Aluna on Beyoncé, The Importance of Building Community, and How the Pandemic Changed Her Live Set

The post Aluna on Beyoncé, The Importance of Building Community, and How the Pandemic Changed Her Live Set appeared first on Consequence.

In the summer of 2022, the release of Beyoncé’s Renaissance and Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind put a conversation about the origins of dance music being Black to the forefront. It’s a message AlunaGeorge singer-songwriter Aluna Francis has pushed forward since the lead-up to her 2020 debut solo album, Renaissance, when she shared an open letter to the dance music industry addressing its longstanding racial inequalities.

Though that particular conversation about the origins of dance music “does not need help” any longer with such big superstars joining the cause, Francis tells Consequence that her efforts to effect change in the industry have been met with a “fairly performative and fairly minimal” response from the status quo. The greater shift has taken place “from the outside,” where it is “down to individual communities serving their smaller communities.”

Francis’ attempt to launch the Noir Fever Festival with an all-Black lineup in partnership with the travel startup Pollen was a particularly eye-opening experience. Her team worked with Pollen for two years to develop the festival, only for it to be postponed ahead of the company’s collapse in August.

“To have interfaced with people who really don’t care, but lured me into a relationship where I’m thinking that we’re all on the same team and investing in the thriving future of the Black community in dance music and then it being a complete performance, I’m like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was possible,'” Francis says. However, she expects the genuine relationships formed in the process will “absolutely essential” to the future of Noir Fever.

Parallel with her work in the music industry has been Francis’ burgeoning career as a solo artist. Though it was somewhat of a risk to release Renaissance during the pandemic, doing so actually allowed the album to reach the right people while spotlighting dance music’s roots in the African diaspora. Citing fans’ messages about “how important that music was for them at that time,” Francis says she wouldn’t change anything about how it was released.

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“I think it was a nice time to do something as risky as Renaissance because it didn’t have to sort of come out like, this is the next — it was a little bit ahead of its time, so for it to come out then was good because it’s like everything had slowed down a little bit,” Francis adds, before sharing her reaction to Beyoncé releasing a like-minded project with the same title two years later.

“The fact that she put out an equally boundary-destroying, very ambitious project was very insane,” she says. “It’s just the perfect name for a process of joyfully breaking every rule that you can and destroying the status quo so that you can reconstruct it in a way that actually serves who you are.”

Along with releasing the album during the pandemic, Francis regularly livestreamed DJ sets on Twitch, which helped recontextualize her live performances and push herself to take listeners on a journey. “Even when I do a whole set of my own songs, I think of it as a DJ set. I formulate it based on all of the kinds of ways that I formulate a DJ set,” Francis explains. “So, it feels like the audience is so much more involved in my shows now.”

Meanwhile, for a taste of one of her sets, you can also take a listen to Aluna’s Spotify DJ Mix, which was released alongside mixes from Tiësto, Yung Bae, and BLOND:ISH. “When we launched this new set of DJ mixes, we were so excited to partner with Aluna,” says Ashley Graver, Global Head of Creative Artists Partnerships at Spotify. “She’s insanely talented and is an important voice in the genre. This project is about bringing creativity and originality to the forefront, and we’re so excited for fans to hear Aluna’s mix.”

Give it a spin below, and, read more about Francis’ newfound approach to live performances, the challenges of building communities in the music industry, and the inspiration she finds in other Black creatives.

You were one of the many DJs who during the pandemic kind of made the most out of it by streaming on Twitch. How did that experience impact your approach to putting together sets for live performances?

That experience was incredible for me because before that, it was like, you get hired for an event and all you’re really thinking about is the event and who’s gonna be there and what kind of music they would like to hear, whereas, during the pandemic, I really decided to develop my DJing art form into something that is about me and what I’m looking for, and what I need as a Black woman doing dance music because, at that time, I really couldn’t see myself in the genre.

