Originally from Kentucky, she had her start in the Midwest dance circuit before relocating to Chicago to work for Dust Traxx, S.O.L.E. Unlimited, and eventually Smart Bar. She has worked in nearly every aspect of the electronic music industry—booking, distribution, event promotion, even selling DJ mix cassettes back in the day—and throughout that time she built her skills as a DJ. During her stint as booker for Smart Bar, Chicago’s foremost and longest-running dance club, she began to get bookings throughout the rest of the US—especially at gay, sex-positive parties such as Honey Soundsystem, Hot Mass, Folsom and Men’s Room. At around the same time, she began releasing on labels such as Home Taping is Killing Music, Stripped ‘n’ Chewed, and Argot. Her breakout track, “A Jealous Heart Never Rests” (Our Lady of Sorrows, Argot, 2013), became a summer anthem in clubs around the world, and by the autumn of 2013 she played her European debut in Berghain’s Panorama Bar. After that, her move into the ‘big leagues’ was swift, being profiled by numerous outlets of the music press and booked at events around the world.
Stamper has made extensive use of her newfound visibility to call attention to the struggles of dance music’s marginalized members. Speaking from her own experiences as a queer woman DJ and in solidarity with gays, transfolk, and people of colour, in nearly every interview she has been outspoken in frankly addressing the forms of discrimination and violence that still take place within club culture. While still committed to dance music’s utopian vision of inclusivity and care, she has not shied away from calling the electronic music community to do better, to be more welcoming, and to respect its historical origins in marginalized communities. But that has not come without a cost: although she has fought misogyny throughout her career, speaking out about it has sometimes been met with fierce resistance. Despite the challenges, The Black Madonna continues to speak passionately about injustice within the music industry.
How are you doing?
Um, good after basically sleeping for 18 hours.
I like that there was a brief pause while you chose your words. So you’ve been sleeping a lot; presumably you’ve been really busy these last few days. What have you been up to?
I have been chasing Sonar around, from Sonar Iceland in Reykjavik to Stockholm, and did a few other shows in between. I finished up the weekend at Panorama Bar on Sunday, where I got to actually close the whole building. Which is unusual, because normally people are pushed down into Berghain rather than up into Panorama Bar. So, I played for about 9 hours on Sunday; and it’s now Friday morning at 10am and I’m just starting to feel like a human again.
Very impressive! 9 hours must feel eternal as far as a DJ set is concerned, how did you feel after that?
I literally had to be helped into the cab after the show, I was not really aware of how the experience would be and what it would do to my body. I got to about 5 hours in and they made the decision that it would go on for longer and it was a combination of excitement—being thrilled and honoured—but then also abject terror, because I just don’t know if you are ever prepared to do that for the first time. It’s just one of those things that you have to do. Having said that, I would definitely say it was a life-changing experience, no exaggeration, but I think I would have worn different pants. (laughs)
Dressed for success. I remember seeing something on your Twitter or Facebook feed about lessons you have learned from closing Panorama Bar; the first thing was to always have some fruit with you, and the second thing was talcum powder or spare trousers.
Yeah, I should have worn running shorts or something. Without giving away too much information, I’d say I literally danced my ass off, and I’m paying the price for it currently. But I’ll happily pay every penny.
I’ve always found it interesting how, for you, politics is not just a thing you add on to your musical activities but rather it seems very integral to how you see your music and how you do it. Can you say something about what role politics plays in your music?
On one hand, I think that if you are a woman—or one of many different groups of people who are not white straight guys—you are a political person whether you intend to be or not, regardless of whether it is something you intentionally seek out and think about. Just by living through these kinds of systems that are in place in any professional field, we navigate systems and challenges as a result of who we are. So I’m very interested in political stuff, but I think that just being a woman in a predominantly male field makes me a person that encounters certain kinds of challenges. They’re something that I’ve lived with and encountered since the beginning of my time in this industry, and so it kind of makes me aware of a certain set of issues. Having said that, it feels a little weird to have that mantle put on me, because I think that these are issues that a lot of people talk about all the time. Especially when it comes to advocacy, we should all as human beings have a certain baseline of empathy and compassion for other people, and so I hesitate to call ‘political’ a lot of the things that get filed under that rubric, because a lot of what I’m interested in is just making places better and safer and happier and easier for more people to participate and belong. It’s not so much a political thing at its root as what I consider to be a baseline duty of compassion and empathy that everyone should have for just being a member of the human race. Some of the things I talk about have been singled out as being political, and I guess they are, but I don’t actually think that these ideas should be so unusual or special. To me, they should be commonplace if you care about how people feel.
