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Getting The Mask On: The Black Madonna Interviewed
Manu Ekanayake , January 26th, 2017 10:03

In the often apolitical world of house and techno, stellar DJ/producer/booker The Black Madonna is fearless when it comes to voicing her beliefs. Manu Ekanayake sat down with her to talk race, gender, disco and house, Trump and the Ghost Ship fire

Photographs by Aldo Paredes

If ever there's an artist that proves there's more to house music culture than pure chemical excess, it's The Black Madonna. The last four years have seen Marea Stamper – the woman behind the iconographic DJ alias – rise from someone who has been DJing since college in the late '90s to regularly playing at Berlin's Panorama Bar, amongst other clubs and festivals around the world.

Indeed as we speak she is about to make her debut in the cavernous Berghain, Panorama Bar's techno-loving sister venue, so she is feverishly cataloguing bombs as I arrive at her hotel room. This evening she's in Brighton for a Mixmag Live showcase at Patterns, where her thunderous DJ set closes the night. She showcases her deep knowledge and love of dance music culture, running through disco, house, soul and techno, with everything from James Brown to Aretha Franklin (whose 'Think' is worked skilfully with Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock's 'It Takes Two'), via Floorplan's 'Funky Souls'.

But the highlight is a defiant rendition of Carl Bean's pro LGBT anthem, 'I Was Born This Way'. In a world where President Trump is a reality and with the tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire in San Francisco still at the forefront of minds, Bean's vocals seem especially poignant tonight.

Marea Stamper is, to put it simply, a dance music lifer. And like all good 'overnight success stories', the roots of her artistry go back decades. She participated in America's nascent Midwestern rave culture in the '90s, when the rave bug hit so hard she dropped out of high school at 16 to make a living selling mixtapes and other rave merchandise. After going to college she got a job at Chicago's Dust Traxx label, through an old rival from her mixtape days, Radoslaw "Radek" Hawryszczuk. There she helped the label become an early digital distributor, thus witnessing another new frontier in dance music first hand.

Later still, she became a resident DJ, and after that DJ booker, for Chicago's Smart Bar, America's oldest dance club (it dates to 1982 and their first DJ was Frankie Knuckles), in 2013, when she also got her first European gig – at Panorama Bar, no less, from an agent who had heard her early productions such as 'We Don't Need No Music (Thank You Rahaan)' and the Lady Of Sorrows EP. Eventually a day job at Smart Bar was no longer feasible with her touring commitments so now she is the club's first Creative Director, responsible for musical overview, and still supervises the initiative she started, DAPHNE: A Women's Movement In Dance Music, to empower women and non-binary individuals in a house scene that often seems a long way from its inclusive roots as the music of LGBT Black and Latino street kids in the '80s.

As we meet your nation, and indeed you personally, have been though a lot.

The Black Madonna: You know, I used to say, 'No Bad Days', but I think I got that wrong. We are having bad days. I am the eternal optimist and I try to remain so because life has been particularly challenging and will remain so in days to come, I feel.

Definitely. I mean not only is the whole world dealing with the election of Donald Trump...

BM: I’m so sorry! Everyone – I tried really hard!

Here in Britain we're all still apologising for Brexit, so we feel you.

BM: I feel I have to apologise though, I feel terrible [Laughs].

So there's that on a larger level, but on a more personal level there's the tragedy of Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse fire – where you lost friends...

BM: Yeah, we lost a lot of people who were involved with [her event series, named for her 2013 track] We Still Believe. The Bay Area community is extremely tight and the people whom I was friends with worked together very closely, as we do in Chicago. The first people who brought me to the Bay Area were the As You Like It crew and they lost Johnny Igaz [AKA Nackt] and it was through them that I met Chelsea Faith [Dolan, AKA Cherushii], who became one of the inaugural contributors to the DAPHNE events series. She was a good friend and was involved both times we did those shows. We lost Amanda Allen. [Pause] I was with Jason Kendig [of Honey Soundsystem] the night we found out and Jason had just finished a record with Johnny. It just feels like all roads lead back to this one thing and it's just completely devastating.

I know that when you lose friends suddenly, everything that ever happened to you with them comes back – even small things...

BM: Absolutely – I mean, it's the end of the year and all the lists are coming out and Mike Servito and I got the top mix on THUMP, which we were so happy about and then the next thing I said was, 'Oh my God, Johnny recorded that and mastered it' [Pause]. Just immediately there's nothing that happened that week that didn't have some kind of relevance.

If we look at things in the US on a more macro level, where do you go from here in an 'occupied territory'?

