The DJ hates you. The DJ doesn’t want you to come within 50 feet. The DJ regards any attempt at interaction as the moral equivalent of requesting “Baby Got Back” at the after-after-party. Really, there’s nothing more desperate than trying to meet the DJ. The DJ doesn’t want your love or your thanks. Make, at most, one second of unsmiling, ambiguous eye contact with a half-nod, because the DJ’s atria and ventricles pump not blood but some viscous, metalloid substance mined on some frigid asteroid that you’ve never even heard of because you’re way too fucking uncool ever to talk to the DJ.
Granted, that’s hardly a universal axiom of nightlife, but the experience is common enough. So it’s beyond refreshing to hear The Black Madonna play a set at Coachella’s Yuma tent and spin a disco-inflected mix of house and disco that envelops the audience like a hug from the world’s smartest cool-mom. (Currently on a world tour, she’ll be playing Coachella again this weekend, and returning to California in May for Lightning in a Bottle.)
A Kentucky native who’s lived in Chicago and Berlin and now lives in London, she has quickly risen to become not only a much-loved and respected figure on the scene, but a champion for the marginalized people who arguably need music the most. That makes her the antithesis of the cold, unapproachable figure on a dais.
“I definitely connect with people in a way that a lot of DJs go out of their way to avoid,” she tells SF Weekly. “I want to show up for people and drop the curtain between us to some degree.”
A high-school dropout mercilessly bullied for her gender-nonconforming appearance, The Black Madonna took her name from the icons of the Virgin Mary scattered at shrines across Europe. (Her birth name is Marea Stamper.) Having begun by selling mixtapes at raves, she became a darling of Resident Advisor by embracing peaks and valleys over sonic coldness and minimalist noise. She founded the Daphne Festival, dedicated to female artists, and has been clamoring for equity in a scene long dominated by dudes and by people who throw around the word “community” yet charge $45 at the door.
“That’s not a fucking community,” she says. “It’s a show. I do both — I may do huge festivals, I do concerts, I play parties. But I don’t think it’s fair to talk about ‘community’ unless you’re really invested in it. Especially if you care about women or gender non-conforming people being part of the scene, you have to show up for them and not just be in the distance.”
It’s almost as if the “community” has become as meaningless as “all-natural.”
“Yeah, and what does that mean?” she says. “My shit is all-natural. I farted, and it’s all-natural.”
Coachella has changed considerably in a very short time, and tensions of one sort or another arise when you have figures from the cultural underworld cheek-by-jowl with brand activations and assorted barfiness. Subcultures may even shy away from attention because exposure can drastically alter whatever they’ve built for themselves.
“I relate to that,” she says. “Wanting to stay protected. It has been a weird transition for me to play a certain kind of music that was only heard in certain kinds of places — and be allowed to do that on these more massive scales. I think there are always people who are kind of living in both worlds, these amphibious types.
“It’s a tricky situation,” she adds. “I think there’s always a thirst for new things, and the main stage will always be sucking the underground’s milkshake a little, but there’s a way to do that ethically — and use that demand to get other kinds of people paid.”
The 25-year veteran of the club scene is no longer quite the party animal she was, although she admits to a “lost weekend” or two where she put her husband to bed and ran amok. What also surprises people — although her moniker is certainly a clue — is that she’s a practicing Catholic (if a left-wing one). Her grandfather was a theologian who was friends with author C.S. Lewis and the Trappist monk (and fellow Kentuckian) Thomas Merton. He would have loved Pope Francis, she says.
“I grew up in a very theological and philosophical household with my grandparents,” Stamper adds. “I lived with my mom and dad also, but moved back and forth and was brought up very much in the kind of intellectual tradition, very antiwar and anti-poverty.”
In her travels, she’s made pilgrimages to many Black Madonna sites, including a trip with her mother to Montserrat near Barcelona, where they climbed to the top of the abbey to kiss the icon and leave prayers in a small offering room. Stamper is finely attuned to the parallels between a DJ set and a Catholic Mass, too.
“There’s a transfiguration,” she says. “There’s a kind of moment when everyone knows that it happens. … When people ask me what I believe in, the way I explain it is that I’m more or less agnostic in a way, but the practice of Mass reconnects me to my core values about faith and mercy and forgiveness and all of those things, and the Holy Spirit is a nice way of saying that little voice that tells you the right thing to do or the magic that happens on a dance floor when the room comes together and you can’t explain it, but there it is.”
When she’s performing all over the world, the one thing that keeps her connected is a bit more secular: Rachel Maddow. She and her closest friends go online simultaneously every day to watch her show and chat about it, no matter what time zone Stamper may be in. Her husband is “Soviet,” so he’s always cautioning her that however bad the current president may appear to be, it’s almost certainly a thousand times worse — and Maddow’s facility with a whiteboard during the 23-minute A-block of her programming fills Stamper with a sort of holy and stabilizing joy. An avid reader, Stamper has assigned herself the arguably un-DJ-like task of finishing every book by a Maddow guest from the last six months.
“My mom got me a massive Rachel Maddow poster from Library Day where Rachel’s, like, extolling the virtues of libraries,” she says. “I’m obsessed with her. She’s totally my daddy. I love her so much.”