Durham DJs share their musical journeys with us
By Martha Zaytoun | Photography by John Michael Simpson
The Mamis and the Papis DJ collective was founded on a desire to create space for immigrant music and those with immigrant backgrounds. Co-founder Areli Barrera Grodski began her DJing journey at UNC’s WXYZ radio station while in undergrad, where she discovered her passion for playing at parties and her draw to the dance floor. “It’s the space that helps me release energy and reset and also helps me connect spiritually to myself and my ancestors,” she says.
Areli moved to Durham in 2010 and soon met other women who shared her appreciation of music and dancing. Areli had already worked as a DJ for eight years when she and her pal Michelle Durango-Lopez decided to focus on making a space for more female-identifying people in the industry, and founded the Mamis and the Papis in 2016. Together they gradually built a collective of five DJs composed of Areli (DJ Birdgherl), Michelle (DJ Baconbuttr), Victoria Bouloubasis (Uymami), Stephany Mejia (DJ Ma’Duro) and Danette Wilkins Marte (Tr3s Golp3s).
In their early days, the collective performed sets at Arcana on Thursday nights. The parties were donation-based, and all proceeds went to local families in need or immigrant aid groups, including Southerners on New Ground’s Black Mamas Bail Out Action and NC Field. Areli taught the members the basics, but they learned the rest through performing. The DJs began hosting their own parties once they felt confident in their skills.
People now pay to attend their performances, but the collective continues to donate a portion of their proceeds to aid-based organizations. They reinvest the remainder of their profit into the group, contributing to the purchase of technology – such as controllers and headphones – needed to perform their sets.
Their music selection has always been rooted in their respective heritages. Stephany’s father is from the Dominican Republic, so she enjoys bringing in Caribbean and Afro Caribbean sounds to the group’s performances. Areli, who hails from Mexico, incorporates Mexican melodies and songs, while Victoria draws inspiration from her Greek roots, seeking out Greek, Persian and Arabic music from her ancestral homeland and the surrounding region. Their sets become an amalgamation of rhythms that “really speak to our lived experiences,” Victoria says.
Individual tastes and backgrounds motivate additions to their DJ sets, but all are driven, to a certain extent, by the past. Selecting music “is all emotion based,” Stephany says. “And it’s really deeply tied to nostalgia.”
“Regardless of the theme [of the party],” Areli adds, “we’re still filtering it through our upbringing and our childhood and what we were listening to in our moms’ kitchen[s].”
The Mamis and the Papis curate each first Friday at Rubies on Five Points alongside the inclusive dance party crew Party Illegal. The collective doesn’t always have the chance to perform as a whole – they often DJ individually and in smaller combinations of a few members – so they always appreciate occasions when they can spin together as a complete ensemble. They’ll get that chance at Rubies on Oct. 6, performing a set that, as ever, is grounded in their roots.
Taking up work as a DJ in 2007 hearkened back to Patricia “Pat” Murray’s roots. Her childhood was filled with music, so turning it into a career felt natural. She fashioned her stage name, DJ Piddipat, from the nickname her dad used for her as a child.
Growing up in Chicago, Pat was introduced to a wide range of genres and instruments. Her mom – a high school music teacher – and dad – a former saxophonist in a U.S. Army band – had records spinning constantly, from jazz and spiritual music to pop and R&B.
Pat took classical piano lessons when she was young but transitioned to playing guitar as a teenager. Making music took a backseat, though, when she moved to Durham in 2001 to take care of her sick aunt.
Becoming DJ Piddipat reintroduced her to the world of music and launched her into the Durham music scene, particularly. In the early days, she would offer her DJ services or free to get her name out there. Soon, individuals as well as organizations like the Durham County Library began hiring her to play public and private gigs. These days Pat frequently can be found performing at events hosted by Downtown Durham Inc. and Durham Parks and Recreation. She curates sets for The Mix at Durham Station during every Third Friday Durham Art Walk through October.
