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19 Oct 2021
by brian.hioe | Interview
Electric Soul’s Brian Hioe spoke to Ani Hao, who DJs as Ani Phoebe, and is a writer, feminist media strategist, as well as one of the founders of Bad Times Disco and New Wave.
Brian Hioe: So, let’s just get into it, I guess. Could you first maybe just introduce yourself for readers that might not know you?
Ani Hao: Sure. My name is Ani. My DJ name is Ani Phoebe. I go by she/her. I’m originally from New York City. My whole family is from mainland China. I'm a first-generation American.
I began to DJ in Brazil, actually. I moved to Rio after University in the US, and I completely moved out of the US at that point. I lived in Rio for most of my 20s, and that's where most of my friends were. They were either DJs or musicians. They collected records, sold records. A lot of my friends threw parties, and so that's where I began to collect records and DJ. I also went to a lot of parties that changed my perception of the type of music that I liked, the type of things that I was into.
The underground scene at that time in Rio and São Paulo—I would call it ‘the golden age’ because there were a lot of new parties, but also a lot of young people doing stuff on the streets, more like DIY raves, in the city centers, not just far away.
BH: That leads to the second question, which is about how you started DJing? So you mentioned, it was the people around you, and you kind of got interested in the scene in that way?
AH: I think that friends influence a lot of what you do. And I just naturally became attracted to this specific crowd. and it's very specifically a crowd of non-commercial DJs. None of my friends were really playing tech house. There are a lot of commercial parties in Rio and Sao Paulo. These are very economically unequal areas, but they're also the most affluent parts of Brazil.
People do very expensive parties. Then there's this social dynamic in Brazil. because it's such an unequal country, that people sometimes love parties that have different kinds of tiers.
On a normal Friday night, you would have a party that would have liked general admission; a special area, and then VIP, and then extra VIP. A lot of those parties around the world are often the same.
The friends that I had were really into digging for records. They were really into doing the raves that they weren't going to get paid a lot of money for. They were into making their own music. This is what I got into.
BH: How would you describe your style as a DJ then? Because I noticed a lot is about vinyl, collecting records, and so forth. At least for me in Taiwan, it’s rare to see younger DJs that are into vinyl, at least based on my experience. How would you describe your style?
AH: I have to say, I think it’s because I'm surrounded by people who love records. I don't necessarily consider it as being rare for young people today. I know tons of young people playing on records, digging for records. But it's a very different context in other places.
Photo Credit: Johny Hiller
It depends on the place, such as whether people have access to records or not. For example, in Brazil, you really have access to records. It is not something that is inaccessible. Brazil pressed a lot of records. Brazil distributed a lot of records. They may not have a lot of pressing plants today. But there's basically an enormous quantity of music that Brazil pressed and distributed. Then also a lot of music that got into Brazil, mainly from the US, but from other countries around Latin America, from Europe, etc. There are just basically records everywhere. They're definitely cheap, If you know where to look. And people play with them.
I wouldn't define my genre of music as just being like “Oh, I play records.” because, for me, that's not a genre. Records are just the physical medium of music. You could play records, and you can really be into rock music. I'm not. I hate talking about the kind of music that I play actually because a lot of the way that people sold records, the way that records were marketed and distributed, and then the way that music is categorized today.
I hate a lot of these categories. It forces people to think about music more in single genres rather than in the overlapping way of all of the influences, that is, the wide array of influences that a single song could make—it just simplifies it, and just distills it down to pop, for example, which tells me almost nothing. A lot of the music that was, maybe, pop music in the 80s—nowadays, DJ's do not call it pop. It’s not pop by today's standards. There's that pop music of the time also had so many different influences.
I would say in general, I'm really attracted to music that's a little bit more mid-tempo, dubby, and spacey. I really like the cosmic style of DJ-ing. The whole tradition of cosmic DJ—which is contested—basically came from some Italian DJs in Italy.
