Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

In this article, Ola’s Kool Kitchen, a London-based radio and club DJ, describes her pandemic experience that will, sadly, resonate with music industry workers at all levels.

Ola's Kool Kitchen
Ola’s Kool Kitchen

Ola presents a show on several independent radio stations and is a DJ in London. As a radio broadcaster of twelve years standing, Ola’s Kool Kitchen on KCLA 99.3 FM in Los Angeles, 107.5 andhow.FM, Rock Velvet Radio, Maximum Threshold Radio, Rock Radio UK, Sword Radio UK, Jammerstream One, Kor Radio, Bombshell Radio, Firebrand Radio, Pop Radio UK, Radio Wigwam and Rock XS Radio, was created to combat the myopic mediocrity present in mainstream media. The show features an eclectic mix of genres; her mantra put simply, good music has no boundaries.

When I was a wee nipper, I would suffer from terrible nausea on almost any journey over ten minutes long. It wasn’t until my parents put me in the front seat and let me control the radio, that the vomiting would abate, so my love of music was borne of car sickness. I found the best DJs when I was kid were the ones who hardly spoke and just played the music. As I tried not to puke, I especially loathed the hyper-happy hosts with their incessant, superficial blather. With this in mind, I design my radio show with minimal chat as the perfect soundtrack for a car ride.

Eventually, I would come to enjoy visiting new places, but I still despise the act of travel. I find it a tedious process, and I don’t understand people who gain pleasure from uncomfortable long journeys. When I have to endure them, however, I put on my Mp3 player and I almost get it. The tunes make it bearable, and as I observe the scenery whizzing by, it’s like my own personal music video.

I had a strange and surreal childhood, which was both overwhelming and unmonitored. My parents were immigrants to the US, ultra-Catholic, blue collar conservatives, and I spent most of my time dodging either their physical or emotional abuse. At age 13, I decided to tell my parents I didn’t want to go to church anymore; for several years I’d been pretending to go and playing hooky. My father accused me of being a communist, and I had to explain that my decision had nothing to do with Marxist ideology.

I remember as a young teenager seeing Blondie on a chart TV show performing “Heart of Glass”. The lead singer, Deborah Harry, was glamorous, her bleached blonde hair was askew in a wild manner and the song was pure gold. My mother hated her and whined about how her hair was a disgusting mess; rather than repel me, this made me embrace her even more. She was totally cool.

The incomparable Ms Deborah Harry

In later years, music would become important in shaping my identity. In my immediate family, all the women were very bitter, angry and unhappy. I knew I wanted a different life that wasn’t about subjugating myself to religious rituals, conventions or familial obligations. I didn’t want to be a clone of my parents and their beliefs, and repeat their misfortunes; I wanted to evolve. Music helped me escape these confines, to glean a way to reinvent myself and live the unconventional life I wanted. It’s not a new story; many bands, artists and entertainers have fled similarly oppressive and impoverished backgrounds to find their place in the sun. Currently in the UK, there is next to no class mobility; most people die in the class into which they are born. For many of us, music is not an option but a way of life, and the music industry helps break down all those constrictions.

I honestly believed it would only be for a short while. I thought there was no way the big, booming music venues and festivals in the UK would shut down for long. How wrong I was.

Fast forward to March 2020; I’m on a film set when I receive the message that all my work has been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Welcome to Covid-land, and the lockdown began. At the time, I honestly believed it would only be for a short while. I thought there was no way the big, booming music venues and festivals in the UK would shut down for long. How wrong I was. It’s now the end of 2020, and I haven’t worked since that fateful week in March when the music died. As it happens, I did land two jobs in December, but government u-turns meant they were cancelled.

I tried to embrace the new normal; I continued to make my radio show, but it is unpaid. I asked my fans to help with donations on the show, with FB posts, setting up a Patreon account and buttons to donate via PayPal. I was surprised that within 30 minutes of my first post on social media, I received a donation of $200. Contributions came from friends and fans all over the world with messages of support and love of the show. This was perhaps the only highlight of lockdown. Over the years, I would sometimes feel the radio show was a failure, and I was putting it out into a void. It’s like that saying, ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound?’ Unless people tell you, you don’t know if you’re making an impact. I’m very grateful to all the people who donate; it really helps in a lousy situation.

