Posted 28 June 2022
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Vanessa Maria

DJ and creative producer Vanessa Maria on balancing creativity with mental health advocacy

Discovering her love for radio at uni, DJ and creative producer Vanessa Maria is the embodiment of not knowing unless you try. Landing on a breakthrough DJ mix collaboration with Notion Magazine simply by reaching out to its founder, she’s since launched a stellar broadcasting career with a monthly residency at Foundation FM. Combining her creative output with an interest in mental health, she’s also produced a documentary on the wellbeing of Black students on her uni campus and a Resident Advisor editorial partnership with Black Minds Matter. Here, Vanessa talks to us about knowing your worth when freelancing and being conscious of what you’re taking in on social media.

Vanessa Maria

Vanessa Maria

Job Title

DJ and Creative Producer



Selected Clients

Notion Magazine, Foundation FM, Black Butter Records, Black Minds Matter, Resident Advisor, London Metropolitan University

Previous Employment

Content Production Creator, Create Jobs (2020)
Project Manager, Mix Nights (2020)
Development Team Assistant, BBC Studios (2020)
Trainee Production Management Assistant (The One Show), BBC Studios (2019-2020)
Executive Producer, University of Bristol Student Union (2019-2020)
Elected Student Living Officer, University of Bristol Union (2018-2019)
Event Manager, University of Bristol Student Union (2018)

Place of Study

BA Psychology, University of Bristol (2015-2018)


Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do as a multidisciplinary creative?
I am a DJ, broadcaster and creative producer, and I champion and explore themes related to music and mental health in different formats, whether that’s through audio, visual or digital means.

I’m also a creative producer for a project called BB Airwaves, which is a radio show for Black Butter Records. We had a soft launch last year and recently relaunched as a monthly show featuring artists from the label.

Nowadays, my day may also include working on a Resident Advisor project. I’m currently working on an audio documentary series in partnership with Black Minds Matter; lots of working and planning is going into that. It includes liaising with people and other creatives to explore themes that have come up in last year’s podcast episodes.

I also have a residency at Foundation FM that’s a monthly radio show, and most recently, I’ve been given a residency at a venue called the Hootananny in Brixton, where I’m working toward my own event series to be held on Thursdays.

What is the main inspiration behind your work?
I would say that my inspiration has always been purpose and intention. Why am I making this? Who is it serving and who will it benefit? Because I feel like a lot of content that I look at doesn’t have a clear purpose. I also ask: how does the content out there make me feel? Am I learning something? Do I feel better after seeing it, or insecure? I question these things as I’m really interested in mental health.

“My inspiration has always been purpose and intention: Why am I making this? Who is it serving and who will it benefit?”

What has been your favourite project to work on in the past year?
My favourite project would probably have to be the Resident Advisor X Black Minds Matter partnership project. It was a podcast series at first, and it’s been my favourite not just because of the content, but the people it reached. It came to me at the start of lockdown, so it actually gave me some form of focus, and helped me to not completely lose myself in the wildness and weirdness of everything that was going on.

In terms of how it came about, I got an email from somebody at Resident Advisor saying that they were leaving and that he was one of the only Black employees and, as his last project, he wanted to push this project with Black Minds Matter. We set up a meeting and I instantly knew it had to happen; I hopped on the project and it got commissioned. I had worked with Black Minds Matter before, so knowing the team beforehand was a bonus.

I was really inspired hearing people’s stories and all they’ve accomplished – especially within music, being a Black person owning a Black music business and taking up space in an industry that is majority white. Overall, it was great to have that inspiration each month when I wasn’t leaving my house [due to the pandemic].

What skills are needed to do your role? Do you need any specific training for what you do?
I think specific training is great and I’m a big fan of up-skilling in any space. If you need formal schooling then do that, because I think it has helped me in every job I’ve had. I worked at the University of Bristol Student Union after graduation and, alongside my degree, it gave me skills in leadership, delegating and self-motivation.

I then went on to work at the BBC, doing content production for Dragon’s Den and The One Show, where I learned camera basics, the logistics of production and how to make good content. I used these skills to produce my own documentary, before moving on to the Black Butter Records project with Sony as a Digital Marketing intern, where I learned a lot about the strategic business side of things.

Determination is another big skill that you need. You can learn everything on YouTube nowadays if you have the discipline. It’s about looking at what you can do with your spare moments. If you have that and a laptop, you can learn anything. I know that some graphic design and video editing programs are really expensive, but getting access to them will mean you’ve jumped over a major hurdle and can start working [on projects]. I think the general characteristic to have is a good work ethic as that can take you far.

“You can learn everything on YouTube if you have the discipline. If you have that and a laptop, you can learn anything.”

