Special! Join the discussion: Is it a good time to be a woman DJ?

The message is loud and clear — from fests like Sunburn and Supersonic, to the club circuits — women DJs are the toast of the industry. 
Olly Esse
Olly Esse

It's the unofficial year of the woman DJ. Well, at least, in our books, it is. Importantly, it is a great time to be celebrating women behind the consoles — sparking off great vibes, and pushing the boundaries of music, while changing a few perceptions about the music industry. Keeping up some Valentine’s Day romance from last week, and leading up to the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8, we spoke with a handful of leading women DJs in the country to get an overview of how things are changing.

For quick introductions: Ma Faiza, the ‘Mother of Electronica’ in India, has been spinning records for over two decades now, and has led the path for many an aspiring DJ. The duo of Nina Shah & Malika Haydon, earlier known as The Elektrovertz, who now go by as Nina & Malika, have quickly risen to the top of the electronic music scene.

Olly Esse, the Italian DJ/Producer from Milano, based in Mumbai for a few years now, is among the hottest international acts in the country, while DJ Priya Sen, who’s also a music journalist, and DJ Paroma — both from Mumbai — are popular names gaining a rather large following on the circuit.

In a wide-ranging discussion with these leading DJs on subjects from gender issues to musical genres, we give you a woman’s overview, and perspective, of the EDM scene in India. 

<em>Nina & Malika</em>
Nina & Malika

Is it a good time to be a woman DJ? 
Ma Faiza:
The music industry worldwide is very male-dominated, and sadly, DJing is no exception. There are definitely more opportunities for female DJs than ever before, including in India, but it still is challenging to be a woman in the music scene. It’s hard as a woman to be respected for just your music and your work, rather than be objectified by the promoters and the crowd.

As India is still a patriarchal society, it’s harder here than say, Europe, for women to be independent and free to work late nights in a male-dominated environment where alcohol is present. For many families, it is unacceptable for a woman to be out in the night, and they rightly fear for their daughters’ physical safety. Hopefully, more women in India can be emboldened to be DJs, at least by seeing women DJs like me, who are not only surviving, but thriving.

Nina & Malika: We have personally seen massive growth in India. Women are definitely getting more respect these days in the industry. In general, women are starting to stand up for themselves, and explore different options in this very male-dominated world! It’s a great time to be a woman DJ! 

Is it a good time to be a DJ, particularly in India? 
Olly Esse: I have more followers in India than in Italy. People are more open-minded now about music genres, and want to experiment with something new. A lot of female DJs are coming out and performing, so it’s good to see that finally the scene is more about gender equality. I am happy to see that a woman can be a DJ, and do a perfectly good job. Go girls!

<em>Ma Faiza</em>
Ma Faiza

How is the scene opening up, and actually improving for women DJs?
DJ Paroma:
The scene is certainly improving, thanks to the number of events happening. I believe, with every rising population, there is also a rising DJ! I think it’s okay to have many DJs around, as long as there is quality. The scene has already opened up a lot, and I don’t think the industry is turning back in any way. It’s just going to boom!

Give us your overview, of how you see the future for women DJs in the country. 
Nina & Malika:
Music is infinite! The dance music scene has really grown over the last few years, and has so much more room for growth, which is great for DJs! One of our challenges was finding the balance between playing what we love, and also catering to the club crowd. Also, a lot of DJs find it challenging to keep up with shows and work on music production at the same time. 

Ma Faiza: These days, the role of the DJ has been increasing in trend. It can seem a lucrative and fashionable career, but I feel some of the magic from simply wanting to share the music that touches your soul and ignites your passion may have been lost, when people look to this as a ‘job’. For me, the DJ is a conduit for the energy of the music, the place and the people. They are the modern day shamans leading the audience to a collective experience.

<em>DJ Priya Sen</em>
DJ Priya Sen

Tell us a little about the personal challenges you had to overcome as a DJ. 
DJ Priya Sen:
I must say, I should have taken this career up much earlier. I started late, so that was a massive challenge, even though I have been in the business as a writer for music magazines, and years of programming for nightclubs aside... I had to catch up fast in terms of technology, and also, get my head around the idea that no matter how difficult it is, I have to focus and be fearless. I’m pretty confident now, that no matter which part of the world I’m at, I can do good work. 

How difficult was it for you to start out as a DJ? 
Ma Faiza:
I actually never set out to be a DJ, so my journey to here has been rather unusual! I initially found it difficult and challenging to perform in front of large crowds on big stages, and felt nervous for days before a gig. When I first started DJing in India, hardly anyone here had any exposure to electronic music — unless you travelled abroad or spent time in Goa, and the crowds here were not so receptive to the music I was playing.

