Politics of Makin’ Magick: An Interview with DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ — part II

In the second part of our interview with DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ, an underground London-based house music star, we discuss the difficulties of addressing political issues in music, as well as the importance of maintaining inclusive spaces on the dancefloor. We talk about queer joy, inherently collectivist aspects of her art, as well as the precarious reality of music craftsmanship in today’s world. Read part I here.

Sabrina’s debut album from 2017, Makin Magick, cover taken from Bandcamp.

Pop music has rarely proved to be an effective way of addressing social issues. Ever too often, sociocultural complexities become trivialized and reduced to slogans, presented as either too vague or taken out of context. Mere inclusion of a progressive political statement easily shifts into banality within pop tradition, while some genres, like hip-hop, seem better suited for sociopolitical illustrations. House music has historically been able to both include explicitly political statements or avoid them altogether. A good example of the former is DJ Sprinkles’ Midtown 120 Blues, a deep-house treatise that had a pivotal didactic role in historicizing and recontextualizing forms made by marginalized groups. Sabrina is aware of the difficulty of speaking directly about politics in entertainment, as there is a danger of “trivializing the meaning”, however well-intentioned. This is why she often resorts to different tactics than overt political slogans on tracks: special releases that benefit socially progressive organizations and charities, inclusive politics and openness about her goals and spaces she wants to create. Regardless, the issue of politics in music remains a difficult one to overcome because of the limits of the very medium. Music is more than a mere auditory experience, especially in a world where releases are accompanied by promotional campaigns, visual material, and artists themselves sharing their political stances through social media.

With the rise of TERF movement and anti-trans legislation all over the world, we have witnessed even the household names of dance music scene, a scene historically created by and for queer people, sharing transphobic sentiments – the most recent one being Irish disco singer Róisín Murphy, an artist who has built her entire career off the backs of queer people. In the face of oppression, many queer activists have turned to the notion of joy as an act of resistance, taking after a long history represented by activists like Audre Lorde and Eli Wiesel. adrienne maree brown, American activist and writer, draws on the black feminist tradition and writes about “pleasure activism”, with a goal to recontextualize pleasure and joy in the context of activism. For communities that face strong marginalization and daily news of hate crimes and social injustice, joy becomes a way of political resistance in itself.

Bearing in mind the post-pandemic inflation of nightlife, LGBTQ+ safe spaces have not just become less safe, but also less affordable, which is why communal collectivity increasingly resorts to digital spaces. DJ Sabrina creates music that attempts to create new queer spaces, sometimes in places as small as one’s own bedroom. She is known for hosting extensive listening parties of her records, where she will respond to comments and questions of fans partaking, where her listeners can just stop by to say hi or engage in several hours of communal listening experience. Maybe partly because of her pandemic hit album, Charmed, maybe because of the gentrification of socialization in the recent years, but this practice seems symptomatic of a bigger trend amongst dance music audiences to find more affordable and safe ways of collectively engaging in the listening and dancing experience.

I’d like you to comment on all the different “voices” on your albums. I feel that your albums often convey the same kind of collectivity that is found on some of your covers (namely Charmed and Destiny) – it seems like there are different characters present on your album, some of them reoccurring and engaging in conversations with one another.

DJSTTDJ: I definitely had in mind on Charmed that Dash was the poet on the title track, and Harvey was recurring in a few places. The novelization of the album went into more detail about the Sabrina/Harvey/Dash love triangle, and Dreama was on The Other Realm. There is also using particular voices for particular purposes: sometimes a friend from the other realm, sometimes I’ll do the vocal smyself, it depends on the feel of the track (and if I want to just record it then and there). But I always use vocals, either samples or organic, as it just keeps a human relativity to the song that I think resonates with the listener (although sometimes I’ll use pure instrumentation for effect).

Your fans are familiar with your special releases, where you reissued your songs Choices and Princess, to benefit pro-choice organizations and transgender rights respectively. I found Princess in particular such a strong message – it was reissued after the killing of Brianna Ghey, and the song itself is based heavily on the sample of Liz Phair’s Polyester Bride, another song that tackles women’s empowerment. Can you tell us a bit about the history of this song and how it was redefined in the wake of Brianna’s death?

