With a career stretching nearly two decades, techno producer DJ Shiva – legal: Lisa Smith – is a pillar of the Indianapolis EDM scene. On Saturday Shiva and the 317 Techno crew will host Spanish techno artist Annie Hall at the White Rabbit as part of a Halloween-themed edition of their Jacked event series.
I met with DJ Shiva at an Eastside coffee shop to discuss the event. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Shiva reminded me why she's such as an important part of the Indy music scene. In a region known for its conservative politics (and musical tastes) Shiva has constantly rebelled against the status quo. While her music and attitude are tough and uncompromising, just below the surface she possesses a considerable warmth fueled by a genuine concern for the state of music and humanity.
Shiva is also one of Indiana's loudest voices for gender equality in music. That's one of the reasons I sought her out for this interview. I think it's important to note that I specifically requested Shiva to speak about this topic, as I feel this issue warrants the immediate and consistent attention of the Indy EDM scene. So I thank Shiva for her willingness to address the subject, which I plan to continue covering in upcoming editions of this column.
NUVO: Why is it was important to you to bring Annie Hall here to DJ?
DJ Shiva: The Jacked events are predominantly techno and house. With Indianapolis being located near Chicago and Detroit — two places that are so essential to techno and house music – there's a lot of artists to choose from. But Annie was at the top of our short list. She's not only a techno artist, she does a lot of experimental music too. That's a really different aesthetic than what we've brought in before. I really have no idea what she's going to play. It could be dense, dark techno, or there could be some electro.
Along with her partner Kero, Annie also runs an independent record press called RVSD. They're keeping vinyl alive in electronic music at a cost point small labels can do.
NUVO: You've been involved in the EDM scene here for a significant period of time. Off the top of your head, do you know exactly how long you've been a DJ?
DJ Shiva: Yes I do. I'd been playing CDs at clubs - I don't really count that, and when I say "playing CDs" I do not mean beat-matching. I got my first garage sale turntable on my birthday on April 18, 1995. So next year will be my twentieth anniversary as a DJ.
NUVO: Over that 20-year span there has been a remarkable amount of change in the EDM scene. Right now the scene is experiencing record popularity in the U.S. As someone who has intentionally worked within the underground of the culture, has this surge in popularity been good or bad for you? Or do you do your own thing regardless?
DJ Shiva: I do my own thing. You sometimes see DJs and producers saying things like "Well the public will get drawn into the EDM scene by the commercial stuff. But then they'll find all this really cool stuff over here." The people who say that are usually in Europe playing festivals to tens of thousands of people.
But America is not like that. I remain skeptical. I don't believe in trickle-down theories. America views music as a consumer product. It doesn't look at music as a culture, even though you have things here like jazz and hip-hop culture. The typical American who goes to some giant EDM fest isn't exactly going with the idea of "I want to hear something new, and I'll seek out something else even newer while I'm there." It's more like, "I want to get fucked up and party." But, hey, to each their own. [laughs] I'm not going to dis anybody's hedonism, but it's pretty superficial.
You may have a few people who get deeper into the culture, but I can tell you that doing underground techno events is still a fucking struggle. I don't see any new faces coming in. That's why I do my SUBterror Radio show though. It's my way of bringing new music to people who already like techno. If I meet people at a party and I can see they're looking for something else, I give them the website. It's my method of infiltration.
NUVO: You're affiliated with a group called Diversify Our Music that's working to fight against gender inequality in electronic dance music culture. How did Diversify Our Music come about?
DJ Shiva: It started as a private group for women who are in this business. It's been a cool place for us to dialogue and share experiences. Someone suggested we do a website. I think the site states our case very succinctly and poses solutions, which is important. Although I don't think it's the women's job to fix the inequities. The people creating the inequity might want to work on that. But we do offer solutions, it's up to someone else to implement them.
On the site, we quote a statistic that according to a survey of electronic music festivals and labels around the world, an average of 10 percent of contributing artists are women. Across the board that 10 percent figure seems to be the ceiling on women artists at these events.
People have heard me addressing this for so long I think they're like, "There she goes talking about this again." But you know what? When it stops being a fucking problem, I'll stop talking about it. There you go, problem solved. Do something about it and I'll shut up.
NUVO: Why do you think so many men in the EDM scene refuse to take this problem seriously?
DJ Shiva: At this point I have zero evidence to ascribe any intention to it. I think it's a lack of consciousness. A lack of awareness. But once somebody has made you aware and you keep denying it, it becomes intentional. So we run into a lot of that.