You highlight compassion and empathy as two really important feelings and orientations towards others that you want to cultivate. What do they mean for you in club culture or electronic music contexts? How have these two concepts been significant for you as a musician, booker, or venue manager?
Well, for example, at Smart Bar we recently had a resident who came out as trans. I never had a close friend come out as trans; all of my close friends who identify as trans had done so for the entire time I knew them. And so, an example of what I mean by empathy is that I didn’t know any more than anybody else about what was the right thing to do in that situation, but I wanted to come from a place of empathy for this person’s experience. I just asked them questions about what they wanted and how they wanted to be treated in our club—things like which bathroom do they prefer to use, because I don’t know the answers—so I guess in practice empathy means listening to what someone who is different from you has to say about their own experiences, and doing your best to respond in a way that is kind and makes them as comfortable as possible. And that can take a lot of forms inside the club, such as asking security to behave a certain way.
But on the other hand, because I’ve been quite outspoken, a lot of particularly young women reach out to me to talk about their experiences and ask what they should do, as they try to unpack something that happened to them in a club or something that made them uncomfortable. I get probably one or two messages a week from a young woman who wants to disclose to me something that has happened to her or is struggling to find a way to broach a topic that’s going on in her professional life with dance music. And so, I’m just trying to be a good listener for them and as much as anything let them know that whatever they do is okay. However they’re handling it, that’s good, they’re doing okay.
When you’re getting these sorts of conversations with people in the industry, are there certain situations that appear a lot, are there patterns that you see?
There are a couple of prominent patterns. Number one is that there are certain things that reappear when people start talking about these issues, and they want some advice about how to respond to these questions. Number two is straight up disclosure of an incident in a club, usually some kind of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, asking advice about whether or not to go public or how to handle it behind the scenes, how should to report, how should to disclose – that’s a big one. I would say I’ve probably gotten around 20–30 messages in the last year along those lines. A lot of people will come and tell me personally, ‘You know I was in a club last week, I was super fucked up and this guy cornered me and I didn’t know what to do and I just wanted to tell someone.’ And I think in those situations empathy is literally the only thing you can do. I am honoured that anyone feels comfortable to talk to me about this stuff, but on the other side I’m horrified that there is so much of it.
And how does that feel for you? You seem to have become sort of a listening post within the industry for these sorts of concerns and so you probably hear it more than most people would, does that impact on you mentally?
On the one hand, it may come to you when you’re resting. It may come to you when you’re in a club and it’s loud. It may come in your Facebook inbox. There’s a lot of stimulation that comes with touring—too many emails and such—and so I have had to be very mindful when it happens. I try to really stop and give them my full attention no matter what’s going on, even if it’s just for two minutes, because if someone is telling you this, it’s important—I mean, it’s for real important—more important than any other thing that will be said to you in a day. So, that’s been a big challenge in adapting to touring life: you can feel very overstimulated, and it’s a big challenge to identify which situations are important, to stop whatever else you’re thinking, and laser in on this person that is telling you something. It’s very important to me to do the right thing.
But on the other hand I’m not a counsellor, I’m not a professional, I don’t have any credentials in this situation. What I am is a woman who has managed to tour a lot and speak openly about issues that I think were at a certain point fairly off-limits for discussion. When I grew up, I did not know any women in dance music who regularly talked about assisted sexual assault in clubs and that kind of stuff. This was just not a topic that was talked about in the press. And at a certain point—I didn’t really think about it—I just started talking; and it never occurred to me not to talk about that stuff. So I think that for a lot of women I was maybe one of the first women that they heard talk about these things. I was a person with whom they could identify and who was willing to talk openly about these things. It’s put me in a strange position, because I’m not a professional consellor but I am visible.
In some ways, although I’m not an expert, I’m a woman who has been in the industry for 25 years almost. I am a woman who learned about Underground Resistance from the first guy that ever put a bruise on me. I am a woman that has almost been sexually assaulted by a peer at an after-party. And while I’m not a counsellor, I’m a woman that has lived through a lot of the shit that other women have lived through—and that is taken for granted as ‘the cost of doing business’ in this industry. Even though many of us (including myself) have resisted the title of ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’, I think that, if you asked a lot of women specific questions such as, ‘Has anyone ever tried to touch you while you were messed up? Did you ever watch your drink at work?’, most of us have had one of these experiences. And so, I may not be an expert, but I am a person who has been dealing with the same shit every young woman is dealing with every day now, and it’s not new to me and it won’t be new to them. I’m a peer who shares these experiences with them and is willing to talk about it on the record.
