The year 2015 was submerged under relentless waves of death, brutality, and injustice. The pain, outrage, and empty spaces simultaneously ignited a blaring call to action for black people to dig deeper into their communities, express themselves unapologetically and command places at tables where there hadn’t been seats before. This Black History Month, The FADER is celebrating the groundbreaking strides that some brilliant Young Black Heroes are taking to mobilize change through mediums like art, film/television, education and music.
DJ and visual artist Quiana Parks is the paragon of resilience. When she’s behind her turntables, she’s checked into her own paradise—finding her peace and solace in the nooks of scratch beats and old school jams. Parks is a 10-year Lymphoma cancer survivor and her experience pushed her to start the DJ For A Cure initiative event, which raises awareness for blood cancer and places an emphasis on the importance of donating bone marrow to better provide the black community with matches. In addition to Parks’ passion for service through music, she’s deeply invested in the UnDone Project which is a visual art collection of her portraits that have been featured at Art Basel Miami 2015. Parks dedication to living each day to the fullest with purpose and appreciation radiates through her passions as a creative.
Parks spoke over the phone to The FADER about how she found refuge in art during her time of illness, how a breakup inspired her to start dj’ing and why she embraces being incomplete.
When did your passion for music start?
I've always been in love with music. My mom is a singer, she sang a lot when I was a kid. She was in bands that we used to travel in the tri-state area with. They used to do covers of Groove Theory, Tony Toni Toné, like soulful music. So that was a lot of fun and I got into music that way and from singing in church. My stepdad is also a DJ, so I wasn't too far off.
Did he teach you? How’d you learn?
He told me a lot that I learned. I honestly was really blessed because he didn't show me too much, he was kind of just like here's a turntable these are the needles, this is how you do this, alright I gotta go to work. I basically would practice all day, and when he came home I would be like, "Please can you come down so I can play this for you?"
He would tell me, no, you're doing this wrong or you're going this right. And then I would watch different YouTube clips all day of different DJs—DJ Kid Capri, DJ Kaper , even DJ AM. Watching YouTube clips of them and I would try to practice different tricks that they did. I used to go out a lot when I decided I wanted to start DJing. I would go to Tenjune, Avenue, 1 Oak, and that's when I saw DJ Kaper and M.O.S. and Mel Debarge for the first time. I was like, 'oh my god,' and I would hear Emma Wes do a trick and I would just go home and practice it.
What led you to pursue DJing?
Honestly, I had a really bad breakup with my ex-boyfriend, and I was kind of going through something in my life in my mid-twenties. It's funny because he bought me some Christian Louboutins, and I wasn't even flattered by them. I asked if we can change them back and get a Macbook Pro. We went back and got a Macbook Pro, and two weeks later we broke up. I used that same MacPro to start DJing. I had no idea I was about to be a DJ, but a Macbook Pro is what most DJs use, so it just worked out.
You bring up the break up and it reminds me of where I saw that you said that music had brought you back to your happy place. What are some of your go to songs that you can call to bring you back there?
Any of M.I.A’s songs at the time. I love M.I.A., she’s such a strong woman. I just like her bossiness. I was dj’ing at the time but when she came out with “Yala” in the beginning and she said, Bombs go off when I enter the building, I’m like “Yeah!.”
Even now, if I have a bad day I still play it. If I feel like I need to have that encouragement or need to feel like a boss that’s definitely one of my songs. When I first started dj’ing, I was getting into that happy place. It was a mixture of everything. I was more open to listening to a lot of different music especially music on Soundcloud and a lot of up and coming artists. Even started listening to trap music.
Which trap artists?
I don’t have that many that I listen to anymore but at the time it was Young Scooter and King Louie. Earlier Iggy Azealia, early Iggy—not now. [Laughs] I used to play a lot of their music and then there’s a bunch of DJs who did their own versions of trap music like R.L. Grime, I’m a pretty big fan of him. At that time he came out with a song called, “Mercy.” I would look up like "Spice Girl trap remixes." When I first started dj’ing, I didn’t know any difference so I was just playing all of the things that I liked and I still do. Some people think I’m corny but I still play Spice Girls and Britney Spears in my sets. It makes me happy.
Now, I still stay true to the music that I like. I’ll still play what I want to play along with Top 40, but I still like to include a lot of old school music. When I first started dj’ing, I would practice with old school hip-hop because I really wanted to learn how to scratch and my dad was like, “If you’re going to be a DJ, you’re not going to be out here pushing buttons. You’re going to really know how to do this.” So I started off playing old school hip-hop—I used to listen to DJ Kid Kapri, who did mixes of old school hip-hop. I play a lot of Biz Markie in my mixes now, KRS-One, Nas, Jay Z. I like to play a lot different types of music, my sets are really random but they have a flow it.
You started the initiative DJ For A Cure and you participate in a lot of other events that are revolved around healthy living. Do you feel the importance and the power of representation as a black woman in that position to encourage wellness?
Yes, of course. I’m a ten year cancer survivor and at first I was kind of shy about telling people about my story but then I realized how much it could help other people. If anything, I was being selfish by keeping my testimony to myself.
Why were you shy about it?
