On Mardi Gras day of 2020 I drank and danced in a costumed crowd at the corner of Esplanade and Royal, cheering the Saint Anne parade as it rolled by, waiting to jump in with some friends and their Noah’s Ark themed krewe. Finally they appeared: the antlers and furry accoutrements approaching two-by-two, the ark a shopping-cart-cum-DJ-booth. At its helm, like a Biblical Pied Piper, was DJ Chinua as Noah. He led the throng through the Quarter and the party posted up at Betty’s, where the revelry continued into the evening.
Many in attendance would have been looking forward to the Pisces edition of Ascendance, the monthly dance party with an emphasis on inclusivity that DJ Chinua helped bring into existence in 2017. It was set to take place a few weeks after Fat Tuesday, but COVID had become a harsh reality by then and Ascendance was among the first events in New Orleans to be called off at the onset of pandemic shutdowns.
The next two years would be a time of both expression and introspection for DJ Chinua (government name: Lenny Raney). As a Black educator with a professed antagonism towards capitalism, he had a lot to say about the seemingly ceaseless stream of historic activity we lived through. In the midst of events like a poorly-handled plague, the protests following the murder of George Floyd, and a fraught election season that ultimately sparked an attempted insurrection, he used his platform on social media to promote thoughtful discourse.
But (as we all hopefully did during that time) he also found himself doing some soul searching. For a good stretch of the pandemic he rebranded from “DJ Chinua” to “innerversions” as part of an exploration of identity and motivation, unsure if the moniker so many had come to know him by was still the right fit. As opportunities for live gigs began to present themselves once again, he felt he had his answer: DJ Chinua was back.
We talked via Zoom a week after Mardi Gras 2022—an exceptionally fun day with big déjà vu vibes as we all bopped around outside Betty’s once again, a robed DJ Chinua on the decks. Just weeks prior, Ascendance had also made its return.
The obvious question I have to start with is: What was it like to be out there on Mardi Gras again two years later? I know I was having some serious time warp feelings.
It felt good. It felt like the stars aligned, the way that we had this really horrific Omicron surge, and the way it almost entirely dissipated within weeks. I felt very fortunate to be able to get together with so many people I hadn’t seen in so long, in such an amazing and magical setting.
And you had actually predicted that—you’d had your thumb on the pulse of the COVID surges and were giving the right warnings like, “Hey, let’s respect the surge but if we do the right things…”
Yeah, I think I figured out during Delta that there’s just a rhythm to how this goes, and there are signs about where you are in a surge. And one thing I’ve found particularly since I started being more vocal about the data, is that whatever state the pandemic is in, in the moment, people feel like it’s always gonna be that. So when it’s really, really bad, and the hospitals are full, and there’s all the news stories about the nurses being tired and everyone’s sick, people really have the mentality that this is going to be what they’re going through forever. On the flip side, when the cases are low… This is like the third time where people are like, “Yeah it’s done!”
I know! We have very short memories!
Yeah. The whole thing is pretty traumatic, I think. For all of us, wherever we are, in our own ways. So I think a lot of that is just… it’s hard to get yourself out of that mode of either catharsis or survival. But there is a rhythm to it! And once you start hearing about the new variant, like seriously, once you start digging past all of the media nonsense, you can kind of tell how it’s gonna go. You don’t know how deep it’s gonna be, or how harmful it’s gonna be, but it’s gonna be really bad for a while and then it’s gonna go away after enough people get sick from it. So yeah, we really lucked out because like a month later, or even a month earlier—who knows what’s gonna happen in a month, right?!
For sure. And even with how amazing and fun that day was, was there any kind of weird nostalgia associated with it? I had so many flashbacks to Mardi Gras 2020 and it was just like, “Oh dear, sweet, little us two years ago not having any clue what was on the horizon.”
I think there were moments when like… I was in the middle of the dance floor at Gimme a Reason at Poor Boys, which is the party run by Bouffant Bouffant, which is this amazing, beautiful, very human space where there’s… a lot of heavy breathing? And there were moments when I was in the middle of that dance floor, indoors, and I’m maybe one of three people in the whole space wearing a mask, and I don’t even have the mask on 100% of the time and I’m just like, “Oh my God, this is really nerve-wracking!” But for the most part, no. For the most part the things I did were outside. And the weather was beautiful too, which is a blessing.
