Artist of the Year: The Black Madonna On the Beautiful Paradox of Being a Catholic DJ
"I poured myself into dance music and discovered God isn't silent. God is loud."
Illustration by Leesh Adamerovich
To look back on this long year, we're paying tribute to some of the people who shaped the look, sound, and feeling of club culture in 2016. Today, The Black Madonna (né Marea Stamper) is THUMP's Artist of the Year.
The Chicago-based DJ and producer's recent, meteoric rise to global superstar comes at a turbulent time when the rave scene needs politically "woke" figures like her the most. Whether she's throwing down jubilant house and disco-leaning sets, on the dancefloor hugging her fans, or speaking out against bigotry, Stamper is always fully and passionately engaged, driven by her belief that dance music is a haven to outcasts of all genders, races, and walks of life. Despite her undeniably huge year, she also remains resolutely humble. I'll never forget her response when I told her, earlier this year at a festival, how much I looked up to her. "Honey," she said with a laugh, "you need better role models."
Below, Stamper writes about one of her own role models within the Catholic church—the Black Madonna icon that inspired her DJ alias—as well as her messy, often contradictory, quest to reconcile her faith and her feminism.—Michelle Lhooq
The Black Madonna: I am a terrible, no good, petulant, freerange—yet somehow still practicing—Catholic. As a progressive and a feminist, I disagree with the church on more things than I can count. Yet the iconography, ritual, and allegory Catholicism has found its way into almost every piece of art I've ever made. My Catholic faith is a part of me and there's no getting away from it.
My family's religious roots started with my grandfather, who had a mystical experience as a young man. Before that, he had wanted to be a sports announcer on the radio (Kentucky Wildcats basketball, if anyone's asking!). But one day, he said he heard God's voice clearly directing him to become a minister. The experience changed the course of his life forever, leading him to become a Methodist minister before eventually joining the Catholic church.
The rest of my family went along with him. I grew up going to Holy Cross church in Jackson, Kentucky, and I loved everything about it. The rituals. The singing. The scholarly tradition within the church. The simple, gentle act of turning to your neighbor and saying, "Peace be with you." I became friends with a nun and dreamed secretly of wearing her habit someday myself. I was a bad student. Sister Wendy said it didn't matter if I could say the Ten Commandments as long as I knew that God loved me. And I did know it. I felt accepted, loved and a part of something much bigger.
For my progressive family, God was synonymous with mercy, service, social justice, scholastic life and art. My grandparents fed and sometimes even housed students who didn't have quite enough money for books and food. They were active in the civil rights movement. My grandfather had the kind of faith that made you feel good just being around him. It wasn't fussy, or chaste or conservative. He was friends with the Catholic writer and monk Thomas Merton, and he corresponded with C.S. Lewis. Our dinner table was always full of family, as well as visiting theologians and professors on occasion, debating into the night long after dinner was done. But late in his life, when recounting that first mystical experience to me, my grandfather admitted, almost incredulously, that God had never spoken directly to him again the way he had when. When I heard this, I couldn't believe that God would speak once to someone, change their whole life, and then go radio silent. It seemed like such a betrayal.
I poured myself into dance music and discovered God isn't silent. God is loud.
As I got older and grew into a passionate young feminist grappling with my own queer identity, I found that God wasn't "speaking" to me in the way he once had either. The idyllic experiences of my childhood church life didn't jive with the values I'd developed as an adult. I wasn't alone; the hope that many Catholics had held for progressive reform within the church, including allowing women to be ordained as priests after Vatican II, had not materialized. In fact, as the AIDS crisis grew in the eighties, the church made a hard right turn, with reprehensible, inhumane stances on birth control which doomed untold lives. As I matured, I barely saw myself reflected in the faith that had meant so much to me as a girl. While other Catholics protested abortion, I worked for abortion rights and distributed condoms. It was clear that I would never be Catholic with a capital "c" again.
My faith and my reason were in painful conflict, and reason was winning.
Thank God I found dance music.
The connection between house music and gospel is well documented. Frankie Knuckles, for example, described Chicago nightclub The Warehouse as "church for people who have fallen from grace." My heart, hungry for that feeling of transcendence and acceptance again, zoned in on this connection immediately. I loved everything about dancing. The records booming out of a speaker. For the next twenty years, I poured myself into dance music and discovered that for me, God isn't silent. God is loud.
Going out to the club became a new kind of ritual, akin to attending mass as a child. There were so many analogs for my early spiritual life waiting for me on the dancefloor, including the simple, gentle act of turning to your neighbor and hugging them simply because you're having the same beautiful experience. Indeed, many of the most powerful experiences of spiritual connection have happened on a dancefloor. I am at my most in-tune—my best self—when the music lifts the whole room together, and all the separations between us dissolve for a little while.
The Black Madonna resonates with me because she is a more humanized depiction of the Holy Mother. She is simple and humble.
You might expect that dance music would completely replace my complicated relationship with Catholicism. But I found that—in spite of my firmly held disagreements with the church—the ritual, contemplation, and allegory of my faith continued to provide guidance and comfort to me. Whereas nightlife can be joyful yet transitory, my faith keeps me tied to more permanent traditions and to my family. Often, I find myself resolving conflicts between the two parts of myself, as a Catholic and a musician, in my work. I have accepted that the symbology and ritual faith are here to stay, while casting out the parts which are no longer acceptable to me as a rational, compassionate adult.
