At the bedrock of any party scene lies DJs. You’ve got club managers, event promoters, party goers but really, it’s a great DJ that threads all of these units together for a great event. Over the years, a turning tide has seen more and more women DJs in the world on event lineups, and the Kenyan party scene has been a part of this domino effect has. DJ Miss Ray, DJ Shishi and DJ Niks, made their debuts about a decade ago, about 5 years ago, and last year respectively. That's a combined almost two decades worth of time and effort spent carving out their own lanes in the industry.
There are many marks of a good DJ. An undeniable one is that you make people dance. The way DJ Shishi does it is by tapping into an intimacy with her craft. Intimacy requires a fine-tuned knowledge of what the other wants and what you have to offer them. “I’m known for opening dance floors,” she offers, “I come right before the main act and my job is to get people to fill up the dance floor for the main act.” This isn’t easy- even the most excitable people often need coaxing to stay on the dance floor. Shishi compares it to mixing the perfect drink, “you have to
choose the right ingredients. Is it a daytime cocktail, or a night time cocktail? Are we partying or having a polite one? You need to know all of this to call people with the music and that's a skill that takes time to build.” The element that sets her apart, her secret ingredient if you will, is her penchant for introducing the audience to new sounds. “I pay attention to what people like outside the mainstream…making sure I don’t play a set full of music you’d have heard on the radio on the way to my gig.”
Other DJs prioritise stage presence. A little more than a year ago, Uncle Waffles went viral for a video of her dancing along to her own set and since then it has become a staple in her gigs. “Part of the shift where DJs have also become artists is because of stage presence,” DJ Niks explains. “Think of Kaneda for instance, when you go to her gig you’re not just going to listen to a set, you’re going to see her performing for the crowd.” It’s infectious when a DJ dances to their own set; if they’re enjoying the music, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be either.
The other way to get a full dance floor is to play for women. “We always say if a dance floor is full of women then it's a successful night because men will rarely dance by themselves on the dance floor, " says Shishi. She goes on to explain, “if I’m playing a dancehall set, I make sure I’m playing the kind of dancehall that will make girls dance. Either they are grinding on a guy, or they are dancing with their friends.” There is something to be said about how quickly female DJs catch on to the taste making abilities of other women and how they can tap into this to create incredible musical experience for their audiences. DJ Miss Ray echoes this by describing her experience playing at a strip club, Florida Nightclub, “we were playing house in town, which was pretty unheard of at the time, but because the strippers liked dancing to it, it made the customers enjoy it too.”
This would not be the first time that DJ Miss Ray would play a house set in an unlikely setting. In fact, one of her first residencies was at Glass House by Ghetto Radio in the city centre of Nairobi. While the radio station is known for playing local Kenyan music, she was one of the first cohort of DJs that found success playing afro house sets in that area of the city.
DJ Niks, who would come to start her DJing career years after, regards Coco Em and Miss Ray as one of the pioneers of DJs in the house genre. “They were the first DJs I got to witness that made me feel like I could do this as well,” she shares. Now a house DJ herself, she has found her musical home in the genre; “Progressive house is probably one of the best genres of music in the world to me. When I'm behind the decks I feel like the energy I am able to transfer the best to the audience is through house music. I think it’s one of the genres that allows you to continue feeling elevated throughout the song.” The general acceptance of house music made the inclusion of sub-genres like amapiano in the party scene almost seamless.
But even with all the success enjoyed by the female DJs currently, DJ-ing still exists within a male dominated music industry and so there are often misogynistic assumptions made about women’s ability. DJ Shishi mentions how there was the assumption that “[she] was going to play soft RnB or Neo-Soul,” or that she was not as tech savvy. DJ Niks also talks about how although a good performance can (and should) be enough testament to their capability, the standard can be higher for women such that when a DJ has a poor performance, it becomes unfairly representative of all women who DJ.
DJ Miss Ray also mentions how these assumptions and limitations are heightened with masculine presenting women. “I’m not what people imagine when they hear ‘female DJ’ and conventional looking women are sometimes offered more opportunities,” she explains. It is feminist and queer spaces that have repeatedly given her opportunities to play and present as authentically as possible. She references NGLHRC, Feminist Republic, Akili Dada, and Strictly Silk. About Strictly Silk, she says: “what was different about [them] is they asked for my rate, paid exactly what I asked for. And they did it consistently- they were really great to work with.” DJ Miss Ray likens them to The Whine Down, an event for women and non-binary people who “don't just offer spaces for us to show up as we are, but also to be seen by others like us.”
Community has played an essential part in launching the careers of all three DJs. Sometimes it takes the form of those who identify like you, like in the case of DJ Miss Ray, and other times all you have in common is a shared love for the arts. DJ Shishi talks about getting her start at Creatives Garage, an informal come-as-you-are art space that hosted all sorts of artists; “you had people recording podcasts upstairs, someone with a saxophone and a DJ set and then in the garden you'd have someone making a sculpture,” she recalls. It was in this space that she secured her first gig from a band named Yellow Light Machine, shortly after another gig from BONKERZ NRB’s founder Mvoo for a Youth Know No Limits event, and then a third gig from EA Wave for High Tide. All opportunities from people she had formed prior connections with that let her prove herself enough and secure more future gigs.
DJ Niks also got her start from someone she had a connection with. After months of messing around with decks as she puts it, she finally had a conversation with her brother, DJ Briizy a resident DJ at Winning Posts’ Amapiano Sundays. Her first gig was a sundowner set at the same venue last year and she would go on to play there several more times.
It’s common for artists to find their start in their fields through other artists in their orbit. The informalised nature of a lot of art industries in African spaces necessitates a kind of horizontal networking- quite frankly you need to work with your peers to flourish in art industries. In DJ Miss Ray’s experience, you also need to be more than a DJ; “for more women to get opportunities to play at gigs, we need to learn to be promoters and event managers and hire each other to play at these events. We have to be ok with wearing multiple hats.” This is what led her to co-found Monateng with Avocado the DJ, an event whose line-up prioritises women who are trying to get a foot into the DJing industry.
All three DJs have aspirations beyond playing at Kenyan events. "A world tour would make me feel like I made it...like Ghana is calling is my name," says DJ Shishi giddily. For DJ Miss Ray it's a little more specific, "I want to play in most, if not all the pride events in the world. That and in a cruise ship." And for DJ Niks, "[she] is currently working towards her next step for [her], which is being a producer." Sharing your art with the global scene, (notwithstanding the recent exposure on the indignities African face when traveling by Coco Em's experience) is a common marker of success for artists. It's one thing to make it at home, a whole other thing to make it anywhere.
There is a lot at play: Nairobi’s openness to new sounds, community, individual skill and craft, and the aforementioned domino effect from women DJs in other parts of the world getting visibility. They have all contributed to making more spaces for women in the DJing industry. And it’s not just for the house genre; “if I want hip hop or dancehall I’d reach for DJ Malaika,” DJ Niks says. “For hip hop or RnB, I’d say DJ Redbone,” adds Miss Ray. And there’s the aforementioned, Coco Em as well as DJ IV who is also making waves with their art among many, many others. The women in the Kenyan DJing industry are slowly weaving a lineage that is seeing them archive their presence in the music industry at large, and the anticipated growth is only likely to solidify their place.