You had the one-two punch of Ascendance coming back just a few weeks before Mardi Gras. That’s kind of like your baby, so how did that compare? I’m sure you had a lot of emotions about bringing that event back. And I know you went to great lengths to do it safely.
So the timing of Ascendance was pretty interesting because when we announced it, Omicron was on its tail end. But it was still going. But! As we all know, there are a bunch of people in the community who are just kind of done with it. So you have both the people who were like, “Omicron is still there, oh my God, I can’t believe Ascendance is coming back.” And you have people who are like, “Y’all are really asking for vaccinations still??? Omicron is just a cold.” So it was a really interesting time to try to throw the party, because I felt confident that… We talked to like, three doctors, two community elders, a couple of nurses, a few disabled folks… Our decision to come back was always: When do we have both community support, and support of the data and medical side of it? So we felt confident but still… it was nerve-wracking, putting it on. It was a lot of long replies to comments.
Was it the kind of thing that you weren’t sure if it was going to come together until the very end? Or were you pretty committed to going through with it?
We were committed to it, but I mean, if it didn’t feel safe we wouldn’t have done it. Our Pisces party in 2020 was supposed to be March 13. The city shut down March 11, but things were still going on… there still were the parties. It takes a while for things to shut down. But again, we talked to doctors and they were like, “You can’t do that right now.” So we didn’t. We’re not afraid to shut it down at all, and we would’ve done it [this year] if it didn’t feel safe. But as of now we haven’t heard of a single person who got COVID from it, which feels really good. And we have the type of community where they would certainly tell us! So yeah, Ascendance is always very stressful. Love doing it! But it’s always very stressful. This one doubly so. Both because of safety, and also just getting back in the rhythm of it.
And for anyone who isn’t familiar with Ascendance, do you want to give a quick nutshell overview of what it is, and why you felt the need to bring it about a few years ago? The space you felt it was filling in the culture?
Ascendance is a monthly zodiac-themed event and celebration. Currently, it’s a collective of five people: myself and the other DJ, Whitney [Thomas], are the co-founders. And then there’s [C.] Gypsi [Lewis] who does space curation, and Sol [Galeano] who does graphic design and social media. And then Aaron [Sarles], who’s currently in New York, but flies down to do the visuals during the party. If I really were to describe what space it fills, it’s really just been five years of responding to feedback. We didn’t go into this really to have a lot of the things it’s associated with now. Like a lot of the consent-based language, and a lot of the celebration of identity, and relationships, and community. These are things that developed over time, that I think all of us who work on it believe in fundamentally, in our personal politics. But this becoming a platform for exploration and play in those areas was very much a result of community feedback over time. We started it in August of 2017 at Sidney’s Saloon. And it’s now currently at Cafe Istanbul, which is our home.
What inspired the transition to innerversions, and what brought you back to DJ Chinua? I know there was the practical aspect that you simply weren’t DJing for a little while.
Well, the name Chinua comes from one of my favorite authors, Chinua Achebe, who wrote (most famously) Things Fall Apart, but also No Longer at Ease and a few other books. And he is a Nigerian author—definitely the most famous Nigerian author and perhaps the most famous African author, in the West. And he was a pretty instrumental part of me coming to understand the expansiveness of Blackness from an artistic perspective as a young kid. Maybe high school age. And when choosing the name, I just felt like I wanted to have this touchstone. His work really balances the very old traditional identity of… he’s Igbo, so of the Igbo people, and also their struggles, their movement into modernity. So he tells these very old stories, but from a perspective of someone who can understand them in retrospect. And that really resonated with me, and I want to say I took the name in 2016? ’17? Something like that? And it felt really good to me, to connect to my roots.
You have Nigerian ancestry? Or just in the African diaspora sense?
