In conversation with Maggie Tra

Phoebe spoke with the DJ/Producer behind Pho The Girls - a women and non-binary empowerment collective of DJs who want to see more women & non-binary people behind the decks.

If Maggie Tra and her DJ collective Pho The Girls aren't on your radar, then we want to change that ASAP. Phoebe from Missing Perspectives interviewed Maggie about what led her to launch the collective - and her passion for building a community. Maggie's currently in Sydney for Parramatta Lanes.

Can you tell us about your upbringing? Did you always have a keen interest in music and storytelling?

I grew up with immigrant parents, my mum was born in Cambodia and my dad in Vietnam. My mum doesn’t speak English and watching my dad having to work at Pizza Hut and KFC, even at a young age I could see was very difficult for him as I’ve seen photos of him organising protests with the United Nations in Cambodia. In addition to the cultural upbringing of my parents not wanting us to lose our culture, coupled with domestic violence, there wasn’t much time/room or encouragement to be creative.

However, back then we luckily had an innocence as kids without technology in the way, so I used to play with my friends in the street, and we’d make up dances and used to listen to music as an escapism. I also loved to write about anything. I guess unconsciously I loved music and telling stories, I just didn’t know what to do with it or that it was a viable career. I really laugh at those moments now, thinking I had no idea that I would ever be an artist. And now thinking I get to play in places like Parramatta Lanes, in an area where I used to hang out with my friends is so wild to me.

What led you to establish Pho The Girls? Did you see a gap in the music industry/community that you wanted to fill?

I was living in Brussels, Belgium at the time. I’d been behind the scenes in the music industry for over 8 years at that point and I barely saw any Asian DJs/producers getting any lime light in mainstream media. As I was starting to DJ there, I wanted to go back to my roots and start teaching women and non-binary people how to DJ in Hanoi, Vietnam. I wanted to get more POC, and Asian women + NB people in the music industry, not only that, but let them know it was possible and that they can have a support system whilst they do it. That they aren’t alone. Gratefully I have been able to teach the workshops in London, Liverpool, Bangkok and now Sydney, Australia. It’s an honour, and that feeling of giving them the opportunity to learn something new and play live gives me so much joy. It just feels like this was what I am here for.

How would you describe the collective to those who haven't come across your work?

Pho The Girls collective is a bunch of women and non-binary people who want to explore their music side in a safe space. We DJ together and we spend time with each other as a community. Ask for advice, listen and help each other book DJ gigs. The idea is to have a space to share and be ourselves, a place of belonging. It's not only just for DJs, but also for anyone who has an interest in it. PTG is also worldwide, so it's lovely to see them chat to the others in group chats when they’ve never met each other before. For me, it's a space to show that we can support each other in the music industry and keep it fun, whilst also empowering women and NB people in the industry. I am a big believer in leading by example. For me it's a ripple effect, two of my girls have established their own collectives in Austin, Texas (BABEATX) and the other in London, UK (BEAM).

You're also the Founder of Hanoi Community Radio - what made you want to bring communities together in this way? How do you empower women and non-binary people in the creative/music industry? Building and fostering a community is obviously a massive part of what you do.

I was living in Hanoi, Vietnam at the time for about two years. Pho The Girls was doing so well, we were getting booked every week in venues. At that time, I had felt like the music and the arts industry was so separated. As much as I love DJing, it is a world and is a toxic place to be with egos. Somehow I saw myself in both sides, being the person who knows everyone, but also being friends with the gatekeepers. I am a big believer instead of complaining, to try and find a solution. I also love community radio, I was always in it since university when I studied journalism. So I taught myself the programs on how to create an online station, I talked to my friends overseas who also own stations and it kicked-off from there.

I really wanted to give back to my heritage, and long-term it's something that I want the locals to take over and it is not mine anymore. Fortunately thanks to the help of one of Pho The Girls girls, I got funding for the station, I was actually going to fund it myself. I built it for the people, to bring everyone together, build a space for women and NB people to express themselves and it has been a beautiful journey to see unfold. I guess with my background and how I grew up as feeling like an outsider in Australia, I’ve always just wanted a space to belong and I keep creating that, as DIY as it is. And fortunately, I have had the privilege to build these spaces, and more importantly an honour that anyone supports, and sees my vision.

In terms of how I empower women and NB people, again I have to say by leading by example. Not only bringing myself to the table but bringing others with me. As a minority, I know what it's like to be left behind. I think there’s space for everyone, and why would I bring myself up when bringing others brings so much joy and value? We don’t have to make the world a harder space to live in, if we are capable of doing something even small for someone, why not?

Finally - your Very Vui album! What made you want to put your Vietnamese ancestry in the spotlight and explore themes of acceptance through music?

My previous album ‘Kingdom of Her’ was where I dug into my Khmer roots, and it was so nourishing and therapeutic for me. I knew I wanted to do this with my Vietnamese side. It only made sense, to tell two sides of the story. It's a hard space being born and raised in Australia, but have parents from Asia. Identity and finding that is what my music is all about.

There was a lot I didn’t understand and through living in Vietnam and coming back and doing the work trying to understand my trauma, it all just fell out of me through music. My albums and music are time-stamps in my life of growth and acceptance, and I wanted to share that version of me with people who may share the same experiences. A lot of people just know me as a happy and positive person, I hid my trauma and bad parts of me for so long. I don’t want to do that anymore.

Parramatta Lanes is an annual festival that celebrates the diversity of the local area through food, music and art, and will be bubbling to life from 11-14 October. This year features over 120 acts over seven stages, 45 food stalls and incredible art installations. Best of all - it’s free.