Aluna Francis did the math. Looking at the 81 albums that have been nominated for best dance/electronic album at the Grammys since the category was launched in 2004, she found the number of Black female artists who have gotten the nod to be exactly zero.
For the longstanding dance scene artist, the statistic was a stark reminder of the general invisibility of Black women in dance music. “It is a fact that not that many Black women have made a ton of dance music since the whole genre was moved to the white community,” Francis says, Zooming from her home in Los Angeles. “If you think of a Black woman as a whole, the different parts of her, she’s been cut up in little pieces and placed in different parts of the industry. She’s there in the lyrics, she’s there in the voice, sometimes you see her in a video, but you don’t see her right there in the middle. That’s really the shift we need to make.”
It’s a shift Francis made herself, with the August release of her debut solo album, Renaissance. The London-born Francis took the leap into solo artistry after a successful career as one half of the duo AlunaGeorge, during which she lent her voice to huge dance tracks by Flume, Avicii and Disclosure, and scored hits including the massive DJ Snake collaboration “You Know You Like It.”
Released on Mad Decent, Renaissance holds onto the steamy, house-oriented beats of Francis’ previous work and adds elements of Afrobeat, dancehall and more. Both danceable and deeply personal, the album finds Francis exploring themes around jealousy, anger, envy, desire and the joys of getting paid.
Finding her voice as a solo artist was, for Francis, a lot about claiming her space in the middle as a Black woman in a dance scene dominated by white men, and releasing her album just months after the murder of George Floyd also provided her the opportunity to discuss the issues of racial and gender inequality that she’s faced for the entirety of her career.
“I could never tell a young Black girl to follow in my footsteps and do what I did,” Francis says, her nearly year-old daughter crying softly out of frame. “I navigated a completely white industry, where in every corner was a white man telling me how things were. I just can’t recommend that to anyone.”
Here, Francis discusses her album, the presence (and lack thereof) of Black Women in the electronic categories at the Grammys and what the dance industry must do to move forward with greater racial equity.
Renaissance was released in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. How was this timing a consideration?
Honestly, the conversations were like, “Should we just still drop the album, or pause it until further notice?” We couldn’t afford to. We had a timeline and that is when we were supposed to put this album out, so whatever the circumstances were going into it, we had to make it work to our advantage.
I would never swap this time for another time when I had no voice and no opportunity to talk about what my album’s actually about. The opportunity to explain what my album is about for me, with this open dialogue that also has sociopolitical meaning, in terms of my career, is the one thing that was missing for me. I can put out good music until I die, but if I can’t talk about what it’s about with ears that are listening, it doesn’t feel fulfilling.
Why was it time to make a solo album?
I’m used to making decisions where I go, “What’s the one thing that I probably shouldn’t do?” I kind of made that decision with the dance music, and the reason it’s a “shouldn’t do” is the solo part. If I said, “I’m going to do a set of 12 songs where I feature on a white producer’s track for each song,” every person in the universe who knows who I am would be like, “Yes girl! That is what we wanted. Your voice on someone else’s track. Beautiful! I’ll put five grand down so I can have some equity in that.”
But all those same people, if I went to them and said, “I’m going to do a solo dance album without white producers as the main artist and instead I will be the main artist”? Tumbleweeds.
Are those actual responses that you got?
You can pretty much interpret a response by someone’s non-investment. I get offered to do a feature on someone’s track, like, once a day. Anything from a new, unknown producer in Vienna who has 400 followers to the top DJ/producers. So you know that someone’s investing in that idea [of me as just a vocalist].
Had that implicit suggestion to just stay in your lane always been clear to you?
This is what I knew: people wanted my voice, not my face. Not my Blackness. They wanted my voice and the soul of what I bring as a Black woman without my Blackness. That’s the traditional model for dance music through and through since dance music was taken over by the white community.
In June, you wrote an open letter to the dance music industry that addressed the scene’s longstanding racial inequality, writing, “The current genre definition and industry-designed parameters of dance in particular need an upgrade.” What are your primary recommendations in making this happen?
With hiring. First of all, it’s not the case of just hiring some Black people, although that would be a great start. But within the job description there has to be the criteria of that person addressing gender and racial inequity with clear targets in play, in order to be able to judge that person’s capability of making those changes.
You can’t just hire a Black face — that person already has to have invested time and energy, which is a privileged position probably for most Black people, but you will find people who’ve dedicated their lives to basically educating people and businesses on how to rectify that problem.
If you’re not going to hire Black people, you need to upgrade the job descriptions, especially at the top. You need to inform them that their job has changed, and it’s now required that you understand how to create policy that target the disparity and unfairness of the racial inclusivity of our company, and if you’re not able to do that within three months, then I’m afraid you’re going to have to be replaced.
