King Britt is honouring the Black origins of dance music

With his Blacktronika university course, the veteran DJ is tracing the connection between Afrofuturism and the club.

You hear dance music everywhere: in the clubs, at runway shows, on the radio and in adverts. But as the popularity of club genres has surged over the decades, it’s often been white DJs who have risen to the top of festival and clubnight line-ups, while Black DJs have become minorities in the genres they invented. To this day, a lot of people on the dancefloor don’t even know that the music they’re hearing is of Black origin.

House and techno originated in the 80s from Black music scenes in Chicago and Detroit, respectively, and disco was nurtured by Black, Latino and Hispanic communities in New York and Philadelphia. But ever since a cultural connection was formed in the early 90s between electronic music artists in Detroit and Berlin, various club genres have thrived across Europe, attracting predominately white audiences. In these spaces, white artists have often become the stars of these growing genres.

In recent years, many new Black electronic music artists and DJs have risen from underground scenes across the world. But when Beyoncé and Drake released their house music-inspired albums in 2022, a lot of the social media discourse debated whether or not they were pandering towards white audiences (despite Beyoncé’s explicit references to ballroom culture) due to so many people still being seemingly unaware of house music’s Black and Brown origins in America.

The early club music scenes were about experimentation, with DJs and producers of colour mixing and cutting up tracks, making room for a sonic space which evolved and felt almost otherworldly with its use of advanced technology. In 1994, the author Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism”, to describe the use of science-fiction to portray liberated versions of Black identities in art, music, fashion, and technology. The era when Afrofuturism was first embraced by club culture? King Britt lived it.


Born in 1968 and raised in Philly to a house full of jazz and funk records, Britt got to choose the music playing in his dad’s barbershop, and he witnessed rehearsals by the the space jazz legend Sun Ra’s and his Arkestra. For over 30 years, Britt has been invested in Black music as a DJ, engineer, producer, and – now – an educator.

As a professor at University of California San Diego, Britt teaches and curates the course Blacktronika: Afrofuturism in Electronic Music, which is based at all University of California campuses and engages over 500 students who are all eager to learn about club music’s Black and Brown roots. The course name was borrowed from friend Charlie Dark MBE of the UK band Attica Blues, whose series of high art events in the UK were also called Blacktronica.

Following the global pandemic, Britt expanded Blacktronika into festivals, curating line-ups across San Diego, LA and Brooklyn, celebrating the pioneering artists of colour outside the classroom. Britt called in from his university desk to share his story and talk about the white-washing of dance music as well as the unifying power of Afrofuturism.

How did you end up pitching the Blacktronika course for the University of California?

So I was hired to teach production mixing, mastering [of] you know what we call computer music here in academia, which is really electronic music. When I got here, I noticed no one was really teaching or talking about the innovators of colour who have contributed to dance music. I was like, Well, I’m in the perfect position to do this,” because I’ve been a practitioner in electronic music since the late 80s. I felt it was important to create a class around it. And I went to our chair here and they were like, Please, yes, please.” They were like, We’ve been wanting this for a long time. But you know, no one was in a position to teach it because they didn’t live it.’ I lived it.

Ironically, the week I started the course we went into lockdown. So I designed the course for Zoom and to this day it’s [still] on Zoom. I called Questlove, I called Goldie. Everyone was home because everyone was on lockdown.

No calls saying, Oh, I’m too busy,” no, you’re not!

Exactly. And everyone was so excited [that] a) I was a professor now, because they were just finding out and b) that someone was actually curating a course that honours all the innovators of colour. [DJ and scholar] Lynnée Denise was doing a lot of this in academia, but not on a regular basis. Like it might be for one semester or in pockets, but nothing like This is required, you have to take this.”

It’s been a blessing. You know, I just had Nile Rogers last week, Kathy Sledge – oh my god! I mean, I didn’t think I could top Herbie Hancock, that’s my hero.

What was it about electronic music that stuck with you when you were first starting out?

My mum was heavy into jazz and avant-garde jazz, she was actually friends with Sun Ra. So as a kid I used to go to the rehearsals [with his Arkestra]. My dad’s funk, he’s all funk. And so I grew up with vinyl and it was Herbie Hancock who set it off for me. That was my intro – and Stevie Wonder. So that was my intro to electronic sounds, other than like Star Wars or Flash Gordon.

[But] hearing these sounds in the context of Black music, it wasn’t until I would say 87 when I started to go up to Zanzibar [a dance club] in Jersey. I was at Temple University at the time and I used to go up with my boy Tee Alford, he’s one of the ones that really showed me how to DJ and all of that. We used to go see Tony Humphries. In Philly, I was DJing, but I was playing very across the board, and house was just kind of hitting Philly hard. But hearing Tony Humphries, the legend, play house especially at that time in Jersey, that’s what changed my life.

I love the term Afrofuturism because it unites a community globally”

You’ve lived through this music and now you’re able to work and introduce other people to it. How was it tapping into your own archives and revisiting some of the music that you grew up around and you were involved with?

