What role does music play in places of conflict?

DJs and promoters from Ukraine, Palestine, Syria and the DRC share their thoughts and experiences of dancing in times of crisis.

During World War II, the British press frantically reported on the country’s “dancing boom.” As bombs rained down from the sky, blowing out the windows of concert halls, plucky Brits kept dancing, the nation was told. Orchestras in Dover competed to see if they could make music loud enough to drown out the sound of long-range German artillery. 

Why did people keep partying while their lives were in danger? Didn’t they have more important things to be worried about? The newspapers at the time framed it as a necessary release from the tension built during wartime and, beyond this, a defiant celebration of the very freedom for which the Allies were fighting. The British spirit, they insisted, could not be dampened.

This narrative conveniently lent itself to nationalist propaganda. But these stories also underline how, in a time of intense upheaval, the dance floor can become a site of secular power. It can offer unity, escapism and transcendence, but just like its religious analogues, it never entirely escapes the influence of politics. 

These days, groups of DJs, promoters and dancers around the world navigate some of these same questions. Music tastes might have changed, but during periods of upheaval the dance floor can still be a salvation while raising provocative questions. DJs in Ukraine and Palestine, for example, say they need to dance in times of conflict, but they also question whether, when violence and instability reaches a certain extreme, it no longer feels appropriate, even ethical to dance.

To dig into the nuances of these questions, we spoke to DJs and promoters who are part of club scenes in countries facing periods of acute instability, be that political, military or economic. Not meant to represent entire nations or scenes, there are no moral absolutes here. These are simply personal stories from the partying frontlines.

Sama’ Abdulhadi describes the intensity of politics – and the politics of dancing – in Palestine

The club scene spearheaded by promoters and DJs in the West Bank has been bubbling up for a decade, but it was a 2018 Boiler Room show which catapulted Palestinian artists into the international spotlight. Sama’ Abdulhadi was the event’s breakout star—her set has now racked up an astonishing 10 million views on YouTube. Yet behind the scenes of the event, she recalled, tensions were flaring in the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah.

“There was basically a massacre happening at that exact time,” she said, “but we couldn’t postpone because Boiler Room were leaving the next day. So we had people on the lookout, reporting the number of martyrs to us, and we were ready to close at any second.”

Fortunately for Boiler Room—but unfortunately for the Palestinians—the locals were pretty used to flare-ups of tension and conflict. They’re also used to the unpredictable shortages of water or power and the daily struggles of life as a second-class citizen where your rights are conditional and your travel horizons are limited. Two years after the Boiler Room show, Abdulhadi was arrested and held in jail for eight days because she organised an event next to a religious site.

They party anyway. Abdulhadi said that if the political situation feels too tense, they might throw a house party instead of an event at a venue. After a period of protest last year died down she held a small gathering at her house before leaving to return to her current home in Paris. “It was just 20 friends at my house and supposed to last a couple of hours. It went on for three days, just playing music in a room with no windows,” she said. “We were just looking at each other like: I can’t believe I needed this so much.”

It’s easy to co-opt the Palestinian dance floor in a metaphor for politics—it is either a political space, a site of cultural resistance against oppression, or an apolitical one, a total escape from the politics woven into every fibre of daily Palestinian life. Though Abdulhadi described Palestinians as an intensely political people (“we breastfeed on politics,” she said), her view on whether politics comes onto the dance floor is more nuanced. “Dancing is just a form of expression,” she said, “sometimes I’m mad and I want to let that anger out and I go to dance. But sometimes I just want to disconnect from the world. Then I go to dance, too.”

As she began touring internationally, Abdulhadi observed similarities between Palestinian dance floors and those in other countries with recent histories of political turmoil. “I noticed how the dance floors in Palestine are like those in the Arab world, Latin America and Eastern Europe,” she said. “People save money, they plan it, they go, maybe they risk everything, because they need it. They never go to the bathroom, they never speak, they’re there because every minute dancing is their last minute. In Germany and France there’s this party and a thousand other parties. In Palestine there’s one party and everyone’s there. People don’t take that for granted.”

