THE BLACK MADONNA
Marea Vierge-Noire has worked under a lot of names. Some you might know, and some you almost certainly never will
But it’s this one, The Black Madonna, that’s got everyone talking lately. Fully enveloped in this dance music thing since the early 90s, where she spent time deep in the Midwestern rave scene, she’s been pushing her Hi-NRG take on house and disco for a number of years and built up quite the cult following along the way. It wasn’t until 2012, however, with the release of her debut 12″ on Home Taping and especially the YouTube-sampling We Don’t Need No Music (Thank You Rahaan) that her gospel began to spread worldwide.
2013 was even more impressive, as she took on the role of talent buyer for Chicago’s prestigious Smart Bar, where she was, and continues to be, one of the core residents. She also also ventured overseas for the first time, playing venues in Israel and Germany (including the Holy Grail that is Berghain/Panorama Bar). The near future looks just as bright for Vierge-Noire, with the launch of her as-yet-unnamed label and demand for her DJ sets increasing exponentially. And now she’s back on this side of the Atlantic for her debut UK show at Dance Tunnel on the 28 March. We were lucky enough to grab her for a quick chat to talk Chicago, patriarchy, and the vital importance of the resident DJ. As you’ll no doubt realise, The Black Madonna knows her shit.
Firstly we’d like to ask about the current state of the Chicago scene. From our vantage point over here it’s hard to get a real idea of the vitality of a city’s musical climate. Are there any particular artists making their mark in the city at the moment?
Chicago is experiencing a bit of a renaissance right now. One of our most popular events in the city, Hugo Ball, is a dadaist, punk techno party. They’ve hit Smart Bar’s capacity with just their residents (Nathan Drew Larsen, Justin Long, Sevron, Samone, Marlon Montez). Our synth scene is also great. There you have people like Beau Wanzer. And then of course you have the thriving disco scene, which you don’t see in most of the clubs. It’s more of an underground thing. There you have Rahaan of course, Jamie 3:26. But that’s nothing new. Chicago never gave up on disco and it will never give up on house. July 4th weekend we have The Chosen Few House Music Reunion picnic. That’s 50,000 people getting down to Mike Dunn on a Saturday afternoon and barbecuing. It’s always there in Chicago if you’re willing to go get it. Chicago is forever.
From the outside looking in, Chicago is a thriving and successful city, whereas the issues faced by Detroit over the years are well documented. Do you feel the prosperity of Chicago has had an effect on the music that it produces?
Which part of Chicago are we calling prosperous? Chicago’s very prosperous if we can pretend that half of it doesn’t exist. Ten of our neighborhoods have poverty rates of 40% or more. So we’re prosperous as long as Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park, Oakland, Fuller Park, Burnside, south Riverdale, West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, and the west side of North Lawndale aren’t Chicago. The majority of those neighborhoods aren’t even just poor, they’re in extreme poverty. That means 1 out of 5 people lives more than 50 percent below the poverty line. What does that mean? Extreme poverty would be like a mom with 2 kids making $10,000 a year in a city where rent is $800 a month in the very cheapest apartment.
None of that is to say that Chicago is like Detroit. There’s nothing like Detroit. Detroiters are best at speaking for themselves, so I won’t describe their experience. But in Chicago we have zones of prosperity and poverty that are pretty clearly demarcated in some ways, but which also fail all the time. And that’s definitely what you hear in Chicago dance music, both now and throughout our history: the failure of boundaries, economic, sexual, racial. I’m trying to keep those boundaries failing at Smart Bar. We don’t have a dress code. We don’t have a bunch of bottle service going on all the time. The room isn’t fancy. We encourage sexually and ethnically mixed crowds. I want everyone to come here, just as they are no matter where they’re from. That’s where the good stuff happens.
You recently took over as Creative Director of Smart Bar, where you’ve been a resident for a number of years. How have you found it so far, and what do you feel you’ve been able to bring to the table?
