Dominique Wells commands attention.
On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-February, I spend a little over an hour walking with the DJ, music curator and creative consultant around her stomping grounds in Glenarden, Maryland. Not once does she stop talking and not once do I stop listening attentively. I’m hanging on every word not because I’m doing due diligence as a reporter but because she speaks with such conviction, and it resonates with me.
Everything she says and does is intentional. When I first reached out to set up our interview, I asked her to give me a few options for spots to meet in person – spots that felt like home. We landed on Atlantic Seafood, a tiny carryout restaurant nestled in the corner of a strip mall across the street from the apartment building where she spent a chunk of her formative years.
“That’s why your option today was a carryout,” she tells me. “I don’t want to go to a f–king museum downtown. I didn’t really grow up doing those kinds of things. I grew up in [now defunct go-go clubs] Neon and Icebox, and off Bladensburg Road and in Trinidad, and wherever my family was. I’m proud of it because I felt for a long time when you come from stuff like that, you’re trying to assimilate so much away from it or you feel ashamed of it or it makes you less than someone else who comes from what seems like more than that. So now, I’m just like, ‘Yeah, nah. I’m cool with it. I don’t care how you feel about it. I’m going to be me.’”
Wells, better known as DOMO in D.C.’s creative community, digs deep as we walk and talk – first over fries with mumbo sauce from Atlantic and then on a tour of the complex where she lived for several years during childhood. Our conversation is peppered with little side stories about her sister and friends, and she pauses only to exchange greetings with folks in the neighborhood and to compliment a little boy with, “I like your shoes, man.”
Even though she bounced around Prince George’s County and Northeast D.C. as a kid, she says she still used to come back to Glenarden to see her friends and even now, she feels connected to the area.
“I still get my hair braided around here,” she notes. “I feel very rooted here. People feel [connected] to wherever they’re originally from culturally, or whatever their American experience is. But this is all we’ve got, you know? So, it’s very much my makeup.”
Wells has spent the past two years building a career as a renowned DJ, playing everything from EDM festival Electric Forest and Google’s 10-year anniversary to curating “The New DMV” playlist on Apple Music and killing it as the on-air DJ for MTV’s Singled Out. She even got to spin for former president Barack Obama at a small event, and proudly recalls that when he came into the room and heard what she was playing, he said, “Well, the DJ knows.”
“And I said, ‘You’re damn right I do,’” she says, laughing.
She’s also continued to support the local scene, referring to the folks behind iconic D.C. events like Broccoli City Festival as her family.
“It’s been kind of ironic to pivot from being someone who worked for the festival to being someone who is in the festival lineup,” she adds, noting her time managing Broccoli City’s main stage.
While her career as an artist is very important to her, our conversation shifts to her work with GIRLAAA, her D.C. area collective focused on providing a creative platform and safe space for women of color. Wells runs the agency with several other black female powerhouses – artist and illustrator Tenbeete Solomon, known as Trap Bob, marketing maven Kelcie Glass and DJ Avanti Fernandez, known as Mane Squeeze – among them.
“I love these women so much,” she says of her GIRLAAA family. “We’re equally elevating at the same pace in our own respective areas. I feel like we all started shifting at the same time and now GIRLAAA is crazy because of all of us.”
What started as a vehicle for curating parties centered on music and art in an intentional way has rapidly evolved into something much larger, and now Wells and her peers are working together to solidify their identity as an agency that sets them apart.
“However I can uplift women, especially women of color, who are just doing tight shit and being themselves and functioning on the same level – that’s all I’m with right now. We’re supportive of whoever’s doing that, and I think that’s why we thrive individually and together.”
She says GIRLAAA will always be D.C. centric, but thinks it also has national capability. And while existing programming like go-go performances at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage and pending plans for events with institutions like the Hirshhorn and collaborations with creative agency No Kings Collective have been put on hold due to Covid-19, locals can keep up with the collective via Instagram and their email newsletter.
As our walk continues and we head back toward the strip mall parking lot, Wells opens up about working for the federal government for seven years before switching gears completely to follow her current creative path. She balanced working as a contractor for the Department of Energy with going to school and a second job, and after several promotions ultimately landed in the office of the Under Secretary of Energy. But she says the shift from Obama to Trump’s administration was unnecessarily abrasive for her department, and it was her breaking point.
“That was really frustrating and draining for me at a time where I felt like, this ain’t my shit anyway. I was like, I care about this and I think this work is important. But I also felt like I had hit a ceiling in that agency, and I didn’t want to stay longer with that administration. I felt this internal shift in my whole everything that I needed to pivot, and it was now or never.”
Wells is still in partial disbelief that she’s been able to succeed in a career as an artist, and so quickly, while creating a platform for likeminded, talented women that has also gained such momentum.
“The things that I loved started to be the things that were making the money and I was like, ‘Okay, tight,’ because I spent a long time not doing that. Working in corporate structures, especially as a black woman, you have to really put on a different self. You’re not allowed to come in and be off. You’re not allowed to not look the part. You have to work so much harder. I’m appreciative to be in a space now where I can be myself and not really care that much about how people feel about it anymore.”
She shares a cringeworthy story with me about a workday during her government career when she didn’t straighten her hair and just left it natural, and someone patted her on the head and described her look as “ethnic.”
“I spent so long doing that part,” she says, “wearing the suits so people didn’t judge me so harshly or straightening my hair so I fit in and speaking a certain way.”
She’s empowered, now more than ever, to do exactly what feels right for her – and she maintains a positive outlook even though she’s tackled adversity along the way.
“Whenever something weird happens or it feels like something bad is happening while I’ve been on this journey, there’s always something that counters it that says, ‘It’s not really that bad because this is better’ or ‘This is why that happened.’ I try to immediately pivot to those moments.”
We’re now back at Atlantic Seafood, and she’s schooling me on the go-go greats, Southern trap and then – this is a big moment for us – she introduces me to “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness via her car speakers. We chat for a few more minutes as she jokes about overextending herself and trying to stay sane with so many irons in the fire.
“I’m really winging it very well – sometimes. My right foot’s falling off, but I’m going to get there hopping on the one.”
Whether it’s feeding off the energy from a crowd going crazy over her go-go deep tracks or jumping in to support local artists during last year’s Don’t Mute DC movement, it all comes down to connecting with and supporting her community.
“I feel responsible for being helpful or impactful, and to not be counterproductive toward either of those things. That’s all I try to do. If that means I’m using my platform to support something that’s important so maybe some more people have a little bit more awareness – even if it’s just one person – cool. Or if I’m lending my time to something that’s an important thing to the community, cool. I try to be helpful, however that looks.”
Follow Wells on Instagram and Twitter at @djxdomo.
Follow GIRLAAA on Instagram at @girlaaa.world and sign up for their email newsletter at www.domo.world/girlaaa.