VIDEO: DJ O Show says diversity makes beautiful music

In celebration of Black History Month, we caught up with DJ O Show. She’s a self-described Afro-Indigenous two spirited politician, activist and DJ. 

Orene Askew – also known as DJ O show – is from the Squamish Nation. A broadcaster, motivational speaker, performer, DJ, musician and former councilor, this multidimensional talent lights up every room she walks into. She’s got a message: diversity makes beautiful music. 

Watch the interview with DJ O Show or read the transcript below!

We’re so excited to talk with you. We had originally reached out to you because it’s Black History Month, and I think we weren’t the only ones. Have you been busy this month? 

Yeah, just a little bit (laughs).  

Are you noticing anything different about this year’s Black History Month?

Oh, for sure. Like, I was at the dentist last week. As I’m in my chair, one of the Vancouver radio stations had an ad on and it said, “Oh, we’re celebrating Black History Month and we’re going to play some Janet Jackson.” I was like, ‘Wow, I love Janet. I’m like her number one fan, by the way. But I’m born and raised in Vancouver; I’m thirty eight years old and I’ve never heard that before in my life.

So yes, it’s very different right now, for sure. And it’s such an amazing feeling that there’s just so much change going on at the moment. And I’m just so proud of everybody. You know: there’s so much more work to do. But the fact that little things like that are happening now, it’s just really cool to be alive, to see it. 

Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to this beautiful tagline for your work, which is ‘diversity makes beautiful music’? 

Yeah, for sure. Actually, me and my business coach — when I first started deejaying about 10 years ago — were sitting at a table and we were like: “You need a tagline.” And we went back and forth for a few hours. Then finally (I can’t remember if it was me or her) we blurted it out, and then we were both like, “Yeah, that’s it!” Diversity makes beautiful music. 

Hip-Hop is so much about remix, and it’s so much about bringing the different threads of cultures together. That’s in your blood. Talk to us about how you came to music through your family, through your roots.

My mother is from the Squamish Nation and my father is African-American from Gary, Indiana. I am such a geeky tourist: every time I go back to Gary, I make my dad drive me to the Jackson’s house because that’s where they were born and raised. So I’ve been to the house that they grew up in.

And it’s awesome because Janet Jackson’s documentary just came out last month and the house was in the documentary. So I was seeing places that are near my grandmother’s house that are in the documentary! I’m like, “I have pictures of that! I’ve been there!” I was totally fangirling. 

My grandmother used to play the piano at the church; they are Christian there. But music has always been so important. Then my mom, I don’t know if it was by accident, but she would always have black music playing in front of me. And it’s funny, my mom said, “You know, I didn’t do it just because it’s Black music. I did it because it’s good music.” So she always had vinyl R&B playing in the background. You notice it, but you don’t.

And then growing up, I used to make mixed CDs for my friends and just play around and put my voice on their CDs. Even though I have a background in radio broadcasting –  I was already doing it without even knowing it. Music has always been in the middle. But now I’m just swimming in it! 

You are also the subject of a documentary film, also called the O Show. So tell us: how did that come about and how do you like the movie? 

I was speaking at diversity circles at BCIT because I am an alumni from there (the radio broadcasting program), and they invited me out to talk to the first year radio students. So I was speaking there and I told my story about being in politics.

This bald Indian man was waiting his turn to talk to me. That happens: sometimes when I speak, people want to talk to me and interact and network. And he waited his turn, and then he got to the front of the line and he said, “Orene, I’m Shared Kharé. Your story is amazing and I want to work with you. Let’s go for coffee. I want to hear more about your story.”

So we went for coffee. And he said, “You know, I run this company called Human Biography and we tell people’s stories. I worked with the Dalai Lama, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep..” and he just started listing all these people, and I was like, “Oh, wow.”

We didn’t know what it was going to look like. And he’s a very modest guy. He doesn’t apply for grants or anything. But he applied for a grant from Storyhive and he got the Local Heroes Grant. As soon as he got that, he was really excited and he said, “Yeah, I’m sending a camera crew to follow you for a couple of months: in your house, to your gigs. I want to catch everything you say, everything you do.”

So that’s how the O Show came about. I love it. It’s a 20 minute documentary about my life. And they interview my family, they interviewed my friends: just basically a day in the life of being an Afro-Indigenous two spirited politician, activist and DJ. They got it perfect. 

How about the soundtrack? Did you have anything to do with that?

Yeah, just a little bit (laughs). I actually wrote and recorded my first Hip-Hop track I’ve ever done called Status and Clarity. And my producer, Jane Arraf, she’s actually in the film, too. We have this huge plan for the next year. I’m going to be releasing an EP:  we filmed the music video for Status and Clarity last summer.

So everything’s going to be dropping this spring. It is really cool. I was just in an ad for one of the athletic franchises in Vancouver, and they use the song! The documentary isn’t released yet and my song isn’t released yet, but they’re already gathering so much attention. When they actually are out there, I’m wondering what’s going to happen.

Because if it’s getting all this attention before they’re even out yet…I don’t know. 

I think you’re going to need some handlers. 

Yeah, it’s going to blow up. 

I want to go back to your career in politics because, as you know,  RAVEN were involved with the Squamish Nation during the time that you were on council. We were working with them on the Trans Mountain project when they were in court to push back against the approval of that pipeline through their territory. I’m curious about what kinds of issues you were dealing with and what was important to you at the time? 

My reasoning for running for council is just that young people’s voices weren’t really at the table. I have such a great relationship with our young people from the Nation. They call me auntie. You know, if something’s up, they reach out to me and stop by for advice. I feel like I speak their language, and I get compliments on it all the time, like, “you’re so connected to our youth, our young people.” And I think it’s because I’m still a big kid (laughter). So I think that’s why they can relate to me and come to me and feel safe about it. 

