As clubs have been reopening and shows have been resuming across the country after a year-and-a-half-long COVID-19 pandemic pause on the live music industry, Billboard is asking club and touring DJs about their experience fading between spinning at home to performing back outside.
The world is Siobhan Bell’s stage. After growing up in South London and moving to East London at age 18, Bell found a circle of friends to spin with and formed the “Work It” DJ collective that regularly hosted the hottest parties around town. But Bell learned how to fly solo and make a name brand for herself, starting up her beloved “Cherryade” underground parties a decade ago in Dalston to designing items for Karl Lagerfeld’s fall-winter 2020 music collection.
The internationally renowned DJ’s creative expression knows no borders, and neither does her musical taste, from old school U.S. hip-hop to U.K. R&B to Afrobeats. And while the U.K. native moved stateside during the pandemic to Los Angeles, Calif., so did the music: Afropop heavyweights WizKid and Burna Boy hosted their first major L.A. concerts this fall, and Bell was one of the select few DJs who helped them keep the night going by spinning at their after parties.
Billboard caught up with Bell to talk about how she’s made her mark on the world of music, and her aspirations to spin all over the globe.
Pre-pandemic, where were you spinning usually?
I’ve been fortunate to DJ around the world. I’ve always been a traveling DJ, so I DJ wherever the vibe is really.
What music were you listening to a lot during quarantine?
Being in the club so much, I’m so used to listening to up-tempo music and music that’s going to make people dance. So when I’m inside, I listen to the opposite, like very chill. I love old school R&B, but I just listened to the newer R&B artists and producers that are out now. I had Snoh’s [Aalegra] songs on repeat and Summer Walker; Ari Lennox, I listened to her album; Jazmine Sullivan. And also there’s a lot of U.K. R&B that I was listening to as well like Mnelia, Tamera, this artist called Scribz Riley. He had a good project that he dropped in that time, too.
How have your roots/upbringing shaped the music you like to listen to and play live?
My background is Jamaican. In the U.K., we have a heavy African and Jamaican, Caribbean culture. So growing up, it was very integrated, so that’s why we have the genre Afro. I think that was a big influence growing up, and also just having young parents. They played a lot of old school ‘90s music. My dad was heavily into hip-hop, like Busta Rhymes and Nas, and then my mom used to listen to SWV, Mary J. Blige, Diddy.
You DJed the official Afrolituation after parties following Wizkid and Burna Boy’s concerts in L.A. What was it like to celebrate two major Afrobeats stars, especially who have a major presence in your native U.K., in the States?
It was amazing just to see that now people are tapping into the sounds and as a DJ, when I’ve gone to past Afrobeats parties here, they usually only know like three or four songs. But now that the guys are more highlighted, it’s like there are other artists and other songs in Afrobeats.
Did you perform at any virtual events within the last year and a half?
I did one for Karl Lagerfeld. Just before the pandemic, I actually had a collaboration with him. It was such a shame because it happened and then the pandemic hit. I wanted to do a whole dinner, even delivering it to people was hard, so it was kind of a bummer. But I did do a Live for them on their Instagram. But I wasn’t really a fan of doing live music on IG just because I’m a vibes person and I need to feel the audience, I need to feel the crowd. I tried to do a few myself, but I struggled because trying to look at the screen and then DJ and then work out a vibe to nobody was hard. And I wanted to stand my ground. I felt like we were going to get back out, and I didn’t want to create a new box for myself to be online DJing.
What was your fashion collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld like?
That was amazing because I had actually DJed [for him] probably a year before that even came about, so fortunately, I got to meet him. [The opportunity] just came into my inbox a while after, it was like a DJ music series. It was a good intro for me to do creative direction, designing. Even though naturally, I like fashion and do that stuff anyway, just to have it as a piece in a collection was amazing.
What was the first live music event after quarantine that you attended as a fan?
Rolling Loud in Miami. It was a lot. It was so overwhelming not to be around so many people and then to be around them at a festival.
What was the first live music event after quarantine that you performed at as a DJ?
It did Diddy’s Love party when he first started it in L.A., in the beginning of May.
Are there any songs you were listening to/spinning at home that you were excited to play for a live audience?
I wouldn’t say a certain song, but there were certain artists that were hard to play inside. For example, I know Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls dropped their projects in the pandemic. City Girls’ project didn’t really get the club experience, and you needed the club experience for that.
Did you have any worries that certain songs or albums might be considered “too old” because it came out during the pandemic?
Yeah. It’s tricky now because we’re testing out what music people know. Like, ‘Can you still play that song from a year ago?’ I feel like everyone’s just excited to be back outside, so they just want to hear any vibe that’s going to get them jumping.
What are some of the newer songs or albums that came out after lockdown ended that you’ve been hyped to play?
I was excited to play Drake’s album and [Ye’s album] Donda — but to be honest, I haven’t really heard Donda in the clubs. I like to play for the girls, so I like to play loads of TikTok songs. That was kind of a new shift, because you would hear a song on TikTok, and then it just felt like, ‘That’s the song you’re playing out.’
What are you looking forward to during your future sets? Where do you want to perform next?
During lockdown, I picked up more producing, doing remixes and stuff. But I want to actually work on original production and my own sounds. In the future, I want my sets to be a lot more as my own shows. I’m new to America, but I still have a transition I’m making for myself as a DJ-artist-producer.
By next year, I’m just looking to go on more tours and do more shows. I’m planning a European tour as well.
You’ve also been cooking in the studio as a producer. How do your two passions of producing and DJing relate to one another?
The transition was not easy, but it goes hand in hand. I can listen to a song and understand the production side. So low-key, I was learning production. Also, A&Ring is a part of what I do, so putting songs together. I’m not necessarily the beatmaker, but I can A&R a whole song and produce a record.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from branching outside of the “Work It” collective and going solo?
Growth. I learned a lot within that collective and I just felt that I wanted to develop my own brand and branch out to other things. A lot of my bookings come from outside of London. So it took me that way where I was being offered other opportunities and I kind of just went with them.
It’s been over 10 years since you created your beloved “Cherryade” nights in the Dalston underground party scene. If you could recreate “Cherryade” anywhere else in the world, where would it be and how would you imagine it?
I’m not sure. I’m always focused on making things international for everybody, so I wouldn’t have a specific place. I would do [a rotating series in] New York, L.A., London – Europe is my favorite place to DJ, like I’ve done my own tours in Europe – definitely Nigeria. There’s so many places I’ve been and so many places I want to go to.
Check out Siobhan Bell’s playlist for Billboard below.