On a trip to Colombia in 2018, for instance, Yonas found herself drawn to a quick-footed, percussive genre called champeta she heard throughout Cartagena. “It sounds African. I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It was playing everywhere,” she says. As a person of the African diaspora herself, she was particularly intrigued because “you hear people talking about Latinidad or Latinx unity, but a lot of times Black voices or art are forgotten.”
She managed to ask a shopkeeper using her limited Spanish, and he went to his shed and fished out a stack of champeta records for her. Later, in California, one of Yonas’ friends noted that champeta sounds like a Congolese genre called soukous. Curious, Yonas did some research, discovering that soukous arrived in Cartagena in the ’80s and instantly resonated with locals, many of whom trace their heritage back to Africa via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. She also learned that Cartagena was where the first enslaved people freed themselves in the Americas.
“The resilience of people is what makes music so beautiful,” Yonas notes.
Yonas’ adventurous ear has led her to appreciate the African diaspora’s many contributions to popular music all over the world, even in places one wouldn’t expect. That deep listening has helped her come into her own personal power—something she didn’t always feel connected to while growing up in a majority-white suburb in the Inland Empire of Southern California.
“It’s been a long journey to have this self-acceptance,” she says.
Yonas credits her film and cultural studies program at UC Riverside for giving her a more critical lens on race and identity. Her first DJing experiences were on UC Riverside’s radio station, KUCR. And on one of the nation’s most diverse university campuses, she learned to shed old notions of low self-worth. “The way I thought about myself was basically how colonialism and capitalism intersect,” Yonas reflects. “It’s built for people to hate themselves and prioritize the dominant culture that capitalism feeds people.”
Now, Yonas sees her DJ work as part of a bigger, spiritual purpose. “Something I think about a lot is that the voices of the ancestors are still in the music. So for me to be a caretaker of that—I’m not just a DJ of, ‘These are some dope tracks to get down to,’” she says, making sure to note that the right groove is important to her too.
But passing on and preserving overlooked musical traditions is a core part of her work. She wants to honor “particularly the voices of Africans because it has been suppressed in such an intense way, and the amount of beauty is so overwhelming, that I do feel more of a sensitivity in helping protect and share those sounds.”
Yonas has been doing just that with her music-history articles on vinyl collector site In Sheeps Clothing and mixes for a variety of international online radio stations, some of which sprung up when the pandemic pushed DJ culture completely online. In addition to making mixes for HydeFM in San Francisco, Meanwood Radio in Leeds and THF Radio in Berlin, she’s a resident DJ at Palestinian station Radio Alhara, which is based in Bethlehem and has headquarters in Beirut and Tokyo. “They made room for me and were happy to have me, which is awesome, especially as a new DJ,” she says.
These international collaborations have allowed Yonas to keep traveling, if only in her imagination, and grow her global community of likeminded listeners. “I’m not one of those DJs who won’t tell you what I’m playing or show up to a gig with the vinyl whited out,” Yonas says. “It’s this scarcity mindset that, in general, I just don’t live by.”
More of Passionfruit’s recent mixes and other projects can be found here.