But I would know that there was like, oh, there was that one song or that one artist, and I was like, well, okay, let me start researching and crate digging, and using this Twitch streaming opportunity to really, really experiment on the storytelling of how — as a music lover, I’m at the epicenter of so many different genres, and then I also have my own sort of personal vision of the future that I was trying to see, but I couldn’t see it yet. So I found it by just tons and tons of crate digging. And so yeah, that period of time was so important to me.

Were you working on the album then? Or was it already done?

It was already done. And what I was looking for was like, where are my friends? Where am I? Where do I fit in? Because I’m not going to accept that I’m some kind of anomaly, that I’m the only one pushing the boundaries of dance music as it pertains to like the mainstream sound and things like that. I wanted to find my women, I wanted to find my Black artists, I wanted to find my POC artists, and I wanted to find my LGBTQ artists. Because of the way that a lot of platforms are sort of designed, it wasn’t just there and ready. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.

It was really helpful in the end because I was really daunted by the fact that as a DJ, you can play anything, literally anything. And I was like, well, I want to stand out, but I don’t want to compete with people, and I don’t want to always feel like someone could be doing a better version of the set that I’m doing. So I had to go like, okay, then it’s just going to be a really personal journey for me. And then it’s just about that. It’s funny, because every single time I do a collection or put together a set is just as valuable. It pushes my research further, further, further, and I’m still discovering really what my personal DJ sound is, even after so many sets now since then.

That’s a natural transition point to your new Spotify DJ Mix. You have artists in there from pioneers like Carl Cox to newer artists like Shygirl and Yaeji and even rappers like Rae Sremmurd and OverDoz. Can you describe your process for curating the playlist and what your thought process was going into it?

Well, this playlist was very ambitious for me, because I certainly didn’t stick to a sonic theme that was consistent because the story I wanted to tell was, I wanted to weave together a tapestry of before and now. So, the pioneers, I wanted to show almost the inspiration that has created so many different sounds, and show how it links with the current music that we’re listening to, but do it seamlessly, and also cover almost like the entire globe with the one set.

When I was listening back to it after initially putting it together, I was like, wow, this playlist really could have been complete madness. But I’ve kind of developed my ability to weave songs together and hear connections so that I am able to take somebody on a vastly disparate journey without them feeling like it’s all over the place. So, that was my plan for this — to really push myself to tell a story of what is our history, but also what is the cutting edge of dance music now and how does it all tie together?

Dance music can be a very narrow-minded classification. It has been over time for various reasons, not the least limited to the systemic racism that’s built into this specific genre of music. How do you define it as someone who with your album Renaissance made a point of highlighting the African diaspora that’s contributed to dance music in general? How do you define it now that you’ve made that album and this playlist?

I define it by if I can dance to it. Now, I have an innate relationship with beats and I’m not a professional dancer. So I actually can’t just dance to anything. I can only dance to particular beats. And those beats can be from a multitude of different genres as such or subgenres. But, because I’m not a trained dancer, I know that if I’m dancing to it, it’s dance music. I feel like I’m not the best dancer in the world and I’m not the worst dancer in the world, but one of the things that I need is for the beat to just do the work for me.

Like, show my body how to move: Don’t trip me up, don’t bore me. There’s actually some dance music, house music stuff that I wouldn’t even consider part of the genre because it’s not making me want to dance. It’s kind of an imposter of the genre — if it’s too copycat, if it’s too simple, if it’s too derivative, then I’m like, it shouldn’t be in the genre. It doesn’t make me dance. So I define the genre from a very subjective perspective. And because I’m of the African diaspora, I do feel like I have a very wide-ranging, kind of open-mindedness at the same time as having a really, really specific kind of taste in the rhythms that actually make me dance.

In terms of genres, the way that I view it is, I take much more confidence and direction from Gen Z, than I do from millennials. I think that the millennial time period of dance music was very much about exploitation and extraction. And it led to essentially the term “death of EDM” and things like that, and I don’t aspire to that. So that is also why I’ve kind of campaigned for the stretching and the malleability of the genre to return so that we can include these subgenres from around the world.

