DJing While Female in NYC: ‘I Can't Believe You’re a Chick...'

Andi Harriman of Synthicide
Andi Harriman of Synthicide
Courtesy of Andi Harriman

We live in the age of the gender wage gap, glass ceilings, and dance floors dominated by male DJs.  In addition to creating a playlist that will make their audience rock out until the close of the bar, DJs like Sommer Santoro are forced to deal with micro-agressions while executing flawless transitions from one track to the next. “I’ve collected records for years, so playing them for other people came naturally, but I had to baby-step my way from friends' parties to weekend nights in NYC,” Santoro explains. “I recall a drunk guy say[ing] to me one night, ‘I can't believe you’re a chick. You’re actually playing good music.'”

A dedicated vinyl enthusiast and the co-owner of Black Gold Records, Santoro is aware that, for some, there is something surprising about seeing a woman in the DJ booth. “There is generally an element of surprise when people see that I’m female, especially when they see that I play exclusively vinyl,” she says. “I’m not just a female DJ but [also] now a mother that DJs. I just did my first gig since having my baby and I brought her along… I want my daughter to know what I do and I want to include her.”

The moment of surprise that Santoro recounts seems to go hand-in-hand with occupying the predominately male space of the DJ scene. The reaction is consistent whether one is spinning garage rock via ‘45s or industrial cuts from the Eightie. “I started DJing about two years ago,” Andi Harriman of Synthicide recounts. “My first gig was at this goth night at Don Pedro’s in Brooklyn.” As her expertise as a DJ grew, so did the occurrence of sexist behavior from men. “There was this industrial club and I had been going there religiously for about a year,” Harriman explains. “I finally got a gig there and I had this great set. I played it, and it went well, but after my set, the promoter came up to me — he was a man, and he said ‘You know those are my songs you were playing…You can’t play them.’ It really upset me. I couldn’t believe that someone could claim that these songs from the Eighties were their songs… He didn’t make them, he didn’t own them, but when I played them he had a problem with it. I know that if a man played those songs he wouldn’t have said that. I just felt like he thought that he had the right to say that to me, so I went home and I cried and I was upset, but it was good, because it made me realize that I needed to work harder.”

The demand for female DJs to validate their credibility in the eyes of male promoters and male DJs is an unfortunate constant. “I don’t think that we should have to work harder than men, but it's helped me in my career knowing that I’m going to be better,” Harriman states. Turning an instance of misogyny into inspiration, Harriman has been forced to simultaneously deal with objectification while spinning beats in dim lit clubs. “This guy came up to me and was like, 'I don’t wanna sound like a creep, but you looked so hot up on the stage, and your song choice was great,'” she recalls. “I just think women are already thought of as objects… men just want to look at you. You could have a grungy guy up there that people will praise and you will have a woman that’s worked equally as hard, but she doesn’t look a certain way, then guys aren’t interested or they’ll critique her harder.”

Despite having her credibility constantly questioned and having to cope with instances of objectification, Harriman views DJing as an empowering and fulfilling act. “Meeting people who are equally as interested in music, male or female, that’s something that I've always wanted — just being able to have a conversation with someone about a rare record from 1988,” she says. For Harriman, those moments of connection and community are “a blessing.”

“Know that if there’s an empty floor eventually people will start dancing. Don’t get discouraged,” she says. “Keep DJing what you like… don’t worry about what other people are doing because you will find your own path.”

Forging one's own way through enthusiasm and persistence is exactly what Newtown Radio’s Ashely Denise MaGee, a/k/a Black Betty, did when she started spinning tunes in 2008. Now the host of NO SUGAR, NO C.R.E.A.M, the Midwest native got her start with mix tapes.

“It was mostly just a hobby at first,” MaGee states. “I never really thought that I would be good enough to go out and actually do it. I was always that person making playlists for parties and sending people mix tapes and I was always irritated by the DJs that I saw in parts of the city, and they were always dudes. I just felt like there was a void as a woman, so I was like, 'Let’s try this.'”

MaGee describes her first gig as “awkward” but “fun.“ "I got addicted to that attention and surprise that people get when they hear that I play.” Cutting her teeth on house parties and smaller venues, she gradually got her “bearings” as a DJ. “I was proud, but the guys that followed me got a certain amount of attention that I envied. It kind of irritated me because I didn’t feel like they played anything better than I did, but they got more attention, you know?”

These encounters were a disappointment, yet expected. “Its mostly just these micro-aggressive moments of, like, 'Oh, what do you know about this or that?' and I have been ripped off,” she admits. Once while sharing the bill with two other DJs, both maIe, MaGee was never paid her share. “Because they knew each other, they sort of wanted that credibility that comes with having a black female DJ with you. You know? They needed that extra color in there, but even though they used me for that, they didn’t even think to compensate me.”

From sampling Nicole Kidman’s speech in Eyes Wide Shut to including snippets of Kim Kardashian’s famous voicemails to Ray Jay, MaGee’s attraction to unapologetic emotives isn’t just inspiring, it’s empowering. “It's more about feeling and mood,” she says of her approach. “I’m not playing almost ever to the guys in the room. I am always thinking about if I were on the other side of the booth what I would want to hear. I end up using usually 80 to 90 percent female artists in my mixes. Its never intentional; it just happens that way… I also like the idea of [mixing in] angry women. Something about that speaks to me. Women who are unapologetic about the way that they feel and their emotions… I take that into my mixes.” 

Whether it be on the radio or behind the booth at a venue, MaGee describes the experience of sharing her mixes with an audience as affirming. “It is really great to have that excitement that people have when they hear something that they’ve never heard before and have people approach me in a way that is respectful, not fetishized,” she states. “The female DJ is still a rarity, but we’re seeing more of a community growing among us.”

