We Spoke To The Black Madonna About Gender Inequality In Dance Music

With the help of The Black Madonna, Smirnoff is launching a three-year initiative to tackle gender inequality in dance music for #InternationalWomensDay


Image via Jake Davis


To mark International Women's Day, Smirnoff are launching a three-year initiative to tackle gender inequality in music, and have linked up with the Chicago-based DJ and producer The Black Madonna to champion the cause.

The Equalising Music initiative was kicked off with the premiere screening of the Femme Electronic documentary (featuring The Black Madonna and Uganda's DJ Rachel), followed by a discussion panel with Broadly editor Zing Tsjeng, The Black Madonna, NTS host Moxie and Smirnoff's Leila Fataar. From there, the star of the night took to the DJ booth (alongside selectors Moxie and HAAi) to bring some wildly eclectic rave sets that spanned '80s house classics to bleeding-edge club bangers. The Black Madonna has always gone to lengths to use her status to champion a variety of issues and to give a leg up to talent she feels is being overlooked.

Throughout our conversation, The Black Madonna (née Marea Stamper) spoke quickly and passionately about the state of play in dance music, and the world in general. Many of the criticisms she made of the music industry could generally be leveled at the rest of society, but there are still issues that are unique to dance music such as the disproportionately low number of women, trans or non-binary people on line-ups. Complex sat down with The Black Madonna to discuss her role in the project, the achievable targets she hopes the initiative will hit, and why we should remain positive. 

We're here for Smirnoff's three-year initiative to tackle gender inequality in electronic music, the launch party and the short film you made with Uganda's DJ Rachel. Usually, in interviews like this where there's an important issue or project behind it, but given everything that's going on right now in the news, I'm wondering if that's redundant.

Yeah, well a little bit. I would just say that we're at a better point now in general because there was a certain time when even recognising the inequality between men and everyone else in dance music was considered a controversial position. There was this prevailing point of view that the gender gap was some kind of natural outgrowth of a meritocracy that just existed. I do think now we're starting to get to a point where people understand, at least to some degree, that the gap is not just the way of the world. It's not the way the dice fell. It's not coincidental. It's not biological. And it's not a meritocracy. There are some systemic issues that exist on earth and apply to everything that we deal with. So people are starting to realise. People are also starting to recognise the value of having women become successful forces in dance music. It's not charity and it's not something that just benefits women. It benefits businesses and brings larger crowds.

It serves a group of people who are often underserved. Women have money to spend and they want to see themselves reflected in all the art that they consume. Music is no different. We understand the need for representation of women in other arts. It'd be unusual if we saw ballet with no women in it. Essentially, we're extending that thinking to dance music. I'm glad it seems like an obvious answer. Until very recently I would say it wasn't that obvious. Most of my life, in 20 years of dance music, I was always told that women were less interested in it, they didn't care, they didn't want to do it. It was a thing that, for whatever reason, men were naturally more interested in. I always disagreed with that and I think we're finding that it's absolutely not true. So now what we're doing is we're saying if the problem is systematic then the solution must be systematic as well. And that's why we’re here today.

When I first got into dance music, I remember the concepts of acceptance and inclusiveness being at the forefront of rave culture. Did we lose that or was it just a romantic myth?

Well, it was never inclusive for women. You even listen to all of the records that have lyrics that address this explicitly, a record like "Can You Feel It" for example: You may be black, you may be white / You may be jew or gentile. There's no You may be man, you may be woman. It's a wonderful record, but there was never an explicit call that I can recall. Even the roles that women played in dance music were always relegated to this inferior status, even though the reality of it is they weren’t inferior. There were always less women DJs, virtually none. There were some. I can only remember in certain areas a maximum of four or five major women DJs who were active. For a long time you had periods where it was Heather Heart or Baby Anne or DJ Rap or whoever. There was never a massive number of women who were active.

Now there's a huge number. But in general, dance music has always done a fine job of talking the talk but not walking the walk. You can say that dance music is inclusive but there are whole festivals in 2017 that only have men on their line-ups. That is completely crazy. You don't even have to be some great progressive to look at that and realise that doesn't make sense. To me, these ideas should not be controversial. They're not even particularly progressive. Just the math is weird. Dance music has always had the potential to at least welcome these philosophical ideas but dance music is an area where women have faced many challenges that men do not face. At a social level, dance music has always harboured some dangers for women, like the rest of the world does. These are dangers unique to women, and that goes double for trans women and non-binary folks.

Then there's the economic gap, which is a huge issue. Past what any of us are being paid for a show, just the sheer absence of women in line-ups has been inarguably lopsided. When you can have a whole festival with no women, or one, two, even five out of a hundred people - and this was considered normal. So I'd say with these ideas there is a utopia built into the ideology of dance music. Has that been reflected in the historical truth of these cultures? No. And let's not forget it would be wrong to talk about these gaps and not say that they're magnified by race, class and particular gender expressions. So if you think there’s a gap for a woman like me, tell me about what the gap is like for a black trans woman. It's a whole different ball game. While we get in the club and music is music, money is not money.

So it's with those things in mind that we are particularly mindful in this project of the way those forces come together. I don't think you need to intellectualise this and make it about some great theory of intersectionalism—although all of that applies here—you can simply just think about the humanity of people and the disproportionate challenges they face and say "Let's work together and fix it". Like I say, you don't have to have any great, sophisticated political point of view to understand that this is an issue and that we want to be cognisant and address it by setting some specific goals.

Specifically, what are those targets?

We want to double the number of women, female-identifying and non-binary headliners. That array of folks, we want to double their numbers in dance music. That is a succinct and reachable goal, but someone has to set it. You don't get to the moon by accident. You decide that you're going to the moon, you point the rocket there and eventually you get there. Until we make a conscious effort to bridge this gap, until we point our ship in the direction of our intention, it's never going to get there. This problem did not arise naturally and it will not resolve naturally.

So what can we do as fans on an individual level?

You can ask your local venues to book women, many of us also organise events. I'm conscious of it with Smart Bar in Chicago where I work. We literally count how many women there are, how many trans women there are, how many women of colour there are, how many non-binary. No matter who you are or what you care about, there are forces from the outside world and forces inside of you that cause you to overlook or to view things differently than they are. You don’t have to own a club to be a part of that. Look at your home venue. If they're not counting, then you count. If there's a woman DJ that you love, request her. It doesn't have to be Chicks Night at wherever. Each one of us can advocate alongside other people. There are action steps we can all take. We're all starting to recognise this is the situation we're in.

I'm glad to be partnering with a brand that recognises this because it happens at every level, from brands to clubs to agents and agencies. They must become more cognisant of this. None of us who work in this industry can do so without the help and networks that actually make these things happen. Women must be represented inside of agencies. I would urge any agents reading this to take a look at your roster and see what's missing from it. The main thing is that each of us, from the very top down to the punter in front of the speaker, whether you're part of a large organisation or just experiencing this at a granular level, just becoming conscious of it is the next step. That's what we're asking people to do.

Do you think people are becoming more conscious?

Oh, absolutely. I'm hopeful because it's something we have control of. It's something that each person can do something. There are people I know who never thought about it before that are thinking about it now. Lots of guys that I play with who are not particularly conscious who hadn't really thought about it but after I explained it saw that it's not so crazy. And it's not. Once we take it out of the abstract and take it down to the human level, everyone can understand what it means to see someone else served a whole pie while you get a spoonful. No human is unable to understand that.

Latest in Music