Born in Sudan, raised in Paris and Queens, NY, mOma is the quintessential New York DJ who draws from a wide variety of music – hip-hop, rnb, afrobeats, dancehall, afro house, soca, amapiano and much more – and blends them into a coherent whole. His sets are a tasty mix of time-tested classics and brand-new dancefloor sure shots, intertwined with lesser-known gems he’s collected along the way. mOma’s played extensively across the US and in Europe, keeping a busy schedule that saw him jump from east to west coast by way of Florida over the same weekend. A true panafrican artist, he’s toured across the Continent from Dakar to Lagos and Nairobi, and just came back from spending several months in Johannesburg and Zanzibar. He’s long been a champion of African and diasporic music, especially in the US, as a founding member of the wildly successful Everyday People events, and through the Everyday Afrique collabo with ElectrAfrique and OkayAfrica. But enough with the intro, let’s hear it from the man himself:
What brought you to DJing? How did it all start for you?
Sounds cliché, but DJing found me, like many people from my generation. In the late 80s, early 90s, we were crazy about hip-hop. Public Enemy made me fall in love with hip-hop, and a couple years later, A Tribe Called Quest just solidified that this is the greatest genre of music ever. For that entire decade, I was involved in hip-hop in some shape or form. We had this crew in Queens, Jig4Life, and we were like serious about it… did shows in the New York area and I’d also hop on stage at open mics with like The Roots and Digital Underground. We really poured our heart and soul into hip-hop and kind of got disenchanted with the art form, when it switched from underground and sub-cultural to very mainstream towards 1999 to 2000. Around that time, I was looking for a new passion, and started digging into all the music that hip-hop sampled. Music from the 70s, jazz, funk, fusion. I’d also hang in underground parties in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they’d play broken beat, two-step and garage. Given the music industry crackdown on the mp3 sharing platforms like Napster and Limewire, I started growing a record collection so I could listen to all this music, with originally no intention of DJing. Back then I still had a day job as an engineer. But one day, a friend told me “listen Mo, you got some cool records, you should come DJ with us”. So I came out for a gig in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I was so terrified of having a bad showing that I had planned my set to the percentage pitch, haha! That’s where the engineer background came to help, I guess. I mean, I planned every transition, cause I really didn’t want to look bad. My first set was not improvised at all, but it sounded flawless… As a result, this guy who had just opened a bar offered me a job to play every Saturday. I was totally unqualified for this, as I had one single crate of only purist, hobbyist type sound, but I took the gig. Everyone I knew in New York came by for my first show, like 100-150 people, who were like “look, that’s cool, Mo’s a DJ”. But when I came back the next Saturday, there was no novelty anymore, my friends weren’t there, and it was just like local Brooklyn people asking me “are you gonna play Biggie? Are you gonna play Shabba Ranks? Something we can dance to?”. I had none of it, as I had come with that same crate of underground jazzy fusion stuff. This was the worst gig of my life. A total stalemate that lasted over 4 hours. I knew right then that this can never happen to me again. So the next day, I went to the Music Factory record store, on Jamaica Ave in Queens, and told them I need a crate of everything. Every dancehall hit, every hip-hop classic, every RNB classic, every house classic… I walked out with $400 worth of records, and just like that my model kind of changed overnight. I felt I was now ready with quality, accessible party music. My goal now became to kind of reconcile both the party crate with my underground selection, knowing that on any given night, I had what the people want, but also packed along what I need. So that’s kind of how it started.
You know, I like to nudge people into dancing, not beat them over the head with a dance song and expect them to get into it. I want to nudge them and if they start moving, then I can just keep pushing them further and further in my direction, towards music they may be less familiar with but may also dig.
When did you start introducing African music into your sets?
Probably two years later, around 2005. My older sister Israa used to work at the UN. She had the international friends crew. She was – and still is – my number one supporter. She brought her friends to my shows, but also took me to parties with them. We went to a famous Tuesday night party that was mostly for Africans. It was a new joint called Tapis Rouge – shoutout to Etienne and Jean-Claude DeYans, the original African brothers in the Manhattan nightlife. I heard them play coupé décalé and it blew my mind, because the production was so modern, using elements of dance music, unlike the more “folkloric” African music you’d hear in other places. I mean, the biggest African dance song of all times, Premier Gaou, was born from this genre… So I found inspiration in what I heard in this party, and now whenever my sister and her crew would come to my shows, I had to play them Magic System, and songs like [Awilo Logomba’s] Karolina just so I could cater to them. What this cluster of folks created very early on in my events, was this FOMO from everyone else in the party, that was just used to traditional hip-hop, rnb, dancehall, soca, house… I would do a set of this irresistible music in another language and this group of 20 people would start going off and having the best time of their lives. Slowly that group of people that was just my sis and her friends started growing bigger and bigger.