There's different godfathers for Cosmic DJ-ing, and of course in history, it's always men. It's not a specific genre of music but more than style of DJing, because Cosmic DJing is about mixing and matching genres. And it's about the general elements. So for example, the use of synthesizers, the use of organic instruments as well, a lot of drums and percussions. A lot of these things are really characteristic of cosmic DJ-ing.
I would say that that’s a strong influence. I look to that school, just like I look to the schools of many people.
The other thing is that my music is really influenced by where I've lived, which I think it pretty much applies to every single DJ around the world. I grew up in New York in the 90s. I definitely have a strong 90s influence on what I play. A lot of early hip hop. A lot of really sweet, soulful, dubby, kind of simplified production. Then I lived in Brazil. I lived in India throughout my 20s, and now I've been in Hong Kong for the last two years. All of these places really influenced the music that I play since I play records, I mean, I physically look for music. Of course, I'm looking on the Internet, just like everybody else. But I'm physically getting records from each place. And so, the music that is actually available in those places, in records that I'm getting. Typically from the 70s to the 90s, I'll look for.
BH: So where do you DJ currently? I've seen your name in the Mihn club roster, for example, and some other places.
AH: Yeah. Well, Hong Kong. Does it have an enormous scene? It's really quite small here. There are only a few venues for DJs to play at. Then I would say that during the pandemic, people have begun to do more DIY parties again. Which I think is really great. Around town maybe I’ll play at Potato Head, Mihn. I love Eaton as well, even though they are not doing really big parties. I love Eaton's political values. What they stand for in Hong Kong. The DJs that they program, the artists that they program. But in general, we do feel a little bit constrained by the venues and also how few venues there are.
Each has its own identity. So then you do have to play towards that identity. I think if you are a good DJ, you are accommodating in that respect. You don't just arrive and you're like: “Oh, I just do whatever I want.” Each place has its own style. It does feel quite restrictive sometimes. I basically feel in Hong Kong there isn't that venue for me to play really what I would like to play, which is really weird and cosmic kind of eclectic music, and for it to be dancey as well, and not just to be for listening.
BH: I feel like playing multiple genres is quite difficult as a DJ actually, in terms of playing things that are not dancey. Or just in terms of venues. Shifting between genres can be quite difficult at venues, they may have expectations of what they play.
AH: That's a function of venues not being open-minded enough. I mean, for me, one of the greatest tragedies in modern dance music history is for a venue to program a night like: ‘Tonight is a reggae night’ or ‘Tonight is a hip-hop night.’ To me, this reminds me of the parties that I used to go to back in high school. And I’m like: ‘why are we strict?’ Why are we restricting people's imaginations so much, that the music that you play cannot ever be strictly hip hop, because hip hop has so many influences from so many other genres and has influenced so many other genres. I'm really against it.
Photo Credit: James Acey
The only time that I'm not against the single genre thing is when that is an artistic choice by the DJ. When DJ's are like “Okay, I really specialize in this one thing and I enjoy exploring all of its, variations throughout different places or history and, this is what I want to do, just let me do it.”
Then I'm like, ”Ah, Okay. No, totally, I get it.” But from a marketing perspective, that really kills people's imaginations. They have like preset expectations when they come for the type of music that they're going to hear, and then they hear the most classic representations of that music. But basically also these nostalgic disco nights, they're just playing American disco hits and I feel like I'm at somebody's wedding.
Unfortunately, that is something that is really common when you live in a place that is as commercial as Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong has to have functional events, people need to understand them. They need to buy them. They need to attend. It's a very functional way of presenting music, and I really don't enjoy that.
BH: That's very interesting. Is that why you created “Bad Times Disco” to try to create something different? As a reaction to what you saw.
