Since she fled South Sudan as a refugee almost 20 years ago, Mari Malek, aka DJ Stiletto, has become a successful model and DJ in New York City. She’s also started her own organization, Stand For Education, to raise funds for programs for South Sudanese women and children. In a few weeks, she’s going back to South Sudan for the first time to better understand how she can help her home country.
We spent an evening with her in New York City, where we got to know a very inspiring young woman. DJ Stiletto will be part of Fusion's RiseUp summit in Washington DC on November 19th.
It was a special night at the iconic Manhattan restaurant Indochine. The downtown institution was celebrating its 30th anniversary in top form with an over-the-top, packed party complete with thong-wearing male go-go dancers, singing drag queens and bare-chested burlesque acts—all happily swaying with the dancing, boozy guests.
Among them was Mari Malek, aka DJ Stiletto, wearing a carnival mask, dancing and laughing. She was home. A few minutes past midnight, she was presiding over the DJ booth, mixing Beyoncé and Notorious B.I.G. to the delight of the throbbing crowd.
Eight years ago, when Malek first arrived in New York City from California at the age of 21 with almost no money and an infant daughter in tow, she found part-time work as a hostess at this same restaurant. “Indochine is like my family,” she says. As the South Sudan-born Malek pursued a modeling career, she grew her contacts and exposure at the restaurant. She even helped fellow South Sudanese friends get jobs there.
“When I came to New York I realized how I can use my face as a model, and I realized how I can use my face as a DJ to shed light on the issues that we have in South Sudan, and to be a voice for the women of South Sudan,” she says.
Malek came to the United States as a refugee when she was 13. Her mother fled South Sudan with her and her two younger sisters. They spent four years in a refugee camp in Egypt then made their way to Newark, New Jersey, thanks to a Catholic charity sponsorship. Her mom found relatives in San Diego and took the family there. In southern California Malek says her family “began to rebuild their life.” (Her father stayed behind in South Sudan with his other wives and children.)
One of the first vivid memories Malek has of being in America is watching Jerry Springer on TV. "Oh my goodness, this is what happens here?” she remembers thinking. “That was a culture shock to us.” Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears rounded out her introduction to American pop culture.
Malek’s mother, Awalith Niahl Diing Mac, is still her inspiration. She worked as a nurse in South Sudan and took in displaced people at their home. In Egypt she worked as a maid, and then held several jobs in the U.S. in addition to volunteering at church. “I became a second mom to my younger sisters because my mom was working all the time,” Malek says. “I’ve always had to become an older person. A lot of South Sudanese children have to grow up very quickly; we grew up during the war. I just had to be strong and help my mother.”
Malek studied human resources and psychology in college in San Diego, but everywhere she went people kept telling her she should be a model. With her mother’s blessing she went to New York in 2006 and got signed with a modeling agency. “I started experiencing this new life of being a model and from there I started discovering myself spiritually and what other talents I may have,” she says. Malek invested in DJ equipment and started teaching herself how to spin records. What started as a hobby became a career. She now plays private parties in New York and recently won a DJ residency in Ibiza as part of a competition sponsored by Burn energy drink.
Malek is part of a collaborative group of musicians called Haus of Mu, which includes her husband Kreaux. This past August, they released their first 4-song EP, called “Haus of Mu: Birth,” which Malek co-produced and wrote. “I’m a world girl. I like electronic music and to incorporate some African beats,” she says. “I like to sneak some of my roots in there.”
In December, Malek will go back to South Sudan for the first time with her organization, Stand For Eduation, which focuses on education for girls. She’s going to visit some of the schools her group wants to fund, to document her experience and to see how she can reconnect with her native country. “The goal is for us to have a home there and for my own daughter to learn about her culture,” she says.
Part of reconnecting with South Sudan means working with the diaspora in New York. For Fashion Week next February, Malek is planning a fundraising fashion show and gala dinner with fellow South Sudanese models. “It’s time for the world to start hearing about South Sudanese women. We have stories, deep stories. We want our country to be self-sufficient and we can’t do that just with being given aid. That’s why education is so important.”
Video shot by William Gallego
Ingrid Rojas is a Colombian multimedia producer based in Miami. She spends her days either shooting, producing or editing all kinds of video content.
Nuria Net is a founding editor at Fusion and now Social Storytelling Editor working on our Snapchat Discover channel. Co-founder, former editor-in-chief of Remezcla.com. Net is her real last name; Lechuga is her DJ name.