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DJ Kopano Talks Musical Curation and Decentering the White Gaze

by Raghav Raj

Staff Writer

[originally published May 9, 2022]


If you’ve been to a show or a house party at Oberlin in the past few months, you’ve probably heard of Kopano. The wildly talented multidisciplinary artist and musician is a dual-degree third-year student at Oberlin College and Conservatory, but they’ve also been performing prolifically for several years as part of their thriving hometown DIY scene in the South Side of Chicago, having opened for abolitionist Angela Davis and previously collaborated with the likes of Omar Apollo, Billy Lemos, and Jamila Woods. As of late, they’ve quickly become one of Oberlin’s most in-demand DJs, playing at Solarity this past December and having recently opened shows for the likes of Joyce Wrice and Kassa Overall at the ‘Sco. On May 7, they’re delivering two back-to-back performances: they’ll be DJing for the African Students Association banquet from 4-7 PM at the Root Room in Carnegie (tickets are $8, link can be found @oberlinasa on Instagram), and their junior recital, Rooted in the Stars, will take place at 7:30 PM in the Birenbaum. In between all this, Kopano graciously agreed to sit down with me to discuss becoming a DJ, community in club spaces, and the ways white institutions approach Black music.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I know this is probably a really entry-level question, but I feel like you’re pretty well established, and I’ve seen you DJing in so many places here at Oberlin. When did you first start DJing?

So I actually started DJing last year.

Wow! Really? No way.

*laughs* Yeah, last year! February 2021.

That’s way more recently than I would’ve expected. Is there any reason you decided to pick up DJing when you did?

See, I have a lot of friends who are DJs — my first roommate was a DJ too — and they would do these virtual sets during COVID. Initially, I was just like “DJing isn't for me, my friends are so good at it,” you know? I'm a musician and I'm gonna focus on what I know. And then one late night, probably 2 or 3AM or some shit, I finally was like “you know what, this sounds fun, and I just want to try it out.” So, I downloaded the Serato application, and I was up for hours just messing around, like “holy shit, I love this.” And I really just got hooked on it.

As someone who has tried and failed at DJing countless times, I know how hard it is to do all that you’re doing, while also trying to keep the crowds entertained, which is something you seem to do pretty effortlessly. How did you figure that out, and in such little time?

Well, I mean, I'm always making playlists. I've always been a curator: I have organized events in Chicago, I’ve done performances, I've been singing for a long time. So I have a very deep musical background, which I think transitions really well to DJing. Like, the music just makes sense to me. I can just hear it in my head. I don't know how, but I can just hear it, and I just feel it. You know? *laughs*

But also, I’ve learned so much from my friends, my friends have taught me a lot. When I get to DJ with my friends — like my friend DJ Sour, or Joaquim, who’s another DJ who does a lot of performances at Oberlin — Sometimes it’s a weekly thing, sometimes it’s once every two weeks, sometimes we DJ together once a month. Whenever it is, we’ll just spend time, get together, and DJ together for two to three hours and just learn from each other. I love DJing because it's so similar to making music — you learn by doing, you learn by experiencing, you learn as part of this community you’re DJing for. And, you know, you kinda just read the room.

What is your setup when it comes to DJing? Do you have a pre-made playlist ready, or are you just going on the fly?

Usually, I'm improvising, just going off the fly. I’ve tried making sets beforehand — I would say the Joyce Wrice concert was the most I’ve prepared for a set — but I usually come up with it on the day of the show. I don't really have a full process; I think I'm still coming into it because I've only been doing this for a year. But something I've been thinking about is how, on the day of the show, artists or songs will pop into my head, and I’m like “oh, this would be a great song to play tonight!” So I just open the Notes app, and make a list of whatever pops into my head. Then I get to the gig early, because I like to warm up in the space, and I’ll just DJ and listen to myself for 30 minutes and take that time to experiment, see what I like, see what my soul is feeling in that moment. Usually that’s what I end up repeating for the night, but if the crowd isn’t rocking with it, I gotta change it up and I can’t just stick to the setlist. That’s why I don’t try to depend on playlists; I usually try to focus on this type of energy that I’m going for, and if I can lean on that, then I stay on that for the set.

I know you’ve only been doing this for a year, but have you DJed for crowds outside Oberlin?

Not really. Previous to coming back to Oberlin — cause I was here for two years, then I left for two years — I had been asked to DJ some events. I said yes, but one event got canceled, and then another event I was no longer in Chicago for. So the only people I was really DJing for were my friends, and I was very much like “I’m not gonna DJ for audiences, that sounds stressful, I don’t want to do it.” My friends, on the other hand, were all like “babes… come on.” *laughs* So yeah, Oberlin is the first place I’ve gotten to DJ for other people, which has been cool and weird, but mostly cool. I’m having a lot of fun!