BM: Well, you can try and do all the things you're supposed to do; the things we're going to do – we're going to go to Washington. Many of us at Smart Bar are raising money for the ACLU and everything we can do to shore up the defences as best we can. There are those who have written extensively on how to live under the kind of government I feel we are about to have. There's an author called Sarah Kenzdior and she's been writing a lot about this; strategies for what happens for when your government becomes one like this.

As a woman I stand to lose my reproductive rights very quickly. Reproductive rights are very high up on the to-do list for a Trump presidency and that's 50% of the country that could lose actual control over their body. We've fought smaller fights, but the fight for reproductive rights is always being fought. I never really thought that Roe [vs. Wade, the landmark case allowing abortion in the US] might be overturned and some of those fears don't seem crazy anymore. At this point talk is cheap and I am most interested in all the concrete things that are going on to defend the areas and people that need defending.

So you mean things like investing in the ACLU?

BM: Not just them, there's the National Lawyers Guild. They've essentially been around since 1937 to protect the right to protest over property rights. Yeah, that's a group that this year I foresee making some large donations to, them and the ACLU.

So now I think we have to talk about something else very personal to you, your DJ name. Do you ever regret it in these times when it can cause controversy with regards to cultural appropriation, or just confusion when it belongs to a white artist?

BM: This is such a nuanced issue and people have many different definitions of this one thing. A very succinct one that I read is, 'The use of a symbol from another culture that has deep personal value to that culture that you do not understand'. But here's the thing: I am in the interesting position of having to answer for the cultural appropriation of a thing that definitively comes from my culture. The Black Madonna as a Medieval Catholic icon [with skin that appears dark due to either age or being made of dark materials] is the agreed upon meaning of this symbol for a billion people in my faith. Who I am and where I come from, and what that means to me and those like me – so other Catholics, like for example the entire nation of Poland! – there is a pretty unified stance on what the meaning of the Black Madonna is and the meaning of these icons is not controversial. It has a defined meaning, as most things do in the Catholic Church. We’re big on dogma.

Big on dogma, big on icons...

BM: [Laughs] Exactly, big on dogma, big on icons, and there's papal edict somewhere that says exactly what most things mean. So do I regret it? No. You are who you are; you come from where you come from. My job as an artist is to try and find the deepest truth about my humanity, my experience and my spirit and my heart; to dive down and find what that is. But still, none of that matters. Because I also care about how people feel. This is not a topic I'm uncomfortable with. But speaking as a white person on earth, one of the things we have to give up is the need to win every fucking argument!


BM: My DJ name means what it means. How someone feels about it doesn't change who I am. It doesn't change my decency, my faith, or what it means to others. But if someone is hurt by it, if a black person is confused by it, or if someone feels upset; I don't need to control that feeling. In the same way that if I step on your toe, it needn't have been malicious. If you step on somebody's toe, you apologise. I think this is something we white people have to let go of. I am not ashamed of who I am, where I come from or my faith. The only time I ever struggle with this is when there are people using this topic to say that I am not supposed to be here, period.

I've had people say to me that as a white person, I should not be playing disco, because disco wasn't made by people who look like me. Well, first off, talking about disco in some kind of monolithic sense is ridiculous. I mean, I look like Vince Montana, you know? Disco is so fascinating because of its cultural collisions and the Philly sound is a whole genetic corridor of it and Vince Montana was a founding member of MFSB. I become concerned when the discussion about one thing becomes a tool that is used to excise another group out of an art. Now that is a problem!

So to that end I would say that when I think about how to participate in house and disco and not be an asshole – which is what a lot of this stuff boils down to – is how to be a respectful tenant? I find that often these kinds of debates about what belongs to who take the place of what we as white people should be doing to prevent all the discussions being centred on us. What any person of privilege should be doing in any culture they're a part of is to not take it over. All of these discussions are important, but a parallel I'd make as a feminist is that I have, many times, encountered men who talk the talk – they get all the pronouns right [laughs] – but in the end are not doing anything to help women. Their line-ups are still 90-100% men. So I will take the guy who doesn't get everything perfect but is working to include and pay and empower women in the arts. And to that end I am very interested in seeing black women on line-ups – I want to see black people get paid!

I can work with Smart Bar to review the amount of people of colour, of queer people, of trans people we are booking, so we can put our money where our mouths are. Nobody gets it right all the time, nobody is perfect and I definitely am not. But I feel that if my DJ name was 'Marea Stamper, DJ at large' people would still feel how they feel. My name can be a flashpoint for that sometimes, but it doesn't mean the feeling isn't real. There's no argument to win. If I go and I show somebody, 'This is who I am; this is where I am from'. Does that feeling of anger go away? Does that feeling of loss go away? Does it put any money in anyone's pocket? Does is change the number of black people in end-of-year polls? Does it change the amount of records black artists sell in dance music? NO. I don't need to win the argument, I just need to listen and do what I am asked to do.

