It’s a Sunday in 2015 on the third day of UK festival Field Maneuvers, a back to basics ‘dirty little rave’ held in a eld just outside of London. Having wrapped up an afternoon where the main stage has been moved outside into the blazing sunshine, the action is shifting back under canvas, where The Black Madonna is set to warm up for Panorama Bar resident Nick Höppner and Glaswegian heroes Optimo. It’s only been two years since she played her first gig outside of America, riding on a reputation as the booker and resident DJ at Chicago’s iconic Smartbar, and she’s still nervous about how to proceed, jaded final night ravers slow to bid farewell to the September sun’s last gasp of summer and come inside.
Then she starts. Her set begins with slow irresistible funk, the sound she started DJing on college radio while studying music in her native Kentucky around the turn of the Millennium. The cosmic rush of Rah Band’s ‘Messages From The Stars’ adds an electronic edge, and the tent begins to surge. Then in slides Wham’s ‘Everything She Wants’, washing away all the emotional grime and fatigue of the last 48 hours. Emboldened, she switches gear for take off, Mia Dora’s acid-bubbling ‘Un.Sub’ paving the way for a finale of raw jacking house. It’s gloriously uplifting, educating and over owing with fun: in short, everything her reputation promised.
By now, almost everyone has their first defining memory of hearing The Black Madonna, aka Marea Stamper, play. From Dekmantel and Parklife to closing Sonar, she’s a festival fixture. Last year, London club XOYO booked her We Still Believe party, which shares its name with her label, for a 13-week run as part of its resident series. Yet it’s not only this behind-the-decks ubiquity that has marked her out. Finding her own teenage sanctuary from bullying in the Midwest’s ’90s rave scene, she’s become a force seeking to correct what has gone awry in electronic music since its idealistic beginnings, from addressing the huge gender inequality and issue of safety in clubland, to platforming the marginalised voices without whom house music wouldn’t exist.
It makes her a DJ for our turbulent times. When we meet in a North London coffee shop, it’s the day after Donald Trump’s self-aggrandising State Of The Nation address, a field day for fact-checkers, and the morning that the BBC announces its female employees aren’t underpaid, reasoning that their six per cent pay gap is less than the national 18 per cent gap. It’s this cold world that raves once provided an alternative to, temporary autonomous zones where mantras such as ‘peace, love, unity, respect’ were straight-faced ideals, rather than empty marketing slogans at giant commercial festivals. Much has changed since then, however.
“I believed that our culture, at least in theory, held certain values to be essential to its operation,” says Marea on the bedrock attitude fostered in her formative years selling mixtapes at raves around America (see box out, right). Clad head to foot in black, an ‘I Feel Like Pablo’ logo gives away her appreciation of Kanye West, just one of many curveballs that illustrate her love for unpredictability. “Even if we failed, even if we shot at a target and missed it over and over again, which of course we did.”
Somewhere along the line it seems that much of the dance music community stopped aiming at all. “There’s a guy who threw one of the most seminal American raves I know, who turned out to be a Trump supporter,” she says, with a mix of bemusement and disbelief when we come to the inevitable subject of America’s current president. “Trump’s given a lot of people the permission they felt that they needed to say a lot of stuff that they’re feeling inside.”
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