The Black Madonna's moniker couldn't be more fitting. The woman born Marea Stamper chose her artist name after the mysterious and rare medieval-era statues or figures of the Virgin Mary with dark or blackened skin, often deemed miracles by pilgrims who flock to visit the few hundred remaining Black Madonnas around the world. As a 39-year-old Catholic, feminist, queer advocate, politically outspoken producer and the first female in Mixmag's history to be named DJ Of The Year in 2016, Stamper is something of a miracle in herself - an outsider who is celebrated as much for what she is not as for what she is.
Her talents as a producer and DJ, big-hearted, eclectic sets and boisterous behind-the-decks dancing are enough to invite reverence in their own right, but what she's chosen to do with her position of influence affords her even more admiration. In an industry where women are rarely seen, let alone heard, she calls out misogyny, inequality and anti-social behaviour at a time so many others are afraid to, holding the dance music community to account at the same time that she demonstrates a deep love and understanding of house music and its potential to heal and unite.
In her keynote talk at the International Music Summit in Ibiza last month, Stamper said that until the age of 33, she had never been paid more than $100 for a gig. Now, she's commanding significantly more than that with a packed touring schedule that encompasses the world's leading clubs and festivals, and off the back of a huge 2016 in which, as well as the Mixmag accolade, she was named Thump's artist of the year and was ranked no. 10 on Resident Advisor's Top 100 DJ poll, a poll that Stamper points out still features more men with women's names than it does actual women.
A misfit at school, she found solace in the unlikely twin pillars of religion and raving (she wrote eloquently about how the two complement each other in an essay for Thump) and in Ibiza recalled a story in which, as a teenager in her native Kentucky, she was reluctantly appointed ringleader of a rogue rave which was interrupted by a policeman on horseback. "This is an electronic music convention and academics from around the world have flown in and this is just the picnic and it will be moving to another venue shortly," Stamper recited, as instructed.
"Hand to god, the fucking cop turns around and rides his horse away," she said.
"It's the '90s, we're 3000 kids on acid. Nobody looks like they could have fit into anything!"
After majoring in English at Louisville University, Stamper moved to Chicago where she took a job digitising vinyl records, all the while working on her own mixes in her bedroom, afraid to have the male DJs she lived with hear and judge them.
An encouraging friend forced her to play at a party, a radio gig followed, and so began Stamper's slow, steady ascent. She nabbed a residency at Chicago's venerable Smart Bar in 2012 where she was also employed as a booker, then promoted to become the club's first talent buyer where she oversaw initiatives such the female-led party series DAPHNE.
As her own producing and DJing started getting more international attention — her first European gig was at Berlin's infamous Panorama Bar in Berghain — she eventually stepped back from her hands-on role at Smart Bar to take up her current position of creative director, and over the past five years has released a drip-feed of ambitious, acclaimed singles that are testament to her scholarly appreciation of house and disco. Her eagerly awaited debut LP is in the works.
Fielding the inevitable questions around gender disparity and inequality in the industry at the IMS, Stamper, who regularly takes on Donald Trump on Twitter, was staunch.
"I think it's important to stop debating it," she said.
"This is no longer a debatable fact, this is like climate change. I'm so far past debating this. We know it exists everywhere in the world. The question is what do we do next."
"At the end of the day, women can only do so much. At some point, we've got to get you guys to co-sign the cheque on this, and that might mean challenging some stuff within yourself, and that's ok, it doesn't mean that anybody's bad, it just means that's where we come from, and change is within ourselves."
As well as Stamper's moniker being a nod to her faith and to her mother's favourite religious icon, it also seems loaded with an earnest acknowledgement of the venerated status she shares with her namesakes, and the responsibility that comes with providing a voice for those who have struggled for so long to be heard. Dance music desperately needed a figure like The Black Madonna, and so far she's more than living up to her name.
Main photo: The Black Madonna. Credit: Aldo Paredes