Coffee Break Chat: Sistah SoulJahs DJ Damara Phillips
by Karen Rollins Jan 7, 2019
Entrepreneur Damara Phillips has been immersed in music ever since she was a child, but she wasn’t sure whether her passion could be made into a career.
When she was made redundant at Sun Printing and Publishing Company in 2009 – once part of the disgraced Allen Stanford empire – Damara realised that her part-time venture which she’d started in 2006 called ‘Sistah SoulJahs’, could become a successful business.
Now, Sistah SoulJahs is Antigua’s ‘longest-running all-female entertainment group’ and offers a range of creative services including DJ bookings, small and large event planning, and graphic design.
Yello spoke to Damara about her music career, what she loves about Antigua and Barbuda, and her plans for the future.
Describe yourself using three words?
Bold, adventurous and easy-going.
Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up on Paige Road in Ottos which is a little village in St John’s just outside the town area.
I lived at my grandmother’s house with my mum and brothers. My mum’s siblings and their children also lived there, so it was a pretty full house, and I was the only girl. I consider myself a bit of a tomboy because I’m not the typical female who’s always in a dress and makeup.
In terms of schooling I went to the TOR Memorial Primary school from grade one. I was there up until grade six when I took the national exam for primary school children and automatically qualified for the Antigua Girls’ High School after coming 26th out of the top 60 in the country.
My mum passed away during my last year of high school and that kind of led to me jumping into the working world.
When did you realise you were passionate about music?
Music has always been a part of me. Growing up my mum used to play a lot of different genres of music around the house like reggae, dancehall, soca, pop, disco and calypso.
My brothers were also heavily into music and they’d play mostly R&B, hip hop, dancehall and reggae. My dad owned a pub called the ‘Zodiac Nightclub and Snackette’ and he had a sound system and a record collection. So, I grew up around music, I knew who sung what, and was up with the latest releases.
In my first year of high school I started to collect my own music. The internet was becoming more popular and people were sharing music online through programmes like Napster and LimeWire. Whatever I’d hear on BET, VH1, the radio or while out with friends, I’d just download from the internet.
Then one day I was online, and I saw an ad for a virtual DJ programme called Automix. It was user-friendly and had a turntable interface so, I uploaded all my mp3 music files and basically taught myself how to mix music.
I also played the piano and steel pan in high school. So, it seems I was born to do something music related.
Did you think music would become your career?
It was more a hobby at that time.
I’d create mix tapes and give them to my friends and cousins. If my school had a fete or fashion show, or a group were performing a dance routine, they’d come to me because they knew I dealt with music and they thought of me as a ‘music head’.
But even at that time I wasn’t thinking of doing it full time, I was just happy to share my passion.
I graduated in 2005 and was working at a computer store in town. One day I played one of my mix tapes on the sound system and a local DJ, DJ Nez, walked in and heard it and asked, ‘who did this tape?’.
I told him that it was me and he was very impressed and said that he didn’t know there were female DJs in Antigua. He immediately encouraged me to step out and do more and invited me to come and play on his radio show.
I established a slot every Saturday on Hitz FM and from there I started to get gigs through word of mouth and social media. I have a background in graphic design, so I learnt about branding and created my own logo and mix tape covers.
I was actually the first female house DJ at a popular club called ‘18 Carat’, that was a big gig for me, and it all took off from there.
When did you start Sistah SoulJahs?
My friends Gamal and Shaka Goodwin had a group called the WarDadli SoulJahs. Gamal was the DJ and Shaka was the hype man (MC). They were playing music in front of audiences and at clubs and were being hired on a regular basis so I kind of watched them build their business and it inspired me.
One day I had a conversation with Gamal and told him that I wanted to do the same thing but because there weren’t many girls playing at the time I wanted to represent the females. We’re thought of as like brother and sister, so the name ‘Sistah SoulJahs’ came to mind.
Then I was searching for a hype person and through a mutual friend I met a young lady called Eta J and she was also heavily into different kinds of music. I approached Eta J and said she’d be the perfect fit for me and she was like, ‘yes, let’s do it!’. Our debut was 26th April 2006 at a local event called Bikini Sunday.
