine and I sometimes feel like we’re pulling teeth trying to find women to hire, whether it’s lighting techs or tour managers. Women need to keep spreading the word about women they know in the industry.
What can fans do?
Deahl: Buy tickets. Buy music. Buy into the change you want to see.
KITTENS: Use social media to tell promoters you want them to book particular artists. Name women, name minorities, name whoever you feel isn’t being represented.The reason promoters don't book these acts is because they're convinced that act isn’t going to sell. If they know that act will sell, there's no reason not to book them.
Deahl: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if the promoters continue to believe women aren't going to sell any tickets. If you don't support those artists, no one's going to know who they are, and they'll never sell any tickets.