The Black Madonna Starts A Women's Movement in Dance Music – Telekom Electronic Beats

The Black Madonna Starts A Women’s Movement in Dance Music

Words by katleinhart

The Black Madonna‘s involvement in and celebration of Women’s History Month goes beyond a perfunctory feminist Tweet on International Women’s Day.

As the longtime talent buyer at Chicago’s lauded Smart Bar club, Marea Stamper’s latest undertaking is “A Women’s Movement in Dance Music,” a party series named after both BBC pioneer Daphne Oram and the Greek naiad Daphne. The March program features workshops and talks on topics from negotiating motherhood to working with synthesizers, as well as club nights headlined by female DJs like Honey Dijon, Superjane, Aurora Halal, Erika, Teri Bristol, and Psycho Bitch.

Although DAPHNE aims to highlight electronic music’s female population, which continues to see dismal representation on international festival and club lineups, Stamper’s bills don’t exclude male peers like Ital and Derrick Carter. As she explained to us via Skype, “the only point is to have women in leadership positions,” rather than focusing exclusively on female artists or filling quotas. Given that increased critical attention and efforts to counter a gendered status quo have yet to bring about sweeping, structural changes in dance music, we thought Stamper’s approach to DAPHNE was something worth bringing to the table.

The DAPHNE series at Smart Bar is named, in part, after Daphne Oram. Have she and other female pioneers of electronic music like Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel, or Suzanne Ciani also played into your own work?

Sure, but that’s true of anyone working in electronic music whether they know it or not. I always felt like there was no roadmap, and that we’re missing a set of elders, and that it’s too bad that women are just getting started in this field, and after about three seconds, I realized that’s not right.

I always imagined myself as thoughtful, well-read and considerate of these kind of “erasures” of women from all different histories. If anybody was going to be thinking about it, I imagined myself as that person—but I was completely wrong. Women were fundamental to the engineering of electronic music from the very beginning. Take Wendy Carlos, a powerful transgender woman who worked with Bob Moog. Wendy didn’t just play synthesizers or write music on them, although she certainly did that. She also helped to design the synthesizers that [Giorgio] Moroder used. We have this whole paternal narrative about Papa Moroder, and he’s so important—but why don’t we ever talk about Wendy? The idea of having a transgender woman at the center of our history is so big, to me.

Then there are all these other people that are written out of the dance music equation, like Laurie Anderson. Some women didn’t get to stick around in dance music because our profession doesn’t have any protections for women who decide to have children; we don’t get maternity leave. A lot of women come for a period of time and then leave. Men do that as well, but it affects women in a far more profound way because they’re much more likely to be the primary caregiver of a child. There are a lot of women who have been forgotten.

We tend to treat women in this industry as exceptional, rather than integral to its history.

Right. The other thing I take issue with is the idea of the woman as the permanent ingenue. It seems like every month there’s some story about how “women are finally breaking through in dance music.” It’s a new crop of women each time. Maybe at one time it was Sandra Collins, a few years ago it was Cassy. People wrote those articles about Superjane. How long are we going to be breaking through? We’ve been breaking through for 30 years. That’s not to say there wasn’t a period in the early days when there truly were very few women in certain areas of dance music, but certainly the woman as that central figure of a DJ was something that people like Teri Bristol and Psycho Bitch—both of whom don’t get nearly enough credit—broke early. A woman was a manager at The Loft, Judy Weinstein. She went on to be a founder of Def Mix and remains an influential force. We don’t want to erase the women who truly did break ground, but I want to broaden the discussion a little bit and say that women have always been in electronic music.

This is probably a good moment to ask you what DAPHNE is, and what inspired it.

The DAPHNE series at Smart Bar runs throughout the month of March in celebration of National Women’s History Month, and I got the idea to put it together when I was talking with our owner Joe Shanahan’s daughter, Tara, who was my intern at the time. She was just graduating high school, and practiced DJing here. A famous DJ had posted this sexist meme about women producers on his social media, and it was like, ugh. I was talking about that with Tara and it really, really upset me. I told her, “You know, there are women that do this. They exist—and I want you to know it.” Somebody needs to reflect that reality. We talked about lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness.

The DAPHNE series is centered around women, but it’s not exclusively women playing. The only point is to have women in leadership positions. We don’t need to be exclusive; what we need to do is show that women are normal, integral fixtures in this world. There are women leading it, young women participating. There’s going to be a synthesizer workshop and our resident Sassmouth is going to give a talk on alternative leadership styles in dance music and being a working mom in dance, since that seems to be such a huge barrier for women in this field. Cassy just had a baby, and she got the baby a passport, and has babysitters.