Over the years more ladies joined the group and in 2008, when Eta left, my best friend who’d been heavily involved and supportive in the background, became my MC. We also have a few other friends who support us by marketing the sound, pushing our mix tapes, and buying merchandise.
Do you have any regular gigs?
Over the past two years I’ve acquired a few gigs that reoccur every year but at least four times a year I travel outside Antigua for work.
I’ve been to Anguilla, Barbuda, St Kitts, the British Virgin Islands, Barbados, America and even a reggae dancehall event in China.
I think that Caribbean culture is growing all over the world and people love our music so, for example, there’s always a reggae community somewhere, and I’m excited to be in the position where I can make a living from my passion. My music has taken me to a few places.
And you also offer graphic design services for small businesses?
After doing a lot of business-oriented classes I realised that there are a lot of people in Antigua with great ideas, but they don’t have any brand identity, or if they do, it is not professionally produced.
I thought I’d offer my graphic design skills to small businesses and create a package which includes a logo, business cards, adverts for brochures and social media marketing and it has one price and it’s like a start-up kit.
I launched that in 2012 and to date I’ve helped 50 small businesses in Antigua and a few in the Caribbean, UK and US. I also do event branding for small events in Antigua.
My passion is music, but I have to be realistic and understand that, that is a competitive industry and I have to eat and survive, so it’s a balance. But I’m trying to come up with a way to do less graphics and more music.
Do you enjoy being an entrepreneur?
I was kind of forced into entrepreneurship in August 2009 when I was made redundant from Sun Printing and Publishing Company.
I remember when my manager sat down with me and said I was one of the designers that was being let go, but he said he knew that I was going to be OK because he could see the entrepreneurial spirit in me.
Since then I’ve only worked for myself, but I knew that I had to be prepared so I did a few business workshops which taught me about customer service, financial planning, writing a business plan and every so often I still do courses on anything that will help me to grow.
My brother has been a big support because we live in the same house which our mother left for us.
There have been bad times, great times and OK times but for the most part I’ve been in a happy space and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What are your personal goals for the next five years?
I’ve pretty much figured out what I want to do with the rest of my life so this year I’ve been focusing on putting myself in a position to do more not-for-profit work. I want to reach out to the youth in Antigua especially little girls.
I’ve dabbled in it a bit in terms of speaking at summer camps, posting inspirational messages on social media and sharing my story, but in the next five years I want my brand to be an example for the youth.
I know some young people who are creative sometimes feel left out. Many are not sure what they want to do with their life, or people don’t take them seriously. I want to be a role model for those young people because what I do is different and slightly unorthodox.
I want them to know that if you have a talent, and you truly have something that is unique and different to share, you can make a living from it and be comfortable.
What do you love about Antigua?
There are so many things but most importantly it’s a place where I don’t feel restricted, I can be myself and at home.
I love the people and the vibe I get from neighbours and friends. It’s a relaxing place with a cool atmosphere.
If I’m a tourist visiting the island where should I go?
Definitely the beach! There are so many to choose from with some nice beach bars.
The fete scene is popping between April and August leading up to and during Carnival. Every weekend there are at least two or three events going on and that’s a good time to be in Antigua. We have a fete culture rather than clubs.
What do you do on your days off?
I love the beach. So, I’ll go down there with friends and have a few beers and grill some food or take food with me.
I also like going on the occasional catamaran around the island and sometimes I’m fortunate enough to have a gig on one!
Yoga is something I’ve started to explore and initially I was having a hard time finding a class, but that community is beginning to grow.
What’s your approach to life?
Love yourself first and foremost.
I think that’s something that a lot of people only realise later in life, but I think the earlier you realise that the better. It’s important to instill that into the youth as well.
Anything that you put out into the world comes from within, and if you’re not feeling right within, then you won’t be putting out your best.
Always make sure you are good to yourself and everything else will fall into place.
Visit Sistah SoulJahs Facebook page for more information.