Thirteen bodies crowded around a CDJ—the digital music players with turntables—in the Mug on Thursday, Feb. 20, including a mannequin wearing a cowboy hat. I tried to decode the equipment with my eyes, poring over the buttons and switches, each with its own purpose. Standing behind the puzzling contraption was Solenne Steelberg ’21, who set up the event as a DJing workshop for trans women, cis women and nonbinary individuals.
Steelberg’s hands darted across the turntables, animated with determination. They set up the workshop so students could learn how to DJ outside of Vassar College Sound System (VCSS), which Steelberg said is made up of mostly men.
“If you were in a space with mostly men, you wouldn’t feel as inclined to ask questions, or you would feel even more intimidated because you have a lot of men putting off this tone,” Steelberg said. “Mansplaining?” I asked. “Exactly,” they replied with a mutually understanding smile.
The atmosphere was friendly to beginners, inclusive and accepting—everyone cheered when a newcomer laid down a beat. After Steelberg stepped away from the CDJ, attendees stepped up, playing around until their songs successfully looped, or the beat dropped and the room erupted with ecstatic energy.
“I want to share what I know with not cis men,” Steelberg said. “Because, fuck them.” Everyone around the turntables smiled in agreement.
On the inclusion of other identities, attendee Emily Lesorogol ’22 agreed, “I think it takes away the intimidation factor,” she said.
Steelberg recently took action toward creating a more inclusive DJ atmosphere on campus, forming a Facebook group for womxn and nonbinary individuals to help coordinate DJing sessions. The group currently consists of 20 people, and while it’s not a fully fleshed-out organization, they hope it will provide opportunities for underrepresented people to display artistry. Steelberg said the group will practice DJing together in WVKR studios, creating an intimate and low-pressure community centered around mastering music production, regardless of experience level.
While Steelberg said they are reluctant to tackle VSA bureaucracy and turn a Facebook group into an org, they said the creative collective will announce practice times for potential DJs. They also indicated a desire to collaborate with VCSS in order to find DJ opportunities for campus events.
Back in the Mug, Steelberg took us through playing a track, from speeding up the song to looping it, breaking down the complicated process into something fluid, instantaneous. “Basically, the point is that you’re trying to play music for people and you don’t want the music to stop, you just want it to keep playing,” they said. The concept is simple enough, but watching the DJ behind the turntables pressing buttons and whirling dials, the equipment seemed enigmatic and overwhelming.
Not only did the workshop offer insight into the complex world of music production, but also into how we accept who is behind that space as a given. Until talking to attendees, I hadn’t thought about whether the DJ scene at Vassar was male-dominated. Watching Steelberg behind the turntables, getting lost in the plethora of buttons, I realized I often didn’t look at who was DJing, or even notice how much expertise and confidence it takes to occupy that role.
“It’s yet another position of power,” Mackenzie Whitehead-Bust ’23 said. “It’s not necessarily wrong that men DJ, but it’s just the fact that it is mostly dominated by men that creates the feeling that it couldn’t be run by women. I think it’s a pretty bro-y culture—kind of like a boys club.”
I asked Whitehead-Bust whether she was interested in DJing in the future, and she glowed with affirmation. As she and a handful of others stood behind the turntables, their bodies hunched in concentration, a whole new cohort of DJs had been born.
Looking this bro culture in the face may open up the DJ scene, allowing for more individuals to create their own rhythms and to expose others to music they otherwise might not have heard.
“It would be refreshing to have people exposed to different kinds of music,” affirmed Steelberg.
Lucinda Carroll ’23 said that an event geared specifically to womxn and nonbinary individuals offered a unique learning opportunity and a welcome contrast to the makeup of the music industry.
Carroll also observed male dominance in the field. “I’ve noticed that almost all the DJs are men. It’s weird but it’s clearly a male-dominated field, which is so weird since it’s such a new field,” she said. “I think it’s really cool that this caters exclusively to women and non-binary folks. Otherwise the opportunities aren’t going to present themselves.”
Behind the CDJ at Thursday’s workshop, hopefuls like Lesorogol, Whitehead-Bust and Carroll stood with their eyes glued to the mess of buttons and glowing lights, no longer so intimidating to new creators in the room. Now, perhaps the puzzle was coming together, the buttons’ purposes evident and the swarm of lights and switches less confusing. Steelberg had disappeared, but attendees were now teaching each other. There was no hierarchy or domineering energy, only cooperation.
The next day, I sat down with Steelberg in the Retreat. “[Music] really is such an important part of our lives—even now you can hear someone playing piano. I think it’s a big part of this campus and I want to make that more accessible,” Steelberg said. “It’s all about discovery. There’s a lot of beauty in discovering new genres and new kinds of music.”