Let the Music Play!

by | Sep 1, 2022 | 0 comments

  • Sarah Akawa by Kristin Shafel Creative
  • Tempestt Ballenger (DJ Femme Noir) by Ian DeGraff.
  • Travis Lynch (DJ Travvy Trav).
  • Cameron Butler.
  • Stacy Harbaugh (DJ Shotski) by Paulius Musteikis.

Music pulled us through sad times during covid. We turned to streaming services to find old favorites and new songs. Young people shook off pandemic trauma through the choreography of viral Tik Tok videos. In times of trouble, we turn to the arts to find connection and relief. 

In the fall of 2020, I bought a set of turntables. While I stayed safer at home, I thought about what I would do with my Covid-thwarted decision to learn how to be a music host at WORT-FM and engineer the station’s studio equipment. My turntables brought me a lot of joy.

That feeling of joy came from polka music. I fell in love with polka when I moved to Wisconsin in 2004. It seemed like a ubiquitous, very Wisconsin sound at beer and brat festivals. The music facilitated community connection where young and old alike got out on a wood dance floor to move and be together. During the Covid crisis, I hoped to one day be able to play old-fashioned polka records at events so people could get together and experience joyful, happy music.

Now that we are gathering together again, I’ve been playing records at events just like I envisioned. That experience is giving me a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for DJs who carefully select music to create a community experience of fun and pleasure. I connected with four DJs in Wisconsin to learn how they are creating LGBTQ+ welcoming spaces, how they are bouncing back from the Covid crisis, and what advice they would give to others who want to DJ.


The DJs

DJ Femme Noir has residencies in Madison and Milwaukee. She has played for the Milwaukee Bucks, at the Majestic, FIVE nightclub, and Dix and regularly provides music at drag shows and private weddings. IG: @djfemmenoir

Cameron Butler is a resident DJ at Liquid nightclub in Madison. He specializes in electronic dance music and bass-heavy hip hop in queer-friendly environments. IG: @creating.a.movement

DJ Travvy Trav is a resident DJ at This Is It!, Milwaukee’s longstanding gay bar owned by Trixie Mattel. IG: @travvytrav_official

Where do you find inspiration?

DJ Femme Noir: I just look around at what’s happening in the world. I follow trends, but I also like to find a way of synching the old and new. I know people who are making and producing their own music. The drag queens bring their own songs. Even the Ubers I ride in. When I tell an Uber driver I’m a DJ, they switch to music they think I’d like. 

Cameron Butler: I get inspired by everything around me: The sounds of the world, the people I meet, and the way I can make people feel through simple bops. My biggest inspiration is being able to be the change I want to see in the world and being a light in our dark times. One person I keep in mind from the words they spoke, “Your music saved me and is the reason I’m still here.” This is what drives me to continue what I do. 

DJ Travvy Trav: I find inspiration through my curiosity. As a kid I remember always being curious. That’s what kept me inspired. I would also say my most inspiring moments and thoughts came from when I was homeless. At many times, life comes hard for all of us, but for me that was my make-or-break moment. I often felt that I must make the most of my situation and create something out of nothing.

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What do you do to create queer-friendly spaces?

DJ Femme Noir: I think I only operate in spaces where I can openly express all of my identities as a Black, queer woman. If you look up and see a Black queer woman, and see someone who looks like yourself, you’ll feel better about coming to a place for the first time. 

I like to work with certain parties or brands who are doing their part to create safe spaces for us. Dyke Dive, Hot Summer Gays, they have rules of engagement and a “no creeps” policy. It means consent is important. It also means you can come up to the DJ and let them know if someone is making you uncomfortable, and we can do something about it. 

Cameron Butler: In every space I play, I am my unapologetically gay self. My persona is built upon not allowing people to bring you down for being you. I make sure to focus on the crowd and speak from the heart about issues that are happening in our world. Any space that I play is—and will remain—a safe place for ALL LGBTQIA+ humans! Anytime there is an issue or someone is not living up to our Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect (PLUR) lifestyle, they are kicked out, no questions asked. 

DJ Travvy Trav: I just simply put myself in their shoes and I ask myself, “How would these two songs go together?” I guess the only thing I do is read the crowd really well and just have an understanding of how songs are being responded to by the crowd.

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How are you recovering from the safer-at-home era of the Covid crisis?

DJ Femme Noir: People are coming out to events. They are ready to be out and have fun. Even nights when I think it might be slow, it’s busy. I love it. I feed off the energy of the crowd, and it makes my night better. But I also know friends who are not coming out or who have moved to different cities since Covid. 

Cameron Butler: Covid impacted us all in so many different ways, the way we interact with people, our ability to connect, and so many other negative feelings. In reality, it showed me what I truly missed: The human bond that we so dearly yearn for. During Covid I used that time to perfect my craft and propel myself into the next level. Since Covid has subsided, I have been doing everything in my power to bring people back together and spread that love and affection we all so desperately needed. I wish health on everyone for the future and that we can create a pandemic of love and respect in place of it.

