Raving Asians Make the Bass Drop: The New Rave Culture

Raves are having a renaissance. Traditionally associated with middle class white kandi ravers - ‘kandi’ referring to the brightly coloured bracelets they would wear at rave events - who were considered social outcasts, the scene has in recent years been steadily filling up with Asian faces...

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Raves are having a renaissance. Traditionally associated with middle class white kandi ravers—‘kandi’ referring to the brightly coloured bracelets they would wear at rave events—who were considered social outcasts, the scene has in recent years been steadily filling up with Asian faces in many parts of the Western world with its own customs, subcultures and quirks. Of course, Asians have always been a part of the rave scene, but their unprecendented numbers in contemporary electronic dance music (EDM) festivals and events as the scene crept out of the underground and into the mainstream is something of a phenomenon. Many modern Asian ravers are not whom would usually be associated with the scene at first glance. They are Ivy Leaguers, medical school students, white collar professionals established in their careers and folks brought up far from major metropolitan cultural centres.

Daniel is one such raver. A Vietnamese American nineteen year old Portland native currently in his first year at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, he has been embracing the philosophy of PLUR – an acronym for the rave slogan Peace, Love, Unity, Respect – for a year. “In high school, people always thought all the Asians were very sheltered and studying all the time. So when me and my friends started going, people were kind of shook that the scholarly kids were raving,” he says. When he was about to graduate from high school, he and his friends skipped class to drive down to go see the DJ duo Slander perform. Navigating his existence as a high achieving raver has had interesting implications for him. He feels that it has allowed him to defy the societal box that Asians are put in – the model minority straitlaced, studious nerds. “When I post pictures on Instagram, people perceive me as crazier than I know I am. At school people think I am a party animal because I go to the occasional rave and post a picture, and then they’re like ‘Oh my God!’ but then I am just a homebody for the rest of the week. But they assume that because I rave I am ultimately bad, because they associate raving with crazy degenerate behaviour.”

The delicate balancing of his public image is an understandable effect of the paradoxical place that Asians hold in Western society. Judy Soojin Park, a Harvard researcher who authored the award-winning undergraduate thesis Searching for a Cultural Home: Asian American Youth in the EDM Festival Scene, understands this particular position well. “Despite claiming that EDM festivals provide a sense of belonging for Asian Americans, my informants paradoxically believed that EDM festivals also provide an escape from their Asian American identities”, she writes. One of her informants traces back her participation in the scene to her desire to free herself from parental restrictions that have been a big part of her life. In fact, parental ignorance about their children’s participation in rave culture seems to be a recurrent theme amongst Asian families. “My parents don’t know.”, says Daniel, the son of a nail technician and an Associate’s degree holder, both refugees. “I just tell them I am going to a concert and they don’t really think about it much.” He thinks his status as the youngest of four children helps him a lot. Asian parents often tend to lax out over each subsequent sibling, which probably explains to an extent why a surprising amount of Asian ravers are last-borns whose parents aren’t fully aware of the true nature of the ‘concerts’ their children attend.

Leslie, a twenty two year old Vietnamese American Bay Area raver, fits this demographic. “My mom is more of a traditional conservative Vietnamese woman, she doesn’t really know that I go to raves, she thinks they are concerts”, she says. The youngest of four, Leslie had a nomadic lower-middle class upbringing with her siblings and her single mother after her father passed away when she was young. Raving has allowed her to find a sort of stability and a sense of community that had been missing for most of her life. “My upbringing and not really having a stable home environment or having a stable friend circle, being able to go into that kind of environment and community, it allowed me to really make a circle of friends that I can consider friends for potentially the rest of my life or for however long they remain in my life”, she says. “It just brings a lot of positivity in my life as well, just an escape from whatever is stressing me out, so school or from family. It just allows me to be in the moment and enjoy the people I’m around and enjoy the music that I’m listening to.”

Park traces these dual forces of belonging and transgression back to the original roots of the rave scene as a safe space for marginalized folks sealed away from the daily horrors of the world. First developed in gay Black clubs in the 1980s in Chicago as a way to cope with the dual trauma of racism and homophobia, raves quickly spread to London where it allowed British youths to similarly escape from the cultural repression and economic realities of the Thatcher era. For many years, the inherently rebellious nature of rave parties made them an underground phenomenon.

Jarret Leong, a New York City based writer who has been involved in the NYC underground rave scene for around a decade, traces back his scene to 1990s warehouse raves that centered around people of colour (POC), women of colour (WOC), queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC). While the whitening of the scene with middle class kandi ravers in the 1990s and the recent mainstreaming of EDM events have somewhat obscured their political origins, the underground scene is still very much alive. According to Leong, that is where the real counter-culture is still happening. He sees underground raves as a space of resilience where marginalized folks can be the majority for once, not think about the political implications of their daily lives and imagine themselves differently – even if it is just for a night. For a few hours, they get to shed the weight of pervasive powerlessness and become beautiful power players as they dance the night away. As one raver in the documentary Better Living Through Circuitry puts it, “If you’re in touch with the subtlety of the music, it’s empowering to you as an individual, no matter who you are and that power is spread across the grounds of the rave. [...] We’re inspired by the positive energy that came from these parties and no matter if you’re Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, everybody got together and everybody had a good time.”