Can we talk about misogyny in dance music, given that it's the week when you got voted 10th in Resident Advisor's Top 100 DJs poll, making you the top female entrant?

BM: You know, there were more men with women's names in it than there were actual women on the poll! Isn't that funny? This a fascinating time for me because dance music is still misogynistic. And the fact that I am here, believe me, no one is more surprised than I am. But I don't want to be the only one. I mean I would love to believe that I am some special flower and that's why the light shined on me! [laughs] And that's why I got everything I ever wanted... Because there are women everywhere who are geniuses and do not get recognised. For all of the reasons that I didn't get recognised until five minutes ago.

You know, it's wonderful of course... and people are so critical about these lists, but I just can't be because each of these people paid to go to one of my shows and felt a connection they remembered when it came time to send out the Christmas cards. And I just will not be cynical about people who cared about me and who allow me to do this thing that I love. I know we are supposed to be really cynical about these things [puts on 'serious techno guy' voice], 'I really don't care about these things, these lists don't mean anything', but I will not. They are not meaningless. I am just not a cynical person. I have a very dark sense of humour but I am not cynical about people who care about me. I will never be that 'cool'.

OK, we've kind of touched on this, but dance music is increasingly white and middle class even in 'underground' venues. Why do you think that is?

BM: Well, I think ticket prices have a lot to do with it. Dance music is awfully expensive and if you want to talk about something else we ought to talk about, it is dress codes and what those mean. I play almost nowhere with a dress code. I generally turn down a show if I know it has a dress code. In many of the superclubs in certain places, those dress codes really mean: 'Nobody black, nobody poor'. But ticket prices obviously price out lots of different kinds of people of many demographics.

I have to be honest, I didn’t realise dress codes were really a huge thing anymore...

TBM: In some of the larger clubs they are – and you do see it much less now. But largely, there is an economic reason at the core of it. There's this tendency sometimes to say, 'Why does this happen in dance music?' and well, the answer is, 'Because dance music is on earth...'

So as we're talking about your views on dance music, we must refer to what called your manifesto in 2015? How does dance music keep hold of Patti Smith?

BM: You know, I don't know. And this is what I said when I cracked the RA Top 10, much to my utter shock: 'I hope I can be useful and that I can open the door for other people.' I've had some help with that already...

Is that with DAPHNE?

TBM: Well, with DAPHNE, but also with the tour I'm on now – you know who's on there? Lots of different kinds of people. And we sold it out! I think in those situations you can use the light on you and point it on someone else. Like when Jason [Garden, AKA Olin] stepped up at Smart Bar into my old role, well, I know he shares my values – he's a better feminist than I am, for sure! [Laughs] And he always asks the question, 'How can we do better?', and I think that has to be the question that you always ask. Where can we improve? How can we help? How can we make the best use of our time and resources?

Sometimes it feels like things are changing and sometimes it doesn't. There wasn’t one woman on the RA Top 40 Live Act poll. So just because I feel my life changing, I need to be very careful to keep perspective. But we do have quantifiable data that shows that there are more women entering dance music in general and to that end I have some larger things I'm working on that are designed to directly affect the balance of power. It started with DAPHNE and we will be taking direct action to put tools in the hands of women and to increase the amount of women producing music.

Something you've remarked on in the past is the lack of peer groups on the technical side of dance music for women...

BM: Peer groups, mentoring, all of that which exists naturally with a bunch of guys. When I was learning to produce, I didn't know another woman that produced. So you end up having to go these weird routes and there are all these weird relationship things that happen with men and women when they’re working together; some of them very positive, as it has been for me with Rupert Murray, the person I learned to produce with, whom I am now working on my album with. He works for Sound Investment, so he's the Funktion One regional guy for North America. He's an engineer with a Master's Degree, so it was a little quicker for him to learn Logic than me, but no less what we want to do is create those kind of peer groups, mentorships and put people in a safe environment where they can learn.

I know that for those of us who were involved in the first two DAPHNEs it was a very powerful experience – and Chelsea Faith was someone I remained close with as a result of them. At that point the programme was so small that there were so few resources, which is going to change. So when you ask me, 'What do we do?', I say 'I don't know... but this is the shot I'm taking!

As you said before, the issues that exist in the music world exist in the world in general...

BM: Exactly, dance music doesn't happen in a vacuum.

