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20 Questions: The Black Madonna

Marea Stamper answers 20 questions on just about anything.

For many electronic music fans, certainly those outside of the Midwest, Marea Stamper (a.k.a. The Black Madonna) arrived on the scene around four years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, with a finely curated record bag and a rapidly growing touring schedule. Now, of course, most of us know her story: growing up in Kentucky, Stamper was bitten by the rave bug at an early age (around 14) and began selling mixtapes. A few years later, while at college, Stamper learned to DJ and, following graduation, moved to Chicago—although Chicago was the catalyst to Stamper’s success, years of blood, sweat, and tears preceded her “big break,” pushing her to the brink of giving up. A handful of records—namely, 2012’s We Don’t Need No Music (Thankyou Rahaan) and 2013’s Lady Of Sorrows—and a job as talent buyer for Chicago’s much-loved Smartbar would put a halt to Stamper wanting to throw in the towel and prove to be defining factors in her now meteoric rise.

Now, Stamper is one of the most in-demand DJs on the circuit, drawing fans and praise from all corners of the dance-music world, from Mixmag—Stamper was the UK magazine’s number one DJ of 2016—to her fellow DJs, rave enthusiasts, and, mostly, everyone in between. This widespread admiration within the dance-music community isn’t only for her body-moving DJ sets, however. An outspoken, queer-identifying outsider, Stamper is a literal embodiment of the pillars on which dance-music culture was built and a shining light in the advocation of equal rights within the arts.

On Wednesday during International Women’s Day, it was announced that Stamper would be a leading voice in Smirnoff’s "Equalising Music,’" a three-year initiative striving to push for gender parity in dance music by 2020. Stamper’s unwavering activism, personable demeanor, and world-class music curation all make her a much-needed breath of fresh air in an industry that, in recent times, could be guilty of forgetting its all-inclusive roots.

As Smirnoff announced their pledge on International Women’s Day, XLR8R dialed up Stamper for 20 Questions on just about everything.

The Black Madonna will also be curating this year's daytime schedule on Thursday, May 25, at Lyon's Nuits Sonores festival. Guests include Optimo, Rahaan, and, Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force. More information here.

01. Describe your surroundings right now.

I am in a hotel on the 12th floor in New York city. I have a balcony and I can see the bridges and I can see the skyline.

02. What’s the most fun thing you’ve done lately?

I recently went to Iceland and I went swimming in The Blue Lagoon. It’s a hot spring.

03. What was the first ever gig that you played?

I played my first DJ gig in Kentucky in 1999 in the back of a gay bar that was sort of divided in half. It was just me and a bunch of drum & bass DJs. I was so afraid that I almost don’t remember it. I don’t know if you have ever been so blinded with panic that you just can’t remember much from it. I used to suffer from terrible stage fright–and it took me about 10 years of DJing to be able to DJ without my hands shaking. This first show was definitely the worst.

04. Are you surprised by your success?

One the one hand, yes, because it was the thing that I pictured every day of my life and so it was strange when it happened, but at the same time, I had acted every day of my life as if it was going to happen.

"....talent is the seed, but you have to put the seed in the dirt and put the work in."

05. Do you believe that success is down to hard work or innate talent?

It’s a bit of both. I think talent is only so much–talent is the seed, but you have to put the seed in the dirt and put the work in. I have been dedicated to the one single task of music for every single day of my life for over 20 years.

06. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Grit is undervalued; talent is overvalued. Of all of the things that will keep you alive, grit and optimism as a strategy will serve you more than virtually any other thing–including talent, or luck, or anything else. Staying committed and optimistic even when the odds don’t look good is very important.

07. Who or what do you miss most when you are on the road, and why?

My husband, my dog, and my mom. I am just not a party person, for the most part, so I just miss the normal things that any person would miss. I don’t think I am extraordinary in the things that I miss.

08. Depression and anxiety are well-known pitfalls for touring DJs. Do you ever struggle with life on the road?

Yes, definitely. I am actually treated professionally for both anxiety and depression. It was an issue for me before I began touring, but being on the road has exacerbated it. It runs in my family.

I now have a medication specialist who helps me monitor whatever the thing in my brain is that doesn’t work right. I have actually recently had some adjustments made that have made a large difference, and now is an amazing time because I feel better and better every day. I would advise anybody who struggles with this stuff to not wait with it; take action to start being happy. I am setting it up so that when I go on tour I can Skype with my therapist; and with my other doctor, I work with her to make a plan and treat my anxiety and depression as you would any other medical condition.

"Don’t read the comments. It’s not normal to live in a world where you hear the opinions of thousands of people."

09. What is the hardest thing you have learned since becoming a full-time artist?

Don’t read the comments. It’s not normal to live in a world where you hear the opinions of thousands of people. It has no bearing on the person you are, or who you intend to be, or your music, or your work. You simply cannot leave your self-worth in the hands of the comments section. That stuff is incredibly damaging if you let it be, and you must do what you can to have a normal a life as possible.

Sometimes I accidentally see stuff and it hurts, and I have had to tell my Mom to not read it. The shows still happen; it’s just noise; it’s just static that you must tune out. It does not have any real value. And it’s especially hard on women.

On the other hand, once you get past the first stage of recognizing it’s there, you become a different person. I am not glad for them, but I am glad to know that who I am is not up for a vote. It can be very easy to be taken in by that stuff, but once you really reach down into yourself and value yourself then it becomes a lot easier.

