"I may wear a flowery frock and seem unassuming, but I got a box of killer 45s so watch out!"
This group of women are (as far as we can tell) the first ever all-female reggae selector collective in the UK, playing ska, rocksteady, reggae, revival, roots and early digital reggae from the 80s and 90s at their 100% vinyl nights in South London. They’re also in their 20s – 50s, juggling kids and day jobs.
Lucky Cat Zoë, Dubplate Pearl, Miss Feelgood, Naoko the Rock, Debbie G and Sweetie came together when Zoë decided to gather together an all-female team. The Sisters put on their first club night in South London hotspot Peckham last year, and have just branched out into Brixton.
“Why wait around to be asked – do it yourself,” says Zoë. “I also think it’s important to encourage other girls and women to try DJing too. I love it when I’m playing and I look up from the decks and see girls right there at the front giving me a thumbs up – I hope I encourage others to give it a try if they are passionate about the music.”
For all the Sisters, reggae’s always been a part of life. Naoko The Rock – who lives in South East London but is originally from Tokyo – was part of DJ crews back in Japan 20 years ago. Debbie G caught the reggae bug when she saw Bob Marley and the Wailers at university during their 1973 Catch a Fire tour – their first in the UK. “I became totally immersed in it in the blues, shebeens [drinking dens hosting late night blues dances] and sound system parties in Manchester in the 70s, and got to know local musicians,” she remembers.
Debbie’s been in music since then, DJing at events and on radio, but has never been part of a DJ collective until now. “I love working and playing together with women,” she says. “There is a special vibe, women's music making is central to my music life. I think it’s vital to bring women forward, so much talent and vibrancy is overlooked in the very male dominated music business world we find ourselves in – which is a loss both for women in the business and the business itself.”
Being an all-female group is important to Dubplate Pearl too, who followed London sound systems closely back in the late 70s and 80s. It was a scene open to female fans but she says that it was closed off to women wanting to get beyond the dance floor. Dubplate says that what the Sisters are doing is important, both in terms of changing these attitudes – “The reggae music industry is predominantly male orientated and it's about time female DJs get their own recognition, considering that we also buy and have been buying this genre of music for years,” – but also because of the different sound produced by specifically female selectors working together.
Miss Feelgood (who has a soul and reggae show on Sound Fusion Radio and has been DJing for about 15 years) agrees that the crew creates a different atmosphere to other selectors. “Growing up I never saw female DJs, so it never occurred to me that l could or would be able to play my records out in public. Being part of a female collective is quite liberating and fun; there is a special vibe. It feels very supportive.
“When I’m invited to do guest slots it's usually with three or four male DJs. Rarely, if ever, other female DJs, so being part of a female collective is quite special. I’ve lost count of the amount of times people have said to me, ‘You don't look like a DJ’ – what do DJs ‘look’ like?”
Debbie G has had a similar experience, and holds the same view that the Sisters’ work is unique because of the all-female set up. “It’s rare that women are put centre stage as DJs,” she says. “It’s very important for women to be seen in the forefront of our music field and to show how well women work together…and that we women are very capable technically too, and can select, run decks, mics and promotions with great flair and skill.”
She says that things are changing slowly though, and that it’s a privilege to be a part of that change: “It was excellent to see women prominent, however scarcely, on panels at recent reggae related exhibitions and symposia and I think through the growth of our Collective we can ensure that this is normal, not a rarity. Also I often play a lot of women's tunes in sequences – which male DJs rarely do – bringing women's music forward. I think there is more generosity in that way with women DJs.” Sweetie, from Finsbury Park and works in events, adds: “Just recently a sister friend of ours has built her own sound system - CAYA.”
Miss Feelgood agrees that their work is already making a difference, in part due to their gender, but also their diversity of ages: “People often come up say how nice it is to see women on the decks, and as we are all different ages, hopefully it inspires women of all ages.”
Zoë agrees, and admits it can be fun to challenge people’s assumptions: “I also get the 'you don't look like a DJ' thing but an element of surprise can be good – never judge a book by its cover. I may wear a flowery frock and seem unassuming, but I got a box of killer 45s so watch out!
"I love it when I’m playing and I look up from the decks and see girls right there at the front giving me a thumbs up"
She says that it’s not all smooth sailing in the reggae scene though, with venues closing down and socio-political tensions running high. But the music – especially reggae – can be a positive force. “I think reggae is sometimes looked down on, and there’s a racist element to that which is total crap,” she says. “If you're talking about roots and revives, ska and rocksteady – that’s some of the most positive, uplifting and joyful music ever to be made! We need more of that, especially in these tumultuous political times.
“We’re fighting evil and bringing good reggae vibes to all – One Love is the message.” Does this mean we’ll soon be seeing a new generation of fierce female selectors? If the Sisters of Reggae have anything to do with it, there’ll be no stopping them.