DJSTTDJ: I had always imagined Princess as an empowerment song. I wanted it to be relatable especially to trans women, as well as anyone who is going through a difficult stage of their lives, to recognise how far they’d come and the encouragement to keep pushing forward. I definitely always felt it was intended for anyone that was going through a difficult transition or decision about themselves and wanted encouragement and I almost hinted at it a couple of times but I didn’t want to trivialize the meaning. Brianna’s death seemed like an appropriate time to canonically reveal the song’s definition while being respectful to the tragedy. I never wanted to trivialize any part of her death but I wanted to do something to honor her memory. Choices was equally always intended as a pro-choice message: this was years before the horrendous SCOTUS decision and I’d mentioned it having a political meaning but again, didn’t want to trivialize the intention. It also seemed like a good time to bring the meaning out in the open. Similarly, Great Again from Makin’ Magick was my diss towards the “president” of the time; I thought it would be nice to reclaim the phrase in a positive way.

Seeing the rise of TERF movement has been difficult for so many queer people and music fans. TERF politics are problematic by definition, but they seem even more damaging when they occur within queer spaces or spaces deemed safe for marginalized groups. You seem particularly beloved within the queer community for your inclusive politics (you even designed your own take on the inclusivity flag and uploaded it for public use), but also because a lot of fans claim that the music itself is extremely queer, in the sense that it radiates a very specific kind of joy.

DJSTTDJ: All of those Nazis are using current wedge politics to gain favor with an ill-informed and bigoted audience, then slowly they come after everyone else (start with trans people, next up gay people, then black people, etc) – they’ll be lost to history as bigots. When they’re gone, no-one will remember them (who talks about Rush Limbaugh anymore after he died? What would they attribute to his memory? What is he good for in remembrance?). Xitter has made it worse by colonizing a safe-ish space and turning it into Parlor or Truth Social, and all it took was an apartheid heir. As a queer artist, everything I do comes from a queer place and always has, it’s wonderful that people embrace that aspect and “get it”, it’s incredibly flattering and I think that solidarity feeling has maybe contributed to having such an incredibly supportive supporter base – we all like to feel like we’re together and part of something inclusive and special! I designed the flag as the Progress Flag (a popular inclusive replacement for the traditional Pride Flag) was trademarked/copyrighted, which I can understand if you want to attempt to stop nazis from abusing it, but ultimately it just has this weird “owned” vibe about it compared to the pride flag. It also wasn’t AS inclusive as it could be if we’re using it to redefine the original pride flag as being un-inclusive (which it shouldn’t, but maybe has been), so it was an experiment in a solution to those two flaws about the progress flag. Of course, I think it could be observed as more contrived and confusing, but only as much as the progress flag is compared to the pride flag. I also wanted a truly public domain design, something that anyone can use without technically and legally requiring permission or authorisation for the next 100+ years (or however long the Disney nation will eventually lobby to extend copyright expiration lengths for their public domain-built empire).

The head-first dive of your music into fearless joy, euphoria and love could be described almost as radical. Charmed was released in the times of the pandemic, when most of us felt more isolated than ever. I am reminded of bell hooks and her claim that “To commit to love is fundamentally to commit to a life beyond dualism”. Love as a means of resistance to the oppressive structures. Are you aware of the way these values reflect in your music and the meaning it has for your fans?