Rave dances reflect the desire for power of marginalized folks. At a recent Melbourne rave in honour of Australia Day, I was introduced to muzzing by fellow Asians. A distinctly Australian rave dance, muzzing (also known as chopping) was developed in the early 21st century from the Parisian dance style tecktonik. Movements are meant to display dominance and include bending and swinging the arms, circling the hands around the head, sharply pointing the arms in different directions. The name comes from “muzza”, or a Melbourne slang for born-and-raised Melbournians of Southern Mediterranean descent who were the first to adopt the dance. In recent years, muzzing has been appropriated by the Asian Australian diaspora and been modified to be faster, more technically precise and less tense. This dance has evolved to become a staple of the Aussie hardstyle rave circuit, with many Asian Australian ravers displaying their skills by whipping their limbs with lightning precision on particularly fast sections of music, a direct contrast to stereotypes of meek, academic model minorities with little real political power.

The myriad implications of trauma and empowered resilience is the core structural beat that forged rave culture. It goes a certain length towards explaining the long association of this subculture with heavy drug use and vibrant artistic expression, two trauma coping mechanisms. As the psychiatrist Bessel van del Kolk explains in his excellent book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma is at its core about love and loss,  which always involve the disruption of relationships and connections of some kind. According to him, talking, understanding, human connections and drugs can help deactivate the neurological alarm systems that go in high alert as a response to danger, an occurrence marginalized people have to deal with all too regularly. Artistic expression is also a powerful tool to directly combat the terror and helplessness that comes with trauma. It is therefore not surprising that, within rave culture, marginalized folks find a transgressive safe space for them to enjoy music, express themselves with exuberant fashions, take drugs and connect with each other, with trauma histories amplifying each one of those aspects.

In fact, sometimes, it seems like rave culture is less about having a good time that makes you come back home with a happy buzz in your head and more about euphorically partying yourself into total oblivion – much like trauma survivors seek to completely obliterate their memories and feelings with substances, extreme activities and compulsive behaviours. Everything about raves is built around extremes. Their music, played at airplane takeoff sound levels, has multiple overlays of chopping beats over even more layers of synth reverb effects. Bass drops are vertiginous and unpredictable. Lights, pyrotechnics and performance effects are blinding and relentless. Partygoers outcompete each other with the brightest, most eccentric neon fashions.

Ecstasy, a staple rave drug also known as MDMA or Molly, is generously used to intensely bond with others and amplify already extreme conditions. Events go on well past sunrise, an Olympic contest of endurance about who can keep standing the longest in a sweaty crowd after several hours of dancing and jumping around under the influence of multiple substances. And there is always the looming possibility of the party being broken up by police forces, especially if it is held in an illegal venue – a reality that falls along the through-line of state violence  against marginalized communities which has been going on for centuries. Perhaps then, it is fitting that the children of a community with traditionally extreme expectations of achievement and an extreme work ethic would also decide to choose an extreme music scene to let loose.

A Vietnamese Canadian industry insider, who has asked to remain anonymous, has worked rave events in his hometown of Edmonton and in other parts of the Canadian west coast for close to a decade. Over the course of his career, he has seen his fair share of rave extremes. “People need to understand proper drug use and know when to call it. If it’s not working, it’s just not working for you.” He recommends people “not do excessive amounts so close to each other. I know people who just roll (a slang term for using ecstasy) every weekend and that’s definitely not OK for you.” His Vancouver-based company supports drug safety at rave events by having Indigo stations that people can go to to relax, drink water and get help if they need to. “I’m OK with people doing illegal substances, there’s no way you can stop it, it kind of goes hand in hand with the culture, but as long as you know what you’re doing and you do it safely and if you do need help, you can get help”, he says. “And if you do need help, and you are caught with illegal substances, you are not gonna be charged. Distributing is different, because then you are knowingly trying to sell it. But if you just have a little amount and gotten too fucked up and you have it on your body, I’m OK with just releasing you after.”

The industry insider’s efforts to promote safe raving is something Leslie, the Bay Area raver, would applaud. Describing the raves at the Bill Graham event centre in San Francisco she regularly attends, she says “There’s pretty good security. On top of having good security, there’s also a lot of emergency medical staff that patrol the halls to make sure people know where the emergency medical tents are and just walking around making sure everyone is OK. [...] They can’t efficiently stop the consumption of recreational drugs, but they are aware enough to employ enough medical staff and to provide water and provide good water stations.” She think the conversation around safe drug use at rave events is long overdue. Shes hopes educational institutions in areas with lots of raves would do their share to educate their student body on safer raving. “The biggest problem in my mind is the lack of education and information that is associated with taking drugs. People typically get most of their information from their friends or siblings, if anything”, she says. “At the same time that’s not necessarily a medical opinion, so that becomes more of a concern for me. [...] I want my friends to be safe and I want people who I know that would be entering rave culture to also just be safe.”

