Bassel Al-Rahim performed their first ever DJ set at Mood Ring in March. The bar is one of the most popular in the Bushwick electronic music scene with a policy that doesn’t allow an all-male lineup.
“There is a fundamental lack of representation of queer and trans people – and especially queer and trans people of color – in electronic music live events in the city,” said Al-Rahim. “Breaking into it is really tough.”
Al-Rahim was one of three DJs that performed at a She.They.DJ event held at Mood Ring. She.They.DJ hosts a biweekly happy hour party representing up-and-coming DJs while prioritizing women, non-binary and trans people in the music industry. Elinah Shams came up with the concept last August after being the only woman DJ performing at a couple of the weekly parties hosted by Open Decks Brooklyn.
“I just kept thinking, ‘What if I do the same thing but it’s just for women, non-binary and trans DJs?,’” said Shams.
Women DJs have been collaborating with each other to bring themselves to the forefront of the electronic music scene in Bushwick for almost a decade. Collectives like Discwoman and Working Women have paved the way for groups like She.They.DJ that have emerged during the pandemic. Last October, Liv Minick, a Brooklyn-based DJ and producer, created Rhythm Nation, a monthly party series that welcomes other queer, Black or women identifying DJs and creatives. Minick hosted Rhythm Nation on their rooftop and after a month of gaining traction, they’ve moved the parties to Hart Bar in Bushwick.
Making it onto the bill is not always the only hurdle that women and queer DJs face. From behind the turntable, Shams has been micromanaged by men during her sets. She has had men give her rules on what kind of music to play and at what time. These experiences aren’t enough to suck the joy out of DJing for Shams, but they do leave a mark. “That’s what you can remember the most because it kind of sticks with you,” said Shams.
In the top 150 clubs in 2018, the percentage of female DJs was 6 percent, according to DjaneMag, an online magazine that covers female DJs. Female:pressure, a transnational online database and network of women and queer people working in electronic music, assessed the gender distributions of electronic music festivals across the world from 2017 to 2019. They found that 20.5% of all acts included female artists and 0.7% included non-binary artists.
Other bars across the electronic music scene in Brooklyn have enforced policies to maintain a safe space from the DJ booth to the dance floor. Nowadays, a bar on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood, announces its safe space policy to newcomers waiting in line to enter. Their policy is stated on their website too: “We have zero tolerance for violence, racism, transphobia, sexism or other discriminatory language. Please do not stare at anyone. And remember that if you want to touch another guest or someone who is working, ask first if it’s okay.”
As bars in Bushwick have become more socially conscious, event organizers seek to influence the atmosphere. “The tone of the night is really set by the curators of the event, and I think the space adapts to the event itself,” said Camille Horton, a Brooklyn-based DJ.
Creating these spaces goes beyond giving women and queer DJs an opportunity to play a set, it’s also about building community within an industry that can feel isolating by its competitive nature. “In music, in DJing specifically, I see us out there on socials, I see who’s at all the places, but there’s a lot of gatekeeping,” said Minick. When Shams began DJing four years ago, she didn’t have friends in the electronic music community. She wants to change that for women, non-binary and trans DJs in Brooklyn.
“If you want to have a gig and you’re really scared, I got you, and if you have any questions, I’ll help you,” said Shams. “I’m trying to encourage people to actually play music rather than scare them.”