Written by Julia Greene Edited by Madeline Nathaus
DJs are playing music for picketers and supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union on a rainy October day outside Little Village’s Telpochcalli Elementary School.
One of those DJs is CaSera Heining—or DJ Ca$h Era, as she’s known when she’s working—who watches the Chicago Teachers Union members at that 2019 strike, as they dance to the “Cha Cha Slide” or house music.
Community is a big part of Heining’s work. She’s been using her DJ work to create change and encourage diversity since she started part-time in early 2014. Now, she works full-time, DJing at events like poetry competitions and Pride events, to name a few.
“As a Black queer woman, I have three things against me automatically,” says Heining, 25. “I bust my ass to get to where I am.”
But she refuses to let that stop her. Just because she had to work so hard to get to where she is now doesn’t mean she wants it to be like that for others, she says. If she can’t do a gig for some reason, Heining uses recommendations to help DJs like her.
“If someone needs a recommendation for a DJ, if it’s not a woman, I’m recommending a person of color in general,” she says. “I feel like that’s what more DJs need to do.”
Heining encourages diversity within the DJ world, especially in the LGBTQ community. It’s frustrating to see Pride events for queer women be DJ-ed by men, she says.
“You can find queer female DJs, you just didn’t look hard enough,” she says. “You just gave up. Why? We exist.”
But to Heining, who earned her degree in radio from Columbia College Chicago in 2017, diversity isn’t about booking someone because of who they are. It’s about looking for talent outside of the demographics in the majority of the industry. And men definitely have the majority: in 2019, male DJs in clubs and festivals outnumbered their female counterparts 12 to 1.
“I don’t want a gig out of pity. I want to earn my spot there,” she says. “I hope you pick a DJ because of talent, not because of what’s between their legs.”
This sentiment is also how she responds to sexism within the DJ industry, she says. Heining works hard because she doesn’t want men to be picked because of her gender, but because they’re better at a job than her.
Heining has also faced the challenge of being underestimated when people see who she is, but again, she attributes this as something that drives her.
“Sometimes when I walk into a gig, people will look at me like, ‘Oh, you’re the DJ.’ You can hear the shock in their voice like, ‘Oh, they booked the girl DJ,’” she says. “As soon as I hear that, I think, ‘I’m about to show your ass why they booked me.’”
She has proved herself to those who see her work, according to Ana Wright, the director of programming for Young Chicago Authors, an organization that encourages young voices through writing and performances. YCA hosts Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry festival in the world, which Heining has DJ-ed at for six years and is the official DJ for.
“[Heining] has helped to establish the tone for how poetry and music are synonymous, which is an important marriage,” Wright says over email.
Heining’s work through Louder Than a Bomb has also allowed her to create safe spaces for her audiences, says Damyanti Wallace, who met Heining through the festival.
“You have this woman who’s bringing this nurturing and caring energy to the space and wants to make sure everybody’s safe,” says Wallace, co-founder of and media outreach and events coordinator for Good Kids Mad City, a youth-led advocacy group fighting gun violence, during a phone interview. “You’re taken care of in that space.”
Although Heining’s not doing her usual five to seven shows a week during the coronavirus pandemic, she’s still working. Whether it’s virtual drag shows, DJing and hosting for weekly open mics with YCA or having a music video made for Virtual Burning Man in 2020, she’s doing two to three events a week.
“I definitely realize how fortunate I am and how amazing the community I have surrounded myself with is,” she says.
Heining’s wants to inspire people to do what she does, too, she says. But she doesn’t want people to say that they want to be her when they grow up.
“I don’t want to be the standard,” she says. “I want you to be better than me. I want you to do greater things.”
Through her platform and work, Heining lifts up other women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. She says she finds innovative ways to get where she wants to be, like all other women have to.
“If you think you can tell me ‘no’ and I’ma listen, you got the wrong one,” Heining says. “I don’t care how many ‘no’s I get—I’ll keep going until I get a ‘yes.’”
Photos courtesy of Rena Naltsas and Dennis Elliott
When a young Julie B. Nichols first found her love for music, she was sitting at a piano at the age of 10. From there, her love of piano stretched into playing in several bands.
As an adult, Nichols hit the ground running in the field of music and established herself in composing, musical direction for advertisements and sound design. Her work in sound design, including commercials for brands such as Nintendo, K-Mart and Spotify, sticks out the most.
“There are so many layers to sound design and there is so much power in it,” she says with a smile. “You have an immense amount of control of how the audience responds emotionally to stories and I find that incredibly exciting.”
Generally speaking, sound designers create audio for special effects for ads, movies, theater and other performances, using different techniques and tools.
“I got my first full time gig with the Second City National Touring Company and toured with them for two years,” Nichols explains. “That was my first introduction to sound design, as used in a theatrical setting, and I became fascinated with how creative you can be with how an audience experiences sound and music.”
The industry she works in is male-dominated, but Nichols has some inspiring words for young women who want to get into the business: Ask for help.
“There is a wonderful network of artists, musicians, sound designers and composers in Chicago and we love to help each other,” she says with growing excitement.
“I encourage young women to go for it and to reach out to people to help guide them, especially in the beginning,” she says. “Like starting anything new, it can be intimidating, but the work is so rewarding.”
“Ask questions, be curious and be confident.” Nichols says. “It is worth it.”