Okay, honest question: Personally, I feel like it’s hard to ignore that Oberlin, especially as a club space, is really very predominantly white. It’s something that, as a person of color here, I’ve noticed a lot at this school. When you’re DJing, does that aspect factor into your playing?

Absolutely. I mean, I'm not like, “oh, let me play these songs because there are white people here.” I don't center white people in my life, period. Not now, not today, not ever. But it’s one of those things that you’re really able to pick up on quickly. Up until last month, the only place I’d really DJ regularly was at house parties I was doing, either at my crib or my friend’s crib. And those spaces, you know, are invite only — those are my friends, those are the people that rock with me. After the Joyce Wrice show, the people who stayed for my second set after Joyce finished performing, those people had already heard me DJ before, they fuck with me, and those are the people I’m cool with. But during other shows at the ‘Sco, like when Kassa Overall came here, I’ve noticed that my friends were there, but they weren’t dancing the way they usually do, and that’s because of the amount of space that was being taken up by white people. And you know, I will never center white people in my life, but it really does stress me out when my friends aren’t really dancing, because those are the people I’m DJing for.

I get that. It’s interesting that you brought up Kassa Overall’s show at the ‘Sco, which I saw as this enthusiastic celebration of Black music, because I feel like your DJ sets are also, in many ways, a celebration of Black dance music in all its forms — you had crunk jams, Beyonce’s “Formation,” I heard a Boondocks sample at one point. As a student studying at Oberlin’s conservatory, in general, how do you feel about the way the college approaches Black music, especially in proximity to the sort of space that’s taken by whiteness?

At the end of the day, Blackness doesn’t belong in any institution. As long as America is a thing, until we give land back, until we go into indigenization, I don't think there's any way that an institution can properly honor and respect Blackness. Either way, this school is way too damn expensive and way too damn white to even attract Black students who have grown up in the culture of Black music to come here. A big challenge for me has been the discomfort I feel — it’s good to be challenged, it’s good to be uncomfortable, but I think I’d refer to this more as discomfort — within a space like the conservatory, because whiteness is so centered in these institutions. These programs are constrained in a way where Black students are sitting here, knowing that this space is not meant for them, to the point where it seems like the only real understanding of Black music is found in the Africana Studies department. There is no popular music that isn’t in some way centered around Blackness, and I don't understand how you're going to prepare musical students for the world without teaching them about Black music.

I think that consciousness of exclusion is so prevalent, not just in the Conservatory but throughout Oberlin’s academics and the culture of the school, where people of color — but more specifically and to a more significant extent, Black students — have to negotiate with the fact that they’re in an institution that fundamentally views them in the periphery. How do you think that sort of consciousness extends to a space like, say, the ‘Sco or the Cat in the Cream?

Well, when you look at these venues in Oberlin, usually the students working the hardest in these spaces are students of color, you know, of doing the work to utilize school spaces, to bring the artists here that they want to see, to see themselves in these artists. David brought Joyce Wrice here as part of As I Am, Gabe Morales put together Kassa Overall’s show, and my friend Joaquim booked Kush Jones & DJ Swisha, which is really exciting for me. I see people working hard to really utilize these spaces and make sure that they get what they fucking pay for. And so I really just, you know, give so much respect to people who put together these events.

But especially in these sorts of spaces, at a predominantly white institution, it feels like you’re being looked at because the white gaze is so prevalent. It’s one of those things where, like, I’m dancing, but now everyone’s watching me, and suddenly it begins to feel like minstrelsy, like I’m performing for people when I’m just here to enjoy myself and dance with my friends. It’s this feeling of being surveilled, because we really do live in a surveillance state. People are always watching Black people. People are always policing Black people. And people are always looking like “what are they doing over there,” or “are they supposed to be doing that,” like mind your damn business!

I think it’s interesting, especially when it comes to expressing passion in these spaces, where white men get away with this ability to express their emotions however that they want to, and people respect them for it, but I’ve faced backlash for defending myself or defending the spaces I’m trying to curate. Cause when it comes to my parties, I’m curating this space, you know? If you’re like, a fetishist or something, you can’t come into the space. And it’s not like I’m gonna say you can’t bring your friend, or something like “oh you can’t come in, you’re not Black, you can’t come in,” like bitch, who the fuck am I? A fucking vampire? Get in the damn house. *laughs* Like that’s not what it is, that’s not what it is for me, and I hate it when people reduce to that.

What it’s about is asking things like “are you respectful of Black people? Do you love Black people?” Love Black people in the true sense, in that when we express our anger, you're not afraid of us for being upset, you feel me? When I’m curating these spaces that center Blackness, where the predominant people in that space are Black people, if your intention is fetishization or objectification you’re not allowed in my space, because now you’re compromising the safety of the space, and how do I look if I’m curating that space? As long as I have some control over what the space is going to be, I want Black people to have a good time. I’m going to center Blackness first and foremost, because I want to make the space as pleasurable, as joyful, as safe, but as brave as I can possibly make it be.

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