Back in 2020, you wrote an open letter challenging the dance community to be more inclusive while you were leading up to your album. Since then, there’s been a UK garage revival and of course, Beyoncé released her own album called Renaissance, and Drake released Honestly, Nevermind. From your perspective, has there been a real shift for the Black community’s place in electronic/dance music? And do you feel like people are understanding the message that “dance music is Black music”?

In the end, what I feel happened is that that message ended up landing more for people on the outside of the genre, that were either looking in from a place of feeling like they’re not invited, or from a place of feeling like dance music is not for them. And in terms of the mainstream dance community, I don’t think that they heard anything that I had to say. I think maybe the one thing, the one area that is now a place that I don’t feel like I have to work as hard in at all, is the origins of dance music being Black.

Compared to the sort of pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd to now, I think now that we’ve got the Beyonce album and the Drake album, that conversation does not need help. I mean, if you don’t know that now, you’re living under a rock, which is really nice because it was starting to get a little bit repetitive kind of informing people of this fact. And I do remember how liberating it was for myself to discover it in 2020. I came to that information very late in my career. So that’s one area where I think everybody has kind of gotten together and been like, okay, we get it.

But in terms of whether or not that letter catalyzed anything, I did put a lot of work into trying to convince the people that are in charge of the system and upholding the status quo, the big companies, the people with power, the gatekeepers, and things like that. And what I found was fairly performative and fairly minimal in the desire to change. From the outside, and all of the communities that I’ve now connected with in the wider dance community, that’s where I’ve seen the most shift. And I think that is just down to individual communities serving their smaller communities, and having that kind of feedback loop — especially in the underground. In the end, I think that is what’s going to serve the wider Black community in dance music, as opposed to something like EDC changing their lineup to serve the Black community. I just don’t see it happening. I haven’t seen it happen on a wide scale.

I haven’t seen large companies really invest in Black lineups. I’ve seen some performative efforts, I’ve been in the middle of those. And I’ve really seen like how some of these people at the top of the food chain in the live industry really, really don’t care either about the people attending or the artists performing, which I thought was really intriguing because I didn’t really believe it until I saw it.

Mainly in my industry, I’ve worked with people who are — even if they’re in business — are enthusiastic about music and are enthusiastic about putting on a good experience for the people going. And so to have interfaced with people who really don’t care, but lured me into a relationship where I’m thinking that we’re all on the same team and investing in the thriving future of the Black community in dance music and then it being a complete performance, I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t know that was possible. But now I do.”

You’ve created some smaller communities yourself. You’re pretty active on TikTok and have a #BlackRaverChallenge. What advice do you have for other like-minded people who want to kind of carve out spaces themselves?

There is a huge value in connecting laterally, and this is something that I feel in terms of, if you were, like you say, trying to create a community, or if you were trying to start your music career is that lateral connections are far more valuable than they look. And by lateral, I mean you’ve got two directions where you might focus your attention. One is like someone on your level, who seemingly doesn’t have any more resources than you do, but has a similar desire, view of the world, and drive. Or you have someone that you may or may not have access to who is what you would consider a higher level, like the head of a company, somebody with money, etc, etc, someone who can offer you a deal. And making relationships with those people is always seemingly temporary, and fairly extractionary, and you can’t know that until you do it, but it happens time and time again.

It feels like when you’re at the start of something that they’re the only people that can help you — someone with more power, more money, and more influence is the only person who can help you because this guy who’s just next door or down the street or the person that you met at the club, how can they help me when they’re in the same boat? But it’s the strength in numbers, and that number can be two, it can be 10, it can be 100. If you can look someone in the eye and uplift each other, you can translate that and you can grow with that, and you can also bring yourself to the table in those relationships. Whereas more often than not, you, for example, might get some time with some kind of exec and sell them an idea. Are you really bringing yourself to the table in that moment? Or are you trying to sell yourself? And that’s the type of thing that you just need to be aware of.

