The House That Nono Built, Bruja Style
Written by Chinwe Oniah
“Oppression has burned so hot for so long, yet we are still here.”
It’s 2016 and Oakland-based DJ Namaste Shawty is recording the first episode of her radio show, Las Brujas Radio. After playing an eclectic DJ mix of women and gender non-conforming musical artists from across genres, she begins to read an affirmation about Sauin, a holiday for brujas, or witches, that begins at sunset on October 31. Similar to Halloween and Día de los Muertos, it’s a day marking the end of harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. Aptly named “New Moon,” Namaste is heading into a new season.
DJ Namaste Shawty, better known as Nono, is one of the rising women DJs in the Bay Area. A self-professed bruja, Nono’s goal has always been to create a space to uplift women for their voices to be heard. As a DJ, a radio host, and a curator, she found and built a community of people who, like her, are going against the mainstream. She’s helped start a DJ crew, a breakdancing crew, and a live radio show to bring women and allies together. For all that she’s accomplished, she never planned to do all that she’s done. She was just a punk kid from South Central LA trying to find her place in the world using music, art and social justice.
“I’ve always been about authenticity.”
Nono grew up in LA where gangster rap dominated the radio waves for 3 decades and counting. Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, NWA were all rock stars that kids looked up to and aspired to be like. “Everybody was listening to gangsta rap in the hood,” says Nono. The bitches and money lifestyle was cool for many, but the scene wasn’t for her . She was, in her own terms, too young to identify with “these grown-ass men.”
“What artists [are] making music that isn’t super popular or something that’s made to make a profit? Like, who’s really making some art out here and real cool music?”
Instead, she fell into other countercultures and found her tribe in the underground. She immersed herself into alternative music, ska and punk rock, underground hip-hop and conscious rap groups from New York. She even studied anarchism and how punk and hip-hop were youth-led musical movements with angst and empowerment. This is where she got her fire.
“I’ve always been around rappers, graffiti writers, DJs and breakdancers”, Nono says. “If you’re at the barbershop long enough, you’re gonna end up getting a haircut. So I naturally became a participant instead of a spectator. If there was a cypher I would jump into it. To me, this is how I began to experience the feeling of being a part of something bigger than me, a movement.”
Much of her career followed in that way. Her DJ career started in 2014, and in 2016 she created Las Brujas Radio, both at the suggestions of her friends. She initially rebuffed these suggestions, but the paths to those endeavors really opened up organically. She’s shared stages with Diplo, performed with Maluca, spun at Wine and Bowties’s FEELS Party, and recently created a DJ crew, Amor Digital, with her two friends, Juanny Depp and 99percentlean. Needless to say, the music that she listened to in her teenage years has informed the music that she makes today; boundless, genreless and putting women and her Latinx roots at the forefront.
Nono moved to the Bay Area in the early 2003 to attend San Francisco State University, but finding her tribe took some work.
“Where can I get in where I fit in?” The quest to find her place was happening all over again. Coming from a Salvadorian family to the Bay Area, she was on a quest to find artists and people who were aiming to make a change. At the time, the organizations at SF State catered to specific ethnic groups that she wasn’t a part of. She eventually found a student organization that used hip hop for social change. She met other artists and joined the Feelmo Rocks Crew, that grew out of the Fillmore neighborhood in San Francisco. These experiences would be the seeds that would later flourish into her DJ career. In the horizon she would also be inspiring a squad of brujas from the Bay Area.
“We are brujas! If we’re saying that the institutions that include hospitals, mental health and education aren’t serving us, then we need to figure out what our ancestors were doing. We need to go back to connecting with Mother Nature and taking our rituals and wellness back.” It’s been important for her to create and foster a relationship with nature, and to use these tools to bring wellness into her daily life.
With her co-hosts, rapper Queen D. Light and activist Imani Atlantic, Nono runs Las Brujas Radio, a monthly radio show recorded at Lower Grand Radio, a DIY space in downtown Oakland.
