Music: When women turn the tables

By Elissa Jobson in Addis Ababa, Kim Garner in Johannesburg and Rose Skelton
Posted on Thursday, 24 April 2014 12:08

From Dakar to Durban, DJs have long been mixing music for the dancefloor, blending the best of South African quaito music with Angolan kuduru, Tunisian hip-hop and the hottest sounds emerging from Kinshasa, London and New York.

At nightclubs, fashion shows and dance parties across the continent, DJs are the essential ingredient for getting the crowd on its feet. But in most African countries DJing remains a male-dominated world where women have to fight to be considered equal.

Happily this is changing. DJettes or DJanes, as they are sometimes called, are on the rise.

One of Ghana’s top talents, DJ Keyzzz, says she has met four women DJs in Accra in the past year. “There’s still a long way to go before the men start to feel any real competition, but we’ll get there,” she says.

In North Africa, the 2011 Arab Spring played a part, says Tia Korpe, project co-ordinator at Turning Tables, which organises training for DJs in marginalised communities.

“The uprisings opened new doors for self expression and artistic freedom,” she says, “but essentially women have been participatory in urban youth subculture for many years.”

While in some parts of the continent it is hard to get promoters and club owners to even consider putting a woman on the bill, in others female DJs are in high demand because they
are so rare.

They are thriving in South Africa and Nigeria, and in countries like Senegal a strong urban scene is starting to melt down stereotypes and prejudice.

It is not an easy route. The stigma attached to the work environment can still hold women back. Katy M, one of Morocco’s first female DJs, says that when she told her parents what she wanted to do as a job, they refused to allow it because working in a nightclub was too risky.

If women want to be taken seriously in the world of DJing, she says, “the work mustn’t be done only in nightclubs.”

Women in Africa still face gender stereotypes when it comes to choosing the turntables, says Korpe.

“Women often have to make the choice and then defend it to family members, institutions and society. Some are religious and socio-economic reasons, but it can also be personal obstacles. It takes courage to choose to be a female DJ, and it takes very hard work to be respected as one.” ●

Djette Reyo Rabat > dubstep fan

Things have started changing for female DJs in Morocco, says Rabat’s Djette Reyo. “For sure, people did not easily accept the idea that a woman could do this job. It was looked down upon and you had to make yourself respected. But lately the majority of Moroccans have started to respect women and Djettes have become really in demand. Women are better paid than men now because we are rare in Morocco.”
The 21-year-old DJ, who also studies production management, writes for magazines and presents a radio show in Ouarzazate, told her mother when she was 10 that one day she would see her behind the turntables. “I had a lot of problems with my parents, even more so because I am a girl,” she says. “For them, it was essential that I finish my studies, but with time they accepted it.” Djette Reyo plays house, electro and dubstep at festivals, con- certs and, less frequently, in nightclubs. In the beginning, it was a struggle to get gigs, but once she was invited onto TV and radio shows in Morocco and Tunisia, and journalists started writing about her, the phone started ringing. “Women have become in demand,” she says. “I hope that art in general moves forward in Morocco because it’s really hard to get started and even harder to make a living from it.” ●

DJ Keyzzz Accra > beat phreak

“I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, and it was just natural that I’d end up doing something related to music,” says Ghana’s DJ Keyzzz, a self-labelled ‘beat phreak’. She loves to experiment with house, hip-hop, dubstep, grime, trap, dancehall and Afrobeats, mixing up the genres to get a unique sound. She plays at music festivals, concerts, fashion shows, pubs and lounges. “The only thing I really care about is playing for a crowd that appreciates my art. I would definitely choose a crowd in a dingy spot that’ll spur my creativity over a ‘play-this-genre-else-you-flopped’ crowd in a classy location.” She says she knows a lot more women DJs now than two years ago, “but it’s kind of like the rap scene where females are labelled ‘femcees’ instead of just calling them emcees. There’s still that very clear distinction between a male DJ and a female DJ down here. And like any male-dominated field, it’s very hard not to feel like the odd bolt in a jar of nuts sometimes,” she says. “Most of the big events only feature male DJs in their line-ups, and it’s a big deal when there’s the odd female in the mix, which mostly feels like they are doing your ‘race’ a favour by letting you into their distinguished club. So yes, I guess we still have ways to go before we see any proper change in that regard.” DJ Keyzzz says that African societies generally frown upon women who venture into this kind of career and that this inhibits female creative potential because women tend to have stricter curfews than men. Her male colleagues at gigs sometimes ask her what her parents will say when she gets home. “Mostly I just laugh it off,” she says, “but it goes to prove my point that even the men who are out late don’t think you should be there at that time.” It was a hard sell to convince her family that DJing was a credible career. “My family, like a lot of African families, considers anything to do with art as a hobby.” Her day job as a project manager at a software company keeps them from panicking. “I guess I’ll just say my DJing is still a very sensitive topic around the house.” ●

Dj Yemi Addis Ababa > rare breed

Yemi Fisseha describes herself as a “rare breed”. She was the first – and still is the only – woman DJ in Addis Ababa. But when she returned to Ethiopia six years ago after school in the United States, she found it difficult to get started. “They thought I was joking when I said I was a DJ,” Yemi laughs. “In Ethiopia, no matter how modern people might seem, the culture is really uptight when it comes to females.” She tried to secure her first gig, but the owner of the club dismissed her out of hand. “He didn’t want to see me or even try me out. After that I decided never to ask for a job,” Yemi says. She started getting gigs at house parties or small gatherings. “A lot of people would come and look and me and be like ‘Are you a guy or girl?'” she explains. “Word travelled so fast. People started to check me out, and the gigs started rolling in.” Now Yemi says that she is one of the best DJs in town. “I’m not trying to be cocky,” she insists. “Everyday I listen to new music – when I’m in the shower, when I’m walking, when I’m driving. I work hard when it comes to my music.” And what does her family think of her profession? “At first my dad freaked out. He was in sheer tears. He thought my life was over,” she recalls. “But now he’s my number one fan.” ●

Dj Poppy Johannesburg > radio presenter

For South Africans who crawl home in rush-hour traffic, Poppy Ntshong- wana’s voice is as familiar as any family member’s. As a radio presenter in Johan- nesburg – she is part of 5FM’s afternoon drive show – Poppy holds her own next to long-time pro DJ Fresh. When the show is over, Poppy drops upbeat house tracks in some of the hottest clubs. DJ Poppy got started by just doing it. “I just started practising and got out doing a few gigs,” she says. “That was six years ago, and things just rolled on from there.” Female DJs have had a relatively smooth ride to the decks in South Africa. One of the best-known, Lady Lea, has been playing for the past 17 years. In 2003, the Sisters of Spin com- petition began to identify local talent. The competition organisers provide training at the event, and it now runs annually. DJ Poppy says that she has never experienced gender discrimination, but she says the industry is still filled with testosterone. “There are still a gazillion male DJs. But I do think there are more female DJs coming to the forefront and being recognised, so it’s becoming a more competitive environment,” she explains. “My family has been very supportive. I think there was some concern in the beginning about whether I would make ends meet, but they have always been behind me.” ●

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