DJ Shannen SP
Reflecting on her experiences from across the full spectrum of the industry, DJ, curator and Nine Nights co-founder Shannen SP discusses the diasporic experience, the anxiety of artistry and the future of UK dance music.
In conversation, Shannen and I sit through multiple pauses. Not because our interview was awkward in any way, but rather she is diligent with her words. She often says, “I don’t know if I want to speak on that because I can’t speak for everyone.” Shannen implements this same level of care into everything she does.
Shannen’s modesty contributes to her endearing nature. She was reluctant to gloat about her achievements and became shy when talking me through her artistic accomplishments, an unusual characteristic for one of the most talented and key players in the London underground dance music scene.
“I want to just say I'm an artist because I do a range of things and I'm always interested to engage with new creative practices, and it feels simpler to explain it that way, but it gets complicated sometimes. People get weird when DJs say that they’re artists.” Honestly, artistry is the only fitting description for her multifaceted craft. Her musical endeavours always tell a story, intersecting many areas of dance music with a clear diasporic narrative running throughout. When I comment on the way in which all her work evokes such purpose and meaning, she tells me, “I actually really want to do some projects that are just fun.” Being someone who engages in politically charged discourse can be somewhat weighty when this level of activism becomes expected of you in everything you do. “I don’t feel like anyone expects it from me or that anyone would be mad if I just did something completely self-indulgent,” she shrugs it off.
“I know so many other Black creatives that are super outspoken and really pushing for things to change. I think as a whole, for Black creatives, there’s always that expectation. It’s something that we put on ourselves but it’s also something that is fetishized in arts and music institutions.”
When she first came to London to study at Goldsmiths she worked with Tim & Barry TV and Just Jam. Following this, Shannen quickly developed a successful career as a DJ, championing her NTS residency and many creative endeavours with cult label Hyperdub. She worked (and DJed) alongside Kode9, co-curating the Ø series at Corsica Studios, which she describes as an “experiment in clubbing.”
Last year, Shannen co-founded the Nine Nights collective, the collective was formed amidst the pandemic and widespread protests following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Shannen tragically lost two family members to COVID-19 and was disturbed by how disproportionately it was affecting Black and minority groups. She tells me that at that time “it felt like the music industry was at a complete standstill and that was the opportunity to not go back to normal.” The profits from Nine Nights’ livestreams go to several Black charities, “the purpose of the livestreams was to raise money for Black charities, but they were also just to try and offer some hope and uplift other Black creatives during a really bleak time.”
Like much of Shannen’s own work, the concept of Nine Nights sits at the intersection of technological experimentation and Afrofuturism. The collective’s current exhibition, Channel B, on display at the ICA is a sonic exploration of Black identities. The exhibition features five ‘stages’ of interactive video and sound installations, Shannen’s own piece is called Zen Projects LTD. The installation is centred around themes of wellness, on top of the reflective silver floor in the room sit massage chairs and a sound system. The viewers are provided with SubPacs to wear whilst watching wellness focussed films by artists of colour like Scratchclart, Kumbirai Makumbe, Evan Ifekoye and more. The installation mocks the many wellness trends that exist within contemporary capitalism and invites the audience to question these. “It’s so often that Black work is about pain and trauma and then viewing it evokes that. So yeah, we tried to do something that was a bit more rooted in the future and the past.”
Raised in Hong Kong, Shannen came to England when she was nine years old and arriving here was the first time she had set foot in Europe. Shannen’s Afro-centric music style, then, was born in her family home. Living in East Asia, far from their roots, her parents brought her up with the sounds of kwaito and South African house music. She has fond memories of sharing music with her family in Johannesburg, “as a kid I was exposed to that, their music taste definitely helped to shape mine.” These influences are so evident in her sound and well-curated tracklists that often consist of music emerging from the continent of Africa. “It definitely became important to me to explore contemporary sounds coming out of South Africa and Zimbabwe, and it’s been a real pleasure to me in my music journey to explore that. In a way it made me feel connected in some sense, being a diasporic person.”
When Shannen came to the UK with her mother, they moved to a small village outside of Leeds. “It’s your experiences that inform your creative practice to an extent, growing up in Yorkshire was very difficult for me, I faced a lot of racism and stuff at school. It was kind of the first time I had that sense of understanding that I was different and that I was Black, you know. It influenced the work I do now, especially my work with Nine Nights.” Whilst many people of colour being raised in British small towns recount incidents of overt and unconscious prejudice, there are always pockets of light to be uncovered in the Black experience. Shannen would spend time at SubDub and Exodus nights at the West Indian Centre in Leeds, encounters she claims contributed to her discovery of electronic music. “It opened my eyes to different kinds of Black art.”
The post-2020 landscape has seen an abundance of initiatives attempting to rectify the state of the music sphere. Though, the age-old debate remains, is the industry succeeding in changing the narrative for good? “At a grassroots level in the underground of dance music, yes. I’m not saying it’s enough but I’m saying I can definitely see people trying. When you get to the business techno realm, absolutely not.” Venerating collectives like Daytimers and Eastern Margins, Shannen states the importance of “being able to go to a club and play to people who look like you and understand some of the cultural relevance to what you are playing.”
In the mainstream, there is still a serious amount of work to be done, however, marginalised people are beginning to reoccupy space. Creatives like Shannen SP are paving the way toward an industry that nurtures and celebrates diversity, and more specifically here, Black excellence.