Get Familiar: Gayance
In this edition of our Get Familiar series we sit down with a force to be reckoned with in the music industry, she goes by the name of Gayance. Aïsha Vertus, also known as Gayance, is a Montreal-born DJ and producer who has been turning heads since 2013 with her original sets and self-released music. She is an entrepreneur at heart, constantly pushing boundaries and redefining what it means to be a DJ and producer. Gayance's debut album, Mascarade, is out now on internationally renowned label Rhythm Section. But that's not all she has in store for us. She will also be releasing a movie of the same name this year, showcasing her love for storytelling and directing.
A collector of vinyl from Afro-Latin Jazz scenes, the Caribbean, West-Africa, and electronic music from both sides of the Atlantic, Gayance delivers unforgettable sets that take us on a journey through Black history. Her sets are a testament to her respect for music's ability to touch, gather, and uplift people - a gift she inherited from her maternal grandfather, who played Haitian-Cuban influenced gospels in church. But Gayance's talents extend far beyond the DJ booth. She is a writer, a music programme consultant, and a curator. She has even directed her first documentary, Piu Piu, which features Montreal beat scene artists like Kaytranada.
Inspired by pioneers like Betty Davis, Bob Marley, and Caetano Veloso, as well as contemporary artists like Liv.e and Nick Hakim, Gayance is a true rebel and a pioneer herself. She regularly teaches DJ masterclasses and delivers talks to empower youth and bring knowledge to the people. So without further ado, let's dive into the mind of Gayance and see what makes her such a unique and dynamic artist.
What were your earliest memories with music?
Music was always present in my grandparents' home. Upstairs, in my aunt's room, it was all about 90s R&B, Hip Hop, and a bit of House music. Downstairs, it was religious Haitian music, French ballades, and Kompa. My uncle lived in the basement in the 90s and played the latest club songs of the moment because he was a club promoter at the most iconic places in Montreal.
My dad always played the radio in his green Hyundai, from 90s dancehall to pop-Quebec music, the best of BB King's CD, and some John Coltrane. I loved those moments. My mom was into ballads, Adult R&B, bossa nova, Afro-Cuban music, Youssou N'Dour's music, and new wave bands like Art of Noise as well. She used to invite French rapper MC Solaar home for dinner when he would come to town. My mom is cool!
You had some musicians in the family; how did that affect your musical education?
I studied music in elementary school. We had piano classes for five years at an art school called Ste-Gertrude in Montreal-Nord. I also learned a little bit of guitar through my grandfather, but I can't play (laughs). I just hold it like I always play it. He was teaching me music from a spiritual aspect, the power of intention in a song, and how it can make people join forces and gain solidarity. My mom was a contemporary dancer in her youth, and I think I've mainly appreciated music from a dancer's perspective because I was making ballet and contemporary dance from 4 until 18 years old. My dad just appreciated music and built programs for the youth through Hip Hop.
So you have Creole heritage. Can you tell us a bit about the community and how this affected you growing up in Montreal?
Yes, I'm very proud of being of Haitian descent. It's something that keeps me grounded, especially because of our history of being the first Black national in contemporary times. In Montreal, the Haitian community is predominant within the Black diaspora. We also have a big impact on the way people speak and mix French, English, and Creole in their slang or in mainstream rap from Quebec. I miss being in touch with my culture daily, but my friend, Haitian-American photographer based in Amsterdam, Christina Rateau, gives me that immaculate vibe.
Your debut album is on Rhythm Section. How did you get in touch with Bradley Zero and the team in London?
Oh, my best friend Julio heard the demos and said, "It sounds like a Rhythm Section record" and then Peggy Hogan, alias Hua Li, found a way to get his email. They both pushed me to send my demos. Emily Hill, the label manager, was very keen on working on the project, and Bradley as well. Then, 4 months later, we all met in Brooklyn while they were on a Rhythm Section tour in the US. Montreal is just a 1-hour plane ride away, and I still had some travel credits with Delta (laughs), so why not? And it was instant love. I call them (Emily & Bradley) my doulas because this process really felt like birthing, as cliché as it sounds.
