‘Dance music was created by us, but is ruled entirely by white people’: meet rising DJ OK Williams
Following a 2019 that put her on the map, emerging DJ OK Williams speaks to Timi Sotire about how she got started on the decks, combatting imposter syndrome and the necessity of reclaiming black spaces in dance music.
31 Jan 2020
Situated in the corner of Hackney’s Gillett Square is NTS studios, home of the online radio station renowned for supporting underground music across the globe. It’s here that I manage to catch Kanyin, professionally known as OK Williams, finishing off a shift in the studio – she has a monthly show on the station. Still on a high from a successful gig in New York, London’s very own “multifaceted party starter” had a wild 2019. DJing at festivals such as Field Maneuvers and Glastonbury, and ending the year with a killer Boiler Room set, it’s clear that OK Williams has cemented herself as one to watch for the year ahead.
For Kanyin, DJing was not a dream career, but one she fell into: “It happened really naturally,” she explains, “I never planned on becoming a DJ.” After dropping out of university and being employed in a lot of “shit” jobs, Kanyin felt dissatisfied with where her life was going: “I was doing a lot of stuff but it wasn’t getting me anywhere.” It was 2017 that proved to be monumental in shaping Kanyin’s career, as it was the year where she first touched the decks. A friend in London, who also worked in Boiler Room, introduced Kanyin into the world of DJing, where she was given the chance to learn the art of mixing in her friend’s place and the Boiler Room Studios. After spending that summer perfecting a craft she never knew she had, Kanyin finally started to experience real happiness. Feeling almost embarrassed at how impassioned DJing made her, Kanyin chuckles, “I know I sound really gassed, but I’ve never really been good at anything else. I dropped out of uni, I was shit in school. DJing is the only thing that has come to me quite easily. I know, it sounds ridiculous!” It sounds anything but ridiculous if you’ve caught one of her sets, though.
“I know I sound really gassed, but I’ve never really been good at anything else. I dropped out of uni, I was shit in school. DJing is the only thing that has come to me quite easily”– OK Williams
After grimacing in response to being asked to align herself to a genre, believing it to be restrictive, Kanyin informs me that she merely describes her sound as, “the kind of music that gets people hyped. I don’t care about the genre, I just want them to dance. I want to elicit a response”.
Fittingly, Kanyin’s mixes are defined by hype tunes, which she claims are influenced by her Yoruba upbringing – her household would constantly play soul, afrobeat(s) and R&B. “I listened to a lot of that growing up, so the music I listen to now has a similar vibe. Even though I listen to techno, it’s all very melodic. There’s an undertone of soul, bass, percussion and groove.” In her Boiler Room set, which Kanyin claimed to be “the best DJ set I’ve ever done in my life”, it’s clear that getting people on their feet is of no trouble to her: “I play a lot of techno that makes you want to twerk on the dancefloor. Techno twerking!” When watching OK Williams’ set at Boiler Room, you can see how Kanyin’s whimsical character is directly translated into her music, where her uptempo techno and house beats are underpinned by a funky, afrobeat sound.
Despite her undeniable talent, Kanyin is aware that being London’s new hype-woman has its drawbacks. “I think I pay too much attention to the crowd. I feed off of them entirely.” This desire to please has resulted in Kanyin sometimes feeling “scared to play what I really want because I feel like people won’t like it”. The pressure to always be “reading the dancefloor” is heightened when you’re a black woman who DJs, she says, “As a black woman, you’re so visible and invisible at the same time. People will look straight through you yet can’t see anything past the colour of your skin.” In an industry where there are not many people like you, it’s easy to question whether you deserve your accolades and to value the opinions of a white-dominated crowd over your own. As a DJ in the London scene, Kanyin told me that she regularly suffers from imposter syndrome when she’s on the decks – she explains, “being a black woman in a white industry makes you constantly think: do I deserve this?”
“This was an industry created by us, but ruled entirely by white people”– OK Williams
Kanyin says she feels “inspired by every black woman in the music industry. Them doing their thing within dance music makes me want to do it even more”. Nevertheless, the London club scene is a reflection of white supremacy, with clubs playing genres created by queer black and Latinx communities, yet remaining gatekeeped by white DJs and crowd goers. “This was an industry created by us, but ruled entirely by white people,” Kanyin angrily tells me. She describes how she is plagued with a feeling of liminality, struggling to find solace in both the wider black community and the white-dominated club scene. “When I play my music, black people say it’s white ‘oonz oonz’ music. It’s infuriating! I cringe because they don’t even know that the appropriation is so strong!” Yet at the same time, when going on nights out, she notices that “there’s no black people in the club, there isn’t a single black DJ. So, of course, you can’t see a place for yourself there.”
Feeling like a minority within a scene that was created by your own community can be disheartening, and result in sometimes wanting to appease those who you think have power over the music that you play. But it is clear that Kanyin does not want to focus on the negative aspects of the industry, her intrinsic positivity means that she is able to realise that there is more to DJing than pleasing the average club-goer. She tells me, “I’m learning more and more that it’s not just about exciting people, it’s about playing music that moves you. The best DJs don’t just please the crowd, they take it a bit deeper.” DJing has taken Kanyin on a journey of self-realisation, where she now believes that the most important factor to take into account when playing music is how you, rather than the white audience, feel about your sound: “I’m not here for your entertainment, for you to clap at me and shit. This isn’t for you!”
“In the long term, I want to get as many black people involved in dance music as possible”– OK Williams
With her eyes instantly lighting up in response to me asking about what she has planned for the future, Kanyin expresses how she hopes that her efforts, and those of other black women who DJ, will create an environment where black people can reclaim a sound that was taken from them. “In the long term, I want to get as many black people involved in dance music as possible. There’s no accessibility at the moment – it’s hard to get into this industry if you don’t have contacts.” Kanyin hopes that her journey will inspire other young black girls that want to get into the music scene. Whilst recounting her past experiences, Kanyin’s main advice to black women pursuing a music career is to remember that “you are absolutely smashing it. If you get disheartened by everything, you won’t do anything. Even if you’re not good now, you’ll get good. Literally, just persevere”.