kim lee female dj hip hop yo mtv raps steve aoki ultra women empowerment
Photo courtesy of Kim Lee. 
As Told To

EDM Is Now the Biggest Genre in Asia, but Being a DJ Is Still Difficult for Women Like Me

As a woman, no matter how talented you are, you will be doubted.

Kim Lee is a DJ, model, host, and actress. She started her career with The Black Eyed Peas’ as a mentor and gained commercial success in Asia as a model in 2011, after topping FHM’s Sexiest Women In Asia list. She regularly performs in music festivals and was the host of YO! MTV Raps Asia.

I witnessed the rise of electronic dance music in Asia. When I started as a DJ here, EDM was so new that I would get booed off stages in Vietnam and Indonesia because people didn’t know what it was. Back in 2012, clubs would reach out to me asking for help to get a hold of major DJs and producers like Skrillex, but now they know Asia is where it’s at. EDM is the biggest genre in the region.


As a DJ, I’ve benefited from its surge in popularity. I’ve played in festivals like Ultra Korea and have opened for acts like Steve Aoki and R3hab. It brought me new opportunities, like hosting YO! MTV Raps Asia. But getting to this point was not easy, especially for DJs who are women like me.

It was so hard when I started out. Being in a male-dominated industry has been one of my biggest challenges. In the very beginning, before I got signed by my agents, I had to be my own boss. This meant negotiating deals and making sure promoters pay me after my show. It was hard because sometimes, they were obviously not taking me seriously.

One time in 2012, back when I was part of a duo, a promoter for a show in Europe said that he wouldn’t be able to pay us in full and that he’ll just wire the rest of the money to us. I had to put my foot down and say “No. You signed a contract; you have to pay now.” I told my DJ partner, who is also a woman, that we would not get on our plane until the promoter pays. I literally made him drive to the bank and get the money.

The sexism is more subtle now, and takes different forms.

In Asia, the whole “female DJ” thing is particularly popular. If you are cute, you have a chance to be booked in a club. Still, most “female DJs” don't even like to be called that.

I think clubs sometimes book me because they think I'm an attractive girl. For example, in China, when a baller walks into a club and buys a table, he often really just wants to see a DJ who’s a woman. I've seen that many times. Throughout Asia, clubs get requests from high-roller customers to bring in DJs who are women.


But women face criticisms for that, especially from men in the industry, including fellow DJs.

It was surprising for me to see how I suddenly had a lot of guy haters when I started DJing. I was confused at first, but then I slowly understood why. Here's the thing: there are a lot of talented DJs that have been working hard and can truly scratch. And then, all of a sudden, here comes this girl who gets to headline a festival. The guys are going to be like “What? Why? She can't even do what I do."

Times have changed, and DJing is just as much about putting on a performance as it is about the actual skill. But there’s a double standard when it comes to that, too.

A lot of people say Steve Aoki is more of a performer than a DJ. He does the caking thing, for example. It's so cool he created that, and that people actually go to his sets wanting to get caked. He puts on a badass show and no one questions his skills. But as a woman, your skills are always in question. People say that you only got to where you are because of your looks, and that you are putting on a show because you have no talent.

I’ll always have to prove myself to people. As a woman, no matter how talented you are, you will be doubted. That's something I had to overcome and block out. So I hustle and let my work speak for itself.