In addition to fundamental musical skills, one thing a great DJ requires is a refined sensitivity to human nature. A great DJ should be able to read a crowd and intuitively sense where to guide the mix. DJ Limelight (legal name: Courtney Xavier) has cultivated that sensitivity, and used it to great advantage in his soulful mixes, always anticipating the perfect time to drop the perfect song to elevate the energy of a party.
During his decade-plus career he's also used his keen sensitivity for human nature to observe the darker side of Indy's club scene. And over the last year there's been plenty to observe. Indy's club culture has been rocked by a series of serious allegations alleging racial discrimination this year. I've discussed these issues at length with DJ Limelight, and when he indicated he'd like to speak publicly about discrimination in the club scene, I obliged.
NUVO: I spoke on a panel with you last summer that addressed issues of racism in the Indianapolis club scene. I feel like a lot DJs working the local club circuit are reluctant to speak out on this because they're afraid they'll lose a gig, or be blacklisted by certain clubs. I was curious what motivated you to speak out?
Courtney Xavier: When the incident that was caught on video happened last year at Bella Vita, I felt it was just so blatant that I had to talk about it. Also the people I admire most are the ones who use their fame or popularity to help others. Not necessarily in some altruistic way, but more like if I know something that's going to help you then I'm going to tell you.
In regard to money, if I lose a gig for speaking out about this I'm OK with that.
NUVO: You've told me that you routinely hear club managers and owners making questionable racial comments. What are some typical remarks you here?
Xavier: I've had club owners tell me, "It's too dark in here. Switch the music up." I remember playing in a club in Broad Ripple and I put on L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad." The club owner's wife came up to me and said "stop playing this ghetto shit."
When these incidents occur some people look at them individually and say, "Oh, it's not that bad." But when you do this for a living and you see it happening at this club, and that club, and this club - you're just like, wow do I keep playing this game?
Sometimes the discrimination isn't completely outright, but it's a policy that's understood and enforced by the staff, management and in some cases even the DJs.
NUVO: And it's a white man saying to you it's "too dark in here"? And he thinks that's acceptable language?
Xavier: Yes. To you, it seems mind-blowing, but I'm not surprised at all. I've also had to realize that not everybody is saying those things with malice. But it's difficult when the targets of those comments are about people who are of the same origin and color as yourself.
NUVO: You say you're not surprised when you encounter racism in the club scene. Do you see racial discrimination as an unavoidable job hazard of being a club DJ?
Xavier: That's a good question and I have to say that I do believe that's true. As much as I'd like to say it only happens because we're in Indiana you have situations like Jazzy Jeff getting thrown offstage at a club in Kansas City a few years ago. Jazzy Jeff is literally one of the best DJs on the planet, and they threw him out because of his musical selection.
It's not necessarily happening because you're in a smaller city, or because you don't have a big enough name as a DJ.
And you know what? I never see the reverse situation happening. I hate to use terms like black club or white club, but I could be playing in a black club and white people don't have any problem being there, or getting in. A white man can come in and dance with a black girl and not have to worry about anything.
Music can bring people together, and when I see incidents of discrimination happening I just think this is so far from where we need to be.
NUVO: How do we send a message to the club owners that we won't tolerate these practices? And do you think there's anything we can say that would help change their minds about implementing racially motivated policies?
Xavier: I think that's a difficult question. You have people who say, "Let's boycott the clubs and speak out against this because the owner's don't care about us."
But on the other hand you have people arguing that if we did boycott certain clubs, we don't have anywhere else to go because discrimination is so woven into the fabric of the nightlife scene. That's a sentiment I've heard from a lot of folks, and I hate to say it but I think they have a point.
But in terms of changing their thinking, I don't know. I feel like at the end of the day if someone's assumptions and prejudices about a particular group of people are more important to them than making money. That's just so incredibly weird and strange to me that I can't understand it.
And if making money doesn't motivate you to give people their due respect then I don't know if boycotting will make a difference. Because you might be giving them exactly what they wanted in the first place.
But I do think having access to social media has helped. A screen shot, or a camera phone video can bury you. I feel like if we didn't have those platforms it would be a lot worse. There are people who are so dismissive when it comes to acknowledging these problems, but then there's an incident caught on video and I'm like "dude, I told you this happens."
NUVO: Back in 2003 when charges of racism were being leveled against Broad Ripple clubs Mayor Bart Peterson put together a task force to examine issues of discrimination in the Northside nightlife scene. Do you think we're at a point right now where we need some outside force to intervene and investigate?
Xavier: I do, and I'm glad you brought that up. I don't know whether that should be the local government, but I do think there needs to be some kind of external review when these things come up.
Something has to happen in terms of follow up if we're going to try to paint this picture of Indianapolis as being a world class city, or if we're worried about brain drain and we want young people to move Downtown. Where are they going to go if this remains an issue? This is part of the reason why people move off to Boston or San Francisco after graduating here.
People need to know that issues of discrimination are going to be taken seriously. It's hard for me to reconcile Indianapolis being promoted as a world class city when you have these issues coming up in 2015. You'd think we'd be beyond this now.
And about Broad Ripple, I remember when I turned 21 my mom had to talk to me about going there. She told me that it was off limits for Black people when she was younger. She wanted me to know what I was getting into if I decided to go hangout there.
NUVO: Finally, any thoughts on steps we could take to create positive change?
Xavier: To be honest I think a lot of it has to do with people of color not having an ownership stake in these clubs. Indianapolis is still a very much a monolithic place in terms of white male property ownership.
I think if there was some type of strong initiative to encourage more minority business ownership it would help create an environment where people feel more comfortable and accepted. We need more places where we don't have to worry that we're going to be denied entry because there's "too many Black people already in the club," or because of an arbitrarily enforced dress code issue. People tell me all the time about these things happening to them.
We used to have places like Indiana Avenue where people of color knew they could go and feel comfortable. We don't have that anymore. It doesn't exist. I can understand why my grandmother would say things were easier during the segregation era. That's a powerful statement. It was easier in the sense that you knew were you could and couldn't go. That's an extremely sad reality to think about it.
You can find DJ Limelight on 96.3's 5 O'Clock mix Monday through Friday, or catch him live on Saturday nights at club Hideaway.
A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.