Ciarra Black of NO-TECH
Ciarra Black of NO-TECH

Community for female DJs is vital. Collectives like Discwoman have dedicated themselves to not only fostering community between DJs, but committing to represent a diverse array of female-identifying talent. “We provide a support network, where women can feel like someone has their back. We started our booking agency because we wanted to officially represent the talent we work with,” co-founder Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson explains. Having celebrated their one-year anniversary earlier this month, one of the collective’s main concerns is safety.

“Recently I was at a club where the bouncer actually said something completely inappropriate to me, and I confronted him on the spot, stating that it was unacceptable for members of staff to make women uncomfortable," recalls Hutchinson. "Who do we have if we don't have the support of club security? That's why I really only go to a few clubs. I'm not that adventurous. The fear of sexual harassment absolutely affects your mobility.” In addition to demanding respect and advocating for safe spaces for female DJs, Discwoman also encourages promoters and clubs to recognize how vital diversity to a lineup. “Since starting Discwoman, we have definitely noticed change within our community, which is awesome,” Hutchinson says. “But there's still a very bro-ed out culture which honestly is just embarrassing to watch. If you can't see the positive affects of diversifying your line up, then your event is going to suffer.”

Brooklyn-based DJ and producer Ciarra Black of NO-TECH attests to the impact that Discwoman has made in the electronic scene. “I am extremely lucky being surrounded by a community of incredibly fierce and genuinely talented female identified DJs and producers that have emerged within the electronic and techno scene in Brooklyn, especially over this past year or two,” Black explains. “Part of that can be attributed to organizations like Discwoman who have worked hard to book and promote female DJs and electronic producers that may have not otherwise gotten the same opportunities within the male-dominated scene.”

Black, like Harriman, MaGee, and Santoro, has also experienced instances of sexism and male aggression during gigs. Thanks to Discwoman, the frequency of those occurrences has decreased, but there is still a great deal of work left to be done. “Something I’ve noticed recently is a dichotomy between women who are excited to be a part of a community and women that feel they have worked hard on their own in this scene and don’t want to be recognized on that basis,” Black states. “It’s hard because I understand both points of view and have struggled with it myself. The reality of that matter is that at the end of the day I think women doing this need to support each other in any way we can because we already have enough to prove.”

With so much to offer and such a diverse range of DJ talent, it is disheartening that the female DJ is still seen as taboo in juxtaposition to the male DJ. Mute Record’s Caroline Shadood is challenging that taboo head on with residencies at notable venues like the Ace Hotel and Williamsburg’s Baby’s All Right. The former music director of college station WMUH and founder of Broadist, Shadood’s recent residencies have led to the creation of her own monthly DJ night at Our Wicked Lady every first Wednesday under the moniker One Non Blonde. Often found blasting beloved tracks by the Shirelles, Dum Dum Girls, Lotti Golden, or LA Witch, Shadood’s love for music is as deep as her well-warranted dedication to being respected by her peers. “For male DJs — or men in the music industry in general — it’s considered a standard or normal [to be a DJ], so as a woman or a female-identified person you're inherently being critiqued and being paid more attention to because you’re not ‘normal,’” says Shadood.

Caroline Shadood of Mute Records, Broadist, and One Non BlondeEXPAND
Caroline Shadood of Mute Records, Broadist, and One Non Blonde
Courtesy of One Non Blonde

Verbally speaking out against sexism and standing up for oneself are two musts for Shadood. Both acts, for the rising DJ must be done unapologetically and without fear. “What’s been most helpful for me as my career grows...whenever I’m finding myself feeling guilty or like I should be minimizing my opinions, I think, 'Would a man do this? How would a man react to this situation or be treated in this situation?'” she says. “If I feel like a bitch for saying what I need to say, then so be it, because a dude would do it, but he wouldn’t be called a bitch — he’d just be called tough or professional. If someone says something offensive, I call them out immediately. If someone belittles me, I fire back. It's not because I’m bitter or jaded or have a chip on my shoulder. It's because respect is something that I deserve.”

In the end, amidst a sea of micro-aggressions, bias, and blatant sexism, it is the music that keeps these DJs going. It is the music that motivates them to continue to share their favorite anthems and well-loved ballads with room after room of strangers. “We kind of other ourselves sometimes,” Shadood suggests. “We think that we’re alone, or we're the only ones who care about what we care about, or that what we care about isn’t legitimate to the public. That’s not true at all, and actually, there’s a lot of shared space and shared community.”

An example of this shared community, this cohesion and solidarity that exists between music lovers and between female DJs, is Dee Dee Penny, the front woman of Dum Dum Girls. “My DJ role is relatively casual,” she explains. “I like to dance and I like to really feel...I haven’t experienced sexism as a DJ but I have certainly experienced it with my band.”

Occasionally DJing at various venues in NYC, Dee Dee attributes her fondness for curating songs to her passion for music. “Let this be an ode to Venus X and Lauren Flax,” the singer-songwriter urges. “The nights they’ve curated and the work they’ve produced is incredibly inspiring…Just stay hungry. The music world is endless; there will always be new shit that will blow your mind… and hone your craft — being good at what you do is powerful as fuck.” 

Andi Harriman's monthly party, Synthicide, takes place October 9 at Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick. Click here for more details. 

Caroline Shadood is DJing Mute Records' CMJ party October 15 , 5pm-10pm at Baby's All Right. Click here for more details. Her other night, One Non Blonde, is every first Wednesday at Our Lady Wicked Lady in Bushwick.

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