Arts

'Where I am today is because of them': Toronto's Black women and nonbinary DJs are one big family

The artists who call the city home are bound together by an ethos of caregiving that extends far beyond their own individual worlds.

The artists who call the city home are bound together by an ethos of caregiving

Dre Ngozi. (Courtesy)

Toronto is a city constantly on the pursuit of a distinct identity. But the very fluid, ever-evolving nature of Toronto's culture is what keeps its underground scene so intriguing — and this is most excitingly on display among the Black women and nonbinary DJs that call it home.

Some fought through times when they were overlooked, underestimated and underpaid to become tastemakers. Their parties are essential facets of the city's nightlife, booking the most left-of-centre international acts and pumping constant fresh blood to prevent the scene from stagnating.

This influence doesn't mean all their problems have been solved: Toronto's music and dance venues have been shuttering at a rampant rate, the venues that are still open aren't always welcoming and misognyoir can be an impediment to securing bookings. But they're dealing with all the shortcomings collectively, like any family does.

We spoke with several of these DJs to get more insight into the inner workings of this part of Toronto's dance music culture.

Lifting each other up

Community fosters organically amongst these DJs. They book each other, support each other's parties and come to bat for one another when anyone is mistreated. Ace Dillinger likens it to a family where "you're not necessarily best friends with everyone but you want to see each other succeed." And it's a family that extends to other racialized folks and white allies alike.

"I've been blessed that 90 per cent of the gigs in my career have been this niche where I know the people DJing," says Neteesha Rouse, a.k.a Young Teesh. There's a built-in practice of booking other emerging women and nonbinary DJs that helps newcomers get their footing while also creating a safe space to perfect their craft.

"Where I am today is because of them," Rouse says.

DJs like Bambii, Vaughan, Myst Milano, Hangaelle, Obuxum, Chanl Marshl, Minzi Roberta and more often work together. It's a large scene with a lot of players — to the benefit of the party-going community. And these parties often have a larger purpose: to fundraise, to emphasize genres of the African diaspora or to be an environment where Black people can feel safe and at home.

Key players

The sense of support that pervades this facet of the dance music scene seems to be rooted in a need to collectively create what doesn't already exist in Toronto. "We all come together because we're all looking for something that we've yet to find, and then when we come together we make it happen," says Dillinger.

One clear example of that is the bi-annual JERK party hosted by Kirsten Azan, a.k.a. Bambii. Started six years ago, JERK became a local mainstay thanks to its focus on Jamaican bashment-style partying with a twist and being a safer space for Black and POC queer people to celebrate. Created with her community in mind, it's become so popular that it's notorious for reaching capacity by midnight.

"Some of the best DJs we have in the city are Black women," says Dre Ngozi. They run their own nights, garner large crowds and have devoted followings. Even American parties that host northern iterations primarily hire Black women, nonbinary and women of colour DJs.

Dillinger has a roster of "key players" that happen to be Black women or women of colour. Her list includes Bambii, Chippy Nonstop, Nino Brown, Aanya, The Rude Collective and Jayemkayem. "If it's not something that's going through them, people aren't really watching or paying attention."

Rouse believes that they have a cultural influence over the underground scene but wants it to spread further: "I do think we have a voice and I hope it gets even louder in the future." Black women are not always recognized for starting trends or contributing to movements — so the goal is to shift that.

Something for everyone

There's a moment when a DJ is playing a killer set and the entire venue is on the same level, moving as one, that Ngozi calls being "in your pocket." The enthralling thing about all these DJs is that when they're in their pockets, you never know what's coming next.

The eclectic range of genres they play reflects the mix of cultures in the city. It's not uncommon to hear U.K. garage, house, dancehall, grime and jersey club in the same set. The gems hidden in their USBs can take you on a trip around the world, from Brazil to Berlin. Nothing is off limits.

"There's just something for everyone," says Rouse. "We just entertain such a wide spectrum of people and I think that's why Toronto DJs do so well in other countries — we just get it."

Money woes

Unfortunately, they're running low on places to play these diverse sets. Many smaller Toronto venues are being hit hard by the rent crisis, and it directly affects the livelihood of these DJs. The space on Queen Street West that used to hold Tattoo, one of the first places that Dillinger ever played, has been vacant for years. And it's not alone — since January 2017, Toronto has lost more than one venue per month.

Throughout 2018, 500 Keele had been a beacon of hope for Toronto's electronic music community. Finally, a place to rave that had official permits from the city. But unfortunately, in May, it was forced to close temporarily.

To exacerbate the issue, "it's very rare that people pay DJs properly" in Toronto, according to Dillinger. She says she gets paid double whenever she's playing in more party-friendly Montreal, and both cities share the same issue of promoters underpaying up-and-coming DJs.

A trend Ngozi sees becoming more frequent is a transition to sponsored events with brands like Stackt, RedBull and Absolut. The companies foot the bill on overhead costs and get the benefit of adjacency to cool, underground culture while the DJs get paid. However, corporate sponsorship comes with very strict regulations. 2 a.m. Lights on. Sound off. Party done. "That doesn't really work for us underground kids," says Dillinger.

Keeping the momentum going

Despite the shortcomings, they've got a good thing going and they plan on maintaining it. When Dillinger, Ngozi and Rouse were learning to DJ, classes and owning equipment were too expensive to be sustainable options. Now, donation-based classes like Intersessions make learning the technical skills more accessible.

"There's a lot of people I know who are using those tools and flourishing already," says Rouse. The Toronto-based Intersessions Clubhouse — spearheaded by Chhavi Nanda, a.k.a Chippy Nonstop — allows anyone to walk in and practice on CDJs with a professional DJ there to teach them.

Demiyah Pérez. (Courtesy)

Demiyah Pérez, a.k.a. Demiigoddess, was a beginner going into the three-month residency; now she's part of party collective Ahlie and being booked in New York City. Hosting the Ahlie parties is particularly important to her because "having a trans woman at the front of that really speaks to the equality that we're trying to establish."

By uplifting newcomers, seasoned DJs are ensuring the longevity of the scene. Pérez is grateful that the pioneering work of her idols "has led me to be in a position of privilege to learn DJing as fast as I did."

"It really changed my life, to be honest. I was struggling financially this month, and my gigs have catapulted me back on my feet." She plans on paying it forward by creating a community space in the future to nurture talent with the same care she received.

That's what it seems to boil down to with all of these DJs: an ethos of caregiving that extends far beyond their own individual worlds.

About the Author

Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto. Her writing explores the intersection of music, art and film, with a focus on the work of marginalized cultural producers. Along with CBC Arts, she's written for The Globe and Mail, The FADER, NOW Magazine and Canadian Art.