At least according to 23 and Me! [laughs] And that’s kind of part of it, right? Being an African descendant of slavery, or whatever the term is that people use today for Black Americans, I have that total detachment from whatever my indigenous culture is. So I think it’s a very common practice for Black people to be searching for ways to reconnect to that—Black Americans in particular, and around the diaspora. You’ll see some, they’ll loc their hair, or they’ll start wearing kente cloth, or start listening to Afrobeat, or start learning about the orishas. There’s lots of ways that Black people develop that relationship, and that’s what the genesis of Chinua as an identity for me was. There came a point early in the pandemic… I want to say when we were at the peak of post-George Floyd unrest, some background feelings that I had about the question of, “Can a Black person appropriate African culture?” started to swirl in the back of my head and come to the forefront. Because I think one thing that the protests and George Floyd, and all of these things in that moment, had for all people who were at some level tapped in in America, is that it caused some level of self-reflection, of deeper excavation, either individually or communally or collectively, or whatever. And for me it was: Do I have the right to take this name? Whether or not it’s something anyone’s going to call me on, do I have a right to own this? And I wasn’t sure.
Had you ever had any conversations or experiences that made you think that people might be thinking these things? Or was it just a voice in the back of your own head?
I’d had a lot of conversations with people who were like, “You’re trippin’! You’re fine!” But I also had situations where people mistook me for culturally Nigerian? Nigerians who mistook me for culturally Nigerian? And that didn’t feel good to me. They were fine with it! There was no like, “Oh my God, you’re fake-claiming!” or anything. It was more like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool that you know about him!” Because Nigerians are so open with their culture. But it still didn’t sit right with me, and I felt like I needed a break from that identity, to figure out where I stood with it, in relation to it. And that’s where innerversions comes from.
How did you choose that term?
It’s kind of a play on words with Innervisions, the Stevie Wonder album. But also being a pretty introverted person myself, who doesn’t really… There’s a lot of parts of me that I’m very reticent to display publicly? So kind of splitting the difference between those two energies, the concept of: I’m making my very public persona a reference to that amazing album, which, if you listen to it, it’s very social justice, anti-racist, protest music almost. It felt like the right thing for the moment… And then people never, ever said it correctly. Everyone said “Innervisions,” and I had friends like, “You gotta correct those people!” And I’m like—
I had to make real sure I got it right when I asked the question! I was like, “Say it right, Ang, say it right!”
[laughs] And that honestly was a little part of it, like I don’t want a name that people can’t say! But then also, Chinua feels like home to me, and it feels good to me. And as long as it feels good in community, and to Nigerians, then I’m not going to hold myself to some standard that nobody on the planet is… Because the thing is, the people who know me through DJing just call me Chinua. A lot of people think that’s my real name! Which is so strange… I never would’ve thought growing up that I would have a pseudonym that people know me by, walking down the street! So yeah, people never stopped calling me that. They were like, “What—I gotta call you something new now?” And I’m like, “You can call me anything you want… I really don’t care. Well, not whatever you want, but any one of the three: my government name, or either one of the others, go for it. It’s all good.” But innerversions always felt kind of like a project. Rather than Chinua, which feels more personal to me.
You’ve got other musical experience as well—what brought you to the DJ world and becoming DJ Chinua?
I grew up, for part of my life, out of the country. I grew up in Jamaica from ages four to maybe eight or nine. And Jamaica is still, unfortunately, very colonial. There’s a lot of British sensibilities and cultural things there. And I come from a family of musicians: my mother was a pianist, my grandfather an organist, my uncle a drummer. So I played classical piano from age four until maybe 12, starting under the Royal School of Music. So like, very very formalized classical piano. I wasn’t a prodigy at it. I was capable, I guess, for like a six-year-old? But it definitely created an appreciation for music and understanding of music that I carried into my next life, which was competitive figure skating.
Yeah! I did that for about 10 years.
Did you start that in Jamaica too?!
[laughs] No, there’s no ice rinks in Jamaica.
Right?! I was wondering if this was the lesser-known sequel to the bobsled team movie or something.
No, my mom’s side of the family is from the Midwest. She’s from Kansas. So when we moved back to the U.S. we lived there for a little and that’s where I started. But yeah, I skated until college basically, and skating is how I got involved in education. Volunteering for the Special Olympics, which is what I ended up moving down here for. To be a special education teacher.
When was that?
It was 2010. So yeah, I was a special education teacher, and I lived with a bunch of teachers, and I had this love for music, and we’d throw these parties. I don’t know how much you know about teachers, but… all your teachers were partying hard.