Those execs will always be there, right? If you go by yourself, or with a small, unfinished idea that doesn’t have its own essence and own strength, the ability for that person to wipe that idea out, dismantle it, or pull a rug out from under you is so high. Whereas say, for example, five of you, you’ve got no money, but great ideas and great teamwork and great relationships. Now five of you go into that meeting with that exec, that exec is no longer the main power point of that experience in that endeavor. And so that is the thing, that’s the biggest takeaway that I’ve experienced from the last two years of building community.

So basically, look around, see who’s on the same wavelength, and try to bring people together. Where else do you see that happening?

Well, I did that for my career, right? I worked with so many people who were just like me, didn’t have anything, didn’t have connections. Like, skills were rudimentary and developing, and I was able to explore myself deeply in those musical relationships. And then, once I was in the business, I had really strong personal relationships with people I was working with, and so I wasn’t necessarily susceptible to being kind of swallowed up and spat out. I still have my career today and I’m in charge of it.

But I’ve tried both ways, right? I did that, and that worked for me. But then in an endeavor of trying to kind of go from zero to 100 and starting to work with people far more powerful than I, who were able to wipe out an entire idea with the snap of a finger, that was the other side.

I see people, for example, reach out to me, someone who has no experience, has never really released anything at all and they’re asking for a collaboration with me. They think it’s about whether or not they’re in luck, or whether they’re so talented that I’m just like blown away and I just want to give you a chance. And I will never do that because I’m like, “Look, what’s your lateral network? Have you worked with vocalists who are looking for a producer? Have you done all of those steps? Have you built your relationship with the way that you work and your workflow and your ability to work with other people?” Because if all you’ve done is work in your bedroom, and then I give you the chance of a lifetime, you’ve got no way to capitalize on that and to continue on that journey. So there’s no point.

What’s it been like to finally perform your songs in front of a live crowd? You released your album in the midst of a pandemic — so like everyone else — you had to wait to do that. How has that felt?

It feels really strange, actually, because, since that time, I’ve done so much work as a DJ that now, my songs are often in the context of like a DJ set, rather than like a pure artist set. Even when I do a whole set of my own songs, I think of it as a DJ set. I formulate it based on all of the kinds of ways that I formulate a DJ set. So, it feels like the audience is so much more involved in my shows now, and that’s a really nice kind of change because it takes me back to the one or two times that I was able to access, like a rave, and it brings me into that moment of being on the dance floor.

A lot of the times, it wasn’t just like staring at the performers. I was experiencing this new relationship with my body, finding out I can dance on just water, you know. I was like, “Wow, I don’t even need to drink alcohol,” this experience is so elevating. It’s almost less about the “me and what am I doing” aspects to like the “we and what are we doing” experience.

It sounds like it would just be a very different approach that you might have had without the Twitch livestreaming and the pandemic. Was there a mindset when you were recording the album of how these songs might be performed live?

No, when I was recording the album, I was very much focused on the crafting of songs that really spanned across all of my influences. I can’t say that I wasn’t considering how to perform them live just in the sense that I’m very physical in my studio process. So I’m both the clubgoer and the creator at the same time. But I think that I didn’t know at the time like I said, where those songs were going to fit into the world. It also wasn’t my concern because if I focused too much on what anyone thought about this music, I never would have done it. Because I was breaking so many rules.

Now you’re experiencing it in a completely different way from just having learned all this stuff about DJing that it’s almost like you’re DJing a set, but it’s a set of your own music. How has that recontextualized the way you think about your songs?

