Akua

Affiliated with the NYC-based electronic music collective Discwoman, Akua (she/her) has unapologetically dismantled dance floors across America and Europe. Working in a community where black women’s representation is scarce, Akua’s extensive knowledge and expertise of her artform solidifies her place within a genre that white, cis men have falsely claimed ownership over. In a post-COVID world, she hopes to see a newfound respect for the foundations of techno; the foundation being black people.

I was introduced to club culture when I stumbled upon clips of MTV’s The Grind in high school and would dance to it in my living room. Over time I discovered more genres thanks to Youtube and magazines such as Dazed and Crack, eventually finding my love for jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, and techno. How did you first encounter techno, and how did you find your niche within the ’90s sound?

My journey to techno wasn’t so linear. I grew up listening to mostly R&B and hip-hop but by the time I entered undergrad, I found myself drawn to electronic music, house, footwork, and club sounds and would often cover these realms during my radio shows. I had listened to some techno but I wasn’t necessarily drawn to it until a friend of mine introduced me to the book “Energy Flash,” and that’s when I developed a deep interest in discovering more about the genre. After reading the parts of the book [Energy Flash] that discussed Detroit techno, I started listening to a lot of music from the Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson) and then branched into more Detroit artists like Moodymann and Drexciya from there. I felt compelled to take a chronological approach trying to go back in time and teach myself techno “properly,” by giving myself as much context as possible about the origins.I would say that my interest in 90’s techno originally came from following the trajectory of these seminal Detroit artists and also learning more about different pockets of techno in the Midwest. I went to undergrad in the Midwest, in Cleveland, Ohio, which was a huge difference for me because I’m from California so when I found out that techno was Black, American and originally came from the Midwest, it was mind-blowing.

It felt right to me to have the 90s be the niche of techno that I cover. I definitely felt like I had found a missing part of myself when I tapped into ’90s techno. I always considered myself to be an old soul, and sometimes I wonder if I was an old school raver in one of my past lives. Maybe when that person died, their spirit was picked up in me, and I feel that way because listening to tracks from the ’90s makes me feel complete. The spirit of 90s techno feels so much more raw, experimental and overall interesting to me. I like researching and knowing the in’s and outs of all the labels I find, especially labels based in the Midwest or NY. It’s fun to look at comments on Discogs or YouTube of various records and see the memories old school heads have associated with them as well. Listening to music from the 90s in general brings me a sense of wholeness that I can’t really access in contemporary music.

 “There are many Black men and men in general who people can name off the top of their heads as who they find inspiring, and seeing that disparity has always been frustrating for me. I hate that I end up playing more tracks by men than women, and it’s something I’m trying to be more vigilant of, but I feel with techno, especially old-school techno, it’s unavoidable.”

Photo courtesy of Adam Lempel.

When I initially learned about the scene, I couldn’t name a single black woman or femme DJ. It’s difficult for black artists to get the recognition they deserve, but I’m glad there are emerging labels and collectives that prioritize the growth of marginalized artists. How’s your experience been as a black woman in the techno community? Do you tend to challenge people’s expectations? 

Historically there haven’t been many Black womxn techno DJs and when I was first learning about the genre I noticed that. I have this habit of contacting old-school producers and asking them about their histories and what they’ve been doing. When it comes to the question of “who were the women you worked with?” many of them don’t have much to say. The people I can name off the top of my head are K-HAND; Jana Rush, who makes footwork but originally released on Dance Mania; and this one producer I’ve tried to find named Akilah Bryant who had a few releases on Djax-Up-Beats. Thinking of this group of three, while there are many Black men and men in general who people can name off the top of their heads as who they find inspiring, and seeing that disparity has always been frustrating for me. I hate that I end up playing more tracks by men than women, and it’s something I’m trying to be more vigilant of, but I feel with techno, especially old-school techno, it’s unavoidable.

I’ve lived in NYC for five years now and I’m grateful for the support I’ve had from my friends and Discwoman throughout this time. Frankie from Discwoman has been incredibly helpful and I feel super grateful for her influence. She was there for my first DJ gig ever, and I remember running into her at a party, and she mentioned how cool my set was. It felt very special to have another Black woman notice and admire what you’re trying to do and say especially in the realm of techno. Over the years, I’ve been glad to see more Black womxn DJs getting their well deserved shine within my community and globally. It’s been really inspiring and I’m very grateful for the friendships with other Black womxn that I’ve made throughout my journey.

