DJ The Black Madonna on performing at Sónar festivals and making dance music accessible for all
Sónar was a place I wanted to get to someday, says American DJ who’s one of the world’s most exciting turntablists, and one committed to promoting equality wherever she goes – including, this weekend, Hong Kong
Last June in Barcelona, Spain, The Black Madonna held court over a packed arena, ushering the 15,000-strong Sónar festival crowd into the first light of dawn with a two-hour set that blended pop, disco, acid house, jazz, rock and soul music into a seamless and uplifting mix.
Greeting a pulsating sea of arms with a “Good morning Sónar” midway through, she welcomed to the stage French house DJ and LGBTQ icon Kiddy Smile to perform as the beats hit a celebratory high. Eclectic, energetic, euphoric and, most importantly, inclusive – these are the hallmarks of one of the world’s most exciting DJs, whose real name is Marea Stamper.
Nine months later and the US-born DJ is about to grace a Sónar stage again, in Hong Kong this weekend, as she rides high after years of hard graft and sleep deprivation.
“There’s nothing quite like Sónar. It stands alone internationally,” she says. “Before I’d ever left America, when I was an aspiring DJ, I knew that Sónar was a place I wanted to get to someday,” the 41-year-old says.
Speaking over the phone as she prepared to make her first visit to Hong Kong en route to a tour in Australia, Stamper reflected on life as an international touring artist, a dream to which she had aspired since attending her first rave in the American state of Kentucky at the age of 14.
“The great thing about this music is when you go somewhere that you don’t think is a dance music capital and put on some obscure tunes and people love it. That is really touching – to go from Japan to the Middle East to some small town in America and see people have the same visceral reaction to the same music. It makes you understand the power of dance music.”
A 2016 documentary by online electronic magazine Resident Advisor dispelled any notion that Stamper leads a glamorous life. It showed how relentless touring is and its effects on her health and well being.
After years spent honing her craft in the US Midwest under her original stage name Lady Foursquare, hawking mix tapes from the back of her car, attending warehouse parties and performing as much as possible, Stamper started booking acts for the long-running Chicago club Smartbar, with a focus on local talent and female and LGBTQ artists.
Gender and racial equality have always been close to Stamper’s heart, and she’s well aware dance music still has some way to go: all the highest earning DJs on a Forbes 2017 list were male, and almost all were white, and female artists are outnumbered at most dance music festivals.
Stamper is playing her part in the evolution of the industry. “I am absolutely optimistic. I was an optimist before I had reason or indication to be. I am an optimist as a strategy,” she says.
“I think there was a real zeitgeist moment when people started working in a systematic way towards a target of ending a systematic problem. You’re starting to see line-ups now that are over 20 or 30 per cent women, when it used to be two to five per cent.
“But when I first started bringing up these things, they were not topics people talked about. I remember people getting really confused. Guys going, ‘Are you sure it’s systematic and misogyny exists?’” She chuckles: “‘Yeah, I’m sure buddy, I’m positive’.”
In late 2016, Stamper travelled to Uganda, in East Africa, to collaborate with female dance artists working in the region. In the process, she realised that dance music had a way to go before female producers beyond the West could feel included in the growing awareness of gender equality there.
“There’s a whole battle happening where a lot of the people who perceive themselves as fighting the great fight are not even checked into it at all,” she says. “If feminism does not address race, class, sexuality and gender, then it’s not feminism. We have to think globally about our sisterhood with other women because dance music is global, it exists everywhere now.”
Based in London and working towards her first full-length album, Stamper views success as a moving target; she is constantly pushing boundaries and looking to the next milestone.
“In the beginning, my idea of success came from my dad, also a musician, who said if you pay your bills and help take care of your family and keep a roof over your head, you’re already more of a success than 99 per cent of people [who make music].
“But there was always a long-term goal, which was that I wanted to become part of the story of dance music in a permanent way, which is like wanting to win the Super Bowl.”
Stamper says she has always wanted to make music that “would be meaningful and kind of exist outside time the way the people that I loved did”.
“I’m still getting my bearings,” she adds. “I hope someday that happens.”
Sónar Hong Kong, March 17, 11am-3am, Hong Kong Science Park, Pak Shek Kok, New Territories, HK$180 (Sónar+D programme only), HK$880 (all music performances and Sónar+D programme), Ticketflap