An emerging career as DJ, programmer and feminist voice: meet Zouzibabe

In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. This quote attributed to Albert Einstein also works for Zoé Devaux aka DJ Zouzibabe. While technically unemployed from her day-time job as programmer and citizenship responsible at Paradise City festival, she decided to apply as a volunteer at Kiosk Radio. This led to her first ever radio show and a monthly residency, DJ sets for crowds eager to dance the lockdown off and a rising DJ profile with sets at C12, La Cabane, Ampère, Doel Festival or our very own Listen Festival. The long awaited return to normal also allowed her to further develop rebel, the feminist collective she co-founded. And to return to her festival job, next to a fresh of the presses master degree. She is a busy bee, who was so kind to host us in her house in Ixelles for tea and a chat on a 21 degrees warm Wednesday at the end of October. (Hashtags climatechange neverforget!)

Hello Zoé, thanks for having us. Being implied in all those projects, can you quickly walk us through them?

First there is Paradise City Festival for which I have been on the payroll for four years now and one year as an intern. This year was the seventh edition of the festival, just as the first edition of our newborn babies Doel Festival and Paradies Garten in Austria. I work as artistic director in collaboration with founder Gilles De Decker and I’m also responsible for our citizenship program, which embodies everything concerning awareness, security of our visitors and equal representation of all genders and sexual and racial backgrounds on our line-ups. 

Next to all this I run rebel, a feminist collective founded in 2019 with three friends. We host club nights, film projections, talks and stages at festivals. I also work as a DJ, first starting among friends but lately more and more professionally and on bigger events, which feels great. 

Lastly I just finished a second Master’s in gender studies, which is really the common thread in all of my work, a subject I wish to thoroughly implement as much as I can. Starting this Master’s was also only possible thanks to the time freed up during the pandemic.

What did you write your Master’s thesis on?

About the role of feminist collectives in the increase of female presence on line-ups of electronic music festivals. I studied four Belgian collectives: Not Your Techno, Missfitte, Psst Mlle and Burenhinder. With this research I wanted to portray the often hidden work of these collectives and the impact they have on the public discourse. Their effect is real, yet while big and international collectives such as Discwoman reach huge crowds and clear visibility, in a smaller local scene such as ours in Belgium, their impact is less detectable yet equally important.   

With rebel you try to have a similar impact?

Definitely. And the need is real. Before I started at Paradise City, I studied journalism which included an internship at Dour Festival. Active as a member of the festival’s radio team, I followed DJs and artists around with a microphone. During the DJ set of Amelie Lens I wanted to feel the atmosphere in the room so I went frontstage and witnessed a group of men shout ‘suck my dick’ to Amelie. The beats were louder than their voices, but I was disgusted. If this is how a female headliner is treated, we’re still a long way from home. 

As a programmer at a festival, do you use quota to guarantee equal representation?

Our line-ups don’t start with a set quota, yet my taste in music, DJs and artists is completely different from male colleagues. That’s why Gilles and I run the programming together and I have an equal vote. We seek a balanced line-up in gender, all kinds of backgrounds and also local versus international artists. Statistics do help us to make conclusions though. Since I have been involved in programming, the presence of female artists at Paradise City has increased in numbers. 

We need to give everyone a seat at the table and decision power, that’s a fact. The world is often designed by and for men, like for example in medical science where research is done on male bodies, temperature in public spaces or offices based on male standards or safety measures in cars leading to more female casualties. Do you also see this in night clubs? 

Definitely! That’s an important body of our work with rebel. A nightclub is really designed for men and actually mostly for white men, since colored men still risk being refused at the door in some clubs. The use of light for instance in clubs is often in favor of men, being too dim. Or the toilet infrastructure, leading to long cues for female clubbers. There is interesting research available on this subject, suggesting to mix female and male toilets not only to offer the same cueing for all but also for security reasons, to have a clear overview on all. I’m happy to see C12 altered their toilets in such a manner. And finally it’s also the larger context in which a nightclub exists that can be dangerous for women or the LGBTQ+ community, such as the choice of transport to safely make it home after a night out.  

Is the imposter syndrome, where someone doubts their abilities and feels like a fraud, still a psychological effect for females?

I could already answer this question by the fact that many men have never even heard of this syndrome. It’s a question only asked to women. I still suffer from it, definitely. Last week we were at the Amsterdam Dance Event, where I had many meetings for our festivals with my co-programmer Gilles. I often felt insecure, while everyone always easily talks with him. Another example: soon I’m supposed to meet someone from a booking agency who will introduce me to their artists, but Gilles will be on holiday. While Gilles fully trusts me to do the meeting, the booking agent refuses to see me alone, asking for a new meeting when Gilles is back in the office. I wonder if he would have ever asked for a replacement date if I was the one absent. With rebel we wish to share positive messages with the world, to show minorities that they are worthy, that they do deserve their position in the music industry.  As a female artist, being united in a feminist collective really leads to empowerment. 

Are you satisfied with the level of investment Belgian clubs and festivals put into inequality?

We’re not there yet. Plenty is said about the topic, but the appropriate actions don’t always follow. There is a change in discourse and improved awareness, but it has definitely not yet reached all festivals or clubs. I was astonished about the praise that was given to Tomorrowland this year for booking Charlotte De Witte as the first female artist closing the main stage. Finally! But the fact that it took until 2022 to reach this goal, is not something to be proud of as a society. 

I read somewhere in an interview with you: ‘I will definitely live in the UK one day’. Is that still the case? 

A city like London feels like the perfect match for my hyperactivity, there are always tons of things to do on any given day or night. I lived in Paris for three months and had the same feeling. I enjoy the vast cultural offer of these metropolises compared to the smaller scale of Brussels. And most of my musical inspirations are Londoners, such as Shanti Celeste, Peach, Moxie, Saoirse, OK Williams, … All these UK DJs are very independent and autonomous.

Why is that?

They’re not afraid to speak out and stand up for themselves. They use their voice, not abundantly but at the appropriate time. By listening to podcast interviews with them, I understood that they are also familiar with the imposter syndrome, but that they overcame the uncertainty and grew much more self-confident. Such stories inspire me. 

Where were you born and raised?

Brussels. I grew up in Watermaal-Bosvoorde/Watermael-Boitsfort. My father is Belgian, my mother is half Belgian half Congolese. My Belgian grandfather met my grandmother in Congo, that’s how she ended up here.


Were you raised with an ear for music?

Yes and no. My mother sometimes wonders why I ended up in music without any musical training, but on the other hand I was dancing already at a young age practicing many styles. We always listened to music at home and especially in my mother’s side of the family, where there are 10 brothers and sisters, used to throw great family meetings with American disco and funk music from the seventies and the eighties such as Kool & The Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire or Michael Jackson, next to Congolese or Zouk music or artists such as Koffi Olomide. At a certain point all chairs would move and everyone danced, even my grandmother.

As a DJ you play very warm, optimistic, vocal music. What or who inspires you?

Joyful and happy music is probably the only music I ever listen to, even when I’m living a tough moment. ‘Halo’ by Beyonce for example, really gives me goosebumps all the time. She is another great inspiration actually. Next to the DJs and artists  aforementioned, I adore these kinds of divas like for instance Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, who have strong voices. Not the diva that is interpreted as negative, often typecast this way by men who are unable to control them, but the diva who is independent and strong. I come from an adolescence full of RnB and Latino music and used to go to these nights where everybody danced intensely, not turned to the DJ, but to each other. I love these dance floors. 

Well, see you on the dance floor! Thanks Zoé.

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