When it comes to Blacktronika [as] a lecture course, history, an archive – yes, I lived it, almost all of it. These are close friends of mine. And in that I learned so much about my friends that I didn’t know. A Guy Called Gerald from Manchester, I didn’t know he was a break dancer. Or like Nile Rogers, I had no idea he was a Black Panther. My mum was a Black Panther. So you find out these kinds of little nuggets, and that’s what I kind of look for.

Black electronic music and Afrofuturism in particular are radical in themselves since they view a future for Black people that doesn’t revolve around struggle or survival. Do you think Afrofuturism still inspiring Black music and Black art today?

Well, the thing is, this was all happening before the term Afrofuturism [was coined]. So when I start the class, I start with the Dogon tribe in Africa [and] their discovery of Sirius B without any technology – just with said folklore of aliens coming down and giving them this information. And so just this idea of this intersection between science fiction, science-fact, literature, Egyptology – you know, all of these things that make up what we now call Afrofuturism, it’s been going on [for a long time].

I feel a lot of people don’t like the term [Afrofuturism]. I love it because it’s a quick term that kind of unites a community globally, that kind of falls into this ideology, this way of life. And I think it brought a lot of people together, especially young people. It inspired a lot of them to look into the past, but [to] take that knowledge and push forward into the future and change the way we envision ourselves in the future, in the now.


Blacktronika doesn’t just exist in the classroom. How has it been curating festivals and reaching out to folks to be part of your events?

Yeah, it’s been beautiful because the class to this day is still on Zoom, and it’s all the Universities of California, so all of them can take the class. It’s 500 plus students in the class. The only reason I keep it on Zoom [is because] the sound is really bad in the lecture halls here. Now, if I’m playing dubstep or if I’m playing footwork, we need that bass.

When lockdown stopped, I was like, Man, it’d be so cool to create a party on campus around Blacktronika so everyone can meet,” so I did the first party. [In] the music building, we have incredible resources, club environment. Like, I can take this room and turn it into a warehouse party.

You can make it oontz oontz?

Yeah, yeah. And this past weekend we had a massive party. You’ve got to understand as well, my students are 18 to 21, a lot of them haven’t been in clubs before. And so having that environment, they get to meet each other, they get extra [university] credits, like it’s crazy.

University credits to party?!

That’s what I’m saying! Everything that they learn, they hear it on the system. There’s just this kind of involvement, this push and pull between DJ and audience. It is such a beautiful thing that they need to experience, learning how to move and be free in your body.

So [for] the festivals, they asked me to curate them. We had Irreversible Entanglements with Moor Mother, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Xenia Rubinos and Chimurenga Renaissance, which is one half of Shabazz Palaces. And so [a] beautiful lineup– and students, I put some students together too. That was the first festival and that just set it off.

Most people when they hear oontz oontz, they think that’s white. It’s not, it’s Black and brown”

What is it about teaching Blacktronika that makes you feel good, positive or hopeful?

So one of the questions [I set], I can’t really say what the question is because the students might read this. But the end result of the question is how Blacktronika has improved their life and their outlook on life going forward from this class. Some students were like, We can be better allies now that we know the politics, and the struggles of Black and brown people, and other disenfranchised people like the LGBTQ+ community. How all of that went into the music, we can be better allies in our protests.”

And so [the students are] seeing the world in a different light now right through Blacktronika, through the music. It’s a very political class. I feel super blessed to be able to do it, to be able to talk about it, to do an interview with you. I appreciate the great questions.

Last year we saw Beyoncé and Drake both releasing house music albums. They created a lot of social media discourse because not a lot of people knew or recognised house as a Black genre. Why do you think people aren’t aware of dance music’s origins?

Oh, I mean, that’s another reason why I started the class. Dance music has become so whitewashed and the heroes on the fronts of magazines were usually white for many years. It’s just now we’re starting to see a lot more innovators of colour in these magazines. I mean, yeah, we had Carl Cox, Jeff Mills, Derek May, a few that were on the covers, but I’m talking like on a regular basis. It was mostly white and European. Most people when they hear oontz oontz, they think that’s white, [and] it’s not. It’s Black and brown, you know what I mean?

But over the years with EDM, [it] stripped all the soul out of house music. Not saying EDM is bad. A lot of the guys I remix – Kaskade, Calvin Harris – I like those guys. But it’s just not as soulful as authentic house music, and I’m trying to really drill that into my students. There would be no EDM without house, without Black and brown communities responding to the political turmoil that was happening. Be it Black liberation movement, LGBTQ+ liberation, women’s liberation, all of that went into the music, [The students] are like sponges, really learning all of this. And I think they’re much more appreciative of what is happening in the music.

Are there any current electronic musicians that you’re paying attention to right now?

I mean, anything Lorraine James does. She did an album for Hyperdub that just blew me away. Kelela, who I always love, and the production around [her album Raven]. Anything that Inflo produces – so that’s Little Simz, that’s Sault. Anything from that camp is unbelievable. I wish I could have gone to that show.

May I suggest artists for you to listen to? Nia Archives.

Oh, yeah, I know her, for sure.

Do you know P‑rallel? He’s good.

Got it, P‑rallel. Thank you! [I’m] always taking suggestions too for my students because they always are like, You should check this out,” and that’s what keeps me young!

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00