DJ Travvy Trav: Considering how so many people lost loved ones due to the pandemic, I did just fine. It sucked not playing live for the crowd, and finding other ways to make ends meet was scary. That’s why it’s important to be multi-talented because there’s no telling if something as tragic as the pandemic can happen again. I did, however, have to work at a local Walgreens as much as I could to eat and pay my bills, but coming from being homeless I was given strength to be calm in dire situations.

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What do you get out of being a DJ?

DJ Femme Noir: I’ve always been that person who likes to boost other people’s morale. I like to create an experience someone will never forget. Someone may meet someone they spend the rest of their life with. Or they may have just gone through a bad breakup and need to go out and feel like everything’s going to be okay. Maybe it’s someone’s first drag show. Music has a way of cementing those experiences. I like that I can choose a song that a collective of people will like and that I am a part of that. It makes us truly connected. 

Cameron Butler: Being a DJ is more than just playing a few tunes and pushing bright flashing lights. It’s a Movement, and that’s what my name stands for. I get the joy of providing an escape for people in a world where there is no peace. For a few hours a week, people forget about their problems and get lost in the music. I do this for those people. I do this so that I feel fulfilled in life and can have a creative outlet that helps me continue day-to-day. Life isn’t always easy, but do something you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.

DJ Travvy Trav: I get to meet so many people that are queer! Oftentimes before, during, or after my DJ set, people come up to me and tell me how they feel represented by my presence as a black, bisexual person. There’s not a lot of DJs who are more open about being bisexual than I am. I am very open about my sexuality because representation matters, especially as a black person. If I was still working at Walgreens, I would never be able to travel and see different cities, but with DJ’ing, I have those privileges.

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What is your biggest piece of advice?

DJ Femme Noir: For beginners, stay consistent. Don’t worry about what the next person is doing. Just make it your own. Your DJ journey is valid, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. 

For fans: Disrespecting other DJs isn’t a compliment to me. It takes a lot to get up there and play music for strangers. 

Cameron Butler: Get out there and do it! Don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith into the unknown! Change can be scary but the rewards from something you take pride in and work on is the most beautiful thing you can imagine. Find something that you love, and go for it. I’ve been a musician for years now, and my biggest piece of advice is to not be your own critic. The world is always going to judge, but don’t judge yourself. You are beautiful, you are important, and you matter! Show the world how you shine, and always keep Creating.A.Movement.

DJ Travvy Trav: My biggest piece of advice, especially for those who’ve thought about being a DJ, is simple: “Trust the process.” It doesn’t happen in a day. This is a long journey that’s often a lonely feeling, full of doubts, a lot of doors slammed in your face. But it is well worth the effort when that one opportunity comes to show who you are as a disc jockey. Anyone getting into this work, I would tell them to first off buy a MacBook, then download as much music as you can—not just the hottest tracks, but all genres—because there is no telling when you have to be a DJ for a brunch and you may not want to play music with a bunch of swear words. The mechanics for transitions, being on the mic, being the orchestrator of the night are things that take years to master, but again, trust the process.


Creating queer-friendly nightlife

Back in 2015, I told an interviewer that the point of my events was to make space for people, my people, queer people, who don’t have a space. A lot has changed since then, but the main reasons for creating and curating nightlife spaces has pretty much stayed the same: To create spaces that challenge the sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic norms our communities come up against in nightlife and every day and to prioritize queer pleasure and joy while doing it. 

After a decade of putting together events, these goals are just as important as ever. At a time when reproductive freedoms are under attack, when trans people are subject to increasing political persecution, when white supremacy grows more emboldened by the day, we simply need spaces that are by and for us. 

Plus, to be blunt, our lives are harder and more boring without a good party! I love being able to offer people—queer people—a place to be joyous and move our bodies on the dance floor with friends and, hopefully, feel replenished and renewed. We need it to keep confronting the harsh realities of our world. Taking a nod from Adrienne Maree Brown, there’s a special place for pleasure within the fight against oppressive systems. I hope my parties can play a role in providing it.

Of course, I don’t do any of this alone. Throwing DIY parties gives me the freedom to uplift queer and trans DJs and performers, especially other DJs and performers of color. They take the events beyond anything I could do on my own, opening the space up to even more people who might not be comfortable elsewhere in Madison. Every single person who comes to a Queer All Year event is a creator and curator themselves. I’m overjoyed when I have that special moment of achieving flow when djing and looking around I see faces of so many beautiful queer people in all their unique glory. Special shout-out to Kelli from Dyke Dive / co-promoter of Hot Summer Gays and Robinia Courtyard for taking a chance on me in 2016 or so.

It’s also important to me to create opportunities for others to create the spaces they don’t have. People will often come to me with ideas for events they want me to hold, and I’m like, “That sounds cool as hell, but it’s not really my lane. I can give you the tools to do it for yourself though!” It’s incredibly important to me to share skills and knowledge, especially ones that are too frequently gatekept (like djing). I’m especially down to teach how to DJ or throw a DIY party if it means we get to have more spaces by and for queer, trans, and POC communities.

Bottom line: It’s rad AF and, frankly, necessary to have spaces centered around queer joy and pleasure in this moment. Shout-out to everyone who comes and claims our space. —Sarah Akawa

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