by Irene Jagla
The notes of a Tlingit warrior song reverberated through the Bethaday Community Learning Center. The song, explained the singer, was passed down by Native sisters in British Columbia, Canada, and was meant to affirm Native survival and honor the gathered audience’s presence on Native land. It was also meant to ensure that the evening’s three panelists—all women of color DJs—could speak from a place of power.
That Friday evening, the community space in White Center saw a crowd of about 40 music lovers and community members alike gather to listen to DJ Sizzle, J-Nasty, and DJ Bembona discuss their careers and demonstrate their craft.
Organized by La Roxay Productions, the brainchild of Roxana Pardo Garcia, the event, “Mujeres in Music & Media,” made visible the work of mujeres DJs (“mujeres” is Spanish for “women”), who discussed what it means to be women of color and DJs, while also being activists in the community.
For Pardo Garcia, hosting these kinds of events around Seattle is important because “people don’t think people of color exist in this area.”
“When I was younger I would have loved to see events like this. But we need to create the reality that we want.”
The event was part of a year-long collaboration between Pardo Garcia and DJ Sizzle, whose given name is Zacil Pech, called, “West Coast Connect.” Pech also has her own project, “Cumbiaton,” which organizes local events by and for mujeres DJs.
For the past year, Pardo Garcia and Pech have been gathering Latinx women DJs to spin at inclusive parties. The music industry at-large, including the DJ scene, is a predominantly white male environment, Pech said.
“What we’re doing is creating a space where [women of color DJs] can be their authentic selves. You come to Cumbiaton as your most authentic, beautiful self,” she continued.
Pech’s mixes blend cumbia, reggaetón, salsa, merengue, and hip-hop. As a child, she was surrounded by music—her parents are avid music collectors—and Pech feels most at home and most connected with her Latinx community when she’s delving into her family’s vast library of CDs and vinyls to extract sounds and samples that represent her community and family.
It’s this connection that keeps Pech inspired to make music each day.
“I am forever indebted to my community because it supported me. As much as I would want to separate my undocumented status and my queer status, these are identities that I can’t take a break from. These are things that happen in my day to day life, and I’m lucky to be able to merge music and activism,” she said.
Seattle-based J-Nasty, whose given name is Janice Ibarra, said her Filipina roots also compel her to use music as a form of activism that strives to decolonize the music industry. She participated in the very first West Coast Connect party, and for her, events like Mujeres in Music & Media are important because they “educate women and encourage them to pursue their craft.”
Since she started DJing three years ago, Ibarra’s activism informs the kinds of mixes she creates.
“A lot of music I select has a strong message, and I choose music with frequencies that connect with the struggles of women of color,” she said.
Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, DJ Bembona, whose given name is Xiomara Marie Henry, is the most recent addition to the West Coast Connect family. Henry uses her musical chops to express her stance on sociopolitical issues. Her mixtape, “La Sala,” is a meditation on gentrification and displacement in Brooklyn that incorporates audio clips from interviews with residents on the brink of being pushed out by new development.
As a woman of color and a Latina, Henry said she sees no separation between activism and music and emphasizes the bigger picture of representation. She is also dedicated to using music as a force for social justice in the future.
“We have to make sure there’s enough women of color DJs out there,” she said. “Music has been on the forefront of every movement. It’s the pusher of all things. You can’t drive a sociopolitical movement without music.”
Many of the obstacles the three women have encountered in the industry center around their assigned genders. Ibarra said the issues she has faced range from sexual objectification to condescension. They also try to exploit their talents, said Pech, and attempt to pay them less than their male counterparts. Pech said she fights back, refusing to work for less than what a male DJ would earn in a night.
But in standing up for equal pay, femme DJs also risk creating reputations for being difficult to work with.
“People think they can [mess] with us,” Henry said. “I’m learning to put my foot down, but it’s hard because a lot of thoughts go through your head about your reputation and losing jobs. You feel it’s going to go through a web of folks saying ‘Oh, you don’t want to deal with her, she doesn’t want to comply.’”
As useful and important as it is for self-promotion, social media also creates hardships, the trio admitted. Henry said that she has developed a habit of overthinking her posts, constantly anticipating pushback from relatives or friends, while Pech acknowledged that her social media doesn’t reveal everything about her life.
“You don’t see the meltdowns, the depression and anxiety that I suffer,” Pech said.
Featured image courtesy of Roxana Pardo Garcia.