Because I didn’t want people to book me off the strength that I was a cancer survivor and just say this is a good opportunity, she’s a cancer survivor, let’s just have her. I felt like it was a gimmick and a petty way to make my way to the top so I didn’t want to tell people. I didn’t want any sob stories or pity. When I was working with DJ Kiss, she was encouraging me to tell people. Then I met Robin Roberts met through Kiss and she’s like, “You really need to tell people what’s going on with you.” So I started DJ For A Cure. My motive became more so about not about health and wellness but especially about blood cancer because there’s a lack of awareness in African-American community in blood cancer. There needs to be some light shed on it because right now there aren’t a lot of people donating bone marrow but there are a lot of us getting blood cancer. We need more matches because there’s a lack of matches in our community for people who are diagnosed. So that was more so my stance and then of course health and wellness was something that I don’t mind doing. Anything like charity is something that I love to do. It makes me happy.
How has surviving cancer changed your outlook on your purpose?
At first it really scared me. I only had cancer for a summer. I always call it “Dear Summer” because I didn’t have it for very long but I can’t front and say that I had this long journey with it but it did scare me for about eight years until I started DJing and I had my break down with my ex-boyfriend. But, now it motivates me to in working with DJ For a Cure and seeing the people who are going through this and who are struggling through this and still find a way to work on what they’re passionate about and smile and keep reasons to keep going. That keeps me going now and knowing that my cancer could come back at any given moment. After I was diagnosed and cured, they told me your cancer is gone and they also told me that there's a 90% chance that it could come back. That scared me but now, it motivates me because tomorrow I might wake up and have cancer and what I am going to do today so that I can be proud of myself today. If I can’t do this anymore and enjoy myself anymore, then I need to make today worth it because tomorrow might not be this good.
I’ve had health issues and I have side effects from chemo and I still go through stuff but you can’t tear me away from those turntables — there’s no way I’m not coming.
How has coming out that situation and knowing that it has the possibility to return impact your creativity and the ways that you express yourself and seek inspiration?
My creativity definitely came out with that. When I got sick, my cousin Sharon went out and bought me 15 different canvases of all different sizes with paint and brushes and she was like, “This is for you. This will be your diary.” And it was and it still is. I also went to school for art so it wasn’t anything that was too far off, but before, I was just drawing things. Once I was diagnosed with cancer, it became more of an outlet. It became a way for me to express myself. My art wasn’t ever and still isn't for people to look at. I like when people look at it now but I don’t create it for people to look at. It definitely became a creative outlet. I take sketch books everywhere, anywhere I can paint. I still carry a marker with me and just tag. It really helps me to express myself.
Was that when the UnDone project started?
It developed because outside of me having cancer but I’ve always had different careers and I never could figure out what I wanted to do.
Where’d you work?
I worked in Sales at one point. I got a promotion and I was actually working for Beyonce at Dereon and I got promoted to Marketing Coordinator and it was cool but it wasn’t anything I was passionate about but it was cool because I worked for Beyonce. I had other jobs in working with fashion. I was a design assistant, I did visuals before and I also went to school for Marketing. I did graphic design until I found DJ’ing. They were always amazing jobs at a gallery once in Jersey but never really got around to doing the show. I didn’t find a real passion for anything. I used to find any excuse to get out of work. If I had a cold, I’d be like, “Oh I can’t come to work today.” Then when I started dj’ing it was like, “I can’t even walk today. But I’m going to work.” I’ve had health issues and I have side effects from chemo and I still go through stuff but you can’t tear me away from those turntables — there’s no way I’m not coming. I’ve never missed a gig because I was sick.
Yeah, because I love what I do. It’s a healer for me. If I’m in a bad mood and I can just get behind those turntables that is like my heaven right there.
That’s really beautiful that you’ve found that.
That’s why I like talking about it and that’s why I call everything the “Undone Project” because I always feel undone. All of my work is also, undone. All of my paintings I leave them open. A lot of the work that I do are sketches and paintings but I color them in digitally because I don’t like to finish them. I love to leave opportunity open. I love to leave it open because I love when I see people standing in front of my paintings and they have all of these ideas and use their imagination more and that to me is amazing. Like I said my artwork is a reflection of my life. I started dj’ing when I was 27 and now i’m pursuing my art and some original work and I don’t know what’s going to come after that.
You say you relate to your art because you consider yourself “an ever-evolving project.” What ways are you still becoming and growing?
I’m trying to produce new music and maybe doing performance arts. With DJ For a Cure and finding out who I am as person — I’m turning 30 this year which I’m very proud of. I still feel like I’m an undone project and even though I know myself and I’m still getting to know myself I just recently moved to Brooklyn. Almost 2 years now but I still feels new and then traveling. Everything around me, meeting new people and I always feel like I’m evolving and getting into new things, it’s amazing.
It’s symbolic of life in general because no matter how old you are you’re always changing. It’s great to be able to embrace that feeling of not being comfortable and not being complete.
You’re never supposed to get too comfortable. [laughs] One of my friends used to tell me in church, “When you work out in the gym, you’re supposed to be uncomfortable and if you’re not it’s not working. If you start feeling comfortable then you need to find a new exercise or push harder or put on some more weight because it’s getting too easy. If it’s too much take it off.