Introducing VAJ.Power - Diversity in Dubstep #8

Introducing VAJ.Power

Diversity in Dubstep #8

It’s been an interesting month or so since the last Diversity in Dubstep post here on FatKidOnFire. It feels like a lot has happened since the dialogue with Canada’s Mandala Ataksak (well worth a read if you’ve not yet) – a lot that proves we as a community, society and species have a huge amount of work still to do to achieve parity or equality between gender, race, sexuality and more.

Today’s addition to the DiD series is the first (as far as I can work out) non-binary artist I’ve featured in the 11+ years of FKOF being a thing. I am delighted to be able to showcase Sof’s work across art, music, spaces and more – as you’ll discover in the pretty lengthy dialogue I had with them recently – and I hope this is the first of many to follow on the site.

So a huge thank you to VAJ.Power for giving me the time, and for taking time out of their schedule to record a pretty fire mix to accompany the words. Over to you, Sof!

Hey Sof, how’s it going? How’s life in Glasgow at the minute? Hiya Wil, I’m okay yeah, thank you! Excited about the news of ‘stay home’ to change to ‘stay local’ soon – this past lockdown been a tough one for me.

I’m not sure where to really start; it seems simpler to list what you don’t do than what you do! DJ, multi-disciplinary artist, VJ, event promoter, radio show host, manager. How would you introduce yourself and your many talents?! Haha that’s a pretty hard question to be honest! I’m not sure how it’s happened that I am doing so much at the same time, but I think my main focus is on organising/ running/ creating spaces. I see DJing and visuals through the same optics – as the elements that contribute to how the spaces (clubs, for example) are experienced by the audience. I guess it’s some kind of a curatorial ‘project’ approach to everything, but recently I’ve been enjoying doing some visual work just for the sake of it, without a solid concept or purpose in mind, which is quite refreshing. I tend to overthink things a bit haha so I feel it’s a good exercise for me to get out of my head.

At the start: how did you get into music (of any genre) in the first place? I was actually speaking about it with my friend the other day, interestingly, I wasn’t surrounded by music and it wasn’t really a part of my childhood, as I hear often from other people. In fact, I was known for the lack of ‘musical talent’, and I just kind of accepted it. I was mostly focusing on photography and drawing throughout my teens, while listening to Radiohead, Bjork and fist Arctic Monkey’s album (lol).

But while I was studying in Art School, I got so fed up with art world as an institution (very upper-middle class white cis man playing field tbf), and me and my friend Faolan started VAJ.Power as a means of doing visual work outside of the ‘white cube’ setting. That’s how I got into VJing and animation. I started getting into music properly in 2016, and my entry point was actually PC Music – it was a fresh genre and I had never heard anything like this before. Then, Kami-O played our first night back in 2016 and it was him actually who got me into everything 140bpm related. Then, I think it must have been the end of 2017 when I played my first DJ gig, and then I realised that I really enjoy it! But I definitely find it quite ironic that I am a part of a music scene – I’ve never been into music that much before, didn’t have any background whatsoever. But it was great to discover it properly in these last 5 years.

What was your journey into electronic music, and the dubstep sound? What was the first 140 tune you heard that got you into the genre? As I mentioned, it was Kami-O who introduced me to all things 140, I remember that he sent me Toka’s remix of Magnetic Rose as a grime example to get me into it (smart haha), and then after I realised I’d like to take DJing seriously I’ve just dived into IDs from sets of different DJs to build my collection from scratch. Then my friend with whom we started VAJ.Power discovered Mala’s Alicia and that was when we started researching and listening to dubstep in particular. I think Glasgow’s very techno-orientated scene played its part, and the 140/bass scene was so radically different to techno nights, that was what really attracted me. The vibe was just sooo different to an average Glasgow’s night out!

Also, funnily enough, I was diving into my old iPod recently and remembered that (without realising what the genre was) I used to listen to James Blake’s tracks from dubstep times – This Is The Real Blues in particular. It’s quite amazing to discover that 11/12 years ago (when I was 15/16) that I was listening to dubstep in Russia without having any idea what it was, while the genre was blossoming in the UK.

Your interests seem to align along the music/ technology themes. Talk us through FUSE and how it all came about. When we started doing visuals, we quickly discovered that most venues were not equipped at all to have them as a part of a night. A projector in the venue was a luxury. So we started FUSE as an attempt to create a space where we can exhibit our work. Our first night had an exhibition with student works that were based around the themes of technology. We then started running workshops to try to get people into VJing and ask them if they want to do wee VJ sets at FUSE. 3D animation/VJing field is heavily cis male and intimidating, so our idea was to create a space where people, particularly of marginalised genders, could give it a go in a non-judgemental environment. Software looks extremely complicated at the first glance and we wanted to show that you don’t have to know it inside-out to do something that looks beautiful, and that there is no right way of using it.