10. When writing music, do you always start with a specific idea, or do you just experiment until you find something you like?

It depends. Usually, I have a vague aim, but it all goes out of the window pretty quickly. Only very rarely do I nail what I originally started looking for. Right now, I am writing for lots of different kinds of musicians and I don’t actual read music so I can’t have so much control–because I don’t read or write sheet music. So there is always an element of failure and surprise. On my album, for example, I am writing lyrics for someone and I have to be prepared to adapt to the vocalist’s way of doing things–so it is me trying to get inside the head of whoever is doing the vocals. I always have to be willing to bend; it’s the creative process, after all. I have to learn to let go and listen.

11. What was the last thing that made you really laugh and why?

In the limo on the way to the hotel, I was watching one of those Everything is Terrible videos. I love the ones they do on Jim Baker, the televangelist. Right now he is obsessed with the apocalypse and he is selling buckets of apocalypse food. When I watch videos I almost can't breathe!

12. What is your favorite record of the past five years?

Floorplan "Never Grow Old"

13. You were just announced as the leading voice in Smirnoff’s ‘Equalising Music,’ for International Women’s Day and you mentioned in your RA feature that you growing up you didn’t see images of women being DJs. Do you think this hindered your success–and made it harder?

I think I would have considered DJing earlier, for sure. The women I saw DJing when I was growing up were all manicured and thin, and I just didn’t see a way of getting there. The problem was with me, and it took me a while to overcome this because women like me are normally the side-kick in the movie. At some point, however, I learned to overcome this and to see myself as the protagonist–to step into my power. There just came a point when it happened, where I saw a way.

I feel that a lot of women feel their own pressure in their own individual way, and they spend millions of dollars a year to ensure that these hurting spots don’t hurt.

We always feel that if we fix this or that then we would be loveable or successful, and of course all of those things are lies–and I struggled with all of that. I never felt destined to be a DJ; but when things started to change for me then it forced me to confront those mental barriers. I hadn’t just imagined them; I had been told my whole life that this is what people want and this is what people don’t want. Representation matters at whatever level.

The first time I saw myself on a magazine cover then it was was the first time I had seen a women who looked like me on a dance magazine cover. I never felt like I had representatives. It’s a big barrier to get over, and I don’t know if I will ever be over it.

14. Looking back at the past year, is there one gig that stands out as the best one you’ve played?

I feel that I shouldn't say Panorama Bar because they are all so good that they shouldn’t even count. Panorama Bar is just so special. I played in Berghain and it’s such a wonderful place, too. Past that, playing on MCDE’s stage in Lyon at Nuits Sonores was a singular event in my life that I will never forget. When I was done, I couldn’t get out of there because the crowd would not stop applauding–it felt like a new day had come.

"Like, for example, a Syrian refugee wrote me a letter. That was extremely heavy."

15. Your success snowballed very quickly. Looking back, is there one moment when you realized you were going to succeed in music?

Probably the first time I saw someone hold up signs that said “We Still Believe”—or when people wrote that thing they call “the manifesto” on cardboard and held it up while I was playing. That was a big moment and the first when I realized something special was going on. And then the letters started: I always received some letters and now I get so much fan mail. People send stuff to Smart Bar, and my inbox on Facebook is crazy–I can’t keep on top of it. Like, for example, a Syrian refugee wrote me a letter. That was extremely heavy. The volume of communication went up. And I was in Berlin, people were taking pictures on the street. That was really weird. It’s all extremely surreal.

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16. Does DJing feel like a job yet, or do you still get a lot of enjoyment out of it?

I mean, it all depends on what day. For the most part, I love DJing, and if I didn’t then I wouldn’t have stuck with it through the hard days. Like anyone, I have days when I want to lie in bed to watch "Keeping Up with the Kardashians"–but I still love DJing. I love it and I hope that this never changes.

17. Do you still go out to a party as a consumer rather than for work?

Largely, no, because, frankly I have had a terrible bout of social anxiety since I started touring. But my medication seems to be working very recently now and this weekend I went out in Chicago and danced until dawn, leaving my husband in bed. It was a great experience.

"..the only thing I love more than music is books and television."

18. Do you have any pre or post-show rituals?

Either before or after the show, I always watch Rachel Maddow. That’s an everyday thing that I do. Other than that, I don’t have anything that I do before or after a show. Rachel Maddow is my only iron-clad recurrence.

However, I am also just a massive reader: the only thing I love more than music is books and television. I am not ashamed of my love for television–I have great things that I watch and I have things that are embarrassing. But I truly love television, and I love British and U.S. shows. I am a complete television addict. I also am reading about two or three books at a time.

19. What books are you reading right now?

“Drift,” which is Rachel Maddow’s book. It’s very good. I highly recommend it. It’s one those books where if you know the author you hear it their voice. I am also reading “Communion” by Bell Hooks; “The Plot To Hack America” by Malcolm Nance, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”; “Stories Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang who wrote the short story “Arrival” is based on. And I’m reading Russell Simmons’ book on meditation.

20. What’s the first thing you'll do after answering these questions?

Yes, I need to take a shower. I will sit and read for a bit before I go to my panel. I am doing a panel and I am the only person!
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The Black Madonna will also be curating this year's daytime schedule on Thursday, May 25, at Lyon's Nuits Sonores festival. Guests include Optimo, Rahaan, and, Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force. More information here.

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