Yeah. I’ve learned a little bit about teachers in my adulthood, and that is the conclusion at which I’ve arrived.
Yeah. But we used to throw parties, and being that I had this background in music and I was a music editor in college; they relied on me for the iTunes playlist. And I realized really quickly that the party’s way better if I have a real speaker. This was like 2010, 2011. I bought a speaker, like a real PA. I had my little laptop with my iTunes, and I wasn’t actively doing anything, but people just kept calling me the DJ. I wasn’t a super popular kid. I was kind of a weird hipster in college, so I didn’t really have the popular kid aesthetics or whatever. But! Everyone would invite me ‘cause I had the speaker. And call me “DJ.” And one of the things I like about being a DJ the most is that I have this very palpable amount of social utility without actually having to talk to anyone. I don’t have to do small talk at parties.
For me it’s having a dog!
It’s like having a dog! Exactly! Everyone just wants to be your friend now! So I did that. I brought my speaker to all the parties, they called me “DJ,” and I was like, maybe I should actually DJ. So I just ordered a little cheap controller off the internet and started learning to DJ. And two-and-a-half years later, I was DJ’ing for Solange.
How did that come together?
So Solange, she was personal friends with one of my teacher friends, Stevie. This was a person I’d played for, for her own personal things, and she vouched for me. Solange was kind of between DJs. She had a DJ for her parties in L.A., but she didn’t have one down here. And last minute [Stevie]’s texting me, “I got this thing… Can you play for Solange?” Like… yeah… sure… I’ll play for Solange? But ultimately I think that I did a good job of following directions. Solange would send screenshots of her Apple Music playlist, and be like, “Play these songs.” That’s how she’d tell me what to do. And I would download all of them, and research, and find related songs and things that sound similar, and similar genres and moods. And when I was playing, I would put together a set. I think she really appreciated the effort I put into that. So I ended up being her resident DJ here for two years, and played 10 or 13 or so gigs for her in that time. Which was really cool, which really made me feel like, OK, I didn’t just get that because I knew someone… I kept it for two years. Which, there’s a lot of DJs in this city. Anyone from around the country would love to play for Solange, and she stuck with me. And this was pre-Ascendance, I had maybe 500 followers on Instagram? I was a nobody. (I wasn’t a nobody like, as a human! But, you know…) But she kept having me. She’d try someone else once in a while and come back to me. Which was really affirming. It’s what gave me the self-confidence to start something like Ascendance. So kudos, shoutout to Solange for sure, for pushing me in that direction.
And since getting back in the game you’ve really hit the ground running. It seems like it’s just been one gig after another. Are there some things on the horizon that you’re particularly excited about?
Yes! I’m playing BUKU fest this year, which I’m really excited about. I just filled out all the artists’ advance forms. This’ll be my first major festival so there’s a lot of technical jargon that I don’t understand. Actually, today, instead of doing my day job, I just sat there being like, “What do I need to put on a ‘stage plot?’ What do I need to put in an ‘input list?’ How do I…” In New Orleans you usually just show up with your backpack and plug into whatever’s there, and then you leave, right? But then these big productions… So yeah, definitely excited about BUKU. Ascendance is also doing this festival with KAYTRANADA and Aluna [Francis], from AlunaGeorge, over Memorial Day weekend. And we’re getting to curate artists, which is really cool.
What’s it called?
Noir Fever. Aluna has a—I believe she identifies as bisexual, and she has a record label and brand that she started that she’s using to promote and highlight upcoming Black and queer artists. And she decided to put on a smallish music festival here over Memorial Day weekend, and they are partnering with us, and also Set De Flo—that’s Lil Jodeci and Lord Chilla—both to play, but also to help curate local artists. So it feels really good to me—probably even more so than playing, being able to put my local friends on, and get them to play. It’s really cool to see my friends, who I usually post about at Banks Street Bar, or The Saint… that they’re gonna be on these big stages. That feels really good to me… A lot of my friends are getting married. I really only do weddings for friends at this point. But I’ve had a couple in a row that I’ve been really excited about. And of course Ascendance, that’s great. Love to play it.