Speaking of ‘on the record’, a minute ago you made a comment about some of this stuff being accepted as the ‘cost of doing business’. I’m wondering, now that you’ve been vocal about these issues for a good few years, are there any costs to you for being visible and vocal about these issues?
Absolutely. I mean let me make this clear: I’m the luckiest person alive. I’ve had an endless number of blessings that have come in the last few years, and there’s nothing that I would regret or take back. But I am a woman in the public, and I don’t think there’s a woman in the public alive who wouldn’t say there are costs that come with it—and you can apply that to women in many fields. I’ve had some really fucked up shit happen online; I’ve had a guy wait outside a club for me before; I’ve had some really challenging, disturbing stalker shit. When I moderated a panel with Ellen Allien and Courtesy, and a few other women at Sonar in Reykjavik one of the questions I asked was, ‘Who has experienced online harassment?’ and every single woman had. Some of it was really, really crazy shit. That is not a thing that is unique to dance music, but it is a thing that is included in being a woman who is in the public sphere, and I’ve had experiences that I’m still unpacking. To be honest, sometimes I feel like ‘pulling a Beyoncé’ and literally never answering a question again and getting get off the internet completely. It’s hard to know what to do, some of the things that I’ve said are meaningful for people, some of the things that I’ve said probably drive people crazy, and some of the things I’ve said have led to unwanted contact with strangers. It’s hard to know where the line is and to decide when enough is enough. I don’t know the answer.
Speaking of statements of yours that have inspired responses, one of the things that really made the rounds in the past couple of years was that ‘Black Madonna Manifesto’ published in your interview you with DJ Broadcast –
Well interestingly, that’s much older than the DJ Broadcast interview. That was an interview with an American newspaper, right when I started touring in 2012`. One section of that interview got pulled out and repeated over and over again. It was just something that I said over the phone to this dude; it wasn’t like I sat down and wrote a manifesto or anything. But then it really got a life of its own when the DJ Broadcast interview used it as a pull-quote. It was repeated infinitely and that was so strange to me, seeing it all over Tumblr, written on signs at events, on posters… It’s a very strange thing to happen, to have said it off the cuff then for it to be turned into a meme. Very surreal.
Maybe this is a good time to talk about more general things about being a woman musician in the public sphere. In addition to the things you’ve highlighted in your own career, there have been other things going on recently—most recently the Ke$ha sexual abuse case. Also, Björk for quite some time has had to struggle to have her work as a studio producer recognised. Do you see some common patterns or themes for woman producers, musicians, creators?
I think Björk nailed it when she said we have trouble seeing women as an auteur. This is something that I would say many of us have struggled with and there has been some very welcome push against that. I love the series that Female:Pressure has been doing that shows pictures of women in their studios, combatting the image of studios male-only spaces. I think that women who are learning to produce often face a very particular set of challenges that men do not. But also, like men, a lot of times we begin learning within our peer groups; sometimes that can mean a boyfriend or a close male friend, and that’s normal. In that sense, women beginning in the industry are very normal. But because we live on Earth, where misogyny and abuse are often built into the relationships between men and women, a lot of times women encounter abuse built into their early peer groups or relationships with mentors. I know many, many women who have struggled to come out of that cycle. Many women, like Ke$ha, have had abuse built into their partnerships or mentorships.
So there’s this additional barrier that women have to overcome in the first place. But even if that didn’t exist, the other thing women are dealing with is the struggle to be recognised as legitimate sources of their own creative output. And you have to figure that if Björk is still struggling with this, then we’re all fucked. If it’s not obvious to everyone that Bjork is a genius, then… On the one hand it’ relieving to know that she deals with this too, but on the other hand it’s totally not relieving at all. I certainly have experienced some of that stuff too—both people assuming that I was a man and assuming that a man was behind my work. And I’ve also lived through the antagonism of male collaborators. I’ve been through every piece of that and it seems like many woman in the industry have some kind of bullshit in their lives that they’re dealing with, whether it’s that the person they were collaborating with was a horrible partner or perhaps that they were controlling or emotionally abusive. Or sometimes they have a wonderful male collaborator—as many men have had wonderful collaborators who are males—but for a woman, the second she starts working with a man, he becomes perceived as the auteur and she is the, the…
—the diva, or whatever.
I saw a something recently. It was very well-intended: someone said that there were no women headliners at Coachella this year. But of course LCD Soundsystem is headlining and Nancy is a driving force in that band. The idea that she somehow doesn’t count or that a band must be all women to be driven by a woman…it seems so crazy to me. She is not a back-up singer; she is an essential part of LCD and has been since the beginning. James Murphy has been incredibly vocal, saying that the band is not just ‘Jimmy and the Murphies’, that it’s a group of people and Nancy is one of those people. So I think that no matter who you are there is some version of this thing that you’re likely to be dealing with.