DJSTTDJ: I never imagined Charmed to be anywhere near as successful as it was, I only started to see a little upturn in popularity around the previous May or June when TEED and Lil Internet played Ambition on their mixes and it felt as though something was happening. Enchanted‘s slight improvement in interest compared to Spellbound also gave me an idea that a more “Hallmarkwave” album would probably be a good direction to lean in (as that is generally my natural vibe anyways). I also never imagined Being Alone to resonate so well with people around that time (it was about my own experiences with having a life of no friends, the dialogue was absolutely exactly the same as my own experience and I wanted to write a song directly around that personal life-long feeling of loneliness) but people took the meaning and made it their own, which is the entire purpose of music. Interestingly, Elvis Costello never printed lyrics in his early albums as he didn’t want to influence his listener’s perception, and I always loved that idea, although I do print lyrics myself. I’m humbled, flattered, honored and stunned that every day people tell me that they’re moved by my music, their lives changed, emboldening and empowering them, making them emotional in ways they’ve not felt about music before, overcoming depression and anxiety, saving them from suicidal contemplation or ideation, helped them with trauma or PTSD, given them one of their few last pleasures while suffering with terminal illness or just encouraging them to make music themselves. It’s unbelievable to me as I just never imagine anyone’s listening to me or cares about what I do, I always feel I’ve got something wrong or could have done a better job so most things sound incredibly flawed to me and I’m blown away by the love and support and can only hope that I can somehow live up to people’s expectations with each new release.

I have a question related to your anonymity: I feel that the 21st century has seen this shift from glorifying celebrity figures to turning everyone into a sort-of celebrity, only increasing the mythomania and the audience’s feeling of entitlement to the artist’s personal information. Do you prefer staying anonymous just to let the music speak for itself, or are there more layers to it?

DJSTTDJ: Well, all of the albums have said “Two From The Witches Council” since 2017 (me and Salem), and I definitely don’t want glorifying as a person, the music should speak for itself and the whole sound I love about music is when it’s detached from a personality and you can just enjoy its construction without any ego or identity clouding your perception. A lot of rock indie music doesn’t even have photos of the artists anywhere on any of their materials anywhere, compared to the old, dated concept of everyone’s faces being prominently displayed in an attempt to exploit personability or recognition. I have nothing to say as a person, I only really make music and I have no life outside of that so what reason would there ever be to be non-anonymous?

I would also love to talk a little about your DIY approach to your art. You create all the visuals, all the promo material, all the music and so many extras, on top of working a part-time job, hosting listening parties and engaging with your community. Does it get tiring? How do you feel about the precarious aspects of being an artist nowadays? I feel that being a musician used to be a full-time job, and now it requires (especially new artists) to really put tremendous amounts of effort into aspects of work that don’t have much to do with artistic creation – promotion, networking, etc. In Berlin, where I currently reside, it’s such a popular cliché to be an artist working at a coffee shop and writing your novel in your free time – but it’s also reality.

DJSTTDJ: I was reading about Alex Graham’s Dog Biscuits and how she wrote it during the pandemic while working at a coffee shop, I think trying for so many years and getting nowhere can definitely destroy you but I have to say, if I can have some manner of interest in what I do, ANYONE can, I truly believe that (and you’ll probably get more successful a lot faster than I have lol). There is SO much you have to do yourself these days, but thankfully that also gives you a tremendous amount of control that isn’t possible if you’re even signed to a label. I enjoy the artwork, videos, mixing/mastering, production, sequencing, memes, novelizations, comment replying and replying to emails/DMs. It’s nice to be able to give everyone something personal and special that isn’t watered down or insincere but I appreciate that it’s not necessarily for everyone and if I was touring I have no idea how I’d do things.

What are your current goals and the biggest obstacles on the contemporary music scene? A lot of fans want to see your live set, and a significant part of us would also like to see a stand-up comedy show.

DJSTTDJ: Ahh, I was hoping the stand-up comedy option would win the poll, that would have been the coolest thing to do, lol! For live, I have an idea about how it could be as close as possible to a Combinision or a live performance of the songs but I’m not familiar enough with how to pull it off successfully right now and I’m my own manager so I have no idea how to arrange anything like that, but never say never!

Taken from EP Under Your Spell.

Find DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ on Bandcamp.

Mislav Živković

Tekst je financiran sredstvima Fonda za poticanje pluralizma i raznovrsnosti elektroničkih medija Agencije za elektroničke medije za 2023. godinu.

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