Not only does she have her hands full with navigating the energy of her DJ sets, but Rae Chardonnay is also a leader in her field, advocating for self-empowerment and sparking moments of black joy. Rae told Chicago Creatives that with the support of her team and inner intuition, conversations can continue to flow and personal freedom can be found one dance party at a time. Indulge below and make sure to follow Rae on her social media platforms.
My name is Rae Chardonnay. I am a DJ, event coordinator, and educator.
Though you’ve lived in St. Louis, Missouri and Tampa, Florida for a few years, you moved to Chicago about 10 years ago. What does this city offer that others don’t?
Everything. Most of my family is here which gives me a level of familiarity. I love food and to have this many food options is the best thing. Chicago moves differently. The people here have dealt with adversities that come in a different load than other places. The way Chicagoans have dealt with adversity makes up how they move about and carry the city and I love that. It feels so much like home. I love how easy it is to connect with people. Once you get out of the whole, “I can’t go to the West or South side” thing, it’s beautiful to connect across those borders. Connection to the people is way more prevalent here than in Tampa or St. Louis. It’s hard to explain, I don’t know if it’s a big city thing. The way Chicago is segregated has played a role in how the neighborhoods feel, and not in a good way because we’ve seen how it can be problematic, but there’s a warmth here that other big cities don’t have.
You started DJing 9 years ago and have since accumulated a loyal fanbase. In what ways have you seen DJing as a career for women change in the past decade?
There are a ton of women who feel really good about jumping on the decks and showing up in spaces as DJs. That’s monumental because before, there were women DJs but they were super objectified and there weren’t a lot of spaces and platforms for women to be celebrated and highlighted as DJs. There are now full publications dedicated to them, even though there’s still a struggle with highlighting women of color. There’s a lot to fight with but we’re creating more opportunities for ourselves which in turn makes other people give us more opportunities. You can’t deny that women DJs are pretty cold and nine times out of ten, better than some of your homies. You might as well put us on the bill and not only for women’s month or women’s night. During Women’s History Month I’ve seen venues put one woman DJ in the lineup but what do you do the rest of the year? Do you think she doesn’t want to work the rest of the year? In Chicago, I’ve seen many younger DJs grow. It’s a growing field and women are more comfortable in it. I’m an idealist. I hope that we can share opportunities when we can. There is competition but I mostly have encountered other women who lift as they climb and do what they can for others, or if they can’t, simply mind their business and thrive on their own, which is still perfectly fine and beautiful.
As a DJ, you hold a lot of power and control in setting the vibe for the environment. How do you prepare for a set?
I’ve never actually sat down and planned out which songs I’m gonna play and when. I’ve never planned a mix or a theme, except for my Vocalo residency. For my other sets, I don’t do much playlist-making. Making a playlist is more difficult than reading the energy of the room. Trying to keep my music organized is a very stressful thing. Sometimes I will organized songs in a way that would make it easier to execute something like a Women’s centered event. Many DJs don’t realize how valuable it is to address the theme of an event when you can and when it’s comfortable.
In ways that I do prepare, I generally try to take it very easy through the day and be up-to-date with the latest music out there that I’m comfortable playing. I do a bit of meditating and try to have a calm day that doesn’t generally include a lot of people. When I’m doing a set, I’m around big crowds already and it can be a draining task to DJ and entertain people.
You describe yourself as a youth advocate, specifically for Black girls and women of color across the gender spectrum. What kind of ideals are needed to maintain this advocacy?
Leading with love and open-mindedness is first and foremost for me. Being willing and open to learning from the youth is also a major key. I find ways throughout the year to support youth centered organizations like Teen Living Program and A Long Walk Home and Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health. It’s hard to stay in tune to what’s happening with them if you don’t work with the youth directly.
This year I hope to volunteer more with the schools that I have access to. In my media classes, we do a lot of storytelling and I enjoy letting them tell their stories the way they need to tell it. I don’t need to correct them when they do that. I learn the most from letting them experiment. It’s interesting to see them find new ways to learn a tangible thing and observe that process. As an advocate, it’s important to be part of that process, but not antagonize them and make them feel uncomfortable. I’m letting them teach themselves first. We do what we can in the system that they’re in, even if it’s not always the most effective of spaces.
