The Detroit-Berlin Connection: Music, Dance And The Transformation Of Two Great Cities

Detroit. It's a household name, and for many reasons. Whether you are a loyal fan of its sports teams like the infamous Detroit Tigers, a proud supporter of American vehicles, or a die-hard Techno enthusiast, the city is without question, while one of the most troubled in the country's history, also one of the most heavily influential; especially when it comes to the arts. Beneath the many layers of issues that have always plagued the city, be it social inequality, or political and corporate corruption, there is far more to the city and its people than meets the eye, and that is a profound sense of artistic direction unique to this region; perhaps given the particular environmental factors, not to mention the political and social situation that seems to inspire a drive that is the main reason why Detroit has been the backbone of musical innovation in the United States through so many struggles. "I love Detroit for many reasons". Explains Will Web, infamous Detroit Techno Bass producer, and part of the Direct Beat legacy. "It is the place of my birth, and the place I received both my formal and my common sense (street) education. It was not an easy place to live, in times of economic downturn, Detroit was always hit hard. This made for a constant and common struggle for most people in the area. I think that is one of the main factors that gives Detroiters their drive. The drive to stay positive and keep hustling, to innovate and push the envelope, because you have to. This has been evident for decades in music and art that has come out of the city".



HelloIndeed Detroit's musical legacy is nothing short of stupendous. Whether being known for its world-famous Detroit Symphony Orchestra, famous Blues artists like John Lee Hooker, legendary musician Stevie Wonder, Jazz pioneers Don Redman, Pop icon Madonna, Hip Hop purveyor Eminem, or even The Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson), Detroit has, and perhaps always will be, a breeding ground for musical innovation that spans now nearly a century. Its influence on the rest of the world musically is undeniable, and it can be seen the clearest perhaps in what can be referred to as the "Detroit-Berlin Connection"; a symbiotic relationship which for nearly 50 years has driven the world's Electronic Music engine. Starting with Germany in the early 1970's with the progression of Krautrock and the Berlin and Düsseldorf Schools of sound, and legendary artists like "Klaus Schulze", "Tangerine Dream" and "Kraftwerk"; the latter who popularized Electronic Music as an actual genre in itself, and were also the core influence in Detroit becoming the birthplace of American Techno Music in the early '80s, in return influencing Germany as a whole to break free from its shackles  and pursue its own path in continuing its legacy of having been, in many ways, the birthplace of Electronic Music. Yet history it seems, continues to repeat itself, because like Berlin, Detroit and its home state of Michigan have been witness to one of the most incredible portrayals of Political-Corporate corruption, leaving its residents behind in a state that you would think could only come from a war being fought directly against them. 


For decades, the state government of Michigan has been caught up in a whirlwind of corruption scandals, in what is a prime example of the way governments and corporations "scratch each other's backs" at the expense of the tax payers. Independent studies over the years have found Michigan to rank last in terms of having transparency and accountability laws in place, with those at the very top; including governors, who seems actively engaged in making sure that Michigan behaves in many ways like a type of "Off-Shore Account", where political funding and financial disclosures in general are hidden from the public for the benefit of the few. Perhaps no clearer case could demonstrate this than the indictment of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, not long ago a rising young political superstar, who was found guilty of multiple counts of racketeering, fraud, and extortion, and thus sentenced to 28 years in prison.


But while political corruption is nothing new to Michigan or Detroit, nothing can compare to the devastating blow it received after the 2008 economic collapse in the US, which lead to the disolving of many its popular car brands, as well as the outsourcing of very famous ones like Cadilllac (once a symbol of "American Pride") to China, once again leaving its own residents; most of whom depend on the industry for their own survival, in the dust. While the offices for the corporation General Motors still exist at the famous "Ren Cen" (Rennaissance Center) next to the Detroit River, and it is true that overall the city's downtown area has been witness to a revival that has attracted many businesses and entrepreneurs over the past several years; even leading some major magazines to call Detroit "The Great Comeback City"-as if an icon of the progress made since 2008 economically in the US-The truth is that by and large, Detroit's Metro area (which spans 139 square miles) is still suffering from the decay brought forth by their economic and political struggles, and no one in government seems to be doing a thing to truly help it. But who needs government right? It's about the people for the people, and here is where the beautiful story of Detroit's quiet renaissance begins to take shape.


