Meet the new wave of Black women and nonbinary DJs mixing up the Montreal scene
DJs like Yaya, Tati Au Miel and Glowzi have carved out their own underground within the underground
Montreal is widely regarded as the beating heart of Canada's underground culture, often being likened to a "baby Berlin." But for some members of Montreal's electronic music community, the underground hasn't always been so welcoming.
Black women and nonbinary DJs and producers have had to carve out space in a scene that wasn't created with them in mind. Despite anti-Blackness and gender-based discrimination, they have collectively remodelled a scene that once felt alienating to them and members of their communities.
In reclaiming genres created by Black people like techno and injecting more genres of the African diaspora like dancehall, baile funk and gqom into the mix, they have succeeded in cementing their influence on the city.
To get a deeper perspective on this shift and what's going on within this community, CBC Arts spoke with three DJs who call Montreal home.
Remodelling the scene
Yasmine Seck, a.k.a. Yaya, started DJing in 2014 to remedy the fact that the music she wanted to hear was missing from Montreal's techno and house-heavy nightlife. "It was to offer my community a space where we could listen to stuff that is different...but I felt Montreal wasn't giving space to that kind of music," she says.
At her recurring party "No Techno No House" at the techno club Datcha, she plays Afrobeat, hip hop, dembow, reggaeton and baile funk.
In her past experience, the Montreal scene wasn't welcoming to people who were just starting out. She credits the early support of established DJs, like Frankie Teardrop, for giving her the opportunity to learn.
Equally alienated — this time by white queer parties — Tania Daniel, a.k.a. Tati Au Miel, became a DJ in 2017 out of a necessity to create space for people that looked like them.
An antithesis to the "white bro" culture of certain clubs, they're trans nonbinary and play deconstructed, industrial techno and live experimental sets. Along with their partner Maiko Rodrig, they launched a promotions company called Trademark to book events bringing more artists of colour to Montreal.
Exploiting the eager
Gloria-Sherryl François, a.k.a. Glowzi, recalls bookers taking advantage of her eagerness to hone her craft. "My first gigs were ridiculous," she says. "I was paid $50 to play for five hours."
When she would ask others playing the same shows as her, she'd find out they were getting paid twice as much. "There are too many black DJs who have the same experiences as me and it's frustrating."
Promoters get away with underpaying fledgling DJs, but François believes this "makes DJing inaccessible to certain people because to do gigs and be underpaid you have to have really strong monetary and psychological support." She was lucky to find a mentor in Aisha Vertus, a.k.a. Gayance, who helped her steer clear of exploitative deals.
Many Black DJs in Montreal are independent and have to navigate this themselves. Daniel learned over time that if the pay, location, set time and lineup weren't stated in initial dealings, it was usually a red flag.
Being Black in Montreal
"I always felt uncomfortable when I would go out because Montreal is very white." says Daniel. According to the 2016 census, about 76 percent of Montreal's metropolitan population is white. About 6.6 percent is Black.
Entering spaces where you're the only Black person is isolating. In the techno scene, Daniel is an outlier — but believes their visibility carries important weight. "I get into an ugly mood sometimes because I want to be present and I want to be visible but it's a lot to handle. It's a lot of labour."
For others, it's a question of merely getting into the club at all. In Old Port, some clubs are known to have racist door policies. They bar entry to groups of Black men because of their attire but let in groups of white partiers dressed the same way.
Seck avoids affiliating with these types of venues: "I'm not going to dig with a club that plays Black music but refuses to let Black people in because they're too 'hood.'"
The importance of visibility and inclusivity
"Inclusivity goes hand in hand with security, making sure it's a safe space to be," says Daniel. Untrained security guards can be a threat to trans and nonbinary people whose IDs might not match up with how they present their gender, and the responsibility usually falls on the promoter or DJ to do the educating.
"My work is very important because I'm making sure that people like me want to come out and be part of a space that feels safe to them, that feels like home."
This is where inclusivity and visibility work in tandem. Daniel's hypervisibility and commanding presence behind the decks reassured François that she could take up space in the same way.
"When you're [a Black woman] playing house or electro, people will make you feel like you're not really supposed to be there," François says.
Seck plans on doing more promoting so she can "look out for women" and book overlooked DJs. To her, "individual success doesn't last at all, but in Montreal if we create a movement, that's what lasts." Her goal is to link the micro-communities within the larger scene together.
Both Daniel and François have similar stories about the knowledge of DJing being passed down a long line of Black people within their friend groups, and they both credit their early success to the community around them.
There is also something to be said of the relationship fostered between DJs and their crowds. The common thread among Montreal's Black women and nonbinary DJs, regardless of genre, is an intrinsic sense of responsibility to other Black people.
In March, François played a set at Montreal after-hours institution, Moonshine, that made her feel an indescribable connection to all the strangers in the room. Following severe political unrest in Haiti in February that resulted in communications being blocked from the island, she lost contact with family members there. Coupled with the general malaise of the Trump presidency and the recent spike in white supremacist ideals, she was finding it to be "a hard time to be Black."
She wanted to play a set to tell her fellow people that things would be okay. "There were just so many reminders that you're not supposed to make it here, like this system is not made for you to survive in it."
She filled the room with the sounds of gqom and afrohouse, her long braids covering her eyes and the CDJs. She doesn't remember how she did the transitions. The crowd was covered in sweat, dancing gwara gwara (a popular South African dance) and joyfully letting it all go.
"I felt like the ancestors came and took my soul."