Nastia reflects on the complicated questions facing the Ukrainian scene 

The question of when it’s right to party was felt keenly by Ukraine’s club community when Russia invaded in February 2022, since the country had thriving a nightlife for almost a decade. Yet it was not the first time politics had set foot on Ukrainian dance floors—the two have been entangled since the scene’s earliest days.

“We must understand: There is no way politics will stay away from the dance floor,” said Anastasia Topolskaia, AKA DJ Nastia. Though her country had a decent local scene in the 2000s, she recalls that it was in 2013 that a new dedicated dance subculture emerged with the opening of notable clubs like Closer. “Wherever you went at that time, any kind of party, it was always quality,” said Topolskaia. “No cheesy hype, no fast food music. It was a solid wave and everyone was following it.”

Then just as the scene was taking flight, the protests started that would become the Maidan Revolution, a period of unrest resulting in the overthrow of the country’s president and precipitating Russia’s invasion of the Crimea, a precursor to the current invasion. During the protests, Topolskaia continued to attend parties. “Music is a place to escape reality,” she said, “just to forget, at least for a couple of hours, the day that you had, this nightmare which is happening.” 

But sometimes, when the conflict got too real, too close, it didn’t feel appropriate to party. “Of course we didn’t make parties when people were dying in the main square,” she recalled. “Music is about enjoyment and being relaxed. If there’s a stressful situation outside you cannot do it. Sometimes we just had to stay home and get through the hell.”

Today these questions have become all the more urgent. Since the conflict’s major escalation in 2022, there has been regular fighting throughout Ukraine and tens of thousands of deaths. Many have fled the country, including Topolskaia and several other key members of the local scene. From afar, they have been able to raise awareness and funds via electronic music compilations and social media activism.

During lulls in the fighting, several groups put on parties that have to navigate the fresh challenges of curfews, electricity cuts and minefields in local parks. This has caused some controversy in the scene. “For some people the music and parties are an escape to forget the news they saw that day,” said Topolskaia. “They say that they must enjoy their lives because their friends on the frontlines are fighting to protect their lives and their ability to do things like this. But others think it’s not healthy at all. They think it’s insane to imagine that they could go to a party while their friends and family members are fighting with Russia and getting killed. These ideas have divided the scene and people judge each other.”

Topolskaia herself doesn’t take a side, but thinks this judgement is a destructive force. “If you don’t feel like going out and you don’t feel it will help you, then you better stay home,” she said, “but don’t judge others who need it. We need to respect that everybody is different.”

For a country with a seasoned club scene, during a time when life has turned upside-down and all certainties have been thrown into disarray, Topolskaia imagines that the dance floor might provide a powerful sense of hope. “Going to the club during this time might feel surreal but it also keeps your feet grounded,” she said. “You feel a connection with normal life, and can remember how life was before the war and believe that it will return after the war ends. That afterwards we’ll be able to return and start a new page.”

Despite ongoing danger in the DRC, ChrisMan and Michael Mupendwa hopes a scene there can flourish

Chrisman Mazambi, AKA ChrisMan (pictured),  is a Congolese DJ and producer who is a core artist with the Nyege Nyege collective based out of Kampala, Uganda. He left his hometown of Goma, in the far east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the age of 22. Describing the place, he first comments on its natural beauty, the lush greenery, lakes and volcanoes, before mentioning the violence. 

The DRC is ranked 175th out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index and has suffered two decades of civil war. In Goma, Mazambi says, it’s not safe to go out at night. There are bandits who shoot those who resist their robberies, while the police and military are more likely to harass and steal than to protect and serve. 

“These situations affect our brains,” he said. “Especially if you want to be creative, you can’t really do this when such things are happening.” When he started out producing music he would use his mother’s computer at the only time there was electricity, between midnight and 5am. Eventually he realised he would have to leave the country to be able to devote himself to making music. He travelled to Kampala, where he found a home in the Nyege Nyege studio.

Given the threat of danger, it’s hard to imagine a club scene flourishing in Goma. Yet the locals love to dance. “Here we party every day, it’s our culture. Everyone drinks beer and enjoys going out,” said Michael Mupendwa, a Congolese artist and aspiring event promoter. The nightclubs that exist mostly play local music. Electronic music is a relatively new phenomenon that only interests young people, he remarked.

