Photo: Jérémy Paul Bali
Aluna On New Album 'Renaissance' & Making Dance Music Inclusive Again
British singer/songwriter/DJ/producer Aluna broke onto the global dance scene in 2013 as half of AlunaGeorge. Together, the U.K. dance duo headlined festivals and delivered infectious dancefloor burners like "I'm In Control," "I Remember" and a stellar cover of Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" and notable features with Disclosure (2014's "White Noise"), Flume (2016's "Innocence") and other big names in dance.
Now, Aluna is in control as a solo artist and reclaiming her space as a Black woman in dance music. The now-massive genre has straight White men at its center, even though it was created by Black, brown and queer people in response to the racist disco backlash of 1979. With her debut solo album, Renaissance, released Aug. 28, she explores the roots of dance music, brings in messages of equality and empowerment and takes listeners through a journey of emotions and rhythms from dusk 'til dawn.
The "Warrior" artist has truly found her voice—not just within owning the creative control of her music, but in her online presence with weekly Aluna's Room DJ livestreams and curated playlists. In both spaces, she explores what dance music really means, highlighting producers of color and bringing in reggaetón, dancehall, Afro-fusion and more infectious rhythms of the world, questioning the media and industry's focus on White electronic DJ/producers.
In an open letter to the dance music community posted to her Instagram in June, Aluna directly calls out racism in dance and asks for more inclusive genre categorization. "When I started looking at all the challenges I face being a Black woman making dance I realized I wanted to do more than just create a space for myself—I want all black people to know that the genre of Dance is their heritage and they should feel included and encouraged to create under that banner by expanding the genre to be culturally and racially inclusive," she wrote with the post.
Ahead of Renaissance's release, we chatted with Aluna to learn more about her vision and creative process for the epic new project, as well as her mission to create a more inclusive dance music space.
I can't say that in the writing studio I had an agenda, I generally don't, but what I need to say, happens. So, I needed to sing about what it's like being a Black woman and a woman of color trying to get paid in the world. Often, my go-to is a way to create an aspirational, celebratory moment and "Get Paid" is a celebration of us getting paid. Sometimes we do get paid, but we just want more of it, we want it consistently, we want it fairly and we want it to match our worth and our contributions.
Princess Nokia is outspoken in so many different ways. She's basically the epitome of woman power, but she also stands for LGBTQIA+ rights. And she's an activist in such an eloquent way that I really wanted her input in this song to complete the picture. And we did an interpolation of a classic Jamaican dancehall song ["Heads High" by Mr. Vegas from 1998]. I've been listening to "Banana" by Jada Kingdom and I had that in my DJ set, and I was like, "Oh, she is going to finish this puzzle. She's the last piece of the puzzle to make the full, beautiful picture." When she sent in her verse, I was so emotional because it's powerful, but it's so beautiful and sexy as well. And that's so important to me in music—your flow's got to be down, along with the beauty, the melody and the words.
Like "Get Paid," "Body Pump" is such a bop, I've had it on repeat. Could you take us through the creative process of "Body Pump"—did it start with the beat, the lyrics, a concept? And how did it evolve?
Well, me and Josh [Lloyd-Watson of Jungle, who co-produced the track with her] are two really strong heads in the studio, so we spent a good few hours bumping heads, it was pretty funny. We had our egos all up in the space, we had our own ideas. It was really towards the end of the evening when we started to get going. And we started from scratch. We'd listened to a lot of music, and we were like, "No, we can't work with anything that's already started." We started to build this song, and I was like, "We're getting somewhere." We were really collaborating on every sound, every instrument, every bit of vocal, he had me shouting stuff into the mic, he was like, "Louder! Louder!" I was like, "Oh my God, this is so scary!" [Laughs.]
Then the computer crashed and we fully lost the whole song. At the time, I was six or seven months pregnant, and I was not having any time wasted. So, I was like, "I'm going to get you a bottle of wine, and I'm going to use my memory to take you through, step by step, rebuilding the entire song from scratch." And he was like, "Oh my God, I'm so happy that you are down. So many artists would have just given up and gone home." I was like, "Hell no, I'll live here, mother***er. I'm not going anywhere until this song is back."
I knew there was something about it. And some magic might get added from us redoing it. That part at the end where it goes off, the really fast clapping and stuff, came out as a mistake and we were like, "Oh wait, what happened? Let's keep it." It was a really, really fun experience.
Was it one of the first songs you worked on for the album or where did that process begin? Where was the starting point for you with the larger album?
That was in July  and I'd started working in February. I don't know what the first song is that I wrote. One of the earliest ones was "Off Guard" and "Whistle" from the album. And you can hear how open I was at that stage. When I started writing, because I'm a very versatile artist, I was like, "I can make anything. Yay. Let's go." And I did make anything, I made everything. For this record, there was 50 songs. And then I was like, "No, I'm going to make a dance record. That's what I'm going to do." I started to move in a particular direction.