I can’t remember if it was Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, who said that all of her writing credits would always go to whatever guy was in the studio with her when she wrote a song. It seems like that hasn’t gone away, that tendency for credit and creative authority to magnetize to the men in the situation.
Yeah, and when I started The Black Madonna project I refused to even let a guy do a mixdown of my work before we submitted it for mastering because I didn’t want anyone to take credit or be seen as the man actually pulling the strings. I had just come out of that situation. I remember once, somewhere on the internet, a person with whom I had worked for a while made a joke to another friend of ours like ‘Oh, why don’t you go and help her make a track’. And I was like, ‘Oh it’s like that?!’ And so, after that I felt at least for a period of time that I wasn’t going to be able to let anyone do anything with me, because I just wanted my work to be mine.
That’s interesting because we were just talking about ‘the cost of doing business’ a minute ago, and here it sounds like you were going through a period where you couldn’t accept help, for fear of that tainting your output. It seems like you had to give up some of the support network that would normally be there for a male producer early in his career.
Yeah, I’ve kind of done every version of collaboration you can do – I’ve been the person sitting there pointing at the screen and saying, ‘Make it sound more like this’. I’ve been the person driving and trying to make a track sound more like what was in someone else’s head. I’ve had collaborations that were absolutely 50/50. I’ve done all of those things; those were good experiences for me. That’s how I learned to produce, by doing every version of the collaborative relationship that you can do. But when it was time to do my own thing under my own name alone, it was a very lonely process, because I think the things I wanted were not the things my peers at the time wanted to make. I wanted to make tracks that were very personal, tracks that I just could not do in a room with someone else—and at that time there was no hope of success on the horizon. At the time that I started the Black Madonna project, I had failed so completely as a producer and a DJ that I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna have to do this thing alone so that people will finally take me seriously’. But finally, when interest did come for the things that I was doing and people offered to help with a mixdown, at that point I rejected all of the usual help that people would receive because I didn’t want to be in a position where someone would say, ‘Go help her make a track’.
I also did not want feedback. I had been dealing with the opinions of men for so long and I had learned a lot in the studio, but there came a point where I didn’t want to hear anyone’s opinion anymore. Not because I was sad or felt that I had failed but because no outcome had resulted from my partnerships that seemed worth sacrificing my point of view, and I think I had felt restricted in the beginning, like there were rules. I was very afraid to be who I was for a long time. And then when I started doing the Black Madonna thing, it was to escape feedback and to be outside of the trend. I didn’t want to do what was popular, and the things that I listened to when I made those first five records were not what was in the Zeitgeist of dance music at the time. In many ways, I had no idea what was going on: I wasn’t paying attention to what was popular; I wasn’t going to parties; I didn’t have a lot of friends or a big social life; I was not welcomed into the cool parties; I didn’t have a good sense of what was going on in popular dance music nor did I have the influence of a collaborator—and that’s probably what freed me up to do what I wanted to do.
So you’ve discussed the early phase of your career. What’s changed for you now, as far as your experience of misogyny and feminism go?
I think there are a lot of people that have been willing to listen to things that I’ve got to say in light of my music. People who wouldn’t necessarily have been interested in these ideas have been a bit more welcoming, because they liked a DJ set that I’ve played. I’ve tried despite having some really strong opinions to be approachable and to be a good and easy ambassador—even if a reluctant one. Things have changed wildly in ways that I hadn’t even thought possible. Every once in a while, someone will talk to me and I’m shocked that they talk to me. I still feel in spite of everything that’s happened, I’m still a little bit on the other side of the glass; but I am aware that things have changed a lot. Somebody sent me a screenshot of what’s the designer’s name, who’s the guy that does Been Trill – Virgil Abloh – he’s Kanye West’s creative director, and he was at the after party for the Yeezy Season 3 launch and he said he was gonna play my track—which of course was exciting for me because I love Kanye. It was one of those situations where my record was getting played at a party I would never ever have been invited to. So there’s a little bit of that.
I’m kind of in a weird position because it’s been a really good year but at the same time I’m a thirty-eight year-old woman who looks like someone’s mom. I’m way outside the cool, fashion part of this world and I don’t think I’ll ever be good at it. So there’s a kind of tension between having all these incredible opportunities on the one hand, and being still in many ways incredibly lame and not a party person at all on the other. That can separate me from my peers I think.
Right. So, despite all the recent success you’ve had you still feel like an outsider?
