Don't Tell OHSO What Girls Can't Do

Don't Tell OHSO What Girls Can't Do

OHSO never planned to be a DJ. She grew up in Toronto in an Ethiopian family and was supposed to be a doctor or a scientist. To her credit, she tried, even if she did it all through gritted teeth. Now, OHSO's playing self-curated events worldwide, including for Red Bull's Atlanta Music Festival, but the road to success wasn't without hurdles.

One night when she was younger, OHSO snuck out of the house to a concert, where the DJ saved her life by playing all her favorite tracks. This was the first time she remembers having such a cathartic experience on the dance floor. "The next morning I told my mom, 'I'm gonna be a DJ,'" OHSO says. "I was so proud of myself because in that moment I knew what I supposed to be doing." Unfortunately, OHSO's mother didn't share her enthusiasm.

"She told me, 'Girls don't DJ,'" OHSO says, and her dream was instantly shut down. The next few years were spent "fumbling around, following the program," until OHSO met a man who encouraged her to get back to the turntables. He was able to reference pioneering female DJs who paved the way for budding talents like OHSO to come through. Freshly inspired, she taught herself to mix, spending hours on Technics turntables and learning by ear.

At first, OHSO tried to make her way in Toronto's club scene, where she heard mixed feedback. "It'll take you three years to pay your dues as a DJ," some said, and the other two female DJs in the local scene took all the gigs they could book. OHSO received this lukewarm reception, which was a sign she needed to make a change.

With no real connections to the music industry, a handful of self-created mixes, and a few motivational speeches by Will Smith saved on her laptop, OHSO booked a one-way ticket to Miami and rented an Airbnb for a month. That was all the fuel she needed.

"I just remember telling myself, 'I'm figuring this out in a month, so if it works, it works, if it doesn't, it doesn't,'" OHSO says. While networking around the city, she connected with a talent buyer for a small dive bar called Love Hate. She was asked to open for a late-night party that went from 10 PM to 5 AM. Instead, she went on at 1 AM, which only worsened her anxiety.

Then, the buyer casually told OHSO that Will Smith was at the party. "The place was small as fuck so he was right there," OHSO says. "But then I played my set and he went fucking nuts."

This experience boosted OHSO's confidence — another sign that OHSO was exactly where she needed to be. Her gigs grew more prominent: where she once played tiny dives, she was now invited to play glitzy dinner events that counted NBA stars' wives as guests. She'd become known as a young woman who spun reliable mixes of golden-age R&B and hip-hop classics.

Through her growing relationships, OHSO eventually met in 2012 legendary '90 rapper and actress Monie Love, who asked her to open for Spinderella, Salt-N-Pepa's longtime DJ. At the beachside hotel gig, in a space called the Wreckroom, Love grabbed the mic as OHSO started spinning and shouted out the partitioned-off VIP section, which was filling up with celebrity attendees, from Boris Kodjoe to Duane Martin. Then: Will Smith.

"I just remember, I'm trying not to look at him, I'm like, 'Don't freak out,'" OHSO says. "But then, he turns and looks at me, he was like, 'Go OHSO!' Saying my name... me!" After OHSO's set, she remembers Smith embraced her and told her she did a great job.

These experiences gave OHSO momentum to head next for Atlanta around 2014, as a way to switch up both her sound and get inspired in a new environment. That move proved equally as serendipitous as past moves. In her last days in Miami, she instructed at Jam Master Jay's World Famous Scratch DJ Academy between gigs, and was then asked to teach at the Atlanta location of the educational facility. She quickly immersed herself in Atlanta's underground, performing at day parties and getting involved in a local DJ collective.

Five years after moving to Atlanta, OHSO has become a household name there, in part because she worked extra hard to make her presence known. "I DJ'd everything you could think of," OHSO says. "Like movie premieres, TV show screenings. I started traveling, too. We all have to start somewhere."

OHSO's restless creativity led her to think further about how she could be known as more than a DJ, but a curator of unforgettable experiences. By 2016, she had an idea based on the rise of more women in hip-hop. Though artists ranging from Trina to Nicki Minaj continued to blaze new trails in the mainstream, she noticed that in the underground, so many hip-hop parties were dominated by men and not always safe spaces for women to express themselves freely.

"Atlanta can be a bit of a sausage fest, to put it bluntly," OHSO says. "No shade, but some parties can be like these intense male southern classicists in a room, trying to be hard. So I just needed my women, I need my girls."

Eventually, she launched her party series, Bounce Dat, a judgement-free safe space specifically for women, femmes, and queer people. It had a beauty parlor complete with nails, baby hair, temporary face tattoo stations.

"We hit capacity in 25 minutes," OHSO says. "I literally wanted to cry on the spot. I was just like, 'There's 100 people standing outside that could get in.' When I got there and started spinning, the women were so happy. We made it so that men, excluding queer people, cannot come to the party unless you're escorted by a woman."

This is all the start of a brighter, more inclusive future OHSO is creating for Atlanta and, eventually, the world at large. On the horizon, she says is a Bounce Dat mini-tour, the start of Girls Don't, her nonprofit encouraging young women of color to dream big, and a women-run creative agency called Homegirl.

"One thing that I've noticed as part of my purpose is to inspire young girls," she says. "The thing I was missing as a kid was seeing something tangible. Whenever I see somebody do something, I'm like, 'I can do that too!' So that's what these young girls are missing. They're not getting representation, especially girls that look like me."

OHSO's next Bounce Dat takes place Thursday, November 7, during Red Bull Music Festival Atlanta, and will feature guest appearances and performances from Princess and Diamond of Crime Mob, Molly Brazy, Queen Key, pineappleCITI, bowcat, Decoteau, JSPORT, DJ Ape and more.

Ahead of the party, OHSO shares a sexy, exclusive playlist with PAPER inspired by and featuring prominent women in today's hip-hop scene. Stream it, below, and follow her on Instagram (@djohsoxo).

Photography: Niss