How important is collaboration to the music that you make, and how did it manifest on this record?
I feel like we're nothing as creatives without collaborations. We feed each other under a direction, but it's amazing. We all learn from each other. In my case, I was working with friends who knew me since I was 18. It was amazing to share with them my story so we could translate it into music.
On this latest record, you travelled from Montreal and areas in Brazil to tell your story. What key highlights do you have from this trip?
Yes, I started working on the album in my apartment in Parc Ex in Montreal. I co-produced "Nunca Mais" with LAZA in Amsterdam. Then, I made a lot of the songs with local musicians and other songwriters in the forest in St-Adèle. The final vocals were recorded at Zopelar's studio in Sao Paulo, and I worked on arrangements in Rio. I wanted to get away and have as much inspiration to finish the work. While I was finishing the album, I was shooting a short film directed by Maïlis in Rio. It was one of the most memorable experiences I had in my life. Black creatives in Brazil are incredible, especially Janice Mascarenas, the art director on set.
You recently went back to Brazil. What was the purpose of this trip?
I wanted to celebrate the release by thanking the water that inspired me. Brazil is always a place where I can feel grounded, and I needed that.
You’re quite passionate about natural wines. Since moving to Amsterdam, what spots would you recommend checking out, and what would we find you sipping on?
Ohhh, yes. I'm that b*tch who loves her orange wine. I mean, we made the whole album drinking the finest selection from my sommelier friend @whinemom in Montreal. Most of my friends back home are working in the wine, restaurant industry, and music at the same time. Shout out to Julio, Kris Guilty (Sans Soleil / Fleurs & Cadeaux)! And I've dated too many chefs (laughs). In Amsterdam, I love to get some bottles at Chemin Chemin in Jordaan. It's great if you have dinner at home. I also love Café Binnerviser, Glou Glou, and Bar Centraal. I'm still discovering new places. I'm all ears if you have any suggestions.
You recently had the album release event at Radio Radio, Amsterdam. What else can we expect in terms of live shows from you over the coming months?
It was amazing. We were 4 on stage: Enea on keys, Malik on bass, Maurice on saxophone. I'm excited to play more live performances, especially on May 20th at PHI Center in Montreal. We'll have the whole band from the album on stage and a drummer. Performing isn't something new for me. I used to be a professional dancer from 4 until 18. I'm no stranger to the stage, but I like the challenge of music performance. I'm discovering a lot about myself and my capacities, and I'm trying not to be too hard on myself.
Who is in the live band with you?
My European band is Enea (keys) and Malik aka Retromigration (bass). I also have the OG band in Montreal, which is Janette King (vocals), Hua Li (vocals, lead keyboard), Judith Little D & Sarah MK (vocal direction and vocals), and Eric Seguin (vocals). Emile Farley on bass and Harvey Drums on drums, obviously.`
You have a background in dance and are also one of the coldest DJs out here. What do you like to get down to?
Ahhh, thank you! I really love 90s dancehall and some 00s rap songs. They will get me moving straight away because they come from nostalgia. Otherwise, I'm in love with broken beats, samba, kompa, and very soulful house music. I cannot not dance or lip sync for my life when I play. It's the drag queen inside of me.
In recent months, you have performed with Patta Soundsystem regulars Passion DEEZ & Steven Julien. What was it like being accepted by local acts so quickly after the move, and how has it been building a new musical community?
It felt so good, especially coming from brothers of the diaspora. Passion is the sweetest man ever in Amsterdam. Steven Julien is also an amazing soul. It felt just right.
What is the biggest culture shock or challenge that you have seen since moving to Europe?
It's my second time moving here. I was based in Brussels from 2017-2020. I would say there are a few cultural shocks. First was the "work culture". I feel like North America wires us to work overtime in a way Europeans don't. Also, people's way of making business is much more into being friends and trusting each other first, which is great. In North America, we shake hands too quickly. I feel like people in Europe are always "on holiday" which is fantastic (laugh).