In dilapidated neighborhoods, all in the mix of shootings, collapsing homes, and a general sense of social apathy and even chaos, lies something that is pulling everything in the opposite direction. The patient, diligent and proactive deeds of Detroit natives who share a deep connection to their city and its heritage, but also many young and enthusiastic people who have moved into the metro area from other parts of the country, looking for cheap real estate; who see huge opportuniy and promise in this "diamond in the rough", as they continue to chistle away, unearthing a beauty that truly seems to lie in the eye of the beholder. Local community gardens are popping up all over, including innovative and sustainable underground indoor greenhouses in the basements of old homes and old abandoned liquor stores; even vegan restaurants and coffee shops are beginning to appear in the middle of once forgotten ghettos that are attracting huge droves of people via the means of what is truly one of the most amazing spectacles of grassroots efforts ever seen in the country's history.


This is reminiscent in many ways, of the way West Berliners came together after World War 2 to slowly rebuild their part of the city over the years (a war from which Detroit had benefited a lot from manufacturingwise), particularly what can be referred to as its "sub culture", in spite of the socio-economic issues that plagued not just West Germany (though it made a surprising economic upswing after the war), but East Germany (known then as the German Democratic Republic) as well where its population had been suffering from the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the long-lasting political power struggle between the allied forces and the Soviets, not to mention Marxist indoctrination propaganda and restrictions on civil liberties imposed by the Soviet regime's occupation.


As the '80s went on and Detroit's sound grew in popularity in West Berlin, a strong grassroots Techno community began to form, with the sound infiltrating to the East; primarily through the radio, helping to inspire more and more rebellion against the GDR and Soviet regimes. In time, as more demonstrations and pressure against the Wall continued to intensify in the East bringing about its downfall, the German's took back their city and country while pushing forward with an enthusiastic Electronic Music scene; seeing the founding of world-renowned entities like Tresor, which became an instant symbol of the German reunification process that was literally brought about in great part by the power of the growing Techno scene. Soon, Detroit artists like Jeff Mills and the newly founded Underground Resistance collective got the opportuniy of spreading their musical flavor abroad and to a city that was in many ways, very similar to their own. This led to huge success for Detroit artists who were actually not very popular in their own city at the time, here welcomed with open arms to a region thirsty for this fresh new sound to inspire their new society.


But while this might sound like the triumphant ending to an amazing story of struggle and rebirth, it would be, only still, part of the story as the German dance scene was not without its challenges. Throughout the years, the citizens involved in the making of this music and arts scene received no help from the German government, were consistently harassed even though it had been in many ways the backbone of Germany's economic revival, eventually leading to a massive raid at the Tresor venue in 2003 where some people were physically hurt by what some who witnessed it referred to as their first experience of "police brutality" in their country. This not mentioning the fact that even still at this point, Germany faced economic issues at it slid into a recession. 


Now, many years later the city of Detroit finds itself in the middle of much tougher socio-economic times, while also in the midst of a quiet rebirth inspired in many ways by the people from a city once suffering from much of the same conditions Detroiters have had to endure for far too long. Yet it is here however, where the Detroit-Berlin Connection becomes more than just a metaphore, but an actual manifestation of a powerful grassroots movement between two great cities and its people, and how it is slowly inspiring a true renaissance in the city of Detroit this time around. 


