The Black Madonna Manifesto

Call it a manifesto. A poetic ode to club culture screaming for revolution, solid goosebumps guaranteed. Look for online interviews with Marea Stamper aka The Black Madonna and risk the chance of being overwhelmed by sharp and tackling statements. Stamper does not only advocate timeless electronic music, but uses her privileged position as an artist to talk about feminism and the marginalized position of female DJs. On Saturday May 30th, she plays our DJBroadcast stage at Lente Kabinet festival, in the Netherlands.

"Dance music needs riot girls. Dance music needs Patti Smith. It needs DJ Sprinkles. Dance music needs some discomfort with its euphoria. Dance music needs salt in its wounds. Dance music needs women over the age of 40. Dance needs breastfeeding DJs trying to get their kids to sleep before they have to play. Dance needs cranky queers and teenagers who are really tired of this shit. Dance music needs writers and critics and academics and historians. Dance music needs poor people and people who don't have the right shoes to get into the club. Dance music needs shirts without collars. Dance music needs people who struggled all week. Dance music needs people that had to come before midnight because they couldn't afford full admission. Dance music does not need more of the status quo."

And dance music needs The Black Madonna.

In addition to a flourishing career as a DJ, Stamper is responsible for the programming at Smart Bar – a renowned Chicago based club that has its haven in one of the oldest buildings in the city. The venue was founded in the 1920s, and what’s known today as Stamper’s realm opened in the early eighties, as did the neighboring concert venue Metro. According to Stamper, Smart Bar –that invites anyone who’s someone in underground house and techno- owes its success partially to its location. “The area that we are in used to be called Record Store Row or Record Store Alley, and there where a dozen of records stores here. One of them is Gramaphone, which is still very near to us. We are just in the right spot and Gramaphone is one of the great influences inside the Smart Bar ecosystem. Most of our residents worked at Gramaphone or work there now, certainly all of us shop there. Gramaphone is a big piece of it, and that goes all the way back to Derrick Carter, who is one of our current residents. Another thing was our relation to Wax Trax!. They are another one of the big influences of the Smart Bar ecosystem. Smart Bar has always been a punk-rock dance club, and that’s still the case. Thirdly there’s our proximity to Boystown, Chicago’s largely LGBT neighborhood. Those are all factors but,” she says with a smile, “Smart Bar also works because this is Chicago.”

Even though her hometown is credited as the city where house culture originated, it’s not an easy place to be an artist today. Chicago has excellent producers and DJs, but it’s frustrating to be more popular in Europe. Every local DJ in America knows: Europe is the place to be. “They struggle with the fact they’re more popular in Europe than they are at home,” Stamper admits. “That’s a very common thing, they’ve got be in Europe to keep the lights on, and I think there are a lot of people in that position. That’s difficult, and we certainly try to be a home for those artists here and have a more international lens with which we view ourselves and our community.” Stamper takes the side of the locals at Smart Bar; according to her it’s the residents that built the club’s prestige. “Our first special guest was Frankie Knuckles, he was a resident with us until last year. We’ve had anyone you’ve ever heard of, at some point or another, passing through these doors.”

"...I guess when you review it from afar, America looks very unsophisticated in many places, and it’s true, but the core of the American techno scene is extremely sophisticated...’’

Disco Demolition
Looking back at her carrier, Stamper speaks passionately about the heydays of the early American rave scene, a movement that is, according to her, often mistakenly seen as flat. “In the early nineties, there were illegal parties in cornfields with artists like Aphex Twin and Todd Sines. I guess when you review it from afar, America looks very unsophisticated in many places, and it’s true, but the core of the American techno scene is extremely sophisticated. But it’s about much more than the music. I would say our Smart Bar residents share some version of a similar belief system.” [Laughs] “Don’t get me wrong, they are all different, but they are all pirates, all a little bit outlaw. Most people here come from illegal parties one way or another. We all have a counterculture and anti-establishment kind of view.”

You can hear Stamper’s voice crack when she talks about ‘her’ people. Even on the phone her enthusiasm is striking. Yes, of course she wants to talk about why she does what she does. No, I’m not asking prescribed questions. And yes, she would love to explain –again- why the underground is essential. “At the moment in America there’s a small group that values it, and this bunch includes brilliant people that continue working on what they started decades ago. They are not on the mainstage of these enormous events, but they are here and they are doing incredible work.

I would say that America is having its underground renaissance. I’m seeing events that are incredibly good and underground. The programming is sharp. There’s hope. Events like Honey Soundsystem and Men’s Room for example are very gay orientated, but manage to sell out. This corporate thing, it only lasts so long, we are due to have our Disco Demolition very soon, it’s right around the corner. [Laughs] You know, Nickelback made that disco record so it can’t be long now. It’s really incredible bad, but that bubble, it must burst, it has to move on to a new territory.”  

As a kid, Stamper got hooked on mixtapes. Cassettes were exchanged at raves and getting your favorite music demanded some effort in the pre-internet era. ‘‘I got into dance music through the explosion of dance-pop that happened in the late eighties and early nineties. Snap, KLF, Deee-Lite, Black Box, Crystal Waters: very popular but very legitimate and good dance music. My family was into that music, it was the kind of music I heard around my house, so I really was in search of dance music.

