Venus Iceberg X and the Ghe20 Goth1k Crew Call Out DJ Diplo for Musical and Cultural Imperialsm

by Latoya Peterson

MIA, Diplo, Cash

Around April Fool’s Day, I got this tip from friend of the blog Christina:

So, (queer) (Latina) DJ VenusxGG got in a Twitter fight last week with well-known but kinda slimey bass producer/DJ Diplo. Venus accused Diplo of being imperialist in his appropriation of musical forms (something he’s been accused of lots of times) and it ended up as a pretty entertaining/interesting public discourse for the bass community.

THEN today, XLR8R (another big bass magazine) decided to tap this for their April Fools joke…except they got Angela Davis involved. Kinda sloppy.

According to Fader’s Naomi Zeichner, who documented the tweet stream, the twitter fight began after Diplo came into one of their parties and began recording part of a set on his cellphone. @Ghe20Goth1k’s issue is extremely clear:

I told @diplo to stop and he was embarrassed by now we won’t get ant [sic] credit and he keeps making $$$ I can’t pay rent lol

Now, apparently DJ Diplo has developed a reputation for cultural appropriation – a term we’ve discussed often here, without much resolution. Since culture, by nature, is fluid, it is difficult to pinpoint when an homage or inspiration ends and appropriation begins. Diplo is best known for taking the sounds of other cultures and presenting them as hip consumables for a western audience. He rose to prominence alongside collaborator M.I.A. – and interestingly enough, even that story was steeped in appropriation of the work of a woman of color to advance his own ends. Despite being friends, Diplo (née Thomas Wesley Pentz) revealed to Drew Tewksbury:

“With M.I.A., we made a pop song totally by accident,” Pentz says. “We didn’t aim to have a big record. But she’s so cool, and that resonated with people.” He loaned a baile funk beat for her song “Bucky Done Gun” and got much of the credit for producing the whole album, which he says isn’t exactly the truth. “Back then, I told people that I produced [Arular], to get them to know who I was, but that was a total lie,” Pentz says.

Just another Diplo hustle.

M.I.A. didn’t seem to mind at the time, but presaging her second release, Kala, she set the record straight about Diplo’s participation. The media deemed Diplo the “mastermind behind M.I.A.,” but she says he had little to do with Arular. When pressed to name a chief collaborator, she credited Switch.

However, the idea that Diplo was the mastermind behind Arular clearly began to grate on M.I.A. In an interview with Pitchfork she calls out the racist, sexist, and cultural assumptions being made:

M.I.A.: Yesterday I read like five magazines in the airplane– it was a nine hour flight– and three out of five magazines said “Diplo: the mastermind behind M.I.A.’s politics!” And I was wondering, does that stem from [Pitchfork]? Because I find it really bonkers.

Pitchfork: Well, it’s hard to say where it originated. We certainly have made reference to Diplo playing a part on your records, but it seems like everyone plays that up.

M.I.A.: If you read the credits, he sent me a loop for “Bucky Done Gun”, and I made a song in London, and it became “Bucky Done Gun”. But that was the only song he was actually involved in on Arular. So the whole time I’ve had immigration problems and not been able to get in the country, what I am or what I do has got a life of its own, and is becoming less and less to do with me. And I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed. After the first time it’s cool, the second time it’s cool, but after like the third, fourth, fifth time, maybe it’s an issue that we need to talk about, maybe that’s something important, you know. [...] I don’t want the whole interview to be about this, I just really wanted to be like ‘look, if anyone’s going to get credit for helping me produce this album, it was me and Switch who co-produced this album.’ Diplo has got two tracks on there, Timbaland’s got one track, Blaqstarr’s got two tracks, but the rest of it, the bulk of it, is built out of me and Switch. And if I can’t get credit because I’m a female and everything’s going to boil down to ‘everything has to be shot out of a man,’ then I much rather it go to Switch, who did actually give me the time and actually listened to what I was saying and actually came to India and Trinidad and all these places, and actually spent time on me and actually cared about what I was doing, and actually cared about the situation I was in with not being able to get into the country and not having access to things or, you know, being able to direct this album in a totally innovative direction. I was just kind of taking what I was given, and took the circumstances I was put in. And I wanted to make the most of it. And the only person that believed in it was Switch, and he gave me the freedom to have the space and have thinking time and have the experiences or whatever and came and shared them with me.

Pitchfork: I’m a little surprised by what you’re saying, not because I don’t agree with it, but because, in a way, you seem to be ceding or maybe even resigning the marquee to Switch out of frustration. All of this attention has been put on someone else in helping you make this record, and I completely understand why that would be upsetting, but at the end of the day, no matter who produced the tracks, it still says M.I.A. on the spine of the record packaging.

