Hillary “DJ Ruby” Donnell
DJ, Radio Show Host
November 1, 2016
How old are you?
I am 26 years old. Libra.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Torino, Italy and then I moved to Mobile, Alabama when I was five and I lived there until I moved to New Orleans in 2009.
What brought you here?
I went to Tulane University for undergrad.
Why are you still here?
I am still here because I love this city and I feel like as a southerner it’s got a lot of things I like about living in the south without a lot of what I don’t like about living in the south. But it would take me longer than this interview to explain what I mean by that exactly. I am still here because I feel like this is my home and I have my chosen family here. You put one foot in and then you put the other foot in and then you start sinking into the quicksand and it’s hard to dig yourself out but that makes it sound so sinister.
It’s quicksand but it’s made of glitter.
Great metaphor. I love that metaphor. I’m making an active choice every day to still be here. I feel like this city has given me a lot. I went to college here. I feel like I still have more to give to the city based on what I have learned from living here.
How would you describe your current role within the New Orleans music community?
I am a provider of music for a variety of event spaces. I’m a radio show host and I try to create that balance in all my music spaces. That’s definitely a big part of my role: to create spaces for providers of the music who are women or who are gender non-conforming or who identify as queer. Those spaces are often closed down in various ways.
Is DJing similar to the rest of the music community in terms of it being historically male dominated?
I think the women who do things and the queer people who do things are written out of history. There are these people out there that came before who did these things but because they weren’t supported, because there were only few of them, because they didn’t put out a record, because they aren’t DJ Cool Herc, because they aren’t named in history we forget about them. So yes, I do think it’s like the rest of the music industry where women and queer people are subsumed by the larger male dominated patriarchal atmosphere. But we’re out there. We need to lift each other up more so that two generations down people don’t feel like they’re paving the way yet again.
Growing up do you remember being told or taught anything regarding behavioral expectations on you as a girl?
My parents were pretty good about being supportive of me speaking up for myself which I appreciate growing up as a girl in the south. But there were a lot of messages, both subtle and overt, about how as a young girl I should be holding back a lot in my bodily movements. I was super athletic and I feel like my athleticism was applauded out in the world but then when I came home or was in certain more formal spaces, I heard “Why don’t you wear something a little bit more feminine?” Because I didn’t feel comfortable in that. There was always a push towards the more feminine and that was always a point of discomfort for me. I didn’t feel like I wanted to do that and that’s where my queerness comes in. There was definitely a lot of expectation for me to look a certain way as a young girl and me not wanting to and there was definitely an expectation even though I was athletic that my bodily movements should be more docile when I was in public. I have to applaud my parents for encouraging me to speak my mind because there are a lot of situations where that’s not the case. Even at a young age I could tell. It wasn’t just because I was a kid. It was because “you’re a young lady”.
Can you define sexism as it presents itself to you?
Sexism is a system of power that is supported by patriarchal structures. Just like racism it’s a system of power that is supported by white supremacist structures. Those patriarchal structures support the success and lives and livelihoods and the well-being of men first and foremost to the exclusion of women.
How does being treated in a sexist way make you feel?
Half-human or less than half-human. It’s dehumanizing just like other forms of oppression. It’s frustrating and it’s dehumanizing and it’s annoying as shit. It really is irritating as fuck.
Do you always notice when individuals are acting in a sexist way?
No and that’s the scary thing. It’s really scary. You don’t want to presume all of the time that a man or other women or anyone is acting maliciously towards you. I don’t try to assume that when I move into certain spaces. Although I do that a lot with men. I do assume the worst. That’s why sometimes you can’t always tell. I have a paradigm of understanding of the world and I understand that sexism is a real thing and even though people don’t intend to be sexist, they are anyway. You can’t always tell. Men come up to me while I’m spinning my records and come ask what I’m playing and I tell them what it is and they respond with, “How do you know that? I wouldn’t expect you to know that.” I hear that at pretty much every gig because I have a really eclectic music taste and selection colored partially by the fact that I am way deep into jazz and that has really opened a lot of musical horizons for me. I appeal to lots of different people’s taste and a lot of times people are accustomed to me putting on a record that they have heard or that they like a lot. So you’re surprised that I played something that you don’t hear out a lot? Cool, compliments to me. On the other hand, 98% of the time it’s a man who does this. Do you feel comfortable coming to me because I’m a woman? Are you just complimenting me because you’re trying to be cute and it’s meant as a flirtation? Is it patronizing because you didn’t expect that a woman would have an interesting selection of music to play for you? Also there’s always people trying to explain to me about what I’m doing, about my mixer, about my turntable, about my record and about my song. I’m pretty good at discerning when it’s mansplaining or when it’s someone who is genuinely interested in talking to me about a subject. That I can always tell. I just say, “Actually, I’m busy. I’m working here. I’m the one that got this gig and you can just listen and carry on.” Sometimes they don’t why it’s wrong and they only know it’s wrong because of our reaction. And that’s because you can’t just call someone a sexist or a racist out loud if they don’t understand the structure of power that they exist in. They feel like an individual who is being attacked by another individual and that’s not at all what I’m doing when I’m making that face. That face is to express to you that you’ve just stepped into a role in our society that makes you sexist along with the other people that can willingly step in or out of that role. But I’m not about to explain that shit to you while I’m trying to DJ this fucking set.
Can you recall any specific occasion when you experienced sexist behavior against you?
The DJ world is still hyper masculine so when I don’t get picked for a gig and there’s a man who gets chosen I wonder why didn’t I get hit up for that? Why did no one hit me up for that? I’ve made an effort over the past few years to connect myself with a variety of different DJs with different styles. Even though I feel like the New Orleans DJ community is open, sexist behavior happens to me all the time at gigs. People are surprised that I’m good and I’m not even that good. I’m a new DJ and there has been a lot of support from the veteran folks around. But when I’m behind the turn tables or in the booth, people are coming up to me and telling me, “I didn’t think you would know that just by looking at you.” Literally. “I can’t believe you’re good. You don’t see women back here that much.” It’s a compliment in their eyes but it’s tied to the fact that they are surprised to see women doing that.
Are there any particular stereotypes of men or of women that drive you insane?
As a person who identifies as a woman the ones that are the most frustrating are that we need to be more quiet and that we need to have our opinions subsumed under the man’s opinion. That we need to be less boisterous, that we need to be less athletic, and that we are less good at things. People of color tell me this all the time and we know this to be true of racism, you have to be twice as good at something so that you’re considered as good as a male doing the same thing. One stereotype that annoys me is that we’re just less good. Fuck, we’ve have less support in doing this forever. If I’m less good, that’s you’re fucking fault. It’s partially on me, yes, but it’s also because of a deliberate lack of cultivation of the talent and the natural ability and that is the most frustrating to me. You see it come out in people’s comments, in the ways that we’re not supported, in the gigs we don’t get, in the people who want to keep us as their woman sidekick. We have to carve out these spaces that are safe for just women and non-conforming people to DJ otherwise men will come in and just take over. Do you spend time trying to infiltrate and be supported in the main spaces versus creating your own safe and separate places where you’re going to get less support and money from the main space. What do you do?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
This was a fun interview. No one has really asked me questions like this before.