Matthias London

Disidentification for those who can afford it: Return to the Source festival as a site of emergence and exclusion

Image Credit: Matthias London.

Disidentification for those who can afford it: Return to the Source festival as a site of emergence and exclusion

1. Introduction

Electronic dance music (EDM) culture originated as a response to the structural societal oppression against minoritized identities (Garcia, 2018; Mejia, 2015). Homophobic legal arrangements paired with white supremacist societal norms in New York of the 70s catalyzed a process of spatial exclusion of queer and trans people of color from nighttime venues. Responding to that spatial segregation, private discotheques mushroomed where those excluded from mainstream venues could come together in an assemblage of multiple cultural and sexual identities that they could perform in a safe space without fear of resentment. Thus, the politics of space were as important for the early history of EDM as the technological progress and development of DJing skills that marked the production of the culture.

When cultural commodities from Chicago’s House scene arrived in South Africa in the 80s, musicians from the townships tweaked the velocity and overrode the vocals with their local tongues, giving House music a distinctly South African touch (Collin, 2018). Ever since a variety of genres have spawned that mushroomed spatial amenities where they could be celebrated. Needless to say, space in apartheid South Africa was a crucial facet of life for the majority population, so, naturally, the politics of space became a paramount feature of the practice of South African EDM culture. When the country transitioned into its post-apartheid era, access to EDM venues became legally available for everyone, regardless of their ethnic identities or the pigment of their skin. South African society witnessed the production of an outdoor sound system culture in the townships, club culture in urban nighttime venues, and festival culture in nature.

Despite their functioning within the logic of a capitalist market, a variety of EDM event series and venues in South Africa aspire to implement spatial politics based on social inclusion, non-discrimination, human interconnectedness, and decommodification. Though, situating EDM in South African means acknowledging that the neoliberal market as a mediator to spatial access still reproduces intersectional power imbalances that are the result of centuries of racial exploitation during South Africa’s formally colonial era. In this essay, then, I will explore the question of how EDM culture in South Africa reproduces some of the oppressive structures that it seeks to overcome . I will argue that even within EDM spaces of resistance, racial identities are experiencing restricted access due to the economic limitations imposed on them by the absence of class privilege. For that purpose, I apply an intersectional reading on the case of the South African Return to the Source festival using Muñoz’ (1999) spatial framework of disidentificatory sites of emergence. Return to the Source mirrors South Africa’s racialized class structure, instead of overcoming it, and reserves the privilege of constructing and performing queer, sexual, racial, and other disidentificatory acts for those who can afford it, in other words, largely for white South Africans.

To do so, I will first outline the theoretical entry point to the study. I understand fragmented identities as constructed and performed in interaction with the local particularities of cultures and societies in which they exist, a process mediated by intersectional power imbalances. Then, I will conceptualize EDM culture as a space of resistance using Muñoz’ (1999) disidentificatory sites of emergence and situate EDM culture in the context of South Africa. South African EDM spaces are sites of emergence if they actively construct counterpublic safe spaces that allow for performative acts through which the agents disidentify with the South African hegemonic cultural norm that subjugate minoritized identities in dominant public spheres. Thereafter, I will use the Return to the Source festival as a case study to undergird the argument that class privilege intersects with racial identities in the exclusion of non-white identities from counter-hegemonic EDM sites of emergence. In doing so, I will juxtapose the festival’s marketing material with my personal experiences in the spaces associated with South African EDM culture and conclude with suggestions for rendering Return to the Source more socially inclusive.

2. Identity, intersectionality, disidentification, and social exclusion

To explore how South African EDM spaces of resistance invisibilize certain identities, I depart from an understanding of identity politics as existing in entanglements with the local particularities and historical trajectories of cultures and societies where they mutually co-construct each other. In his book chapter “The Question of Cultural Identity,” Stuart Hall (2003) suggests a concept of cultural identity that he justifies with the shifts that the postmodern turn brought about. According to Hall, the postmodern subject has no essentialist fix elements, it is rather a “’moveable feast:’ formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems which surround us” (ibid., p. 277). Consequently, the story of the self is socially constructed in the never-ceasing interaction between an internal understanding of the self and socially constituted external representations of the self. That cyclical process catalyzes the formation of fragmented hybrid identities in relation to the particularities of the cultures and socio-historical circumstances of the space in which the identity construction is happening.

