International Womens DJ CJLO Sugarface Belfo

DJ Sugarface Belfo. Photo by Engone Endong

CJLO is hosting International Women’s DJ this week

We spoke to DJ Sugarface Belfo about the inaugural edition of the International Women’s Day celebration.

This week Concordia University’s 1690 AM CJLO radio station is the hub for a unique and universal International Women’s Day celebration thanks to longtime volunteer and all around-badass Kelly “Sugarface” Belfo. The DJ took time to tell us about her experience in radio and on Montreal’s nightlife scene (the good, the bad and the ugly) and the inaugural edition International Women’s DJ, which features DJs from around the world streaming all week from their countries of origin and culminates in a Zoom conference on Monday, March 8.

Darcy MacDonald: Please introduce yourself and a bit about your background as a DJ and in terms of your involvement with CJLO.  

Sugarface: My name is Kelly Belfo, aka DJ Sugarface Belfo. I am co-founder of Flat Cola, a non-profit initiative to support women DJs.

(I’ve also been) World Music Director at CJLO 1690 AM since 2003, a local and international DJ since the early 2000s, a registered nurse with over 10 years experience in the operating room, and I am the creator and head organizer of International Women’s DJ Online Radio Festival & Closing Conference.

I was born and raised in Montreal into an Egyptian-Portuguese household, and I grew up with sounds from Portugal, Brazil, the Caribbean, Middle East, and Africa.

Thanks to my parents, I was exposed to a wide range of music but I also listened to a lot of radio. From CHOM 97.7 to Oldies 990, I dubbed overnight radio onto cassette and made multiple mixtapes as a youth.

I first put my hands on CD decks in 2001 at the famous Gogo Lounge in Montreal, playing funk, soul and easy listening during happy hour. DJing at Gogo Lounge and interacting with staff and clients enabled me to discover Afrobeat and, essentially, Fela Kuti, the funkiest of music from ’60s and ’70s Nigeria. 

It was my need to delve deeper into world music that brought me to CJLO. I was given the position of World Music Director in 2003 and grew our library from there. I knew radio would help me to discover more. And it did. 

DM: When you started playing out and establishing your reputation as an event DJ off-air, did you find the landscape to be particularly male-centric? And if so, what were some of the challenges you faced in terms of staking your claim in the scene? 

Sugarface: Looking back at the start of my DJ career, I would not be where I am today without the solid family-based mindset held by staff and employees at Gogo Lounge. 

There were a handful of women DJs on the scene that I heard of but I never knew them. As a matter of fact, when I first started playing, I didn’t know anyone other than DJ Rollergirl, who, luckily for me, also worked at Gogo Lounge. She was a DJ long before I started, a pioneer in the scene who paved the way for me and many others. 

Not only did she become my friend, she was also my mentor. She was an incredible source of information, support and encouragement. She told me how to say “no,” how to handle grabby and unruly clients, and how much to be paid for gigs. 

She also spoke about the need for women to support (each other). But I never really understood what she fully meant by that until I worked outside of Gogo Lounge (and formed) my own DJ persona. 

With the knowledge from early in my career, I was able to hold down many DJ residencies and build a name for myself, but that is when things started to get harder. As a DJ, you want to grow, play different styles and become an expert in your specialty. 

I joined forces with an all-male crew that I won’t name. We specialized in tropical/world music on vinyl. My people came out to our parties. Our parties were a huge success. So much so that the guys wanted us to play the Montreal International Jazz Festival. 

We got on the bill, but neither my name nor picture were included. I was given the story that they started the crew before me, so they deserved the limelight and cash payment. 

I was invited to play on stage with them, for no pay or exposure, of course. I thought, “Okay, let me give them the benefit of the doubt.”

But the following year, same story.  At this point, it was hard for me to trust them. I don’t recall how much time had passed, maybe weeks or months later, I was kicked out of the crew. I was told, “You smiled on stage and that was great.” 

But I realized they kicked me out because I did not share my connections with them. How could I when they made it so hard for me to trust them? 

International Women’s DJ lineup

DM: What have you learned or been informed by, through your own experience and that of other non-male DJs, over the years in terms of what women bring to the craft that guys can’t?

Sugarface: This is a biased opinion, but at the time of my early DJ beginnings, I felt that many men, although I loved what they did, played a lot of repetition in their sets. They would go for the hits.

It was too obvious, curated, mathematical. There was no feeling nor emotion to the movement of the dancefloor. 

I also often heard many male counterparts say they played music to “make the girls dance.” Women behind the decks don’t necessarily have the same approach. Speaking for myself, I’d much rather take the listener on an adventure. Start slow and build on the momentum, giving hints of my musical knowledge and dropping unknowns along the way. A musical foreplay, if you will — sexy, intelligent and well thought out.

It is also a vibe, a mindset, a declaration or statement of self, power, liberty, choice or simply the space to be free without the constraints of imposed ideologies. I also just want to play some good music, man.

International Women’s DJ daily schedule

DM: How did CJLO come to be involved in this event? And how did the station end up being the dedicated conference host?  

Sugarface: In a structured setting, CJLO has always given its volunteers the opportunity to use its resources to its fullest capacity. The trick is, you need to commit to your plan fully and completely.

Being an active World Music Director at CJLO and the head of Flat Cola, which is a non-profit initiative to support women DJs, I felt the need to bring my two worlds together and showcase talented women DJs from around the world. If anyone was going to listen to women DJs, it would be on International Women’s Day. It’s sad to say that it would not have the same effect any other time. I knew I had to do something. So I created this festival and got CJLO involved. 

The idea for the conference came simply because I wanted to share my experiences with women DJs that I respected and admired. I felt drained and conflicted about myself as a DJ. I needed to talk with people who resemble me, and who have my best interest at heart. CJLO has been my rock along this DJ journey. It was only natural to ask them to do this conference.

DM: Who are some of the participants from around the world that you’re personally excited for?  

Sugarface: This festival has two main parts. The broadcast of 14 internationally known female DJs through seven different local and online radio stations, and the closing conference.

I am personally excited to hear mixes by Worldwide FM’s senior producer and Gilles Peterson’s longtime radio collaborator Mari* (London/Tokyo); Wicked Girls/Female Future Sounds DJ and producer, DJ Carie (Brussels); and Brazilian electro, baile funk record collector House of Pris (Miami/Brazil). 

I’m also excited to have Montreal’s own Aïsha Vertus — aka Gayance — represent our city at the conference.

We will also have a surprise guest mix and an in-conference announcement that I’m particularly excited about but I can’t divulge any more information on it just yet! 

DM: What will some of the panel topics be, how were they chosen and who will be speaking? 

Closing Conference panelists include Sabine Blaizin of Oya Sound (NYC), Priscilla Cavalante of Concreta Sala (Miami), Gayance (Montreal) and Lissette Jassan of 900 Grados (CDMX, Mexico). From music producers, to record store owners, radio talk show hosts and DIY community project builders, each panelist contributes valuable insight and perspective in their field. 

Discussions will include if and how current COVID restrictions have affected their careers, coping and adapting methods, challenges faced as a womxn, BIPOC, LGBTQ2+, exchanges of stories and ideas, and things we would like to see for the future. There’s also a Q&A period open to the audience. ■

More details about International Women’s DJ, including set times, station info and conference registration, can be found here.

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