In a time of enormous social and cultural upheaval with a feeling of revolution in the air, Aluna Francis is ready to make a statement with an incendiary dance floor call to arms.
'Renaissance' is the sound of an artist with a lot to say that points towards a positive future of dancefloor inclusivity and highlights the truly transcendent power of global dance music in all its varied forms. The album arrives more than a decade into Aluna's musical career where she has been making bangers a plenty with her musical partner George (don't worry, they're still going strong) as well as collaborating with other like-minded artists. It was time for a change though and time for Aluna to shake things up. "I just needed to challenge myself a little bit more," she begin,s. "When you've been working with someone successfully for a few years you tend to get a little bit comfortable. Me and George are serious creatures of comfort, my god, we know exactly what we're doing. It's a collaboration and a different style of writing. It's a shared experience. That's great if you've chosen to do that, but then I thought, what if I wanted to choose to be in control of everything?"
After working with someone so closely for so long, there were naturally doubts, but it quickly came apparent that Aluna was on a mission to create something special. "I don't want to not do that because I'm scared," she continues. "Just because I don't feel like I'm enough. As a musician, I feel it's really important to face all of your fears and overcome them. You don't want to miss out on challenging yourself. What came out really surprised me. I had a feeling, but I didn't really know that if I looked at all of my cultural heritage, musically and ethnically and put it all together in one space, I couldn't be sure that it would work but I was hoping it would. I think it definitely does. The record that I made takes you on a global journey of dance music. It sounded like a crazy nightmare, a catastrophe of too many ingredients, but I made it work because I really gave it the time and energy and focus."
If anything defines the album, it's about drawing on Aluna's cultural and musical heritage and encapsulating it into the most exuberant high energy package. "I had two visceral experiences that I was inspired by," she explains about two moments that get right to the heart of the record's primal thrills. "I went to a club, a really small part. It was an experience where there was a black female DJ, and there were lots of black women on the dance floor. Everyone was sweating and free, and for the first time in a normal public space, I took my hair out of whatever controlling spell it was in, and I let it out. It felt so normal to just let your hair down. Why do I feel so much more comfortable here than anywhere else in my life? I need to capture this. It's not just about being with black women, it was about this intersection of music, the style of music, the way it created a sense of freedom."
Another experience highlighted how Aluna created an album that spoke to people just like her. Young black woman in love with dance music and determined to enjoy themselves on their terms. "I've got a dual memory of performing at Midnight BBQ festival where it was raining, and I was on last. Normally that's the headline slot, but it had been raining for two hours, and it was muddy and gross," she laughs. "At the front, I had a tonne of black women. If you're investing in your hair as a black woman, the last thing you want to do is drench that thing in water. It's expensive to have your hair done! These girls were spending money on this experience right now. They waited right until the end. This was so important to me, most of the people had left, the whole festival had gone home, but I had my stronghold at the front. It was very moving."
It was on stage that the vision for the album began to crystallise as Aluna was inspired by the black women enthralled with her music. "I'm performing dance tracks on big stages where I'm the only black girl that I can see with maybe only one or two other black girls in the crowd in a sea of white people and I'm thinking, what's it like for her?" she wonders. "All the way from her door to here. She has to tell her friends she's going to some white thing, a very white associated band or festival and they're like, why are you going there? You can go there by yourself, that sounds weird. Then when she gets there, she's the only one who looks like her so she's like, I'm going to use all of my energy and create a bubble of confidence around myself, so I can just enjoy the music I want to enjoy regardless of what other factors are there to send me home. I'm going to stay and party. That's major and props to you, but why does it have to be that hard? She's just trying to have a good time."
'Renaissance' is an album for those who want to stay and party. For those who want to make their voices heard. For those that want to experience different styles, sounds and cultures. "I wanted to take the expected euro-centric style of house music and pull that together with garage, afrobeat and dancehall, with pop writing to tell stories in the way that I like to tell stories," she says. "Instead of that sounding like a bag of cats, I wanted it to be a harmonious single purring cat," she laughs.
Despite the high energy in your face exuberance and confidence of the album, there's an emotional introspection at work. It considers love, relationships and what it feels like to be a black woman. "If you listen to 'Surrender' and 'I've Been Starting To Love All The Things I Hate' you get a sense of where I'm at as a black woman," states Aluna. "'Surrender' is about how navigating this world as a black woman takes its toll on your heart. I found myself in that place where you want to be in a fairytale where I have met you, and I love you, and you love me, but the wounds and the scars are so much that it feels like the biggest hurdle in your life just to simply be in love."