Vanessa’s residency on Foundation FM

How I got here

How did you go from a degree in psychology to a career as a creative? And do you have any advice?
You know, it’s funny when people call me a creative. Of course I know I am, but it’s weird to hear, maybe because I didn’t take the traditional route like an art foundation course or degree. Doing a psychology degree helped me a lot because I adapted it to serve me. It helped me to get to the position I’m in now, working on mental health projects and has been the main theme in a lot of the work I do.

When I was doing my A-levels, I studied art, loved it and got an A* – I don’t think my school was encouraging students to go to any art university; they encouraged us to go into law, PR, advertising, marketing and business. But at the end of the day I’m happy with the route I’ve taken. I joined my university radio station and loved it immediately; I was quite obsessive. At that point, I said I was going to do something creative and pushed myself. I listened to stations like Radar Radio, followed Snoochie Shy and a lot of that kind of content.

I questioned if presenting this radio show was really helping anybody, then I decided to mix the two together – my knowledge of mental health and love for hosting and presenting – and that’s been the journey ever since.

How did you land your first clients?
I think I landed my first clients through word of mouth. It’s really hard to land the first ones, and a lot of it will be luck and being in the right place at the right time. You can’t be afraid to email people. Ask to work with them, irrespective of your skill, position, background or history, because passion and determination are infectious. So if you have a brilliant idea, ask to have a meeting. It’ll rub off and they’ll most likely want to work with you. For most people, it’s exciting, the idea of someone bringing something new and fresh to the table.

When I was living in Bristol, I had a platform called No Boundaries that I set up with my friend, which highlighted talent outside of London. We met with the founder of Notion Magazine at a time when we didn’t realise Notion’s weight in the industry, introduced ourselves and told him about an idea that we had. He said OK and told us to send over a deck. At the time, I had no clue what a deck was, but got to researching, sent over that email and had the Notion Magazine X No Boundaries series greenlit.

Notion Magazine X No Boundaries Mix series promotional art

If you could pick something that you’ve found useful or inspiring your work, what would they be and why?
Jamz Supernova. She is spearheading the next generation of radio DJs with her residencies on BBC Radio 1Xtra and Selector Radio. While equally at home behind the decks in a club, she’s used her time in lockdown to bolster her Future Bounce label and perfect her radio shows, recording podcasts and voiceovers and helming TV docs along the way. She is a huge inspiration to all the work I do and seeing another Black woman in her position is amazing.

How important would you say social media and self promotion are? And how do you approach it with the knowledge that it can affect people’s mental health?
I’m going to be real. Social media is 100% important – like, extremely important for engaging with your community, future clients and overall connection, irrespective of the fact that it can have a harmful effect on mental health. We wouldn’t have social media manager positions in every company otherwise. But I think it’s all in the way you use it and the routine that you set yourself around it.

Is social media a tool for you, or is it an extension of your life? It can be hard to detach from it because it’s a way to keep up-to-date and make plans with friends. But over time, I’ve had to create strict boundaries with it; I make plans on WhatsApp and clients are on email or phone. If anybody contacts me through DMs, I respond to them via email and keep the interaction going there. I am conscious of everything when I log in, and instead of mindlessly scrolling I actually engage with what people are posting. I feel that approach has made a big difference because I’m an active user, and when I’m off, I’m off.

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
My greatest learning has been that you should know your fee and understand what the exchange is. Always try to negotiate something that will benefit you. State your fee beforehand and if the budget is below that then really think about whether it’s worth decreasing it. I’m constantly saying “Thank you for reaching out, my fee is X,” so they know.

“Irrespective of your skill or background, ask to work with people, because passion and determination are infectious. It’ll rub off and they’ll most likely want to work with you.”

My advice

What’s the best career related advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve gotten wasn’t advice. When I was in university working on the radio station, this guy – my good friend in secondary school who then went to prison – popped up on Instagram saying “congrats”. At the time, I said, “congrats on what? It’s only a uni station.” I meant it’s not BBC Radio 1 or 1Xtra, but he said “no, you’ll get there – make it happen,” and every time I get stuck or feel unsure, I remember those words.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
In terms of practical steps, for those wanting to get into music – whether it’s DJing, working for radio or a record label – is to study the people you look up to. Understand their journey, go back to their old Instagram posts, go to their website (that they haven’t updated in 10 years because they no longer need it) – check absolutely everything, do your due diligence.

You can also research others by creating a doc or Excel sheet and have headings such as qualifications, highlights, features, collaborators... turn it into a real timeline. Once you go back to the very beginning, you will find that you, too, are capable of having an impactful journey.

I also recommend reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. There’s a saying along the lines of: “good artists copy, great artists steal.” I think it’s good to copy; you just have to find a way of making it your own. Use the formula that’s already set out and enhance it. The importance is in knowing what’s for you and what you want to do.

Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Vanessa Maria