The Shanghai DJ crew giving femme and non-binary individuals space on the stage

'I noticed a lot of girls expressing interest in DJing but not really knowing where to get started'

Photograph: Mathilde Agius
Like so many professional spheres, DJ culture and music production began as a boys’ club with little to no female admittance. While the visibility of women in the industry may be improving, only 5 percent of established producers and DJs active today are in fact female.

Although the norm remains androcentric, people worldwide are working to disrupt that ecosystem and provide space for women and underrepresented groups to excel. In Shanghai, Amber Akilla, a Chinese-Australian DJ and creative and her partner Lhaga Koondhor, a Tibetan-Swiss national of the same occupation, are doing just that through their co-run NVSHU女术 workshop.

It all began as an initiative to give amateur femme and non-binary individuals access to DJ and music production technologies, taking cues from pre-existing collectives like Discwoman, Intersessions and PUSSY PALACE. The name NVSHU女术 was inspired by 女书 (meaning ‘women’s script’) an esoteric dialect used exclusively amongst Hunanese women in Southern China to communicate with each other. The women later re-contextualised the name to form 女术 meaning ‘women’s skill’.

‘Even though I felt like I knew a lot of female DJs, I noticed a lot of girls especially expressing passionate interest in DJing, but not really knowing where to get started or how to learn,’ Amber tells us. ‘That is how NVSHU女术 started.’

Photograph: Mathilde Agius (Amber and Lhaga)

Amber and Lhaga have been active in the music industry in China since 2017, around the same time they each moved to Shanghai and met through mutual friends. ‘When we met for the first time, our conversation was instantly so deep that I really felt bonded to her,’ says Lhaga. ‘We had a lot of similar experiences as people of Asian ethnicity growing up in the West and as women in the music and nightlife scene,’ Amber reiterates.

Since arriving, Amber has become a regular at popular Shanghai venues such as Arkham, Electric Circus and Dada, has started her own party series @friendcrush and has supported internationally recognised artists including Tokimonsta, Venus X, Mykki Blanco, Brodinski and Rae Sremmurd. A respected DJ, entrepreneur and event organiser, Lhaga has been curating and DJing electronic music parties under the alias Asian Eyez for over five years. She has worked across Europe and China and co-founded Beijing’s Nightlife Residency Project in 2017, a platform that gives international artists the chance to engage with China’s ever-growing avant-garde music and nightlife subcultures.

But legitimising themselves in Shanghai’s music scene here meant more than just getting booked. ‘It also depends how you measure establishment and success,’ Amber says. ‘Because being booked doesn’t always mean you’re making money or have people showing up to shows just because you’re playing – these are all things that grow over time with consistency.’

Image: Mathilde Agius

The first NVSHU女术 workshops were held at Elevator’s old location and were made possible thanks to the support of its former owner and operator, Mau Mau. Local DJs Difan, Gouachi, Ji Na, Jirui and MIIIA were some of the first people to lead the workshops and allow the project to gain traction. ‘Being able to work and be surrounded by so many strong and talented women was something I’d been aiming and working towards my whole life,’ says Lhaga. ‘Why shouldn’t we use this force and give others access and information about it? We still live in a society and industry that’s just not there yet when it comes to gender equality. That’s why we need our own spaces, and if no one gives them to us, we create them.’

NVSHU女术 has already accomplished so much in a short amount of time. In February, its core members – Amber, Lhaga and Daliah – were featured in an episode of Red Bull Music’s Inspire the Night documentary series. A recent partnership with Nike and its On Air Studio series gave NVSHU女术 the space to continue expanding. It recently hosted NVSHU女术 Room Service at Eaton Hotel in Hong Kong during Art Week with guests DJs Tygapaw from New York, Warmchainss from Shenzhen and Subez Yeti. It’s this transnational element, Amber says, that has allowed her to ‘connect with creatives in China and across the world and meet people who have faced similar obstacles and are working to build community in their respective cities’. But as with any budding project, there are still barriers to traverse. ‘Being able to host our own NVSHU女术 parties where we have instructors and [attendees] play together in a lineup is an important next step for us,’ says Lhaga. ‘To be able to book them, pay them and give them the opportunity to play for the first time.

For upcoming events, add 'NVSHU女术' on WeChat.

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