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When White Producers Co-Opt Black Identity

Marquis Hawkes, Exploited Ghetto, the thin line between appreciation and appropriation.
Album cover for Marquis Hawkes' 2016 LP Social Housing by Alan Oldham.

In 2013, Dutch label Bunker Records released an EP titled Born Out of Cheapness and Frustration Volume One by an artist called Ellis De Havilland. The press release offered an intriguing backstory: De Havilland was a poor young man from Gary, Indiana who composed music on his church's reel-to-reel recorder in the late 80s before dying of a heroin overdose in 1992, at age 23. His tracks of blasted, lo-fi acid house were discovered later at a police auction. The story provided a hook for most of the press coverage of the record, including a review on Resident Advisor that described De Havilland's life and death as "fraught [with] personal trauma."


By all appearances, De Havilland seemed to be part of the original Midwestern electronic scene, a lost Jeff Mills. Gary, Indiana is known for two things: being the home of the Jackson 5, and—as indicated by documentaries like Stagnant Hope: Gary, Indiana—serving as a stark example of the devastation wrought by Midwestern deindustrialization during the 70s and 80s. As companies like US Steel laid off workers, the city's population, which is 80 percent African-American, declined from 178,320 in 1960 to 80,294 in 2013; in the latter year, the city's poverty rate was more than double that of Indiana as a whole, at 48.5 percent. Geographically, temporally, and socio-economically, the setting in which De Havilland emerged was not far off from the one in which black and Latino artists created house and techno in Detroit and Chicago during the 80s.

The problem is, De Havilland never existed. In fact, he is the fictional alter-ego of a contemporary white British producer named Nigel "Perseus Traxx" Rogers (as confirmed in an interview with Rogers on the Ransom Note), who is alive and well. As I would soon discover, he is one of a handful of European producers specializing in house and techno—forms that originated out of minority communities in the American Midwest—who I would argue have been appropriating what appear to be signifiers of the black experience, presumably as a marketing device.


I reached out to Rogers over email a few weeks ago, hoping to find out how he ended up with this eyebrow-raising alter-ego. He explained to me that the De Havilland project started with some tracks he made in the UK: "After a trip to play in Italy, where I took records and just one machine, I returned to York and left that machine by my decks," he wrote. The music that emerged was "all acid stuff, and I thought the moniker Ellis De Havilland sounded quite interesting, and ultimately reflected the sound, [as a play on the acronym] LSD."

Rogers told me that he then sent some tracks to Guy Tavares at Bunker Records, a cult techno producer and psych-rocker VICE profiled back in 2012. Per Rogers, it was Tavares who came up with the narrative. "Very shortly before the release, [Taveres] informed me of a backstory he'd created about a guy from Gary, Indiana, from a broken home, having his first time on heroin and dying of an OD and the tapes were found at a police auction," Rogers said. (THUMP reached out to Taveres for comment for this story, and did not receive a response.)

When I asked Rogers if he felt that the record was exploiting sensitive topics like race and poverty, he defended the premise as a commentary on the culture of authenticity that surrounds dance music, or the sense that music listeners care more about the narrative behind a record from than what it sounds like. "Do people really buy music just because of such a backstory?" he asked. "What is the authenticity they're after? Do people feel hoodwinked or exploited by getting something that isn't what they thought? If so, then they should consider buying for music rather than image. If not, then it isn't an issue."


Rogers' defense seemed paradoxical to me; if people should be more focused on music than context, then why bother inventing a fake backstory in the first place?

To understand why Rogers' explanation is problematic, consider a hypothetical example: imagine if a contemporary label released a record that sounded like an N.W.A. outtake and marketed it as "a lost mixtape from a mysterious rapper who died from a heroin overdose in Compton in 1992." What would you assume about the character, and how would you feel if he turned out to be a modern white rapper like Macklemore in disguise? That's right—you'd probably find it egregiously offensive.

"I think assumption is an interesting element and it needs to be challenged. I don't listen to music and make assumptions relating to skin color, but it seems quite clear that you do."

When I posed that example to Rogers, he vigorously denied that race had any part in the creation of the character, and even accused me of being presumptive. "I just made some music and chose a name that fitted," he said. "I am very well aware of where house music and techno music grew, but your assertion seems to be about trying to appropriate a skin color, something I strongly refute." He added: "I think assumption is an interesting element and it needs to be challenged. I don't listen to music and make assumptions relating to skin color, but it seems quite clear that you do."


