One of Chicago's finest DJs on the necessity of female empowerment in contemporary club culture.
The Black Madonna (Marea Stamper) could never be considered a dull DJ. Catch her out in the club and you can expect to hear her seamlessly weaving everything from new wave to acid, techno to filter house together seamlessly. In the last few years, Stamper has gone from mailing records at Dust Traxx to playing clubs the world over.
Stamper isn't just well known for her DJing prowess. Earlier this year, DJBroadcast compiled her manifesto of sorts, where she called for more female inclusion in the dance world. Just yesterday, she contributed to a list of the 20 women who've shaped club music and club culture over the last three decades. With the Black Madonna, there's something more than "just" DJing—there's a message in her medium.
Recently our colleagues at THUMP Netherlands rang Stamper in Chicago for a chat. Here's what went down.
THUMP: You're known for your genre-bending approach to DJing. Is that something you see as being a very American approach?
The Black Madonna: Certainly. Switching between hard and soft, disco and techno, acid and soulful house is a very "American Midwest in 1995" kind of thing. I think I do a little more of the contrasting stuff than some other American DJs because a lot of people in the US are strongly influenced by European DJs right now, whereas I really grew up admiring people like Paul Johnson or Derrick Carter, who were always playing with genre. House, disco and techno all went together. I still aspire to that.
How's the scene in Chicago at the moment?
Chicago is very tribal. You have the legacy Chicago house culture with people who've been making music for thirty years or more, and they're a very tight community. It's great. Then there's a group of people—myself included—with more of a house-meets-punk background. On the other hand, there's a group of young people, particularly from Hispanic communities like Pilsen, organizing small underground parties where you might hear everything from techno to noise or ballroom. And some of those guys aren't even old enough to be drinking! What happens in Chicago is very unique. It's still super fresh and raw, and I'm constantly wondering where things are going. I keep my eye on things and try to learn from what's going on around me.
You've been a vocal advocate for feminism and are never afraid of talking about the problems facing women in the dance world. Why?
People who believe in equality will sometimes not identify as feminists, but will instead call themselves humanists. Yes, feminism can be an aspect of humanism, but it's important to focus on the issues that women face, even in dance culture, and to recognize the specific ways that inequality is a challenge for women in this environment. There are specific things that trans women are dealing with. There are specific things that women of color are dealing with. There are specific things that poor women and disabled women are dealing with. We're all dealing with income inequality and dangerous work environments. We have to look at those things and listen to their experiences directly. If we ignore them and say, "Oh, we should all just be equal and everyone should be happy," then none of those specific issues can be solved.
People love the illusion that clubs are safe spaces where everyone is free and equal.
People love the illusion that clubs are safe spaces where everyone is free and equal. That's a delicious illusion that we return to over and over again in dance music. But an illusion is exactly what it is.
Clubs are dangerous for women. The rate of sexual assaults which involve substances and bars are pretty terrifying. And lets not forget about the way that these issues specifically impact trans women in public spaces. Lets not forget about the way that these issues can impact sex workers in clubs. We can keep going, on and on. These are all aspects of club life. The question of whether feminism is a necessity in dance music or anywhere else makes no sense. We're way past that. So we have to talk about it.
In your manifesto, you make it clear that you're not satisfied with things as they stand, but your motto is "We still believe." Do you not hope for change?
Of course I do hope for change. Certainly. When I started producing, I barely knew female producers. There have been huge improvements, but in certain sectors more than others. I am aware that I am a white woman and that means that I have certain privileges. So it's important that while I enjoy the good things that may happen, it does not mean I sit down with champagne at a fancy hotel and forget about anyone else that is struggling in dance music. In a sense I am saying, "We still believe, but we're not giving up." I want to see a better community for everyone.
"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" is one of the most important feminist statements in history. Do you believe that Simone de Beauvoir was right in saying that?
I personally have always felt very ambivalent around my own gender as a concept. I feel good in my body, but I am aware of deep contradictions when it comes to gender identity. My gender expression is, more or less, liquid.
I strongly identify with Virginia Woolf's concept of the "androgynous mind." Internally, I do not feel particularly male or female.
I am married to a man, have all the privileges of heterosexual life, and look like most people imagine women to be on the outside, but I strongly identify with Virginia Woolf's concept of the "androgynous mind." Internally, I do not feel particularly male or female. When I was younger I found that ambivalence about gender very confusing and felt very isolated. I wondered what it meant and how that would affect my relationships. Fortunately I don't feel confused now. I know who I am.
Did you ever think you'd have such a successful career in a field so dominated by men?
Fifteen years ago I never thought I'd make any money as a DJ. I always felt different from others, I had ideas that I felt strongly about but I felt a bit isolated and alienated, even in Chicago, from my peers. At Smart Bar, I found a kind of family—found connection. We're all a little off-center.
You play in Europe a lot now, and got a new role at Smart Bar as a result, right?
Yes. I couldn't tell you why I'm suddenly playing so much in Europe though. Maybe Europe likes me because I'm a bit outside their norm? In any case, I can't be at Smart Bar every day now so I've been given a broader advisory role. That was sorely needed. I even had health some problems as a result of sitting in the office jet-lagged! I now focus on major shows, the residency program, the label, and brand expansion projects that take place outside the club, like festivals. It's a better balance.
How do you feel about being as well known as you are?
It feels so weird to talk about it, to be honest. It's very surreal. Two years ago I can remember trying to strike up a conversation with certain people in clubs and just being completely rejected. I was completely outside the circle.
It's been a pretty disorienting shift, going from private to public in a short period of time.
It's been a pretty disorienting shift, going from private to public in a short period of time. Recently I did a set at a festival and afterwards, my agent and I were walking around, and a large crowd of people began to applaud spontaneously when we passed by. That was very, very strange experience. I turned around to see if they were clapping for someone else. The social part is something I'm still adjusting to.
If you were booked in Europe even more often, do you think you'd consider a permanent move?
I have a home and family here in Chicago, but my mother-in-law is also planning on buying a house in either Berlin, Amsterdam, or somewhere in Croatia for a vacation home, which would also be good for me when I'm working. The fact that I've got less time to be at the Smart Bar is a pity and the moment I had to tell the owner I needed a break was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but he was amazing. I hope I'm a good ambassador for the club, though. Everything I do is as a product of my environment and without that club and the creative freedom they gave me and countless other artists, I wouldn't have been able to develop into the person I am now.
The Black Madonna plays this Saturday at XOYO as part of Bicep's 13 Week Workout. Head here for more information.