One of the main barriers to organising club nights with electronic music in Goma is the concern around personal safety. “You can organise a party and nobody comes because there’s no secure way to get there,” said Mupendwa. There is no transport after 8pm and private cars are a luxury. Sometimes people who go clubbing plan to spend the whole night in the venue and return with the morning’s first transportation. 

Mazambi mentioned that many of his friends have two phones, a more expensive device they use at home and a cheap one that they take outside in case they get robbed. “It’s really important to dance and bring out all your stress,” he said, “but when you leave the club it’s another world that you have to face.”

Yet Mupendwa believes that Goma is ready for a club scene to lay its roots. There are already music festivals springing up, such as Umoja and Amani. “Dancing is a window through which people can escape the conflict,” he said. “They’re so stressed and traumatised, not just because of political conflict, but also tribal and economic. There’s a lot of unemployment, meaning there are days when there’s no work and people get bored. They’re ready to do anything, to put on music, go to a festival—anything which lets people feel the flavour of joy again and unites people. Now is a primordial moment to test this music because people are really thirsty to hear something new and original. They need it.”

Walashi believes music has the power to heal in Syria  

“In Damascus there’s no violence right now,” said the DJ Walashi, “but there is economic and psychological war.” Living in a suburb of the Syrian capital, she detailed some of the crippling effects of the ongoing economic sanctions that sent the Syrian currency into a nosedive. She currently lives off two hours of electricity a day and cannot rely upon gas for heating or affordable transportation into the city. “Sometimes I’m just stuck at home for two weeks and I can’t go out,” she said. “But it’s OK because I can work on music. The moment I start playing, I forget about everything else.”

What little electronic music scene existed in Syria came to a halt when the civil war began in 2011. With open conflict largely limited to the country’s border regions today, a fragile club scene emerged in 2018. After living abroad for six years and discovering electronic music, Walashi independently decided to return to Syria specifically to start new music events in her home. “I believe in the healing power of music,” she said, “and this is where we really need it most. We need to feel that unity, that we’re vibrating to the same frequency.” 

When Walashi first arrived back in the country, she found it difficult to convince venues and bars to host an electronic music event. “It was like I was coming from a different planet,” she recalled, laughing. “They didn’t understand the music, the concept, especially coming from me as a young girl.” When searching for venues, she would carry her mixer in a bag so that if they expressed interest she could go in and test their soundsystem immediately. Eventually an art gallery invited her to host an event—several Syrian promoters mentioned that local electronic music fans are mostly from art-school backgrounds—and then started DJ residencies at two bars. Finally, a Syrian scene began to blossom between 2020 and 2021.

It may sound surprising but the force that put a total stop to Damascus club events in 2022 was neither military nor political but economic. Increased strain and harsh sanctions led to venues closing, rapid currency devaluation and workers conscripted to the army. This put a stop to all club nights in the city.

Yet the promoters are not giving up. If they can’t put on club nights, they can harness the power of music in other ways. Walashi is working on other avenues to help people heal through music. “It doesn’t have to be in a club with lights,” she said, “it could just be in a park with an instrument and have the same effect.” 

What links the promoters and DJs working to kindle club scenes in adverse circumstances is their fervent belief in the power and importance of music: its ability to unite, to uplift, to heal. They all agree that dancing is a fundamental human need, and if extreme circumstances mean it’s not possible to throw events now, then they will continue as soon as possible. 

Reflecting on her own experiences, Walashi offerd a new way to formulate the question of whether it’s inappropriate to dance during times of conflict: “Obviously I wouldn’t do it in a place that’s too public, but I don’t think there’s anything unethical about a party. There’s no offence to anybody. The violence is the thing that’s unethical.”

Photo credits:

Nastia – Dmitry Komissarenko

Sama’ Abdulhadi – Tristan Hollingsworth

ChrisMan – Nyege Nyege Festival

Walashi – Abdullah Jamal / Ameen Abo Kassem

Header and final photo – Ahmad Rumieh

Words: Tom Faber