In a sense yeah, in as much as generally I’d prefer to be at home watching Downton Abbey than doing all the pool-party stuff. You know I’m a lot older than some of the people who’ve just started touring. I’m not interested in fashion or drugs or any of that stuff for the most part. I don’t really party, so in some ways I’m a little outside of our peer group.
As a project, The Black Madonna does stand out a bit from a lot of creative projects that have been launched recently, and people often project their own images of what the moniker means. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about how you came up with the name. Does The Black Madonna represent something for you in the same way that DJ Sprinkles represents something for Terre Thaemlitz, for example?
Sure, the short answer is that I am a Catholic as is my family. My grandfather was friends with Thomas Merton and C.S Lewis and the people of that era of Catholicism. And so, a ‘Black Madonna or Black Virgin’ in that context is a religious object, an icon, typically from the medieval period. They’re usually European, often wooden or sometimes made of stone, and they have either turned dark over time or they’re made of dark wood. They’re wildly popular across the world, but especially in Europe. I think there’s about 200 of them in France alone. She is a beloved figure to many Catholics, and Black Madonna sites are often found near Pre-Christian areas of goddess-worship; there’s a lot of interesting literature on it.
For me, on one hand the very simple explanation for The Black Madonna is that it’s the favourite saint or icon of my mother and the thing that really brought us together spiritually; it’s a very heartfelt dedication to my mom and my faith. But on the other hand, for me the meaning of the Black Madonna is that she is a small feminist rebellion from within the Church. And many of us in Catholicism have struggled to see ourselves reflected in religious iconography, and so Black Madonnas are a very particular and unique phenomenon inside the church, in that they’re closely related with fertility and and they’re the subject of deep, deep devotion—more so than a lot of other saints. These beloved figures exist in many places in the world, but share some devotional aspects, and for me trying to find my position in dance music which is also as strong as my faith is, The Black Madonna project sits at the intersection between spirituality and politics.
I found that the question I was trying to answer inside my faith was the same question I was trying to answer in my musical life, which were: where am I in my relationship to god? Where am I inside this musical pantheon? Where is the spiritual face of femininity inside house music? and I struggled because there was no woman that was a Frankie Knuckles, and I wanted to believe that that that place could exist for women, not just in the church but in dance music. I wanted to believe that these two distinct (but decidedly male) structures might have some room for a little rebellion inside them, a space to see reflected our own divinity as women, as creators, and as artists. And so while they seem to be very different things, for me the idea was a very similar issue: wanting to see the divine feminine in a space where it is not often reflected.
So, on one hand there’s a symbolic aspect of it, which is very important, and on the other I haven’t been too forthcoming about this until now because it’s kind of a tricky subject. I’m a feminist, pro-queer. I am a Catholic, but like many other Catholics, I disagree with my tradition on many things and the name itself is an acknowledgement of that difficulty: on the one hand feeling the need for this tradition and ritual and all of the wonderful things that I grew up with but on the other hand the need to break away from that.
So to finish up on a related but admittedly lighter note: if the Black Madonna functions as a saint in the Catholic church, affiliated with particular ideals, do you see The Black Madonna as being the patron saint of something as well? Do you see it connected to a particular cause or population?
Yeah I think so, and I’m honoured that it is, I think it depends where you are in the world. This interview is for French readers and for them the explanation won’t be a surprise as they have many of them in their country. So, depending on where you are it is an image that is either completely obscure or very familiar. You know, there’s a Black Madonna in every Polish bakery in Chicago…but then you go to some places and people have no idea of it. I think that the icon itself has exceeded the boundaries of even practising Catholicism; there are people who love her who aren’t deeply religious. And that’s one of the things I love about her: I’m not a very good Catholic but I love her very much.
Having said that I think the project itself provides some of the things that I needed at the time. When I started out, I longed for a woman in a central position in dance music. I longed for my own female icons and certainly had many—people like DJ Heather and Ellen Alien and Honey Dijon—but I longed for that mother figure. And I do think that for some people this project has been meaningful in that way. It’s definitely hard for me to know how objective my own point of view is, but I definitely would say that I have some of the most intense fans. They are the people that love me a lot and I love them a lot too, and maybe some of that comes from being a person willing to listen and reflect some of the cares and concerns of people who had felt nudged out. If I have made them feel good then I am really happy and honoured. I am maybe not the best person to do it, but I am happy to do that to whatever degree I can. And as much as I have meant to any of them, they have meant much more to me. I’m still trying to figure out how to do this new thing at the ripe old age of 38, and I have been lifted up by the people who have been there, along for the trip. I would say as much as anyone has a special relationship in dance music, I do with the people that come to my shows. It is personal and emotional and they are very special to me.