The Black Madonna: look different, sound different, make a difference
This article looks at how the DJ The Black Madonna has acquired fame in a particularly male-dominated industry, challenging stereotypes about how a female DJ should look and sound.
Marea Stamper AKA ‘The Black Madonna,’ an iconographic moniker coined from the dark-skinned depictions of Virgin Mary, and suited for the religious following that this 40-year-old DJ from Kentucky (USA) has fostered over the years.
High school dropout turned celebrity non-conformist, Stamper has elevated her DJ name above the façade of an icon, where her gigs have now become a political statement across the electronic musical world. In a feature with XLR8R, The Black Madonna repeats the underlying motto that accompanies her performance as, ‘staying committed and optimistic even when the odds don’t look good’.
For a curvy female DJ with short dyed blonde hair, glasses and tattoos etched across her arms, the odds have not always been in her favour. And perhaps it is Stamper’s counter-image – what she calls ‘androgynous’– ‘anti-feminine’ and ‘anti-magazine’ look that is the crux of her empowerment. Stamper has liberated the female struggle in three important ways: by becoming popular and revered in an industry that is famous for putting down female DJs, mixing a plethora of songs together to promote the idea of inclusivity, and in doing so creating a musical space catered towards the liberation of, and for, all types of people.
It is no secret that the electronic music world is overrun by misogynistic rhetoric where women DJs are either judged for their looks, or posited as inferior to male DJs. The record label Giegling recently came under fire when co-founder, Konstantin, stated that women are ‘usually worse at DJing than men’, and should ‘lose their female qualities’ and ‘become more manly’ to succeed in the industry. Like most entertainment institutions around the world from sport to politics, the music industry is infamous for cases of objectifying women or favouring the male counterpart, feeding into the inequality of gender that women suffer from everywhere around the world. The electronic scene is not exempt from this. Arguably, these issues are worsened since electronic music is deep down a genre that privileges technical prowess, the dark Palahniukian underbelly of society, and being solo performer centre stage: all stereotypically ‘male’ qualities.
Eleanor Brooks writes about how women who dabble in techno or house are viewed online in an article for ‘MOTZ’. Famous for its satirical pieces, the name MOTZ is described on the website as a ‘nickname for a grubby, unkempt individual. It is also the nickname for ‘girls’ in Dublin and is, in reality, a female-dominated techno label running in Berlin, London and Dublin. After analysing reactions to women DJs on YouTube, Brooks concludes that ‘the underground music industry is still a boy’s club’. Despite the fame garnered by famous female DJ names like Nina Kraviz or Annie Mac, almost all electronic music festival line-ups still show a huge gender disparity, favouring male acts. Brooks shows how even Kraviz’s fame is blamed on her ‘hotness’ by online sharks –objectification subsumes when they comment on her lipstick, dance moves or clothes.
On the other hand, Brooks examines how male DJs are less fetishised, and some are even respected for not caring about the way they look, which seems to represent a more authentic focus on their music. However, if a female shows up to a gig looking too ‘focused’ on her music, she will be reprimanded for her bad taste in clothes or greasy hair (see MOTZ, online reactions to Charlotte de Witte). When it comes to festivals, it’s clear that this industry and genre are male-dominated. Sonar Festival Barcelona boasted a female line-up of 13.1%, BPM 9.7%, Ultra 7.5% and Time Warp a grand total of 2%. As confirmed by celebrated DJs like Kraviz and The Black Madonna, it is not as if the musical world is lacking in female talent.
For The Black Madonna, ‘grit is undervalued, talent is overvalued’, and her point of view is understandable in relation to this questionable background of unequal social structure and recycled damaging public opinion. True grit, or the passion to overcome obstacles, is therefore something that defines not only The Black Madonna, but successful women everywhere.
Going to a Black Madonna gig not only feels empowering as a woman used to performances by male DJs, but Stamper perfectly mixes genres and tunes together to create a synthesis of cultures and history that, in turn, overcomes the invisible boundaries that these cultures and histories have imposed on music, society, race and gender. She seamlessly unifies disco, techno, house, afrobeat, gospel, R’n’B… and the list goes on, and thus challenges the one-beat-one-tune image often imposed on electronic music. This means that when you go to see The Black Madonna play, you are constantly rediscovering music itself, while she isolates and mixes sounds together to create something that is both timeless and new.
