In Conversation With South African DJ And Producer DESIREE

An eclectic musician, producer and activist for the rights of the queer community, the South African producer is off on a tour across Europe in the Summer of 2023.

by Claudia Galal - Published on 23/06/2023
Desiree. COURTESY the artist

From the township of Ivory Park, Johannesburg, South African DJ and producer DESIREE has become a popular name in Europe, from where she is preparing to tour the world. Always a fan of electronic music, she managed to find her own musical identity by mixing the synthetic sounds of house and techno with the rhythmic and percussive elements of her South African heritage. Her mixes and DJ sets move sinuously between different genres and styles: electro, house, techno, afrobeats, kwaito, gqom, amapiano. Always finding inspiration in the moment, her distinctive touch, selection and aura define the creative energy that she is appreciated for.

In recent years, the South African music and cultural industry has exploded, demonstrating an exciting vitality and range. “South Africa’s music scene is a reflection of our complex history and heritage, resulting in a dynamic and constantly evolving artistic landscape that is uniquely our own,” Desiree says. “Growing up in South Africa during the new Millennium was an incredibly diverse and enriching experience, as I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a wide array of music. I think the rich tapestry of cultures, languages, and traditions that coexist within our country aren’t readily apparent from the outside. There is so much more to experience musically if you seek it out and anyone who’s been to South Africa can attest to the fact that it’s full of surprises.”

Before discovering a passion for music and embarking on a career in the arts, DESIREE had other paths in mind and was attending the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “I studied politics, economics and fashion. My dream was to be a diplomat of some sort. I always knew I wanted to travel for work and experience and learn from different cultures. I’m doing that now but in a different and more fun way. Alternatively, I would have pursued a career in fashion. I’ve always had a love for fashion, and it played a significant role in my early exploration of music. Fashion and music are intertwined for me, and I find inspiration in both art forms.”

In 2018, something changed. Desiree reveals that in that year she realized that music was her way when she started Djing. She discovered the transformative power of the dance floor and as she delved deeper into the world of music, collecting records and sharing them with friends, she felt drawn to create and curate soundscapes that could ignite the dance floors and connect with people on a profound level. Yet DESIREE’s musical taste in her teenage years was not defined by electronic and dance music at all: “Thom Yorke was one of my music idols when I was a teenager,” she confesses. “His work with Radiohead and his side project, Atoms For Peace, resonated deeply with me and influenced my musical tastes. His ability to push boundaries and create emotive music inspired me to explore different genres and experiment with blending styles.”

Today, her musical influences and references are numerous and heterogeneous, but they all have in common the ability to transform and are very experimental: “I consider a wide range of artists and genres as references for the music I make. From the rhythmic and soulful sounds of South Africa to the innovative production techniques of electronic music pioneers and the experimental nature of alternative rock, I draw inspiration from artists like Chronical Deep, Culoe de Song, Nick Cave, Bicep and many others.  Their ability to create unique sonic experiences and push the boundaries of genres  inspires me to continually evolve my sound.”

Inspiration comes in many ways and in many forms, even unexpected ones, especially for someone as open and curious as DESIREE: “I find inspiration to make and play music from various sources. From my personal experiences, emotions, cultural heritage, and the energy of the dance floor itself. Exploring different cultures, traveling, and immersing myself in diverse musical traditions also play a significant role in shaping my creative process.”

Travelling is a central experience in the artistic creation of DESIREE, who in recent years has experienced new musical phenomena around the world, but has also become more aware of the role that the African scene is carving out for itself. “The African music scene is incredibly vibrant, and it’s exciting to witness its growing importance on a global scale. One of the most interesting musical phenomena to me is the fusion of folkloric African music traditions with electronic music, creating a unique blend that celebrates the rich cultural heritage of the continent while embracing modern influences. Artists like Desire Marea, for me, are at the forefront of this.”

Last year, DESIREE (pronounced: Dez Ir Ray) toured the iconic venues of European club culture – London, Ibiza, Berlin – and this summer she is due for another international tour. As in a ritual, her mission is to make people dance: her DJ sets compel movement, the exchange of energy.

“Dance and club culture represent freedom, unity, and liberation for me. It’s a space where people can come together, regardless of their background, and connect through music and movement. The dance floor allows us to transcend boundaries, express ourselves authentically, and experience a collective sense of joy and release. It’s a powerful form of cultural expression and a celebration of the human spirit.”

That is why she sometimes considers her job as a DJ and producer as something magical, a fortune: ” I really enjoy the privilege of introducing people from all over the world to African sonic soundscapes. There’s no better feeling than to see a floor which had no clue about your music moving and enjoying themselves.” Fortunately, the downsides are few. “The loneliness of being on the road and not interacting with your loved ones really sucks. If I could avoid that, I would.”

DESIREE is not only a powerful and fascinating artist, she is also an activist who takes a stand and stands up for minorities, unafraid to come to the fore and claim the right to be herself. “I believe artists have a responsibility to use their platform to convey important messages and advocate for social change. Art has the ability to challenge perspectives, provoke thought, and inspire action. By addressing social and political issues, artists can contribute to the dialogue, promote inclusivity, and create spaces that foster understanding and empathy. It’s important to use our voices to support marginalized communities and strive for a more equitable and inclusive society.”

The very enviroment of music itself, imagined and defined as a free and happy world where all people have the opportunity to express themselves, continues to be permeated with prejudices and barriers. ” It’s no secret that women and minorities often face significant barriers when trying to make headway in the music industry. I think these issues are well documented and that we should turn our attention to those in positions of institutional power and demand that they take action. Ask them these questions. Personally, I face a unique set of challenges as a black intersex African woman and touring musician. I’d love to see more nuanced conversations about obstacles that different groups face. For example, black American or British DJs may not face the same challenges that I do getting visas, or accessing certain spaces.”

Despite these difficulties, DESIREE’s agenda is quite full for the coming months. “My plans include releasing more music, including an EP on my own imprint, which I’m incredibly excited about. I also have a few remixes in the works. I can’t wait to hit the stage and play more shows, as well as explore every corner of the world that I have the opportunity to visit. See itinerary here.

Visit Desiree.

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Claudia Galal
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Half Italian, half Egyptian, I was born in Marche, I lived in Bologna fora while, and I’ve been adopted by Milan. I work in the field of communication and media. I write about music, street art, counter-cultures and I’m deeply fascinated by cultural contamination at any level.