In the male-heavy world of dance music, the rapid ascent of Marea Stamper has been remarkable. She released her first record as the Black Madonna in 2012, became talent buyer and creative director at Smart Bar, the legendary independent dance music palace in Chicago, a year later, and won Mixmag's DJ of the Year honor in 2016. "I've often said that the only difference between me and everybody else is that I had a couple agents that really believed in me," she tells Billboard Dance. "If not for them, we would not be having this interview. Women in general need that, somebody that can look through the surface level marketability and find this other spot."
The Black Madonna is now part of a push by Smirnoff, the liquor giant, to bring electronic music closer to gender parity with the Equalizing Music initiative. An investigation of 24 major festival lineups by Vice's dance music vertical, Thump, in 2016 found that not a single one achieved equal representation of male- and female-identifying acts; on average, just 17 percent of headliners were women. On Monday (March 6), Smirnoff announced its goal of doubling the number of female-identifying headliners at major music festivals in three years.
Smirnoff is tackling the problem of unequal opportunity in dance music from multiple angles: first by encouraging "key stakeholders" in electronic music to pledge their own support to help achieve gender parity; second by working with two Vice platforms,Thump and Broadly, to celebrate females in the dance music industry with the "Top 50 Making Noise" list, which includes the Black Madonna, DJ Rachael, Cassy, Tokimonsta, Anna Lunoe, and many more. The final component of the initiative is Smirnoff: Equalizing Music, a documentary that intertwines the tales of the Black Madonna and DJ Rachael.
"Smirnoff has a wide reach built into their business model and a desire to serve and protect and reflect women," the Black Madonna tells Billboard Dance. "A goal of this magnitude requires nothing less than a very organized, very high-level push from a lot of people in a lot of areas."
Accordingly, Smirnoff has obtained commitments from several media outlets - in addition to Vice, Pitchfork signed the pledge, and Mixmag plans to make 50% of its cover stars female DJs going forward - streaming services like Spotify, terrestrial airwave giants like iHeartRadio, the renowned London club Fabric, and promotion companies like Insomniac, all of whom agreed to support Equalize Music to varying degrees. (Other partners are pending.)
The Black Madonna believes that the multi-disciplinary, multi-regional aspects of the coalition Equalize Music has assembled will give it an edge when it comes to thinking of creative strategies for doubling the number of female-identifying festival headliners. "Once you bring a lot of smart people into the fold with a shared goal, they're going to bring their own approaches and their own ideas to the table," she says. "There are going to be things we haven't thought of yet. I look forward to seeing what kind of models and programs work at different levels throughout the world."
A top-down approach to increasing representation can have immediate impacts. "There were a lot of people that told me I was unmarketable, unphotographable," the Black Madonna remembers. "I couldn't even get booked here in Chicago at parties. All it took was the right few people that stood up for me. You gotta figure there are a lot of women in the same boat. They just need someone to get it, to see it, to know what to do with it."
"There need to be some structural changes at the management and representation level and certainly at the booking level," she continues. "Go figure: when you put women in leadership positions, they don't have to be convinced that women are capable."
In addition to the Smirnoff initiative's policy prongs, the Equalizing Music documentary serves to put a narrative spotlight on the paths of female DJs. "We have to talk about large policy initiatives and action steps and all of the things that go into bridging these gaps," the Black Madonna explains. "But at the end of the day, this is about humanity - these things don't happen unless we come out of our spaces and connect with people that are not like us. And then you find, of course, that they're exactly like you. The essential message of connecting through dance music, through different but shared experiences, that's the message that will carry us forward."
The film follows the Black Madonna as she goes to visit DJ Rachael in Uganda, and Rachael also makes the pilgrimage to Smart Bar in Chicago. "We looked for things that were parallels, I wanted to go to a record store or do things that we could do in both places," the Black Madonna notes. "But what was amazing was that there were so many things that we couldn't do in both places. There is no record store in Kampala. That does not exist. How do you be a DJ without a record store? That's a part of the story too."
"This film is an example of one of the kinds of things we can do, but there are so many more," the Black Madonna says. "We're just getting started. I want women to have the best possible version of their world: a world where women are safe, women are running shit, women are getting paid what they're worth, women are not afraid, women are creating, women are at the forefront."
More information on the initiative can be found here.