"Off Guard" and "Whistle" are from the pre-directional part of the album, but I wanted to include them, because for me, an album is really a journey with a main story to it. [On Renaissance,] the main story is a dance story. For me, when you go to the club, you have this really specific period of time that you dance for. But you also have the side room where you are with a friend or a sexy partner or something, when you add that moment to your experience, you get that full spectrum. It's like the house party and you had your dance for a moment, and then we found the room upstairs where everyone was smoking and drinking and chilling and you were like, "This is amazing too." So, those songs were on the album as well. And then, it's book-ended with, I don't know, a psychedelic. I mean, it's definitely 6:00 a.m., anywhere in the world, at the end of the record. And the beginning is maybe 9:00 a.m., but it's the start of the day, the other end.
I do remember the first song I wrote. I wrote "I've Been Starting To Love All The Things I Hate" [the album's first track] way before I started to write this album. It was just a piano piece on a voice message. Then, I expanded it into a full song.
If you had about 50 songs to choose from, was it hard to cut them? What was the process of getting it down to an album, to 14 tracks?
Picking the songs took almost as long as writing them. Oh, it's agonizing. I have these full on spreadsheets and diagrams. I printed out the names of all the songs and cut them out and put them on cards so that I could mix and match. It was lots of that. Because it's a sauce, it's a big sauce and it has to have all the right ingredients in there and you can't have any missing ingredients.
Do you think you would do a B-sides or maybe sprinkle out some of the other songs after the album in some of the format?
There were some choice songs that didn't get on record. Sometimes, they were songs that would stand alone better—this is a single, a song that doesn't play well with others. There were also a few songs that were in that vein of something already on the album. So, let's not have two of them.
The album is coming out in just under a month. You've put out a bunch of music in the past, but this is your debut solo project. How are you feeling about offering that up to the world?
I'm curious to see what environment it's going to come out in. We just don't know from month to month what world we're living in. I mean, I had never planned to tour the album immediately upon releasing it. I wanted to let people sit with the music for a little while before I went on the road. But with that not on the horizon, I'm glad that I created the album in a way that I did, because it's not rave from start to finish—it will take you to that raving point and bring you back down again. So, it's really good for being in the house or being in the car and in all the environments that we're living in at the moment, which is cool.
I also feel, because everyone's indoors a lot of the time, they'll be able to listen in a less distracted environment, which for me is always a bonus, because people might listen to the lyrics, which would be fun. I don't expect people to listen to lyrics, but if they do then they'll enjoy them.
When you were working on this project and decided you wanted to make a dance album, what caused that shift?
Well, there had been lots of messages coming my way that weren't getting through the sleek barrier of fear and trepidation that I had. As a featured artist in dance, I'd kind of been a guest in that genre. I saw it as a very White genre and as a Black person, I didn't feel invited. I didn't feel like I could take that genre and do what I wanted with it as an uninvited person.
But I had been in situations where I'd seen one or two Black girls in the crowd when I was guesting on a White peer's festival show that I was jumping on to. So, I would see them. And at my shows, I would see a few Black girls waiting right to the end where I play all my dance records for AlunaGeorge. And I was like, "Okay, well, there's that." The final piece was discovering the history of dance and realizing that my feeling of being uninvited didn't make any sense. It was completely ridiculous. I still felt uncomfortable and like I was going to be doing something that nobody really wanted, but that's never really stopping me from doing anything. So, I went ahead and did it, I just needed a little bit of ammunition.
It's the proof that the feelings that you're feeling—that it wasn't just you.
The feelings that I was feeling were based on a reality that was a lie, which, quite honestly, made me angry. It made me angry that I had to feel uncomfortable doing something that was part of my heritage and that it had held me back even for a second. And then I was like, "Quick, hurry up." Which then took me a year and a half.
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When I started looking at all the challenges I face being a black woman making dance I realized I wanted to do more than just create a space for myself - I want all black people to know that the genre of Dance is their heritage and they should feel included and encouraged to create under that banner by expanding the genre to be culturally and racially inclusive Read and share this post if you wanna see the same future for our community
On that note, in June, you posted your powerful open letter to the dance music community. Can you speak to what the response from within the music community so far has felt like for you?
The response has been one of curiosity. I've had quite a few different executives and people in the inner circle of DSPs [digital service providers], curious about what to do. So, that's been good. It's nice to have curiosity. I think action is going to be—I'm a big believer in embracing the chaos. I think that we need to—and we probably will—go through a period of chaos when it comes to the genre.
What I'm calling for is to shake the genre up. I'm not expecting the dust to settle for a little while. So, there's lots of different conversations about what is dance, what genres of dance have been left out of the genre, which ones should now be included, which ones are more mainstream, which ones are underground. Is electronic the main sound of dance anymore, regardless of how it's being categorized in reality? Is electronic actually a sub-genre as opposed to the main body of dance music?