Interestingly enough, the founder of the famous German label and nightclub Tresor, Dimitri Hegemann, has been looking into opening an American version in Detroit for the past several years. When asked about the inspiration behind his ideas, Hegemann says: "Detroit, its music and its musicians have done a lot for Tresor, for me personally and for the city of Berlin. So I felt it's time for us to give something back to Detroit. Detroit as the capital of Electronic Music deserves a club where this music is played and can be celebrated. Detroit could profit nowadays from the history and effects of Berlin sub and club culture". 


Originally, Hegemann's idea for a new Tresor-style club in Detroit started with the Fisher Body 21 plant, an old abandoned automobile factory from the early 1900's. "We would have started by opening just one floor, probably in the center of the building." Comments Hegemann. "That would have looked really outrageous and not comparable to another building in the world. I am sure that we would have got international attention for that project. Little by little we would have added more and more cells to develop the whole Fisher Body [building]. Unfortunately, we couldn't find an agreement with the authorities. We wanted that they would give us the space for a test period of 20 years for free to develop it. It's a pity it didn't work. That's why we now are working on the Packard plant. The building is very similar but it has a private investor who is very open to our ideas. That's why I am very confident that we will be able to realize our original plans there".


And indeed the plans seem to be moving forward and gaining more and more support from the local community who understand it is through the arts, where the inspiration for rebuilding the future Detroit will come from. In 2011, an organization initiated in response to Hegemann's plans called the "Detroit-Berlin Connection" was put in motion by Martina Guzman of the public Detroit Radio Station WDET, helping to bring together members of the local community in a series of workshops aimed at presenting different ideas; but primarily those in relation to how Berlin was transformed by Detroit Techno's influence, and the proactive efforts of the German community who helped repurpose what they call "abandoned buildings of desire", into creative hubs revolving around the idea of a healthy nightlife and arts scene, that can go along with entrepreneurship and succesful business ideas. 


But as with most things in life, these great propositions have not been without their share of obstacles, primarily the fact that Detroit still operates around a curfew for its residents. "There is one big problem when you intend to open a Techno club." Explains Hegemann. "A 2 am curfew is not very helpful, I think Detroit should not have a curfew at all. Last year we had a delegation of the Detroit City Council in Berlin and we showed them the Berlin nightlife. Some of them were experiencing for the first time the joy of dancing all night long. The basic argument pro curfew is the thesis that a curfew prevents crime at night. I think the Berlin example proves the contradiction. As long as the streets are lightened, and as long as people are around, the crime rate even deceases." However, Hegemann feels confident these issues will be worked out eventually, and success will come from all the efforts around the Metro area from grassroots organizations, helping to form not just a bustling nightlife in the city, but revitalized neighborhoods and commercial areas that will bring Detroit back to the glory it once enjoyed. It still is, even if beneath many layers of scars, "The Paris Of The Midwest" as it was once known. 


It is through stories like these that we can find many lessons and a great deal inspiration for what can be accomplished when people join together; especially around the primal need for music and dance. While many might feel that the arts are centered around aesthetics, and a posh lifestyle to inspire it; as if somehow simply an accessory to cosmopolitan life, the truth is that art, especially music, has always come in its best form from some of the deepest struggles of humanity. It is, quite literally, the conductor of inspiration to lift the wounded human spirit, and an outlet for our most positive and negative feelings about life, its beauty, but also its tremendous challenges that it presents to us time and time again. Without it, it seems, we would simply lie down and die, yet somehow it always leads us to a better place, a better future where ironically enough, aesthetics and lifestyles can be enjoyed along with a sense of pride for the beauty that can come from the human spirit. For Detroit and Berlin, this is a testament to their way of life as this symbiotic cycle continues. An example that we should never give up, no matter how impossible it might seem. No matter what war is waged on us, determination, and working together will always bear fruits unimaginable to us. The end result, no matter the struggle, is always worth it!





Written by: Santino Fernandez

Header Image Credits: © Kathrin Kuhn for VAVA

Additional Photos Courtesy Of: Dimitri Hegemann, Detroit-Berlin Connection Workshops

August 2016