At home chez Black Mamba, the DJ who turned music producer and bike racer during the pandemic

She prefers summers over winters, but on this cold Monday morning in January Noonah Eze aka Black Mamba still seems happy to have us over in her apartment in Schaarbeek. She had to conquer the internet supplier’s customer service for about an hour already, but even such a nerve wracking experience couldn’t break her bright smile. Eze is a clever and outspoken 27-year-old graphic designer, DJ and curator, a delight to talk with. Over the last few years she has rapidly gained a large following on her social media, while running a weekly radio show on Studio Brussel and playing energetic DJ sets in clubs and festivals all around. Just as everyone else, the pandemic has shaken up her life, but she takes the blow with nothing but positivity. What’s striking is her talent to keep a clear and balanced mind, manifested in her nicely decorated apartment, but also in her neatly organised Ableton workstation, with color schemes that look like a paint catalogue, and above all in her fair and square way of looking at the world. Her cat Missy joins us during our long conversation about music, living in the capital, political engagement and so much more.

You started your weekly radio show on Studio Brussel again last weekend?

Yeah indeed, every Saturday night I’m on air again. I was a bit stressed but once I’m at it, everything fades and I enjoy it so much. 

Must be convenient to live so close-by?

Literally just two minutes away from here. Before, when I lived in Ghent, it happened that I left home too late and stressfully arrived at the studio only minutes before the show, so it’s definitely better for me. 

How do you like the neighbourhood?

It’s a quiet and residential area, with many young families. I enjoy the beautiful streets and old houses. And although it lacks a sparkling bar or restaurant scene, my boyfriend and I feel at home here. We have a racing bike so in about ten minutes we are able to reach the city center. Since the lockdown we have been biking a lot as well, I even bought a slick outfit with clip-in pedals and all that. Our chilled-out-still-work-to-do tour takes about 90 minutes, while the sun-is-shining-plenty-of-time tour goes for three to four hours. And you know what? A black woman on a racing bike draws a lot of attention. People look at me as if I’m an alien and they can’t process it, which is rather disturbing. I’m a huge fan of Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, the Dutch cyclist who competes internationally in road and cyclo-cross races. 

How did you end up with Studio Brussel?

They first invited me for an online video idea called ‘Spitlist’ in 2015, but luckily this didn’t get much attention, in retrospect it was quite cringy. Nevertheless I started to get to know some of the staff and they invited me for a radio try-out, a 20 minutes DJ mix live on air. This must have been, up until today, the most stressful day of my life. I remember being very aware of not creating silence at national radio, this was to me the worst thing that could have happened. And I had never touched a CDJ player before, I was used to DJing with a DJ controller in my hometown bar in Sint-Niklaas. Luckily  radio host Bert Van Steenberghe helped me to get through the stress and afterwards comments were positive. This powerful feeling of manipulating the music in a studio in Brussels while thousands of people are listening got me hooked immediately. 

Nowadays you’re also curating Studio Brussel’s ‘Hooray’ streaming channel. What does it mean for a young DJ to get connected to Studio Brussel?

It’s definitely an accelerator for your career. I’m pretty sure that everything that happened to me over the last three years would have gone at half the speed if it weren’t for Studio Brussel. Later I experienced a similar pivotal moment when I met Rien, my manager and booker at Kurious. I didn’t even realise this was an option, all I did was sending emails to bars to ask for DJ bookings. To which so many people don’t even answer, God damned. 

Were there other moments in your life that changed the course of your DJ career?

In general I believe my taste for music has evolved, which led to a more outspoken musical identity. My gig in 2019 at Best Kept Secret was one of those aha-moments and definitely a point in time when I decided to let go of the idea that I was obliged to please the audience, that I needed to sound like a certain version of Black Mamba. It might have been because it was abroad and I thought I wasn’t playing for Belgians, which appeared not to be true since the place later seemed to be loaded with Belgians, but at least I felt completely free to play whatever I wanted. This experience pushed me to liberate myself, that whole summer was like a dream, I dubbed it ‘Summer Snake Season’. 