Photo Credit: Kelly Hebestreit
AH: Yeah, completely. Actually, Bad Times Disco started originally just to sell records with my friend Yuki. He's also a recent transplant to Hong Kong. He's been here longer than I am but he's from Japan. He works here as a chef, and then we met each other digging for records. It was a really, chance coincidence. Nobody introduced us. I don't think that at that time we didn't really have any mutual friends as well. He's really quite shy. He wouldn't go around and just introduce himself at the places that I was going to.
So, yeah, we met each other. We started digging for records together. Then at some point with records, you just come to an inevitable conclusion, unless you have unlimited wealth and unlimited space. You're just like, “Okay. I need to sell records” in order to buy more, you need to sell. It's just, it's a function, it’s a logical conclusion that you'll arrive at.
We decided to sell records together. Then the other thing is that Yuki was a DJ back in Japan. But when he moved to Hong Kong, he never DJ-ed. He never asked anybody. Nobody ever asked him. Nobody really knew him. I was DJ-ing already because I came to Hong Kong as a DJ originally. The longer backstory is I came here for a gig and ended up staying.
BH: Oh wow.
AH: I was DJ-ing around, and Yuki came to some of my gigs and I wasn't super happy with the gigs as well. As I was telling you, I just felt like the venues were constricting. I wasn't really doing what I really wanted to do. Maybe the reception also, It just wasn't the right space. It’s not the right party. I wasn't being programmed for the right type of environment. I needed to go make it.
Photo Credit: Kelly Hebestreit
So with Yuki, we were like, “Okay, we're selling records now for a while.” It had been maybe a few months, and everything actually just started this year. So it's really surprising that it's grown a lot. We just started selling records end of December 2020. Then by, early this year, I think around March, the third wave, or the fourth wave. I can't really remember right now. Whatever wave that we were going through in Hong Kong, it was ending. The restrictions were loosening up, clubs were open again. Bars were open. Everything was being opened as we were like, “we're gonna do our party.” This is the right time. Things are open. We start doing our part. It's once we started doing our parties, it didn't really stop after that. It's going pretty well.
BH: That's good to hear. Are there other experiences you like to relate so far in terms of organizing parties? Bad Times Disco is also unique in terms of the focus on records.
AH: Our parties are all records parties. I would say that's partially a function of necessity. Yuki doesn't play digital music. I mean, I can play on CDJs. But he doesn't have a computer. He just plays records. I love it. I have some other friends who don't know how to play CDJs. They just play records. I personally think it's great. They'll play fewer gigs. But gigs that they play will have the right type of people to go for it. Maybe they play fewer gigs, but maybe those gigs are better. Then it's just something that I started thinking about, okay, if we do an all records party, that literally eliminates more than 70% of the venues in Hong Kong. They simply do not have turntables.
BH: Yeah. I was about to mention that. There are so many places that don’t have turntables.
AH: Yeah. They don’t. There's nothing. What are we gonna do about that? Am I going to bring around turntables to every gig? No. What we're going to do is we're gonna play fewer gigs. We play fewer gigs. We do the specific party that we want to do. We can't do it everywhere. We won't do it everywhere because of these limitations, and also we don't really mark the party on the type of genre that.
For example, everybody thinks that Bad Times Disco is just a disco party. I also get it. I get why they would think that. But, it's not. It’s not just a disco party. We don't just play Disco. We both love disco. Yuki also used to be a hip-hop DJ, scratch. Both of us, we love reggae and dub. I love a little bit more of the cosmic side. Yuki also plays a lot of jazz, and then I can go a little bit more electronics, a little bit more house. Some slowed down techno as well.
All kinds of people come to our parties and they kind of hear a little bit of everything and we don't just program as well. Based on the first party that we did with a guest DJ from Hong Kong. In my mind, at that point in history, she was incredibly overlooked, nobody was booking her in Hong Kong for anything.
Her name is Gia Fu, and she's really, really specialized in salsa. It's just a sound that it’s so far away from Asia that people don't understand, they don't understand the different genres and histories within salsa, all of the different components that make up salsa. Then around Hong Kong, people are just like, “Oh, that's the Latin music DJ.”.