She’s touring with the baby?

She’s touring with the baby. It’s amazing. We’re all figuring out how to do this, so we want to give some people practical tips. This is something I’m running into now: How do I have a kid and continue to work in my field?

Is one of your goals with DAPHNE to get more women involved in electronic music?

Totally, but also to get men used to being led by women. For Erika’s synthesizer workshop, say we have 16 people, half of whom are men. If somebody who really knows what they’re doing and happens to be a woman leads them, then we will consider it a success.

In 2013 and 2014, female:pressure put out some pretty dismal statistics about representation of women in festival and club bookings, which hover around ten percent. The most frequent justification is that there’s a much smaller pool of qualified women than men to pull from, yet I seem to remember you saying that at Smart Bar, around 40 percent of your bookings include women without really even trying. How do you account for the disconnect?

It fluctuates from month to month. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more. The average festival is below ten percent—more like five percent—so if 25 percent of our bookings are female, I feel pretty awesome. The number we counted a while ago was that 40 percent of our shows have a woman on the bill. We’re doing our best, but I acknowledge that struggle. Booking DJs is not like shopping from a catalog. There are lots of women that are qualified, but are they in your city? Does the routing work? Paula Temple is in the States right now, and I’d love to have her, but I just didn’t have the dates. You can have the very best intentions and hopes, and it can still be difficult.

Having said that, in all workplaces, people tend to hire men for their potential, and women for their experience. In a field like this, where we’re trying to catch the wave before it happens—that’s a big part of being a talent buyer, where you want to get that breaking news—if women are booked on experience rather than potential, they’re eliminated. One of the things that probably all of us as buyers struggle with is breaking through that headspace.

On the other hand, women are taught that there are consequences for being confident in certain ways. There’s one woman DJ in particular I can think of, and I think she’s as good as Jeff Mills. I think she’s in that league—five turntables. We were talking about this feeling she has of walking into a club with confidence, but having to conceal it and never being able to say, “I can do that. Let me play the big slot.” The idea that these skills would be self-evident is not true. Women are socialized not to sell themselves, but we work in an industry where getting your message across means knowing who you are and then selling it, to a degree. And that is tough.

Is that something you’ve had to deal with yourself?

Sure. In old rave days, when I was first getting out there and starting to DJ, I felt very uncomfortable. I can remember being shot down by a lot of people. The way that I got on lineups in the beginning was my girlfriends and I would make dummy accounts on message boards and request me, and it totally worked.

We made a bunch of them. It was like, “Dog, did you see her? She was so sick.” Just to kind of mimic that bro chatter. We made up a pack of bros. The first few times I played at big raves happened because we pretended to be a bunch of guys talking about me, like I was the next hot shit. I’ve never told anyone that.

It may be cliche to talk about clubs as these inclusive, communal spaces, but that was something that really got me when I was first getting into electronic music. I get the sense that’s something that matters to you as well, but I’m wondering how you reconcile this with the predatory environments you’ve spoken about in many clubs, where women have to watch their drinks.

I am very lucky here in Chicago at Smart Bar because we do pretty well. I’m lucky to work with such amazing men and women who create this bubble around us to a degree that anyone can. I would say that I have had, in many ways, less experiences of open hostility or certain kinds of threats than other women who work in this field. But I can remember, especially with peers of mine that were very young and conventionally attractive, that sometimes certain men felt like they had possession of them—a real hyper-objectification. That’s been a consistent thing in my experience of dance music for 20-plus years. I was at a show recently and someone that had been sending me nasty messages on Facebook walked up to the booth and tried to put his tongue in my mouth, someone I didn’t know. While I was DJing. And then he got angry at me, and sent me a nasty message that said I wasn’t very nice to him.

DJ Sprinkles has a nice take on this. At the beginning of Midtown 120 Blues, Sprinkles says, “The House Nation likes to pretend clubs are an oasis from suffering, but suffering is in here with us.” The idea that the club is not an oasis from anything—and yet, it is. There is this temporary euphoria and maybe an illusion of unity, which is of course completely delicious. I’m fine with it being an illusion. It’s both of those things. So much of dance music and related cultures—whether it’s vogueing or whatever—are about the tension between realness and illusion. I think that’s true for women. We come here to feel free, like everyone, but we’re still in the world.

The DAPHNE series at Smart Bar continues Friday, March 13; full schedule here.