And on that note, we come to sexual harassment in venues. In an interview you did for Trax Magazine in May you were very open about how this has affected you personally, so do you think there has been a change in the ways that we have been talking about the issue in dance music? There's an initiative called Good Night Out to combat harassment in venues...

BM: I'm very aware of that...

I though you would be, but yes. So do you think that what you've said has had an effect?

BM: I hesitate to put too rosy a glow on dance culture because it is on earth, as we have said. Talking about sexual assault does not mean it is slowing down and I don't have any data on it, but I am not convinced that things are better. That is a depressing answer and I'm sorry. I mean, when I think back to the rave days of the '90s and I think of how many girls did stuff when they were on drugs and had no sense of consent; that would have in and of itself assisted sexual assault.

I think everyone has a halcyon period in their lives, but when they look deeper into it and then...

BM: Oh I look back at my young life and things that I thought were totally normal... well, it took me until I was about 30 to realise that when I was a teenager I was sexually assaulted and that there was intimate partner abuse. It was really like, 'Woah!' I mean, I guess I had normalised it and gone on with life. As women do. We live with terrible, grievous injury which we conceal and we walk around with it as if it's not there. So when I hear about women voting for Trump, my first reaction is to be really angry at them and I am – I'm not going to lie. Women feeling that way, though, they feel that way because they've had to. If we didn't walk around that way, we'd all just lie down and die. If we allowed ourselves to really feel the full scope of the betrayal of the men in our lives, then the world would stop happening.

It's interesting that when the Trump revelations happened, I tweeted, 'How much of the world depends on the silence of women?'

I think I read that one...

BM: Well, you may well have done because JK Rowling RT'ed it and then thousands of people RT'ed it...

JK Rowling? Wow.

BM: I know, right? Somebody told me on good authority that she used to be quite a clubber.

I love that.

BM: I love it too! I don't know how my Tweet found its way to her, but anyway it got RT'ed like thousands of times and it was just so real and so true: what if people told what they knew? It would be over: every company, every workplace, every relationship and every home. The shit would hit the fan on a titanic scale. But do I believe that the world has changed? No. I'm an eternally hopeful person and am I glad we're having this conversation about it? Yes. Am I glad you're not the only person who's asked me about this? Yes. Because 10 years ago, nobody did. It's not just about me. More important than me is the young women who come after me. They are so smart, so radical and they are the ones whom I look up to and whom school me. I'm third wave [feminist] and my time is long gone in some ways, but the kids who are really out there – the women, the non-binary people. It really makes me angry when people talk poorly of millennials because there are so many who are so smart, so connected and who are using social media in amazing new ways. I bow at their feet, I truly do.

It's too easy to disparage millennials as feckless and foolish. Also I think one of the important things for people who have reached a position of influence in dance music is to make sure they do something for those who follow them.

BM: Absolutely. So many of our heroes like Frankie [Knuckles] and [DJ] Pierre and even Jamie Principle, they've spent their lives working with new artists and inspiring new generations – I've been lucky enough to work with Pierre. When I look at those founding progenitors of house music they are so inspirational because they have remained so active and so invested in the culture. Frankie, when he was alive, he was so invested in educating new generations and he was so active in terms of giving speeches.

I never saw him DJ live, but I did see him speak...

BM: Oh, he spoke constantly and he was very smart about how he handled his legacy. He was so proud of how house music became global and that so many different kinds of people played it. I will always remember when we first met, because I was basically going to work for him, then we became residents at Smart Bar on the same day and I thought, 'Oh, this guy is not going to take me seriously AT ALL'. So I went to meet him at Gramaphone [Records], the first thing he said to me was, 'Oh, I love girl DJs'. and then he told me how excited he was about Smart Bar. He was still so excited by new music and was always looking for new artists.

People use the word 'humbled' wrongly all the time now. Often they mean the exact opposite. But with Frankie, I can truly say that I have never felt more meek or small around another person. [Pauses] And the grace with which he handled adversity was something to behold. His kindness and generosity was such that you never felt you were wasting his time – and that was always in demand, especially in Chicago.

So another thing you've spoken about is mental health – how are you feeling nowadays and how do you think the topic is being dealt with in the scene?

BM: This is an issue near and dear to my heart. I had my first major depressive episode when I was 22, which was followed by my first major anxiety attack, for which I was hospitalised. It was so bad I fell out of a chair and crawled out my front door and then fell down these steps and ran out onto the front of the lawn where I was living, down a hill. It was like I was trying to get air. I started having shooting pains in my arms and in my chest. My boyfriend at the time rushed me to hospital and they did all the tests and checked my heart and my oxygen levels and all the things they do when they think you are having a heart attack. As it turned out, I was having the worst panic attack you can possibly have and it didn't end so eventually they injected me with a very strong medication and knocked me out for 48 hours. After that began a period of about two years of living hell where I was barely functioning to go to class.