But on top of this, we really wanted to explore a club as community space, as a creative space. Of course, the music industry is a massive institution, but it felt more free and less stuck up than the majority art spaces I’ve experienced, especially as a queer immigrant. So it was sort of a rebellion against the very ‘post-modernist white man world’, and felt much more genuine and expressive. In the long run, clubs have helped me embrace my queerness, and within art institutions I felt stifled.

What’s the Glasgow scene like (or what was it like, pre-pandemic) and which local producers/ DJs are you rating at the moment? Everyone on FUSE’s roster is sick! I’d really encourage promoters and radio show hosts to check it out, cos everyone is so talented and professional (Glasgow-based artists being DIJA, Maveen, Kleft and Plantainchipps; Nova Scotia The Truth is from Edinburgh, but an essential part of Glasgow’s scene). But aside from that, Kami-O, who is my good friend, I love his style a lot – his productions are so nuanced and somehow almost gentle. I also think TAAHLIAH is great, – I really love her single Brave and her remixes are super fun; can’t wait to play her WAP remix when the clubs are open. I’ve also discovered KAVARI through Tahliah’s project Transversal – she’s so good! My friend Kyalo is also amazing – he does live AV performances.

Glasgow’s bass scene is very small, but it really bursts with talent, despite being very underground. I am incredibly honoured to be a part of it, and hope that it gets the recognition it deserves!

Who would you book for the first post-lockdown FUSE dance?! I have actually booked my first post-lockdown FUSE for the end of September – I’m not going to say just yet who I have booked for it, but I think it is going to be super fun. I had the idea of that line up since summer 2020, it will be very high energy, dancey and upbeat and involve some iconic b2bs.

Talk us through the mix you’ve put together. It’s got a bunch of wicked material inside! I’ve got to be honest – I felt quite nervous putting the mix together. I don’t have many tracks sent to me, and I had this preconception that I am going to be judged on how many ‘exclusives’ I’d got, and it’s not a reflection of the platform at all, but more of the whole industry. A woman/femme or trans person has to be fucking brilliant/extraordinary all of the time, while a cis guy can afford to just be. If I, as a non-binary AFAB (assigned female at birth) person fuck up – it truly can be the end of my career.

You can just look at Boiler Room comments, I feel people go extra hard on women, while with men – they accept mistakes as something that just happens sometimes. I’ve seen men in the industry being super patronising or nasty to women while not batting an eye when their pal forgets his bars at a gig or clangs while doing a set; or even be supportive (which is healthy! I just wish it wasn’t so selective). Femme, GNC and trans people have to work extra hard, and we put sooo much pressure on ourselves to constantly be perfect. Imposter syndrome is very real and affects so many people of marginalised genders.

But yeah, back to the mix… haha! I’ve had a very nice time diving through bandcamp Friday threads, my own collection, and also my Russian friends (who you are no stranger to) have sent me some absolute bangers that I was very excited to play. I am so happy to see the Russian/post-Soviet bass scene blooming now, especially as someone who is a part of the UK scene but from Russia originally, it’s like seeing two worlds collide and intersect. So great!

What’s your process for putting a (live or pre-recorded) set together? What sort of vibe would you say you go for? It really depends, but I think there are several things at play in my decision making. First, I get quite easily bored, so I like switching things up quite a bit. For this mix in particular, I wanted to focus on dubstep, but I couldn’t not include other genres, as that’s what my DJing is about I think. I feel after 4 years, it’s only in lockdown that I properly found my style, as I had more time to sit down and really figure out what I like, without having the pressure of playing to live audience at a club. I started mixing tunes that previously I’d be nervous to mix due to their structure. This year I feel I upped my DJ skills and got more comfortable with mixing tracks that are more on a experimental side, and overall became much more open minded about my selection.

We’re a few weeks after the Sarah Everard story broke here in the UK, with seemingly a lot of focus as a result on making a conscious effort to create safe spaces for (basically anyone) non-male. At the same time, I’ve noticed a recent trend in the 140 community calling out labels for bad behaviour/ taking advantage of artists. But it struck me no one’s yet flagged the lack of diversity across most of our genre. What do you think we can do better, to make our space more diverse/ inclusive? [TW: sexual assault, discussion of misogyny, transphobia and racism]

Yes, on top of Sarah’s story in the broader context of AFAB, femme and trans people risking their lives just by going outside, 2020/2021 saw/ has seen a lot of people speaking up about sexual abuse, harassment, and racism they endured within music industry (there were very important conversations had before as well, of course, but it feels recently it’s been more widely heard by media outlets). It’s a very big problem. But it stems from the bottom line of treating people of marginalised experience as lesser. The overt misogyny, racism and transphobia is a tip of the iceberg – this violence that is condemned by the majority is rooted in biases that are deeply engrained in the society, in our brains. It’s not enough to not sexually harass or not use racial slurs, this is just the most BARE minimum that should be out of the question all together.