Mardi Gras Day 2022 outside Betty’s Bar & Bistro (photo by Angela Calonder)
I started following you on Instagram after Mardi Gras 2020 so I came into your sphere at a time when a lot of people were saying a lot of things… But in all that noise I always found what you had to say very valuable. You’ve clearly done your homework; you’re not afraid to be provocative, but without being offensive. I guess I see a lot of heart there.
That’s good to hear. I’m glad that it feels like there’s a lot of heart there. Because there is, for me. I have a very strained relationship to the internet, and internet activism in general. I think we all do. I really struggle to understand the cost-benefit, like what are we giving up to use the internet in these ways? I think some of the most correct people on the internet are also some of the most addicted, and caught in the algorithm. I worry about an entire generation of leftist people—people who care about abolition, or anti-racism, or anti-transphobia or whatever—getting their education from a means of communication that is filtered explicitly to promote polemicism, promote pithiness, promote discord. Not that I’m one of these, “Oh no, people disagree with me!” people. No, obviously I think people need to disagree. I just think that the algorithm is telling us how we need to talk to each other, and particularly in a time when the pandemic is keeping us apart. This is the only way we’re processing our politics. [laughs] It’s interesting that you followed me in the pandemic, after Mardi Gras 2020 ‘cause I was doing a lot more before that! I was doing more activist-y, performative stuff. In like, 2019 and into 2020 I just really was like… this is not the rhythm that I want. I want to be able to speak to things, but I want to speak to things in ways where it can’t just be reposted. You can’t just read it, be like, “Oh that’s interesting, I can repost this and people will think I’m politically this way.” I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s mostly just walls of text!
And a lot of good memes. You throw some good memes in there.
Good memes! Yes, good memes and walls of text. There has to be a level of agitprop; there always has been, as long as there’s been a left wing! Gotta have the memes goin’… I only want to speak on things that I know that I understand. And I want the process of posting to be a development of my understanding of them. Like when I write things out, and they don’t sound right, and then I fact check before I post.
Ha, if only everyone did that though.
Ha, right? I think my main “activism,” I would say, with all that stuff, is kind of on a meta level. I want people to figure out how to communicate on the internet with a dedication to nuance… I’m really low on—like most people—institutional politics. On government. On electoral politics. And I’m really low on what the discourse looks and sounds and feels like to me, in my mind and in my heart. So when I choose to post something, I really want my post to feel like it’s thorough, and to feel like it’s open to discourse. And to feel like I’m not gonna weaken my opinions on anything—I’m obviously a very opinionated person—but I am open to being challenged and questioned and understood. And… yeah. There’s a few choice things. I love talking shit about Barack Obama. Like, one of my favorite things to do on the internet. If you see me talking shit on Barack Obama, I’m usually in a really good mood. I’ve gone through the five stages of grief over him, and a lot of other liberal Black politicians, and I now am totally on the other side and am at peace with them being opposed to what I am about. So any time I can get a little click [jabs elbow] on Barack Obama or Kamala Harris or Jim Clyburn or the people who are inside of community who I feel owe us something as representatives of us, that feels good to me. Because I want us—I want for Black people to have the leaders that we deserve, to have the representation that we deserve. I can’t control for what 200 million white people think. I really can’t. I don’t have their ear. But I do have the ear of a lot of Black people.
Are there any current Black politicians that you feel excited about? Gary Chambers comes to mind, I don’t know how you feel about him.
I voted for him. I don’t know. Me and voting, we’re at an interesting place. I don’t know if I’ll vote in the next election. I’ll have to see. After I pulled the lever for Joe Biden I decided I will only vote for a candidate who engages in a vocal and cogent critique of capitalism. So, that’s the minimum standard for me. Democrat, whatever, that doesn’t matter to me, I’m not looking for someone to lead the revolution or vanguard, I just need you to functionally be able to say, “Yeah, capitalism is pretty fucked up!” If you can say that, we can talk. Which [Gary Chambers] did. So. I feel OK about him. I really like Ilhan Omar. I know a lot of words get thrown around for her like, “Oh she’s so brave,” but the level of fierce intellect behind her bravery is pretty phenomenal to me. The way that she carries herself, and the things that she chooses to support, and the issues that she chooses to take on even though it’s political suicide to be an elected politician in America and be unreservedly pro-Palestine. It’s political suicide to do that. And while she doesn’t go as far as I’d like, I think, she goes literally as far as you can and win elections. So I have a lot of love and respect for her. Rashida Tlaib. Ascendance had an event at the African American Museum where we hosted a Rashida Tlaib talk, so I got to meet her in person. She’s really cool.
