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DESIREE is the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs 2023 Future Star winner

South Africa’s DESIREE has had a meteoric rise over the past few years. Her ear for rhythm, journeying, percussion-filled sets, and passion for a wide variety of African electronic music have created opportunities to woo crowds both at home and abroad. And, following the release of her debut EP last year and launch of party series MMINO, she’s already taking things to the next level

In South Africa, a house-loving nation at the forefront of electronic music culture, DESIREE’s star is rising. Bridging musical traditions that span African percussion, journeying 4/4, and doses of West African pop, this DJ/producer has carved out a niche all her own. Having won early support from fellow homeland heavyweights like Black Coffee and Culoe De Song, as well as Berlin’s JAMIIE and Keinemusik, it’s not hard to see why we’ve chosen DESIREE as our future star. “I’ve been playing these amazing shows and starting to see there are a lot of people who appreciate what I do for the dancefloor,” she tells DJ Mag. “I have nothing but gratitude with regards to the last year — this opportunity to showcase African electronic music to the world.”

Though rooted in Afro-house, DESIREE sets have always leaned eclectic. From deep and soulful house, to Afro-tech, techno and the occasional Afrobeats edit, she plays with varying focus, eschewing easy categorisation. “It just depends on what sounds good to my ear,” she explains on the topic of genre-hopping. “I don’t really like to restrict myself in that regard. One thing that’s really important to me is the rhythm in the music — it needs to move me. I think that’s why I always gravitate toward African electronic music, it’s the percussion.”

DESIREE wearing a white top

“I have nothing but gratitude with regards to the last year — this opportunity to showcase African electronic music to the world.”

We first heard word of DESIREE around the release of her debut EP ‘Femme Tech’. It was a real statement of intent; a slow-burn two-tracker comprising the brooding ‘Femme’ and slightly more lilting ‘Psilocybin’. “This record is about representation in the house scene,” she told DJ Mag at the time. “I’m an intersex woman so I’m in a grey area. I stand for being different and not being in a binary — the EP is about challenging that status quo.” Since that release, she’s shared booths with the likes of Honey Dijon, Rampa and TSHA, hosted a night in fabric London’s Room 2, and even become a Circoloco regular, playing four nights in Ibiza this past year alone, as well as sets in Istanbul and New York.

She also spun on the main stage at Lost Village this year, alongside UK taste-maker Kitty Amor and the pioneering Black Coffee. Playing to crowds in the thousands week in week out is now par for the course, but what DESIREE enjoys most are the less-obvious curations, billings that pitch her in front of unsuspecting audiences. “Those are the line-ups that I enjoy the most, because I feel challenged — when they might not be as acquainted with the music that I play.”

DESIREE was born and raised in Ivory Park, a Johannesburg township, and grew up jamming to Radiohead, Nick Cave and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers well before electronic music entered the frame. It wasn’t until she hit uni in JoBurg that the clubbing phase of life began — the Braamfontein district her main watering hole.

You can catch her in the crowd during live streamed sets in Johannesburg, front and centre, lapping up the likes of Culoe De Song, Lemon & Herb and Fka Mash, and her presence is all the more striking, given how male-dominated these dancefloors appear. Have things changed much in the four years since, we ask? “Absolutely — there’s definitely more women in the scene,” she replies. “There’s definitely a lot of progress, we have to give credit where it’s due — and I think that directly translates into the makeup of the audience.”

DESIREE wearing a white top

Pretty soon she was spinning mixes for curious crowds at her local shisa nyama and posting mixes on SoundCloud, putting the burgeoning DJ on the radar of Punk Mbedzi. “He’s a legend for me in the Afro-house scene,” she remembers. “He was one of the first DJs that introduced me to this sound in a club space. I really looked up to him at the time.” An opening slot at Mbedzi’s The Rhythm event series brought DESIREE to the attention of another powerhouse and behind-the-scenes operator, Jackie Queens, who in turn booked her for her Surreal Electronica party in 2018. Queens has been part of DESIREE’s team ever since.

Mindful of the impact South African music is having on the global stage, DESIREE is keen to shine some light on the lesser-known homegrown sounds, which is why this year she launched her MMINO party series, a platform to showcase all the current elements at work in SA house. “The purpose of the event is to bring back that culture of open-mindedness in the SA scene specifically,” she tells us. “We’ve always been a house-music loving nation, but I feel like in the last few years some have forgotten that.” In a sea of overwhelming South African talent, DESIREE is not only a rising star, but key ambassador — an artist with real staying power.

Ria Hylton is DJ Mag’s album reviews editor. Follow them on Twitter @ria_hylton