Anyways, she was just somebody that I met off of the internet here. I didn't even meet her in person in Hong Kong. I just sent her a message on her Instagram originally. But I was just like, wow, she makes a lot of sense for what we want. We want to throw parties where people in Hong Kong, they don't listen to this type of music, they're not. The DJ's here, they have a different style to what we're doing, which is digging through records. I don't know how to explain how it's a different type of research, we're very specifically focusing on older music from specific decades.
Me and Yuki, we have our own different types of research. Then she focuses more on all of the different historical music, genres of music that then became rebranded as salsa in New York. But all those originary sounds from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and from many other places, from Colombia, etc. For me, it was just a great fit, and I think that was one of the best parties that we did, especially because it wasn't just salsa the whole night. She did a very diverse set. Me and Yuki as well, and it was just, it was a really good vibe, and it was in a place that's not necessarily so dancey called Potato Head in Hong Kong.
It’s normally like this fancy lounge, and people are just listening. It's more of a listening bar. And then when we did our parties there, we put away all the furniture. And it really became more of a dance floor.
I don't actually know if we can do it again because of current regulations and restrictions in Hong Kong and COVID, etc. But for me, the fact that we did that is just so amazing, We changed the physical space of a venue, and we resignified that venue, and then for that specific night, we could make it more of our sound, more of our crowd. Yeah, it's really great.
BH: How did you become involved in activism? What causes are you interested in and how did you start working on the things that you do?
AH: I originally just got into a lot of human rights and social justice work from a research perspective. When I first moved to Rio, I was looking for work and I moved there right after I graduated. I couldn't really find an office job that I was interested in. Hah, this would be the theme for the rest of my life. What I did was I sort of invented a research project. I needed to look for funding for it, and it was specifically about young feminist groups in Rio and how they were mobilizing for reproductive rights.
Reproductive rights in Latin America was something that had interested me, throughout university. I did a semester in Ecuador after high school. It was a little bit like an exchange program. Then it's just a theme that had followed me that I was really interested in reproductive rights.
Latin America is among the most restrictive places in the world restrictive region in the world for reproductive rights. As a result of that, I do think that the feminists organizing there are stronger than in many other parts of the world because whenever there are restrictions or violations of human rights, the people organized as a result, and when obstacles are really high, I feel that people organize themselves even more strongly.
Anyway, I was very specifically interested in Brazil at that time. I had learned Portuguese before I moved there. I was doing interviews with all of these groups. I couldn't really have predicted that there was what they term asthe Feminist Spring in 2015. This was maybe a year after I moved there. It's an obvious reference to the Arab Spring. Basically, feminist groups from every single city across Brazil, and also smaller cities and towns. They all began to protest and organize against a specific bill.
"Marcha das Vagabundas" protest in Brasilia in 2011. (Photo credit: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)
A senior congressman wanted to pass a bill that is very similar to a lot of the conservative bills seen elsewhere in the world regarding reproductive rights. Basically, it would make it illegal for women to get abortions, even in the case of rape, or even in the case of birth defects. It also monitors doctors more, even getting the police involved in hospitals. It was just a horrible bill, and the really sad thing is that even though the Feminist Spring happened in 2015, different versions of this bill continue to pop up across Brazil today. It is a constant threat, and the deeper issue is that abortion isn't even legal in Brazil. So it is illegal.
I became very involved in this issue, in the organizing, and I think that the Feminist Spring also really affected a lot of people in Brazil. A lot of people who did not formally identify themselves as feminists began to use the word. The word was used as an insult, or used to say to somebody that they're just extremists.
I mean, the comparison between feminists and terrorists or Nazis to me is not only a misogynist comparison, but it's just also unfactual, not based on anything! It's just based on people's perceptions of affirmative women. Not all feminists are women, but it's very specific to the female-identifying feminists. The societal judgment is really harsh. So, after the Feminist Spring in Brazil, this began to change, and then that's when I began to start organizing in a more independent way.
