Feministing Jamz: DJ Ushka on music, migrations, and cultural appropriation

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If you don’t know DJ Ushka yet, it is definitely in your interest to get to know her. Born Thanu Yakupitiyage in Sri Lanka, DJ Ushka is currently based out of Brooklyn (via Thailand). When she’s not working as an immigrants’ rights organizer, she’s incorporating the music and resistance of the global south into eminently danceable mixes. I had the pleasure of chatting on the phone with DJ Ushka a couple weeks ago, and we talked feminism, migration, and the ways DJs can participate in — and resist — cultural appropriation.

I also asked her to pick out ten songs or videos she was feeling. She ended up giving me eleven, and you know what? That is really great news for you.

DJ Ushka during a set

How does feminism — or feminisms — affect your art? Like, both in terms of the ways you produce and also the shit you have to navigate as a woman in a male-dominated DJ world.

I mean, I think that my approach to DJing or even my entrance into the work of DJing has inherently been a feminist act, you know? I spin a lot of global music and I’ve had a lot of support from men and male DJs, and a lot of friends who stepped up, and that’s not a lot of people’s experience.

But even the fact that we’re called “female” DJs instead of DJs. Like, I recently did this gig and this woman, who was well-meaning, said that she was so excited to see a female DJ. We have to switch up the idea that a woman DJ is an anomaly, that a woman who knows how to use a turntable is an anomaly. So being a DJ helps turn around this predominant idea of who spins the music, so in a lot of ways I think even just existing as a DJ for me has always been inherently feminist.

Also I try both in sets of mine and in the spaces I create and the mixes that I do to include a lot of female and queer voices, and include a narrative of feminism as well.

There are a lot of themes of colonization, migrations, and diasporas in the mixes you put out, and I know your day job is doing immigrants’ rights work. How do these themes make their way into the music you decide to work with?

I mean I’m an immigrant, and that’s informed the work that I do. I do immigrants’ rights organizing, and always, beyond a theoretical level, I’ve been interested in migration because it’s the story of my life.

I am Sri Lankan and I moved to the UK when I was young, grew up in Thailand, and then came to the US for college when I was 18, so my trajectory has always been that of a migrant, always outside of the country of my passport. I’m always thinking about my own migration context and also everyone else’s — people who are more privileged and less privileged — people who didn’t come with a visa and people who didn’t come for college. I am interested in telling stories through my music — I want people to have a good time and dance and listen to a mix but also be thinking about what was the connection between, for example this song from West Africa and this champeta song from Colombia. Because even in terms of music there is so much to say about migration, and how migrations inform different music.

So I had this moment when I was looking at your description of the Open City mixtape where you talk about Venezuelan tuki, and it was actually the first time that I — and I’m Venezuelan — had heard of tuki. So I went on this Google wormhole and I ended up reading some more about it on the Mad Decent website, and just had this moment of rage: like, when white folks are telling you about things in your own country that they’ve been able to see because they have a kind of access that you don’t have. I’ve been home a few times in the almost 20 years I’ve been here and I absorb these snippets of culture while I’m there that I cherish so much, but nothing close to what white dudes on a Diplo budget can get. And I’m wondering if you deal with that, how you navigate this culture of appropriation and re-working of the exotic brown in the DJ and music world more generally. How you choose to resist that, I guess.

I learned about tuki from my friend Mariana — who is a Venezuelan artist from Caracas. So my entrance to learning about Venezuelan music was from Venezuelan DJs, not from Mad Decent. But anyone can get anything off of the internet and there are these Mad Decent and Diplo kind of popular mainstreaming folks — the ways that they are pulling from music from the global south and making music their own and kind of mainstream it, but I wanna challenge that. There are a lot of underground channels that people are sharing music that aren’t about white people.

When you break down concerns about appropriation of music genres by certain labels — the concern is really about power. For me as a DJ — and as someone learning to produce, and who is associated with other DJs/producers — I think it’s extremely important to credit who/where you are sampling your music from and also whenever possible, making sure that those local voices are highlighted. Maybe because of something you sampled an artist from Ghana or Sierra Leone or Colombia or wherever gets to tour and profit as well. You also have to know what you are playing. I play a lot of music from everywhere — sometimes I don’t understand the language — when possible, if I know someone who does speak that language, I’ll ask them what the song means or I’ll do a lot of research into the history of how that genre was created, so at least I know the region, the form, etc. By knowing what you are playing, you ensure that you aren’t just contributing to some “melting pot of global music” but are specifically highlighting different styles and how they go together.

The issue that people have with Mad Decent or Diplo is this “Christopher Columbus discovery of music” thing they have going on — original artists are rarely at the forefront and people question their intentions. A couple of years ago, Venus X, of Ghethogothik fame, called Diplo out on Twitter for recording her set at a ghe20g0th1k party and playing a similar set himself later. It’s a long story but I think that calling out was so important — because clearly that’s not about collaboration, that’s about stealing ideas — and in this case, a extremely successful white deejay stealing from a woman of color. People are of course influenced by each others styles — but just be transparent about it, give credit where credit is due. Chief Boima writes about this in a piece called “Global Genre Accumulation” that I think everyone should check out.

I actually was really glad that in the end I actually first learned it from you — that I got to first hear about this genre that emerged after I left from a woman of color and immigrant, and not from fucking Diplo (god, I hate Diplo).

Yeah, and you know — like tuki — some of the music that is becoming more popular is from working class places. Tuki is from the barrios, from predominantly black folk. So I wanna acknowledge that and I wanna look into the histories of that music. And you have these larger labels that take in this music and are into assimilating it into the larger genre of global bass but there are histories that are important to know. I don’t want people to think that I’m about this melting pot. I want people not to assume that we’re all the same, but to have people go out and learn these trajectories and migrations and histories.

