Black History Through Music: Talking with DJ Chocolate
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Black History Through Music: Talking with DJ Chocolate

Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist

The term “Black History Month” has a scholastic sound to it, like a category on Jeopardy you skip in favour of Celebrity Rhyme Time. Yet there’s a lot to be fascinated with, from Kush to Kentucky from Jim Crow to James Brown, and to tackle the topic it makes sense to look at what excites many people about black culture and history: music. While there are many great black artists who are movie makers, painters, and playwrights, it is the Western musicscape that has been dominated by black styles of music, from rock ‘n’ roll to reggae, from the blues to hip-hop, from jazz to funk, from disco to drum and bass. It has become the most accessible doorway into the world of black experience. This series explores how some Torontonians found music opened that door for them.
DJ Chocolate is the pseudonym for Lauren Speers. She spins reggae, world, and island-inspired wax at clubs and has hosted the CKLN show “Rebel Music” for several years.
When asked how music has connected her to black history and culture, she’s quick to acknowledge the breadth of the term “black culture” and that her own area of learning has been such a small slice of it. “I don’t think that being a reggae DJ gives me a right to say I know black history and culture,” she says. “I come from a R&B and reggae-centric music perspective, which doesn’t teach me many cultural things about Africa or South American countries, other than my mom’s native Brazil. It’s mostly based in the West Indies and North America. Liking Bob Marley when I was twelve may have introduced me to Rasta culture in an abstract sense, but you can’t really know a culture until you’ve lived it and studied it, whether that be formal or informal.”

Indeed, music can be a great catalyst for learning. Sometimes that means a metalhead reading H.P. Lovercraft or a Wu-Tang Clan fan picking up an Iron Man comic; but for DJ Chocolate, it was Bob Marley who opened the door for her. “His music was a watershed of learning for me. It led me to other specific reggae artists like Burning Spear and Mutabaruka who referenced different authors whom I actually went out and read,” she says. “Just because I’ve been to countries in the Caribbean, or stayed with my family in London or Rio, doesn’t mean that I probably didn’t learn more about black history and culture by reading the works of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Marcus Garvey because reggae or hip-hop introduced me to them.”
While reggae gave her much socio-political insight, Lauren picked up more from other black music. “Billie Holliday, plus many great artists from the Stax and Motown eras have shown me insight into affairs of the heart and relationships,” she says. “Nowadays, I get insight from people as diverse as K’naan, Alicia Keys, Busy Signal, and Ursula Rucker.”
The power of musical messaging effects her set list too. From bubblegum pop to candystore hip-hop, she’s always looking for something more. “Especially on the radio, you never know who might be listening,” she says. “I program lyrically as well as by beat and rhythm; I like to learn from songs and show people things through music. A strong message has greater impact and making an impact is part of a good DJ’s job.”
When asked if there were any surprises—good or bad—being a white woman diving into black culture and music, Lauren merely relays the same sort of experiences anyone has as an outsider. “I sometimes feel funny playing songs like ‘Black Woman And Child’ or ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ because I’m so obviously not black myself,” she says. “But, hell, if it makes people feel good about themselves or the music is good, well, that’s more important than the DJ playing it.”
“Really one of the best experiences is a fairly continual one, where I walk in to play a party and some proportion of the people there are like, ‘Who the hell is that and why is she here?’ And then I get to win them over—or at least try—with music,” she says. “The right music, at the right time, played with skill and a bit of understanding can win over people who are initially quite prejudiced about me from the get-go.”
DJ Chocolate’s latest project is motherhood. A few days ago, Lauren was celebrating her baby’s first birthday while trying to finish a big essay for her second year of law school. You can hear her every Monday on CKLN at 2:30 p.m.
Lyrical postscript: Burning Spear sings of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and seen by many as the first organizer and empowerer of black people. The Rastafari call him a prophet:

“Marcus Garvey”
Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass,
Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass,
Can’t get no food to eat,
Can’t get no money to spend, Wo-oo-oo
Can’t get no food to eat,
Can’t get no money to spend, Woo -oo- oo
Come, little one and let me do what I can do for you
And you and you alone
Come, little one, wo-oo-oo
Let me do what I can do for you and you alone, woo-oo-oo
He who knows the right thing
And do it not
Shall be spanked with many stripes,
Weeping and wailing and moaning,
You’ve got yourself to blame, I tell you.
Do right do right do right do right do right,
Tell you to do right, Woo -oo- oo
Beg you to do right, Woo -oo- oo
Where is Bagawire, he’s nowhere to be found
He can’t be found
First betrayer who gave away Marcus Garvey
Son of Satan, First prophesy,
Catch them, Garvey old
Catch them Garvey, catch them Woo -oo- oo
Hold them Marcus, hold them Woo -oo- oo
Marcus Garvey, Marcus Woo -oo- oo

Co-written by Brian McLachlan and Jaclyn Buckley.