On the Rise: YASMEENAH
Reg Zehner | April 7th, 2023
On the Rise is an interview series aimed at exposing DJs, party series and collectives in the Midwest and beyond that are molding the next generation of electronic music in their local scenes. In this interview we head over to Minneapolis, Minnesota to speak with YASMEENAH, a DJ and multidisciplinary artist, who is building across genre, BPMs and geography.
The first time I ‘met’ YASMEENAH was actually in 2021 through her Verge.fm show, UNBOTHERED. The show was a hour slot filled with DJs and friends close to Yasmeenah, that I felt expressed a great appreciation of dance music and fun. I enjoyed her mixes and the intentional curation a lot, but it wasn’t until I met Yasmeenah (at Dweller in 2022 nonetheless) that I truly felt how special of a person she is.
I felt connected to Yasmeenah after having various conversations with her in-person and URL, whether it was about the Midwest, her upbringing in Columbus, community building in dance music, or her music influences in the present moment. Not only that, but Yasmeenah radiants care that oftentimes isn’t seen in many people, which is why I felt compelled to uplift her work and her story for this first VRRG On the Rise. -Reg
Reg: So before we get into any of the interview questions, I just kind of want to offer a space for you to explain who you are, your work and currently how you’re showing up today.
Yasmeenah: I am a first generation Somali American DJ arts and cultural organizer, multidisciplinary artist and pleasure activist. I am a woman of many things brought up in the Midwest between Columbus and Minneapolis. Yeah, I’m just showing up, like, good and excited!
Reg: That’s great! And I’m glad that you’re feeling well, especially in this climate of uncertainty. And also continuing the question: how has your past couple of days been like?
Yasmeenah: Yeah, you know, because it’s Ramadan right now. And for Ramadan, I decided that I was going to take a break because a few weeks prior, I was going through promotion fatigue, and just with promotion fatigue, I am chronically online, trying to promote my gigs, but also keep up with what’s happening. And I just was feeling really tired of it. So I was like, okay, during Ramadan, I’m gonna take a break, because, you know, I’m thankful to do the gigs and throw the parties I’ve been throwing, but I also really value rest.
So, yeah, I think these past few weeks have been super hectic for me. So now I’m just able to really sit and take a second, reflect, and be thankful for what I’ve been able to do so far but also having the good health to do it, whether that’s mentally, physically or both.
Reg: Yeah, I think resting is important, especially since health is wealth. And as we [as a society] are going through multiple pandemics, I think taking care of ourselves is as important as taking care of your community. I do appreciate the way you center yourself in your practice, and showing up for yourself. Now focusing on your practice as a DJ, what is your origin story? What was your journey into DJing?
Yasmeenah: My DJ origin story starts with being a freshman in college and feeling like I’ve always known that my relationship to music felt much more passionate and deep than those around me. It started enjoying nightlife spaces around 12-13 with going to teen night at roller skating rinks and then as I got older, I started going to hookah bars, and then from there clubs, house parties. During those parties, or settings I would constantly study the way the music is moving the environment, and then watch how the DJs were controlling the crowd. I started to just become obsessed.
And when I was 14 or 15, I was looking up on YouTube the history of DJing. And learning about Kool Herc, and how what he did evolved into where we’re at now [musically]. And I was like, “You know what, I love music. I’ve been collecting it for some time so let me start DJing.”
But yeah, my real origin story started when I was in college. And I was like, I’m depressed. I hate school. I don’t want to do this anymore. I think I really need to just honor my truth and pursue DJing so at the time, I was a barista. I remember saving up my paycheck until finally I bought myself a DDJ-SB2. And then I was playing around on it for a few months. Mind you, I knew no DJs personally.
And then I got booked to play at two different parties. And I remember the day, it was May 21st, 2016. Which is crazy. Because I call that basically my ‘DJ anniversary’. And I literally have a photo that I made my friend take a photo of me in front of my mom’s house in my office. I was like, “Oh my God, I feel cute. I’m about to go DJ.”
I remember it was a graduation party for my homegirl, she was graduating from college. And then the other one, my home girl Hafsa’s mom was in Somalia so Hafsa and their siblings decided to throw a rager in their mom’s basement. It’s funny, like, I had opened up at Hafsa’s party and people were loving my vibe. I was getting the biggest high and I wasn’t really mixing the best, but the music was bumping and and people were rocking with it so hard. And then I had to go to the graduation party. When I went to the graduation party though, the demographic was different. So when I started DJing, they hated my music. They were like, “What the fuck is this?” That was really a humbling experience.
Reg: OMG, that is definitely a humbling experience. So, from there, how did you become ‘YASMEENAH’?