In emphasizing that the social construction of identities within cultures and societies is inevitably mediated by power and privilege, feminists of color expanded on Hall’s fragmented postmodern identity. Intersectionality is based on the acknowledgment of difference in the construction of identities and social emancipatory struggles. Markers of sociocultural identities, such as race, social class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., are active, interlocking, and experienced together in the formation of subjectivities. The intersectional paradigm originated from the emphasis on racial difference within feminist discourses and has produced a multi-faceted scholarly tradition. As the most prominent one, black feminists, such as hooks (2015) and especially Collins (1990; 2021), picked up earlier discourses around difference by Lorde (2003), Crenshaw (1991), or Davis (1983) and forged intersectionality into a critical sociological approach. It is a useful framework to explore how South African EDM spaces of resistance marginalize some identities because it enables a differentiated reading of the multiple forms of segregation and social exclusion, even within spaces that aim to be progressive, equitarian, and inclusive.

An intersectional reading of South African EDM culture requires illuminating the regional dominant cultural norms in which it is operating and their historical trajectories, for which queer theories provide adequate spatial interpretative frames. In “Performing Disidentifications”, Muñoz (1999) conceptualized disidentification as a subaltern strategy of resistance that utilizes performative acts within “sites of emergence” (p. 8) to recycle and reimagine the meaning of the dominant cultural norms that subjugate them. He employed an intersectional lens on the politics of identity that acknowledges power imbalances between social standpoints as determined by simultaneously intersecting oppressions on a subject that differ between space and time. Disidentificatory performances of subordinated subject positions happen in sites of emergence which are diametrically opposed to the cis-heteronormative, white supremacist, classist dominant public sphere. “Identities-in-difference” (ibid., p. 8) emerge through the ability to disidentify with the dominant cultural norms and instead, construct counter-hegemonic counterpublic spheres where subjugated identities can be constructed and performed.

However, even disidentificatory sites of emergence are mediated by privilege and power, thereby reproducing social hierarchies of domination by excluding or silencing certain identity groups. Intersectionality as a very scientific approach emerged out of the intersectional power imbalances within feminist discourses. hooks (2015a) contended that foregrounding gender has served to privilege white women’s experiences over those of women of color. She argued that class privilege prevails despite female access to the labor market, which becomes particularly evident when viewed through the prism of racial difference. For poor and working-class women – which in the U.S. happens to correlate with racial identities due to the logic of white supremacist imperialist capitalism – working on the labor market in addition to working at home does not equal economic independence, let alone liberation. In portraying the globalization of White feminism as a perpetuation of Western neocolonialism anchored in a rhetoric of White salvation, Mohanty (2003) highlighted the importance of acknowledging racial difference within feminist discourses on a global scale. Piepzna-Samarasinha (2019) demonstrated that albeit ableism also intersects with race, social class, gender, sexuality, and other markers of sociocultural identity, disability is often invisibilized even within critical or progressive spaces. Consequently, even if South African EDM spaces resist dominant cultural norms by producing counterpublic spaces that allow for the construction and performance of otherwise subjugated (queer) identities, it requires an interdisciplinary reading of those spatial arrangements to discern how accessible these spaces are for the totality of elements of sociocultural identities, such as race, social class, ability, etc.

3. Electronic dance music spaces of resistance as disidentificatory sites of emergence

Conceptualizing South African EDM culture as sites of emergence for disidentification requires carefully situating them in the global, local, and historical context of where they are located (Brah, 1996). More specifically, it is necessary to triple situate these spaces within global EDM culture, South African society in general, and South African EDM culture in particular. Demarcating EDM spaces of resistance from the larger South African societal systems of dominant culture into which they are embedded illuminates the spatial characteristics that enable performative acts of otherwise subjugated identities. Once identified, it enables the analysis of how EDM spaces of resistance invisibilize certain identities to access these spaces.

First, disidentificatory EDM sites of emergence are niche spaces within globalized commercial EDM culture. Over the past five decades, EDM has spawned a global industry of music production and consumption, live music industry, as well as commodities for music in general and stylistic commodities for subgenres in particular. Research by the International Music Summit indicates that despite suffering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend for the global recorded music market carried is marked by growth, amounting to 22 billion $US in 2020, with dance music contributing over 1 billion $US (Boyle, 2021).

Commercial EDM culture tends to prioritize economic aspects over cultural ones and therefore produces a global culture that reproduces structures of oppression instead of challenging them. In a study of EDM festivals, Mejia (2015) found that companies associated with the organization of large-scale festivals use their discursive power surrounding identities, cultures, sex, and transnationalism to frame a utopian ideology that generates profit while perpetuating cis-heteronormative structures of oppression. Using bell hook’s understanding of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within a Western culture of domination, he demonstrated that festivalgoers of the Ultra Miami and Tomorrowland are exposed to a reformulation of hegemony guised in open, multi-ethnic transnationalism.

