Leveling the playing field: In The Middle with NikNak

As soon as I call NikNak, one of her cats, Smudge, decides to jump up on her lap and disturb our Zoom call. Smudge is now sitting on one of Leeds’ most legendary DJs, a member of the collectives Equaliser and Slut Drop, and recently founder of Slipmat Sessions, a series of workshops aimed at teaching the art of DJing to women and members of gender minorities. In between the felines crazily jumping around (she adorably stops the interview at multiple occasions to tell her cats to behave), I am eager to discover why promoting diversity is something that NikNak has made such a crucial part of her personal mission statement.

“It’s about levelling the playing field” she replies assuredly. “The music industry is very white and male dominated, and I want to help in the sense of normalising the fact that music comes in all different shapes and forms and so do the people who make it”. This is translated into her teaching in two different ways – by inspiring confidence in her students as performers, but also by projecting as a defiant statement to the outside world: there’s an insane mixture of people out there playing and making an equally insane range of music.

Credit: Glenn Mallard

She shares her frustration with me about so often being the only person who looks like her in a creative setting. “From my experiences, I have often been the only Black woman in the room”. Too often, organisers will book one woman or one person of colour for a sense of tokenism, thinking that they are helping to make the problem better. This falls far short of should be expected from organisers, she explains. “I don’t want people to think that “oh we have one person who’s not white and male on our lineup, so that means we’re doing a good job”. Well, you‘ve got one out of how many people on your lineup? That‘s lazy”. In my conversation with NikNak I realise how subtle, and yet damaging, this sexism is, and how much hard work must be done to overcome it.

The wealth of diverse talent that exists in Leeds is mindblowing, and NikNak expresses her anger at how underrepresented this is in the line-ups you’ll see posted around the city. “There are a lot of promoters out there who are still struggling to find more non-white non-male people to come and play at their events. I just find that very interesting, for somebody to be like, “Oh, we can’t find anybody like you”. Google is your friend! What are you talking about? I’m just challenging that way of thinking”.

Credit: Kirsty Garland

NikNak devised the Slipmat Sessions programme to help in this effort, and originally the aim was to have every participant to play together in one event, helping to launch many people headfirst into their future careers, giving them “the confidence to record a set, put it online, share it with people and see who picks it up and who asks you to play”. She coaches her students to question the relationship they have with their music in the safe environment she has created. “DJing is more of a conversation than anything,” she expands, “It’s having the confidence in the songs that you have in your library, and the reasons why you’re choosing the music you’re choosing to play. It’s you, you’re making that choice already, you’re thinking like a curator”.

In this way, NikNak focuses on much more than just the technical skills behind DJing, also giving students wider lessons on protecting their mental health and nurturing something she has named “professional self-worth”. One of the most important lessons she aims to teach her students is giving themselves the freedom to fail. “A lot of people will say “No, you’ve got to beatmatch everything, you have to get it spot on the first time, otherwise you’re shit”. And it’s like, um, no, actually, some of the best DJs don’t. They use a myriad of skills, so how about I show you examples of that? It’s about building confidence in people to just trust their instincts when it comes to DJing”.

Image: BBC

Another valuable lesson she teaches her students is the importance of being able to say no, out of respect to yourself as a performer. “There have been instances throughout my career where I’ve wanted to say no, and didn’t, and then ended up regretting doing the set, And then, because of that, my mental health took a dive at that time, or I just became ill”. She tells me a distressing story of a difficult gig with an abusive crowd. “I’ve had a panic attack during a set before and still had to finish the whole set. And that was like a six hour one. It was really horrible. But it taught me a lot in terms of just being able to say no, in managing my boundaries and managing my mental health”.

The main thought I take home from my conversation with NikNak is how much I admire her self-belief. “I feel like a lot of DJs who look like me get pigeonholed into playing a certain style of music”, NikNak admits, but she has always refused to fit into the boxes other people expect her to. “Being a DJ is not a set parameter of things, that you have to look like this or you have to be from this place – a DJ is a DJ”. I get the impression that through her hardships, NikNak has been able to create a deep sense of self-identity as a person and as a performer, and it is these attitudes and beliefs I hope she is most able to pass onto to her students.

Even though the interview has spilled over far longer than I intended – and I honestly could keep going for hours – I still want to touch upon NikNak’s approaches to music production, and I’m not surprised that she remains just as headstrong. “You’re messing about with sound at the end of the day, who gives a fuck?”, she says. It’s a beautiful statement.

Header image: Pretend online, creator: James Ward @jammy_randoms