Shakari Boles has always been surrounded by music. A southern Virginia girl by-way-of Palm Beach, Florida, Boles’ influences stem heavily from musical legends like Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Pharrell Williams. Boles, who DJs under the moniker TRAKGIRL, moved to the D.C. area when she was 13 years old and was immediately drawn to its rich musical culture.
“There’s a lot of talent that comes out of the DMV, I’m blessed to be able to see that,” she says.
These days Boles travels abroad, bonding with other DJs and drawing inspiration from artists from around the world. Studio sessions with producers like No I.D. are almost habitual because of the fact that her discography tends to expand across the world of R&B and hip-hop. While working with musicians like Jhené Aiko—one of Boles’ favorite collaborators—she revels in the encouragement to maximize her creativity. She equates good music with its capacity to be timeless.
“Good music (to me) is music that can inspire someone. It’s an experience… music that can be replayed years from now,” she says.
Boles’ own music certainly draws from D.C.’s musical history and breadth of talent, but her main motivation for making music these days isn’t so much about what is being made as it is about who is making it.
“At the beginning of my career, I remember going into a studio session and [introducing] myself as a producer,” she recalls. “I [received] laughs from the men in the room.”
For many women who make music, Boles’ experience is commonplace. Women making music—especially women who DJ—aren’t taken seriously by their male counterparts. But in the D.C. area, Boles is one of several pioneering DJs who don’t want—or care—about the approval of men: They have found solace in fostering a community of badass women. And they hope their scene will ignite a necessary domino effect in the local music industry.
To the rest of the country, D.C. seems like a buttoned-up town—it’s the seat of the federal government, after all—but this city fosters a creative spirit for musicians, and for a very long time, men have been at the forefront of the local DJing scene. Boles and several others are fostering a community for fellow women who DJ, breaking professional barriers and cultivating a safe space for creative women to be their most exuberant selves. And its impact on the local music scene has not fallen on deaf ears.
Dominique Wells, a former federal government employee, retired from her 9-to-5 job to pursue DJing as a full-time career under the name DOMO, for the women-led artist collective GIRLAAA, which has catalyzed Wells, and her cohort, to develop a community.
“GIRLAAA is ever-evolving. My objective is to be an expansive agency that supports women in creative spaces. And people are receptive,” she says.
The support Wells mentions comes in many forms. GIRLAAA is best known for curating parties “where women can come exactly as they are,” but has branched out into more philanthropic endeavors, including a collaboration with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In November of 2018, GIRLAAA hosted a workshop for teens at the Hirshhorn’s ARTLAB+, the museum’s teen-focused digital art studio. Along with her GIRLAAA colleagues, DOMO facilitated a discussion and digital workshop on their experience curating events in D.C., and how their platform is used for the empowerment of women to express themselves through art, music, and culture.
To many, the DJing world can seem oversaturated with disingenuous intent from artists more concerned about numbers and clout—just look at how many influencers on Instagram also claim to be DJs. Maintaining authenticity, Wells says, is ultimately how respect and trust in the industry are earned.
“I think that since men still control the space, it’s still difficult for women because of those who are using it to push a brand forward, rather than caring about the technique,” she says. “If you don’t care about the basics of how you should be [DJing] well, then people don’t really rally.”
In a historically male-dominated arena, spaces for women DJs to flex their talent—either behind a booth or in a studio—are becoming more accessible. Boles is one of those DJs, but she didn’t arrive at her success easily. She faced a healthy dose of skepticism from men in the music industry, but she soon realized that to successfully submerge herself in a career in music, she had to remain impervious to the noise of skeptics.
“I faced doubt early in my career but over time I built a mental armor and let my craft and music speak,” she says.
Over the course of her career, Boles developed a brand that promotes self-awareness and women empowerment in the music industry. In January of 2018, that brand manifested into The 7%, an ongoing series of panel discussions that she established to highlight and create a safe haven for women in the music industry. Boles and other women in the local music industry discuss issues they face as women, like the ubiquitous gender wage gap and tireless efforts to dismantle systemic patriarchy. (Boles took the name for the series from the statistic that women account for less than 7 percent of producers and engineers in the music industry.)
In essence, The 7% is about leveling the playing field for women in the music industry, for women to be treated as equals to their male counterparts. Like living legend Lil’ Kim sang in the chorus of The Lox’s 1998 hit single: “It’s the key to life/ Money, power, and respect.”
And for many women who DJ and work in music production, gaining any of those three things requires them to speak their truth with authority.
“I’m a fan of saying ‘no’ when it doesn’t feel right,” Boles says. “I don’t say ‘yes’ to everything.”
Though Boles doesn’t always agree to every gig, she acknowledges that, without continuously working to build a portfolio that showcases her talent and worth, she wouldn’t have access to the opportunity to negotiate for more money. “I know my worth. Sometimes you have to convince others to know your worth,” she says. “This goes back to letting your work speak.”
But for a new DJ, letting your work speak for itself and impress an audience can be an overwhelming experience. A New York City club is where Doneshia English—aka DJ Chan Don—sought to make her mark on the industry for the first time. It didn’t go so well.
“My first gig was so awful! My nerves and anxiety were at an all-time high,” she recalls. “The laptop I had wasn’t compatible with the equipment the venue had.”
But these learning curves only inspired English more. Her journey, she says, relies on giving herself room to grow as an artist and, just as Boles iterated, to “let your work speak for itself.”
In her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, English followed local DJs, specifically DJ Dirty Vegas of 95.7 Jamz radio, and actively sought out ways to master her craft during her senior year of college. “In Birmingham, you see some of the same people all the time. So I got the courage to just ask his thoughts,” she explains. She took his visceral words of encouragement—“we need more women”—and never looked back.
English is now a DMV resident and DJ who advocates for inclusivity for newbie DJs. “A lot more women are putting their craft in the forefront and people are noticing,” she says. “I think the support for women artists and creatives is growing exponentially.”
For English, she uses her platform as an artist to support other women through LoudHER, a foundation she started to address mental health issues for women in the entertainment industry. LoudHER’s mission is to provide tools and resources for women to manage and maintain their mental well-being through various workshops in the D.C. area.
Like TRAKGIRL and DOMO, DJ Chan Don is one of many talented DJs in the D.C. area. But the trio are part of a small—yet growing—population of DJs that tirelessly advocate for women’s progression in their industry. The three are often recognized by their peers for their talents and work ethic, and they continue to earn their grace in this way, but the splashes they’re making ripple beyond their scene: They have dedicated themselves to becoming masters of their crafts in spaces where they have often been under-appreciated and overlooked—and people are taking notice.
Whether they’re behind the boards at big music festivals, working in the studio, or DJing at a club, TRAKGIRL, DOMO, and DJ Chan Don are embracing their role as vanguards of change in their industry. But to them, their passion for DJing is to just create a normative space for creative women to not feel oppressed by the patriarchy. A place where women can feel safe and comfortable enough to shout “GO OFF QUEEN!” to the woman behind the decks. Because there aren’t enough spaces where that regularly happens and trying to navigate the music industry as a woman is an exhausting experience.
“My biggest hangup is always being mentally prepared. No one can prepare for the endurance it takes to be in the music industry,” says English. “You have to work twice as hard to handle the ‘nos’ and to maintain your mental health.”