Going to a club to jam to hot dance beats mixed by a female DJ might not sound particularly standout lately, but it wasn’t long ago that seeing a woman behind the turntables was a rarer occurrence than you might think. Even today, only a small percent of DJs spinning house music in the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) universe are female or female-identified.
Danielle White – better known as divaDanielle – is one of those women, and has been spinning “funky, bouncy house music” for more than 15 years, since her first public show at a converted LA pastrami shop.
Her journey to becoming a well-known and respected DJ is marked by struggles borne out of cultural training that told her, as a woman, to be quiet and make everyone else comfortable – versus speaking her mind.
Danielle found the strength to break that mold when she realized if she wanted to see more women in the field, she had to be the change. She is now an outspoken advocate and mentor for new female DJs and is adamant that event lineups always include women.
She’s also busy helping run a record label, organizing music festivals, and drawing crowds to clubs across the country. She spoke with Nongirly about the winding journey to find her true passion and disclosed how believing in yourself and letting go of control can dismantle self-imposed barriers. divaDanielle also shared the history of EDM’s struggle with gender discrimination, as well as its recent shift toward more openness and inclusion.
What was your entrée into dance music?
I was always really into music. I was that little kid that would go, “Wanna videotape me singing a song?” This is why I always thought I wanted to be a singer. In fact, I was trained as a singer, but I kind of went off the path. I also went to film school. However, right before film school, I traveled through Europe for two months. It was during that trip that I listened to electronic music for the first time. It was totally crazy! There was trance music with lasers, and I was just 17 years old in Europe like, “What is this?” And so I kind of stayed in that scene. Later on, I worked in a coat check at a club in Boston, where I was going to school. I would go to all the shows!
How did you become a DJ?
After Boston, I came to LA and started working as an editor. However, every Tuesday I would go to my friend’s house since he had a mixer. He would listen as I was DJing, as I would take two records and try to learn to beat-match them. It’s really like six months of being awful at something and really trying to push through it until one day you have it. So for a long time, it was just me mixing at my house, and one day I had a friend that’s like, “You’re gonna come play at my club.” And I was like, “Me? I’m not really that good.” And he’s like, “No, you’re coming.”
And that was the moment, that first time that I played in front of people. It was at Cole’s, which nowadays is a hipster bar and deli. But back then, Cole’s was really just like the oldest pastrami shop in LA. I played next to a deli full of lunch meats and stuff – but it was my first time playing in front of people, so I just really enjoyed that experience. It’s a different way of relating to people, of seeing what they like and kind of feeling into what to play next. Long story short: after that, I was hooked.
What made you feel hooked? What was your motivation to pursue DJing as a career?
It was that moment of doing something interesting with the music, seeing people’s response, and then being able to create this mutual but silent communication. It was a unique experience where I could feel the emotions of the people on the dance floor – and then following my intuition to make my next move. And that’s one thing that I really enjoy with DJing! All these moments when you really tap into the crowd and the crowd is tapped into you. It really is like a reciprocal relationship where you’re speaking to each other without words – through music, and I feel it in my whole body. My hands become these guides, like, “I guess I’m gonna play this next.” It’s really nothing like anything else that I have done in my life.
In short, these moments of connection with people are what hooked me into DJing. While DJing, I think, “Okay, well, this is what I’m feeling, and so what am I gonna give back? This is what you’re giving me. Where am I gonna go with that? How do I create a story out of that relationship with the dance floor?” And these questions are the reason why I find DJin incredibly rewarding.
What was your mental journey in becoming and being a DJ?
I think it was definitely an organic progression of just loving music and playing music. I have a personality type that if I start doing something, it’s very difficult for me to not give it my all. Therefore, even from those first moments of just learning to beat-match, it was, “Oh, I’m gonna do this!” The worse I was at it, the more I thought, “I will know how to do this. These records will not beat me.” Although I felt confident in the craft, even when I would play at parties, I wouldn’t necessarily think of myself as a DJ.
I started to think of myself as a DJ [when] I started playing at clubs, events, and [when] I got asked to travel to different places. It really grew out of how it was taking a certain amount of time, and I was traveling, and I was like, “Oh, there are people actually paying me to go to other places that I’ve never been before, to be there. I guess this is the thing that I do, and it’s not just me in my living room.”
When did you realize that you could pursue DJing as a professional career and not just as a hobby?
I started going to Burning Man, and that was the place where I got to see all these artists and different musicians that spent their year prepping for DJing. This place opened my eyes to the idea that I could make a life of being an artist. Had I not had that experience, I’m not sure I would have thought, “I’m gonna quit my day job and put my all into DJin and start making things.” I just don’t think that would have crossed my mind. But, luckily, because I had met so many artists and people that made their living doing that, it was really inspirational.
What has your experience been like doing work in an area that traditionally – at least from the outside – seems like a much more male-dominated area? What was your entrée like?
I used to run into a lot of pushback with events that I organized – from females and males. I’d say, “We always need to have a female on the lineup.” Unfortunately, I would get a lot of pushback from people saying, “Well, then you’re not focusing on the music.” And what I always say is, “Okay, we’re focusing on the music, and you’re telling me we can’t even find one female that we think is up to par with the rest of these men?” I just think that that means we’re not looking. We’re not making the effort. It’s not about taking anything away from anyone else, but about putting the effort in to make sure that we’re looking at the whole picture.