Touring internationally as a Black woman I’ve definitely had to have my guard up more often and it can be a weird, disassociating experience to play to a predominantly white crowd and not see many, if any, people who look like you. In Europe I’ve had instances with really ignorant white people approaching me to ask if I will play or did play their favorite, classic tracks by Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood, always singing the same song with the same names. Of course, I heavily fuck with all of these people, but it makes me think, do they know anything else about Black techno besides one song by these artists? Why is the depth of their knowledge of Black techno artists so shallow in general? I’ve had experiences seeing the one black person at a party and having them come up to me expressing gratitude for my presence in that space as well. I’ve dealt with racist incidents at clubs and parties that label themselves as “safe spaces” though if you’re still not a cis-white person that concept goes right out the window. I’ve had moments where I’ve experienced and witnessed other QTBIPOC artists be dismissed or racially gaslit by the staff and attendees when detailing racist and microaggressive behavior and have been greeted with them saying “we don’t see color here” or “all lives matter.” I’ve had moments where I asked myself if DJing is what I want to be doing if I have to keep exposing myself to environments where there’s a risk of not being taken seriously. On that note, the negative moments can really suck, but those negative moments end up fueling my inner drive. The fact that Black womxn and Black people continue to exist and thrive in the various electronic music spaces that we created (which have now been hijacked by white people) is already radical in itself. I’ve turned my negative feelings into thinking that these people just can’t handle it. They simply can’t handle the authenticity that Black people bring to art!

Photo courtesy of Guarionex Rodriguez, Jr.

“The fact that Black womxn and Black people continue to exist and thrive in the various electronic music spaces that we created (which have now been hijacked by white people) is already radical in itself. I’ve turned my negative feelings into thinking that these people just can’t handle it. They simply can’t handle the authenticity that Black people bring to art!” 

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Toni Morrison is my favorite author of all time. All of her work is phenomenal and really helped me feel more confident about my identity. My favorite book of hers is the book Sula, where the title character is seen as this disturber of peace and a scapegoat for her family since she defies traditional gender roles and I very much resonate with her character.

Music-wise, I’ll shout out some artists I’m really feeling currently. Really enjoy Jasmine Infiniti’s productions. Really admire the work that AceMo and MoMA Ready have been putting out. Am also into all the artists who have been a part of the Haus of Altr HOA 10 & 11 comps that have dropped recently. I recommend everyone who hasn’t checked them out already do so immediately! SHYBOI is one of my fav DJs and also recently released her first EP and every track on it is absolutely insane. I love my friends Phoneg1rl and NK Badtz Maru and their DJing. Love Venetta’s tracks and DJ sets. Max Watts and the crew at Limited Network have been releasing some super sick techno with a super old school flare. LOKA and Ren G are also excellent DJs who have been shaking up the Brooklyn scene. I love the hardware influenced sounds from friends like Liquid Asset, Isabella, Buzzi, Ben Ritz and DJ RAT right now as well. Across the pond in the UK, I really love Club Fitness, FAUZIA and Yazzus DJing and productions.

Akua playing Sustain Release 2019. Photo courtesy of Raul Coto-Batres.

Your sound can be characterized as ”acid drenched basslines, frenetic percussions, and distorted synths.” What do you want your audience to feel when listening to an Akua set?

Feeling like they can be themselves—that’s the goal for me. DJing is something that’s helped me come into myself, so that’s the type of experience that I’d want to bring. Being on a dancefloor has also made me feel much more confident in myself and my expression. I think I want my audience to feel a sense of catharsis and for them to just realize things about themselves that they hadn’t before and to be in total confrontation with themselves. 

“I feel super proud of my Black peers in New York and abroad who have been super vocal about taking back what is ours; making sure people recognize the history, and making sure people pay respect to the black artists who have laid the foundation for us to be doing what we’re doing right now.”

Although dance music was created by black people, it’s undeniable that the community has become gentrified, with the contributions of many black artists being hidden. Now I’m observing a renaissance and reclamation emerging for black artists in the dance community, at least in NYC. What are your thoughts on this shift?

The shift is long overdue! I feel super proud of my Black peers in New York and abroad who have been super vocal about taking back what is ours; making sure people recognize the history, and making sure people pay respect to the black artists who have laid the foundation for us to be doing what we’re doing right now. It’s a very beautiful thing, and it’s been overdue for other non-black and white people who consider themselves to be devout lovers  of techno, house, or electronic music in general. It’s been long overdue for them to recognize and give a lot more attention, admiration, and acknowledgment of the power of Black art and Black music.

