“I wouldn’t call it rebirth, but I am in a period of renewal and re-dedication to myself and my life’s work,” says Jenifa Mayanja. She’s speaking from her home in Connecticut; bar a four-year stint in Berlin with her family that ended last summer, she’s lived there since the early 2000s. The decision to return to the US was not an easy one for Mayanja, particularly during the height of the pandemic, but adaptation and resilience are foundational to the producer, label owner and DJ, and have centred her as a legend of deep house for the past three decades.
She was born and raised in Uganda, but Mayanja’s family uprooted from East Africa to Kansas City in the mid-1980s. The young Jenifa had few points of reference for what life in the rural US would be like. TV shows and half-baked stories touted it as “the land of milk and honey — which it was not!” she laughs, remembering the move. “That area was a cultural desert, and I experienced culture shock.” Eventually, she adapted, finding her tribe in her teens through hanging out in local gay bars, which offered respite from the negligible local music scene at the time.
While attending university elsewhere in Kansas, Mayanja was introduced to club culture through a college-age DJ, who’d returned from a trip to Manchester playing a brand-new sound called acid house. The meeting was life-changing for her. A year later, she moved back to Kansas City and became friends with a like-minded musical crew — including a young Theo Parrish — who ran their own parties, building up a local, underground scene in Kansas. From there, Mayanja’s city-hopping picked up pace. After a brief relocation to Chicago at the turn of the ’90s, she headed out to New York City in 1994 on the insistence of a friend, and immersed herself in the Big Apple’s dance scene.
In those early days, living in pre-gentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mayanja would haul vinyl records onto the subway at night in milk crates, heading out to her regular weekend gigs. Milk crates were switched out for sturdier wares, but she kept hauling vinyl across the city for a decade, honing her skills and making a name for herself in deep house circles. By 1999, she was producing her own tracks, which resonated with the dancers who came to her DJ sets. But in the wake of 9/11, and with the crackdown on underground nightlife led by Mayor Rudy Guiliani, the city began to change massively. Mayanja packed up her life and drove north-east to Connecticut, where she started a family, while keeping up her productions and DJing.