I feel like the inclusion of Afro-Indigenous and two spirited people is just not a thing in politics.

You know, we have Afro-Indigenous people in the community. We have two-spirited people in the community. Why aren’t they at the table, right? So that’s my thing. I always talk about it and am always trying to convince young people to be interested in politics, because it’s all about perspective, I think. When you have different perspectives at the table, certain people are going to be looked after. I felt like I was a voice for them.

So, about the Trans Mountain pipeline: yes, I was part of that. I’m glad I was there. I got to be in the courtroom as well. And just learning how things work on the inside of the system is a real blessing. I really thank my community for putting me there for four years. I learned so much. 

And the interesting thing is I did run again, but I didn’t get in. One of our youths who I’m really close with said, “You know what, aunty, you’re going to have more power off of council than you did on council.” And I didn’t really know what that meant, but I totally do now. I feel like it’s coming out in my art right now, the song lyrics that I write. The thing is: don’t get mad about something. Do art because the art that’s going to come out of it is going to be priceless.

I know a lot of things are happening are really frustrating, and it’s OK to be mad. But, you know, let it out in art and you’ll just see it flow. That’s exactly what’s happening right now. 

What kind of messages are coming through in your lyrics? 

In the song Status and Clarity: I wrote that while I was on council, so it’s about a few things that I saw, and a few things I wanted to change, and just how it really is to be an Afro-Indigenous two-spirited politician. 

You have to listen to it. But yeah, I felt like it was healing too. And the writing process! I have so much more respect for musicians and songwriters. I felt like it was journal writing. Then my producer helped put it into a cadence and gave it this really nice beat. 

One of the projects I actually worked is, I have a piece in the Yoko Ono exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It is really cool because they did a QR code and you can hear the track Status and Clarity if you put your phone up to it. So that’s really cool. I really love the Vancouver Art Gallery: I’m doing a screening of the documentary with them next week. 

As you’re a mentor for other people, I want to ask you about Black History Month. We always look to the ancestors. We always look to the shoulders of the giants that we’re standing on. Who are some of your Black heroes? 

Oh, there’s so many, especially in politics. One person I absolutely adore is Stacey Abrams.

It’s so awesome just to hear her story. She ran for governor how many years ago and then she didn’t get in. But she didn’t just disappear. Her goal was to try to get more people to vote in the next election. I don’t know, you don’t hear stories like that.

She just said,”we’ve got to get more people voting, get more people to the polls, and that was her dedication for the next term. I think that’s really honorable and just shows you how you shouldn’t give up even if you don’t get what you want in the first try. She’s just amazing, and she’s got the gap in her teeth like me, so I really look up to her (laughs).

How about some of your Indigenous mentors? 

Well, I have a lot of those. One that comes to mind — she’s a really good friend of mine — Kinnie Starr. I’m actually going to be able to make music with her later this year. We’ve been friends for such a long time and we keep in touch and she’s just so cool.The first time we met each other, we were doing workshops in little communities around B.C., and I remember being in the van and we just talked for hours. Around then I was a huge fan of the show The L Word, and I was putting two and two together about the song that was always playing in the early seasons … that’s Kinnie Starr!! Like I was just in the van with her for a couple of days!!! Like, I’m just blown away. Totally fangirling over here all the time. But, we’re friends and she’s super cool, super supportive and just — we get each other — because we’re both mixed Indigenous folks as well. Sometimes we don’t agree, but it’s not like it’s going to mess up our friendship or anything. We are just like, “Yeah, that’s a good point. You know, you make a good point.”  

You said something in there that I really want to dig into. You talked about how, when you disagree with somebody, your perspective as a mixed race person gives you a more nuanced view of things. And I’m just wondering, what can people take away, especially young people this time when we can become so essentialist about our beliefs, to the point where we can’t even really communicate with each other? 

Yeah. Well, that’s something I learned in politics, too, by observing: just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean I don’t like you. I think that’s a kind of an old-school mentality. It’s like, you know, you think this way or you think that way so we can’t talk. We can’t mix together. But there are certain people you can do that with. There’s some people you can’t do that with (laughs). But it’s all about being respectful. That’s what I’ve been taught, which is like: we’re not getting anything done if we’re acting like “I know”. 

Sometimes it gets really frustrating, but yelling is not one of my favorite things. You know, you can be passionate about something, but when you end up yelling and belittling a person like that…I just tune out when stuff like that happens. I prefer having a respectful conversation with communication. And, you know, if you have a difference of opinion, that’s totally fine. I think that’s what the world needs to catch on to: it’s OK to have a different opinion, it’s all about how you how you go about it.

I wonder if there’s one sort of takeaway you want people to tuck in their heart pocket from the documentary.

I say this all the time to young people: just be yourself! I know it’s easier said than done, but I wish I had done that when I was a lot younger.

We’re so scared of what people are going to think or what they’re going to do. I have a really supportive family, so coming out wasn’t an issue for me. I’m very lucky when it comes to that, but I also know what it feels like to be so incredibly nervous about being yourself because you really care what people think. You know, everyone is unique. They all have a story to tell. People say that they don’t, but something has happened in your life that could probably help somebody else. You have a story to tell. 

I get that a lot. Like, how do you do what you do? How are you so unique? And I’m like, I’m just myself. Just be yourself. And I know it’s easier said than done, but that’s what I’ve done.

You’ve worked so hard and your music and your message are exactly what we need right now. Thank you. 
You can find DJ O Show’s music on Soundcloud here. Their Instagram handle is @djoshow. Watch the trailer to the new documentary at https://djoshow.com

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