I need cis men to hold each other accountable behind closed doors, take this burden off our shoulders. Sometimes we are simply tired. Sometimes our safety depends on it. Sometimes we are scared speaking up will harm our careers, careers that are already hard to navigate as a queer people/women/trans.

The recent situation with Hatcha’s stream is very telling… While I genuinely rate people who are on that line up, I can’t help but get tired of seeing no progress has been made. Why did all those men not flag up that there are no women or GNC folk on there? It’s such a boys club, and it makes me super upset ‘cos I naively thought we are past this. So I am going back to what I said before – I need men to hold each other accountable for this, to have these conversations, to drop out if the change hasn’t been made.

Another point, that has been made by my friend Francis, who runs different events in Edinburgh and Glasgow, that I find extremely important:

“…Access is not just about a diverse group of people being physically present at a night. It’s about what happens when they’re there, whether individuals can actually access and experience the content of an event. Yes, people can physically be in a space together but certain people have more power, take up more space and can greatly influence what the space is being used for. Nobody explicitly says, ‘this is a white space, or this is a men’s space,’ it just is, implicitly.”

It’s not enough to throw in a woman or two on the lineup so you are not called out or to look good; it’s the real embracement of the marginalised person’s voice that counts. I’ve been a ‘token femme’ many times, and it feels dehumanising as hell.

I read a Mixmag interview with you that talked about how FUSE (and the work you do elsewhere) tries to create better, more inclusive relationships in the bass music community. How’s that going, and what can we do to support those initiatives? I think it’s going well! I am super proud of each and every artist I work with; and also as a manager of Nova Scotia The Truth, I am so delighted for her (she won a Scottish Album of the Year award in 2020). Glasgow-based DIJA, Maveen, Plantainchipps and Kleft, who are on my roster, are absolutely amazing as well and I can’t wait to see what 2021/22 has in store for them. I also look after EU/UK side of things for Keyzuz and 2.Centavos, who are based in the US – when things are ‘back to normal’ in terms of borders and clubs, I am excited to work on their tours.

The whole idea of the agency came about when we realised, as artists ourselves, that it really helps when there is a person who represents your interests and is able to negotiate the terms. It gives a sense of security, and allows to focus on your craft rather than worrying about logistics. I think it’s a massive weight off one’s shoulders when someone is there to organise those things.

The problem I find within the UK bass scene, is that it’s really London-centric. I really hope that in the future promoters and publications will broaden their horizons, especially in a post-pandemic world, and support artists from other cities.

Bristol and Manchester are already on the map for them, with Birmingham also being quite prominent; so I don’t see a reason why Glasgow shouldn’t be on that level also. So I’d encourage promoters to really research what’s happening in other cities.

How’s Glasgow for inclusivity in bass music (and more broadly)? Like everywhere, it has a lot of work to do on the institutional and personal level. The majority of bass nights are still very male and white. Not to mention, the bass scene in Glasgow is super small as well. But there are people who work so hard on making the wider scene safer, – a collective called Miss World, for example (however, they are based in Edinburgh, along with Club Sylkie), Anwuli Sound, Jaiva, Club Dzo, Shoot Your Shot, Radio Buena Vida, Clyde Built Radio, Subcity Radio, A Cut Above night, Shakara, Puissance, Transversal, Pop Mutations and the venues associated with it (Stereo, Mono, The Flying Duck), actually the list is quite long and it gives me a lot of hope!

What’s your ‘usual’ (ignoring the current pandemic/ lockdown) day like; how does everything fit together? To be fair, apart from not seeing friends and not running nights, my routine hasn’t changed that much. Recently though, I have been struggling a lot with having healthy relationship with work, so at the moment I am trying to figure out how to make it all more sustainable and not burn out. But I usually do all the admin/agency/management work first thing, and then move onto more long-term tasks. Everything DJ-related usually happens in the evening, like collecting music or recording mixes. But yeah, recently I have been trying to figure out my boundaries, that first and foremost I should not cross myself, and it’s definitely a journey. In this sense lockdown has been a blessing in disguise, as I have some time to sit down and figure out what I want my day to look like.

