This article is part of Open Secrets, a collaboration between gal-dem and VICE that explores abusive behaviour in the music industry – and how it has been left unchecked for too long. Read gal-dem’s Open Secrets articles here, and read VICE’s Open Secrets articles here.
The Secret DJ is a music industry ghost – an anonymous British DJ notorious for his unfiltered views on the debauchery and downsides of the dance music industry, which he recounted in two memoirs. In his 2022 follow-up Tales From the Booth, he’s taken a slightly different tack; collating similarly uncensored accounts from other nameless DJs about the business they’re in. The following extract is by an anonymous female DJ of colour.
I wanted to tell the story of travelling the world as a 'woman of colour'. I don't like that term, but I need to keep it vague to protect myself. The journeys were pure work, of course, my job. I have to say these days, it feels like a good time to talk about this sort of thing. It was in the past, so sometimes when I mention these stories to friends, white friends, of course, they always say something like, "oh, it was a different time". No, it really wasn't. It wasn't the 1960s. It was only a few years back!
This tour wasn't such a hard gig and it was to be one of many over some years. I've done far worse in terms of grind and schedule. It just left an impression on me as the first one. I think as well with the recent thing with Black Lives Matter and the change in attitudes, it seems timely. One of the things I find amazing is that the terrible things white observers see really gets to them, whilst I just totally shrug them off. The person I toured with in this story was a white boy, and he was constantly appalled and outraged at how I was treated and, honestly, it's totally the norm. Standard. This is the problem men have, denial. Denial can manifest itself as outrage too. You see that it happens but feel you have to be more outraged than those of us it happens to. By doing this, you deny us. That ain't right, honey.
First off, on this tour, White Boy is surprised when I tell him to always go for the man at the check-in desk because men are relatively laid back, but women are always meticulous, do their jobs properly and can be far more aggressive. He was shocked and saw it as the other way around, his privilege right there. I'd often just leave a queue that had a female attendant working and join a far longer queue for a male. And I have to say, wherever we had to engage with a female attendant, we tended to get difficulties and sometimes outright obstruction. I would just go through it all and then give my travel partner a knowing look after when I was proven correct. I totally recognise this is unpleasant to hear and shocking, but I'm just reporting what I deal with all the time. Yes, of course, this is not a universal issue. Not all men are lazy pushovers and not all women are obstructive nightmares. It's a huge generalisation but one I very much act upon and believe in due to experience.
I've been a travelling DJ for a long while now and speaking with White Boy who was also an old hand on the tour with me, he tells me the entire career for him he's literally never once been stopped, questioned, checked or even particularly inconvenienced other than the odd delay or lost bag. Almost every stage of every journey with me, something would happen. And he gets to see it first hand right next to me. I'm talking sinister plainclothes security types pulling me out of queues before we'd even checked in. "Can you come with me please?" and they would never say why. Sometimes grabbing and pulling. Then there'd be an hour, maybe two of stupid questions. "Where are you from? Where were you born?" You know, as if the passport they are holding right in front of their eyes is fake, and so am I. Sometimes missing the flight. White Boy would get to see the truth of the inequality of the world time after time after time. Sequentially. Trip by trip. Day by day. Passports would be heavily scrutinised. Officers and superiors would be called. Bags ripped apart, checked and rechecked. And listen, I'm a classy person. Well dressed and turned-out at all times. Just the wrong colour to be anywhere near an airport, apparently. And I can't stress this enough; at every stage of the journey, something would happen. Some trips had three separate flights and we would be taken aside six times, in and out. I say "we". He was, ironically, just a passenger in all this.
It wasn't just the travel. It depended a lot on the country, but all sorts would happen with drivers, promoters and hotels once we got there. Australia was the worst by some margin. Like I couldn't even get a cab to stop and got openly racist comments on the street. The USA was the worst for borders, but again, it depends. Like some USA gigs were very 'integrated' and felt relaxed, but others were really 'white' and would be problematic. In a sense, though you were sort of prepared for 'Western' racism as it is kind of familiar? But when you were in a 'non-white' country where I was somehow still the 'wrong' shade was really weird. I mean, Eastern Europe was tough. But it was places like India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South America that I found really shocking as I was surrounded by people of all sorts of backgrounds and shades, but if anything, it could be even more overtly racist.
What I didn't understand was that in some situations my pale male touring partner was by far the only white person around and he never got any kind of stick at all. Not even so much as a mention. It's like a global get-out-of-jail card. You can sort of see why, in this weird culture war, how white people are so blind to racism. The whole world has been programmed to defer to them via colonialism. It's strange to talk about it, but it is important to me. It was this tour, though, that really opened my eyes in a big way. You could tell the story of the sexism and racism on its own, but it was really thrown into relief because White Boy was right there alongside. Like a control experiment. How I was treated compared to someone right next to me doing exactly the same job at the same time. I mean, there would be times where we'd be greeted or interviewed or met and the person would just immediately talk to him and never once look at me. Like a jacket of invisibility was on. I had to tell White Boy to stop trying to steer it, as out of embarrassment, he'd force the person to say hello or squeeze me into the small talk, but it was crushingly embarrassing sometimes. For all concerned.
I was inspired to talk because I liked your other books. Like what you are trying to do with it. But isn't it really interesting how the female stories in them are all about harassment and the lads are about having a big old laugh? There's the privilege again right there. The biggest problem white men seem to have is having too much fun, while the women and people from 'minority' backgrounds (sorry, I don't even know what is correct anymore!) don't have time or the ease of privilege to get fucked up and live the rock' n' roll life. We're too busy trying to be heard. Trying to overcome. Although telling all this reminds me of a great comeback from a black friend who is also a DJ...
Let's use the name 'X'. We were once in a very, shall we say fraught? I dunno, not violent but about-to-get-violent sort of situation. So I step up and I am quite small, but I get on my toes and get in this nasty guy's face who is giving us racist stick in the booth, and X is behind, smoking. Just when it looked to get a bit out of hand, X steps over and just asks nicely, "Is everything OK here? Can I help?" and while doing that, just gently touches the raging steroid guy on the face with the lit cigarette. It was amazing how it diffused the whole thing! Guy jumped about three feet in the air. Like you could see the gears working in this guy's tiny head. Thinking, "If X meant to do that, X is a maniac and very much to be avoided, but if they didn't mean it and it was an accident, then I am soft as shit", and he just sort of melted away. I turned to X and was like, "Whoa! Did you mean to do that?" and X just looked at me and took a big theatrical drag on the cig and replied, "Mean to do what?" and just turned, smiled, and walked off.
Tales From the Booth is out now on Velocity Press.
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