Getting to Movement: Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival (DEMF) over Memorial Day weekend was an adventure in itself. I missed my flight and set off a sequence of unforeseen events: only after a total sense of humour failure and, amongst other curiosities, an unplanned swim in the Atlantic Ocean, I landed in sheet rain Detroit, 30 hours late and without a place to stay. I awaited the upturn.
A hotel overlooking Hart Plaza, on the river’s edge, where the festival was being held, had a spare room. I wanted to kiss the receptionist! I dropped my bag and ran a block though cheerful and wet festivalgoers. The booming 4/4 kickdrum was echoing off the Art Deco skyscrapers, meandering through the streets, and I felt a smile as I entered the festival site. I ran straight for the main amphitheatre stage, where house music maestro Kerri Chandler was jacking Cajmere’s ‘Brighter Days’. The rain pelted down, but few were deterred. As I started dancing to the colossal sound, a man next to me smoked an enormous, pungent joint and all around, on every step, I saw people at play; from the neon ravers to the understated connoisseurs.
Most people aren’t aware that Detroit still produces some of the most original and soulful music in the world. Indeed, the odds, and public perception, are stacked firmly against proliferating the fact. This was the twelfth year of the DEMF and though its management has changed over the years, the festival has been rooted in celebrating Detroit as the birthplace of its own style of dance music- techno. It is well known that a repressed atmosphere begets optimistic art and Detroit techno is known for its ethereal beauty; at once melancholy and full of hope. The drums and percussion can sound merciless, dangerous, gritty but with the introduction of a warm melody, the overall feeling can be transformed into joy.
After the first year the festival was hailed by city officials and the tourism organisation as a boost of youthful energy into the city. After only two years, the Visitors and Convention Bureau stated that the festival has injected $90 million into the local economy. And it is not only the Michigan environs, Canada and the rest of the States that are drawn to Detroit for the festival. Detroit is a worldwide brand for techno music and for many far away Europeans- myself included- there is a mythical aura surrounding underground techno in its home city. The DEMF brings attention to Detroit for all the right reasons. The program manages to retain underground appeal, whilst attracting people from all walks. In spite of Detroit’s problems, the DEMF stands as a small part of a larger effort to rejuvenate the city.
The start of the 20th century saw migration from farms to cities and the Big Three automobile makers- Ford, GM and Chrysler- contribute greatly to the growth of the city. Art Deco skyscrapers and affluent neighbourhoods began popping up: Detroit earned the nickname Paris of the West. This boom continued until the Second War when the city’s car factories turned to producing bombers and tanks for the military. This demand for labour during the first half of the century brought black Americans from the Southern states and immigrants from Eastern Europe; and this influx of different ethnic groups, who were competing for the same jobs, roused racial tension.
It was the construction of highways and the dismantling of streetcar systems in the 1950s that facilitated an exodus to the suburbs. Furthermore, court-ordered busing, in an effort towards desegregation, and the Twelfth Street riot of 1967, only served to accelerate white flight. The population of the city went from nearly two million in 1950 to just over 700,000 in 2010. Walking around the downtown, there was simply no one around. The looming edifices of wealth eerily echoed a gilded past, but it was only their interiors that had decayed; the structures stood strong. Coaxing the first major wave of resettlers is the trickiest, but, if anything, music festivals like the DEMF are one way to build bridges and understanding.
On Saturday night, I went to an afterparty put on by DJ and producer Kai Alcé’s NDATL MUZIK record label, in tribute to the Music Institute- an important club that was the hub of Detroit’s first wave of techno pioneers and open for just a year from 1988. The venue was downtown, at 1515 Broadway, just up the road from where the MI had been. Through the café, the party was happening in a small theatre. Omar S- one of Detroit’s foremost underground artists- was playing to a jammed, appreciative dance floor when I came in. It was straight old school house music, vigorously delivered. The sound system had a clobbering bottom end kick and the dancers roared at every new track.
Having turned up alone, I met some welcoming locals, who told me this kind of party was a rarity in the city, now; generally the scene was sporadic and if you were lucky, you’d catch local heroes such as Malik Pittman or Kenny Dixon Jr. throwing something. Like the Music Institute, there was no alcohol served at the party, just juices, but that didn’t affect the energy. There were dance circles where people of various ages and races would take turns to show off their wild styles. The crowd spilled out into the deserted street to chat and smoke. It was locals and tourists, and I must say the place had a real family feeling. In fact, just before leaving, I got chatting to two elderly ladies who were selling limited edition NDATL vinyl: one of them turned out to be Kai Alcé’s mother, happy to help her son put on a party.
Unfortunately, decades of decline have put Detroit into a complicated mire of circumstances that must be resolved before the city can start to prosper cohesively. Whilst Detroit’s accumulated debt has been reduced from $300 million to $150 million, the fundamental administrative issue is still a lack of revenue, both in the city and shared within the state of Michigan. Mayor Dave Bing is actively trimming spending, in order to provide services- such as public transport- but Detroit’s budget is bloated by employee benefits and there is simply not enough of a tax paying base of residents. A quarter of the city lies vacant in forty square miles of decaying ‘urban prairie’. Crime, drugs and gangs are rife. However, some crucial statistics are on the up. The unemployment rate has dropped from a high of 14.1 percent in August 2009 to about 11 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Detroit Public Schools spokesman Steve Wasko stated that the high school graduation rate climbed to 62 percent- the highest since the state began new calculations of graduation and drop out rates in 2007.
So, herein lies the quandary, and, invariably, it is dependent on money: better schools would lower unemployment and benefits expenditure, and subsequently crime. For the schools to have more money, there must be more people paying taxes. To attract more people to live in the city, there must be a more welcoming environment, and that environment is dependent on all of the above.
Various initiatives are trying to refresh Detroit. For instance, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) is offering businesses tax breaks if they locate in ‘Renaissance Zones’. One of the Mayor’s schemes, Project 14, offers police and firemen homes for $1000. Urban farms have begun cropping up- to teach locals about growing their own food- and parts of downtown and the riverfront are being developed into entertainment and residential areas. And down to the small-scale, there is, for instance, 18 year old Detroit native Kyle Hall; a rising producer and DJ, who has been volunteering music lessons at a youth centre.
On Monday morning, as it was Memorial Day weekend, the done thing was to go to the garden party at Old Miami- a beaten and cosy haven for Vietnam war veterans. Even though it wasn’t out in the sticks, I was advised to take a taxi to avoid any hassle. The queue was down the street and inside, there were machine guns on the walls and a simply inordinately sized sound system. The place was big on the gig circuit. Even as the sun was still low in the clear sky and the shadows long, the air was hot, and in the garden, Craig Richards- the resident of London’s fabric nightclub- was spinning disco and early electro numbers. There were all sorts dancing and lounging: the fresh faced, the ones that hadn’t slept yet, several of the artists from the festival and even a girl of no more than thirteen twirled her little sister around the grass, to her delight.
In the heat of the afternoon, when all was in full swing, the music was stopped as ten veterans, in military dress, walked single file through the crowd, rifles in hand. They stood atop a mound and at the command of their leader, swiftly fired a three gun salute into the abyss. We stood in silence. Surveying the crowd, the leader then spoke: ‘I don’t see race. I don’t see gender. I only see together.’
Clearly, Detroit is not a lost cause. Its tainted image repels investment and new residents, but much of that is driven by sensationalist media coverage and ignorant opinions. I saw the city at its best: locals, strangers and tourists brought together by Detroit’s own musical creations. Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival was an exhibition of great artistic talent and simple human communion.