Chinwe Nnajiuba: "I won’t be easily intimidated"

Chinwe Pam Nnajiuba aka Juba is a Berlin-based DJ. In this interview she lets us know how she deals with conflict and discrimination whilst empowering herself through music.

Interview: Valerie-Siba Rousparast

Chinwe Nnajiuba (Foto: Valerie-Siba Rousparast)

CfC: You’re originally from the UK with a background in Nigeria. What brings you to Berlin?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: I moved to Berlin because I wanted to escape London. I was living at home with my parents and felt like I needed to spread my wings and capitalise upon this time in my life to be independent. As long as I was in London I didn’t think I could do that.

I think what gave Berlin the edge for me is that it’s relatively close to the UK and affordable. Additionally I had learnt German in school, so I thought it would be the ideal place to improve my German – however Berlin is the worst place for that because everyone insists on talking English.

CfC: When you perform, you play Afrobeat and other genres that aren’t rooted in Europe. What did you get inspired by, growing up in London?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: I’ve always been very proud of and intrigued about my Nigerian heritage and culture and grew up listening to a lot of Nigerian music like highlife or Igbo music at home. Also when I was younger, I would go to a lot of Nigerian functions, where elements of Igbo and other Nigerian cultures were practiced and celebrated. Growing up, despite living and going to school in a predominantly white area, I kept well connected with members of the Nigerian and other African communities, and so when Afrobeats – or Afropop as some people call it – started to filter into the UK around the late 2000s, I became an avid and excited fan.

Fast forward a decade or so and I’m now a DJ, afrobeats is in full swing and gaining global traction and so it’s a no brainer that I’m playing this kind of music.

I spent a lot of time travelling and living across South America, and music is such an ubiquitous and revered component of life in all of the countries that I went to. I love the music culture in South America and it has definitely broadened my musical intrigue and influenced my sound, as I also play a lot of Brazilian funky music, which also has African undertones.

CfC: No matter which work place, there is always room for discrimination. How has your experience in the DJ-scene and music business been so far?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: I feel like there is a kind of economic discrimination in a lot of the modern African music scenes at times. Who benefits from what within the music industry? I think a lot of the time within African pop music in general, especially artists who born and bred in the African continent, you often get the Black African artists being the face of the music, but behind the scenes the companies and people who run the platforms they are on, the labels etc. are very much white and or from wealthier often Western nations. This isn’t always overt discrimination or exploitation, but it is something that I hope will change in the future.

A lot of the white people that I’ve met, who work with African artists that I know from places like Ghana and South Africa, have good intentions, but for me they will never have the same kind of vested interest in the craft as the Africans who create the sounds. Ultimately they see people and an industry that is very marketable and profitable and they work with that, even if done very ethically.

I think my main resentment is not that these people exist, but that I don’t see more Black African label owners, promoters, agents also benefiting from long term investment opportunities in the music scene. But I think it’s a question of access and money, hence the economic inequality which is tied into race and nationality. It’s the white westerners/wealthier foreigners who often have the funds and access to be set up these businesses, working as the agents who get the best bookings etc, so they do what they are able to do. I hope that as more modern African artists and DJs come up and get international acclaim and prosperity, they will be more savvy and business minded and also reinvest in the long term business aspects of music, not just as performers and be able to take more control of an industry that is created by and fuelled by them.

CfC: Talking about structural problems, female identified Djs are still a minority, which is why some of them create specific events for themselves and queer and female crowds in Berlin. How do you empower yourself, being a female DJ?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: Obviously there is discrimination that women face in the industry, but I have to say my experience as ‘female DJ’ has been largely positive. In recent years there are so many networks and groups that create encouraging spaces for women who want to dj or produce and give advice on how to navigate a male dominated industry. I also find that – whether it’s tokenistic or not – a lot of opportunities have come my way, because I am a woman. Although ideally it would be important for a DJ whether female or not, to be chosen because of their craft and not just solely because of their gender.

Of course, I notice that at times guys feel entitled to approach me as I play and demand songs, in a way that I don’t see men doing to male djs. I tend to be open to requests anyway, but it still used to be very off putting. So now, I tend to stand my ground respectfully of course, but in a way that shows I won’t be easily intimidated by guys who think they are better DJs than I am, but have never touched decks in their life.

