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Soul and vulnerability: fka.m4a’s storytelling DJ sets are inspiring dancefloors

fka.m4a shares an unhurried mix and talks to Cassidy George about being mentored by Peggy Gou, not sticking to one sound and conveying emotion through music

  • Words: Cassidy George | Photos: Darren Black
  • 14 December 2022

In most nightlife contexts, tears are some of the last things a DJ might expect to see on a dancefloor. But at fka.m4a’s sets, tears (of joy, of course) are a welcome – and relatively frequent – occurrence. The queer and non-binary DJ got their start playing pop floors in gay clubs in their hometown of London, but has since relocated to Berlin: the city where they first experienced the emotive power of electronic music and the fierce bonds forged among its community. Centring on themes of radical love and self-acceptance, fka.m4a's music is merely a means of bringing people together. Their sets, which inject “diva vocals” into plaits of Italo disco, house and techno, are not soundtracks to escapism, but rather invitations to be deeply present. As a DJ, fka.m4a’s musical mission is to create a permissive space of freedom, where people are able to celebrate themselves and each other, in all of their complexity.

In conversation, fka.m4a is much like their music: warm and inviting, but also sharp and precise. They are exceptionally honest and provide introspective and analytical answers with ease. fka.m4a struck me as someone who knows who they are and what is most meaningful to them. They, however, describe themselves differently – as a “control freak” and, professionally speaking, as “a child of generation HÖR.” fka.m4a abounds with gratitude for HÖR, the Berlin radio station that offered them a platform so early in their career.

Read this next: How to have the perfect 24 hours in Berlin

Though fka.m4a is now a regular and beloved guest, it was the set they played on HÖR's first birthday in 2020 that turned heads throughout the industry – including that of Peggy Gou, who later slid into fka.m4a's DMs, applauding their sound and inviting them to open for her at an upcoming show. Those initial exchanges were the seeds in a relationship that soon blossomed into a close mentorship. The effortlessness with which fka.m4a has navigated and ascended the ranks of the electronic music world mirrors their mentor's own road to stardom.

Now, fka.m4a is crossing things off of their professional bucket list at a staggering rate. When they decided to start playing electronic music just three years ago, their biggest dream was to play the venue that had shaped them the most: Panorama Bar. This year, fka.m4a has been booked to play the most loaded slot of the year in Pano: the New Year’s Eve countdown. Anyone who has ever been to one of their shows will likely agree that there are few better ways to set the tone for 2023, than by dancing to the empowering, invigorating and blissful sounds of fka.m4a – tears and all.

Did you have any weird musical obsessions growing up? Any phases I should know about?

Growing up, my parents were obsessed with Michael Jackson. To put it into perspective for you, my name is Jackson and my brother's name is Michael. That is not a coincidence! That was the household soundtrack in the '90s. There was also Prince and a lot of soul, blues and Motown.

When I was 10 or 11, I started to become conscious of my own musical taste – and that’s when I discovered the Spice Girls. I’d sit in front of the screen for hours and hours, learning their routines and singing the lyrics with my fake little microphone and towel hair!

If you didn’t sing 'Wannabe' with towel hair… were you even a queer kid in the '90s? I think it counts as a formal rite of passage.

Totally! That eventually turned into a general obsession with pop divas. After the Spice Girls, it was Kylie, then Britney, then Beyoncé, then Gaga. I think a lot of my interest in performance stems from them. I still love those artists and they hold a space deep in my heart, but I don’t listen to that music often anymore. I wanted to dive deeper into music with more emotion and meaning.

Read this next: Pop, punk, techno and sex: LSDXOXO is now proud to be seen and heard

But you were playing their music when you started as a DJ in London, right? So when did you have your electronic awakening?

In 2018, I came to Berlin and went to the party Buttons – which is one of my favourite queer parties ever – and there I discovered how techno and the crowd really fuse. The way people dance…it’s just so different with electronic music. On a pop floor, people sing along, dance with each other, and get wasted. I fell in love with the show aspect of electronic music and the fact that I could really tell a story.

I know you identify as a shy and private person. Do you ever miss being a bit more of an anonymous DJ, like you were in the pop days?

This industry is full of egomaniacs who are obsessed with fame. We also have the polar opposite end of the spectrum – the DJs who don’t want the spotlight and who just want to keep their heads down and share their music with the world. I’m definitely closer to that end! I think it’s beautiful to have that contrast though, and I do think that in order to be super successful, you have to have a balance of both.