We say, "Hey, this is a problem," and the response is, "No this isn't a problem, you're seeing it wrong." That's basically telling me, "Shut up, you're wrong" which is itself the core of the problem. You want to fix this? Listen to women. Stop telling us we're wrong, or that we're making it up because the numbers don't lie. I will be generous about ascribing motive, but once people know and either deny or do nothing then that becomes complicity.
When you're dealing with any sort of disparity be it because of gender, race or sexuality some people want to ascribe it as a natural thing. "Well there's just not enough women." Or, "Well, some people are just dicks." I would propose the entire structure is intentional. It's an artificial construct. Racism and sexism are not natural. We create these things and enforce them. This is not just human nature. We create social structures out of what we believe to be normal and true. So, using that logic, if we made these structures then we can unravel them. But it takes work. You can't kick back and say, "Oh, I booked a women once." You're going to have to think about it, and be intentional about fixing it.
NUVO: As you said, the numbers don't lie. And looking at the numbers it's glaringly obvious this is a huge problem. Why do you think there aren't more people speaking publicly about this issue?
DJ Shiva: Because you can hurt your career by talking about it. That just reiterates why this is a problem. It's like Lewis' Law: "The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism." Don't think I don't ask this. I've been around for 20 years and I have a fairly decent discography. I don't like to talk about this because it comes off like I'm whining. But sometimes I ask myself, "Have I hit a ceiling that I'm unaware of? And does that ceiling have anything to do with the fact that I will never back down on this point?" I don't know.
NUVO: I know a common response from club owners and promoters is "We can't find the talent." But when I see clubs with plenty of women go-go dancers, I have to question, if they could put in the effort to find these dancers, then why couldn't they put in the work to find a respectable amount of women DJs to add to their rotation? No disrespect to dancers, but sometimes I feel the impression may be projected that a woman's only access point to working in the club music scene is to be a dancer. How do we work to change the mindset of the club owners and promoters?
DJ Shiva: I think if we know the people, then applying personal pressure is key. That doesn't always work though, and as I know very well it can destroy personal and professional relationships. But I don't give a shit. If you don't want to stand up for women when your friend who is a woman is telling you this is wrong and hurtful, then fuck you. I don't what to be your friend.
As far as finding more women artists? Nobody fucking tries. I don't believe it for one second. Most promoters are only asking, "Who is someone that will bring in a big crowd and make us a bunch of money?" I don't think most promoters give two shits about it in the overground. And in the underground I don't think most people care as much as they think they do.
I love that you mention that for some women to get involved that their only entry point is as a go-go dancer. There is something inherently fucked up about that. It goes back to our culture's need for objectification and commodification. We objectify human beings. Everything is to be consumed. Whether that is to buy it, or to take it via conquest. I can get really philosophical on this point but I think all of those things are connected.
Riffing off the thoughts of my friend Paula Temple who is a fantastic artist and producer in the UK, I would propose that when people interview the dudes who are venue owners and label owners to ask them about this issue. Women can't change this alone. Women can bitch about it all day long but we're not the ones causing the inequity.
NUVO: Having personally witnessed a lot of sexist and non-inclusive behavior in the club scene, I think if I was a young woman trying to enter into this field I'd be incredibly intimidated. Drawing on your 20 years of experience, what advice would you share with young women who want to get into the DJ scene?
DJ Shiva: On this planet if you're a woman you are gonna get that shit no matter what you do. Look at how we police dressing. People say, "Don't dress like a slut and you won't get treated like one." But you will [get treated poorly]. You absolutely will and it won't matter what you're wearing. You can't win. You can dress like a Pentecostal housewife and you still run the risk of getting harassed and treated like shit. Which is a completely depressing way to begin answering this - but it's true. That's life.
So knowing that, and knowing you're going to have to deal with stupid shit if you get into DJing, you already gotta deal with it, so you might as well do something you really dig. And just tell them to piss off.
Okay, this is where I sound like a really arrogant fucker - but whatever. This doesn't happen much to me anymore, but way back in the day I used to get what I'd call the traveling monkey circus. It's a half-circle of dudes standing in front of the DJ booth because they saw a boob-possessing person behind the turntables. They would stand stoically with their arms crossed and I always knew what their goal was. They were waiting for me to fuck up. The best part, and the most fun part for me, was that I never did.
So there you go. Just be more awesome. People will talk shit about you. Ignore them and be awesome.
A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.