You may already be familiar with DJ rAt as part of the Maracuyeah collective, responsible for bringing the finest of pan-Latin to the future sounds to the nation’s capital. More recently, rAt kicked off a workshop and practice space series specifically for women and gender non-conforming people of color thanks to support from the DC Fund, allowing her to collect the equipment and other resources needed to get the program thriving.
With rAt’s own sets ranging from vintage chicha recordings, synth & rock en español, electro cumbia remixes, and tropical bass bangers, the DJ and organizer is already well-acquainted with the revitalizing feeling the club floor can bring– as she described it, “some people call it leaving the bullshit behind, dance your pain away, decolonizing bodies, church.”
With massive disparities in booking and visibility still very much a thing across the board, there’s no better time to continue restructuring the scene so that women and gender non-conforming people of color can continue fortifying networks to bring each other up, and to share their skill sets along the way.
Read on to learn about a new crop of artists breaking away to create their own learning spaces and systems of inter-DJ support.
What inspired you to create this workshop and practice space?
Hearing from so many different community members that they wanted to learn how to DJ– people I knew, or that I was meeting at shows or on the Internet. People also told me that seeing me up on stage seemed like a barrier was being broken. I was hearing especially from women and gender non-conforming people of color that there was a desire to learn in a space of overlapping identities. It’s one thing to learn something where you’re the only non-white straight cis dude there. And its another to learn within a space of people who may have been through similar struggles as you and who have different perspectives to bring. It’s sometimes almost comical (um, in a bad way) how unmixed cultural learning spaces can be, especially when tech is involved.
What are you covering in the workshops?
The hook is learning the basics of digital DJing, including basic mixing skills and navigation of the software so you can play a set for and with a crowd. As someone who learned by picking skills up along the way, I (and anyone) can say there’s a lot of practice and feedback loops needed to be able to grow technically. A learning space helps accelerate and support that.
“DJing has traditionally been really individualistic, with a logic like, ‘how do I get my prime time spot?'”
So that’s what most people come in for, but I would say there are two other goals too. One is to develop a strong personal style and mission as a DJ– Why do you want to be a DJ? Being able to articulate that, especially to yourself. How you see being a DJ as being in conversation with the rest of who you are?
The other big goal is trying to apply the principles of collaboration within DJing. DJing has traditionally been really individualistic, with a logic like, “how do I get my prime time spot? How to I get the most time to play? How can I be the top DJ?” Thats fine but it’s just the first capitalist option available. I think for me the way I learned how to DJ was in community– so with my amigas in Peru and DC, especially within the Anthology of Booty and Maracuyeah crews–which we started cause we discovered we liked DJing and building spaces, and we like it best when we did it together or collectively in some way. Still keeping individual identities but leveraging that group power and magic.
How have the workshop participants taken to the collaborative aspect?
The current crew of workshop participants is already an amazing collaboratively-minded group of people, so its just about transferring those ideas over, and I learn a lot of new strategies from our conversations too. There’s also a lot of community building built into the workshop– the idea is that we can’t collaborate if we don’t first built trust and learn something about each other’s stories.
We have a guest speaker come in every time. Natty Boom from DC talked with us about knowing your worth as a DJ, and she shared strategy on identifying and leveraging your allies and community when you go to perform. Another time three lady DJs Ushka, Ripley, and Riobamba from the Dutty Artz collective in New York shared tech tricks and survival tips via webcam. Mother Cyborg from Detroit visited and did a body-based BPM workshop called The Science of the Dance Floor. She led us through a circle of dancing with your eyes closed, then noticing and showing each other what body parts moved at different BPMs. Lots of moves, lots of laughter. It was a dope way to introduce the concept of “Beats Per Minute” into the space.
“There is a dominant culture fantasy of women viciously competing with each other…and ignoring that to build our own shit is powerful.”
How would you describe the predictable landscape that you’ve often experienced in nightlife?
In DC I’ve always had lots of people to look up to– the “First Ladies” Dj Collective, DJ K-Swift, DJ Heat, DJ Soyo, DJ Clark. But then you have people saying “oh, we have all-male DJ lineups because we couldn’t find anyone else of caliber.” People need to do their homework– there are often a lot of options out there. And on the other side of that we are upping the ante with developing new talent–replenishing that landscape even more and raising visibility together. I’ll add that many of us have found great allies of dominant identities who do the work to share power, resources, and recognition. One example is extending a hand to recommend that a fellow DJ be hired at a show.
Why was it important for you to invite specifically women and gender non-conforming people of color, and to have the program be a queer-centered space?
We think of it in an intersectional way. That framework is based on a belief that what you learn needs to connect to your life. That includes everything from including preferred gender pronouns with introductions, to what it means to practice with songs about ass-shaking but in our own context, without being stared down or disrespected. It means we pay attention to language and try hard to really see each other. Also a lot of learning spaces are just hostile, so having a space that is simply more welcoming, and where people might relate to you (instead of walking in and being isolated as a token person) is important. There is so much wisdom and experience in the room, and there is care to avoid exoticizing and alienating each other.
What’s your perspective on female mentorship and skill-sharing in male-dominated spaces? Was this something you came to value through your own experiences DJing?
I would say there’s a sense of “my struggle is your struggle.” I support you, which supports me, which supports you, which supports me. We rock and victory together. I think there is a dominant culture fantasy of women viciously competing with each other for ultimate male approval, and ignoring that to build our own shit is powerful.
“There’s a sense of ‘yes I see you and you also get space where you get to be human.'”
I’m the lead facilitator for the workshop, but I’ve had valuable feedback along the way from the group and I’ve been especially lucky to have Dj Kryptk working with me as a hybrid participant/facilitator. She contributes great input into the planning and her perspective and voice brings a lot to the workshop.
What are some of the collaborations you hope could grow out of this space?
Our plan is to do a final party which will be the first public collaboration among members of the workshop. It will be an exciting challenge and showcase as we organize collectively, bringing together members of all of our communities, and putting a spotlight on the talent and developing skills of the group. We’re also going to maintain an ongoing practice and sharing space for the group.
How can the dance floor be a vital space for visibility and action?
Parties can be a portal to how we wanna live. The dancefloor is sometimes a place where you see the WORST of humanity, and it also holds some of our most brilliant possibilities. Everyone knows the feeling– some people call it leaving the bullshit behind, dance your pain away, decolonizing bodies, church. Sometimes there’s connections that there is no language for, and music facilitates that. Music and the dance floor can be a soundtrack and space for our own liberation, including owning and expressing with our own bodies in a way thats not policed and in a way that we have control over.
It’s important who is at the DJ table, who is on stage. For example, Anthology of Booty is an all-women DJ collective, but we also present many images of what it means to be a woman in the club. That sends message to people in the crowd that there are lot of identities and expressions welcomed and celebrated in that space. There’s a sense of “yes I see you and you also get space where you get to be human.”