Now, having established herself, “I’m just having so much fun,” she says. “I have such an incredibly wide variety of music anyway, because … this has always been what I love to do in my spare time.”
People like Pat for her sound. Rather than adhering to a particular genre, “I play all positive music,” she says. She doesn’t curate her sets with the intention to stand out or play something obscure. “All the music I’m playing is easy to dance to, very positive and very happy,” she says.
But Pat also enjoys seeking out local artists and digging through Spotify for unfamiliar music. She always asks people from other nations about their favorite artists. She says that watching the reactions of audience members hearing music from their native countries during her sets is one of the most meaningful moments in her work.
“[As a DJ], I’m helping people as they celebrate,” Pat says. “And that’s just the best.” To that end, Pat, now 67, says she will continue playing gigs “as long as I can lift the speakers onto the stands.”
As a child, Rachel “Gemynii” Storer would record over old cassettes, using them to experiment with different sounds and create her own mixtapes. “Being a military brat, I was exposed to music from all over, especially as a teenager,” she says. “[I was] listening to go-go music from D.C. or chopped and screwed music from Texas.”
She eventually landed in Durham in her late 20s where she would often host vinyl and art parties, inviting her friends to bring their favorite records and facilitating a night of sharing new music as well as her visual art. Jess Dilday aka DJ PlayPlay invited her to attend a DJ workshop at UNC in 2016, and after two classes, she officially took on the name DJ Gemynii – a name she had used while working as a radio host in college at Elizabeth City State University – and accepted her first gig at The Pinhook.
DJ Gemynii plays a variety of events, from weddings and corporate gatherings to festivals and clubs, and her sets vary with each crowd. She never creates a whole track list, allowing the mood of the crowd to dictate some of the music she chooses. “But at the end of the day,” she says, “I’m playing stuff that I like. If it doesn’t make me dance, I can’t expect it to make other people [dance].”
She also strives to play more than just popular music. “I like to introduce people to new music,” she says, adding that she doesn’t feel she is doing a good job if the crowd isn’t using Shazam during her set to discover an unknown song.
The DJ scene is a predominantly male space, and so Gemynii prioritized creating spaces for and uplifting noncisgender, nonmale DJs by forming The Conjure, a collective intended to “celebrate Black femmes, Black queer joy and the magic we have always put into the world and that we continue to put into the world,” in spring 2017.
Gemynii also uses her talents as a DJ to bolster her work as the director of housing and therapeutic services at the LGBTQ Center of Durham. She started a dance party called Rent Due at The Pinhook, with proceeds going toward helping “Black and Brown trans people, gender-nonconforming people and nonbinary people … get a little rent assistance,” she says.
Some of Gemynii’s most memorable experiences as a DJ include opening for R&B singer-songwriter Miguel during Hopscotch Music Festival at Red Hat Amphitheater in 2018 and rapper Big Freedia at Lincoln Theater in 2021. She approaches these gigs much like she does her own solo performances: The music she plays “depends on the mood,” she says. “For Big Freedia, for example, I played a lot of New Orleans bounce music, which I’ve always been a big fan of.”
Her musical inclinations naturally continue to evolve as she digs through SoundCloud and crates of vinyls to find new songs to share. Most Saturdays you can find DJ Gemynii at The Pinhook, where she curates parties like the aforementioned Rent Due and The Conjure as well as House of Black, “which celebrates the existence of deep and soulful house music by recognizing its roots with the Black and Brown queer community …” she says. “… If I’m not DJing, I’m at least … putting together the show [and] hiring the DJs to make sure everyone’s having a good time.”
That’s what it all boils down to – audiences enjoying themselves. It’s a DJ’s responsibility to ensure that happens, a role that Gemynii takes most seriously and hopes that others will appreciate. “It takes a lot of time to be a DJ, between collecting the music, practicing, putting together sets,” she says. “Respect our craft.”