Then, I had to adapt to how people speak and act when it comes to social justice. We're literally in the land of the coloniser. Even though it's past, there are behaviours and biases that weren't deeply questioned as a collective. There's definitely a much stronger sense of "caucasity," and I feel like I cannot always address the elephant in the room without being called "crazy" or "people aren't coming to get you" type of gaslighting. I just put myself into someone who is BIPOC and was born and raised in Europe. The discourse about race was mostly written from the Black American perspective. I feel like we need to hear from all BIPOC people here from their perspective. There's a lot to unpack, especially in cultural institutions that love the word "diversity" but don't have any visible marginalised person working with them. I felt a lot of performance coming here. People in the Netherlands don't like to be challenged on that. Which makes it harder to protect and bring the voice of the most marginalised people to the front. Solidarity and action are key. I'm tired of hearing people talk. We need concrete action to be able to change, and there will be discomfort. People will have to think deeper about their position in how they oppress people. I've heard too many people here telling me stories. I've gone through it as well.
People need to understand how they are keeping the wealth in the same circle, keeping the status quo and the gap between groups, whether it is by psychological warfare or straight up white erasure of the culture. Amsterdam, for me, looks like a very wealthy city, and people in the gatekeeping circles are surrounded by people who look like them only and love to talk about how "woke" they are. Sometimes, it feels like Amsterdam is haunted by its ghost. Someone from here needs to lead and change the narrative. Many are doing it now, many are exhausted, many keep on going. Shoutouts to all my people out there!
I could go on for ages about this, but right now, I write songs and make movies to make BIPOC feel like they can be powerful and their voice and boldness matter.
You have a background in programming as well as wearing multiple hats in the cultural sector. What projects were you involved in and proud to be a part of?
I was very proud of the work I did for six years at POP Montreal. It's a festival that has been part of the cultural sphere for 22 years. For me, it was important to highlight local QTBIPOC talent and also bring out international acts that are more underground and that have never played in Canada or North America. Some festival regulars and journalists say that the show of Teto Preto in 2019 was the best in a decade. It was so iconic. Some people who worked there became family. I still work with the Director of Communication. He's my PR. Hey Jeremy, I'm on Patta!
I remember seeing you at Doka, and you said your name was Gayancé like Beyoncé. How do you like to be called, and where does the name actually come from?
Hahaha, I know my friends in Montreal will laugh at this one. It's because the English-speaking Queer people in my bilingual city always call me "Gayoncé."
The name comes from Haitian Creole "gayance," which means happiness or life of the party. In the streets, it means getting smashed from alcohol (laughs). My teenage best friend, rapper GrandBuda, called me "Yung Gayance" when I was younger. When I turned 25, it became "Gayance."
You made a movie to accompany your story. Who did you work on this with?
Yes, I worked with Maïlis. I loved her work on "One More" by Laroie. The visuals were insane. Can you believe it was all shot indoors? Then, I found Carolan Grégoire, an old friend, who produced it. Antoine Ryan, an amazing man who did cinematography. We're the core team, and there are many creatives from Rio and Montreal who worked on it as well. Can't wait to share very, very soon!
What are some key messages that you can see throughout the movie?
My goal was to get people in my head about what travelling meant for me. It was also a way to express other themes such as spirituality in the Afro-Latinx community. I identify as Afro-Latinx because of the Haitian history of liberation and to break the stigma of what Latinos look like. We are them. I wanted to make something with love, nostalgia, nature, and music. I want people to feel the sisterhood solidarity that it took to make this project.
You also have some features of a young Aïsha on the album, so I guess in some ways you've been working toward this your whole life. After an album comes the tour, so where can we expect you to perform soon, both as a DJ and the live show?
I wanted to pay homage to this child. She went through so much with a big smile on her face. She couldn't really show pain to keep going. This work was definitely transformative. Shout out to Rebecca Manakil, who held me with sound healing in the process while there was no one at the studio in St-Adèle. A lot of revelations came to me and came through.
This summer, I'll be playing in the most iconic places I could ever dream of: closing DJ set at Montreux Jazz Festival, Lakuti'a party called "Your Love" in Berghain/Panorama Bar, and Dekmantel Selectors in Croatia, just to name these ones. Mostly DJ sets for now. It's gonna be fun!