“I’ve got everything I was wishing for”: How The Black Madonna became a dance music superstar
There are moments, in between her blur of gigs, when Marea Stamper can reflect on life as the Black Madonna. A lot has changed for the DJ who came up in the Kentucky rave scene, found her house family at Chicago’s smartbar, then shapeshifted into one the most in-demand selectors on the circuit.
More than just a popular DJ, Stamper’s belief in the unifying power of dance music has made her a role model. It’s a status she’s still getting used to. Take this recent tweet from her always-entertaining feed: “I feel the number one indicator of my place in music is the number of strangers that just comment ‘mom’ when I post stuff on the internet now.”
When inthemix gets on the phone to Stamper, she’s deep in a typical month of gigs. That means a four-hour block at the peak of a Panorama Bar marathon in Berlin, headline slots in London and Munich, and installments of her We Still Believe party series in Paris and Amsterdam. We Still Believe distils the Black Madonna ethos: uncynical, open to all comers and certain of the dancefloor’s healing properties.
Stamper is buzzing about her trip to Australia this month, which includes slots at Victoria’s Pitch Music & Arts Festival and Days Like This in Sydney. “I feel very connected with a community of people there I absolutely adore, even if I don’t get to see them very often,” she says.
If you catch her play this time (which you should), don’t expect to get a noncommittal shuffle on. The Black Madonna builds her sets for jacking bodies, with a dynamic mixing style honed over countless hours in the booth. Stamper takes her various musical interests – among them classic house and electro, rare disco and straight-up pop – and threads one story. And, as her moves at the mixer attest, she loves every new bassline as much as the dancers do.
This year, she’ll channel that love into her first artist album, working with collaborators including Chicago house original Jamie Principle.
As Australia readies its warm welcome, Marea Stamper enlightens inthemix on her high-wire life as the Black Madonna.
Your social media is a window into a very busy life. How do you keep your head straight through all of it?
I’ve been open about the fact that before I ever toured, I was in treatment for depression and anxiety from the time I was a teenager. I think touring made me take that seriously, from your own self-care to managing all the projects that are coming at you.
You just really have to look at your day as a series of moments. I wake up early every day, and there are very few off days. Each day is really scheduled down to the minute. Luckily I have a team of people who help me manage that, but I personally take responsibility for it and try to get the most out of every second.
How have you adapted to this new attention, where people look to you as a role model?
It’s been a pretty unusual experience for me. Every week I feel like there’s something new. My team and I try to prepare for the unknown, in terms of managing the kinds of scenarios I could be in.
“I want to have as close and personal relationship as I can with people who took time out of their lives to be there, but I want to do it safely.”
I just had an experience this weekend where I was going into a show, and there was not really a rear entrance or an easy way to get in. So I entered through the bulk of the crowd, and even with a tour manager and a security guard, I got grabbed and, like, pulled into the crowd. And it was one of those reality check moments.
They didn’t mean any harm at all, they just wanted to hug me. It wasn’t like a mean thing, but you don’t know what’s going to be what until it’s happened. You have to control as much of that as you can.
I think it’s important to interact with people: I mean, I need that hug too, y’know? I don’t want to be disconnected with that, because it’s about being in a room with people and sharing time. I want to have as close and personal relationship as I can with people who took time out of their lives to be there, but I want to do it safely. And I want to make sure it’s a situation where I don’t feel funny.
Did you have to adjust how you DJ for the bigger rooms and festival spaces you’re booked in now?
Well, I came from the old school Midwest rave scene, so you play in whatever kind of situation. I played small parties and massive raves, so it wasn’t like I came from the world where all I’d ever done is open a room. Coming from that rave scene, you almost have to tone it down for a smaller room. That was the harder problem for me. [Laughs]
Can you trace how you play now back to those Midwest rave days, or does each new phase change you as a DJ?
There’s a piece of me that’s always going to be the 16-year-old b-girl. When I was a really serious dancer, I knew certain kinds of records made me want to dance. As I got older, I played more rooms like smartbar and after-parties in Chicago, and that changed me too, learning to slow down.
“I don’t think you can compare Panorama Bar to really anywhere else on earth. It’s a very special kind of joy.”
I think also my friendships with certain DJs is the X-factor that can’t be stressed enough. Like my friendship with Jason Garden, who was my successor as the talent buyer at Smartbar: we used to literally DJ for each other in his laundry room for hours and hours at a time.
Our really close friendship was based on playing music for each other, and his taste was very different from mine. He loved these slower things and was such an elegant DJ.
I was lucky enough to see you in Panorama Bar a couple of years ago, and there was a lot of joy in the room. How does that compare to other places you play?
I don’t think you can compare Panorama Bar to really anywhere else on earth. It’s a very special kind of joy, and it was really the first place in Europe that I played regularly. There are people who have been to every show I’ve done there, which must be near 20.
There’s a kind of marriage there that’s developed over time. There are people who bring me a present every time or when it’s my birthday, they sing for me. When that happened, I just burst into tears. It was really one of the most phenomenal things that ever happened to me. That room is so intimately tied to the very first moment I started to tour for real.
It’s special on its own, and it’s also the room that let me grow up and try new things. And it has challenged me: there’s no other place where it’s like, oh, you’re just going to play 10 hours now. That completely changes you as a DJ: even one set like that can change you.
I often wonder something about DJs who tour at the rate you do. When you spend so much time in countries that aren’t your home, does it make you think differently about America and your place in the world?
It’s been very interesting. I’ll always be an American, but I’ve spent the majority of the last two years in Europe, and you become a European in ways. So to see my country through the eyes of my neighbours here is sometimes difficult.
Right now is a very challenging time in America, and I feel a little ashamed to be not there and going through it with everyone. To be totally honest, I feel like I’m letting people down. So many of my friends are facing challenges and fears right now that I’m not having to deal with head-on.
So there’s a special kind of sadness in watching the pain of your friends or family from afar. Also, America seems way crazier to me now…
In your Between The Beats video for Resident Advisor from 2016, you mentioned starting a second Post-It note of career goals after achieving everything on the first. How many are ticked off now?
Oh, that second Post-It note is way gone. I have a photo album where I keep the first two so I’ll never lose them. And now I need to make a third one from the notes on my computer. In some ways, the goals are more nebulous now, because I’ve been checking off things that are concrete, and eventually you run out of those.
Some of them now are very specific, like the album. But it feels like the list is more internal: more about quality of life and creative goals, rather than looking for a spot on an end-of-year list. I’ve got everything I was wishing for before. But I also still want all that shit too. [Laughs]
The Black Madonna will play Pitch Music & Arts Festival and Days Like This this weekend. She’ll also be headlining an International Women’s Day gig at Melbourne venue Glamorama; head here for all details.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter.