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DJ Kayla Kush: “Who are the women in reggae?”

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

DJ Kayla Kush got started as a radio DJ on KZSC-Santa Cruz in 2008. In 2010, after moving to Madison, she began hosting U DUB, a weekly roots reggae radio show on WSUM. She has been playing gigs consistently at music venues, events, and festivals since 2012 in addition to hosting her radio show every week. In 2018, Kayla moved her radio show to Madison’s beloved listener-sponsored community radio station, WORT FM, and dubbed it 2 DUB, bringing listeners a late night twist on reggae with infusions of hip hop and worldbeat every Saturday from 10pm-Midnight. Kayla is the 4-time winner of “DJ of the Year” at the Madison Area Music Awards – in 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2013. Recent highlights include playing to a packed house at the Majestic Theatre in July 2019, and getting rave reviews for her silent disco at Vibe High Festival 2019. She holds monthly recurring gigs at Nattspil and The Wisco. In 2017, she joined Rootfire, and now contributes interviews and stories highlighting the reggae scene. She is also responsible for curating a weekly list of songs for Rootfire’s influential Progressive Roots Playlist on Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, and Soundcloud.

Kayla is a very spiritual person with a solid scientific background and she has also travelled around the world to find her vibes, reggae vibes.

In this interview, she tells how she fell in love with reggae music. She also talks about her spiritual and scientific soul and how she sees the future. But, most of all, she explains why we should ask: “Who are the women in reggae?” instead of “Where are the women in reggae?”

Q.: You are born in Milwaukee but you said in your bio “I grew up loving music, theater, and dance.” And then: “I wanted to get the hell out of my hometown as soon as possible”. Why?

K.: I grew up in a very conservative community and often got punished for disagreeing with the views that were imposed on me. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated places in the United States, and the tension was affecting me vibrationally even as a child. I felt like I didn’t fit in at my Catholic school. Music and the arts were one of the only things that interested me and allowed me to express myself. I’m grateful for the creative projects and activities I was privileged to participate in as a child, but I knew in my heart I had to go far away from Milwaukee in order to grow and thrive in my next step of life. For some reason, I was always feeling the “California dreaming” mindset as a kid, and had posters of the ocean and surfers in my bedroom, along with music posters. I didn’t even realize that I had created my very first vision board and learned how to manifest.

Now that I’m older, I can appreciate all the wonderful things about Wisconsin that I once took for granted—the lush forests, woods, and prairies, the many rivers, lakes, and beaches to enjoy. Lots of water. The cold winter makes us enjoy the sunshine so much more when we have it. The Midwest is a special place. 

 Q.: After moving to Santa Cruz and traveling a lot to follow your passion for music, you found the perfect fit for you at UW-Madison…back to Wisconsin. Did you think that it was kind of weird or a sort of sign?

K.: So much, yes. When I came back to Wisconsin, it wasn’t by choice, it was so that I could afford to finish college in my home state. But by the time I returned, I was already really into reggae because it was being played in the spaces around me when I was in California: Barrington Levy, Bob Marley, Steel Pulse. I first saw Slightly Stoopid play at the Catalyst Club in 2007. When I was in Santa Cruz, I felt like I had finally found my vibe, my tribe, my sound. I was heartbroken to leave, but then I had a revelation when I was back: I don’t need to be in California to create the vibe that I want to experience. I can build that anywhere. This conscious reggae music was a main part of that vibe, the main structure in my temple to the inner divine, that I could set up anywhere. So in Madison, where I ended up, I was pleasantly surprised with how differently Madison resonated with me compared to the part of Milwaukee I grew up in. Even though both cities are in Wisconsin, Madison is way more progressive through and through. It actually reminded me of Santa Cruz. I was already into radio when I returned, and reggae, and realized that no one was doing a reggae show at the UW-Madison station. I saw that as my opportunity to bring this awesome vibe to a widespread audience, to an open-minded, vibrant community who might dig it. And they absolutely did! The show was U DUB and it meant a lot to me and a whole lot of other people over the nine years I hosted it. So, my mission has been to uphold reggae in the Madison community and beyond. There is already a lot of reggae in California—so I’m doing my part to spread reggae in the Midwest where we really need it. This music changed my life and I am now just an antenna for it so that the vibrations reach more people.

 Q.: As I mentioned before, you have travelled a lot. What have you learned from your experience? Well, when I think about California and Wisconsin, they really seem to be two worlds apart…

K.: By transplanting myself out of Milwaukee, I was able to let go of the angst I felt as a kid—I became full of hope after seeing that the world is actually full of diverse and magical people and places. You just have to find them. Music is one of the ways to bring these things and people together. In my adult life, I have been lucky to travel to other places: France, Jamaica, London, Ireland, Amsterdam, as well as many trips back to northern and southern California, New York, and elsewhere in the US. It opened my mind a lot and made me realize how much we are made to live in an illusion in the United States….can you imagine what people who never truly leave their conservative hometown must be thinking?

 Q.: You are a well-trained radio host and DJ and your passion is reggae. Is this kind of music well known in Wisconsin compared to other music genres?

K.: The reggae scene is small in Wisconsin. But, the people who do love it are often the most passionate fans you’ll meet. Madison in particular has a very diverse and talented local music scene. Natty Nation and Dub Foundation are the reggae bands who hold it down here lately. We have jam bands, funk bands, blues, Americana, indie rock, and so much more.

 Q.: When you host your DJ sets, do you focus on reggae only?

K.: Yes! Strictly reggae for this gal.

Q.: There’s a lot of spirituality which surrounds reggae (i.e. the influence of the Rastafarian culture). You are also a very spiritual person. Do you think about this as a possible explanation for your love for this music genre?

K.: I do think that the spiritual aspect of reggae resonates with me. I’m also a scientific person, and the spiritual/scientific definitions of the world are inextricably linked: The interconnectedness of everything, the love and energy that binds us which people have different names for. It was refreshing for me to find this music after having so many issues with Catholicism that made me push away religion as a teenager. Once I found my spirituality, and learned that you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual or to treat other humans with dignity and respect, I was able to develop my own spiritual practices to connect with the universe, and that includes the feeling I get when I listen to certain reggae music.

Q.: Would you tell me more about your radio program? Do you prefer feature well known reggae artists or it’s more a combination of mainstream and new generations?

K.: I hosted a roots reggae show called U DUB for nine years that included a lot of classic old school roots reggae artists. Two years ago I moved my show to a different radio station, Madison’s beloved listener-sponsored station, WORT FM, and dubbed it 2 DUB, which is the evolution of U DUB! 2 DUB has a late night prime time spot—10pm-Midnight—so it’s geared more for a late night audience. It falls before a hip-hop show, so I include more upbeat and modern reggae, reggae mixed with hip-hop, a lot of European reggae, as well as modern Jamaican artists. It’s a mix of mainstream and lesser known musicians, but definitely more of a modern generation playlist compared to my old show. I still include some old school roots sprinkled throughout. It felt good to change things up after a while and do something different, it expanded my horizons.

Q.: Has there been a change in reggae as a genre especially during the most recent years? I mean has reggae been “contaminated” by other genres just like rock ‘n’ roll, country music etc.?

K.: It’s clear to me that people play reggae for all different reasons. Some bands want to have a party and smoke weed, some bands want to emulate a roots sound, talk about revolution, and uphold the Jamaican artists who came before them. Some musicians care a lot about their image or the visual aspect of what they’re doing, and some fly way underground. So as the reggae scene grows, it’s interesting to see who has more of a capitalistic or image-based approach compared to others, but that’s not anything unique to reggae. That’s in every genre as the platform grows and more opportunities to monetize emerge. I personally love when genres fuse or blend together. I love when reggae mixes with hip-hop, and that sound is actually a huge part of my new radio show, 2 DUB. These are bands like L’Entourloop, DJ Vadim, Damian Marley, Inna Vision, Stand High Patrol, Mungos Hi Fi and Soom T, mixup albums like Max Tannone’s Mos Dub. Evolution is great. It’s smart. Reggae has gone in a lot of directions but at the end of the day, it’s the message that resonates most to me. Not all modern “reggae” has that message, but the music that does will stand the test of time.

Q.: I have a column called “Girls United!” where I write about women of impact in the music world. However, when I think about reggae there are not so many female artists who come to my mind, even if I’m sure there’s a whole world out there. If you had to suggest three female artists who would they be?

K.: I love that you brought this up. There are so many talented women in reggae – they’re just not getting the same exposure and support as men are. The industry is male-dominated so the playing field is not even. For example, festivals in the United States tend to book the same guys over and over. So that’s what listeners are exposed to, and there is a lack of female representation on stage in front of people. One of the most eye-opening accounts to follow to learn more about that is @bookmorewomen. There is some digging involved in finding women in reggae, and we shouldn’t have to dig. Women should get an equal platform. Pass women the mic!

I think we have to frame the question differently. A lot of people ask “Where are the women in reggae?”, but instead we should be asking “Who are the women in reggae?”. They are out there, but they need everyone’s support. They need exposure. I will do whatever I can to help. I founded Rootfire’s Women In Reggae interview series, and have been honored to interview Sister Carol, Jah9, Patricia Chin of VP Records, Pat McKay of SiriusXM’s “The Joint”, Amy Sheehan of Cali Roots Fest, and most recently MC Soom T. I’ve also started compiling some of these artists on a Women In Reggae Playlist on Spotify—check it out and share! 

So back to your original question! Here’s some female artists I’m really digging lately: Lila Ike, Hempress Sativa, Jah9, Soom T, Iseo & Dodosound, Nattali Rize, and Eva Lazarus. 

 Q.: You’ve had rave reviews for your “silent disco” at High Vibe Festival in 2019. How was that experience?

K.: It was a blast! In all honestly I was actually extremely nervous beforehand because I was going to be set up on stage in front of people. I am mainly a radio DJ who loves being behind the scenes with the music at the forefront. If I’m playing at a concert, I’m usually near the sound booth setting and maintaining the vibes between bands, or I’m playing at a club in a DJ booth. I haven’t been one of those performance DJs doing all this head bobbing and record scratching and things like that. But at Vibe High Fest, I was front and center on stage. I selected a killer playlist, and as soon as the first song started (“Bong Bong” by Mungos Hi Fi & Soom T), all was well. The crowd was full of smiling familiar faces and friends dancing. I danced the whole time too. I couldn’t help myself. I had just turned 30 a couple days earlier so it was a special way to ring in my third decade on this planet. 

It was a silent disco, so everyone had headphones on, and the music was not amplified through speakers. Since the music was coming through everyone’s headphones, I could see that people got really into it because they were immersed in it. I created a Spotify playlist of the songs I picked that night, and I still listen to it often. I woke up the next day at the festival only to find that people had been raving so hard about how much fun they had at my silent disco, and that it was the highlight of the festival for them. I can’t wait to do that again.

 Q.: You also contribute to Rootfire. Could you tell more about what is Rootfire and what’s your role?

K.: Rootfire is a platform, a community, an incubator that supports the reggae scene. I got to know Rootfire by frequently reading the incredible articles on the music blog and by doing interviews for my radio show with bands like The Movement who are represented by Rootfire. I was thrilled when Reid asked me to join the Rootfire team because I was already a fan of what they were doing in the scene and loved bands like Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad and The Expanders that were supported by Rootfire. Besides creating great editorial, Rootfire raises funds in order to give zero-interest loans to reggae bands who want to create music, so Rootfire is also a record label of sorts, except all the money goes to the artist. We are a small team that is constantly having conversations about how to define ourselves and position ourselves in order to best support artists and uphold the truth and educate modern reggae fans about the roots of reggae music, which is black culture in Jamaica, and doing our part to talk about real issues and topics that need to be addressed. 

My role at Rootfire is a writer and top music selector. Besides writing articles and interviewing musicians, I’m responsible for curating our influential Progressive Roots Playlist every week which is shared across all music platforms. I’m also an experienced marketer and I often help with planning and brainstorming ways to help Rootfire make a bigger impact. We believe reggae music can change the world, and the wonderful guys on our team really give me a voice and a platform to share my insights with the reggae community. Here’s some more info about us and our team

Q.: How did you react when you got the news that Toots Hibbert, lead vocalist of Toots & the Maytals, had died due to complications from Covid-19?

K.: I was sad to hear about Toots passing away, and I had quite a few people reach out to me to make me aware that it happened. I got to meet Toots when I was just starting out as a reggae DJ in my early twenties. He was a sweetie pie! He very graciously sat down with me to do an interview after he played a show in Madison. All the while he was puffing one of the biggest joints I had ever seen! While I was sad to hear he had passed, I knew for a fact that he will never be forgotten. His music has made an incredible impact and it will stand the test of time. Much love to Toots forever. 

 Q.: How’s your life changed since the pandemic? Do you see the future in a different way now?

K.: Everything has changed. The pandemic put a close lens on my daily life and made me realize how much needed to change. I wasn’t doing well mentally during the beginning of the pandemic and was indulging in way too much weed, food, and drinks to distract myself from my anxiety about the situation. But as you can guess, that all backfired, and after reaching a breaking point I decided to do the Whole30. So for 30 days I completely cut out alcohol, sugar, dairy, grains, legumes, and industrial seed oils from my diet. This completely changed my relationship with food and drink, and with herb as well. By focusing on eating whole foods and meditating daily with an app, my anxiety completely vanished, I lost 15 pounds, and have never felt better in my life. I became way more productive. With my mind clear, I was able to make other changes—like my living situation. I realized that I could leave a place where I was comfortable to find something more vibrant. So now I live in a much more beautiful place in Madison surrounded by nature and sunlight. Since I’m not spending my money on nightlife, I bought my first car and have been enjoying hiking and seeing more nature than I ever have before.

I do see the future differently. Oh my, I had such a plan before Covid hit! I had the trip of my life planned—I was going to see Fat Freddy’s Drop play in Lisbon, Portugal, followed by International Dub Gathering near Barcelona in April…..I had the tickets bought, flights booked, money spent, logistics planned. I also had the massive DJ gig of my lifetime ahead of me in May 2020, at California Roots Festival in Monterey. I couldn’t even believe it at first, but one by one these things got cancelled and I was so disappointed. However, I had to move past that disappointment because I have so much to be grateful for. We adapted. We did a virtual California Roots Fest this year and I did a video DJ set which was fun and a great learning experience. The WORT FM radio station is closed, but I can still do my radio show from home every week, and the staff at the station work to make that all possible. I have an exciting full time marketing career working with tech startups that I can continue to do from home. Plus there are the silver linings I mentioned before… doing the Whole30, and upgrading my living situation. I’m just trying to take things day by day, really focusing on optimizing my life in Madison since I’m not traveling, and enjoying the simple things, like walks in nature, funny Zoom chats with my friends, building my collection of house plants, and snuggling with my kitties.

Q.: And what about Madison and Wisconsin in general? What’s the most important change that you’ve seen after the spread out of the Covid-19 pandemic?

K.: I would say that the political polarity has reached an all-time extreme in Wisconsin since the spread of Covid. While Madison is a progressive city, many other places in Wisconsin are conservative. Not only do people disagree about how to handle Covid, they disagree on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. The police murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor struck up a lot of conflict between people in our state recently. There are protests every day as well as conflict and destruction. It reached an extreme recently when a white supremacist in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot and killed two protestors who were standing up in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking. I’ve attended protests in Madison and I have hope that there are enough smart, strong, and empathetic people out there who will help fight against racism. I think that if we keep listening to conscious reggae music, and sharing it with all who will listen, we will open up more hearts to see that war, slavery, and brutality are wrong—and that we are one people who can work together to create a brighter world full of love, peace, and justice.

Further reading: https://rootfire.net/where-are-the-women-in-reggae/

Find out more about DJ Kayla Kush:

w.: https://www.djkaylakush.com/
f.: https://www.facebook.com/djkaylakush
i.: https://www.instagram.com/djkaylakush/
t.: https://twitter.com/djkaylakush

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