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These BAME female DJs are smashing boundaries of social and institutional gender inequality Open in fullscreen

Anu Shukla

These BAME female DJs are smashing boundaries of social and institutional gender inequality

DJ Hackie said being a female DJ is 'almost an affront to the status quo'

Date of publication: 10 March, 2021

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We crossed continents to speak with female DJs who have cultivated a spectrum of projects in the face of political instability and gender inequality to elevate other artists everywhere.
Iran, Turkey, India, Chile, South Africa, Japan, China: we crossed continents for this International Women's Day Special to speak with female DJs of underground electronica smashing boundaries of social and institutional gender inequality.

It's not exactly a new phenomena. Yet the gender dynamic of the global electronic music scene has never quite reflected this, and that's nothing new either.

Still, in the midst of a pandemic, BAME and Latino women continue trailblazing through cyberspace, live-streaming their perpetual beats and pieces.

From global female artist platforms like Psy-Sisters and Female:Pressure  to independent music festivals like Psy-Boutique: some of the women we spoke with have cultivated a spectrum of projects in the face of political instability and gender inequality to elevate other female and non-binary artists everywhere.

When UK artist DJ PsiBindi aka Rena Biring launched Psy-Sisters in 2012 – it was in response to the lack of women on line ups of music festivals and events.

The classical-Indian trained vocalist of Indian-Pakistani descent who is also front woman for alt rock band Sentience Machine, has been DJing on London's underground music scene for the best part of two decades and recently joined forces with tech start up Musicbox to make remote artist collaboration easier and entice more women to step up to music production.

In the midst of a pandemic, BAME and Latino women continue trailblazing through cyberspace, live-streaming their perpetual beats and pieces

The Psy-Sisters founder told The New Arab: "It's been brilliant to see social media dominated this weekend by all-female DJ live stream events. Despite the global pandemic, cyberspace has been a catalyst for celebrating female energy and there has been an abundance of creativity and collaboration from both women and men."

DJ and vocalist DJ PsiBindi on stage at Ozora Festival, Hungary (August 2016)

On Sunday night, she hosted a Women's Day 'Psy-Sisters Takeover' show on the Mexican female radio network Radio Cósmica Libre, discussing the gender gap in music production and how to close it.

Cósmica Libre founder DJ Hackie, who was interviewed by PsiBindi on the show told The New Arab: "According to statistics, 11 women or girls are killed in Mexico every day. This is the real pandemic existing for years and its escalating so fast it's vertiginous. There is a climate of fear since sexism is at the core of Mexican culture and translates into violence.

"Being a female DJ is almost an affront to the status quo in a scene managed by men. I have found the answer is to collectivise knowledge, work as a team with women I admire, curate 50/50 line-ups and own and operate equipment so we don't have to depend on male engineers/promoters relegating artists on gender bias."

Others like DJ Bahar Canca from Turkey have taken the reins by launching their own music festivals and curating line-ups celebrating female DJs. She said more women involved in event organisation are key to providing space for female acts. "I run a small festival called Psy-Boutique and we have many women playing at our events, from Ebru to DJ A$ia."

She said it helps that the Turkish underground scene offers more room for equality "away from age, sex and class discrimination" and "the underground scene is a far cry from the commercial dance music scene that creates inequality by demanding female artists are good looking and sexy."

Over in India, iconic artist DJ Ma Faiza has been fighting gender inequality and LGBTQ rights for more than two decades, paving the way to the DJ console for hundreds of other Indian women too.

Ma Faiza plays to crowds during a full moon party in Anjuna, Goa, India (January 2021)

She told The New Arab: "When I first started DJing in India over two decades ago, there was but a handful of women DJs. Now there are at least a few hundred covering many different genres and some very successful women respected for their super music and amazing DJ skills. We have definitely come a long way in this conservative society, but we still have a long way to go beyond mainly male audiences wanting to book a female DJ as a novelty."

The artist describes Indian society as "patriarchal" – which she said has made it difficult to be taken seriously for most female DJs. About her own success, she added: "I feel like I've been able to secure this success because I don't look like most other women; my looks don't drive my work or encourage me to be sexualised by my fans or peers.

"As a very comfortable 'out' lesbian, I've been able to navigate myself in the music industry by focusing on my music not my gender. I think it's harder for binary women to be seen for their work not their looks and gender."

Copenhagen based Chilean artist DJ Nanda spoke with The New Arab about her experience of the gender pay gap: "When a male superstar DJ performs for an hour and receives a fat pay cheque compared to a female artist who spends six hours for next to nothing, it is not acceptable. It's critical to take a stance against this. This means elevating our standards and this is the big change we need to embrace."

Read also: #MeToo in MENA: The women shaking the region out of its silence on sexual harassment

Gender inequality on a universal level combined with political instability on a regional one drives home reality for Iranian artists like DJ Sahara Dawn. The Sufi and Persian poetry-inspired composer and performer grew up in Tehran "performing and throwing desert shows at stunning secret spots around Iran."

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It's where she also formed her first psychedelic prog rock band. Straight after live streaming her DJ set in Mexico, she told The New Arab: "Growing up in Iran was extremely challenging because I had to operate in an underground scene to live the life I desired, which means fear becomes your everyday reality.

"From childhood, I had a deep desire for freely expressing my art and it gave me courage to follow my dreams. So I learned to transmute trauma and terror through art and music into something transcendental for others to behold."

In the meantime, the pandemic is threatening the music scene everywhere – including the survival of more than 500 small British music venues; the 1930s Widgeon Theatre Boat is one of them. On Sunday, another roster of female artists like Amaluna, Florescence and South Africa's Miss Kiff also live-streamed their DJ sets to help raise funds to keep the quirky gig space afloat.

Things are changing for women in Japan with conservative ideals about gender  challenged by the rise in female artists and music networks in cities like Tokyo. Japanese ambient artist and reiki healer DJ Yumii is one of the protagonists of the electronic music scene there.

She told The New Arab: "There's a strong tendency towards chauvinism as it's a conservative society; yet still we have many talented female DJs in Japan. I'm part of several music networks here and younger generations are moving away from mostly male line-ups."

Japanese ambient DJ and reiki master DJ Yumii at The Experience Festival, Ko-tao island, Thailand (December 2019)

Female DJs in China are more less concerned about gender dynamics in the country though.

Chinese artist DJ Acid Echoes from Yunnan Province told The New Arab: "There's not much challenge in China as a female DJ; in fact you might get more gigs as now people are making more female DJ nights." She said the real challenge is putting on events in a climate where the government doesn't support them. "It's rare to see over 150 people so it's still super underground here."

Women DJs almost everywhere confirm there is an inextricable link between music and politics as they fight their respective battles in countries right across the world. Women's Day is a reminder of that reality, and that celebrating women and their diversity, is not just an annual event.


Anu Shukla is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow her on Twitter: @AnuShuklaWrites

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