Photography: screenshot of Nina Kraviz’s (now deleted) tweet
Nina Kraviz is a Russian electronic DJ who is living a pretty comfortable life as a touring musician. Easily one of the most booked DJs on the circuit right now, she’s played at major music festivals such as Coachella and Dekmantel, and maintains an international, aspirational gig schedule.
The house and techno heavyweight posted (now deleted) photos on social media with her hair in cornrows this past weekend. When people of various racial demographics replied with critique of her as a white woman sporting the style, Kraviz jumped straight into staunch defensiveness, saying, “I can wear whatever I want!”, sharing a Quora article by a “history teacher”, and also saying she grew up in a “remote Asian city” and was therefore had “little to do” with the narratives people were speaking about. She immediately assumed the position of someone who is a victim of bullying – notably in response to the valid points Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson (founder of NYC club collective & agency Discwoman) was making on Twitter, Nina claimed to be subjected to our second favourite mythical creature after the unicorn: “reverse racism”.
As if “reverse racism” needs spelling out in 2019, may we remind ourselves that it 100% does not exist. Racism reflects institutionalised discriminatory practices based on one’s race, and institutionalised racism against white people is simply not a thing. Anywhere. Sorry, Nina!
However, what does exist is cultural appropriation as a major facet of colonial hangover, and Kraviz’s ability to wear her hair in cornrows is, of course, a marker of its past and present injustices. There is often an acute lack of understanding around how cultural appropriation facilitates capitalist hierarchies and the further stealing from already marginalised groups. People are quick to roll their eyes at it, and deny the severity by which it contributes to systematic oppression.
As artist Kenneth Coutts-Smith pointed out as early as 1976, “cultural colonialism” is a means by which art forms created by colonised or racially-othered people are co-opted by western cultures.
“For Nina Kraviz to claim she has ‘nothing to do with this’ in wearing cornrows is a sad refusal to acknowledge her privilege as a white woman where she benefits from a global history of oppression”
We have to remember that black people have historically been displaced, stolen from, and abused by global capitalism and colonialism, and have not seen sufficient reparations for it. To this day, black people who wear their hair in this protective, ancestral fashion are widely discriminated against. It was only last month that we saw St. John’s Senior School in North London reverse their policy banning young women from wearing cornrows. For Nina Kraviz to claim she has “nothing to do with this” in wearing cornrows is a sad refusal to acknowledge her privilege as a white woman where she benefits from a global history of oppression.
It’s also unsurprising that this situation reignited conversations around Kraviz’s very questionable choice to name a track she released in 2011 ‘Ghetto-Kraviz’, which has been acknowledged and praised by influential music platform Resident Advisor as “The track that created a superstar”. Kraviz’s response to the criticism of the song title included her sharing links to articles about Jewish ghettos under the Nazis, saying, “Polish Jews would be very surprised to discover that a word ‘ghetto’ [sic] belongs exclusively to African-American culture” (Kraviz is neither Jewish nor Polish – plus, of course, her music doesn’t exactly draw from Polish culture).
Indeed, cornrow-gate is all made even more cringe-worthy and frustrating by the fact that Nina has built her career on musical influences and track selections coming from the creative outputs and community work of black Americans who pioneered the genres techno, house, and ghetto house in the 80s and 90s.
I spoke to American queer black femme DJ Dee Diggs about the whole thing, and she said: “The more I think about it, the more it seems white women want to lead the pack for ‘diversity’ while also yearning for their own ‘good ole days’ of the 80s and 90s where they could appropriate cultures for fashion and leisure, and no one would say anything.”
“A white girl in cornrows makes me grind me teeth, but it’s not the biggest and baddest racist act… She is a white woman. To separate herself from the accusations by saying ‘I’m not as white as you think’ circumvents the entire issue”– Dee Diggs
She’s got a point: to see a white woman profiting off of black American cultural production in such a major way is nothing new (cue Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus), but for Nina to refuse to acknowledge, and instead deny, the very whiteness that grants her access to the level of fame she has, is outrageous.
Diggs continued: “They still get away with it, but all anyone seems to be asking for is a simple acknowledgement of their privilege and cultural hijacking… they can’t even seem to give us that. A white girl in cornrows makes me grind me teeth, but it’s not the biggest and baddest racist act. It was most disappointing to me that she went as far as to try to separate herself from ‘white privilege’ by citing that she grew up in the Asian part of Russia. That may be true, but that’s not what the world sees when they look at her. She is a white woman. To separate herself from the accusations by saying ‘I’m not as white as you think’ circumvents the entire issue.”
A sad reality is that even though this call-out has occurred, there are still plenty of white techno bros who will defend and support Nina in her career, feeding into a narrative that we are bullying her. She is ultimately likely to benefit from this press, and go on to maintain the collection of her coin. White supremacy, which transcends all aspects of global society, will keep her under its wing and protect her from extensive harm.
Adopting an “ignorance apologist” attitude around white people in this industry is not enough – especially with white women, who are constantly excused and allowed innocence under white supremacy, while, as women, they gain status as the shining tokens of “diversity”against a backdrop of cis men dominating the industry. We especially cannot stand for this behaviour on matters of blackness, something that other non-black people, including myself, must challenge ourselves to do better on. That it has fallen to black womxn, the targets of her ignorance, to do all the work educating Nina and the rest of us, is not acceptable moving forward if we want real solidarity in this scene.
“While it would be easy to frame this all as simply ‘Nina Kraviz is ignorant’, we have to acknowledge that Kraviz’s M.O. functions within a wider lens of racism and cultural appropriation which has facilitated her ability to transcend the white-Techno-bro ranks”
While it would be easy to frame this all as simply “Nina Kraviz is ignorant”, we have to acknowledge that Kraviz’s M.O. functions within a wider lens of racism and cultural appropriation which has facilitated her ability to transcend the white-Techno-bro ranks. This is something that the music scene is unwilling to acknowledge, because it’s so stagnant that we are still just trying to get women in the right spaces and positions – look at the line-ups for the rise of festivals seeking to bring in more women, and more often than not they’re almost always white. When “diversity” initiatives in the music industry stop at just including white women, witnessing situations like this is to be expected.
As a femme and a musician, I’m happy to see people across the gender spectrum carving out successful careers as DJs and producers, however this does not exempt them from further accountability around how they conduct themselves on issues of race, class, ability, and more. I have seen so many white Spanish reggaeton DJ women sport cornrows, box braids, and even fake dreadlocks, but there remains confusion in Europe around what is and isn’t a co-option of blackness. We need to be able to have these conversations without brushing them off as “divisive” or “mean – it’s the only way we can grow the music scene to make spaces safer for all.
So overall, should we be surprised that Nina Kraviz has acted this way? Of course not. The conduct of folx in the electronic music scene – and the music industry as a whole, really – has enabled this, and we should be outraged about that. This needs to be a call to arms for solidarity through assisting in educating, booking black DJs, buying their music, and generally being a patron to the creative careers of black artists. Put your money where your mouth is, if you’re financially able – if not, try using your platforms to share their work, as even this can be a huge support. Moving forward, it shouldn’t fall to black womxn in the scene to do all the work.