Studio Brussel calls you a selector, how do you relate to this?

I don’t like to be pigeonholed into one genre, hiphop for example. Last year Studio Brussel started to call me and other DJs at the station selectors, to give us more freedom to play whatever we like. This didn’t change much for me, I still play whatever I like, but somehow it catched up with my own prior liberation as a DJ. 

Are genres still a thing?

I sincerely hope genres as collective nouns can take a step back in the way we deal with music. 

Is this the new generation speaking?

I think so. Many artists refuse to be pigeonholed these days. Take a look at the Grammy Awards, where black artists are blocked from all the important categories by putting them into an urban category. This doesn’t make sense at all. And let’s for once and for all delete the category ‘world music’. 

Do you feel in general, in our society we should label less?

When I started to work for Studio Brussel, I remember being labeled as a hiphop DJ or even a hip hop queen. First I felt honoured, but slowly I started to realise this also created expectations and narrowed my practice down. I believe in society, due to marketing and storytelling or media purposes, many things are often labeled to make them easily understandable. But the world isn’t black or white, this often does more harm than good. 

Who are your favorite DJs?

I closely follow the UK scene at the moment and most of my favorite DJs are British. I’m a big fan of Mina for example and I invited her to play at Mo Mamba during 2020’s Listen! Festival, but obviously this event never happened. About 90% of all the new music I discover these days hails from across the channel. It certainly has to do with the diaspora of the citizens on the island, who come from everywhere and create an exciting mixture of sounds and vibes, I just can’t get enough of it and hope to connect more with the UK scene sooner or later. 

Do you feel at home in the Brussels scene as well?

Although I’m still exploring the scene here and the pandemic isn’t helping, searching for new adventures is why I moved house from Ghent to Schaarbeek two years ago. At a certain point I just realized the speed of life was simply too slow there, especially after spending an energetic half-a-year in Amsterdam. When I got back to Ghent, I just knew I had to discover a new city and Brussels felt the only real option. The only struggle I have is speaking French, but musically I feel connected to like minded people such as Mimi, Yooth from Brikabrak, Max Le Daron from Low up and David Elchardus. There are so many venues here such as Beursschouwburg or VK where I will always hear new music, where I can be surprised every time again. And it’s the first time in my life that I fit into the city scene, in contrast to Ghent and my hometown Sint-Niklaas where I always felt different, even stared at. Walking out of my door here in Schaarbeek I instantly hear five different languages and see so many colors, nobody looks at me. Except for when I’m on my racing bike. 

What are you up to these days, while we’re patiently waiting for the pandemic to pass? 

I quickly realized what was going on, so it didn't take long for me to flip the switch and make other plans. I have been a music teacher for about three months, kept on working for Studio Brussel and I started getting deeper into music production, even set up a little studio in the corner of our apartment. I try to make the most out of this period, although it starts to take a bit too long now. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the music you are producing?

I was already into music production and the Ableton software before the pandemic, but since the lockdown I have been feeling more comfortable using it. After some time experimenting with the applications and discovering my favorite sounds, I now got to the point where I can make it to actual tracks, which is a bloody complicated task. My brother is into music as well and I was always teasing him with his piles of unfinished projects. Now I understand what’s keeping him from finishing these, it’s the most difficult part of the job. First of all you start to get bored of a track after working on it for ages, next to the fact that it’s damn hard to forge great arrangements. But I have had this vision of becoming a music producer since I was 16 years old, my brother and his friends were rapping to their self-made beats, I knew already at the time I wanted to be the one who collects all the elements and brings musical ideas to life. Sitting here in my studio chair often reminds me of this childhood dream, realizing the wish to create music has always been part of my identity. A day not in the studio feels like a day lost. 

Listening to your produced music here together, what I hear sounds very club oriented. Is this the future sound of Black Mamba as a musician?

The music I produce today definitely is designed to dance to, that’s my most favorite atmosphere. I enjoy adding plenty of space to a track by creating rather minimalistic sequences, where the melody takes a step back and the energy mostly depends on the rhythms. At the moment, I can’t imagine myself making music only to listen to. And I feel far away from pop music, where everything feels to be overproduced and exploited to the maximum.