Yasmeenah: Okay, so, you know, originally, I wanted my DJ name to be the Baati Babe, right? Because so Baati is a cultural dress that we wear at home or like, you know, just when we’re doing casual stuff, and then there’s like an elevated version of a Baati where it’s like, it’s called the Diraac. It’s usually what I wear on Eid. So Baatis are what I wear, just chillin’ at home or if I’m going out to the park or something. And so I was like, Baati Babe could be really cute. But then I was like, “You know what? I’m like, YASMEENAH.” I feel like the name YASMEENAH is gonna pull people in more than Baati Babe. Visually the name starts with the ‘Y’ and it has hella syllables. And yeah, I just love this name. And also with the name YASMEENAH I think it makes people curious. It’s like, okay, “Is this person Black? Isthis person Arab? Like, what is the origin? Who is this person?” You know, I liked Baati Babe, I felt the name could easily just slip into the cracks.
Reg: Wow, that’s interesting knowing you could’ve been a completely different DJ name! So from your start as a DJ and leading into your organizing in Minneapolis, can you expand into some of the organizing you’ve done in your city?
Yasmeenah: After I started DJing, I started to just try and practice more. Eventually what really kicked it off a few months later was when I started going to this underground rave. It was this after hours queer space deadass in the middle of a really popular Somali neighborhood called Cedar Riverside. It was led by a bunch of different queer and trans members of the community. And my friend at the time had put me on to it. I came there and I love the vibe. Then I started to DJ there, and when I was DJing there, people were just embracing me and loving with me so hard. So I was like, okay, cool. And then from that, the space kind of just led me into meeting more people and getting more gigs. The space was called the Mothership. I loved it so much. It was a donation base, and that was one of the first spaces where I actually saw the whole, like, okay, we’re charging white people more, we’re also going to make sure that, you know, queer and Trans Black POC people are safe in here. They used to do clothing drives, and you know, folks used to take different shifts to work at the door, work at the bar, and I was like, wow, I had never seen something like that, you know?
Mothership really just opened up a lot for me and my queer identity and what that means and what that looks like. Because I think DJing in that space made me realize being queer is more than just sexuality. It’s you know, ethics, it’s morals. And I felt like in a lot of ways I was learning that there. And you know, it wasn’t a perfect place. I’m not gonna sit here and romanticize it. It had its issue like every community space does, but it was definitely the space that I feel like for me as a DJ to be affirmed.
So then I kind of got tied into this DJ collective that was focusing on women and the LGBTQI+ community that wanted to get into DJing. I became really close with the person who started it. I went from being a student to then being a teacher to them, supporting and coordinating the entire program. I wasn’t really as focused on getting myself out there, I was more like, “No, I need to teach more people because there needs to be more of us.”
And then eventually, I just had a falling out with the person and it led me out of [the project]. And then I was like, Okay, I really, like have spent, like, the first few years of my DJing trying to teach other people how to DJ when I still actually needed a lot of help. Then I was like..okay, now, I need to get my skills up and start playing more gigs by myself. At that point, I was just taking any gigs that I would get. I was playing, you know, hip hop parties, a lot of hip hop parties, I wasn’t really playing with the underground dance scene yet.
Reg: So, then that led to UNBOTEHRED.PLS right?
Yasmeenah: Yes. So in 2019 I’m like, “All right, I’m starting on Unbothered y’all. I am going to be brave, and just start this party and create the world that I want to see.” And since starting Unbothered, it’s been a beautiful and hard journey. I’ve just learned so much, right? Because I remember even the first time I did Unbothered. I did it at this one venue because I really loved the way that it looked. I love that the DJ booth was way up and you couldn’t really get to it unless you were playing in it. I loved that they had gogo poles. I loved that they had booths so that people could sit near the big dance floor. I was like, “Oh my god, this is the kind of club where I said I want to DJ.” But then the venue that I was working with were actually terrible people! They ripped me off for my first party.
After that situation, I was just constantly learning the ropes of the business, having very little guidance to what that is, you know, and then the pandemic hit. That’s when I started to, because I was in the organizing world as well, DJ a lot of the protests that were happening around the city.
Reg: That’s cool you provided support to your local orgs in that way! And going back to Unbothered, how do you about the party series currently as you’re expanding the project?
Yasmeenah: It’s my child! Yeah, I mean, I feel so happy about Unbothered. I feel like it’s my love letter to nightlife culture and what it’s given to me, and I think it’s just like a love letter that’ll keep being written. It’s going to be a lot of pages. And, you know, I think I’m just at a point now with Unbothered where if I want it to continue to being what it is, I really need to find and cultivate a solid group of people to support making it happen, you know, and keeping the space afloat, people who are committed to that vision.
Reg: How do you see the Midwest as a connector in the work that you do? You know, since we’re both Midwest baddies and to me, the Midwest is such a foundation for the work I do and resonate with, I’m always trying to put together people like a puzzle. How do you see your work in the Midwest? Or how does the Midwest fit into your work terms of DJing and expanding nightlife scenes you reside in?
Yasmeenah: You know, I think it’s because [of the] self starter energy in the Midwest. From time to time I think, in the Midwest, things that have been built here have been so, so grassroots. I don’t even know if that’s the proper word, but I feel because the Midwest is DIY culture at its finest, you have to make your own to make it anywhere. And like, I’ve been able to pick up different things from the places that I’ve gone to, too. Mainly because I’m a first gen-Somali American (even though I grew up in the Midwest) I had the benefit of being able to travel the world due to my family being so spread apart. But I don’t know…something about Midwest culture to me has always felt extremely authentic, and very, very familiar. You know, people talk about southern hospitality, but I think that there’s a thing like Midwestern hospitality.
