Aluna Doesn’t Want to Be the Exception to Any Rule

Photo: Luana Soare

Aluna Francis is a woman about her business. She’s had a stronghold on dance floors worldwide as part of British electronic duo AlunaGeorge, with producer George Reid, since the pair broke on the electronic and U.K. garage scene in 2013, thanks to SoundCloud. The DJ Snake remix of their debut single, “You Know You Like It” (initially released in 2012), led to the pair’s biggest hit to date — peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015. The dominance continued with 2016’s “I’m In Control,” featuring Popcaan, and they appeared on Disclosure’s “White Noise” in 2013. But after nearly a decade being one of the rare Black leading women in modern dance music — alone alongside her Black male contemporaries like Kaytranada and Flying Lotus — Francis made it her mission to stomp on the industry’s whitewashed exclusivity.

The 32-year-old London-born singer has packaged that journey into Renaissance, her debut solo album as just Aluna, which was released on August 28. Its message locks on shedding expectations of what electronic dance music is supposed to sound like for a mainstream audience, reminding us of the genre’s roots in musicians from the African diaspora, like Black Coffee and Frankie Knuckles.

As part of the album’s rollout, Francis shared an open letter on Instagram challenging her community to be actively inclusive. “Many of us know that dance music wasn’t invented in 1988 in Europe. Its real history is still to be widespread and appreciated since it was virtually erased,” she wrote. “Dance music was protest music, liberation from oppression, so it’s bitterly ironic for it to be appropriated by the white community, both burying its rich history and casting out the wider Black artists from a genre their community invented.” Serving as Renaissance’s executive producer, Francis took control of every part of the record, even down to how it would be visually represented. “Before [the death of] George Floyd, it felt like if you said, ‘I want a black person [to work with me],’ that was somehow offensive to all the other people,” she remembers of her search for Black video directors. “It’s weird how long it took me to be like, ‘You guys have to throw out the entire project unless you find me a Black director.’ I know it’s going to take extra time, but it’s important.”

Recording Renaissance partly while pregnant in 2019 (her first child, daughter Amaya, was born last November), Francis has used motherhood, as well as the Black Renaissance that began exploding across the arts, to fuel the focus on her vision. The result is a dual-purpose journey that unpacks levels of creative identity while making you want to run desperately to the nearest nightclub the second it’s safe.

When someone sees Black artists, typically their mind goes either to hip-hop or R&B, not dance music. Have you been pigeonholed?
When I decided to do a dance record [for my solo debut], I was very aware of the Eurocentric ideal, where the currently accepted sound is EDM, house, or trance. All other music that people dance to is not considered dance. This record is dancehall, Afrobeats, house, garage, and funk. My team was like, “Well, what’s the genre?” I thought, Here we go again!

Originally, when Black people invented dance music, it wasn’t closed off with this boundary. So that ended up being my quest: I didn’t want to be the exception to the rule. I really appreciate the support, but it’s not replicable, because I don’t want to tell Black women, “Hey, you can do dance music, but only if you make house.”

It almost always falls on Black women to create our spaces rather than people outside our community advocating for us.
From that open letter, a whole load of conversation started happening. And within two days, I was the only Black woman speaking for Black women. I have to then create a whole new, specific conversation in order for us to work out what it is we want, so that these new allies have something to blow their steam into. Privilege combined with great enthusiasm and well-meaningness creates this huge energy propulsion. It’s sort of like a water hose spraying in all different directions. Hold on a minute, just spray it on the flowers! [Laughs]

Right, and you can’t just be running wild, throwing money around without any purpose behind it.
Especially with Black women, we get presented with really outward-facing tasks to do. In any industry, it’s like, “Go and ask the Black woman to out everyone in their job who’s been creating regressions.” When you’re at the beginning of a fight, the odds are that you won’t win. So I’ll lose my job, and you guys will have a fun time getting me to be the spokesperson. So when I put that letter out, my team was really careful to make sure that I wasn’t going to get punished. Unfortunately, that is something you have to do if you’re a Black woman speaking out.

Have you heard Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”? It falls within this conversation of Black women being autonomous while simultaneously getting flagged for it.
Our existence has been owned for so long by other people that people think they have the right to say whether or not we are allowed to do something. The more a Black woman expresses their authentic self, the more people challenge them for going against the standards that everyone else has for them. I think it’s hard to get personal satisfaction, because the reaction is so much more an opinion than just straightforward enjoyment. Being allowed to just be is not the current status for us.

