Sydney selector and DJ powerhouse Ayebatonye Abrakasa is at the forefront of Sydney’s club scene. Whether behind the decks, back-stage or in the pit, Ayebatonye is reshaping this city’s approach to nightlife, with a focus on inclusivity and intersectionality. Working in community development as a day job, Ayebatonye brings her depth of knowledge of community organizing and empowerment to the activities of the night. Speaking with her in-between sets at Bacardi’s El Coco Tropical Danceteria, first at Return to Rio and next at Spilt Milk, we chatted about leading the charge for safer spaces both in and outside of the club.
BYO: You returned to Sydney after a stint in Berlin two years ago. Since arriving back, how have you seen the club scene in Sydney change?
Ayebatonye: Well, I guess it's been a lot more of an emphasis on inclusivity and a lot of people looking at the clubbing scene in intersectional ways which I've been really into. When I first came back there was a lot of emphasis on putting females in the front, but people [were] not considering [how] you might have extra barriers. For example if you're an Aboriginal woman or a transwoman it’s different than being a cis, white woman.
I've been in the clubbing industry for years. I've been DJing for a fair few years, [and] I used to work at World Bar as a door host, so I've seen the shift. Obviously it's not happening to everyone, but I think people are being really cautious about their line-ups [and] making sure that they're making safer spaces as well, because I don't think there is such a thing as a safe space; you can never know what's going to happen.
BYO: In Berlin, the club is more than just a place to party, there’s also a social aspect to it as well. How did you bring that vibe back to Sydney?
Ayebatonye: It's such a different culture. One thing that I love about the clubbing scene in Berlin is as much as some people are there solely to party there is also this huge element of activism within that. There's this huge push to the government to change policy, to use clubbing spaces and music as a way of bringing people together.
One of the things that I love about the music scene is this idea that music is universal, right? You might go to parties and you'd see people who, if not for that particular type of music, would never meet each other. You have an opportunity where there's all of these different people united to creative positive change. [In] the Berlin club scene, you have people that, for example, might love progressive techno or they love house and they're there because they love the music, but then you might have the chilling area where you'd be outside having a cigarette and you'd meet people you would never have met had it not been for your love of music or for that particular club.
BYO: How do you connect your work in community development to music? How do you bring those two together?
Ayebatonye: I'll use the DJ workshops as an example of bringing people together. I really believe that music can be used as a form of creating social cohesion. Coming back to Sydney I felt how disparate it was, this unintentional segregation. People, if they are based in the East, they only really hang out in the East, or if they're based in the Inner West, they only hang out in the Inner West, and I'm guilty of it as well. I've been really thinking a lot about people of refugee background, people with disabilities, people who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, [who] I don't see in club settings and then I thought of these DJ workshops. With the DJ program that I do, you do four weeks of lessons and then on the fifth week you've got to play a show and it's about encouraging people by giving them their first set.
Just because you don't know something about someone doesn't mean you should be afraid of them. For me as a Black woman — with the rhetoric around ‘African Gangs’ it’s gotten worse — but since I was a kid I've always known that I'm Black and that means people think things about me without knowing me. Through me even being a DJ I teach other young black women that they can do that.
I try to play a fair amount of Afro house because I want people to understand that there's so much beauty within certain countries that you might not understand and being afraid of something doesn't mean that there's something wrong with it, it just means that you don't understand it.
BYO: Often there’s a split between discussions of representation and discussions of structural change, but from what you’re saying the two seem to be interlinked. How do these two impulses interact in the music scene in Australia or Sydney?
Ayebatonye: Discussions around representation sometimes can be tokenistic to me. I think the problem is that a lot of the people who are actually creating representation, unless they're people who have lived experience, it's a very shallow understanding of what representation means. It's still cis, white, able bodied, heterosexual people that are at the top of the chain. The people who are making these decisions, they don't realise they're part of the problem. By them not creating space, they're looking at it through their own lens. If we were to completely shake up everything in Australia, or in the music industry, [and] the people who were in the decision making roles were a range of different people — not just people of colour, but people with disability and people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, people of different religious backgrounds — so many things would change.
BYO: How does your work with Alpha [An all female and LGBTIQ+ inclusive booking agency] work with changing this structure?
Ayebatonye: I think from [Founder Kailei Ginman's] own personal experience, she's been in the music industry for a long time and been an agent for a long time and hasn't been treated so well by a lot of cis, white, hetero dudes in that industry. For her to break out on her own, sometimes you literally have to be the change that you want to see, as annoying as it is. I guess that's the future.
BYO: Who have been some amazing producers and DJs that have come through your workshops and Irregular Fit club nights lately that are shaking things up?
Ayebatonye: Jhassic, he's an incredible producer and DJ he's got a south Asian background and he's got this incredible mix tape called Masala Mixtape, I would highly recommend you check it out. It's nice to see people who haven't been playing for a long time get out there. Also Merph, I remember meeting her eight or nine months ago and she hadn't wanted to play publicly. She felt like she was taking up space, but now she's absolutely killing it.
Ayebatonye will be playing the Bacardi El Coco Tropical Danceteria stage at Spilt Milk this Saturday November 17. To see the full line up head here: https://spilt-milk.com.au/music/bacardi-el-coco-tropical-danceteria/