Actually, I always thought of myself, in New York, as the “Russian doll” of African DJs, because, the Sudanese community would say “Oh there’s a Sudanese DJ, gotta follow him”, and then the Somali, Ethiopians, Eritreans would say “Oh there’s a DJ from the Horn of Africa, let’s check him out” and then the Kenyans, Tanzanians would say “He is East African, let’s follow suit”, and even some of the North African crowd, you know, with the relationship with Sudan, would be like “There is an Arab-style DJ” and of course the rest of the Continent, for them I was just an African DJ. So the following kept getting bigger and next thing you know, I was doing Habesha happy hours, LOL. And all of this over the years was like a lead up to the afrobeats wave, that came about in 2012, when D’Banj dropped Oliver Twist. That was the next song that penetrated the psyche of everyone, across the board. Just like Premier Gaou, I was like wow, you can play this song in any room in the world. At that point, all the afrobeats came in, and it took the African segment of my main parties from being 30min of the night to up to two hours, which is huge. In my more underground parties, I would also experiment with South African and Angolan house music, and introducing things like funaná from Cabo Verde and Haitian kompa. And of course, one huge element is when you and I started Everyday Afrique in 2014, along with Ginny, from OkayAfrica. This was the next level, because up to then in New York, there hadn’t been an African music party of that size, that was not an “African party” for Africans by Africans. What Everyday Afrique did, was create an African music party for everyone that appreciated the music from the diaspora. I think we did a great job getting people familiar with a wide range of African music, and the beauty of it is that once you understand the music and catch the groove, you don’t have to know the songs in advance… which is the total opposite of hip-hop and rnb or even dancehall and soca, where DJs would be lucky to break more than 3 or 4 new songs a night. And then the rest is history. Everyday Afrique is, yearly, one of the parties that people look forward to the most and we can’t wait to bring it back post pandemic.
You chose to spend the last few months in South Africa and Zanzibar. Can you tell us more about why and what came out of it?
Towards end of February-early March, the world started realizing this COVID thing is real, and it’s going global. I had a gig in Brazil then, which went well, but I started being concerned health-wise. And as I came home, I was just appalled at the lack of measure I saw in New York. I thought if NYC is so lax about thing, what does it mean for the rest of America, right? So I did my last gig that Wednesday with Eli Escobar at Le Bain in Manhattan, and then I left and hopped on a flight to South Africa. I just had this bad feeling and felt I needed to move out, but never expected it to become so bad. You know I’d spent a lot of time before in South Africa. I love the country, it’s certainly my favorite place, musically, as they constantly innovate and move really fast. I love the people and have so many friends in Johannesburg so the destination was an obvious pick. But within a few weeks after I got there, South Africa entered the world’s most severe lockdown, which was probably the kind of measure I wished I had seen in the States. For me, I didn’t necessarily want to be locked down in a hotel for several months, but at least I felt safe in South Africa. Being confined to this hotel, I used my status as one the only remaining guests to negotiate upgrade upon upgrade so that I finally ended up moving to the penthouse, LOL. I used the time to really dig deep into production. I had Ableton, my laptop, a mini keyboard, hi-speed wi-fi. And a vivid imagination. It’s all you need really. I also found this dope producer/engineer from Cape Town called XDizzle on YouTube. I liked his tutorials and asked if he did mixing and mastering, and sure enough we worked together for the next three months, where I made an EP, and 3 or 4 official remixes, and he worked with me every step of the way. That was one of the best relationships that came out of 2020 for me, because I learned so much working with him. And anyone that’s in music knows how critical it is to find the person that understands you and knows your ear. It makes the process so smooth, because there is an infinite amount of ways you could mix and master a track. He helped me get the right sounds. I ended up making music that was very influenced by amapiano and he just totally broke it down for me, stuff I could have never found out on my own. Thanks to him I was able ot get authentic sounds, which lead to lots of South Africans giving me the stamp of approval. It means a lot, you know, when a South African tells you “I like this piano”.
You are referring here to your mOmapiano EP, right? Can you say more about that project?
Yeah. The title is an obvious pun and the project essentially sits right in my sweet spot, bringing together rnb and amapiano. I found inspiration to do this from Love You Tonight, this beautiful song by MFR Souls featuring Maphorisa, Sha Sha and Kabza De Small. This song remains very authentic and deeply amapiano, and yet it crossed over to a much larger audience, I think mostly because of the nature of the vocals. I just thought I want to make songs like that, and was touched to see the reaction of my homies in the South African music industry, who thought the music sounded authentic but at the same time, I really made it my own. To be honest, I think that not being South African myself kind of helped me take more liberties with the established sound. I didn’t have pressure to keep up with the South African music industry, they have the best amapiano in the world. So from jump I said let me do it my own way and make something that’s more easily digestible for the people that listen to me back in the States, who follow the Everyday People / Everyday Afrique kind of circuit. But yeah, the fact that it’s appreciated by South Africans is a tremendous bonus and surely the best compliment I could hope for.
You have performed in many countries across the Continent and diaspora. How do you adapt to different audiences that are new to you?
