The boys’ club of DJ’ing is skirted by women who mix just as hard (or harder)—and help one another rise to the top.
By Lianna Matt
Illustration by Grace Molteni
Last month marked the one year anniversary since Minneapolis’ DJ Keezy began The Klituation, a night of an all-female artist and DJ lineup in the infamous Minneapolis music venue First Avenue’s mainroom. As people arrived—only after 10:30 p.m. did the dance floor really pop, naturally—the backdrop continued its video loop of Beyoncé and other female musicians, artwork of floral vaginas, Nike models and flashing banners announcing The Klituation’s big bash.
Keezy had invited a lineup of female artists and DJs, and among them was DJ Miss Brit, a poet (check out her spoken word performance dedicated to mothers whose children have died because of gun violence), community radio host, business owner and one of the Star Tribune’s “new generation of Twin Cities’ black leaders.” The Klituation was Miss Brit’s first time spinning at First Avenue, having built her profile from the ground up, despite the DJ scene’s boy’s club prominence.
Equipment accessibility and the number of female role models have opened doors for a greater number of women to enter the DJ sphere, but industry news still reflects male dominance. DJ Mag’s annual and coveted “100” list gives pitiful recognition to women in the industry; last year, they managed to only recognize two women. The year before that, three women made their list. Outside of numbers and coverage, Miss Brit says that female DJs have to continually assert themselves, and they have to prove they are more than a lineup slot devoted to diversity and inclusion.
Last year on International Women’s Day, Vice’s Kamila Rymajdo wrote that a DJ should be booked because of their skill, not how they identify: “Although today we are celebrating women, let’s make an effort to see past gender.” In that same article, she also noted that women in the industry experience a disproportionate amount of harassment; one of her interviewees, DJ Paulette, shared an occasion that “made [her] reconsider what [she does] for a living.” When reporting on the International Music Summit in June, the BBC spoke with women who either didn’t want to be called out solely for their gender or had experienced some effect of the gender imbalance (unequal pay, sexual harassment, not being taken seriously).
“I’ve had to really demonstrate and prove my worth,” says Miss Brit. “It’s a double-edged sword. One moment you’re celebrated and praised because people do want to see women in [male] dominated places. … But there are a lot of people who think [women] just can’t. That they’re less successful, and the only reason they should book us is because we’re women and not necessarily because we have talent.”
Tamar Juda, publicist for SKAM Artist, a DJ talent agency with a roster that’s about 27.5 percent women and counts Samantha Ronson, Saint Clair and Havana Brown among its artists, says that from a press perspective, women are getting less coverage partially because they produce less music. According to Juda, the producer gender gap is closing, and in the meantime, she encourages women DJs to capitalize on their ability to be a lifestyle brand.
In the past few years, male DJs like Mick Batyske, DJ Khaled and others have maintained the major branding spotlight with product mentions or brand-hosted events the DJs play, but Juda insists that female DJs have a broader scope with lifestyle versus the more limited product branding, like Batyskye’s relationship with Twitter and Pinterest.
Although Miss Brit has spun for branded outreach events through her business, Visions Merging, she has yet to land a corporate sponsorship. She’s open to the idea, but for now she’s working on building her personal brand, which celebrates community building and self care. After all, those are the two pillars that have gotten her to where she is today.
Miss Brit began spinning during her show on Minneapolis’s community radio station KFAI, mixing on-air as she pleased. When Prince died in 2016, she was moved to expand her DJ chops outside of community radio. She always had, as she said, this “untapped” love for music, and she wanted DJ’ing to be a part of her legacy. She purchased her first controller—a device that helps mix music—for her 25th birthday.
For two or three years before Miss Brit began spinning, she reached out to influencers in the local community like DJ Keezy and Shannon Blowtorch to ask for advice, support and the opportunity to shadow. She went to as many shows as she could—especially shows featuring women—and always spoke with them when she had the chance. When she faced people who literally laughed at her for wanting to be a DJ—which she did—she had already built a network of supporting DJs who advocated for her. And for good reason: Miss Brit is an audience-driven artist whose time on stage is spent stirring up good vibes.
“As a DJ, you are not just playing the music; you are controlling the energy of the space. When men are the primary people who are in control of that experience, it can become a very male-dominated experience, and I think that people are tired of the same old thing. People are wanting to have feminine energy in a place that is leading and not just following,” she says. “I don’t want you to come to my event because I want your 10 dollars, I want you to come because I want you to have a good experience; I want you to come because I’m inviting other people I know who I know will treat you right—a safe space. I want you to be able to continue to build community in the places I’m building.”
Lianna Matt is a Twin Cities-based journalist who loves that she can use her job as an excuse to meet the intelligent, ambitious and world-changing.
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.
Miss Brit’s values—not showmanship or style—make up her brand. Community building, social justice and activism mark the pillars, but at the crux is always music. Meet some of her colleagues and contemporaries in the DJ world:
Alison Wonderland. A classically-trained cellist turned indie bass player turned DJ, Alison Wonderland has had a mix of musical influences that have added layers to her EPs and singles. Doubters of Wonderland’s skill have caused her to wear cameras that stream her mixing live, and she plays down her feminine silhouette with large t-shirts. She is a feminist, but she has shied away from that term in the past because of how people have perceived women performers.
The Black Madonna. Also known as Marea Staples, The Black Madonna got her start as a merchandising staffer on the sidelines of countless raves before she took to the stage herself. “We Don’t Need No Music (Thank you Rahan)” was the DJ’s near-8 minute, wordless breakout song, but her Facebook page offers plenty of words to describe her philosophy on dance music, ending with, “Dance music does not need more of the status quo.”
Maya Jane Coles. Listen to her under her real name, and you’ll get house music. Find her under the name Nocturnal Sunshine, and slip some dubstep into your day. She usually writes, arranges, produces and performs every one of her tracks, and she sometimes designs her own CD art. Listen to a track and get a feel for her soul.
Nina Kraviz. With a style that the New Yorker called “severe but open minded techno,” Kraviz has worked her way up to be one of the most recognized DJs in the world. Sometimes her own vocals grace the tracks, but other times, she lets the beat do the talking.
Samantha Ronson. One of the first female celebrity DJs, Ronson has a little something for folks not so much into EDM: In 2011, she released a rock album called Chasing the Reds. While both musical styles have dueled for her attention, both are sincere and penetrate your pulse.