With this current moment, I see a lot more white and non-black people checking themselves and reassessing how they perpetuate white supremacy within the dance community. I also see that certain platforms, publications, festivals, agencies, and clubs that have for years neglected booking or giving Black artists visibility  have tried to project the image that they are checking themselves and posting statements about the movement. I’ve been taking a lot of it with a grain of salt since it feels performative and all optics for the most part. Like some white institutions telling people to buy their merch so they can donate the proceeds to different Black organizations….no! Just give your fucking money! Why does it need to be so transactional at this time? It’s so disgusting. Some failing to take accountability for their racist actions. Some have also been trying to rush to now include more Black artists and it’s definitely felt like a competition for who can find a way to commodify Black pain the fastest and erase the trace of their inability to give more visibility and respect to Black artists. I just hope that when we do return to going out to clubs, festivals, etc., there’s a renewed sense of respect paid to the foundations—the foundations being Black people—by all of these institutions. 

“Some [platforms] have also been trying to rush to now include more Black artists and it’s definitely felt like a competition for who can find a way to commodify Black pain the fastest and erase the trace of their inability to give more visibility and respect to Black artists.”

With a Ghanaian-American background, how has your family reacted towards and understood your DJ career?

My family has grown to support my DJ career over the years, which I am grateful for. They’ve tried to urge me to maintain a sense of practicality though especially since the music industry can be so fickle. What my parents initially expected from me growing up (i.e. being a doctor, lawyer, etc.) is so different from being a DJ. I’ve had to confront and undo a lot of the expectations they had for me growing up and how these expectations may have negatively hindered my creative confidence. Though I’ve had annoying conversations with them over the years, they haven’t been conversations that weren’t necessary as they helped bring me closer to defining my intentions with DJing. After COVID-19 wiped away all of my gigs and plans indefinitely, I’ve had more conversations with them about my plans for the near future. My family believes it’s practical for me to find a conventional full-time job soon to hold me over until we can return to clubs right now though I’m not sure if doing that will make me fulfilled. I’ve also had conversations with my mom when she essentially asks what I’m going to do when I’m no longer “trending” since DJing is most likely not going to last forever. I do see the truth in that, because eventually, I expect that things will peter out for me. However, I would like to build a legacy that is remembered forever. 

Photo courtesy of Tyler Jones.

While being signed to Discwoman and POLY, you’ve had many opportunities to tour North America and Europe. What are your favorite venues and parties to play?

In North America, gotta shout out and show some love to Nuzi Collective (Vancouver), Directory (Los Angeles) and Karmina (Dallas). All three organize QTPOC focused parties that I’ve really enjoyed playing. In NYC, I miss playing on the Nowadays sound system and of course at Bossa, a place I’m super grateful to have had where I could truly develop my DJ skills over the last few years.

In Europe, I really loved playing Endurance (Copenhagen) and Mala Junta (Berlin). They’re both queer parties that have amazing teams that work really hard on cultivating a truly diverse and safe space for their attendees.

In the last year, I’ve felt more of an importance and appreciation for discussing mental health. I deeply believe it’s something that should also be discussed more in the music industry. I’ve personally felt my mental health suffer at times because of the stress that comes along with touring.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

As of late, I’ve enjoyed chilling at home and reading, journaling, meditating. Learning music production (shoutout to Archetype & MoMA Ready for helping me out w/ Ableton). Learning more about tarot and astrology. Recently I learned that I’m a Scorpio dominant (Aries Sun, Scorpio Moon FYI) so have been trying to tap into my inner witch energy. I have also been dabbling in dream interpretation more which has really furthered my self-discovery as I find a lot of inspiration and truth in my dreams. I’ve been taking voice lessons which has been really great for me as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of one’s voice. Doing voice lessons requires me to be much more present with my body, and when it comes to expressing ourselves with words, we should be more present with how words are making us feel in our bodies too. Got a bike recently so it’s been nice biking around to different parks in Brooklyn and Queens. Also been having a lot of fun just dancing alone in my room.

What support systems do you wish were in place for black artists?

I would love it if more funds existed to help Black artists buy music equipment. I hate how financially inaccessible gear like CDJs, synths, drum machines, etc. can be and Black artists deserve to have access to resources that can help them build on their skills and flourish. I’d love a Black artist mental health fund as well. In the last year, I’ve felt more of an importance and appreciation for discussing mental health. I deeply believe it’s something that should also be discussed more in the music industry. I’ve personally felt my mental health suffer at times because of the stress that comes along with touring. Also, as a Black artist it is just insanely stressful and taxing on one’s mental health to be dealing with how white supremacy affects one’s experience in their specific industry.

Photos courtesy of Tyler Jones.

Provide a few tips that may be helpful for young artists

My favorite tip to give because it’s one I need to take for myself is don’t try to strive for perfection in life. There’s no point in trying to make your expression perfect; it should just be. As long as it’s a reflection of you, it’s already perfect. 

Don’t compare yourself to others. 

Stay true to yourself and don’t compromise your values in pursuit of your art. Stand in your truth. 

Be kind to yourself. Don’t be afraid to put yourself, your needs, your expression, and what you stand for first in your life. 

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