I co-founded a collective in Rio with other Brazilian feminists. That was the beginning of many lessons for me about organizing in solidarity with people.
I’m not Brazilian, and I do not have the same stakes at hand as a lot of people living there, but it was a beautiful history of a collective. We disbanded it two or three years ago, a little bit before the pandemic.
BH: I see. Is that how you got into writing? Because you’ve mentioned, for example, researching about these issues and educating yourself, and then becoming involved in activism.
AH: The writing actually came more from research. During the first study that I mentioned that I did, I was really impressed that the people who organized. This was a research study that was actually not academic. It was entirely practitioner-focused. It was led by young researchers, and the focus was on activists—young activists. Then the organizations that financed and sort of coalesced everything, they were all non-profits.
It was a little bit more of a field report, to use completely colonialist, international NGO language. It was more a field report than a typical academic study. I just want to try to clarify that because most people still see research inpurely academic terms.
At the same time, despite it being much more practitioner-focused, the research report has limitations, right? In terms of who it actually impacts and who actually reads it. What these organizations did is that they designed a year-long dissemination plan. This is very uncommon. I find that almost nobody does this.
I was just looking for a job after this. I was like, “Okay, I'll volunteer myself for the dissemination plan”. This is basically communicating with the press. We were trying to get the report on. We're trying to write articles about it. To go to conferences, talk to journalists and talk to radios. That was my first contact with the media, the established mainstream media.
I became interested just from those experiences. Then around the time that Dilma Rousseff was being, she was going through a campaign for impeachment, and she actually went through an impeachment process in Brazil. I noticed the way that International media was reporting on the case—I became really upset with how they were reporting. That's when I began to write as a journalist. It was more out of this feeling of...the fact that Western international media reports on something only when it's scandalous enough.
But they were reporting on these things with almost no context. They were writing about basically right-wing Brazilians who had co-opted, the tactic of protesting on the streets. Right-wing Brazilians began to copy this tactic after 2013, go out onto the streets., and then they would say that they represent the people.
They began to co-opt the argument “We are the majority. We represent Brazilians. We represent Brazilians' interests.” When in reality, there were studies about these protesters on the streets. They were overwhelmingly white Brazilians, middle to upper class, and they don't represent anybody in Brazil. They represent urban, rich white conservative Brazilians' interests.
And what international media did was they completely ignored the nuance and they reported on these protests as if they represented all of Brazil—as if these people were just Brazilians. Because, of course, to a lot of these journalists they are just like “Woah. I can’t tell the difference between all of these people on the streets, they’re all Brazilians. Let's just write that”.
They completely ignored the sexist campaign against Dilma Rousseff. There, of course, were many feminists who criticized Rousseff's government. Her policies hurt the Workers' Party at that time, they had made a lot of political alliances with conservative Brazilian political parties. They were very neoliberal. They adopted austerity politics. They cut back budgets for education and health care. They gave subsidies to big companies. They did anything for the economy, and they still said that they cared about, workers’ rights, to what extent?
At the same time, the campaign for her impeachment was also sexist. Dilma Rousseff was basically being lambasted in public and in the media. Yeah, and completely being portrayed by the media as an angry, hysterical, out of control, angry, ugly, old woman, with this portrayal.
That's when I began to pitch articles. And I wanted to specifically write about her impeachment, but from a feminist lens, and what feminist activists were doing against essentially, what has now been proven to be a political conspiracy to impeach her from office. It was a political coup, right? Feminists knew that at the same time.
I began to write in that way. And then basically I continued, I realized that all of my reporting now, it has all been on feminist activism. I'm reporting from the perspective of grassroots activists, who are organizing collectively and are not necessarily always on social media.
