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Re-Mixing DJ Gender Ratios: How Maggie Tra Gets Women on the Decks

In Hanoi’s male-dominated music industry, Maggie Tra offers an oasis for females.

Tra works particularly with Vietnamese women, but also other women of color and those who identify as non-binary. Her unique introduction to DJing is made only for them, and thus allows complete freedom with creativity and playfulness.

More than just a workshop, SYS (Stimulate Your Soul) Sister Sounds aims to create a safe, judgment-free space where women can take the first steps together into an unfamiliar environment which, according to Tra, makes everything easier and more cooperative. The workshops, she says, are part of a movement that’s just beginning in Asia.

“I'm not inspiring. I'm just honest,” says 31-year-old Tra, founder of SYS Sister Sounds. The organization is dedicated to empowering women in music industries all around the world. Brussels, London, Sydney and Berlin have been playgrounds for this hip-hop DJ, artist, radio host and writer, and now she’s back in Vietnam to pursue one mission: to get more Vietnamese, women of color and non-binary people behind the decks.

We are on the rooftop of Kobala, where the view stretches out over West Lake. It’s Sunday and two girls have come to the workshop, eager to learn how to mix. This is the second edition of the ‘Pho the Girls’ workshop, which offers an introduction to DJing. “For me, DJing is like cooking”, says newcomer Linh, as she pretends to dash salt and pepper into a mixer. This is the first time she has ever tried something like this.

One USB, three tracks and an open mind are all Tra asks for from those wishing to take part. “You just have to really put yourself out there,” she says before revising the basics of playing tunes. Yet there is something particular about her speech; she constantly refers to shadow and pain as a source of empowerment.

Why not?

Some question Tra for running activities exclusively for local women or non-binary people. When asked, she simply responds, “Why not? Men get to do anything anyway. Not that it is directed to them or for them, it's just that they dominate the space. We don’t get to see enough women behind the decks or playing music.”

Her main objective is to create a supportive network between females, from businesswomen, musicians and producers to DJs. She assures me that for men, this is nothing new: “I think deep down, guys know that we need to create a more welcoming room for all of us. Because they know each other, they support each other, but 90% of them are men.”

A safe space

With Cambodian ancestry, Tra is familiar with the challenge of being creative and open in Asian culture. This becomes more pronounced if you’re a woman – there’s still a heavy social stigma against girls who work in clubs, bars or the entertainment industry.

“My mom now accepts my lifestyle but it was a difficult path, even though I was born and raised in Australia,” she explains, before adding that this is the main reason she came to Vietnam. “I’d have wanted a space like this for myself if I grew up here”.

We can hear soul beats on the rooftop. One of the students plays freely with the mixer as Tra underlines the importance of having a safe space that’s free from prejudice. “We, as girls, are so harsh with ourselves just by the fact of being a woman. You know that at the moment you go up there, they are going to judge you even if you haven’t played a thing.”

She recalls a moment when, despite everything that could have been said about a performance of hers, she was called only a ‘sexy DJ.’ This, she says, has nothing to do with her work. And even just a quick search on Google for female DJs in Vietnam reveals similar issues. In one Tuoi Tre article, a male guest at an event suggests that female DJs are public favorites because of their “attractive bodies and sexy clothes.”

Tra’s own experiences as an Australian DJ with Asian heritage inspired her to return to her roots and help other women overcome social stigmatization in countries like Vietnam. “As a woman, you can be very affected when people objectify you. It’s quite offensive and you start thinking you should stop,” she said. Being questioned about your looks rather than your talents, she says, can paralyze people with fear. Creating a kind of sisterhood could be a new way to defeat this problem.  

Achieving through authenticity

One thing Tra reminds everyone of throughout the three-hour workshop is to “just try.” She strongly advocates for a way of living where achieving is actually to keep on trying: “All I ever reached in my life, all that I have is because I’m always trying, I’m still trying and that’s the only thing to do when you want to achieve your personal definition of success,” she tells the women.

Her approach stands in stark opposition to the idealization of social media stars’ lifestyles. She says that aspiring to a false idea of who people are according to their ‘happy’ posts could be very dangerous nowadays: “I just want you to know that I also have bad days, rough moments and heartbreaks. Not everything is always shiny and bubbly. That is just not real.”

“People need to know that because, if they don’t, they are just going to assume you are living this great life, but if they know what exactly you are going through they could say 'ok I could do that too,'” she adds. “I could pretend that everything is great and post about it but then I couldn’t feel true to myself.”

It wasn’t until she started sharing her darkest moments that she experienced the potential that exists when you ally with your personal demons and become more self-confident and authentic.

“Sharing my darkest stories helped other queens,” she says, “and that is something I think changed my perspective of how we, as sisters, can turn our pain into something empowering.”

Maggie Tra’s next ‘Pho the Girls’ DJ introduction workshop will take place this Sunday at Kobala. For more details, check out the Facebook event

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