At 10pm on a Friday, DeejayAisher, a stage name for Philly Ojallah, hangs headphones around her neck, her fingers tuning buttons and knobs on her turntable. She dances a bit and introduces herself to her audience just as she does in nightclubs. Only that she is streaming the disco music live from her living room in Berlin, Germany to thousands of people watching from around the world.
As she scratches and spins the turntable, her crowd of about 14,000 viewers immediately starts sending in comments on the 254 DiasporaDJs Live Facebook page.
This is an online platform with a following of 90,000 people and counting, where Kenyan disc jockeys (deejays) living in different parts of the world stream music live from their homes.
Some of Philly’s 3,000 viewers type out song requests but most praise her, (“Wow! you have mad talent…Yours is on another Covid level. Your mix can cleanse our lungs from corona. That song is for those who haven’t sent a tip”)
In-between, she speaks over the music about the coronavirus pandemic, corrupt African leaders, and about God’s unrelenting mercy during these tough times; messages that blend in perfectly to the tunes of her pre-recorded music.
One month since it was formed, the online platform has lured over 800 deejays, playing from rumba to Christian music to 80s soul songs.
A majority are in the US, scattered in North Carolina, San Francisco, and Washington DC to Oklahoma. Others are based in Kenya, South Korea, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Belgium, South Africa, among other countries.
Music heals the soul and Philly knows this too well. She learnt how to deejay to fight the loneliness that comes with being in a foreign country.
“I started deejaying as a distraction to draw me out of depressive thoughts. As I struggled to learn the machine, with the help of YouTube tutorials, my passion grew. I offered to play at a Kenyan pub in Germany during weekends for free to build confidence and fan base,” says Philly who has been a deejay since 2016.
In the silence of the lockdowns and curfews, another deejay who is entertaining online crowds to the wee hours, depending on the time zones, is Nairobi-based Kaydee, who prefers to use his stage name. His mastery of the turntable is enviable and is reminisce of the glorious days of Ogopa Deejays in the late 1990s. One of his fans termed hm as the “godfather of deejays” when the virtual fans enquired.
“I think I underestimated my skills, in five minutes I had about 800 views,” says Kaydee, who has been a deejay for 16 years now.
His first two-hour show had over 9,300 comments and about 215 people had shared it, meaning that the numbers keep growing as more viewers replay it.
For Kaydee, all his Fridays to Sundays used to be fully booked before Covid-19. He has done gigs in over 20 countries and shared booths with renowned deejays, musicians, and producers but at no moment has his club crowds been as big as it was in the 254 DiasporaDJs Live.
“Those numbers? Not in clubs. The only time I’ve entertained such was in a concert,” he says, adding the reason he pulls such crowds is because his music is unpredictable.
“I play every genre but in an unexpected way since most of my mixes are blends. I have tried to perfect and combine turntablism and basic production where I flip instrumentals and acapella to create mash-ups and remixes. It requires understanding the equipment, embracing technology, and research,” he says.
Deejay Sunny Sishtuki, a stage name for Sunny Chauhan, who lives in North Carolina, US, says his online crowd, of about 1,500 to 3,000 viewers for every one-hour show, is also nothing compared to those he has entertained in clubs.
“The replays of the live shows are way higher than even the real-time viewers and growing every day. This is definitely higher than playing in a club, most clubs do not have the capacity to have many people,” says Sunny, a household name in four clubs in the US.
He grew up in Eldoret and music runs in his family.
“I grew up in a musically inclined family. My dad used to be a deejay before I was born. I used to help my uncle’s friend set up his sound system and lighting before his shows from as early as 11 years,” says Sunny who has been deejaying in the US for 16 years.
The stay-at-home orders and closure of discotheques and night clubs have cancelled meetups but Sunny, now in his 30s, says deejays are bringing fun to people’s living rooms or bedrooms, and giving them options to news-watching.
Brenda Beekay, a financial analyst and event organiser in the US, is one of the nine founders of the deejays online platform.
She says the live shows entertain people 24/7 because they watch from different areas of the world with different time zones.
“Roughly, we have had 800 online shows so far,” she says, adding that they started the 254 DiasporaDJs Live to support talents on one global platform and create an open entry market in discovering new Kenyan acts across the globe.
“I’m excited that we’ve helped unearth new talent globally,” she says.
“There are many dope underground DJs who have come to the limelight. Now clubs, event organisers and media houses ought to stop recycling the same deejays based on their names,” adds Philly.
“You do not have a dance floor to see how well you are entertaining the crowd. You go with your gut and make the most of it,” says Sunny.
John Wahome, who lives in Seoul, South Korea, works part-time as a deejay as he finalises his Master’s degree in International Relations and Public Diplomacy.
He has never deejay-ed in a Kenyan club. He got his first online slot on a Wednesday at 11am, enabling him to use the platform to showcase his skills and have a feel of how Kenyans keep the party going.
“Entertaining Kenyans across the globe is an honour but it dawns on you that they have differences in taste of music, time zones, age, and some prefer certain genres at particular times of day,” says John who has been a DJ in Seoul for four years, out of the nine years he has lived there.
Does being a deejay in Seoul pay well? “The highest-paying are outdoor gigs, school festivals, city cultural festivals… You earn anything from $500 (Sh50,000) to $2,000 (Sh200,000) or more,” says John.
Live stream deejaying will be a game-changer post-Covid-19. Kaydee notes that the pandemic has levelled the playing field for deejays globally and now a majority are competing afresh for opportunities in radio shows, live streams, and podcasts.
“Every deejay has lost gigs and we have the one thing that many look up to is the ability to entertain. You have an audience sitting at home looking up to you to entertain them, make them happy and help them spend the extra time pleasantly,” he says.
“The game-changer is the unity, the fact that so many people have come together to promote DJs and their art. Covid-19 has made people think outside the box,” Sunny adds.
But the live shows have had their hitches, especially for Kenya-based deejays.
“Sometimes deejays in Kenya abruptly experience power outages and we have to come up with alternative ones on short notice. Also, some have poor internet connectivity which affects their streaming capabilities,” Brenda says.
Are these deejays doing this to purely entertain or as a new way of making money?
“It started off as a form of entertainment. However it turns out we have some generous viewers and thanks to them and electronic banking and payment systems like CashApp, they will tip the DJ,” says Sunny.
For Philly, it is also for philanthropy.
“Besides entertaining people, I plan to give out my mixtapes in exchange for donations for buying face masks and food to the less privileged in Migori, my hometown,” says Philly, who is in her 20s.