It was really challenging for me to stay in my musical truth and expression and not play the music that people expected at that time. Thankfully, sowing those seeds of truth in my sound allowed me to have a unique space, where my fans stay open to hearing different styles mixed with my signature touch, trusting me to share fresh sounds. 

<em>DJ Paroma</em>
DJ Paroma

Did you face any untoward reactions early on?
Olly Esse:
Like all good things, it takes time to be a big name in this industry. The fact is that earlier, people were sceptical, and they were against me. They thought I am not good enough, I don’t have technical skills, or I’m just another pretty face. Lots of male DJs in my country envied me and posted negative comments about me on social media.

It hurt me that people who didn’t even see my shows could say mean things. I had to accept that in this industry, there will be always a little discrimination, but I always tried to do my best, and here I am. I understood that in the end, only the people who come to see you decide if you are a good DJ or not. Also, I’d love to see more possibilities for underground DJs and their music, and I hope that clubs will dedicate different days to different genres.

Do you find yourself faced with concerns about culture, and morality? 
Nina & Malika:
In a career like DJing, at times, there are assumptions made about the party lifestyle and morals, but the key is to know who you are, and what you stand for! We would rather encourage positive, meaningful discussions than ignore the reactions. 

<em>Olly Esse</em>
Olly Esse

Olly Esse: I am surprised that until now, people have accepted me for who I am, my passion and effort. I must admit, I was scared at first, but I also felt that if I came to India with a smile on my face and kindness in my heart, the people would appreciate and like me. Whenever I am on stage, I try to say something inspiring, and people react positively. No matter where are you from, if you spread positivity, people will give it back. In any case, I always respect the city I am in or travelling through, and I’d never dress inappropriately. 

How do you deal with negative reactions? 
DJ Priya Sen:
Laughter is the best medicine.
DJ Paroma: Most of the times, people will believe what they want to believe, especially in sensitive cases. In the bargain, however, you are left boiling your own blood, and it’s like water rolling off a duck's back. It affects us the most in this process. Hence, I choose to stay away, and ignore, most of the times.

What role do festivals play to promote up-and-coming talent?
DJ Paroma:
Festivals like Sulafest, Sunburn, and Supersonic are nailing it, by bringing the mightiest of the industry who have a huge fan following in India.
Ma Faiza: While festivals like Sunburn have definitely been beneficial, I feel that most of these big, commercial fests have been guilty of exploiting Indian DJs, by paying them less than their foreign counterparts, and not giving them the biggest platform they can – in terms of bad time slots, and not honouring the hard work. I personally prefer smaller festivals like Magnetic Fields and Sula Fest, which are created out of love for the music they choose to showcase, and for the joy of sharing a collective experience.

<em>DJ Priya Sen</em>
DJ Priya Sen

How would you like to see things improving for women at the festivals?
DJ Priya Sen:
It is galling to see that artistes from India are grossly underpaid. It is of utmost importance to recognise talent, and nurture them to realise their musical aspirations, and dreams. Also, I’d urge organisers to learn the history of the style they’ve jumped on because of its popularity, and curate line-ups that make sense, instead of lining up names to bring in the money.

Ma Faiza: I’d like to see more of an alternative counter-culture spreading at the festivals — more art, healing spaces, workshops, use of natural materials and creative use of technology. I’d like a “leave no trace” policy as well, where plastic waste is not tolerated, and where there is a deep message that any festival-goer can take away with them, and apply to their daily life. 

DJ Priya Sen: Festivals rely on the tried-and-tested formula of giving bigger DJs the spotlight. Can’t blame them, as our audiences are star-driven. Here, CTRL ALT DANCE, led by Ankytrixx, which just saw its fourth outing in Goa, is doing the right thing to promote fresh faces. It is imperative that the powers that be do so, for the scene to prosper.

<em>Nina & Malika</em>
Nina & Malika

Looking ahead, do you expect greater opportunities outside India than in the country?
Nina & Malika:
The music scene is blowing up in India! We have a rich culture, and so much room to experiment! Without support and love from our own country, we wouldn’t be able to have success internationally. 

Olly Esse: I’ve performed in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia, but I’m keen to stay and focus on my new home, India, for now, as I see lots of opportunities to grow.

A word of advice for aspiring DJs?
Olly Esse:
Mainly, have patience, and learn things the old-school way. Don’t be scared of vinyl or CDs. Always be updated about your music, as history is important. Know what you aim for and prepare well — so you can be great no matter what, anytime, anywhere. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you!

Ma Faiza: Be true, be honest, be REAL. Don’t let the lack of opportunity dissolve your artistic beliefs into something just to fit in. Work harder on what you believe, as long as it’s authentic, it will find a way to survive. Show your passion, and express yourself with your music.

Read all the complete interviews online at indulgexpress.com

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