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Us, Too: The woman DJ renaissance you can't ignore

For Women's History Month, REVOLT TV spoke to a few women DJs about their work in such a male-dominated industry.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

It's shockingly easy to not be aware of the impending renaissance happening with women who deejay.

Women DJs, on average, are paid 54% less than their male counterparts, according to a 2017 research study. No woman has ever made Forbes' list for the Top 10 Highest Paid DJs. Even though the Global Spin Awards -- one of the most prestigious DJ award shows -- has a female DJ category, no woman has ever been nominated, let alone won, the night’s highest honor: Best DJ of the Year.

All of that may soon change as there has been a noticeable influx of women who are either entering the deejaying space for the first time or finally getting recognition. "Ten years ago, it was literally like eight of us. Now, I'm seeing 80 of us," DJ Jazzy T told REVOLT TV.

DJ Jazzy T is an on-air personality on 96.7 The Beat in Atlanta, Georgia and has a mix show on 101.1 The Beat in Nashville, Tennessee. She's been deejaying for 11 years and started to notice a sizeable increase in women deejaying in 2015. That was the same year Niara Sterling, 24, and JADALAREIGN, 27, began professionally deejaying and have since made a name for themselves in the New York City party scene.

Zephyr Ann, 29, has been deejaying professionally for eight years and currently has a residency at Brooklyn's House of Yes. She's also played at the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, Full Moon Festival, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Then, there's DJ Soupamodel, a 20-year veteran and Africa's first woman DJ.

These aren’t women who are happy to just be here. These are DJs aware of everything around them, and who have stories of the strife and ingenuity about being a woman in a male-dominated space.

The "Female DJ"

There's a sort of exclusionary empowerment in the phrases "female DJ" and "woman DJ." They make women inextricable in their marginalization because deejaying is so overwhelmingly dominated by men. At the same time, those titles make women constant reminders of those being sidelined; and thus, their individual shine reflects on all women in this field.

But, empowerment can turn into tokenism as quick as a change in someone's voice when they refer to someone as a "female DJ." JADA, Niara and Zephyr all say they can hear the underlying tones when someone utters those phrases. None of the women I spoke to particularly mind being called a "woman DJ," but are quick to note the inherent hypocrisy in it.

“The only reason I say I’m just a DJ is because I don’t go up to a man and go, ‘Oh, you’re a man DJ. It's good to see men DJs here.’ I think because there’s a new influx of women DJs, it’s a thing now. 'Women DJ' is redundant. She’s a woman DJ," Sterling said to REVOLT TV.

Zephyr Ann's DJ sets double as therapy sessions that know which songs will not only elicit dance moves, but emotional connections. To her, you need to have "emotional intelligence to be a good DJ, male or female" because you can discern which records will evoke the emotion you want in a crowd.

"Women are more sensitive to that and respond to that on an emotional level. Men respond to it on an emotional level, too. But, I think when women feel it, it makes them come up to the DJ and go, ‘Yo, you got me. You understood something and you played to that well.'”

A Woman's Hustle

Studies may show women making 54% less than men. But, the reality is much worse for some.

"In some situations [men get paid triple]. For me, it's declined a bit, and it's only double. But, there's been situations where this man has made three times the amount I have and I work just as hard," DJ Jazzy T said.

Even after shortchanging hardworking DJs based on their gender, the women say venues take it a step further and are willing to negotiate the DJ's set rate down. Renegotiations can include being paid less and expected to cover more of the expenses such as transporting equipment. One such instance included a venue scheduling a wedding reception during a DJ's regular night at the venue without informing them, as a way to not pay more for booking them for the ceremony.

Once a woman recognizes her worth and asks to be paid accordingly, negotiations have been known to stop. "[Venues] will pay the same rate, year to year. This particular venue, I got a certain amount with them for a certain period of time. It was something extra on top of the monthly party I was doing. But, when the new year hit, I asked, 'Can we work something out for the new year? What's good? You've seen me this year,'" JADALAREIGN said.

A DJ like JADALAREIGN books her own shows, handles her flyer designs and social media promotion, all while spending countless hours listening to music and perfecting her craft. "When we're deejaying, that's not the whole job of a DJ. The behind-the-scenes is really the most work. Me knowing my music, my cue points. Setting it, analyzing it and organizing it. I have to know how to blend," Niara Sterling said. "I've seen a DJ just put on a mix. But, they're getting paid. That's so insulting."

Times are starting to change with more women who deejay amassing a large enough following and as a result, demand that they no longer have to fight to get paid fairly. They can just take their brand elsewhere.

"I used to go toe-to-toe because there was a point where I was like, 'Y'all got me F'ed up. What are we going to do?' So, I always had a mouthpiece on me," Jazzy T said. "It took me realizing the higher I got and the different levels I got, I couldn't always yap off at the mouth when something went wrong. I had to really learn the business. Now, I'm at a point where my price is my price and the only negotiation I'm having is if the price is going up."

The Invisible Crate Of Records

In 1988, American feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay titled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" about the intangible benefits white people possess and can access with a relative ease similar to reaching into a knapsack. Women DJs don't have an invisible knapsack full of beneficial privilege. Instead, they lug around an invisible crate of records that are historically accepted sexist conventions that weigh them down and thusly slow their progression. Having their gender weigh on their minds has made women who deejay second guess things a male DJ may never think of.

"I didn't want people to think I didn't have a talent. No disrespect to supermodels. I didn't want people to think I was a supermodel turned DJ. I didn't want that stigma. So, I changed the name," DJ Soupamodel told us when discussing her alias.

Being a DJ since the turn of the century, Soupamodel has seen the slow rise of women in the space. While she welcomes more women to hop behind the turntables, she hopes they all have the strength to acknowledge and carry that invisible crate of records high, while not impeding the progress women have made.

"We're still trying to cover this grey area. While we're doing that, the onus is on us to understand that we don't have a lot of wiggle room. We have to constantly hold this craft high. Now, female DJs are here to stay. But, whether we like it or not, it's not accepted everywhere."

All of these women are working to make sure that wiggle room leads to breakthroughs for other women who want to deejay. Soupamodel started a music school, has her Music Blvd Group music licensing company in 53 countries, and runs Sync Con; a series of music seminars across the country focused on educating people on music licensing. JADALAREIGN has been helping run a Skillshare workshop series centered on women and LGBTQ people of color who want to learn about deejaying, and production.

DJ Jazzy T plans to collaborate with more women in her field because women who are deejaying is “a real culture. It's a real thing. It’s no more play-play. It’s really here."

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