The Black Madonna on gender equality in music and her friendship with Optimo

Ahead of playing Terminal V's massive Halloween party, we chat to The Black Madonna about her friendship with Optimo, her sterling work with gender parity in music and the good and bad aspects of being "a dinosaur internet raver"

Feature by Claire Francis | 11 Oct 2018
  • The Black Madonna

The Skinny: You seem to have a real affinity with Scotland. You've especially spoken fondly about Optimo; your b2b set with them at the Optimo 20 gig last year was seriously one of the best club nights we've ever been to. Do you have good memories of that night?

The Black Madonna: The first time I went b2b with Optimo was back at the Sub Club. It was such a huge moment for me. A b2b is kind of like going on an internet date, you know. You sit down to eat and you know within a few minutes whether it's going to be great. I mean, they're just such great people and I have such a tender place in my heart for them. And not just musically; I just liked them. Sometimes you meet people that you have admired from afar and they're enormous assholes, but I was very lucky that these guys were just exactly as I hoped they would be. They're both super fucking weird and funny and that's why I like them.

Do you think that musically there's also some kind of affinity between Glasgow and Chicago?

I think for a certain group of DJs, at least, there's a kind of freedom and energy. Also the history of the Sub Club and [Chicago venue] Smart Bar are very similar. Basically they're about the same age! You saw a lot of Chicago DJs going to Sub Club quite early on; there's a kind of energy that is very freeing and very experimental. And one thing I would say that really ties Chicago and Scotland together generally, is that the line between punk and dance is a little thinner than in other places, in a continuous way. I think there's a lot of crossover between genres in a way that other parts of the world don't do so elegantly. Or have no interest in doing at all! All of those things have made Scotland a place that makes a lot of sense to me.

Those elements of freedom and experimentation obviously appeal to you, in terms of the music you play and produce?

I think some of those impulses made me feel a little freer to play things that I was interested in, and all of that. There comes a moment as a DJ where you have to make the decision about whether you're going to fit into someone else's path or if you're going to carve your own. And for me, it was knowing that there were other people that did not respect those boundaries, or set of rules. I initially felt very pressured as a DJ; it was always about "oh, I've got the newest thing". And whatever this new thing was, it wasn't even that good, it was just more about the 'unreachable-ness' of it, you know. That whole game is one where there are really no winners and it's a really boring game. 

You're a big part of Smirnoff's Equalizing Music initiative, which aims to bring electronic music closer to gender parity. How was that experience?

It's been awesome. Let's be honest here: there are all kinds of these Spice Girls, girl power, feminism initiatives happening in marketing and it doesn't have anything to do with affecting actual change. But Equalizing Music had a very serious agenda: they said "we want to double the number of women headliners and for your first date we want you to go to Uganda and meet all of these women and go learn all these alternative leadership styles. And I stayed close with all of the women I met and later brought DJ Rachel back to Chicago, and she came to stay with me in London. 

It didn't seem that confusing to me that a systematic problem would probably benefit from a systematic solution. It's been nice to see, and we're one of many programs like this that are going on. I think the idea of gender equality in music has entered the zeitgeist and there are many people doing work in their own ways. Everyone has a role to play: this is mine, but there are a million other pieces. But what a nice thing, to be part of that zeitgeist. And hopefully we see permanent changes, which will resist an otherwise somewhat hostile environment.

How do you feel about the Keychange/PRS Foundation pledge to have a 50/50 gender representation on festival lineups by 2020? Do you think it's ridiculous to suggest it should take five years to achieve that? 

I do recognise some of the problems [for festivals] on one hand. One of the problems is that people want to hire women and women are entering the system quickly - but it's one thing to get an artist to an opening or midlining slot. It's another thing to take them over the edge into a headlining slot. There are factors that go into that. I think we are really good at introducing women into the system, but we have to do more in the way of teaching people how to, as always, break through that glass ceiling.

Women need to know about management and, more importantly, management needs to know about women. I think that's the next obstacle, to get them all proper representation and get them handling their finances well. There comes a point in your career where you have to build a team and once you have that then things are much, much nicer. That small army of helpers who know how to navigate the system and do so on your behalf, and pack your parachute for you everyday.

A big part of making this issue part of the zeitgeist is voices like yours on social media. There are obviously toxic aspects of the internet too. Do you feel it's a force for good?

I come from the beginning of the internet. I was a person that was on the rave chat rooms and all that stuff; I'm like a dinosaur internet raver. I have been an extremely online person for a long time, so on one hand I have loved it because I've connected, in the truest kind of Utopian vision of the internet, with so many people that are so good and it's been a big part of my life in a wonderful way. And then, you know, that rape threat of the inbox just never gets old. I mean that doesn't happen all that often with me, but people are just such fucking assholes.

The worst thing is, when you crossover in any kind of way into the popular imagination, you start to see even people you know talking about you like you are an idea and not a person, that's, like, 40 years old and staring at their phone in the airport. Even with people I know casually, some of them I'm like, 'We're friends on Facebook! Why are you talking about me like this?' There was a period of about a year where I really was not handling that bit of [fame] so well. I mean, I put up a cheerful face, as one does, but I didn't like it. It was right when I really started to break through and I had a lot of long discussions with my husband, my friends and my therapist, God help her. It was difficult. People would do all kinds of wackadoodle stuff. But then there's the other side. Once you get through it to the degree that anyone does, it's very freeing.

In a way you've paved the way for more women to make their voices heard, by continuing to be outspoken about politics and feminism and the things you believe in, despite the hostility you've encountered.

It's fantastic and then it's also the bane of my fucking existence. But you know, on the up side, I will never, ever be unclear about what shape my butt is.

The Black Madonna plays Terminal V, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, 27 Oct