Do you believe that things have changed since then?
I feel like everybody’s re-evaluating this now. Thanks to the #MeToo movement people are much more open to looking at these issues. When it comes to DJing, now more people are looking at their lineups and events that they’re putting together – and questioning things that they wouldn’t have questioned before. People have gotten on board with the idea that it’s not okay to think, “Oh, we’re only focusing on the music, and because of that there’s no females here.”
In short, the more women and women advocates that are out there playing and organizing events, the easier it is to put a different lens on the world. Likewise, the more of us there are, the easier it is to bring more people up with us. And it feels much more natural to help and mentor other women and put them on lineups.
I’ve seen people make small changes, and I think it needs to be much more than it is. However, I definitely see things going in a different direction. This makes me feel hopeful since five years ago, it didn’t seem like a possibility.
So this tipping point that you talked about, where there’s more and more women becoming female DJs: Do you think that has created a sort of snowball effect, where one or two folks like you stepped into it and just worked to create change, so then the next wave that came in saw you all as role models or saw you there doing your thing and being successful? Or, do you think it was for a different reason?
I hope that that’s why. Even in the moments when I’ve been in dark places where I didn’t get the gigs that I wanted or I felt I was treated unfairly, one of my big motivating factors was doing it so that other people felt comfortable doing it.
Looking back, seeing DJ Heather and Colette was really inspiring and important to me. It made a difference for me, my life choices, and my confidence. And for a long time, I really just felt that I needed to show up. Since I’m a female and I hear all of this BS all the time, I feel like I not only have to be a good DJ, but I have to be the best in the room. It made me better, but it definitely took a lot out of me.
I know that DJing isn’t brain surgery. And I don’t feel like I’m out saving the world. But, in a way it’s the place where I find power to make a change for women. I believe my mission feeds into the wider change, and we need this type of change to be across everything, across all careers. And I was lucky because I found myself in a position of power where I had a lot of naysayers, but in the end, I was the boss. So I just did it.
What important lessons have you learned that you wish you’d known when you started? What would you want to share with other women based on those lessons?
I wish that I had been more vocal. I feel emotional about it. But because of the time, and how I grew up, society tells you to stay quiet. You’re not meant to speak up, you’re meant to know your place. And I’m really proud of a lot of the younger kids nowadays because I see a lot of them having a voice that I didn’t necessarily feel I could have.
Looking back, I just wish I’d spoken up earlier, but I was really afraid that I would suffer because of it. I was afraid that I wouldn’t get DJ gigs. For a while, I used to count how many female DJs were in headlining positions of the festivals that I wanted to go to – but I kept quiet because I was afraid of backlash.
Did you ever experience backlash as a DJ for speaking up? How do you feel about speaking out now?
Unfortunately, I went through an experience where someone disliked me and said a lot of things about me that prevented me from getting gigs. So I was living in this fear-based state around how much I could say. I felt like I could get a lot more done through my actions, through being who I am, as opposed to really speaking up.
Also, as I was learning [to DJ] I kind of always defaulted to the men that knew all the technical stuff, and it really took me a long time to get past that. I am actually very good at technical things. I was a video editor for 20 years. But for some reason, when I was starting, I was just like, “Oh, I’m not supposed to be so technically oriented.” Instead, I should say, “Show me what to do.” That was in my 20’s, and I just look back and kind of facepalm myself.
The good news is that I grew out of that fear. Now I feel like I’ve gotten more of a voice now. I love bringing awareness and I hope to continue to do so for as long as I can.
You mentioned you have had some dark moments along the way. What kept you motivated to stay facing forward, to keep doing the thing?
I think part of it was just to prove people wrong. I mean, there were times that people might not have liked the type of music I played, or maybe they didn’t think I was a good DJ. By all means, I felt a weight to prove myself because I was a female. I had to prove that I could do it, that what people said didn’t matter. I still get up and I do something that I love, and I won’t let this urge to make everybody like me and be perfect for everybody stop me from doing something that I really love. For whatever reason, I have this appetite to just keep doing that, to achieve goals that people said I couldn’t.
When you figure out the value of your own self-worth and other people’s opinions matter a little bit less, does it change what the goalpost looks like?
It’s almost like the goalpost has gone away. Now, I’m just much more comfortable with uncertainty. I have been so surprised: places that I thought would never be open to me, suddenly I got booked there. Music that I thought I was never going to be able to make, suddenly I made. Am I going to be able to chart? And then suddenly, I did! It’s always the moment that I don’t care about it so much that I attain it. And it always annoys me because I know that as soon as I let go of it, it will happen.
Do I face disappointment? Yes, of course. We all have moments of disappointment, but I definitely feel like it’s less long-lasting now because I am not attaching all my self-worth to it. I came to a point where I just enjoyed it! And as I enjoyed it more, a lot more of the things that I wanted actually started to happen.
Photo courtesy of Karina Grotz