As a woman who has exploded through the male-dominated house and techno industry, this concept of redefinition and musical journey reinforces her challenge of the status quo. Watching Konstantin play at sunset you will lull in the mellow, pretty tones he chooses before his predictable, energetic set follows. In contrast, at a Black Madonna set, you are constantly left questioning if this particular synthesis feels right, keeping you alert as an audience member in an almost Brechtian way. Before you are left to wonder too much, however, the experience becomes immersive as Stamper herself fist bumps and shakes her hips, and you find yourself mimicking her movements. Disco is merged flawlessly with gospel synths, highlighting the female voice amidst a backdrop of heavy acid or techno. In this way, she manages to simultaneously surprise and invigorates, all in the space of a few hours of record playing.
Stamper acknowledges how women are portrayed in the media as ‘all manicured and thin’ and how women like her ‘were normally the side-kick in the movie’. She goes on to say that, ‘at some point, however, I learned to overcome this and see myself as the protagonist – to step into my power’. Watching The Black Madonna tweak the dials on her decks that make her vinyl’s sing, pushing her glasses up her sweaty forehead to the time of the beat, you can feel her dancing into her power. Thus, her music and sets symbolise her fight against the aggressive comments from the people who fat-shame her or dismiss her talent because of the way she looks. Often playing political speeches over a beat, there is an inherent revolutionary fervour to her sets. She consciously draws on the social history of dance music, with all its ties in LGBQT and marginalised people’s movements, which, like Mixmag confirms, are the ‘voices central to club history’. In Mixmag’s feature on Stamper, writer Louise Brailey suggests that her music echoes the ‘original messages of unity and radicalism’ of those chosen songs. Stamper’s aura translates to the audience into a collective feeling of empowerment and we are reminded once again of how music can overcome boundaries.
Stamper quickly began headlining festivals after her initial fame, touring nonstop and releasing her first album Exodus on vinyl in 2012. In 2014, she became Smart Bar’s first female creative director – Smart Bar is Chicago’s oldest independent venue with famous past residencies from the likes of Frankie Knuckles and Derrick Carter. In 2016 Stamper won Mixmag’s DJ of the year, where Brailey writes that beyond her music, Stamper is a ‘force for positivity and change’. Talking to XLR8R, Stamper says, ‘the first time I saw myself on a magazine cover was the first time I had seen a women who looked like me on a dance magazine cover.’ Her musical success resounds with the inescapable fact that she challenges objectification, instead endowing the female image with vigour through a diverse creative process. Her tour and album ‘We Still Believe’ echoes the urgency of 21st century feminism, shadowed by the election of a ‘pussy-grabbing’ US president. Like many Americans and even more artists of her time, Stamper is attuned to the turbulent politics of her country, participating in anti-gun, anti-Trump protests and women’s marches. In fact, Stamper’s initial motivations were to join the Democratic Party as a speech-writer.
A step away from mixing music, Stamper has produced her own song, ‘He is the Voice I Hear’ on her album We Still Believe, an eclectic instrumental piece that ties jazz with house through a 10-minute symphony. But Stamper herself understands why her music is called ‘inclusive’ in reviews around the world, self-proclaiming it ‘black and gay’ despite the fact that she is a straight white woman. She continues to say that ‘house music is a universal language spoken and understood by all people’ and as an audience member there is the feeling that whoever is playing, whatever is being played and whoever is dancing next to you, everything flows together, indiscriminate and unifying. Music and dance have always had the power of transgressing social boundaries, and The Black Madonna feels like the embodiment of this ideal.
Stamper symbolises a revolution to the position and underrepresentation of female DJs, and women in general, around the world. Our role models should not be cyber-bloggers on social media with profiles promoting slimmer body images, and young girls should not be listening to music enforcing sexual harassment or glorifying male dominance. The idea that a woman like Stamper has made it so big in this both oppressive and liberating industry as The Black Madonna is in tune to a global success for women everywhere. In relation to electronic music and its perceived monotony, Stamper has shown that techno gigs indeed have range. That a woman has the skill set to manipulate a plethora of different songs to form a conclusive whole is both a technical and social feat. Stamper has rebranded dance music into a genre with the potential to overcome the boundaries of the industry, reclaiming its original purpose as a source of liberation.
Feature in ‘XLR8R’