EDM artist Khan Kuma is forging a path for Black DJs in Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

EDM artist Khan Kuma is forging a path for Black DJs in Pittsburgh

click to enlarge EDM artist Khan Kuma is forging a path for Black DJs in Pittsburgh
Photo: Grayson Hall
Khan Kuma

From frequent national tour acts touching down in the City of Bridges to venues like Hot Mass, Tilden, and the recently opened Enclave, and recurring house, techno, drum and bass, and dubstep nights, it’s safe to say there’s no shortage of electronic music in Pittsburgh.

What there is a shortage of, however, is local Black DJs specializing in the dance genre.

That’s why it was surprising to see Drew Owusu, aka Khan Kuma, opening for hometown electronic DJ Buku at Thunderbird Cafe and Music Hall in March. Relatively new to the local scene — he got his start in 2020 — Owusu specializes in the electronic subgenre dubstep, and always had the itch to be more than a fan. But he kept his love for EDM a secret most of his life.

“I started out as a kid simply digging for music on Limewire and came across house, techno, trance, jungle, drum and bass, garbage, and, eventually, discovered the early dubstep sound,” the North Side native tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “I’ve always been looked at as an outsider because my musical tastes were different from those around me. Oftentimes, I was labeled as someone who listened to ‘weird’ or ‘white people’ music.”

While people of color are the minority in the current mainstream electronic scene, much of the electronic subgenres popular today, like house, techno, and drum and bass, have roots in the Black and LGBTQ communities of the ’70s and ’80s. Juan Atkins, Derrick Mays, and Kevin Saunderson, for example — three Black men from Detroit dubbed the Belleville Three — are considered the pioneers of techno. Some of the most influential house music creators include Larry Levan, a decade-long resident DJ at New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, DJ Ron Hardy, an early producer of house recognized for his clever edits and mixes, and Frankie Knuckles, aka The Godfather of House.

“[Baltimore’s] Joe Nice is the pioneer of bringing dubstep over to the United States,” says Owusu. “A lot of people say Skrillex. But Joe Nice is actually that person.”

click to enlarge EDM artist Khan Kuma is forging a path for Black DJs in Pittsburgh
Photo: Pot Pocket
Khan Kuma

Nice, along with dubstep heavyweights Coki, Mala, and Benga, inspired Owusu to pursue his passion for electronic music, even if he wasn’t seeing people who looked like him performing on stage, whether it be at large festivals or small hometown shows. He noted that when traveling to fests, the only Black dubstep artist with slots on the mainstage was 12th Planet.

“Even though he’s a lot harder than what I’m into, I always made a point to see his sets. I forced myself to be OK with this lack of diversity because I simply loved the music,” Owusu tells City Paper. “The issue with this was many didn’t, and still don’t understand the impact Black culture has had on the scene they were a part of. I began watching with a different mindset. It was a competitive one with the drive to show that we are here and deserve to be seen and heard.”

The lack of diversity in the electronic scene is not a local problem — it’s part of a more significant, consistent erasure of Black creative work in America. But it does speak to the general lack of support for Black musicians in the city.

“When it comes to Black artists, in particular, we aren’t booked. Even for support when big artists come,” says Owusu. “We’re always booked for small local events; it feels like tokenism. For the most part, promoters stick to who they know and aren’t intentional about diversity in their lineups. That goes beyond Black artists. It comes down to members of the LGBTQ and Hispanic communities, too.

“LGBTQ artists, especially in the house and techno scene, Black LGBTQ artists, those demographics are what birthed house music. So, to be in a city where you have promoters who book house and all these different electronic shows, and who are not intentional about speaking to those crowds, it’s disappointing, to say the least.”

But while Owusu says he initially experienced a lot of gatekeeping, the support he received from local DJs and musicians of color — DJ Femi, Wade Anthony, DICEY, Iamusick aka Mike Russell, and Make Sure You Have Fun founder Ryan Brown — was reassuring.

When the pandemic hit, Owusu, like many others, used the time to change career paths; he was selling life insurance and hated it. Owusu tapped into his savings to buy a Pioneer DDJ-1000. He spent so many hours during lockdown squirreled away in a room learning techniques from livestreams popular that he had to be reminded to eat. The rest, he says, is history.

“I’ve had an amazing first few years as a DJ, but I see this as only the beginning,” Owusu tells CP. “I’ve just now opened the door, but with industry politics, and how underutilized and pushed Black artists are in this scene, I realize that door must be ripped off of its hinges and turned into floodgates where other Black artists can also be at the forefront.”