They’re not influencers, and they're also not specifically social media activists. They are very specifically working from a collective grassroots organizing perspective. This is still completely under-represented in mainstream media. There's not nearly the amount of reporting that I would like to see on grassroots organizers. It has risen in popularity since the pandemic. I do think there is more reporting now on not just the effects of mutual aid, but the effects of what the pandemic has done to organizing, and what people are doing against authoritarian policies. But it's still not what we would consider ideal. Because those journalists are not invested in these people’s perspectives. It’s just a hot topic.
BH: Is that why you started New Wave? Trying to voice stories that are not being heard in the front.
AH: That’s why I started New Wave. I do have to say that it is paused right now. I'm just going through major writer's block. I can't write, I can't write anything. I think this year is more terrible mentally and psychologically than last year, we are beginning to grapple with a lot of things. A lot of people are seeing that some changes might be permanent, or maybe medium-term. It is definitely a lot more despair in 2021 than 2020.
I started New Wave because of the relationships that I have, and the networks that I have. I wanted to visibilize a lot of these feminist activists, and what they were doing. One of the reasons why I stopped beside my personal well-being is just the place that I'm at in my life right now. It's because I do think that there is also this expectation now of activists, as you can see by this new show called ‘The Activist’.
BH: Has it taken a toll on the activists themselves?
AH: Yeah. Yeah. The media plays into this by highlighting the age of activists. One of the things I've basically spent my entire career working with young feminists. At the same time, we also have to recognize how they're just being consumed by the media and by other people, as if young feminists are responsible for anything that's happening right now or even changing anything that's happening right now, they're young people just trying to survive in this world and it’s getting more and more difficult every day.
So I partially stopped New Wave, not just for myself but for other activists. It was getting, and I'm sure it will only continue to get, more difficult to interview people. The amount of things that people are going through right now is just completely, it's unmeasured.
BH: How do you see activism as related to music?
AH: Well, I basically am working in music now full time, and this is not something that I expected. I did always work in multiple areas. I managed to keep everything separate. I thought that the best way would be to keep all of it separate. Later, I'm sure as we all find out in life, nothing is separate. Everything, well, merges into each other. There is definitely a lot of overlap.
Photo Credit: Kelly Hebestreit
Yet at the same time, one of the reasons why I have, I'm not specifically a feminist activist in music is because I also find identity politics in music to be very tiring. Of course, we need more representation, but people are getting completely lost in identity politics right now, and identity politics does not overcome the sheer amount of privilege in the music industry. I mean, if I could count on my hands, every single enormously rich trust fund DJ who runs the club, who does a party, who does a famous mix? Who basically is a gatekeeper into something that I literally depend on them, in that I make my living off of it.
Identity politics in music is not activism, for me. There's a lot in the music industry that we need to fix. But my approach to all of that is by simply working as professionally as I can, and not assimilating whenever I get an opportunity to come into a space and play, and I realize “I am the only woman here. Why is that?” or “I am the only woman, the only person of color here.” I'm not actually from Hong Kong, not from Taiwan. I am from the US. I do occupy a more relatively privileged position in the world.
We just have to be much more conscious about not only how we program, not only how we create spaces, but how power dynamics will never change in certain spaces. Either do you want to go there and become the CEO and have power over other people. Or do you want to go and create another space where, sure, maybe it'll never be truly egalitarian, but things would be more transparent, things would be done in a more collective way, and things would be more diverse.
BH: In conclusion, do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about?
AH: For me, I'm just getting settled back into Hong Kong. I'm just going to work on a lot of mixes that I have to deliver for the rest of the year. I have a video for My Analog Journal to film. I don't know if you know My Analog Journal, but it’s a YouTube channel, and they do videos of different DJs, and they play records, and everything is very themed.
I would love to spend more time working on music. A lot of people asked me if I’m making music, and I think that I am just advancing slowly in this way. But it's one of my big goals. That's a longer-term goal.
BH: Awesome. Thanks so much for the interview.
Organiser: Bad Times Disco
Artist: Ani Phoebe