You’ve recently done some design work for the likes of Sicaria Sound and FKOF fam Kami-O. What role does design play in your relationship with 140, and do you have any tips for anyone looking to get more into that side of things? Coming from a visual arts background, fine art in particular, doing visuals for musicians is a perfect blend of my interests. I also have synaesthesia, where I see music as colours (quite fun!), so working in the visual field gives me an opportunity to express that.

Who are your heroes? Every trans person is my hero. To just live despite the world rejecting, hating and killing us, – that takes immense strength.

Any genre, but who would you say your favourite musician is? What makes a good producer/ DJ/ artist for you? Ahhh that’s a hard one. But let’s go with Björk. Her music played such a big part in my life. In terms of what makes a good artist for me, I’d say, authenticity and being genuine.

Outside of music, what makes you happy? My friends and (+chosen) family, I’d say. It’s amazing to feel a part of a community and have people around who support and love you, no matter what. With time, I started to realise that those relationships are the most valuable part of life.

If you could give yourself some tips or advice about getting into music/ ‘the industry’ looking back since you started, what would you tell yourself? I’d say, don’t be afraid of standing your ground, and if something feels off – speak up or don’t engage at all. Know your worth, and NEVER work for free; and I don’t mean solely in terms of money. If there is no money involved, the work you do and the creative process should fill you up, not leave you drained and tired. Know that there are people who appreciate what you are doing, and appreciate you for you. Don’t get caught up in someone else’s shit; it’s not about you. And a bonus, don’t drink more than 4 pints on a night, you’ll feel shite afterwards. And always, ALWAYS, have a back up USB cos it will save you a lot of nerves.

Where can people find you online – and any final words or shout outs? I am most active on my IG, so you can find me there @vaj.power, but also via the list of all my social media below <3

Click to DOWNLOAD (85MB)

Track list:

  1. Charla Green – Outbreak [Peachy Sounds]
  2. Ninety – I Wish [Dread or Dead]
  3. Sicaria Sound – Midnight Strike (Kosem’s Revenge) [Cutcross]
  4. Crowley & Meddem – Underwater [Locus Sound]
  5. q100 x PTF1987 – Underdog [Bass372]
  6. Berrik – Pressure [SUB Garden]
  7. DPRTNDRP – Faya Blazin [Infernal Sounds]
  8. Oddkut – Dead Place [forthcoming United Gang]
  9. Kami-O – Jashore [forthcoming KAM002]
  10. Bengal Sound – Black Jacket [bandcamp]
  11. Crowley – Grump [Basskruit]
  12. Die By The Sword – All Shall Perish [Defy Culture]
  13. Shromik – Le Marque [Bass372]
  14. JV & Paif – Nyx (KRSLD remix) [Panel]
  15. Casement – Sophie Riddim VIP [bandcamp]
  16. Koala – Energia [Ruffhouse Industries]
  17. OSSX – DON’T CARE, DIDN’T ASK [Physically Sick 3]
  18. FOR. – Proactive [Exiles]
  19. BE3K – Thick (Young Luxenberg remix) [bandcamp]
  20. Distant Roots & Hotcut – Wall Shaking [Forthcoming Bassweight Moscow]
  21. Fork and Knife – Pebbledash [bandcamp]
  22. Walton – GSV1 [bandcamp]
  23. Casement – One Leg (Casement remix) [bandcamp]
  24. Oddkut – The Rotten [dub]
  25. Glume & Phossa – Opal [Crucial Recordings]
  26. Keyzuz – Reparations [Background Noise]
  27. Tik&Borrow – Bogus [Simply Deep]
  28. Slowie & Komposa – Trust Nobody (Unkey remix) [Durkle Disco]
  29. Oddkut – Hiding Rage [dub]
  30. Sicaria Sound – Lour [Cutcross]
  31. Cimm – Endless Sky [Sentry Records]
  32. Ninety – Hunt [dub]
  33. Kami-O – Bose [forthcoming KAM002]
  34. Dutchie – Changes [bandcamp]
  35. Lara ft. Sutty – Common Sense [Peachy Sounds]

Art by Sof
Video by ventanavisuals
Headshot by Khadija Moustafa

ICYMI the broadcast, Sof was also the debut guest on my first show on Bristol’s SWU.FM, which felt like the right way to mark the FKOF Sessions show moving to a legit-proper, FM dial radio station. Check the show here, and check it moving forward: every last Sunday of the month, 3-5pm UK time.

Share your thoughts on our chat with Sof via the footer below or get in touch with FKOF via email or Twitter.