M.I.A.: That’s what I’m saying. There is an issue especially with what male journalists write about me and say “this MUST have come from a guy.” I can understand that, I can follow that, that’s fine. But when female journalists as well put your work and things down to it being all coming from a man, that really fucks me up. It’s bullshit. I mean, for me especially, I felt like this is the only thing I have, and if I can stick my neck out and go for the issues and go through my life as it is, the least I can have is my creativity. And I think that’s probably the stupidest thing about it. I wish somebody did conjure the spirit out so I can change that, and now I’m going to spit some politics, I was going to be like this… fucking… whatever, the thing that I was, I wish that somebody did conjure it out. But I’m not going to give that credit, whatever my life is and whatever my lifestyle and whatever people in Sri Lanka feel is right, like somebody masterminded it. You know what I mean? I think that’s bullshit.

But that interview was back in 2007 – and in the last few years, Diplo and M.I.A.’s careers have taken huge bounds in different directions. Diplo has been on a rising trajectory – which has left a salty aftertaste in the mouths of those who perform or create similar music, but don’t get the same kind of props. So when Venus Iceberg X notes that she isn’t getting going to get credit which means Diplo gets paid and she can’t pay rent, she’s talking about that opportunity cost. Interestingly enough, it seems that quite a few people are paying that cost. Fader, in an article called “Diplo Cannot Keep You Out of the Poorhouse”, discussed the fortunes of Maluca, another artist associated with Diplo’s Mad Decent Family:

A couple years ago, Diplo met Maluca (bka Nathalie Yepez) at a karaoke night at 205 Club in New York. They dated for a while, and when they broke up she played him the music she’d been working on and became a part of his Mad Decent family. She released a song with Mad Decent and a mixtape on her own, hung out at the mausoleum in Philly and helped clean it up.

Last week in Sally Singer’s revamped T Magazine, Maluca bemoaned that in spite of her high-profile affiliations (she just toured with Robyn, who commissioned plenty of Diplo production for her Body Talk albums), she’s hard for cash. She told Marcus Chang that, “It can be really expensive for an opening act. I had to pay for my travel, my manager came with me, who helped out with a lot of the expenses, but obviously I have to reimburse that money eventually. I got paid a performance fee, but it didn’t cover the costs for renting equipment, DJ, hair and makeup, my outfits.”

She’s dropping a series of Wepasodes dealing with being “fly on a budget” – recreating ODB’s food stamps run, explaining that she’s an unsigned artist and the costs associated with promotion aren’t always recouped. Juxtaposing images of her walking catwalks at fashion shows with her swiping her EBT card, Maluca tries to paint a picture of the decidedly unglamorous parts of a high profile career:

Maluca: Yo, it’s rough out there. People think because you’re on magazines, because you work with this producer or that producer, you got money – I ain’t got no money! I got four dollars in my pocket, I live with my mom…and I want you to see, what its really like, out here in the real world.

So maybe Venus Iceberg X is right in not trusting that an association with Diplo will lead to massive checks. But she takes the issue one step further – and calls Diplo out on imperialism:


Diplo (in red) starts saying some interesting things – calling himself an ally to Venus, and then inferring he doesn’t fit into racial or cultural categories (#columbusneedsapassport – we need to revisit that at some part):

It’s a fascinating conversation, complicated by a lot of factors. Race is one, but cultural imperialism, positioning, and authority also arise. This situation could be explained by the mercurial whims of the music industry – what propels some artists into the collective consciousness, while allowing other, equally talented artists to stay stuck in the cultural kiddie pool? Part of it is timing, part of it is management of brand and funds – and part of it is our societal structures that ascribes authority to certain groups of people over others. When we talk about cultural appropriation and musical imperialism, we’re ultimately asking who gets to be the arbiter of what is cool. Baile funk was doing its own thing pre-Diplo – but did it only make it to the States because there was a white face to make the sound more acceptable?

DJs are always tapping influences to create new soundscapes – it’s a part of the business. But the structural inequalities that manifest in the music industry, in many ways do have a common root: the violence of revulsion. Minh-ha was discussing blackface, when she explained it “highlights the privileged universal empty point that white bodies continue to occupy even in this so-called postracial moment, and in so doing, it positions racial difference against whiteness, as the other to whiteness” – but that could just as easily be applied to Diplo, despite his simultaneous embrace and rejection of his own whiteness and what that means in terms of cultural positioning. Would Diplo be Diplo if he wasn’t white? Are artists like Maluca and Venus Iceberg X struggling because people aren’t feeling their music without a white lens to make it safer? Racism and cultural imperialism are not the sole controlling factor for success and failure in the industry – but it would be disingenuous to pretend they aren’t a persistent bass line.