After I pointed out that adopting the signifiers of predominately African-American art forms (ie. house and techno) and posing as a person from a predominately black city (Gary, Indiana) might nonetheless be viewed as an act of reckless cultural appropriation, he conceded that the record did indeed have a connection to the African-American experience, albeit one he believed to transcend racial boundaries.

"It would be very erroneous to suggest there is no connection with the black American experience," he wrote, when I asked about impetus behind the fictional De Havilland's story, and its themes of substance abuse and marginalization—"simply because this is where the sound of house and techno was forged, in a different way to concurrent electronic experiments in Europe of the same and preceding era. I think grabbing at frustration, a feeling of not being heard, a feeling of being trapped is universal, though obviously some have it worse than others."

Here we've reached a point that often arises in conversations about race and cultural appropriation with white artists: "What about my struggle?" The funny thing is that this claim is often used by the same people being accused of appropriating someone else's identity. Case in point: Drew Millard's 2013 interview with white rapper Lil' Dicky—a controversial figure known for his sour parody-rap who argued, "Just because of where I grew up doesn't mean that making the most of myself takes any less effort than where someone else grew up." This is, at best, shortsighted, and at worst, dangerously irresponsible: making the most of yourself is easier when you don't face racism, oppression, and poverty than if you do, full stop. To claim otherwise is to be blind to the relative position of privilege you're operating from, and to undermine the experiences of others in the process.


The "common struggle" argument was one I also encountered with another European artist—one who had, to steal a term from Derrick Carter, waded into similarly dicey "cultural smudging" territory. When the UK-born, Berlin-based producer Marquis Hawkes first emerged in 2011, he obscured his face in press photos, and did not reveal biographical information. "Marquis Hawkes" is a play on his actual name, Mark Hawkins, under which he had already released several albums. As for the music, it consists of analog-sounding drums and squelchy synths that seem to me like a direct homage to Midwestern touch-points like Moodymann and Juan Atkins. It's the kind of material that a certain type of house head often ends up enthusiastically describing with a set of adjectives like "rough," "raw," "outsider," and "gritty." Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, the Glasgow label that released Cabrini Green, describes itself in its Twitter bio as "Real rockin' raw shit from the streets for the clubs."

In 2012, Hawkins released his first EP under the Hawkes alias, Cabrini Green. The record borrowed its name from Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects, which as Harpers reported in 2012, were known prior to their 2011 demolition as "infamous" sites of poverty, violence, and city neglect. Chicagoist notes that in 1992, a 7-year-old African-American boy named Dantrell Davis was killed by a sniper standing in an empty Cabrini apartment. USA Today reports that in 1997, a "9-year-old girl who went unnamed at the time, was raped, choked, poisoned and left in a stairwell." This is the place Hawkes explicitly evokes on the EP, the first track of which is titled "Housing Project."


In 2013, Hawkins got into a Twitter fight. It started with a since-deleted Tweet he posted in response to criticism of his nomenclature choices: "I call bullshit on people saying your music should be limited to your ethnic/geo origin," he remarked. "Follow that logic and Bad Brains can't play punk." I reached out to Hawkins for comment on the controversy, and he replied on the condition that we print all of his answers in full (you can read the unedited transcript of our Q&A here).

At the time, Hawkins' argument didn't sit well with a Chicago man named Steve Mizek, a label manager at Argot who was known at the time for his now-defunct dance music blog Little White Earbuds. "It's not the music, it's your insistence on appropriating signifiers of urban America you have no claim to," Mizek tweeted back, adding, "Have you ever been to Cabrini-Green?" The two tweeted at each other for a while, before Hawkins deleted his Twitter for good (though you can read a collection of Mizek's responses here). In addition to his criticisms about the album title, Mizek accused Hawkins of using a black-sounding name in order to exoticize his persona.

Hawkes denied this, explaining to me that his moniker was chosen for him by Dixon Avenue Basement Jams label head Dan "Monox" Lurinsky. "It was never in my mind that it sounded like a black name when I first heard it," he said, "and I very much doubt it was in Dan's mind either."