On the contrary, disidentificatory EDM sites of emergence consciously attempt to create spatial arrangements that allow for the formulation of counter-narratives to oppressive societal macrostructures through the embodied performance of identities subjugated in dominant public spheres. Garcia (2018) practiced historical revisionism that reconnects urban nocturnal EDM sites to their origin, i.e., as “spaces of survival, comfort, recognition and community building” (p.1) for minoritized queer people of color.

Second, situating disidentificatory EDM sites of emergence within South Africa means locating them in a historical trajectory marked by colonialist racial exploitation and apartheid spatial segregation that keep structuring the country’s contemporary cultural landscape and social class structure. The South African disjuncture with apartheid implied fundamental social transformations (Moodley & Adam 2000). One of the main implications was the replacement of granting legal spatial access based on ethno-racial identities with the neoliberal market as the post-apartheid justifier for holding access to space (Hook and Vrdoljak, 2002; Murray, 2011). However, the market did not emerge out of the blue, and neither did the social class structure. They are heirs to pre-capitalist hierarchies that – in the context of South Africa – are shaped by centuries of colonial disproportionate capital accumulation between socially constructed racial groups (Rehbein, 2018). Despite the emergence of a black bourgeoisie, Whiteness in South Africa correlates with dominant class and Blackness with subjugated class (Moodley & Adam 2000). Concurrently, accessing South African EDM spaces of resistance is undeniably a matter of racialized social class. Disidentificatory South African EDM sites of emergence acknowledge market oppression, actively attempt to create access beyond class privilege, and thereby follow an anti-classist paradigm.

Moreover, South African EDM sites of emergence for disidentification function within cis-heteronormative patriarchal legacies in South Africa. As part of colonialist and imperialist territorial expansion, colonial missionaries imposed a rigid binary gender system anchored in the cis-heteronormative patriarchal Christian tradition. In doing so, they forcefully substituted social systems in Asia (Chakravarti, 1993), Africa (Amadiume, 1997), or Latin America (Taylor, 2006) characterized by matriarchal social relations with highly unequal patriarchal gender hierarchies. South Africa is no exception. Gender inequality in general – and gender-based violence as a particularly problematic expression of it – have skyrocketed in the post-apartheid era (Dlamini, 2021; Moreroa and Rapanyane, 2021). Jacobs (2019) argued that even within supposedly progressive and socially inclusive South African spaces – exemplified by the Fees Must Falls movement – privileged positionalities use their relative positions of power to silence narratives of minoritized identities, i.e., queer and trans people of color within the movement. These works exemplify but a few ways in which cis-heteronormative patriarchy subjugates South African women, trans, and queers of color. Consequently, disidentificatory South African EDM sites of emergence acknowledge the intersectional subjugation of non-conforming genders and sexualities and actively implement non-discriminatory and socially inclusive spatial policies for women, trans, and queers of color.

In sum, South African disidentificatory EDM sites of emergence are counterpublic safe spaces that allow for the construction and expression of subjugated minoritized identities through performative acts. They respond to the hegemony of cis-heteronormative, patriarchal, white supremacist, and classist cultural norms dominating South African society. Concrete spatial characteristics of disidentificatory sites of emergence in the context of South African EDM culture are that they are accessible beyond racialized class privilege, that they seek to nullify gendered physical abuse, that they are socially inclusive of non-conforming gender and sexual identities, that they promote multicultural community-building – in a sentence – that they are thought of as counter-hegemonic safe spaces and materialized through disidentificatory performative acts within them.

4. Return to the Source: An arcadian utopia for those who can afford it

In this section, I situate and analyze the South African Return to the Source festival through the conceptual framework of disidentificatory EDM sites of emergence outlined above. As data points, I draw on the festival’s marketing material to outline the self-identificatory narrative of the festival as well as a participant observation during the festival to test that narrative through my subjective experience. I argue that although the Return to the Source festival falls under the category of disidentificatory EDM sites of emergence in some respects, it excludes people of color from accessing this space viz-à-viz racialized market dynamics that link festival participation to class privilege. Hence, non-conforming worldmaking through disidentificatory performative acts at the Return to the Source festival is reserved for affluent people, in a context, where economic affluence correlates strongly with whiteness. Thereafter, I discuss how festivals could be rethought to hold space for those identities excluded from participation.

