The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the standstill of the pandemic, James Bangura’s music is still moving people

James Bangura has emerged as one of the most exciting new voices in dance music. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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It’s strange making dance music for a world with no dancing, but James Bangura is into the democratizing side effects. “With the parties gone, the cream rises to the top,” the 33-year-old producer says on a recent walk near his apartment in Columbia Heights. “The hype goes away. Nobody’s talking about the big DJs right now because the big DJs are at home like us.”

Bangura’s music — an exquisite latticework of techno, drum-and-bass, breakbeat and more — can feel as intimate as it does intricate, but Bangura hears it as part of a wider picture. He’s one of the leading voices in a rising generation of Black producers and DJs working to annihilate the racist myth that house and techno music originated in Europe — and in the standstill of a global pandemic, he’s succeeding.

“Black artists are used to it,” Bangura says. “We’re accustomed to creating out of pain, and shortcoming, and not being able to get certain things. So when people ask, ‘How are you guys able to create in this [environment]?,’ it’s because a lot of us grew up in trying situations. We never had a choice but to work this way.”

For Bangura, those trying situations involved growing up in a family that he describes as “not the most functional.” Raised by his grandparents in Alabama, he moved to New Jersey as a teen to live with his mother (a radio DJ who got him into house music), then eventually relocated to California where he graduated from high school in 2005. He started working for hourly wages in Riverside County, including one gig at AutoZone where his manager began taking him to drum-and-bass parties after closing shop. Bangura had discovered albums by LTJ Bukem and Roni Size back when he was living in New Jersey, but “I hadn’t seen the music experienced that way,” he says.

He quickly found his place in the nightlife, but, unsure of where the rest of his life was going, he enlisted in the Army in 2010 and deployed to Afghanistan. “I started writing music in the military because I missed being part of the community,” Bangura says. “Now, writing music is therapy for me.”

His military service ended in 2018. So did his marriage. When his mother died in 2019, Bangura relocated to D.C. for a new job and a fresh start. Deep in grief while searching for an apartment in the District, he composed an elegy for his mother that would eventually become his “R.Y.S.S.” EP, all while camped out in a suburban Virginia hotel room.

Since then, he’s been prolific, issuing a series of highly detailed, deeply introspective recordings: “All Smoke No Mirrors” in June, “Interpretation of Sound” in December, “E-FAX009” just last week. Quarantined listeners seem to be picking up on the nuance in his music, even if they aren’t able to hear his tracks unspool out on the dance floor.

“People have the time to look within themselves right now,” Bangura says. “Things are closed, so people can take the time to listen to new things and explore. And then, because of that, the artists have responded in kind. It’s like, ‘Well, let me give you more.’ To me, music is a gift.”

As for safeguarding that gift, it’s “a responsibility,” Bangura says. “We have to rewrite these narratives” about the provenance of electronic dance music, “because, as Black artists, if we don’t stand up and say, ‘This ours, this is what we own, this comes from our culture,’ it completely goes away.”

James Bangura’s latest EP, “E-FAX009,” is available on Bandcamp.