Interview: Frankie Hutchinson

Frankie Hutchinson keeps a full calendar. Along with co-founders Christine McCharen-Tran and Emma Burgess-Olson (aka Umfang), she handles the day-to-day for Discwoman, a feminist collective and DJ booking agency whose programming lends a welcome counterpoint to the white-cis-male stereotypes that have come to dominate EDM. In between her frequent travels for agency engagements, the London-born, New York-based activist takes on roles that couple parties and politics, from hosting for the online music platform Boiler Room to her work with the Dance Liberation Network, whose efforts proved central in overturning New York’s racist “no dancing” Cabaret Law in November.

Your work has long affirmed your politics; even in university, you were organizing film festivals and photo exhibitions highlighting women of color. This impulse to create platforms for your peers – where did it come from? Was it instilled by family? Engendered by friends?

All you said and more. Of course I’ve learned so much from friends, but I guess it really goes back to when I was growing up. I come from a single-parent household; my mom raised us, which will of course have an effect on you, particularly as a young black woman. Seeing your mom struggle, it shapes how you see the world, as well as your opinions on how the world treats you. It made me very sensitive – to the point where even now, I’ll lose sleep over the things that bother me. It’s maybe not the best way to be, but over time I’ve learned to use that energy to create things that I believe in, that are sustainable and can address those problems in a long-term way.

It seems like your initial aims with Discwoman were subcultural rather than countercultural – it was more about carving out an autonomous space for a particular community than effecting broader change in (or even beyond) the industry. But as the project’s gained stature in recent years, has its scope broadened in turn?

Yeah, it has. When it started, we were totally inspired by other women in the scene, who were performing, creating this music. We were responding to what they were doing, and saying, “This is so amazing, but none of these people are getting booked!” So our aim was really just trying to bring it all together, to build a platform for all of this talent we saw in our community. But it’s evolved into something a little more broad now. What we’re fighting for are the same things women are fighting for in other industries. It really can’t be isolated to a particular community, disconnected from the broader struggle against patriarchy.

Still, part of what makes Discwoman’s mission so vital is how it challenges certain ideas about universality in dance music. Club culture is politicized by design, created by and for certain marginalized communities – but your work underscores how even in those earlier, more apparently diverse scenes, women were rarely afforded parity, be it as performers, promoters, or even audience members. The experience was – and remains – largely oriented towards men, gay or not.

Oh, yeah. It’s never been as accessible, or even as safe, for women.

To that point, in terms of industry-focused activism, do you see Discwoman as being part of a lineage?

Definitely. With any new movement, you’re always continuing something that’s already underway, which I think is important to remember. It’s easy to erase history, and with Discwoman, we’ve really made efforts to acknowledge these past groups, and even to engage with them directly when possible. Working with like-minded groups has been important for us, because it helps us share ideas and learn about each other’s experiences. So it’s not that our mission is unique, or even new – it’s just that people have responded to it in a different way.

How do you account for that?

People have found it easy to relate to us. I think even our logo has played a big part: it transforms this gendered piece of technology, but at the same time it’s funny and nostalgic. It keeps things from getting too pretentious. I think it’s easy for politically driven movements to be overly serious, get caught up in academic theories and intellectual language. I appreciate those things too, but those really aren’t my roots. I come from a working class household, and even in university, the meaningful parts of my education came from seeking out relevant content that felt approachable. I still think in those terms, and I think Christine and Emma do too, which hopefully comes across in what we do.

Definitely. Your proactivity on social media ensures direct engagement with your audience, of course, but it’s also apparent in the way you’ve positioned Discwoman as a viable educational resource: hosting panel discussions, organizing seminars, offering free DJ tutorials.

It’s important to us that we’re an active part of the community. Even just going to shows, supporting other talents, is part of the job. But I really want to do more of the educational events – I think it’s been some of our most important work. Basically, it all comes down to access. Like with the tutorials, we recognize how expensive it is to pursue music as a career, or even as a hobby. It can be really difficult to acquire the necessary tools, so however we can help put people in touch with those resources, to create a space where they can learn about them for free, we’ll do it.

That seems like a central point with Discwoman: the group’s efforts aren’t just inspiriting - they’re meant to be instructive.

Exactly. That’s the whole idea – showing women that it’s possible to achieve a certain amount of agency, to be decision-makers and have their own voice.

But for most people, even within a like-minded community, there’s often a gap between political leaning and concrete action.

Of course – but there could be so many reasons for that. It could be as simple as your circumstances. We get a lot of emails along the lines of, “I live in the middle of nowhere, there’s no one else here that’s engaged,” and so on. You can understand why someone living in Middle America might have a harder time mobilizing than we’ve had living in New York. But also, it’s just fucking hard to be an activist! [laughs] It’s really fucking draining, you have to do a lot of free labor – and even when you succeed, you don’t really see that much change. I totally get why someone wouldn’t want to take all of that on.

Have you experienced any drawbacks to being so vocal in your activism, professionally or personally?

Not so much professionally, but personally, even just being seen as an activist comes with a lot of pressures. You have to be conscious of every single thing you say and do, and there’s often not much forgiveness for any perceived shortcomings in your community organizing. People have a lot of expectations about what you should be doing, what you should be delivering, and they’re quick to call you out – as they should be – but when you’re building up something from scratch, you don’t always have all the answers. It can be a tricky thing to navigate, and I do get scared about letting people down, saying the wrong thing or conveying our ideas inaccurately. It can be exhausting, honestly. So yeah, there’s all sorts of reasons why people don’t, and even shouldn’t, become activists – but at the same time, there are so many people who don’t have any good reason not to be.

Being held to certain standards by others is one thing, but have there been instances where you’ve felt like you were falling short of your own mission?

Of course. We’re constantly refining things, whether it’s our business decisions or even our collective language. But there have also been things between the three of us that we’ve had to adjust. Personally, I know that when we first started, I could be impatient, a little more aggressive in how I communicated, and that’s something I’ve worked on. I’m a lot more measured now, a much better listener. But I think we’ve each had to do things to make sure we present ourselves in a more intentional way. It’s been imperfect, but that’s part of the beauty of it, too.

Interview originally published in May 2018, as featured in issue 13 of CRUSH Fanzine