"As a black woman we have to fight battles over and over, and there's always that moment between battles where you're like I hate everything I don't want to do this anymore, I want to lie down," she continues. "Then there's that moment when you're like, you know what, I'm glad the world is against me, I'm glad you put me through this because that's only going to make me stronger. I like it, bring it on. Bring on the mountains for me to climb."
Throughout the process of making the album, one key life-changing moment was Aluna falling pregnant. "I started this album, and then I fell pregnant, and I was like, oh shit, that's it then? Nobody likes a pregnant woman. The world doesn't appreciate a working mother. There's all these assumptions that are made about mothers, who they're supposed to be. Anyone who has children is seen as less able to bring the fire in some way. Everyone is going to look at me differently. The music industry, especially for black women, is so all-consuming that people end up taking time out from the sheer amount of effort that you can't put into the hustle. I said no, i'm going to call on the people that work with me and we're all going to rally together. They started it and said no Aluna you can do this. You need to carry on. I carried on as normal until I was 8 months, and I was performing on stage at 9 months."
Revolution in whatever form you want, whether it's societal or personal is a defining feature of the album. Something that's also represented in the prescient title. "I had been noticing a black renaissance going on in the world," she explains. "Individuals taking on the space that they were in and owning it and eventually, after many years of hustle breaking out. It seemed to be happening in a few different hotspots, and each time it was totally mind-blowing. I was looking at the gender revolution, and it was so powerful. I can see a future now where young kids might be able to live their lives if they don't fit into the current boxes of gender. That will bring so much richness to society.
"I was very inspired by that and was thinking of what kind of music they would want to party to once they're finished changing the world."
The past few months have starkly highlighted the need for change in the world - the need to support and amplify positive voices and fight systemic injustices. Within the music industry, Aluna has been campaigning for streaming platforms to give due credit to the heritage of dance music while expanding the genre to be more culturally and racially exclusive. "Music is never going to go away so as an artist I always invest in its future so I feel that as a business we should invest in the future of music and look after the ecosystem that you're feeding off of," she explains. "The dance genre is an unhealthy genre. It does not reflect society in an aspirational way or even just what society is. It's a weird uncultured bubble," she says.
The need for change is pressing and urgent. "If big changes have to be made you've got to be brave and do it now. There's no time to waste," she says powerfully. "I would like to see a big shift in the genre to include global dance music, for e.g. dancehall, afrobeat and all the various sub-genres from around the world be incorporated into mainstream dance. I don't think the title dance/electronic is relevant anymore. I think it limits the scope of the genre."
Post-Covid the impetus for change should be stronger than ever, and it's something Aluna passionately believes in. "I want to see that reflected in live scenes and festival line-ups. I do not want to see the segregation of the festivals any longer. It's absolutely embarrassing. Mono-cultured dance gatherings are very out of date. When you see the cultural makeup of people who marched for George Floyd you didn't see that, so why have we got festivals with all white people called dance festivals? The line-ups have to be changed. Everybody needs to get into the history of dance music and make it normal information."
'Renaissance' is an album fully powered by Aluna's illuminating, considered and passionate vision. A vision born out of frustrations at the sort of prejudice, misogyny and injustices that she is looking to tear down. She describes an example of the sort of thing she has had to deal with in her role as a producer. "I'm not going to sing on THAT! You think I just come in and sit on top of it like a cherry; I'm not a fucking cherry!" She laughs as she talks about how previously producers wouldn't value her musical and production skills instead considering her 'just the singer'. Fortunately, those days are gone. It's been a long journey, but Aluna Francis is right at the top of her game ready to take flight. "I have to pinch myself that music is still how I make my living. Making music is so indescribably life-affirming and I think it saved my life. I weaved my own mini revolutions and fights and battles within my music. Being a black woman in dance music is a defiance in itself."
That defiance has been a driving force through everything she has ever done, and 'Renaissance' is Aluna's most defiant and confident statement yet. "I'm most proud of standing by my own personal desire to create harmony between genres and styles of music that are currently segregated in the real world and showing why that's silly," she concludes. "My album is unity in sonic form. It's aspirational and futuristic."
Taken from the September issue of Dork. Aluna's debut solo album 'Renaissance' is out 28th August.
Featuring mxmtoon, Dominic Fike, Arlo Parks, Cavetown and loads more.