It sort of has given me the freedom to basically do whatever I want because now that I’ve developed my DJ style, I can weave almost any batch of songs together. Whereas I feel like when I was DJing before this whole experience, if I had like a dancehall track, and then a hard, deep house track, I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to get from there to there, and it would have just stressed me out. So I would leave that one out or something, not try and play them together. So I think it’s just kind of added a form of, what’s the word, permission.

I just have sort of given myself more and more permission to be who I am in the studio, and not worry about how I’m going to do this later because now I sort of know. Because when you DJ, you work with everyone else’s music, and there’s so much less pressure. It’s like, well, this is the beat that this person has made and I’m going to mix it with this one. And so now I know what’s possible. And basically, anything is possible. You just know how to tell that story.

That sounds like a really positive thing to come out of a pandemic.

I know, I’m so careful about saying that I felt really blessed to have experienced this pandemic because I know so many people went through so much trauma. But I have a lot to thank for being stuck inside when everyone else was also stuck inside. It gave me an opportunity to challenge myself and to know that anyone who did listen to my music during that time, was receiving it in a time where a lot of people decided not to release music because the media platforms weren’t working, there wasn’t enough support and things like that.

But the feedback that I got from those who have messaged me over that period of time have said really deeply moving things about how important that music was for them at that time, so I would never have changed anything. And I think it was a nice time to do something as risky as Renaissance because it didn’t have to sort of come out like, this is the next — it was a little bit ahead of its time, so for it to come out then was good because it’s like everything had slowed down a little bit. And it was, you know, this real passion project. Good time for a passion project.

Both in name and in and in sound. How did you feel when you heard that Beyonce was coming out with an album that was also called Renaissance?

I was overjoyed. I understood that in some ways, there was some idea of being perhaps erased, but to me, it was like — my first phrase that came to my head was, “Great minds think alike.” And I really appreciated the fact that like I said, the conversation about whether or not dance music is Black would be really like done at this point and just move forward and we can finish off that sentence to like, okay, so if dance music is Black, then what does it sound like now? The fact that she put out an equally boundary-destroying, very ambitious project was very insane. Like you choose the name Renaissance for a reason and I believe that we chose that name for the same reasons.

I was inspired by seeing Black creatives around me pushing themselves into places that we weren’t seeing Black creatives, and risking everything and doing it off their own backs, and I was absolutely blown away, and I was like, “Wow, this is a renaissance.” And I’m sure that Beyoncé was seeing all of those same things. It’s just the perfect name for a process of joyfully breaking every rule that you can and destroying the status quo so that you can reconstruct it in a way that actually serves who you are.

One of the things that you did was found the Noir Fever Festival featuring an all-Black lineup. I’m not exactly sure what happened with [partner Pollen]. Have you been able to find any new plans for it going forward?

Yes, that has been an incredible blessing in disguise because during the process of realizing that this company was about to, basically, take us under with them. Even though it was performative, even though the actual festival didn’t go ahead in the end, it was the birth of an idea at the highest level. I truly believed that this festival was going to happen, and so, within that mindset, I started to build relationships with people who, now we have to come together and get ourselves through this destructive process and retain what was truly the true nature of what Noir Fever is.

Now I have those relationships and you know, sometimes you go through big fails on the way to an even greater success, and this is a wonderful example of that. The fact that it didn’t go ahead put so many things in perspective and I saw so many things, the decisions that they made that would have been really, really bad if it went ahead. One of the things I realized is that because they were so in control of the final product, I wasn’t going to be able to serve the community in the way that I had envisioned, and had it gone ahead, that would have really hurt me to see certain decisions being made that didn’t serve my community.

I’m really, really grateful to have gone through that at the very, very beginning of Noir Fever because the learning curve was steep and every piece of knowledge that I’ve gained, and every relationship that I’ve gained through that process is absolutely essential to the bright future of Noir Fever, and I’m just very glad that no one actually had to turn up and go through any crappy experience just for us to learn on the job.

Aluna on Beyoncé, The Importance of Building Community, and How the Pandemic Changed Her Live Set
Eddie Fu

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