Black Madonna: “The world is crazy; it feels like it’s on fire at the moment.”
Until 2016, The Black Madonna was just a Catholic medieval icon: depictions of Mother Mary that had become black through centuries of paint degradation. Now it’s a household name, and Marea Stamper is one of the most famous and influential DJs in the world.
Her humble beginnings in Kentucky, USA, have given her the confidence to make her sets and We Still Believe parties some of the most ambitious around. But this staunchness didn’t take long to find a new home once TBM had found her feet. During a Smirnoff campaign to connect and support women DJs in Uganda, Stamper found herself embroiled in the queer refugee crisis, and is now leading the charge in activism for LGBTQ+ rights.
Our nightlife editor, Leo Burrell, called Marea at her London flat ahead of a headline set at No Bounds Festival to discuss what we can do to help in the fight against religious and sexual persecution, facing up to what she calls a “Kafka-esque spiral with the US Government under the control of Donald Trump.”
Can you tell us how you first started getting involved in activism?
So, the way it specifically came about is that I started to meet people who were at various stages of their journey into potentially becoming refugees, seeking asylum, or people who were already doing so. I travel so much now that these people and concepts went from being abstract to being people in my daily life. It changed my relationship with that topic in a very real way. I began to look for ways to be able to make material contributions and it started very simple, I bought a “Choose Love” t-shirt made by the organisation Help Refugees off ASOS. I ended up becoming an ambassador for them; I wanted to use my resources to help them, and I made a pledge that 100% of my merch sales would go to them.
And how does your work towards fighting for LGBTQ+ rights fit into that?
I work with a group that is attached to them called Say It Loud which serves queer refugees, who are among the most endangered people on the planet. Take everything that refugees go through and then multiply it by the additional challenges you face as a queer person. You find out very quickly when you get into this world that being queer is a huge factor in becoming a refugee in the first place. When Trump was having his panic attack about the caravan coming from South America, some of the first people to reach the border were loads of trans people and people who were fleeing religious persecution for their identity. He thinks it’s about loads of gangsters, when really it’s just a caravan full of queer people. You see that over and over again. This is a specific problem that needs a specific solution and that is where I come in.
You mention a specific solution, can you picture that yet?
Absolutely. This is a simple one, well, part of it is simple. People need money. And they need to be able to decide what to do with it. One of the ways of thinking that people need to lose as soon as possible – and I will speak directly to other white people here – is the idea that we must micro-manage the money that we give to other people who are in dangerous political situations, enduring great poverty, or being forced into migration. We do not need to help people spend their money, we just need to give them it. Every study we have shows that people know what to do with their money. So for me that was really essential, my commitment to other human beings on this earth who are in this situation is to just raise the money and get out the way.
Right, because it slows down the whole process when you have to work out where it’s going?
It’s also just wrong. You’re denying that people have the agency and the knowhow to drive their own liberation and I strongly believe that people know what they need, we just need to give it to them.
My friend works with homeless charities and they have the same problem there, the public don’t want to give money to people in the street because they want to know what they’re spending it on. But that’s a denial of a human right; you should have the choice to spend the money where you wish.
Right, and they might need to stay high long enough to get to a doctor. You know? These are complicated issues and we do not need to be the nanny of people who are in need. That enforces a structure that I don’t want to have any part in propping up.
What was it that first made you realise you could make a difference?
I was involved in a campaign with Smirnoff that connected me with women DJs in Uganda to share technique and I came face to face with some of the issues that refugees are struggling against. Without naming any names, there are people who are being displaced in Uganda due to anti-homosexuality laws.
“One of the things that the Ugandan press do is find stuff and print people’s names. It’s literally called the “Top 100 Homos” list.”
Some of the activism you’re involved in is so current that we can’t even talk about it.
That’s it, as it would put people in hiding and in immediate danger of jail and worse. One of the things that the Ugandan press do is find stuff and print people’s names. It’s literally called the “Top 100 Homos” list.
It was music that brought you to these people; I wonder how you see music in that world, and how it transcends across borders and laws. Your podcast is reaching across the world and people are commenting on your Facebook posts saying: “We still believe. We love what you’re doing, and we need your help!” Is the fact that you’re a DJ spreading your message wider than if you were just a political activist?
I wouldn’t say that. I’m not a professional. Activists have a whole different skill set to anything I can really even wrap my head around. The boots on the ground activism is on another level and requires a kind of persistence, dedication and technique that is way outside of my skill set. Pretty much the only thing I have is money and a big microphone. (laughs) And a big mouth. But there’s value in those things too, and I’m trying to use them as best as I can.