Many aspects of my work and my spiritual life are deeply connected. The name I perform under is a reference to European statues or paintings of the Virgin Mary dating back to the medieval period or earlier. The tradition of this icon is ubiquitous in Catholic and Orthodox countries in Europe, where they primarily appear. She is the national icon of Poland, the patron saint of Catalonia in Spain, and there are 200 Black Madonnas in France alone. Black Madonna icons are often particularly associated with miracles, sudden endings of wars, and political struggles for freedom. The color is a result of these icons typically being made of dark wood or stone, or turning dark over time from candle smoke and sometimes then reproduced, but they carry deep mystery within them.
As with many other elements of Christian (and especially Catholic) iconography, this Madonna has much older roots in European pagan imagery and practice. Time and time again we find la moreneta sites directly on top of ancient temples of goddess worship. For example, the shrine at Montserrat, thirty miles outside of Barcelona, Spain, one of the most visited of these vierges noires, was previously a Roman temple to Venus. My mother and I visited her on pilgrimage there last year. It was the trip of a lifetime.
My name, on one hand, is in honor of my own mother and this aspect our family's tradition, my identity, and the saint that I remain personally most devoted to. One of my most treasured belongings is a book about the Black Madonna passed with an inscription from my grandfather to my mom, and then to me about 25 years ago. But past the familial bond, the Black Madonna resonates with me because she is a more humanized depiction of the Holy Mother, in comparison to her more bejeweled and extravagantly decorated counterparts in Catholic art. She is simple and humble. She tells our stories, as well as a story which is much older. Her iconography is steeped in mystery—a central value of the Catholic faith. She is our earth mother. She is loved. She is the peacemaker, the heroine. She is meek, yet miraculous.
Just as Venus was adopted by the church and became a new kind of goddess, The Black Madonna is a goddess archetype that resonates not only within my faith but with people outside of it. This is good. I belong to a faith, but that faith does not belong to me, and I would not presume to tell another person how to walk their own spiritual path or what any symbol should mean to them. I describe my own culture and our traditions, but I do not erect a theological boundary around them.
Synchronizations and iterations of tradition are a part of how we look for God; God makes us in his image and then we remake God in our own. We seek the magic and the symbols that resonate with our own lives. We burn sage and Palo Santo after a bad breakup. We meditate. We go to yoga and some of us pray the rosary. The tools of spiritual practice help us try to make sense of a world which does not make sense. It's a messy quest but a worthy one.
My faith is not a promise to agree with the old men in charge.
For Catholic women like me, in our own messy quests for the divine, contradiction is unavoidable. We deal heavily in paradox because we have to—we have had damn near every trace of the average human woman wiped from the Bible, yet here we are. The few relatable women we see in our faith are often unfairly besmirched in our communities, as Mary Magdalene once was. We look for remnants of these women in the shadows of the gospel.
When I think about the search for the feminine in a decidedly patriarchal body like the Catholic Church, or dance music for that matter, I am reminded of the feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, who wrote, "We are, I am, you are by cowardice or courage the one who find our way back to this scene carrying a knife, a camera, a book of myths in which our names do not appear." In both dance music and the church, I seek our names, our mythology. I want to be transformed, and I want to transform the people around me. I search for peace and mercy.
I guess at this point, I would describe myself as a Christian humanist who happens to practice Catholicism. My faith isn't so much about magic, the supernatural, or big guys in the sky. If there's a mystical component, I think of it more like the Force in Star Wars—"an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together." Like my grandfather's, my faith is more interested in the humanity of the gospel, Christ's revolutionary social ideas, and the concept of grace, embodied perfectly for me by Mary. I long ago ditched religious dogma in favor of universal human dignity, individual freedom, and service to others.
Many, many Catholics are progressive just like me. Many American nuns in particular are deeply involved in social justice, feminist activism, and other causes close to my heart. We progressive Catholics oppose the death penalty and war. We believe in science and reason. We believe that poverty is a moral issue that we are all called upon to resolve. We are pro-choice because we believe that the sanctity of life cannot be reduced to a medical decision that should between a woman, her doctor and her own faith. We believe showing mercy is an imperative and showing judgment is forbidden. We are working hard for reform in the church, women's ordination, and total inclusiveness. There are promising signs of change, but there's a long, long way to go.
Yet, in spite of my remaining deep conflict with aspects of the church, the rituals of communion and other practices are concrete traditions that tie me to my family, faith and community. Communion connects me directly to grace. My faith is not a promise to agree with the old men in charge. My shrine at home has statues of the Holy Mother from around the world, pictures of my family, and votive candles with images of Freddie Mercury and Divine on them. There's room for everyone, and doubt is welcome. I don't profess to have a single view of religion and my own perspective is sure to evolve. I am a daily meditator, and like Merton, I find a close connection between the contemplative aspects of the Catholic tradition and Buddhism.
Rather than coming into conflict with my life as a DJ, Catholicism complements it. For me, an ideal life nourishes both kinds of spiritual experiences. And when all's said and done, whether I'm in meditation, prayer, on a dancefloor, or in the DJ booth, the goal is still to turn to my neighbor, whoever they are, and say, "Peace be with you."
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