“The point of Las Brujas Radio is to create a platform for women, gender non-conforming and men who are allies” Nono says. “This show is about decolonizing and reclaiming our space and our stories, and I just felt like we really needed to have a space to talk about whatever we wanted to talk about.” They discuss topics thats are societally considered taboo, like domestic violence, childhood abuse, sexual trauma, relationship dynamics, and use their own experiences as tools to navigate through past traumatic events, and empower themselves and others. In turn, they have found ways to heal and show others that healing is possible.
And listeners love it. Nono says people want to hear a show like this because it resonates with them to hear someone talk openly about these topics with solutions. They were featured in KQED and East Bay Express and have a tight following; a family of sorts. This is not just another gig for Nono, it’s also a big Fuck You to power structures that don’t empower them.
“We don’t always have to identify with the stories that we are being fed about ourselves.”
Nono didn’t grow up in a religious household. She had a grandmother who she prayed with sometimes, but she didn’t practice any organized religion. Today she practices Lucumí, a spiritual practice that is like Santería, but without the Catholic influence. She takes pieces that resonate with her from other religions and leaves what doesn’t; Christianity, Science of Mind, Unitarian, Buddhism, Indigenous religions, etc, but Lucumí is her base.
Her Mayan ancestry informs her spiritual practice as well, but it wasn’t until she met her spiritual advisor 15 years ago that she fully did commit.
In recent years, there has been a budding community of women rejecting Christianity in favor of traditional and indigenous spiritual practices like Santería and practicing brujería. Nono wants to make a space for these women to be open about their spirituality, but she doesn’t care too much for brujería as a trend.
“I just try mind my business. People want to call themselves brujas, but aren’t doing any of the work or practices,” she says, “I’ve been in this village half my life.”
Brujería, the Spanish word for witchcraft, has long been demonized by the Catholic church. The term broadly captures religious and spiritual practices observed in West Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.
“Everyone has their path and their own shit to learn. I just worry about my own work.”
It’s two days before the Super Blood Wolf Moon and Namaste Shawty isn’t around. She hasn’t been in the Bay Area for a minute. She’s been traveling to expand her artistry and network. Oakland’s ever-changing landscape hasn’t been so kind to artists who live and work here. For 15 years, Nono was part of a small community of artists, musicians, freaks, geeks and anyone in the Bay Area who didn’t belong and created their own way.
Nono called Oakland her home. It’s where her artistic endeavors were forged and cemented. The community she built held strong against an ever changing Oakland for as long as it could. The Ghost Ship warehouse fire that claimed 36 lives has made it hard to throw shows. The rising rents have made it hard for artists to pay rent. The ballooning Silicon Valley is squeezing the artistic life out of the Bay. Oakland, it seems, is now more of a caricature of itself than what it use to be.
“That’s part of the reason I’m not even there right now. Like if you’re in tech, you’re gonna pop off financially, but people like us, we have to do everything ourselves. It’s so DIY,” she says. It was fun for her as a kid, but now it affects her basic needs like housing. “There’s limited expansion for artists. There’s a lot of corny shit, too, that be popping off.”
Venues with the proper equipment are hard to find, so is the funding. Even with the big dollars going around in San Francisco, Nono says people there are into different events now inspired by the popularity of Burning Man culture. She says even some local organizations would rather pay big dollars for out-of-town acts while low-balling local artists. “It continues the cycle of artists in Oakland not being financially supported and having their basic needs met.”
She’s still optimistic though. Las Brujas Radio has been on hiatus, but she leaves it up to the Spirit to decide to continue the show. Her new DJ collective, Amor Digital, is gaining quick traction and is already actively playing local parties. She’s seen the artistic community come together more, still doing what they can with the resources they have, and continue to create spaces for the underground scene where the most fun comes from dancing and experimenting with sounds. Artists still aren’t getting a whole lot of dollars from what they do, but they’re doing it now to preserve the culture, which at the end of the day is the only thing that truly matters.