Aisha | DJing in Zanzibar
In story two, meet Zanzibarian DJ and producer Aisha Bakary or Hijab DJ. Her passion for music led her to become the first female DJ in Zanzibar, defying all religious and cultural expectations.
In 2016, Aisha watched TV at home in Stone Town Zanzibar when she saw a female DJ. It excited her because she had never seen a woman playing music before. In Zanzibar, out of 1.3 million residents, 99% are Muslim, and two-thirds are Sunni, who believe the Koran strictly forbids music. Despite this, becoming a DJ was Aisha’s new dream, and she would stop at nothing to achieve it.
Going against the grain
At 16, she contacted St. Thomas Records in Los Angeles to learn how to mix. At the time, they didn’t have any students enrolled in mixing, so instead, she studied and learned music for a month. With no female DJs to set an example for her locally, it was difficult for Aisha to break in. All along the way, she experienced challenges from all directions — her family, religion and society. “I can’t even finish speaking of it all,” Aisha said. “They believe it’s not good. You are a woman. You should choose something else to do.”
“My family never appreciates me even till now. They didn’t support me. They never support me." With no family support, she’s been on this journey alone. Even though she wears a hijab when performing, her mom still doesn’t believe in it. But Aisha doesn’t feel that’s her burden to bear. She knows what she’s doing, and she’d rather follow her dream.
Becoming the “Hijab DJ”
So why does Aisha love DJing so much? “I have an energy feeling. I should have to make them happy to understand my music.” For Aisha, music is something that goes inside and has the power to transport you somewhere else. Through music, she can move people anywhere, past all the limitations, past the present moment, and somewhere new, “I want to take the people from here to there, just like that.”
Listening to music gives her a power she doesn’t feel otherwise. “Even if I have some stress in my head, I’m listening to music. Without music, life is not complete enough.” In a practical sense, music fills up space in a way that people can’t do on their own. “People aren’t funny. People want to listen to something else instead of talking.”
“Sometimes I’m feeling so nervous because of the crowd. I don’t know how they’ll take me.”
Sometimes she feels excited, sometimes nervous. It’s hard for her to know how the crowd will respond to having a female DJ. But once she’s standing with her controller, mixing music, she’s in her element.
Building a following online
With the help of the internet and social media, Aisha has reached influencer status with nearly 90K followers on Instagram. Social media is a place where, as the Hijab DJ, she can share her work, build connections, and get a lot of positive comments. “Every day, I got a lot of connection. I got a lot of good comments. I got a lot of bad comments. So, I see people pushing me down. I see people push me up.”
Instagram has helped Aisha connect with musicians from all over the world. It’s also a place to see other women share their skills and talents. Which inspires Aisha to keep sharing her life and continue creating because she knows she’s inspiring other women to do the same.
“As a DJ, I need to be connected. We choose to connect with people because we are human. So you could be alone. But connecting. It’s something that can live forever.”
Remixing people’s minds
For Aisha and millions of other talented people in Africa, it’s hard to build your following or find support. “We have a dream. But no capital here, no money, no nothing. Sometimes you want to do it, but you can’t do it because of your family. They say Africa needs a change.”
Through the internet and social media, Aisha’s found a platform where more people can discover her work, including WomenFuture, who awarded Aisha Woman of the Year Award in 2019 for her accomplishments in Zanzibar’s music scene. Now that Aisha’s part of a larger community of women and musicians, she hopes that maybe one day, “We can change the minds of people.”
“Sharing helps people understand each other. Muslim, not Muslim, Africa. America. So not to say, oh, you are Zanzibari. Is not our culture for women to DJ [sic]. We’re not talking about culture. We’re talking about people.”
Sharing her music is about the future too, “It’s important to share my work because I can’t live forever. And when I’m dying. I’m dying with my knowledge. If you have the knowledge you get more when you share.”
DJing isn’t about mixing or scratching
When it comes down to it, DJing is about your skills with people. To mix a good set, you have to know who you’re playing music for and when. “So you should learn the mind of the crowds before mixing”. Music goes with the time of day and mood. You can’t play club music during a sunset, according to Aisha. So to be a good DJ, you have to know when you’re playing and what your audience likes.
“I’m feeling so proud. We are people; We are human. We love each other. I’m feeling so good to be a DJ. The world should understand we have a dream.”
For Aisha, music is a feeling. It has the transportive power to take you from one place to another. And when passion moves you, no culture, person, religion, or geography can stop you from achieving your dreams.
Watch Aisha DJing in Zanzibar in our new documentary series, The Power of Connection. To keep up with Aisha, follow her Instagram, Hijab DJ, or book her for your next gig in Zanzibar at [email protected].