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Arts Music Politics

The Trouble with “Tribal”

Protests against the continuous state-sanctioned police murders of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in America haven’t only inspired a global dialogue about systemic racism, but they have also forced a reckoning with the legacy of White supremacy as it manifests across all facets of contemporary Western culture.

Club culture hasn’t been immune from these critiques. Writers have recently reminded of the Black protest legacy of house and techno music (as well as the cultural theft of these genres by White artists), and BIPOC artists of regional club styles have lamented the need to partner with White gatekeepers as a means of mainstream acceptability. This dynamic, of course, means that underground club music—despite its subversive, utopian ideals—fits within longstanding trends of White Western appropriation within music.

Still, even beyond that trend exists a deeper undercurrent of musical, pictorial, and even literal language which reflect some of the most insidious strains of White supremacist ideology. This is the ideology of imperialism and settler colonialism, which has caused such profound epistemic, ontological, and cosmological violence across the Global South that its structure has pre-empted the kind of solidarity and singular liberatory practices that the dance floor promises.

That undercurrent can be found within the White Western conception of “tribal,” which permeates across club genres, from house and techno to the amorphous umbrellas of UK and global bass. It’s a concept born of degradation and remains as such in club music, through primitivist depictions and exploitative collaborations; and while the Internet has ushered new hybridized forms of cultural relations that transcend borders, people within the club ecosystem can still seek and support opportunities for rematriation of Indigenous lands.