As time passed, the news was filled with nothing but Covid coverage. Insidiously, it started to creep into my music submissions. When I saw a Covid-themed track, I would moan inwardly as they were usually quite dreary. Life and the news were stuck in the mire, brimming with dread of this disease. I wanted to escape this new normal, not wallow in it. I was proven wrong, though, when I discovered the song, “I Wanna Stay Home With U” by Table Scraps. It was the polar opposite of the typical Covid groan; it was a sweet, power-punk song about self-isolating together in bliss. It has a great video made remotely with loads of their friends – who are also new bands and artists I think are awesome – adding their dance moves to make it cheery. It is included here for your pleasure.

When the weeks turned into months, I missed seeing people. I spent most of my time at home with my partner, only going out for exercise and shopping. Before the pandemic, life in London was fast-paced, and I never dawdled in shops. I didn’t want to chat with strangers; it was in and out. After lockdown, starved of human contact and having nowhere else to be, I found myself engaged in lively conversations with shop assistants. I was that lonely old lady holding up the queue who would have annoyed me pre-Covid. I needed an event or something to look forward to. I noticed that other DJs were spinning online. I’m not the most tech-savvy person when it comes to visual and online streaming. I’d never used Zoom or done much video calling, but circumstances forced me to adapt, and I hosted an online disco with friends. It was a very strange affair with mixed results, as you can see below.

The beginning (Photo by Stephen Bland)
Strange interlude (Photo by Jon Campling)
The end of the night (Photo by Olga’s Kool Kitchen)

Online interactions were insufficient, however, and I found myself falling into a deep depression and sleeping a lot. If it wasn’t for my partner going to the shops and cooking for me, I would have skipped meals and gone into hibernation. I would get up very late, and there would be several days a week where I went missing into unconsciousness.

I recently watched The Haunting of Bly Manor and was struck by one of the female ghosts in the story. She was in a constant state of limbo, waking and falling asleep over and over, until the features of her face melted off and she forgot who she was. She became nothing but a feeling that repeated the same actions in a loop; she woke, she walked, and she fell asleep. I saw parallels to my own life; it was like I was forgetting who I was, and I didn’t see the point of getting up.

I’ve always dreamt frequently and lucidly. I’d fly, have adventures with my favourite TV characters, and travel through time and space. During lockdown, I found myself becoming addicted to my dreams. My partner would try to wake me and I would say, “No man, I’m in Malaysia with a young Mickey Dolenz; I’m staying here,” before drifting away. It was far more enticing than my current reality. It’s similar to the plot of the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World in which a machine to record human dreams is invented, and it creates addicts. In my despair, I became a dream junkie.

So, I decided to wake up and write about my experiences in lockdown as a form of therapy. Perhaps by sharing my trials and tribulations, someone will read this and say, ‘me too’, and we’ll both feel better. I miss gigs and DJing, and no Zoom video can equal that live experience of people laughing and dancing together. I miss being crushed in mosh-pits; I even miss that annoying tall guy blocking my view at a gig. Mostly, I miss playing a song and seeing a person light up with joy on the dancefloor or give me a high five or thumbs up, especially if it isn’t an obvious commercial hit.

As an older person, I can’t begin to imagine how it must be for young folks. One of the venues I used to DJ at was the Amersham Arms, which usually would be packed with students from Goldsmiths University who would come to dance and put on events. When things reopened in July this year, I was glad to see the Amersham still putting on comedy nights and socially distanced gigs. I loved DJing to fresh-faced students and observing there boundless energy and optimism. I couldn’t help but ponder on their current plight during Covid.

The UK government needs to do more to provide for us and help with our mental anguish. Like many in the arts here, we’ve been abandoned and left to fend for ourselves.

Here in the UK, Boris Johnson was behind a drive for students to return to universities, probably to extract the extortionate tuition and dorm fees. Normally, Freshers’ week is jam-packed with parties and activities, a fun rite of passage where students meet, get smashed and dance. Upon their arrival this year, they were locked in their rooms and had to take classes online. They’re missing out on the real university experience, but they’re still being fully charged for it; they deserve a reduction to the cost of their education. I really feel for them, as they’re being denied their youth.

I know many in the music industry are struggling to survive: from musicians, DJs, sound engineers and festival organisers, to music venue promoters, lighting technicians and stage crews. The government in the UK needs to do more to provide for us and help with our mental anguish. Like many in the arts here, we’ve been abandoned and left to fend for ourselves. If you love a band, buy their music or merchandise, support local music venues or crowdfunding ventures. Your support, no matter how large or small, makes all the difference. All around the world, in every time and place, a musician, band or DJ has saved someone’s life. It happens all the time. Today, we in the music industry need you to save us.

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