When I reached out to Lurinsky over email for comment, he explained that wanted to choose something that sounded close to Hawkins' real name, without being too obvious. "The Marquis part was actually from my visit to [famous Scottish mansion] Mount Stuart near Rothesay, about six months prior to releasing his first record, which is the house of Johnny Dumfries AKA the Marquis Of Bute." He liked the name's royal connotation, and its "nod to Scotland."

Hawkins explained to me that he posted his original tweet after an individual who goes by RATCHET TRAXXX tweeted inflammatory messages accusing him, Jackmaster, White Material, and others of racial appropriation. "So this guy got me pretty riled," he explained. Still, he admits that he learned a valuable lesson about the perils of tweeting through his emotions: "Don't get dumb and respond on the internet without thinking some of the sensitivities through."

"Perhaps foolhardily, I picked a name of a housing estate in Chicago. I underestimated the internet obviously."

Though the story behind the "Hawkes" moniker turned out to be relatively innocuous, Hawkins' use of the term "Cabrini Green" seems a lot more pointed. He justified the name to me as an expression of reverence for his source material. "The music I made, I felt was very influenced by the music I love coming out of Chicago and Detroit over the years," he told me. "Perhaps foolhardily, I picked a name of a housing estate in Chicago. I underestimated the internet obviously."


You might think the criticism he endured in the wake of Cabrini Green would have led Hawkes to adjust his approach to nomenclature—instead, he doubled down. In 2013, he released an EP called Sex, Drugs, and House which included the song title "Get Yo Ass Off My Grass," a reference to the syntax of black Chicago ghetto house labels like Dance Mania. In 2014, he also appeared on the Clone sub-label Jack for Daze with an EP titled Outta This Hood. And finally, a few months ago, he released his debut solo album. Its title? Social Housing. The record's cover—commissioned from Alan Oldham, a black Detroit producer also known as DJ T-1000 of Underground Resistance—shows a diverse crowd cheerfully dancing in front of what seems to be a public housing development. Oldham came up with the image as an homage to the cover of Miles Davis' On the Corner.

This time, Hawkes provided the press with a backstory through a press release, quoted on FACT, that he hoped would justify the title—he and his wife moved from the UK to Berlin in 2011, and, when she became pregnant, applied to live in Berlin social housing. "It was very, very helpful in our situation at the time," he noted in an interview with RBMA. This seemed like an attempt to head off the criticism he'd faced before, from Mizek and others—namely, that he'd appropriated an experience that he hadn't actually participated in.

With his previous releases, Hawkins had opted to keep his personal background obscured; this time, though, he spread it far and wide—the press release described the record as an attempt to point to the more utopian aspects of Hawkins' social housing experience. "Social Housing is named as such, because it's the environment I live in, the first thing I see every day when I walk out of my front door, and in effect, influences aspects of my life, including my music," he explained in the release. "Too often, particularly in the UK, the term is viewed negatively and equated with slum estates, broken windows and criminality. I want to show that something positive comes out of such schemes."


Hawkins' idea is seemingly well-intentioned: to use his experience in Berlin's social housing to reframe the conversation around it in a "positive" light. Still, Hawkins' logic seems flawed. When the RBMA interviewer asks if Hawkins lived in "the German equivalent of […] public housing in the US," Hawkins says "they were basically housing co-ops, and they didn't exactly get privatized, but they got handed over to…non-profit organizations." In other words, his version of the social housing experience was very different from the one we talk about when we talk about places like Cabrini-Green. The latter—a site of violence and city neglect—was the subject of a major lawsuit alleging it had been designed to further racial segregation. In trying to glorify social housing, Hawkins undermines the suffering of people whose experience was different than his, and who possibly didn't have a choice as to whether to live in social housing or not.

A third example of racially oblivious nomenclature comes from the label Exploited Ghetto, an off-shoot of the German record label Exploited Records which was founded in 2015 by a German DJ named Jan Simon Spielberger and describes itself in its Twitter bio as, "A la-la-land of quality dance-floor tunes; a psychedelic paradise of booty-funk, krunked-up disco, freaky house and foreign languages." As if the label's name and mission statement weren't already freighted with colonialist implications, Jan chose the artist name Shir Khan—the name of the lion in the Jungle Book, written by none other than Rudyard Kipling. The label drapes itself in nomenclature and music synonymous with oppressed cultures, even going so far as to include the term "exploited" in its name.