She thinks that many stigmas surrounding drug use – such as their illegality and peer pressure – need to be talked about in order to ensure a better party experience for everyone involved. She is grateful that Subtle Asian Ravers (SAR) – an Asian ravers Facebook group that is nearly 77 800 members strong – has some members who post PSAs about how to properly use and mix different types of drugs. “Just increasing the information and making it more accessible, is probably the easiest step to take towards changing [things]”, she says. Her stance is informed by an unfortunate harrowing incident that she has lived through, where a Caucasian male attempted to forcibly drug her, which she describes as her most negative raving memory.

But despite the excesses and real dangers that come with drug use, they still retain for some people a mystique of transgressive freedom. For them, drugs represent the spirit of marginalized folks coming together to break free of regulations made to oppress them, their euphoria a direct slap in the face to a world that wants them miserable. “A lot of drugs I get are from my friends in med school. We are all very open about our drug use”, says Leong, the New York City raver writer who emphasizes the importance of having chemists, pharmacists and doctors – professions often associated with the model minority – active in the rave community to bring in the expertise necessary to deal with drugs. His own rave circles include Ivy Leaguers and white collar healthcare professionals. He isn’t interested in participating in a rave scene that is more regulated and stays firmly in the underground. “Part of the fun is that it’s underground and not regulated. But the nature of drugs is that they are dangerous and I think that’s why they are powerful. The music is made to conform to the drug experience”, he says, adding that attitudes surrounding them are becoming more relaxed over time.

There is undeniably a certain solidarity that comes from flouting the stifling rules together. Raving Asians seems to be breaking out of the rigidly traditional conservative cultures of their ancestral homelands and the burdens of being a model minority with limited political power in the West by carving for themselves a space where they can find with each other community, belonging and empowerment for one night. Raving has spread like wildfire throughout the Asian diaspora largely through word of mouth. An Edmonton-area Filipina Canadian raver said that her boyfriend introduced her to the scene. “I started raving because [my boyfriend] introduced me to EDM music and I slowly fell in love with it”, she writes over email. “I fell in love with the music and the artists, and it didn’t take much for him to convince me to attend my first music festival that summer.”

Both Daniel and Leslie also joined through personal connections, but for them it was friends who brought them along. “Asian collectivism got the best of me,” he laughs. “I cannot go to another Portland rave without seeing the same people.” Leslie’s friends, for their part, joined rave culture because it was a more inclusive alternative to the club/bar party culture. “My friends were really into it. They never really liked going clubbing or going out too much, but they always invited me to raves. So I just decided take that opportunity and go to my first rave with them. After that I fell in love with the culture and fell in love with the environment, and just kept going”, she says. “The club/bar culture has more of a stigma of you go there, you get hit on or you hit on other people. [...] The experiences that most of them had [in raves were] more inviting, more welcoming. People were very concerned about each other’s well-being and it became something that they all liked and appreciated.”

Many Asian ravers’ experiences of community at rave events go beyond the typical party friend group bond. Park, the Harvard researcher, writes that “Many interviewees called the groups with whom they attend EDM festivals, “rave families” and the people who first introduced them to the scene, “rave moms” and “rave dads”. My interviewees’ use of the metaphor that a “rave” is one big family suggests that they feel a deep connection with other participants who provide protection from the social dominance or bullying of the outside world.” The Edmonton industry insider echoes similar sentiments. He got introduced to rave culture because his family is prominent in the city’s rave industry – his dad used to be a DJ and his cousin had an after hours club where, at sixteen years old, he got his start selling tickets to all-ages events. “A lot of my generation kind of grew up going to raves and their siblings are now going to raves and it’s kind of like an Asian normal cultural thing now”, he says. “Instead of being an underground industry it’s now more of a mainstream industry [...] with artists like Flume and the Chainsmokers, DJs like that who have radio play kind of brought the underground rave industry into the forefront”, adding that Subtle Asian Ravers grew purely out of word of mouth.

DJs such as Illenium, beloved by the Facebook group, would not have the kind of careers they have without the huge support of the Asian community. “I’m kind of the one person who kind of understands the Asian demographic. So like when they have questions about that [I’ll answer them]”, says the industry insider, on a benefit of being one of the few Asians working in the rave industry in his region. “My boss never knew about Subtle Asian Ravers, so I just told him [...] ‘If you want to sell a lot of tickets to them, a good chunk of the Asian market [is on there].” Indeed, the community that many raving Asians have built for themselves has the potential to make a meaningful dent in disrupting the entire conversation on the trajectory of certain segments of the music industry, a trend not to be taken lightly as conversations around diversity and inclusion in the creative spheres move forward.

It seems that the use of Asian community collectivism as an antidote to the isolation of the immigrant experience, of rebellion against the strictures of both conservative homeland cultures and of racist Western model minority tropes has created an entire generation of partygoers who come together both online and in person. Much like the original gay Black ravers of the 80s, it is still about creating a safe space where the eccentricities for which the world deems you powerless are instead celebrated by other people who are just like you. And for Asian ravers, modern rave culture is the promise that maybe, just for one night, you can be exactly who you are and hold all the power at the same time, together.


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Diamond Yao

Published a month ago