So what is your process for making a mix? Do you kind of keep track of and write down songs that fit a theme for a while, and then go for it? Or do you sit down and research it all as a project, or some combination?

It’s a combo — I take so long to make mixes — I spend so long listening to things, messing around and seeing what mixes with each other. Like for the Foreign Brown mixtape, looking into the lyrics was important. So I started with a song by Lido Pimienta about la migra. There is this Los Rakas song Africana where they talk about skin color, and I liked how they talk about something that really affects the whole world. I included this song by Tribe Called Red talking about the Idle No More movement, and the women involved in that. I was trying to connect all these songs that connect these movements across the world, but also make it danceable.

Coming from a policy-heavy world there is a way that we think that it’s really separate from our everyday lives. Like you can be on the dance floor and you can be political. They often think that the dance floor is so different, where you go to party and not think about things, but for me they are the same — I am political on the dance floor too.

We recently did this interview with Gordon Voidwell who was talking also about something similar — the dance floor as a liberatory space.

It can be so beautiful — there is this collective we just DJ’d with in Chicago and there were 850 people at this event and all the proceeds went to an immigrants’ rights org. And all these things are connected you know? Like this week the deportation record is at 2 million. New York state still can’t pass the DREAM ACT and give undocumented students the chance to go to college.

And you know, the world is so crazy, and there is all that happening, and for these few hours on the dance floor you can feel all those things and express that anger but also feel really good.

Any songs or videos you’re feeling these days?

The Wizard ft Nyanda & Chedda – Like A Pro

This track is a year old but I love it and it sounds really good in the club. The Wizard is one of the only female producers out of Jamaica (or at least that I know of) and that is super inspiring. She’s also the daughter of famous reggae musician Beres Hammond. This video also features Nyanda from Brick & Lace, another fierce Jamaican women duo that I love.

Los Rakas – Sueño Americano

[Ed note: trigger warning on this video for graphic (interpersonal and state) violence]

This track off their new album El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo explores the false promises of the “American Dream” and the immigration system that doesn’t serve immigrants. The video explores the complexities of young people who turn to crime and makes subtle political commentary on the criminal justice system. The lyrics are also super powerful — speaking about what it means to not have papers and how that limits a young person’s opportunities in this country. It’s really great to see Los Rakas take up these issues in their music.

Mapei – Don’t Wait

This is pretty much going to be the song of the summer. It’s a super sweet and simple song about friendship and love and it’s extremely catchy. This music video is also visually stunning. Another fierce femme musician I can’t get enough of.

Titica – Ablua

If you don’t know about trans Angolan artist, Titica, then you should start googling her now. She’s had huge success in Angola and was named the best Kuduro artist of 2011. In 2012, the global bass party I co-run in Brooklyn called iBomba had the pleasure of hosting Titica’s first performance in New York, facilitated by my friend Chief Boima. Titica’s dancing in her videos and in person in her performances is just amazing.

Ana Tijoux – Vengo

French-Chilean badass, Ana Tijoux, just came out with a new album called Vengo. The title track opens with flute music from the Andes and speaks about the pride of Tijoux’s indigenous Mapuche heritage. I love that Ana Tijoux always keeps politics at the center of her music and doesn’t apologize for it.

Abstract Random – Mi Nah Wanna

In 2010, Toronto-based Abstract Random released “Mi Nah Wanna,” a song that challenges homophobia in dancehall culture. The queer group describes their music as “rap electro dub hop mashup infused with feminist politics.” I don’t know why people don’t play this song more! The video also features members of the brooklyn boihood crew, active in providing visibility and empowering queer masculine of center bois and queers of color.

Old Money – Mothership

My friends from Brooklyn duo Old Money just released their new EP called Mothership and everyone should hear it! Ahmad Julian and Andre Oswald, MCs of Jamaican and Guyanese descent respectively, always push their listeners with new sounds — mixing influences of hip hop, dancehall and caribbean musics with electronic sounds. The title track explores the metaphor of the “mothership” as spoken about in American Black Liberationist movements.

MPeach – Venamo

Plugging another friend and fellow Dutty Artz member — my girl MPeach is releasing a new track this week called Boogaloo Mutante that folks should check out. MPeach is a Venezuelan artist hailing from Caracas but now lives in Brooklyn. One of my favorite videos of hers is from her 2012 track, Venamo, which urges and invites listeners to question everything, push limits, and don’t buy into what we’re told.

Stromae – Tous les Mêmes

Stromae, a Belgian-Rwandan singer from Brussels, released this really interesting music video in its visuals and approach to gender. I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it, but it’s definitely something that’s holding my attention.

BOK BOK ft Kelela – Melba’s Cell

I, like many, am a huge fan of Kelela — the much buzzed about future R&B vocalist of Ethiopian descent with the Fade to Mind label. Her mixtape from late last year, Cut4Me, turns lots of heads. Here she is with London-based producer Bok Bok on a new track called “Melba’s Cell” bringing back the essence of R&B.

PTAF – Boss Ass Bitch

While we’re Feministing, no play list is complete without PTAF’s “Boss Ass Bitch” — a song that Nicki Minaj helped make famous when she added a verse. But here’s the original trio — PTAF (Pretty Taking All Fades) — with the recent video they released to the song. Jersey Club deejay UNIIQU3 (another bad ass femme), remixed it into a club track which has also been making the rounds.

You should check out DJ Ushka’s latest mix, which she made for the folks at Open City, and you can follow her at @ty_ushka on twitter, on soundcloud and on tumblr.

1bfea3e7449eff65a94e2e55a8b7acda-bpfullVerónica loves all these songs!

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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