And how has being in a place like New Orleans, where issues like education and race and general social justice are at the forefront, influenced your own passion around these issues?
I think what New Orleans does, and this is a lesson that I hope every transplant will learn, and will take to heart, and will center, is: it really makes you think about the balance of how much you are additive and how much you are extractive to the space you are in. Because there really just are not resources here. There is a lot of money here, but like 12 families have it, right? And then the rest of us, even including middle-income people, right?! We’re all trying to figure it out. And there are obviously very very deep sociocultural, racial norms and conventions here that are very established, and very idiosyncratic. I did not know what “free people of color” were until I lived down here. For me, Creole was food until I lived down here. And I did not know, until after several years down here, about the existence of the Vietnamese community down here. And the sometimes beautiful, sometimes fraught relationship between Black people and Vietnamese people [and] white people and Vietnamese people down here. So it’s just always trying to come to understand the city, and the people and communities in the city, in a way where I feel like I can get what I know the city wants to give to people who come to the city—it’s a very welcoming city—in a way that isn’t extractive, in a way that adds to this city, that adds to the experiences, particularly of local people. I would’ve never ever dreamed to have created something like Ascendance if my co-founder was not born and raised here. Never. It is so easy to find yourself in a place where you are taxing, as a resident, to the city. You are taxing to the people here. I’m sure every one of us can think of instances where we’ve seen transplants being taxing to people in this city. I live in the 7th Ward. It’s very gentrified now, but I live in an old Black neighborhood. There are things I needed to understand before I moved to this place. Things I still need to understand. I’m very fortunate to have built a community of people who are from here who have no problem telling me when I’m out of line, or helping me to come to understand this place better. No matter how long I’m here, whether it’s two months or 70 years or however old I get to be, it’s an understanding of the relationship a person can have to a place that they weren’t born and raised in, that I think is really key. I lived in six places before I was 13 years-old, so the concept of home is a very nebulous, and maybe even existential thing to me. So to move somewhere where the concept of home is so built into the fabric of the city… Because it’s pretty isolated. It’s five hours from Houston; we don’t have a strong relationship with Houston. It’s eight hours from Atlanta; we don’t have a strong relationship with Atlanta. Even inside of Louisiana, New Orleans is very different. So it’s just a very idiosyncratic place that has very much cultivated its own unique identity. I moved down here and I learned very quickly that the people I need to listen to—and the people who I need to learn from, and the people that I need to be giving my time and energy to—are the people who were here before I got here, and will be here after I’m gone. I don’t think that I’m always successful at embodying those ideas, but I do try. And I do seek to continue to figure out new ways to both get my life how I want to get my life, and also be additive to New Orleans as a city for its locals, specifically.
I think that’s a really important philosophy. The people who are from here… they’ve really earned the right to say that. They’ve lasted through a lot of shit to have that birthright. Do you feel like you’re in it for the long haul?
I don’t know. This is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life. It’s always funny, whenever somebody from here gets annoyed at some transplant they’re like, “Go back to the Midwest,” or wherever. If someone said that to me, I don’t know where I’d go back to! I’m kind of from New York, but I’m not fully from New York. I lived in a bunch of places. If someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I wouldn’t know how to answer that question. It depends how deep you want to go. But I’ve gotten good at saying, “I live in New Orleans,” rather than, “I’m from New Orleans.” And on occasion someone from here will be like, “You from here.” And I’ll be like, “I didn’t go to high school here… that’s what you always ask…” But yeah. Just trying to get my life, and then get out of the way at the same time.
For more information on Ascendance, you can check out @ascen.dance and @djchinua on Instagram. DJ Chinua will also be DJing at Aluna’s Noir Fever at the Sugar Mill over Memorial Day Weekend (May 27 through 30).
Top photo by Taylor S. Hunter
Portrait photo by Gabriela Maj