Q&A with DJ Belinda Becker
Before Belinda Becker became Belinda Becker the DJ-dancer-actress, she had noble aspirations of being a journalist. Or rather, that’s what her strict Jamaican parents hoped she’d become. “They wanted me to be something concrete, like a journalist, doctor, lawyer—not something iffy,” recalls the 40-year-old triple threat. “[They’d say], ‘Freelance? How are you going to live? What kind of life is that?” After graduating from the University of Florida and moving to New York, she knew that the corporate life was not her speed. So she quickly became a staple in the city’s club scene, deejaying at legendary clubs including Area and Nell’s. She has acted in a range of foreign and indie American films, playing a prostitute who falls in love with musician in 1990’s Los Angeles and working alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Giancarlo Esposito in 1994’s Fresh. And since 2004, she’s been dancing with Urban Tap, a respected collective of musicians and performers. Recently, the single mother of one talked with ASSERT about how she now realizes that she’s made the best career decision of her life.
AM: When did you develop an interest in music?
I’m originally from Jamaica, which is just filled with music. You drive down the street—from the littlest shack to the gas stations to the little delis—everybody is blaring music. My dad used to listen to a lot of jazz. I also really like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” because that was one of my dad’s favorite tracks. I just remember being really intrigued by the rhythms because it’s not a 4-4 rhythm.
AM: Why did you move to Florida in the ’80s?
There was a lot of political upheaval at the time [in Jamaica], and my mom and dad were a little afraid…but Florida’s incredibly racist. And people always say to me, ‘Racist? Florida?’ But they’re thinking of South Beach. And I say Florida is the southernmost state there is. You can’t get deeper south than Florida. So while you’re in South Beach, I’m in Gainesville—two different experiences.
AM: My sister lives in Orlando. I don’t understand that place either.
I consider myself an artist. You just can’t flourish in a place like Florida. So for me there was some need to explore what I had inside and New York was the place. Everything amazing came out of New York—art, music and fashion. I was just counting the days until [graduation] because I knew that I was getting out of Florida.
AM: What was your plan when you arrived in the Big City?
No plan. I just came. I got my degree in journalism, so I was going to try to work for a magazine. But it just didn’t feel right. I just started taking acting classes. I started dancing and I was still totally involved in the music, going to different clubs. It was the very end of the [legendary nightclub] Area. I got a job there, just to make money bartending. The manager said the DJ for the lounge had stopped working. I said I collect records. I know music. He said ‘Fine. Bring them in.’ So I got some quick lessons from [respected club DJ] Johnny Dynell. Also [promoter/restaurateur] Serge Becker—I was seeing him at the time—also showed me what to do. The next Saturday, I brought my records and I started deejaying and I still am.
AM: Artist? In what ways are DJs considered artists?
I call myself an artist because I deejay, dance and I’ve also acted. I lived in France for two and a half years. I did some movies and plays and did a few movies here too. What I do is create—even when I deejay I create a mood, a vibe, a story. Where I end the record, where I bring in the other one, that’s part of the journey too.
AM: The New York club scene was such a male-dominated field. Was it a struggle to convince promoters to let you spin?
I have to admit that because I wasn’t an ugly duckling or whatever, people were like, ‘Oh you’re cute. We’ll give you a chance, that’s a novel idea.’ But after I proved myself. I had this guy come up to me say, ‘Oh you’re a good DJ for a woman.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m just a good DJ.’
AM: You built your reputation spinning at Nell’s. What types of music did you spin?
I was spinning a bit of everything, because I always listened to a bit of everything. I played a lot of house music. Back then, you could play all of that in one club and they wouldn’t boo you off the floor. Now everything’s so specialized. Both Area and Nell’s summed up an era that ended with the end of the ’80s, which was when you could go to a club and see every type of person. You could see Julian Schnabel, Jean Michel Basquiat, Sade. There were musicians, artists in one room. Times have been tough for me, cause I went through a whole era where I wasn’t getting hired anymore because I refused to become a Top 40 R&B and hip-hop DJ. In the late 90s, I got fired from a few clubs cause I wouldn’t play only hip-hop.
AM: Nowadays it’s less about the DJ…
Once upon a time we used to be hired to do what we do but now we’re hired to do what the club wants us to do…
AM: So you make people dance as a DJ but you also dance professionally too. What is Urban Tap?
It’s hybrid dance, for me that totally works for me as a DJ, cause I play totally everything. We’re made up of musicians and dancers from many different fields, we have Haitian drummers, jazz trumpeters, Moroccan flutists, hip-hop dancers, capoeiristas, Cuban dancers, tap dancers, and it’s all based on improv. We flow with each other—nothing is choreographed, nothing is written. The drummer starts in and maybe the sax player comes in, then the tap dancer will start. It’s kind of how I see the world and wish the world would be.
AM: Have your parents seen you perform?
My father died when I was 13. My mom lives in Florida. She never comes to New York. [For a long time] she didn’t really know what I did. My dance company had a show down there last year, and she came to see it and was so blown away. Then she got who I was, like ‘Oh my god, you’re really good at what you do.’ I was like, ‘Thank you, Mom.’ She can see that I’m really happy with what I do. The crazy thing is that I don’t know what else to do. That’s the bottom line. This world is made of all different people. This is who I am.
AM: Is that a lesson you teach your eight-year-old daughter, Willow?
My thing is that I want her to be happy. She is an artist, she paints, draws, writes poetry and stories. She sees what its like to live as an artist. She sees it’s not roses and sometimes times are hard, but she also sees that it’s liberating.
AM: It’s important to show her different options…
Definitely. Also what I want my daughter to realize that there’s not just one way to live. I’m almost of the thinking that the more I have, the less free I am…if I have this and that then I’m confined to being in one place and being with those things. Whereas the less I have, the more I’m able to be, to see, to live. That’s my philosophy.
Brett Johnson is a Brooklyn-based writer who regularly contributes to the Associated Press, Essence, and GIANT magazine.>