Wendi has more on this, but I want to end by pointing out how even trying to have conversations like this in the music industry can lead to marginalization. For their April Fool’s Joke, XL8R ran this post (snatched from the Google Cache):

venus iceberg x

Angela Davis Taps Ghe20 Gothik’s Venus X as a Guest Lecturer

* Words: August Howard

Earlier this morning, legendary political activist and celebrated scholar Angela Davis announced an upcoming two-day conference entitled Never Stop: Revolutionary Tactics in a Postmodern, Pansexual Society. Scheduled to take place on April 22 and 23 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Never Stop will be kicked off by a special keynote address from Venus Iceberg X of NYC’s Ghe20 Gothik party. Says Davis, “Venus X is truly an incredible young woman and a touchstone for her entire generation. During my time working with the Black Panthers, the Communist party, and various other political movements, we certainly struck some blows on behalf of the oppressed masses, but Venus’ pioneering usage of hardstyle, screwed Top 40, YouTube rips, and animated GIFs is truly sticking it to ‘The Man’ and taking the struggle to another level.”

Venus X was similarly effusive in her praise of Davis. “Angela Davis is, like, mad cool. She was the founding member of the #BadGirlsClub, ya know? I also heard she totally loves vogue house.” As for the content of her upcoming speech, Venus said that she plans to tackle a variety of issues. “I already STR8 blew up the spot on Diplo a.k.a. Columbus Part II on Twitter, so U know I’m not about 2 hold back. #GAMECHANGER. I might be broke because of all the str8, white, imperialist, racist, and sexist pieces of shit out there, but the system can’t silence me anymore. Thanks 2 me and my crew, ppl are finally starting to #WAKEUP.”

Plans for the keynote address to be livestreamed by the FADER were still being confirmed at press time.

Commenter Diane E wrote:

Diane E.
Wow- this is pretty disrespectful- goes beyond april fools’ for sure. But now we see how all the privileged white boys own shit and stick together in all facets of the industry!!! even the ‘indie’ ones!!! Educate yourselves with some Audre Lorde before you go mix some cumbia and ‘neo-baile’ css funk for all your hipster fans to watch and not dance to! #neoculturalimperalists


(Image Credits: Bao Nguyen via Brooklyn Vegan, Diplo/Venus twitter images via Fader)

  • Diplomaddecent

    where can i buy this white lens you guys are talking about?

    • Anonymous

      Hon, you don’t have to pay a thing – you were born with it! The rest of ius have to make do with the crappy opera style glasses. Everytime you let them fall, you see all the inequality…

  • johnsville

    Silly shit like this, Maluca getting food stamps is exactly why our medical system is a joke. “This is how dominicans do honey” is insulting to hard working american single hispanic families who actually cannot provide dinner for there kids. Cool be an artist, but live within your means. If you are headlining and flying around the world playing shows, don’t claim poor.

    • Anonymous

      Well, as a person in a different industry with similar dynamics, I don’t think she’s playing. You can be someone’s headliner and make, say 5,000 – but if your expenses from touring and such amount to $7,000 you still lost money. Being on magazine covers and such isn’t pay – it’s exposure, which hopefully leads to pay, but not always. TLC spoke out about this when they were at the height of their fame, as did Toni Braxton – depending on your deal (if you have one at all) you may get advances – but then you’re in debt. It’s not for real money, it’s more like credit. So, it’s not surprising that many artists qualify for food stamps.

  • Anonymous

    This post was good. Two aspects of the story that I wish it talked about but didn’t:

    (1) The fact that M.I.A. was in a romantic relationship with Diplo and how that affects the story.

    (2) The way in which M.I.A. portrays herself as some sort of representative of the world’s poor. Look at her videos of dancing African kids. Is this cultural appropriation? Does she get a pass because she’s a person of color?

    • http://profiles.google.com/hhazel amage amage

      (1) Does the fact that they were dating change the fact that he got lots of undeserved credit and has based his career on stealing musical styles from cultures of which he’s not a part? Maybe she let him get away with it for so long because they were in a relationship, but i don’t think it would excuse or justify his actions in any way.
      (2) I feel like MIA portrays herself as one of many not as a vanguard or spokesperson. Like there’s lots of international artists that talk about their experiences of dealing with borders and nationalism and white supremacy, and i don’t think she’s ever tried to assert herself as the premier artist in this regard, but maybe i’m wrong. But even, this article isn’t really about Maya but about Diplo. Obviously anybody can commit cultural appropriation and ought to be checked for overstepping, but then some people base their whole careers on it. I think that makes a difference.

  • http://twitter.com/sensevisual sensevisual

    privilegedenyingdude.tumblr.com should restart with diplo’s mug instead of that iStockphoto random guy.