And you know, the music is definitely rooted in that, like hearing ghetto house and footwork at places like the roller rink. I mean, it did something to me. Even going to basement parties in Columbus in my neighborhood and seeing the older kids doing hip rolling stuff to Pleasure P and early Drake. I was always so moved by that, right? And with that, what I’ve learned from organizers in the Midwest is that it’s better to build with those who are closer to you, than to build with those who are just trying to chase something away from where they’re at. To me it made more sense to stay and support those who are here, while also making room for those international relationships. But because we’re close to each other, we’re all off of I-94. Yo, like we are literally I-94 baddies! Yeah, we share this interstate. Yeah, and to me, just studying the culture, and movements, I knew that if I wanted to see the things that I want to see here, it makes sense to tap into my neighbors and support what they have going on, make sure that ecosystem is strong.
Reg: Not going to break up the conversation, and it’s going to be some of the lighter questions because we’re nearing the end. But starting with the first couple, what advice would you give to up-and-coming DJs starting out as a DJ or organizer in their own cities?
Yasmeenah: This is great! First things first: I would say do your research and specifically do your research about the music that you like, and the history of it. I think if you want to be a part of a scene and a culture, not doing the actual work to dedicate time into that research is a disservice. You have to do your research.
My second advice would be to be clear about the type of professional boundaries that you have when you are DJing. Because I think just because you’re a bit of a beginner DJ doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries. Honor those boundaries and make it clear what type of DJ that you are, you know, so people know how to approach you. And also be clear on how to engage with your work, that mysterious crap is not going to help nobody. You know, be clear about who you are as a DJ and what you expect out of the environments that you play in and the people who are interested in working with you.
But the third one I would say is just…you know, understand that being in the nightlife world, you will have different relationships with people. You can have trusted music friends, but you also have your trusted day ones who have known you outside of just being a DJ. Make sure you understand that there’s a difference between that and that there are levels to the different types of relationships that we have in this industry. You can still respect and support and have love for people in this industry without needing them to be your best friend. Yeah, I think those would be my main three.
Reg: Yeah, those. That’s great. I definitely think I will give it to some folks I know who are starting out and I think it’ll get them on track. And talking about tracks and stuff, what are some of your favorite sets that you’ve played as a DJ?
Yasmeenah: Recently, I played this set at House Proud. House Proud is a house music party that’s existed in the Twin Cities for like, 11 years now. And I played the party and it was my first time also playing in public off of shrooms, which was a very euphoric experience. I had such a fun time sharing because I got to explore the different types of house [music] styles that I liked. I remember I started off with an Afro house track and then I went into some Chicago throwbacks, but then I also played some older New York stuff too, like some Jersey Baltimore club. I really enjoyed playing that set and there were just a bunch of OGs in the building and the energy was just so lively and full in that room and yeah, I had a blast playing that and then another set that I recently enjoyed was the last Unbothered.
Yasmeenah: I had a lot of fun with that, because for the last Unbothered I had my friend MC during my set, and it was just super sexy. And like, cool! I’ll have to send you some videos of that. I think with my DJ practice now I want to explore more sets where I have an emcee with me because I’ve noticed this thing where in dance spaces they don’t really like having an MCs. But I’ve always loved MCs parties. I think they’re funny. And I think they have a good way of keeping the energy flow. But yeah, so definitely my House Proud set. And then the last Unbothered [was also one of my favorite sets].
Beautiful! So I'm also going to have some dreams so you can share as much as you want to. What are some dreams you have for yourself as a DJ and/or as an organizer?
I think one of the dreams I have is to collaborate with other DJs and cultural workers to create some type of nightlife framework that could be valuable to people now and in the future? Yeah, it would be really dope to do something like that, especially around the basis of establishing a DJ ecosystem. What does that look like? How do you navigate that? I don't know.
Yeah, I would love to create some type of intellectual thing that people can reference and look to and build on, and you know, make it better. As a DJ, I really, one of my dreams is to just get more opportunities for mixing live music with DJing. I really would love to DJ with like…an orchestra or something, you know, like doing some wild or like a string ensemble would be really cool. And I also really want to create some type of DJ program back home in Somalia, where I could get different DJ friends to come out for a few weeks and teach the youth how to DJ about DJ culture, and then be able to support these kids throwing their own parties and stuff.
That is so cool and hopefully one day they can all happen! I love the collective building and creating more accessible ways people can have access to DJing/music. Now with my last question, how can people keep up with the work that you’re doing that you’re currently doing?
One of my goals this year, though, is to create a website where I can just share more in depth about the work that I’m doing just because I just feel that Instagram doesn’t capture the importance enough. It just feels like instant gratification. Rather than let’s really sit with this work. Can we sit with my thoughts? Can I share how I’m feeling and it actually be received? So I’m really excited to have a website that’s really actually dedicated to just showcasing all of my work and then more context on who, what, where, when and why. So definitely, folks be on the lookout for that!