What about streaming services?
The DSPs need to address the genre classification of dance in particular. They need to upgrade their playlist skills amongst their playlisters, for which I would obviously first recommend diversity in hiring practices.
The live booking agents and lineups need to take this time and start to understand that the consumer base that they are looking at already has diversity in it and those customers are not being well-served. In a climate where politics is dividing people, it’s more apparent than ever that if you are creating a public space where people are going to try and access joy, that you make that specifically diverse for the health of your consumer. So the lineups have to change.
And if the DSPs are too slow because they have “technical issues” in the backend, or they can’t quickly find enough Black people that are highly enough qualified in their opinion, then don’t look at the DSPs to make your lineups. Educate yourselves on what Black artists are making and change your lineups.
What about labels and awards shows?
In terms of labels, they need to look at the status quo, which is the exploitation of Black voices without the celebration of Blackness within dance music. They need to invest in the singers that have been the voice of dance music. If they want to be artists — and you will find that a lot of them do because they’re singer-songwriters with production experience – put them with a producer who does want to be a behind the scenes producer and make them the artist and invest in them. And use your contacts at the festivals and the DSPs as you do with your white artists to get them ahead.
In terms of awards, I think it’s important to take the essence of the idea of an awards ceremony back to its roots. Yes, it’s to celebrate the most popular thing, but it’s also to celebrate innovation and the future. It’s often a place where you can show the world what the future of music is and an opportunity to dig into the cutting edge of music and rectify historical imbalance.
Your album is eligible for a Grammy this year. As you pointed out, no Black woman has ever been nominated the best dance/electronic album category.
The Grammy awards, what it represents for the industry is who’s been invested in both critically, financially and in terms of the general fanbase. When you look over the last 16 years that there’s been a dance category, there have been 80 nominations over that time. Only three people who’ve been nominated in this category, Maxim of The Prodigy and LMFAO, are Black. No Black women have been nominated.
To me, that’s an interestingly stark statistic. If I say “Black people aren’t really included in the dance community,” you can see that very clearly when you do a bit of research. I think that that’s both alarming and also really exciting, because there’s nothing like making change, breaking down barriers and, doing things for the first time. So I’m kind of having fun with it, although it raises the issue that a lot of Black artists have been overlooked over time.
I imagine it would be extremely meaningful you to get a nomination this year.
Honestly, if I was nominated, I wouldn’t want to just be sitting there thinking about being the only Black person nominated and how that either makes me highly unlikely to win or highly likely to win. [laughs] I just don’t want to sit there thinking about how whether my Blackness is a weight around my neck that automatically sinks me below the standard of every other artist, or whether it’s a performative opportunity to change history. That’s the ideal situation, otherwise I’m just totally down to get nominated.
Who else would you want to see nominated?
In my playlists and DJ sets I showcase all of the best dance music created by Black people, so any of those people. I don’t know if Black Coffee has released an album this year, but it’s very weird that he hasn’t been nominated. He’s an exceptional dance producer. Kaytranada. Channel Tres is absolutely incredible. And that’s pretty much just talking about traditional dance music. I would probably fall down dead if I saw a dancehall or afrobeat artist nominated in the dance category. It would be like, “My work is done!”
I hear your baby in the other room. Has motherhood affected your position on any of these topics?
The one thing I have in mind when I think about my child is I just want to show her how fulfilling it is to go for your purpose and to find out what’s possible without the criteria of perfection weighing on your shoulders. I think perfection does many things and it certainly brings up the topic of hypocrisy. I find this notion of being a hypocrite being very misleading and discouraging.
If you’re a black female artist and the current way you earn money is to do features, but you want to speak up about how doing features for white artists is exploiting Black women, is it hypocritical to then take the little tiny bag that gets offered for you to live by doing that feature? You’re not allowed to speak unless you’re a purist. I could give a flying f–k about being hypocritical, because that opinion comes from a place of privilege, so it doesn’t actually apply to me or any other Black female artist.
In what ways do you feel that being a Black woman in the dance industry has held you back?
I was talking to another Black female artist yesterday, and what she said to me is that “Yes, you’ve had success, but for the contribution you’ve and the success you’ve had, the accolades you get are not in line with that. Someone like you should have headlined many more festivals than you have. You should have been placed in these certain levels of the hierarchy of dance music,”
But because I’m a side piece, I don’t get any of that. I get told things like, “I’m such a legend.” I have now come to understand that that terminology is used specifically for people who are undervalued and you need something from them. The most times I hear that terminology is when I’m asked to do a feature. It’s always like, “You’re such a legend, I know you would kill this track that I made” whilst telling me to sing like the person they have no the demo.
Does having released your album make you feel differently?
It does make me feel more free.