It would have ben more of a challenge 10 years ago, but it’s become easier now that Nigerian afrobeats has become predominant. Every country you go to in Africa, people listen to Wizkid, Burna Boy, Tekno and them. There is no objection to that. It’s true even in South Africa, where amapiano almost obliterated all other genres like gqom or kwaito. I played Everyday People and Afro Punk in 2019 in Johannesburg and did an all-afrobeats set that went off. Nowadays though music travels faster than before, and genres pick up in new places. I went to Zanzibar after Jozi and was amazed by the amount of amapiano local DJs play there. And by the way, gqom is still going, as evidenced by Jerusalema [by Master KG], which is essentially a thinly disguised gqom beat, which ended up being the biggest song in the world this year! Another huge song on the Continent last year was Yo Pe [by Innoss’B], which allows you to bring in coupé décalé, and to draw on classics like soukous that are universally recognized in Africa. And then, the other half of your sets has to be local stuff. That’s what I did in Zanzibar. I sat down with local DJs and got all the Diamond Platnumz, all the Rayvanny and Harmonize songs that I needed to build a deep crate full of TZ music. As a DJ, you have to do you due diligence and find out what they like locally. And then every country has its own vibes. For example South Africa, once you are past deep house, amapiano and gqom, they just like regular Soulful house so you can dig out the old Chicago and New York house crate. And Kenya, they just love pop music, so you can drop your Pitbull, Rihanna and so on. If you understand the local sensibilities and then you know some of the international influences they have, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but you have to do the work. If you go to Ethiopia, it’s likely that you will not play any of the local anywhere outside of Ethiopia, but you have to have the set. And it doesn’t even have to be long, it can be two short 15 minutes sets, but if you do it, the crowd trusts you so much more. In a sense, they’re grateful that you are respecting their traditions and they’ll make everything else that you do easy. Another thing, obviously, is that all of Africa likes dancehall, which helps. Unfortunately, very few places on the Continent knows and appreciates soca, it hasn’t really broken yet and I feel I lost one of my superpowers when I come to Africa and cannot play an extended soca set, because what a soca set does in New York, Miami, London and Toronto is beyond any other set, for me. It’s the highest energy and helps you reset the room, and to not have access to that in Johannesburg, Lagos or Nairobi kind of hurts. But there’s ways around it, if you have a good showman on the mic, like my MC at Everyday People, Jito. He’d get on the table and break it down to the crowd and 10 seconds later, people be carrying furniture and running around like they do in Trinidad.
What have you been cooking in the studio recently that we shouldn’t sleep on?
Beyond the mOmapiano EP, I have remixes out for Adeline, Gaida and Projexx and dancehall artiust, and a few other surprises on the way. Medium-term, I am taking advantage of this special time to dive deeper in the music. I mean this year has been a nightmare for everyone, but for me, the silver lining is that I have been able to spend the most time I ever had on music. And I intend to do the same until at least next summer, and then we’ll see what comes out of it.
Sade – Nothing Can Come Between Us
As an 11-year-old kid, I remember seeing this video for the first time, and thinking “how could one person have so much style, beauty, and grace all at the same time? Wow, she must be from the future”.
Burna Boy — Ja Ara É
“No shade, but I believe this the only Beyoncé-less song in the whole Black Is King soundtrack… and it’s also up there, tied with Wizkid’s legendary “Ojuelegba,” as my all-time favorite afrobeats song.
DJ Xclusive — Jeje (feat. WizKid)
I don’t see too many other DJs play it, but this is a DJ mOma special… I always play it, and it always goes off… Wizkid at his best!
Tekno — Duro
In my view, this song is one of most the sophisticated and perfect composition in afrobeats.
Osunlade — El Musica (feat. Mamosadi KB)
My favorite dance record of all times… and one of the most timeless tracks ever made! This is also a perfect composition.
Mi Casa — Magalenha
The original by Sergio Mendes is of the most covered songs ever – oftentimes unnecessarily – but Mi Casa really gave it their own personal touch and it always goes off when I play it.
Luedji Luna & mOma+Guy — Banho de Folhas Remix
I could write a whole book about this song, but let’s just say that Luedji Luna is an artist that I fell in love with instantly on my first visit to Salvador de Bahia. I first heard her perform her classic Banho de Folhas there. Fast forward one year and me and Guy had remixed it and to this day, it’s still my favorite personal production.
Dvine Brothers — Dancing (feat. Lady Zamar) (De Mogul SA Remix)
Such an extremely underrated soulful afro house jam. I play it on the regular and it never fails me!
MFR Souls – Love You Tonight (feat. DJ Maphorisa, Sha Sha & Kabza De Small)
One of the most original, unique-sounding African records of the past 10 years. Futuristic, soulful, and also a perfect composition. So inspired, and so inspirational. Funny anecdote: my partner for our New York show Dance Dance Dance, Eli Escobar, would always ask “how come this record doesn’t have a kick but a snare instead on the first beat?”
Kabza De Small & DJ Maphorisa – Alalahi (feat. Bonte Smith & Vyno Miller)
Oddly enough, this tune didn’t really hit in South Africa, but it’s one of my favorite Amapiano tunes ever, and it goes off everywhere I play it, except in South Africa LOL.