What are the roots of your musicality?

This basket full of instruments is what my childhood looked like, I have inherited them from my mom. Every instrument literally reminds me of a situation at home, I enrolled in djembe classes and I participated in workshop summer camps in the Ardennes. My mum has always been into music and teached African dance. She met my father at the Cactus festival in Bruges, they connected through music. I don’t know about the musical roots of father to be honest, I have no clue if his family has music running through their veins.

Apart from the creative process of making music, how far do you go in the nerdy part?

Often I shout to my boyfriend while discovering a new plugin or hustling with cables: “look at me, I’m such a nerd”. But as a woman I find the nerdy part challenging, also because of the lack of female role models. I don’t know many chicks with a nerdy passion for music, so I often have doubts about it. I have always been a fan of the technical part of applications, give me a Playstation or CDJ hardware full of buttons and I turn into an addict dying to discover its functionality. But in music production, you can lose yourself to details and at a certain point I prefer to focus on discovering new sounds instead of fixating on the design of just one single sound. 

Is this the point you hire someone to help you, just as in a graphic design practice you can hire a photographer or a web developer?

Absolutely, but up until now I have been facing serious disbelief and biases. A standard reaction comes with a surprised tone saying “since when do you make music, Black Mamba”. As a woman, everyone just thinks you were assisted by a man. I have good friends instantly asking my boyfriend if he helped out, it’s such a preconceived opinion many women have to fight against. It scares me to ask for help from others, part of the musical process such as mixing or mastering I will never be able to do myself, but it will further feed the story that a woman can’t have made her own music. The worst thing is that I myself have questioned the involvement of female producers in their own productions in the past, it’s a prejudice that is deeply embedded in our society and that I have to correct in my own thinking as well. It leads to the point where I think about how to prove my authorship, should I record videos to exhibit this for example? But then why the hell should I even claim this in the first place?

Given the lack of role models, do you feel you’re becoming a role model yourself?

Sometimes I ask myself why I can’t be a black woman just being what apparently people expect from a black woman? This is certainly not driving a fancy race bike or making music, witnessing the reactions I often get. Would it make my life easier to not follow my passions? What scares me is that these prejudices have become part of my own belief system. When I bought my keyboard, I seriously questioned myself from this point of view, was I even worthy of this. A male producer isn’t confronted with these obstacles, just as almost every single Youtube tutorial video in music production is hosted by a man.

How did you feel about the documentary ‘Platendraaiers’ broadcasted on national television channel Canvas, that portrayed an almost completely male version of 50 years of DJ culture in Belgium?

My two darkest weeks of 2020 were when Black Lives Matter happened and when the ‘Platendraaiers’ documentary was aired. I simply cannot understand up until today that this was aired on national television followed by several positive reviews in papers and magazines. The documentary maker has every right to tell a story about his favorite DJs and in his eyes mostly by males dominated history, so I don’t blame him. It could have been shared on Youtube and that was that. But how on earth did Canvas decide not to do any quality control beforehand and can it refrain from any responsibility afterwards? I do blame them for airing such a biased documentary where women and BIPOC are almost written out of the story, which is unacceptable. I have contacted both Canvas and the documentary maker, but their replies weren’t satisfying at all. This once again proves how long the road is towards a more equal world. 

Do you feel you’re responsible to take part in the resistance?

There are two sides to this answer. Yes, I do feel very engaged and I have strong opinions about many topics, but on the other hand I experience the battle as tough and I’m not sure I’m strong enough to face the consequences. Looking back at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, I have very mixed emotions, I suffered a lot. I agreed to an interview at Studio Brussel on the subject in prime time, but afterwards had to shut down my phone for two days, since almost every newspaper and magazine contacted me. I never applied for the job of activist, but it’s practically as if I’m obliged to do it, while I would prefer to only focus on music. 

Thank you for having agreed to do this interview. We as well wish for a time when this interview will only be about music.  

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