I was the assistant to the former CD, before I took the job. So I knew what was coming and I knew what I wanted to do it differently. It was scary to get handed a dynasty that was almost as old as me. I didn’t sleep the first month because I was so scared I’d forget someone at the airport. And then of course as soon as I got the job that was the moment that I started to really put out records and tour in the way that I’d tried to do for a decade. I got my first Euro booking the day after I accepted the job. But it works for me because, while I love touring, I’m not one of those people that wants to live on an airplane. This is a perfect compromise. I’m 36. I’m married. I go to bed at 10:30 most nights. I also absolutely could not do my job without my assistant, Jason Garden, who is also our resident, Olin, our amazing owner/visionary leader Joe Shanahan, Lenny Lacson (our terrific and supportive bar manager) and the whole crew of residents and staff. I love coming to work each morning. They’ll have to pry this job out of my cold, dead hands.
The cultivation of the Smart Bar Residents programme is something that seems very important to you and the club. In an era of line-ups stacked with headline DJs, do you feel the role of the resident is something worth investing in?
Absolutely. Our residents are some of the very best DJs in the world, whether they’re famous yet or not. It’s my job to advocate them, contextualize them and give them the tools and stage to construct their vision of dance music. I have a dozen DJ bosses and it’s my job to serve them to the degree that I can to get them where they’re going. When I chose the residents, I chose them because they were not only incredible performers, but also decent, thoughtful, kind, sensitive to larger ideas in dance music. I chose people that would affirm all kinds of people in dance music and make good allies for each other. So far so good. You know we’ve been open for 30 years, so it’s time for us to really start thinking about resident culture, I think.
What were your motivations for starting the new label? I’m sure you’re aware of the proliferation of labels popping up all over the place with nothing to say and nothing to add. How do you feel the label will make its mark?
Well, I can say that it will be personal in the way that the Argot record was, but maybe even a little more. One of the things I love about someone like Moodymann is the way that personal, emotional, political and party all coexist, the way they do in real life. He doesn’t back away from his life or the spot he’s in. I won’t ever be as good as he is at anything, but I can die trying.
You used to sell mixtapes at raves in the 90s. Do you feel cassettes are seen as more of a novelty than a necessity these days, or does the format still have relevance beyond its worth as an object?
Cassettes are still big in the noise scene and experimental techno world, where I do think the sound of the tape, the saturation and the hiss add audio component that suits the overall sound. They’re definitely novelty for many people though. Very few people even own cassette players at this point. I can relate to the fetishism though.
The Harry Klein club in Munich recently announced that it would be dedicating its March schedule exclusively to female DJs, to highlight the under-representation of women within the dance music community. How do you perceive the issue of under-representation and what else do you think you can be done to close the gap?
It’s interesting because other clubs seem to have such a hard time booking women, as if we’re in some vast desert filled with only male talent. That’s insane to me, festivals with 100 person lineups, 4 of which are women. Give me a break. You know, it’s like Saturday Night Live saying, “Oh! We don’t have any black women on the show because we just never happened to see any funny black women anywhere! Nope, not one!” And of course this is what patriarchy really is, isn’t it? It’s not some big plot most of the time. It’s a lot of decent men, who just haven’t even thought about the issue consciously, who are just going about their business, booking within their peer groups, which are coincidentally also men. They’ve never thought about what it’s like to learn and work in an industry where almost no one looks like you. I recently looked over my bookings and since the beginning of the year we’ve hovered at around 30-40 percent women on our lineups and I never even think about it. I never think, “Oh let’s find a woman for this.” I see women as options because I am a woman and my peers, who are awesome, are often women. For what it’s worth, I am proud of Harry Klein and we will be emulating them next year at Smart Bar.
You’re heading to the UK for the first time next month. Will you be approaching your set any differently to playing in the US or Europe? Do the histories of these places influence how you pack your record bag?
The only place I’ve been in Europe is Germany. Actually, Panorama was the first show I ever had booked there and when I got the booking I didn’t even have a passport. It was so scary! Before I went to play there my German friends advised me not to adjust for what I imagined the German crowd to be like. So I did not adjust. I hopped off the plane with two suitcases full of disco, house, hiNRG and soul and I played just like I would in a shitty Chicago warehouse. I am not so good at adjusting, so I think I will just sound like me when I get there and hope that everyone likes it Chicago style!
– – – – – – – – – – – –
The Black Madonna plays Dance Tunnel on the 28th March. More info here.
Words: Steve Dores
Photo: Tasya Menaker