Responding to the forced hiatus of large-scale music festivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spirit Train crew started organizing the smaller Return to the Source festival with a conscious community ethos. Return to the Source was born in 2020 as “a rebellion reaction against the loss of human rights suffered when the Covid-19 pandemic appeared” (Return to the Source, 2021). Ever since, the Spirit Train crew – one of the co-creators of the AfrikaBurn festival – has been organizing two instances per annum with a maximum of 800 participants, one in spring and one in autumn. On their website, the organizers state that they “intend to preserve the safe & intimate environment created thus far” by bringing together “a conscious community gathering around music, art, light, love and information [where] freedom is our birth-right and your senses are our playground” (ibid., 2021). The festival takes place in the South African desert where the AfrikaBurn used to be staged, around four hours driving from Cape Town. The Tenkwa Tented Camp is a “completely off-grid private nature reserve which is completely powered by solar energy and is not fed by municipal water” (ibid., 2021). According to the organizers, music policy, bookings, timetable, and artistic performances were thoughtfully set to attract the conscious community that would foster the desired safe and intimate festival environment: “Deep within the DNA of LOBO is the sound of his heartbeat and we aim to break stereotypes by virtue of story-telling and a ‘left-of-centre’ approach to our artist bookings” (ibid., 2021). The festival stages post-apocalyptic steam-punk aesthetics, represented visually and discursively in the Spirit Train’s origin story (The Spirit Train, 2021).

Derived from the marketing material, Return to the Source discursively constructs itself as a socially inclusive safe space of resistance based on a universal understanding of human rights and liberty anchored in biological essentialism. However, the emphasis on community-building at the site is dependent on the variable of consciousness. As an offspring of the AfrikaBurn, Return to the Source applies the notion of consciousness to some of the anti-capitalist, environmentalist, decommodifying “Burn principles.” Only then can the desired safe space for the practice of freedom and sensory pleasure through performative acts materialize. In a desert without urban amenities, Return to the Source appears to construct a temporarily autonomous arcadian utopia where participants can re-assemble under altered social relations and, literally, return to the source.

As such, Return to the Source normatively represents a disidentificatory EDM site of emergence through the creation of a counterpublic safe space for the performance of non-conforming identities, the anti-individualist emphasis on community, the anti-capitalist-mode-of-production emphasis on sustainability, and the anti-consumerist emphasis on self-sufficiency. Return to the Source does not present itself as a designated queer and trans space where performative acts disidentify the performers with subordinating stigmas addressing queer identities in dominant public spheres. However, it does encourage performances through which the agents disidentify with white-collar transactional consumer society. The official packing list includes a call for stylistic artifacts and costumes. According to Muñoz (1999), stylistic expression can be a crucial element of disidentificatory performative acts. Located in a remote area, hours away from civilization with limited access to food, beverages, and hygienic amenities, participants are encouraged to bring everything they need for the duration of the festival, barter with other participants using non-monetary remuneration, and leave no trace behind upon return, all of which can be understood as acts disidentifying with neoliberal capitalist consumer culture.

My lived experience as a participant of Return to the Source from October 30, 2021 – November 01, 2021, confirmed the above identification of the festival as a disidentificatory site of emergence in some aspects. Despite not being a designated queer or trans space, Return to the Source did allow for the construction and performance of minoritized gender and sexual identities. The people who I spoke to who identified as queer said that they felt “absolutely safe to express [their] sexuality and identities in whatever ways, without fear of discrimination whatsoever.” I witnessed the public display of affection regardless of gender – including my own – as well as stylistic expressions of queer identities, e.g., through kink accessories – again, counting myself in –, and trans performative acts, such as vogueing. South African patriarchal gender relations that constantly threaten women with violent physical abuse through the sexualization of female bodies were seemingly diffused, represented by the comfortable performance of femininity with sparse clothing and comments that asserted a feeling of relative safety compared to urban nighttime venues. The desert landscape and overall aesthetics of the stages and rusty art installations catalyzed the feeling of being in a space where the dominant cultural norms of mainstream society could be reinvented with alternative social relations. My interactions with other participants were indeed more genuine than they were in Cape Town, disidentifying with transactional interactionism that dictates neoliberal capitalist urban public spheres. Lastly, I did not observe acts of differential treatment based on ethnic belonging or pigment of the skin, allowing for performances that disidentify with South African white supremacist dominant culture. I asked a participant of color if they felt safe and secure at the venue compared to other spaces in South Africa, despite it being a fairly white space, and they responded, “Oh, for sure. I feel like I’m in wonderland here. No one here really cares about skin color anyway.”

However, the descriptive reality of Return to the Source as based on my participant observation partially fails to hold its normative ethos, particularly in terms of enabling multiracial access to such disidentificatory performances. In short, almost all my above observations were limited to white people. Not surprising, when the festival’s demographics by ethnicity reversed South Africa’s ethnic landscape writ large: Although merely 8.8% of South Africa’s population declared themselves as white (World Population Review, 2021), an estimated 95% of the festival’s participants were white (cf. Illustration 1). Within the intersectional framework of Muñoz’ (1999) performances of disidentification, Return to the Source indeed appears to create a counterpublic site of emergence that enables disidentificatory performative acts for some minoritized identities, but not for minoritized identities of color.