You’re in the process of creating a magazine for Help Refugees. What’s the aim there? Is that the direction you’re going in with your activism?
The aim is to gather some of the voices of people that I’ve been working with into one place. People have been asking how to get involved and I wanted to put it all into one spot so that people would be able to follow the narrative a little more clearly. It’s in the same way that I’m explaining to you how things have unfolded, and how a boring 40-year-old house DJ ends up trying to make sure that people don’t get killed by fascist dictatorships. It’s kind of an unusual trajectory, I want people to know that anyone can get involved. One thing that a lot of people struggle with right now is that the world is crazy; it feels like it’s on fire at the moment – and, I mean, it literally is. But everyone can serve. I saw a really interesting diagram – where the thing that you’re passionate about in your personal life meets a thing that needs doing, and that’s where you can begin.
It seems like you’re trying to channel the optimistic energy in dance music into a place where people can contribute in a way that they feel positive about, and party there instead of somewhere else that doesn’t make a difference.
Yeah! I mean, hey, every party doesn’t have to be a political event. (laughs) And when you come to my show you’re gonna feel the same things that you feel at anywhere else, which is that hopefully the music moves you, and your friends are there. All those things about dance music that we love. But there is an additional component of it, one that for me personally is the cost of being a person on this earth. I can do it, so I am doing it.
What Lo Shea is trying to do with No Bounds Festival – empowering people from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds to make music and raise their own expectations, either through success within the industry or just through the process of doing it – do you see much connection there with what you’re doing?
Oh, absolutely. It’s really a special thing, the lineup is phenomenal. What I love and that we have in common is that this is an event that is asking questions, and has a point of view. There has to be a balance between art and activism, so that it can be something that you can just stumble into without being into any of those ideas. No one has to agree with me to come to We Still Believe. I have a very specific point of view and I’m not mad at you if you don’t share it. If you’re just coming to sweat, hear songs you love and find somebody to go home and fuck then by all means, I’m so glad you’re here too. If dance music becomes this totally didactic thing then that’s really boring, so I welcome anybody that’s coming to have a good time and be nice to the people around them. That in itself in this day and age is good enough for me.
There are also a lot of people who are going for the workshops and educational elements; they’re trying to break down the boundaries between the people who can afford the production and DJ gear and the people who can’t and make it more accessible, which is what you were trying to do with Smirnoff in Uganda, right?
I think that’s one of the biggest problems that we have in a growing and changing landscape in dance music: the point of entry can be so expensive. That is something that cannot be talked about enough and it’s really admirable that it’s a focus of this event.
“If you’re just coming to sweat, hear songs you love and find somebody to go home and fuck then by all means, I’m so glad you’re here too.”
Who would you recommend catching at No Bounds?
rRoxymore is amazing, someone that I know and been an insane admirer of for years. I met her when I first went to Berlin, saw a DJ set and was just completely blown away. Aurora Halal is someone I have a long relationship with, her live PA is just incredible. Courtesy, too, and I’m a huge Black Dog fan.
So you’re a Black Dog fan, but does anything else tie you with Sheffield?
Warp Records was incredibly important for me. When I was 16 I saw Aphex Twin in the States, Warp was really the god tier. If you’d asked me at the time where it was from I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but obviously now I realise how big it was, with Nightmares on Wax and LFO etc. And then there’s the bass stuff, the first music I played as a DJ was bassline and 2-step.
When you were in Chicago?
No, I was still in Kentucky. Isn’t that weird?
And there’s your connection with our ex-lord mayor Magid Magid. How did that happen?
Well I was on the phone and there was this guy staring at me and I couldn’t work out why, but then I realised it’s ‘cos I love him! He came over and thanked me for the support on the t-shirts, I love the “Donald Trump is a Wasteman” one, and I’ve got the “Jesus was a Refugee” one too – my super-liberal Catholic friends really love that one. I’m trying to get an interview with Magid into the Help Refugees magazine.
So what does “We Still Believe” mean? What do you still believe?
I think it’s one of those things you come up with, and work out what it means later, you know? (laughs) I don’t wanna invest too much poetry in it. It was originally on the back of a box that I stuck on a wall at a rave. It wasn’t too deep and it still isn’t. In a time where things feel very transient and sometimes a little bit hopeless the statement has a scaleable quality. Part of what dance music is about is answering people’s hopes and fears in ways that are general and open enough that the message works for you. You hear a record like ‘Keep Pushin’ – “Keep pushin’ on, things are gonna get better, it won’t take long.” What does that mean for anyone? Does it mean your nursing job? Does it mean a bad semester at uni? Getting out of a violent relationship? Political activism? It means all of those things.