With an energetic, outgoing, and positive personality, Shawna Nicols is the kind of person who gives praise to others before accepting any for herself.
Regardless of what she is doing, family is always a top priority in her life. A Milwaukee native, Nicols started her career as a professional basketball player but after an injury, she found a new passion in music. For the past 12 years, Nicols – also known by her stage name DJ Shawna – has learned the art of DJing and has used that skill to project a positive message to her audience. She has managed to create a unique career by combining her love of basketball, music, and encouragement of others to be their best selves.
Q&A with Shawna Nicols
Milwaukee Independent: Did where you grew up in Milwaukee influence a strong connection to music during your youth?
Shawna Nicols: I grew up near Miller Park and went to Pius XI High School. The biggest influences I had early on with music definitely came from my parents that have an incredible, eclectic library of music as well as being around basketball for as long as I can remember. To me, basketball and music always went hand-in-hand.
Milwaukee Independent: What conditions pushed the direction of your professional career towards music?
Shawna Nicols: That’s a great question. To be honest, I started DJing as a hobby for fun after undergrad. I was living in Milwaukee and spending time with people that went out to bars and clubs often. As someone that has never drank alcohol in my life, I found that not having a drink in my hand made people around me uncomfortable. I started to spend more time hanging out around the DJ booth, until one day DJ Rock Dee looked up at me and asked me if I was a DJ. That was about 12 years ago.
Milwaukee Independent: What attracted you to become a DJ versus some other form of musical performance?
Shawna Nicols: Well, I used to play the piano when I was younger and miss that very much to this day. I honestly didn’t think that being a DJ was something I could make a career out of. I feel extremely fortunate that this is my full-time job and a career I am extremely passionate about.
Milwaukee Independent: Who were your early mentors and what lessons did they teach you?
Shawna Nicols: I was extremely fortunate to work with DJ Rock Dee for the first two years. Unknowingly, it was the absolute best apprenticeship, which I didn’t even know I was in at the time. Amazingly, there are still lessons I realize today that Rock taught me. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had such a phenomenal mentor, that I very dearly miss every single day.
Milwaukee Independent: What inspires you about music and does it offer you the freedom to express yourself?
Shawna Nicols: I believe that music is what feelings sound like. Every gig is something different and I always feel as though I have the opportunity to express myself to do my absolute best to ensure that every event and gig is memorable.
Milwaukee Independent: Do you think that music has the power to connect people from different backgrounds? If so, how?
Shawna Nicols: I absolutely do. Music is such a universal language and I have had an opportunity to DJ national events with people from all over the world, that came together and sang as one.
Milwaukee Independent: How does your music reach or build bridges with different people from all parts of a segregated city like Milwaukee?
Shawna Nicols: Being part of the LGBTQ community, I feel really lucky to have a space at Walker’s Pint on Saturday’s that is welcoming and safe for any and everyone, no matter sexuality, race, orientation, or where they come from. Again, I do think that music has the power to bring people together.
Milwaukee Independent: Do you feel that music can be a form of identity? And how do you identify with the genres of music you play?
Shawna Nicols: I do think that music is part of our identity. I think we all have music preferences for different moods. When I DJ, the music I play is very rarely for me or about me. I look at DJing for the people that are at the event, bar or club and love to make them happy as well as create a lasting, memorable experience.
Milwaukee Independent: What do you think is the most powerful aspect of hip-hop?
Shawna Nicols: I think hip-hop is deeply rooted in story-telling, which is something I absolutely love and appreciate.
Milwaukee Independent: How does family play a role in your career, your life, and your faith?
Shawna Nicols: In everything that I do I always want to make my family proud, period.
Milwaukee Independent: What has been the biggest impact to your relationship with music since the loss of your step-father Joe Weirick?
Shawna Nicols: I have learned that people die twice, one time when they stop breathing and then a bit later on when somebody says their name for the last time. I refuse to let Joe die and hope to help his legacy live on for as long as possible.
Milwaukee Independent: Can you explain the importance about your tattoo of the stick figure with the heart? How did you decide to wear it as a tattoo on your body, and how has the public awareness of the symbol grown?
Shawna Nicols: One of my best friends and I actually have this tattoo together. A couple years after getting the tattoo, when I wanted to create something bigger than me as a DJ, I asked my friend if they would be okay with me using it as a logo, as it really resonated with me. I am not sure how the awareness of the symbol has grown, I hope that it continues to be more recognized as a symbol that inspires people and makes them happy.
Milwaukee Independent: Regarding your other tattoos, what special meanings do they have for you or what do they express?
Shawna Nicols: I have a lot of ink throughout my body and have put a lot of thought into every single piece on me. With that, each one tells a different story about my life and experiences. It has been a really cool way for me to document my story and carry my family with me.
Milwaukee Independent: Your #DareToBe campaign is all about “empowering people to be their best selves in every aspect of life.” Why is this goal so important to you?
Shawna Nicols: I want to be someone that brings joy and positivity to people as much as possible. #DareToBe has been a really fun project with my clothing line as well as regular Monday Motivation videos. The messages I receive on a regular basis from people from all over are about such a seemingly simple message, make my heart smile. So, if I can make one person’s day a little bit better, or bring them a smile, I feel I had a pretty successful day.
Milwaukee Independent: How has your #DareToBe campaign made a difference in other people’s lives?
Shawna Nicols: I’m not sure I can answer that for them. I have been lucky to receive messages from people sharing their stories with me, and how Dare To Be has helped, influenced, or inspired them, but sometimes we just need a little piece of encouragement and a push in the right direction to realize what has been inside of us all along.