Also in certain environments I have encountered organisers who have a lot less patience for female DJs and put so much pressure on women to be out of this world, whereas male DJs are consistently allowed to be mediocre.

Chinwe Nnajiuba (Foto: Valerie-Siba Rousparast)

CfC: In Germany Hip Hop or Afro House, Trap or Grime parties absurdly tend to be rather white. This raises the question of the line between appropriation of cultures and appreciating them. How do you feel about this?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: Objectively, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a problem to have non-Black people in Germany, or elsewhere, partaking Hip Hop or Trap, as music and cultural influences have always spread regardless of race or national boundaries. However we live in a postcolonial, racially unequal world, where in a case like this, white dominance can influence who feels that they have the right to capitalise upon music that isn’t created by them and then who is given the access to become successful in this field. It also affects, who is likely to get popular attention; who is played on the radio and who gets the kind backing and sponsorship that helps them to become popular and so on. Within these music scenes, it has been a regular occurence that white people especially have been able to benefit from a music form that comes from a marginalised community, due to their privilege and I assume that it’s the case in Germany too. I assume a white person would have more success dominating hip hop, than a Black kid dominated German folk music. This is also a shame as often the white kids, that I have seen, capitalising upon hip hop in the German scene have little or no understanding/appreciation of the cultures from where the music originates, all they see if ‘cool’, but don’t really care about the experiences of the black communities that created Hip Hop or Trap or Afrotrap as a creative outlet.

CfC: Do you think what you encounter in this scene applies to bigger structural issues or do those differ?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: I think that with Germany specifically, it’s a question of numbers as well and not just postcolonial appropriation. From my observations being here, and I cannot claim to fully understanding German society and racial dynamics, the Black population in Germany is much smaller and less vocal than in places like the UK, where Rap, Hip Hop, Afrobashment, which is kind of like UK Afrotrap, tend to be retained much better within Black community. Therefore in Germany I am less surprised that I’ve seen Hip Hop and Rap dominated by Arab and white people, even though the influence comes from outside the community.

I think it’s important to point out that racism and anti-Blackness is a grave problem in Arabic or Middle Eastern communities, but is something that is often overlooked because of the global and institutional significance of white supremacist racism – which can also affect Arab and Middle Eastern people. I think it’s something that needs to be discussed more, especially in places like Germany. In Berlin, the overt racism that I have experienced has often come in the form of unnecessarily unwarranted aggressive behaviour, even heckling in the streets and in these situations amidst words that I don’t understand, I can definitely distinguish like ‘Black’ or ‘Africa’ being used slanderously. In these circumstances, I tend to react in a way that shows I am not a pushover. From my limited experience in Berlin, I find that Black people do not always take up their space and are a less confident in their position in the community than what I am used to in the UK, therefore I think people feel they are able to talk down to us and we will take it, because we are too busy trying to deflect stereotypes and get on with life and prove that we are ‘civilised’.

CfC: Caring for Conflict and Klirrr Festival were all about the culture of conflicts. How do you deal with problematic situations and conflicts?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: In terms of dealing with racism, my approach fluctuates depending on the situation. In the face of plain stupid ‘ all black people are monkeys’ style racism, I feel like there is almost no point in engaging with these people, because regardless of all of the evidence you provide that shows that they are wrong and idiotic bigots they already have their minds made up. It’s a waste of energy and trying to engage with is like talking to a brick wall that was built in the 1700s and has toughened over time. I can’t waste my energy fighting futile battles with deeply engrained racists, so I just get on with my business, give a quick retort, or laugh in their face and move on.

In Berlin currently, of course racism exists, but it’s not something I experience endlessly or in an extreme manner. However when I have experienced more overt or aggressive discrimination, it’s actually come from members of other communities here mainly Arabic and Middle Eastern, in equal measures if not more than from white Germans; but when it comes to microaggressions or silent resentment – white people win on that one.

So without being to extreme or violent I definitely speak up and show people that they cannot talk disparagingly against me or look down upon me because of my skin colour. I also feel like we have been taught as Black people to not react passionately in the face of racism, because it feeds into the stereotype of angry Black women or aggressive hyper masculine Black men. It’s also ironic that I am expected to show how respectable and decent I am to aggressive racists who uphold archaic and unjust ideologies, it doesn’t make sense. So I guess my mode of reacting at the moment is a kind of protest against the idea of not expressing my rightful anger and frustration at injustice done to me, in order to prove my civility, when it’s the racists who should be judged, not me. I also find it more healing for myself to have my say, rather than unnaturally stifling my valid emotions, because this just leads to more frustration on my part.