Party Noire is meant to be a gathering for “radical inclusion and freedom of space for many of the city’s black millennials on the South side” (Chicago Tribune). What was the point in which you and Nick Adler decided it was time for Party Noire to happen?
We knew we had an interest in nightlife and being able to comfortably dance, specifically for women of color DJs since I was getting to know more as I was becoming a public event DJ. Any time I went out I was not seeing anything I wanted to see, particularly at that level of nightlife. There are dive bars and chill spots where people section off their own dance floors, but there was a need for other spaces. The scene was lacking! Between 2014 and 2015, there was this crazy upheaval of black death and trauma on television. Every time we turned around, we would see more coverage of people being shot, which made us wonder about when people were making time to be their most joyful selves and what we could do to combat all the trauma being shoved in our faces all the time. It became a very dance-oriented party, but I want people to realize it was never just about needing a party. Anyone can throw a party. Black people were distraught and we were over it. We decided to create a space for black joy.
A lot of social movements tend to revolve around young adults. You captioned on Instagram that you get “excited and fulfilled knowing that the @partynoire space is as equally fun as it is intergenerational.” What’s been the reaction from older generations of people who probably didn’t have a space like the one you’ve created?
They love it. It’s beautiful to see older, queer women come to hang out with their partners. You can see the joy in their face. Most times, our DJs are very in tune to music that the older generations were listening to at our age. The reception from them has been great. People bring their mothers to our parties. They say they love the joyful energy of seeing these kids dancing, and the music is good. I love my elders and to be able to create a space where they also feel comfortable is beautiful.
How do you hope to shape the conversations we have with our younger generations who have access to these spaces?
I don’t mean to get too heavy but I want to have a more open door conversation policy around drug-abuse and alcohol-abuse in these spaces. It’s a big problem that I’m seeing more and more. I’ve seen it for years, and I’ve seen it manifest in different ways. As younger people are coming through the party and club scene, the drug use is different. I strive to find ways to help younger people love and create moments of joy for themselves. I’m not the best meditator but one of the beauties of meditation is the ability to be in any space and center yourself. I want to see more youth be able to find joy in any moment. Many times I’ve seen students become enraged at the smallest things. I personally feel responsibility when I DJ. I’m like the cool auntie because I’ll play what they like, but I play the clean version. It’s as though I have a filter that won’t let me play all the music they like, even though they’re going to hear it in other places. As a DJ it’s my job to introduce you to something different. It’s a hard job because teens expect to hear what they want when they want, and they want to hear it five times back to back. They may get rowdy, but I’m supposed to offer safe space and the point is for them to feel comfortable enough to have fun.
In 2016 you were voted Best DJ by The Chicago Reader and in 2018, you held your first Apple talk. You expanded your social efforts through Party Noire, Afrofuturistic, Black Eutopia, and SOLAR Events. Did you imagine your career would reach this far when you first started?
Yes and no. Whenever I want to do a thing, I try to be as close to the best as I can. When I wanted to be a physical therapist, I wanted to have my own practice and contracts with the NBA teams. That’s where I was with it. I’ve never sought out accolades or anything. If it’s recognized, that’s cool. If not, that’s cool too. I don’t think I saw myself being the face of anything. For my programs, I wanted to let them happen and let it be that. Now, people will recognize me as “the girl from Party Noire.” It’s a little intimidating and overwhelming. Since I consider myself a socially responsible person, there are moments when I can go one way or another and I have to remind myself of who I am, what I stand for, and why a certain route isn’t the best. It is beautiful though because when I was a young Black girl who was a music fanatic, there weren’t many accessible leaders that I could talk to and I wish there was. I’m also not just a DJ in a club every week who goes on tour, I’m socially engaged. All the work I do is tied to the people and it may be a lot to balance, but I don’t do anything by myself. I’ve realized I can’t do everything at one time and I know I can put trust in someone else. I’m still figuring out what systems work for me.
Written by: Andrea Carrillo