All interviews and editorial

Sarah Farina

Berlin based DJ and co-founder of Emergent Bass, Sarah Farina, speaks with guest writer Devon Armstrong about her journey, investing in the historical context of music, and taking care of each other
October 2, 2023
Devon Armstrong

Sarah Farina is a Berlin-based DJ and co-founder of the interdisciplinary event series, Emergent Bass, which celebrates bass music created by BIPOC communities and artists. With numerous accolades in the dance music world, she has cemented herself as a renowned curator and pioneer of bass music in Berlin and beyond, whilst also offering her expertise to the emerging generation of DJs and artists via workshops, talks and her open-hearted approach to complicated issues within music and politics. It was a pleasure to chat to her about her journey; past, present and future.

How did you discover the creative path that led you to where you are now?

“I grew up in South Germany, where there wasn’t really a club culture like there is in Berlin. I’ve always been a creative person, drawn to music. I started playing instruments when I was younger and playing in bands with my friends - I’ve always been a music nerd. One of my good friends introduced me to hip-hop artists like J Dilla and Madlib, and then I got into funk and soul because of the samples they used. I’ve always been invested in learning the stories of the people behind the music I’m listening to.

When I was 18 years old, I moved from conservative Bavaria - where I didn’t feel very comfortable - to Berlin, where I didn’t know anyone, to attend a music academy. I was full of hope, but I really didn’t like studying. I was in a bit of a crisis, and actually hid from my parents that I’d stopped going to school, because I really didn't want to move back home! I wasn’t the typical young person who goes out all the time - I was more of a shy introvert. I don’t have the typical story of someone who goes to Berlin, goes to a club for the first time and wants to become a DJ. But I did go to one particular party that changed my life.

This group called Yo! Majesty were playing - a group of three Black queer women - and the party was hosted by Sick Girls, whose parties I started going to regularly. At the same time, a friend of mine asked me if I had ever thought about DJing - he had a set-up at home with a small Traktor controller and an old laptop, which allowed me to have a very playful perspective without the pressure of ‘Can I do this?’ - which I’m very grateful for. It probably also has something to do with my dad who, when I was younger, introduced me to skateboarding and snowboarding and things that are associated with boys, so I was maybe less scared of trying DJing.

A friend of mine invited me to play every Sunday at a small bar in Kreuzberg, Berlin - from there it happened very organically. People started asking me to play small gigs like birthdays, and at the same time going to the parties with Sick Girls extended the horizons of my music. I wasn’t into electronic music before then, but there was something about the eclectic music they played (genres like grime and jungle which you would rarely hear in Berlin in 2009). I was quite bored of the usual clubs where they only played house and techno.

Sick Girls always saw me at their parties and eventually they approached me just to chat and find out who I was. When they found out I’d been DJing, they offered me a warm up set at their parties, which was a huge support. I didn’t even really have any vision of wanting to become of DJ at that point. But I felt very lost at that time: I didn’t like the institutions, I wanted to do something with music and didn’t know what yet. I feel like class plays a huge role in how playful you can be as a young creative and because I didn’t have rich parents, I had to do jobs that I didn’t want to do. Unfortunately there’s no guideline for what to do - I had a mixture of being lucky, having privileges and access to certain spaces because people supported me.”

What role does music and the club experience have in our emotional lives, in your mind?

“I really believe in the political potential that a certain kind of club culture has - in particular, club culture that centres queer people, marginalised people and lower class people. If you look at history, that’s where club culture comes from and there are so many positive examples in history where people came together to create a coalition and fight for their spaces. It’s interesting also to see how consumerism has entered these spaces, which we really need to be aware of. I’m lucky that I often can choose which gigs I do, but sometimes, as I live off of DJing and music, I have to play gigs that don’t align so much with my political values. Most of the money is attached to gigs where sponsorship is involved - for example alcohol brands, and I don’t even drink! Unfortunately, we can’t always fully follow our values if we want to survive in the capitalist system, but I try to think about how I can make the best of it. For example, I’ve encouraged some of the brands who book me to donate the value of my fee to an organisation of my choosing.

I think we need a culture of trying to talk with each other instead of about each other. I will always try to be friendly with a promoter, human to human, and find a way to make it work. It does cost a lot of energy to be soft and kind all the time; if you’re oppressed, you may have anger inside of you and that has to go somewhere. It’s beautiful that we have the dancefloor to literally shake it off, but you can see in the West that many bodies have been colonised and we can see the trauma and disconnect from our own bodies. We see this manifest on the dancefloor - people often need support from substances to allow them to feel freer in their bodies, and that’s ok but we need more alternatives too. Sober spaces do exist - for example they have some morning raves in Berlin - but it’s hard to find a venue who supports sober parties because they won’t make much money. It’s important to be intentional and create an environment where people don’t feel they need to necessarily take substances, and if they want to, we can hold space for both safely. If you think about it, we’ve been doing it for a long time: dancing around the fire, probably smoking plants, and playing the drums - sounds familiar right?”

How can we work towards inclusivity, transparency and solidarity in the underground club scene, from your perspective both as an artist and an organiser?