The other kind of racism, that I think is so dangerous is the kind of post racial denial that I often find comes from people who would consider themselves to be progressive, ‘left’ and educated. These are the people who say we live in a world where racism is not a thing and if you bring up colour YOU are the racist, because they ‘don’t see colour’. They are likely to support #alllivesmatter ideologies whilst simultaneously decrying the KKK and AFD, because that’s obvious racism that you can’t deny, but anything that is less explicit, they make excuses for. They are problematic to me a, because they only acknowledge overt racisms of the past, but act as if that is not relevant today, they will claim that the police brutality in the USA is nothing to do with the justice system being historically racist, and that poor white Germans receive exactly the same treatment as poor Arabs or black people in Germany. They will come back at an argument about racism with statements about reverse racism and how ‘black people can be racist too’ and always ask bring up the poor white working class, to deflect arguments about economic inequalities that affect black and brown communities disproportionately. I think these people are dangerous and essentially racist (whether they know it or not) because they are essentially content with the status quo which is inherently still unjust and therefore they uphold racism and in a world which has people like Donald Trump emboldening white supremacists and right wing fascist rhetoric spreading like a virus in Europe, that’s very dangerous. This is the most frustrating kind of racism to deal with because it’s insipid and these people often use academic or philosophical arguments to back themselves up. With them I used to get into really heated debates, but it’s often futile and energy consuming because each party is convinced they are infallible in the debate. So now with these kinds of racists who do not know they are racist, I tend to give them my opinion and direct them to articles and texts which explain my point in a way that they may was to listen to. It’s therefore up to them to educate themselves, because I have to preserve my energy sometimes.

Chinwe Nnajiuba (Foto: Valerie-Siba Rousparast)

CfC: Do you consider your work political?

Chinwe Nnajiuba: I am an extremely opinionated and socially politically engaged person, and anyone who follows my personal social media accounts will know that, but as a DJ I don’t want people to feel that they are entitled to my energy or that I must fight certain battles in order to prove that I am a political Black woman. I think my work is political in what I intend to do with my growing platform, but I don’t think it comes across in how I present myself as a DJ.

Having observed people in the creative world who have used their platforms to be very vocally political, I have respect for them, but I think a lot of the time, once they have grown their brand platform, there is a lot of pressure for them to always be politically and socially engaged, to prove that they have an opinion on everything and importantly always be on the right side of the debate. I believe it would be draining and too much pressure to be seen as political with my work all the time, so from a self care perspective I put myself out there as more as a DJ than a political/ social justice force. Especially as a Black woman, most of my social political passion would be based around gender and race. I have seen how people who speak up about these on their platforms, alongside their creative work, definitely grow faster and get more engagement, but alongside that people constantly demand their anger and engagement with all debates related to these issues. It’s like they aren’t allowed to rest and in the world of social media where many people I feel compelled share their views on twitter threads, facebook posts, instagram stories I feel like it can all be too much.

I do intend to use any platform that I build to focus on political and social issues, when I can, but in a way that I would see as more proactive as opposed, based in discourses that are had over and over again. As a woman who djs, in a very much male dominated world, I am not blind to the obstacles that exist for women in this field, so for example I am part of an all female collective called Boko! Boko! and the main reason we came about was to give a platform to female djs who would otherwise not have a chance to get gigs in London. A lot of the people we have had play in the past have been up and coming and in a world where female djs often have to be spectacular or ‘sexy’ to get a start, platforms like Boko! Boko! which take action. are important. So I think being involved with things like Boko! Boko! enables myself and the other girls to be somehow political: we aren’t always vocally political, but we care about equalising this industry, so we are just going on with our business but using our ethics to benefit others.

Additionally as someone of Nigerian origins, I have always been interested in social and political progress in places like Nigeria and other African countries. So sure, I am naturally political and want to use my work to have a positive impact. However as a DJ brand I want to preserve my energy and also draw attention to my craft and be appreciated for that and not just my views, which I think can sometimes be the case, i.e. DJ’s are booked for who they are and their social clout, rather than their talent.

CfC: Thank you for the interview.

29.09.2018—15:49 h—Chinwe Nnajiuba: "I won’t be easily intimidated"