I’ll make decisions to do a show where I seem like I’m not really doing a lot, because I feel like I should have the right to do exactly what any white producer does onstage, which is absolutely nothing. People would be like, “Oh, why don’t you dance?” Well, I’m not your dancing monkey. If I am, it’s ’cause I’m at the club or it’s because I came out from behind my decks and I felt like having a good time. It’s not because you expect Black women to be fabulous and dancing all the time.

The voices of Black women are usually muddled, and Me Too was and continues to be no exception. When did you know you were ready to go public with your sexual-assault story last year?
I had looked at my reasons for not speaking out and whether or not I liked them. I was scared that my career will end and people will try and find out who it is. Or if they ever found out, they would vilify me. Or I’m scared people will make me describe what happened and then tell me that it was my fault. It was just layers of fear. I was like, That’s not good enough. So I waited until a publication of responsible merits [the BBC] decided to talk to me about it.

If you want to make waves, you want clickbait, then social media is the perfect place to out someone. That’s absolutely fine, but you must do it consciously because of the emotional backlash you’re going to have. People will come for you. If you want a nuanced conversation, you have to choose somebody who works within that medium of journalism. So I chose that lane.

It’s now been a year. Do you feel your story was heard, or was it more of you wanting to take that weight off your shoulders?
The personal effects were amazing because it’s still all about me and what I learned from it. It’s something I can now discuss without constantly being in a defense position or worried about people siding with someone over what I’ve said, and it hasn’t become any kind of media frenzy. So in that way, it’s been really fruitful for me. I’ve been able to start looking at why is there is so much sexual harassment in the music industry and to think clearly about the healing process. I don’t think it would have started unless I spoke about it publicly.

That freedom pulses through this album, especially in all the sonic clashing and your not caring about genre rules. It’s liberating to listen to.
That’s amazing. You just gave me goosebumps! [Laughs] When I realized what I wanted to do, I thought, Shit, that’s not gonna go down well. But I kept two things at the back of my mind. One is that Black people invented dance music, so there’s no reason why I should feel like I need to have a particular type of sound. Second thing: It’s my multicultural heritage [Ed note: Her mother is Indian, and her father is Jamaican]. So I let those things guide me.

When did you realize you wanted to create music outside of AlunaGeorge?
Who knows? It grew slowly. It’s not like I was like, I have to do this! I was more like, I’m scared of doing this. Let’s say that we’re going to do it and then work it out later.

What were you scared of?
I was so used to working with George [since 2009]. You could give us one week and we’d do ten songs. Any genre — we’ll just knock them out. It’s that easy. So I thought, What is it going to be like if I’ve got nobody to ask their opinion? Also I knew I was going to do something really difficult mixing all these genres together.

On the opening track, “I’ve Been Starting to Love All the Things I Hate,” you sing about how jealousy won’t be the death of you. It feels like a soul-searching moment. What’s the story there?
I’ve never talked a lot about this — it makes me feel very ashamed. But when I see a young white woman being very much themselves, going against whatever grains they feel like and being celebrated for doing something unusual, I get extremely jealous. Almost just like I might as well not bother anymore. As a teenager, all I wanted was to be an alternative kid and for that to be okay. But because I was Black, I wasn’t allowed into any of the lanes.

I thought, Why am I jealous of this? It’s probably because I grew up being the only Black person around. I would have white friends or white-passing friends, and I would be just so obsessed with their sense of entitlement to exist on the planet. I wish I knew what that felt like. I had to create the idea that I am allowed to be here. That’s where so much of my creativity comes from. I really needed to appreciate the fact that I’ve learned all these lessons. I’ve actually had advantages in my disadvantages. So that’s what that song’s about: starting to love myself and what I bring to the table as a Black woman.

There are so many songs on here that make you want to dance and sweat. But, of course, we’re in a pandemic. Are you frustrated by that?
No. My entire relationship with dance music is built in safe, enclosed spaces where I could be myself because there was no one else to judge me. The music could just carry me to another universe. So listening to my album in your house, under quarantine, it’s completely designed to have the same effect on you as it would on the dance floor.

Once we actually do get to go out there, I want my Black girl ravers to be at festivals where they’re no longer segregated. I want Black artists to be on the lineups of some of the biggest dance festivals in the world. I don’t want to live in a world where it’s just Afropunk available to Black people. That freeing space should be created in every environment that is designated for dancing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aluna Doesn’t Want to Be the Exception to Any Rule