So this was during college?

BM: This was when I was at college, right until I was learning to DJ. I actually think learning to DJ helped me. I didn't want to take any medication, because I was afraid of dependency. This kind of thing runs in my family; my grandfather was one of the first generation to be prescribed Prozac and had his life change dramatically. Very serious depression runs in my family.

Yeah, it is often a family thing, isn't it?

BM: Yeah, it runs all through my family. So I did get a handle on my panic attacks, largely without medication. I can't totally explain how that happened, but I did it. But then I started touring and that was a completely different level of pressure. There is no way around it; I am terrified of airplanes. Terrified. So I was drinking at 7.30am to get on a plane. Then I had a physical and we went through everything and the doctor asked me what I was doing and I told him, 'I'm having a triple bourbon before I get on the plane' at 7.30 in the morning and he said, 'Do you really think that's healthier than taking a small dose of something?' So I started taking medication then. I combine it with therapy. The medication is there because there are things about touring that make the resistance thin. There is nothing that is worse for anxiety than being tired – tired and in public especially.

Like any good panic order sufferer I am very afraid of making mistakes, so some of my mindfulness stuff about owning up to mistakes and letting things pass is a very necessary combination. I have to say that at one point I thought, 'I will not be able to tour. There is no way. No fucking way.' That was when I started seeing a therapist; when shit really started popping off. It was like that bit in the Talking Heads song ['Once In A Lifetime'], 'You say to yourself, "My God, what have I done?"' Now I have a checklist of things I look at if I'm freaking out. Like, 'Are you jet lagged?', so I might need to adjust my medication temporarily, or if I'm home I might not need it at all. I have an 'Oh shit!' checklist of all the things that freak me out and what to do. It's like the drill as you get on an airplane and they tell you to put your own mask on first before you help the passenger next to you, well I have a list like that.

We're all just struggling to get the mask on, aren't we?

BM: We are all just struggling to get the mask on, indeed – but it's working.

As we're talking about travelling, can I ask about what you're doing in Sri Lanka? I was so touched by that as a British Sri Lankan, I have to say.

BM: Well you go somewhere like that, where parts of it are totally modern and parts of it look like the tsunami happened yesterday and I have to say I was completely floored the second we left the resort.

People are living in shacks.

BM: I saw that even in the city. There were moments where I saw laundry hanging and it would look like a building that had been hit by a bomb, because, of course, there was that too. Now I come from the poorest county in America [Owsley County, Kentucky according to the Daily Caller in 2016], I am not unaware of poverty. I certainly grew up with more of it than anybody I knew. I grew up in a house with a wood burning stove and no heat apart from that, where you could see the light through the walls. I spent part of my life, at least, in a place cold enough that the toilet bowl water would freeze, until the house got warm. But even I was visibly shocked.

And then there's this wonderful DJ academy! This is why DJing is great – these guys have made their own textbook and printed it, and the school takes place in this little house and they've got all this donated gear that people have sent them and it's like the museum of turntables no one uses anymore! But Serato changed their lives because they could get the music and the box was affordable, well much less than two CDJs. People were sharing equipment and ideas and they brought me there and the DJs were great... but there were NO women. So as they showed me around I asked how much it cost to go to school here – and it really wasn't much. So I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'll make a scholarship, but there's a catch, it has to be for a woman'. And what a catch – it took them months to find one! But they found one who wanted to do it and she was so happy!

This was one of the things that drove me to want to expand DAPHNE, because we talk about gender equality in dance music but then we stop at the borders of Europe and America and that's horseshit! If we're going to decolonise dance music, then it has to be global – so next week I go to Uganda to meet DJ Rachael, who is one of the top women DJs in Africa and we're going record shopping together. I'm going to meet her family and we're going to do a show together. And then she's coming back to America to play at Smart Bar in January. So we'll see how powerful these connections can be when they're global. Plus how powerful one DJ can be in a small town, in terms of opening doors for other marginalised people.

Ok, I think I've taken up enough of your time now, but can we just finish with one question from Bernard Pivot's famous questionnaire, as we're both fans of Inside The Actor's Studio: if heaven exists, what do you want to hear St. Peter say when you arrive?

BM: 'This is your grandpa's room'. He was my favourite dude ever and if heaven exists, it will be wherever he is.

The Black Madonna's new single, 'He Is The Voice I Hear', is the debut release on her We Still Believe imprint and is out now. The Black Madonna will be playing at this Summer's Sónar Festival, for more information go here