DJ Prairie Chola Ayatollah
PCA: On Third Culture Folk Feminism
Trying to process the visual appearance of spoken-word-artist-turned-DJ Prairie Chola Ayatollah happens in three stages.
The most striking visual element is undoubtedly her clown makeup, an ode to the makeup designs of Los Angeles chola culture.
Then there’s the realization that she’s a woman in a field where women are still underrepresented, and finally the realization that she’s a woman of colour, a sight that’s even more scarce.
Processing the sight of PCA has undoubtedly caught many off guard over the past six months as she’s transitioned from the arena of spoken-word performance to that of DJing, with appearances at venues like Local 510, Cafe Koi, Broken City, and Hifi.
According to Sameena Darr, the artist behind the makeup, PCA is essentially performance art. The makeup is more than an aesthetic choice. For Darr, PCA is a character, one that’s rooted in what she calls “third culture folk feminism.”
“Third culture” refers to how the character came into being, and “folk feminism” is what it stands for.
Coined by researchers in the 1950’s, the term “third culture” refers to kids who are raised in a culture other than that of their parents. The third culture in question is the one that’s created from trying to reconcile the two.
In Darr’s case, her father is from East Africa, her mother is Australian, and she was born in Toronto then raised in Calgary.
Growing up she struggled to find anything to identify with, a challenge she says was shared by many in her position.
“My cousins in Toronto, they were some of the first Punjabi immigrants in their neighbourhood in the 80’s,” says Darr.
“Toronto’s a way different place now, but at that time a lot of members of my family would try to pass as Italian, or pass as Persian, because they didn’t want people to know that they were Pakistani, which I think is devastating.”
In the absence of any positive brown-skinned role models or representation in her immediate environment, Darr found herself identifying with the chola aesthetic, immersing herself in the Latinx culture of Los Angeles through blogs she’d find on Tumblr.
“All my friends were cholas, the Persian girls, the asian girls, the East-Indian girls, that was just the fucking style because that was the only style we could really relate to,” says Darr.
While it may appear random given the location of Calgary relative to Los Angeles, Darr believes this aesthetic caught her attention thanks to the general flow of culture through North America.
“I always wondered why I gravitated towards that style, and it’s because there’s a lot of that influence, that West Coast style, that creeps its way up into the prairies,” she says.
This trickle of West Coast culture also spawned an infatuation with hip-hop that continued into adulthood. She became an avid participant in hip-hop karaoke events. This, in turn, gave her an intimate understanding of how rap songs are built.
“When you start getting good at hip-hop karaoke you start figuring out how to build a decent 16 bars, and when you spend enough time depressed on Rap Genius you get really good at learning how to fucking, just learning to get some decent flow,” she says.
After finishing university in the late 2000’s Darr began working at open mic nights to pay back her student loans. Despite the open formats of the nights, she soon noticed a marked lack of musical diversity.
“I’d see people going up for an open mic and I’m like why are there 15 fucking acoustic guitars in this room it drives me nuts,” she says.
“I want to kick ‘em out the fucking front door.
“Everybody plays an acoustic guitar in this city and I’m sick of it, and the sound of an acoustic guitar actually makes me want to puke a little in my mouth, although I do love country music.
“Actually not country, I like bluegrass music.”
The karaoke had given her the confidence to begin writing her own material, and so three years ago she took to the stage as a spoken-word artist.
“They were sick fucking hot fire rhymes,” she says.
Performing was a way for Darr to confront the turmoils in her life at the time. She’d been suffering from depression, struggling to hold down a job, and was often overcome by anger.
“I think music’s pretty cathartic, I think a lot of my frustration came from the fact that I kept pushing myself in directions that I thought other people’s expectations of me - I needed to fulfill those instead of my own expectations of myself,” she says.
The decision to paint her face coincided with the launch of her venture into spoken-word performance, and is in many ways a reflection of this realization.
Darr describes the makeup specifically as folk feminism, or feminism that comes from a grassroots setting as opposed to academia.
“I think folk feminism moves in a lot of forms, I think it’s behaviour, I think it’s fashion and style,” she says.
“And specifically I think the way I’m using it is in terms of a style.”
It’s a style that brings empowerment by boldly defying convention and loudly establishing individuality. Darr even remembers the first night that the makeup gave her a feeling of strength.
“I was experimenting one night, I was pretty baked, it was like three in the morning,” she says.
“It was during the playoffs and this fucking guy was tearing my neighbour's rain duct of off his house and swinging from it.
“I’d been putting on this clown makeup all night so I pulled the blinds open and I just barked at him, and he got scared and he took off. Then I was like oh this is kind of powerful, so that’s why I kept doing it.”
By re-defining femininity, the makeup also shifts many of the dynamics in club culture that are often problematic towards women.
“When I’m in clown I can fucking walk home safe, my cab driver doesn’t try to hit on me, guys take one look at me at the club and they just back off, I don’t get harassed,” she says.
“People are curious about it, they want to have a conversation but that’s what I want, I’d rather have a conversation than have you staring at my fucking tits or something.”
Six months ago Darr began DJing, and this defiance is now a core principle of Hot Roots, a series of parties that she began alongside local DJs Anput and Boringalice.
“Ultimately I think we’re just tired of playing in spaces that we feel like we’re threatened, we feel like don’t include people,” says Darr.
“You know there’s this fucking expectation sometimes when you’re playing with men that you have to fuck them, you know, it’s like I’m over it. I’m actually over it.
“I want the DJs that I play with, and specifically the female DJs that I play with, to understand that we’re business women first and foremost, we’re musicians, and we deserve spaces that we can be comfortable, and by creating our own nights we’re creating a space that’s attracting an all-inclusive environment.”
Darr’s foray into DJing is a representation of the processes that led to PCA’s development. Like third culture, her sets are a blend of hip-hop and sounds from across the electronica spectrum, a splintering of cultures into the formation of a new identity.
Through Hot Roots and her actions on stage, Darr’s own brand of folk feminism is empowering those around her and raising the calibre of Calgary music.
“Since we put this together by pushing ourselves and trying to promote these nights, we’re just developing our skills even more,” says Darr.
“We’re able to branch out and start getting gigs on our own now.
“That’s what I love about it, we’ve created this space where we’re all teaching each other and that’s what it should be about.
“That’s what music should always be about, it’s a fucking conversation.”
Follow PCA at https://www.facebook.com/PCAyatollah/