HOUSTON IN 2020: SELF-EMPLOYED BLACK ARTISTS
Since all of these things have happened, like the Black Lives Matter movement centering Black people, and then Covid disproportionately affecting people of color and Black people, I think people are really looking to Black people to see how we’re feeling about certain things or looking to us and, if we as Black artist are creating in this time, then most people looking to us are taking influence in some sort of way. It's really cool to see the ways that this time is affecting the culture.
Photo © Amy C. Evans, 2020
IMANI STEVENS is a native Houstonian. She attended the city's acclaimed Carnegie Vanguard High School and started college at St. John’s University in New York. It was at St. John’s that Imani had her first opportunity to play music for a public audience, working a one-hour time slot at the college radio station and inspiring her to choose radio as a career path.
Imani returned to Houston after her freshman year and took some time off before enrolling at the University of Houston as a media studies major. U of H does not offer a program in radio, so she decided to focus on film and l
and TV, but music was still a personal passion. In her free time, Imani began to create her own playlists, exploring different musical genres and mixes. In 2014, Imani asked for a DJ controller for Christmas so that she could start experimenting at home. In the summer of 2015, she enrolled in a two-week course at Supastar Spin Academy taught by DJs Supastar and Good Grief. They gave Imani a solid deejay foundation, sharing their techniques for blending and mixing sounds.
Imani spent the next few years working as a docent at Project Row Houses and getting in-the-field deejaying experience by working events for friends and family. When she graduated from U of H in December 2018, she finally had the time to pursue deejaying as a real income-generating opportunity.
DJ E$ started to make a name for herself by mixing a combination of R&B, hip hop, house music, and pop culture samples. Her deejay handle came from the signature that she developed in high school: “E$,” which, when said aloud as E-Money, is a phonetic play on her first name. As Imani began to familiarize herself with Houston’s deejay scene, she quickly discovered her niche. Historically, deejaying is a male-dominated art form, and many of the more established deejays have a vinyl-only policy, effectively shutting out younger performers who honed their craft in a digital world. Not only was Imani mixing digitally, but she was also seeing that the city’s LGBTQ community—her community—was sorely underrepresented. She made it her mission to effect change in Houston’s deejay scene.
Since Imani was not a fan of the typical radio-friendly music she heard at clubs and bars, she spent her free time attending parties thrown by local collectives like Open Source and Love Tempo, which expanded the idea of what music in these kinds of alternative environments could sound like. It was within these collectives that she found a sense of belonging, which inspired her to establish a collective of her own.
In 2019, Imani and some friends collaborated to develop Juicebox, “a platform for Black and Brown women, queer, and TGNC DJs.” When Covid-19 shut down the city in March 2020, they were forced to go entirely virtual. Juicebox turned to Instagram Live, offering followers an outlet for sharing and enjoying music when everyone was isolated at home. This experience, as well as curating other virtual DJ events online, built Imani’s confidence and helped hone her craft, but she was left craving connection. And a regular paycheck.
A year into the pandemic, Imani started looking into getting a job in the music industry and landed an internship in publishing. She packed up her controller and moved to Brooklyn, but the publishing world proved to be too hectic. Imani stayed in New York but switched to music licensing, which, as it turns out, is similar to deejaying in that she is helping to expose new artists to larger audiences.
Today, Imani deejays for fun, not to make a living, and she has even mentored a few people in the craft. Imani also continues to support the greater deejaying community, forever inspired by the ingenuity inherent to the artform and how other people express themselves through the creative manipulation of music.
“When you look at the past year, it’s truly insane,” Imani said in her 2021 follow-up interview. “Just all the loss that we’ve had to go through as a nation, as the whole world, it really had me kind of reevaluate my life,” she continued. “Like, you never know how long you’re here, so I’m finding joy in everything. I’m saying ‘yes’ to the things I want to do, ‘no’ to the things that don’t bring me joy.”