An intersectional reading of Return to the Source against the background of South Africa’s colonial history in the making of the post-apartheid social class structure indicates that the festival relegates non-white identities to the periphery by justifying neoliberal class privilege as a lever of granting spatial access. The responses I got from participants about the festival’s racial homogeneity largely centered around the alleviated price for participation. Minimal festival ticket prices amounted to 1600 ZAR, excluding transport, food and beverages, and other necessary substances and requisites. I spent an overall amount of 5000 ZAR on the festival. South African economic inequality by racial groups has been increasing since the end of apartheid, leading to average monthly household incomes of 10.000 ZAR for black South Africans (which made up around 80% of the population) and 20.000 ZAR for mixed-race South Africans (around 10%) in 2011 (The Economist, 2013). Given the historical material circumstances in which these identity groups find themselves, it is not surprising that their rational decision-making within theimitations imposed on them by the market deprioritizes participation at music festivals. However, that does not mean – as suggested by some participants at Return to the Source – that there is no interest of people of color in EDM culture. On the contrary, Collin (2018) explored the origin story and trajectory of House music in South Africa and found that a myriad of genres have hatched since the 1980s, including “Kwaito” (p. 194), “township tech” (p. 198), or “Bacardi House” (p. 187), all of which originate from people of color in the townships. Consequently, the correlation between race and class against the historical background in which people of color were the main agents in the production of South African EDM culture suggests that Return to the Source is a disidentificatory EDM site of emergence, albeit for those who can afford it, where most of the nation’s people of color lack the class privilege for participation, even if the desire was there. The derivation that minoritized queer or trans performances at Return to the Source that disidentify with subjugating dominant culture are reserved for white people corresponds to a discussion between Davids and Matebeni (2017), who argued that the main narrative of South African queerness centers around the experience of white gay men.

Illustration 1 – Racial homogeneity of the Return to the Source dancefloor

Return to the Source could more effectively embrace the worldmaking ethos of disidentificatory sites of emergence in the areas of their organizational committee, cultural production side, and cultural consumption side. First, starting with the cultural consumption side, Return to the Source could increase the diverse respectful representation of multiple racial identities at the site by reducing the economic cost of participation. Differential pricing based on the timing of the purchase, reduced pricing for low-income participants, or volunteering opportunities are a few practices that have proven to be successful for other festivals to ensure participation relatively independent of economic affluence. Second, on the cultural production side, Return to the Source could actively try to pursue their alleged “left-of-the-centre artist booking” policy and attempt to more consciously showcase music performances by women, people of color in general, and trans and queers of color in particular. Lastly, the organizational team is constituted mostly of white people. To ensure respectful representation in the most crucial decision-making processes, the administration must be socially inclusive of voices from minoritized identities. These are but some suggestions of how Return to the Source could materialize its normative ideal of the unconditional practice of freedom and human rights instead of just offering the arcadian utopia to those who can afford it, who, in South Africa, happen to be mostly white.

5. Conclusion

Despite the commercialization of EDM globally and the partial reproduction of hegemonic structures of domination associated with it, niche EDM cultures continue to provide the spatial amenities in which multiple identities can be constructed and performed in safe spaces from societal oppression. South African EDM originated from people of color in the townships from the 1980s onward and has hitherto proliferated into a culture that spawns formal gatherings in urban nighttime venues and festivals as well as informal gatherings in warehouses, street sound systems, or nature. In this essay, I explored the question of how even South African EDM spaces that intend to create counter-hegemonic sites for the construction and performance of minoritized identities invisibilize certain identity groups. To do so, I employed an intersectional theoretical reading within the spatial interpretative framework of Muñoz’ (1999) disidentificatory sites of emergence on the case of the South African Return to the Source festival. The festival’s marketing material and my participant observations at the festival served as empirical data to respond to the research question. I argued that despite being an EDM site of emergence that allows for disidentificatory performative acts with cis-heteronormative, white supremacist, capitalistic South African hegemonic cultural norms, the festival’s economic cost limits participation to people holding a certain class privilege, where class privilege socially excludes the majority of South Africa’s people of color. Hence, non-conforming worldmaking at Return to the Source is largely reserved for South Africa’s white population. I suggested that Return to the Source could render itself more socially emancipatory by respectfully representing multiple racial, gender, and sexual identities in their organizational team, in the booking of their performing artists, and in decreasing the economic threshold for participation.


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