All these questions are really, really fun to be asking because if I was going to invent a world, a world that is exciting and fresh and ever-changing, I don't think I would put White, straight men at the center of that world. I don't even think a White straight man would create that world. Those are the people that maybe run things, but we're talking about parties, we're talking about dancing, we're talking about culture, we're talking about unity, we're talking about festivals. When in history has a White straight man been the catalyst for that type of cross-cultural, open sexuality, joyful getting together? It just needs to be reflective of the activity of partying, dancing, unity, expression and things like that.
"This music should be put in the position where they're able to get access to the mainstream ear, because it is mainstream music… If it's good enough to be appropriated, then it's good enough to be listened to in its original form and by the original creators."
Can you give us an outline of what you called for in the letter?
I would like every platform and organization that categorizes music to reanalyze what they consider to be dance music. When they're considering that, they need to look at globally and culturally, what do people dance to? The answer is dancehall, afrobeat, reggaetón, house music and the sub genres of those as well. I think that'll go a long way in bringing people who make dance music around the world together, because at the moment it's really segregated. Really what it comes down to is the listener is being made to jump and go down the back alleys of these platforms. I consider this music to be mainstream dance music, they're not sub-sub-genres. They are sub-genres of dance, but they're not sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-genres, which is where they're currently categorized.
This music should be put in the position where they're able to get access to the mainstream ear, because it is mainstream music. The evidence is in the pop songs that use those types of music as their complete fundamental foundation. The evidence is also in White producers using those beats to freshen the sound of dance music at the moment. If it's good enough to be appropriated, then it's good enough to be listened to in its original form and by the original creators.
If the dance community was happy to just live in a completely monocultured ecosystem of listening only to the Eurocentric ideal and accepted sound of dance music, then just copy it and copy it and copy it until dance music is no longer a relevant genre to anyone, then fine, but that's not what anyone wants.
What has it felt like for you so far to step out as a solo artist, and to be making your music for you and producing as well?
It's created many new dreams for me. Now, I have this dream that is feeling more and more tangible—basically, a festival/rave with Black gal ravers all over the place, not just one Black gal raver in a sea of White people, looking really out of place. I just think that would be so much fun.
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Do you have a message for young Black women and girls who are wanting to share their voice and their vision in music, but not really sure where to start or how to do that in a way that feels safe to them?
It's difficult. I try to speak through my actions. I have made dance records as a Black woman, and some of the music has been received well because it fits into the traditional dance music sound. And we shall see how this record is received, but I don't care.
What do I say to young Black girls? They're needed and wanted, and their creative perspective, their creative juices and flavors are needed and wanted.
I really love your Dance Renaissance playlist on Spotify. Can you talk a bit about some of the artists you've featured on it?
I've got UNiiQU3, I've got Jayda G. I've got some original creators of dance music like Mr. Fingers and Larry Heard on there, because I wanted to mix a history with the current stuff. And Black Coffee, Azari, Rema, AJ Tracey and Cookiee Kawaii. Also, Skales—"Shake Body" is one of my favorite songs. This playlist was really what I was just performing in my DJ set that week. It was an exploration, I wanted to see what a Larry Heard track sounded like alongside a UNiiQU3 or TT The Artist or Jayda G. And I was exploring Black dance artists in general.
I have a huge collection. The next thing I want to do is make a global dance playlist that really captures the hottest new tracks from around the world. Because paying homage to history is really important, but one of the things that can happen is if you only do that, you miss out on the current moment and you can't make up for that later, because those people need support right now. We need to know how hot this new sh*t is.
And honestly, COVID has been a huge opportunity for me, for my crate-digging endeavors and more. It's really, really been amazing to think about changing the landscape of the way we consume dance music, so that all of these songs I've been enjoying as a DJ will get more recognition and more respect. And be celebrated in a way that will elevate them through to pop, which I think is really important for any artists working within a genre to be cared for in that way and have that motivation.
You're so right. At the end of the day, streaming playlists have so much power. The number of streams that come from some of those top Spotify playlists is wild. It really shows how much potential there is for shifting things and for, like you're doing, changing the conversation.
Right. That job has to be done very, very carefully if you're doing what I'm doing, because this Dance Renaissance playlist is my first attempt on working on something at the moment, which is much, much more curated as a DJ. And I think that's really important when I'm showing how jersey club, dancehall, house, techno and afrobeat can live together on the dancefloor.
The reason that I know that is because I'm a Black woman, but I'm also multicultural. So, I have all of these global influences in my blood. I work in harmony with myself, so I know there's a possibility for all those things to work in harmony. I apply that when I'm selecting my songs. I'm not someone who is just trying to elevate one genre of dance. I'm an ambassador of unity, really based on the simple idea that I'm trying to create the best quality.
For me, if I go to a club and there's only one type of music playing, I can't do it. I can do about half an hour, but I can't do monocultured anything. I'm just not that person. Myself and the future of our world is getting more and more multicultural. We can all be fighting against each other, but behind the fight, everyone's having sex and making babies, by the way. And they will multicultural. It's inevitable. I'm creating the music for those kids to feel comfortable listening to.