People idolise DJs now in the same way they idolise pop stars and football players. It’s truly crazy to me because when I first started DJing pop, I was pretty much invisible. The crowd was looking at and dancing with each other. Now it’s a sea of people looking at me like it’s a concert.

There are some days when I’m feeling confident and stable and strong, and I have the space to connect with people and perform a bit more. There are also days where my anxiety is through the roof. Even if I’m having a bad day personally, I know it’s still my job to show up and do “the business,” so to speak.

Sometimes in my head, as a DJ, I just play music. I am so touched when people remind me that it’s more than that. I was on the tram a couple of months ago and a girl handed me a note as I was getting off. It said that my music had saved her life during the pandemic. The primary message of my music is about love and conveying emotion, and bringing that together in a room. There's so much in electronic music that I feel lacks soul. People are so afraid to be vulnerable, but that’s one of the biggest reasons why I do what I do – to show that vulnerability.

In the last year, I realised that I’m a role model for people who look like me – who are a bit chubbier, who are Brown, who are queer, who are trans or non-binary. I didn’t really tap into that power until people started coming up to me at gigs and said “thank you for existing.” I don’t always feel the most comfortable in who I am, but when I am reminded that I am making a difference in someone’s existence by existing, it charges me up and makes me feel really proud and grateful.

When I look out at my crowd, it’s kind of a reflection of who I am. It’s people of all sizes, it's mostly girls, it’s non-binary, queer and trans people. When I see that, I know that I’m doing something right and that my sound is transmitting to the right people.

What are some of the characteristics of that sound?

The diva vocal! It doesn’t have to be the vocal of any particular diva, it just a strong, powerful female voice – one that radiates love. I also do a lot of sharp mixing and transitions. I really like to keep people on their toes and love to change the dynamic of where the set is going in seconds.

I was told by so many people that I need to figure out “my sound,” to define it and to stick with it. That idea is so unappealing to me because I am such an eclectic human being. I love jumping between sounds, moods and energies. Storytelling is the most important thing to me and that’s why I love longer sets, because I have to opportunity to really take people on a journey.

I understand the importance of building a brand, but why can't your brand be being eclectic? I want people to be curious when they come to see me, to not be totally sure what it’s going to be. Sometimes it's going to be a bit more funky and soulful. Sometimes it's going to be a bit more house-y. Sometimes it might be a little dark and trippy. I don’t want that to change. There's so much music out there. Why limit yourself?

Read this next: The 20 best diva house tracks

What’s one of the most important lessons you’ve learned in the past year?

That it’s ok to say no. I think when we’re new and fresh, we want to say yes to everything because we think the opportunity might not come again. Saying no is so much more important to me than running myself into the ground or playing on every corner of the world, nonstop.

I think there's such a culture today in people of our age group – I guess it’s more of a mentality – where everyone is trying to do the most. It’s so important to check in with yourself and see whether or not you can mentally and physically handle all of the things coming your way. I’ve recently learned that I’m happier doing four or five gigs a month, rather than 20.

Our cultural conversations so often revolve around aspiration and how to manifest our dreams. We rarely discuss the price you have to pay once you do achieve that goal. In the DJing world, it’s a big one.

It’s such a fun and amazing job to work for yourself and play music, but it does come with its baggage. Touring, lack of sleep, not being able to eat right, that’s huge baggage. People don’t realize how much it can strain mental health.

If you had a word of caution for other DJs, or even just other artists in general, what would it be?

I think a lot of people focus too much on what’s happening on social media. Whether it’s connecting with fans, posting videos, posting tour dates or just general activity and interaction, social media is a huge part of what we do. But people forget that they’re only seeing the highlights of other people’s lives. It’s all so calculated – we see only what they want us to see. A lot of artists who are coming up get stuck, because they look online and think “wow, I want to be there” or “wow, why am I not there yet?”

My advice would be to truly just to focus on what you are building, and not compare yourself to what's going on around you. I know that’s easier said than done, but I’m trying my hardest to just build and follow my own path, and to allow everything to happen the way that it should.

Read this next: Social media is dangerously affecting DJs' mental health

Can you tell me more about your Impact mix?

It’s pretty different from everything I’ve put out before! I’m genuinely so wired, my brain is always in 300 places – so for this one, I wanted to play around with the idea of slowing down. The tempo is slower but there are also a lot of slow and long transitions, some are three to four minutes at a time. There are also two tracks playing pretty much nonstop throughout, and it is pretty light on vocals, which is rare for me! Of course, it does build and peak, but I took chance to try something new and play around a bit.

Cassidy George is a freelance writer, check out her website

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