“I’m still learning; money is so complex and attached to so many different emotions, like shame, or not wanting to share. I catch myself sometimes with my own internalised capitalism and try to move away from the idea of ‘Me’ versus ‘the Other’. It’s important to hold ourselves accountable for various ways in which we may be problematic in certain contexts. Even if I have parts of my identity that are being oppressed I can still contribute towards others’ oppression. With my event, Emergent Bass, we got some state funding which gives us some freedom and removes some of the pressure. We decided only to do 2 events this year, to be more intentional: ‘less is more’ is our new motto.

When I post about my gigs, I always ask people to DM me if they need guestlist. I have a list of gender neutral names that I give to those who may want anonymity if they cannot afford a ticket. This hopefully removes some of the shame surrounding money, and allows people to just show up under an alias and still be able to attend the event.

I work on this project called Transmission, which holds open monthly meetups with different people in Berlin who work in the music scene, from bouncers, bookers, DJs and performers. We have conversations about creating some form of union and class solidarity, while practicing the transparency we wish for. We offer each other advice and insight into working conditions and safety, as well as other things.

Another way to work towards transparency is to give as much information as possible to the agent when booking artists. Things like capacity, set time and length and whether the event has sponsorship can really have an impact on whether you want to take an opportunity. We also send a short description about the event and our intentions behind it - this is something I like as an artist, to know as much as possible to help me be intentional about the bookings I accept, if I can afford to. Sharing vulnerability with others and trying to help each other is what we need. We need more offline spaces too - it is a different kind of experience to be in the same room with other people and remind each other why we’re doing this. Sometimes we get stuck in this loop of performing inclusivity and diversity, but we need to go deeper and have the uncomfortable conversations too.”

What’s the importance of educating ourselves (as music lovers and music players) about the history of electronic music and the erasure of certain communities (e.g Black and queer people) from our understanding of musical genealogy?

“The more I know about the culture and people behind the music I listen to, the better a musician I become and the more love I have for the music. It makes you a better raver, dancer and music lover. It’s beautiful to see yourself in those histories too - people have always created music and dance and it’s part of our DNA I believe. There’s no other thing that brings people together like that - we don’t even have to speak the same language to share it. Music makes me hopeful. It allows you to learn about history, oppression, fighting for freedom and how we can learn from the people who were there before us. Sometimes younger generations think they know better, but I’m not such a fan of that attitude - having an intergenerational and intersectional approach will remind us that people have done things before us. This quote by Emma Goldman explains it well: “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.” “

What are your ideas for how to work around the demands and pressure of social media, as an emerging DJ?

“It’s tough, and tiring – I definitely struggle with that too. I would prefer to have a website and remove myself from depending on Instagram. You can hide your ‘like count’ to try and protect yourself a little. There’s also this free app called One Sec – it forces you to take a deep breath whenever you want to access a social media app. I also have a second account filled with fun stuff and cute animals, versus my work account that is more political content.

I get this feeling now that if you play a gig and you don’t have any photos, it’s like the gig has never happened! I don’t have the answer to this, but it’s really annoying. There’s a sort of ‘lookism’ – we are now thankfully seeing more queer people and women of colour for example in the kinds of spaces I work in. But most of them who are visible in the scene and can make a career out of it, meet the beauty standard or have a proximity to it and know how to present themselves on these apps. It leaves me wondering what about the other people who are not close to the beauty standard, who don’t want to participate in that, who may not know all the cool brands to wear. We see it with HOER and Boiler Room – if you look a certain way, people are more likely to click on your video. Of course, there’s enough space for everyone and I don’t want to shame anyone, I just wish for more balance and also people taking up space who can’t or don’t want to be part of that DJ influencer lifestyle. I appreciate artists like Josey Rebelle for example. She’s so real, her energy is incredible, and she doesn’t even have Instagram! Maybe she was lucky because she had established her career before Instagram was as much of a thing. I imagine it would be so hard if you’re trying to start a career and establish yourself as a DJ now.

My advice would be to ask yourself how you can feel joy while doing this, without moving away too much from your authenticity. Stay playful with it, don’t be too serious! People can come up with a visual identity for themselves that brings them joy – for example, I thought about designing a comic version of myself. But the algorithm is of course written by white, cis heterosexual men, who then write their biases into the code, so the algorithm likes certain types of bodies and pictures. I love the idea of  messenger groups where you can share your gigs and create your community with its own guidelines.”

You always come with openness and positivity towards these discussions. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Lastly, are there any projects you’re working on and excited about this year?

“I’ve been working on an exciting collaboration which will hopefully come out later this year. It’s with an amazing singer called Tish Bailey from Chicago, whose voice you will know, but people won’t have known her voice and her name together, as a result of various systemic, patriarchal reasons. People, especially already marginalised people getting their voice taken without consent or not getting credited is really a huge issue in music production.

So I'm encouraging you to listen to the music that you love with more curiosity: To seek out the history behind the compositions & voices that bring us endless joy every day of our lives. We need to relearn (music) history and make space for people to be able to tell their own stories, so they aren't cut out of it again.”