When I reached out to Spielberger over email to explain these choices, he was frank about his invocation of the African-American experience, saying that, essentially, he chose the term Exploited Ghetto because he loves rap. "The word 'ghetto' has been romanticized as forbidden but attractive fruit via gangsta rap for middle class white kids in the 90s," he explained. "If you grew up with 90s rap such as I did in Berlin, you were listening to gangster rap. It had a big impact on our youth worldwide."

He adds that he's aware of the long history of appropriation in hip-hop, telling me, "The enormous success of gangster rap brought hip-hop to a white audience increasing its mainstream status. Generations of white teenage rap fans still are fascinated by the black ghetto, they are drawn in by mainstream social constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion."

As he sees it, his use of these signifiers was meant both as a loving homage and an attempt to recontextualize the term "ghetto," much in the way that punk culture tried to reclaim symbols of oppression like the swastika by flipping them on their head. "The whole idea behind this was that POP EATS ITSELF," Speilberger explained, comparing his work to the tradition of "Pop-Art, Plunderphonics, Cut-Up Music, Sampling and Recycling."

Exploited Ghetto Records album art

He explained his use of the word "exploited" as a function of the belief that, "In order to survive as artists in the music industry we often exploit ourselves, and it's the same way the other way around too." As for the word "ghetto," he pointed out that "using the ghetto as a source of identity undermines the stigma of poverty and social marginality." He further argued that he felt it was more acceptable for him to use dance music as a forum for spreading this positive message than hip-hop, due to its use of "grooves" rather than words. "Dance music has become a universal language for our youth nowadays and brings people from all ethnic backgrounds together," he wrote.

This is an optimistic sentiment, but also a potentially misguided one. Similarly to hip-hop, black and Latino people created house and techno as a spiritual response to real social problems like homophobia, racism and governmental neglect. So when a white artist uses the words "ghetto" and "hood," co-opts the iconography of social housing, suggests that all struggles are equal, or makes up a tragic backstory, I would argue that he or she effectively erodes that music's function as a source of spiritual power and resistance for the specific communities from which it emerged. It's one thing to make work inspired by a specific musical style—it's another to co-opt the struggles that gave rise to it in order to package and promote your own work.

So what does this mean for the legions of white bedroom producers who will likely continue to churn out homages to their favorite house and techno legends year after year? Likely, plenty of them will have all sorts of justifications as to why they should continue to adopt the trappings of black music and experience. Maybe it's to present a positive spin on the circumstances of the oppressed, or to make some kind of commentary on the press cycle, or simply to pay their respects. The argument might even come down to the fact that their music is good, and that people keep buying it.

But perhaps, before releasing another white-label EP of "raw," "stripped down," "primal," "rough," "gritty" "jackin' traxxx" inspired by the "ghetto house stylings" of Dance Mania and so forth, they should remember that the culture they're co-opting isn't theirs, and that to suggest otherwise is to undermine the very thing they're trying to celebrate. Or maybe they should take a tip from Moodymann, who snuck his personal take on the issue in the liner notes for his 1997 album, Silentintroduction. His words read almost like a retort to Hawkins' Bad Brains quip: "TO ALL YOU WHITE SUBURBAN KIDS SAMPLING BLACK MUSIC ALL THE TIME, TRY SOME ROCK N' ROLL FOR A CHANGE. YOU'RE MAKING BLACK MUSIC SOUND SILLY, WEAK, TIRED."

Ezra Marcus is on Twitter.

Correction [10/27, 5:27]: A previous version of this post misidentified Bunker Records as Danish, not Dutch. The post has been updated accordingly.

_Correction [10/27, 5:27]: A previous version of this post stated that Steve Mizek is currently a booker at Smart Bar, rather than a label manager at Argot. _The post has been updated accordingly.__

Correction [10/27, 5:27]: A previous version of this post stated that Exploited Ghetto was started in 2007. Exploited Records was started in 2007—the sub-label, Exploited Ghetto, was founded in 2015. In addition, Speilberger is a DJ not a producer. The post has been updated accordingly.