One day we drove all the way to Cincinnati where I went to my first rave. Shortly after I met a person named JJ, who had an art gallery that also had raves in it. The Internet wasn’t at all developed; you could only listen to dance music if someone gave you the music directly, it was not in stores. JJ started duplicating tapes from DJs and selling them for five dollars. I would help him in his art gallery making rave T-shirts. We started to travel together, and we saw everything, selling mixtapes everywhere. We even sold our stuff during Richie Hawtin’s first live show in Detroit, which was amazing. You had to go to a plastic maze; you literally had to solve a puzzle to get into the building. I slept on the floor of his girlfriend’s apartment that night. I did that for about a decade. Seeing the core events in the early Midwest rave scene and having access to that much music was essential and made me a better DJ. In those times, everyone was really influenced by the radio. A lot of those mixes where very planned and edited, crafted to create maximum impact. You had this kind of quick mixing, very programmed rather than longer mixes. I think that those mixes where created to showcase moments, certain breakthroughs of sounds. I loved that. From acid into straight up disco or house, there was never any hesitation of letting genres run directly into one another, but the mixing itself was very flawless.” The mixtape fetish clarifies her typical ad hoc way of playing. Sets of The Black Madonna burst of energy, bounce in all directions and rapidly switch from one thing to something else.

It’s not just her turntable skills that make The Black Madonna a fascinating character. Stamper speaks openly about the marginalized position of women in a DJ world dominated by men. “For me feminism is the radical notion that women are people. There are many ways in which our culture in general and DJ culture specifically decenters women and makes them peripheral rather then central figures. Some women have been able to break through that, but there are a lot of issues that I think women face in culture at large, which we see in DJ culture as well. For example: if I decided to get pregnant, my job is going to end. If I’m not successful enough, it will end. There is a certain kind of DJ that can afford to get pregnant and have children, and there is a certain kind of DJ that can’t.”

“There is body stuff for women that exists within DJ culture that exists everywhere,” Stamper stresses. “There are issues for women at work in dance music that man do not face in the same way. Then there are issues with media and representation and how we talk about women. Which women are allowed to succeed, primarily because they are young and attractive by conventional standards? Where are the 50-year-old women? Where are the 60-year-old women? There are a lot of issues that exist everywhere that we are facing in very specific ways in dance music culture. I’m interested in talking about them, because really what has happened aside from the fact that I have a vested interest in seeing equality happen for women in general, but passed that creatively, when you see women underparticipating in dance music for whatever reason, we are missing that music. Those songs do not exist if women are not there to make them, and so when we talk about that underparticipation, not only do I have a bone to pick with it politically, but passed that, as a person who wants to see this art form grow, that wants to see dance music as good as it can be. I want to hear all those songs. Furthermore, I want to see women of color, queer women and disabled women represented as well in the dance music media. There are a lot of factors that kind of come together in this issue. They are about feminism, but they are also about class and sexuality.”

My initial, somewhat blunt reaction is that it’s not really about gender; it’s about quality. You’re not a good DJ because of your ability to pee whilst standing; what makes you a class A DJ is the fact that you have certain qualities, regardless of gender. But why is 80 percent of the line-up in your favorite club male? Why are there only six women in Resident Advisor’s annual top-100 DJ-list? “There are a lot of reasons”, Stamper continues. “There’s been a lot of research about why women under-participate in technical fields that certainly apply to dance music. Some of it is a lack of peers. People who excel in technical fields come from a strong peer group that look like them; women do not have that in the same way, although we are starting to more than we did. For the same reason there are less women programmers in the IT industry. Hostile environments: women in technical fields often face a hostile environment. Those are things that happen. Some of it is underrepresentation visually. Many times images of women in technical positions are not reflected in media. This is a very complex issue. I got to tell you that I don’t have the answer, but I do have the question.”

‘‘...They upset every stereotype you’d hear about women in the industry...’’

Uhm? Hold on a second
These observations are disturbing. What is this counterpart of a club scene that ‘we’ see as open-minded and tolerant considering the man-woman divide is 80-20 in most areas of the music industry. “I think we should work actively to solve these problems, for instance by creating peer groups. Since there are so few women compared to men that are, let’s say, producing electronic music, we can sort of engineer peer groups for them. That’s happening at the moment, there are several networking groups for women that weren’t around five years ago. Gradually, they find each other, but mostly online. Men can talk about these concerns with friends, for women it’s more difficult. Active communities are growing, and I’m convinced that the number of women participating will increase in the years to follow. It’s about raising awareness of what women in the electronic music scene experience, so that people understand what trouble women run into that men don’t.” [Laughs] “Men never have to worry about how they are going to breastfead on tour. This weekend we have the Daphne Series in Smart Bar; it’s a workshop on what it means to tour as a female DJ with a family. That’s a question I didn’t even know how to ask fifteen years ago, but to be able to talk about this is very useful.”

I ask her whether she believes addressing the issue as loud as we can, will eventually lead to less inequality. Is it as easy as that? Wouldn’t that be a bit naïve? After a long considerate silence Stamper answers: “I will tell you this: even just in the year that I’ve been here and that I’ve started to do interviews I hear from women who either have a question, or want advice on something on a daily basis. I don’t always have the answer, but I am here, and I will try to help and find the answer to your question. Just having that visibility is crucial. And let me say, it was crucial for me as a young women because we had Superjane at Smart Bar. [Laughs] They upset every stereotype you’d hear about women in the industry. I remember seeing DJ Heather, thinking that she is the best DJ I’ve ever seen. I had never seen anything like that. That was so powerful. In a way I feel like as many times as we can do that for other people, to show alternative leaderships styles, we should, that visibility is essential. It was to me, and it certainly is to other women. [Laughs] You’ve got to be a pirate.”

The Black Madonna plays the DJBroadcast stage at Lente Kabinet festival, together with Dollkraut, Lena Willikens, Palms Trax and Solar. Tickets can be found here.