April 26, 2024 | Michail Takach

DJ Shawna: dare to be the difference

Growing up without visible LGBTQ role models, Shawna Nicols wants to be the person she needed when she was younger.
DJ Shawna

Family is everything to DJ Shawna. As a child, her family included her mom, Beth, her dad, Vince, her brother, Justin; and her great-grandmother Lillian. This proud “Milwaukee kid” grew up on the west side, first at 45th and Vliet Street, and later at 48th and Wells.

Shawna questioned the world – and her place in it – from a young age.

“I went to a private Catholic school,” said Shawna. “There were a lot of things that just didn’t resonate with me, so I learned to filter those out. No matter what happened at school, no matter how anyone treated me, no matter how confusing the world was, I could always go home to a loving environment. My family was my safe space, and they gave me all the unconditional love and support I needed.”

“Unfortunately, kids aren’t always the nicest,” said Shawna. “Everyone used the slang term ‘gay’ as an insult. ‘That’s so gay,’ they’d say. I didn’t even know what that meant, until I knew what it meant, if you know what I mean. And, I remember that moment, where I realized: ‘Wait a second, that’s what I am. That’s me. They’re talking about me.’”

“My family always told me ‘to thine own self be true,” said Shawna, “and I actually have that tattooed on me now. It’s a Shakespeare quote that really chokes me up. You might know you’re different. You might feel like you don’t fit in. You might be struggling. But you can only be you.”

“It does get better,” said Shawna. “I know that’s such a cliché, but it does. We all have a story, we all have a place in this world, and we all have to find a way to keep the light burning bright inside us. Just keep on showing up. I sometimes wish I could walk into the Pint and tell my younger self, you have no idea what’s about to happen, so sit back, enjoy it, work hard, and keep showing up.”

“Gay and lesbian bars happened because folks part of the LGBT community could only exist in secret,” said Shawna.

“Now, I can walk down the street just holding my girlfriend’s hand – and we can walk into any space and spend time together. That is totally different from how I felt about the world 20 years ago. I still believe LGBTQ bars are essential for our community, as long as they are all inclusive. They need to be spaces where everybody can go.”

“Look at the next generation right now,” said Shawna. “Nearly 1 in 3 Gen Y youth identify as LGBTQ. It’s becoming a more inclusive world. When I was at UW-Madison, we had the Ten Percent Society, and that was the social network for gays and lesbians. Ironically, less than 10% of the society identified as gay or lesbian at the time. Now, it's known as The Pride Society, because ten percent is an understatement."

"We’ve come so far, so fast.”

Making her passion happen

Shawna is grateful that she’s been able to turn her passions – music and basketball – into a career.

“Admittedly, I’ve been sober my whole life,” said Shawna. “I started DJing at Walker’s Pint where I found my calling. Bet-z set me up with DJ Rock Dee, her Saturday night DJ. It gave me a new sense of purpose.”

“I always knew Walker’s Pint was special,” said Shawna. “I love that you can watch the Packer game on Sunday, and there’s hot dogs in the back. She really caters to the community – that’s why she’s been around for so long. She’s the epitome of doing things the right way for the right reasons. And she’s one of the humans in my life who taught me so much just by leading by example. I don’t know a world without the Pint, and I hope I don’t have to.”

“I’m so grateful for Bet-z’s friendship and mentorship. I’m so thankful she gave me the chance to be a DJ, because I wouldn’t be who I am as a person today without her. I wouldn’t be ‘DJ Shawna’ without her.”

“Basketball was my saving grace in high school. I continued playing in college. I always found safety in the company of my teammates. After college, I played professional basketball overseas for a while. When that ended, I was back in Milwaukee DJing 5-6 nights a week. I was hustling and I loved it. I wanted to see how far I could go with it. I started playing Marquette women’s basketball games in 2017. I did four or five games for the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center. I cold-called the NCAA and that’s how I became the women’s Final Four DJ.”

“I don’t just walk into a Bucks game, and say ‘I’m gay,” said Shawna. “But I do show up at work being authentically me.”

“I’m thankful to the Milwaukee Bucks who gave me so many opportunities,” said Shawna. “There are only three females DJs in my position as official DJs currently in the NBA. I’ve DJ’d the last four NBA All Star Games. I’ve played the Ryder Cup for golf. I’ve been part of Team USA women’s soccer. May the opportunities never stop.”

What’s next for Shawna?

“Milwaukee is home. I’ve lived all over, and I just kept coming home. I fell in love with Milwaukee over and over and over again. My girlfriend and I just closed on a house here. We are making our life here.”

“I’ve written and produced two songs so far. I’ve written one children's book. I want to keep going. I want to see how far I can take it. I really want to take my brand #DareToBe as far as I can go. I really want it to make an impact because I believe in it. I want to inspire you to become your best self. It’s something that’s bigger than me. I want people to be seen, be heard and know they matter.”

“I want to make the world a better place than before I was here, and I want to do that from Milwaukee. I wouldn’t be who I am without Milwaukee, without the music, without the Pint, without the people that have invested in me.”

“All I want people to feel is the love I feel. I just want to be able to radiate it back to you all.”

dj_shawna DJ Shawna
dj_shawna DJ Shawna at PrideFest Milwaukee

The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003. Over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor.

If you would like to contribute as a blog writer please contact us.

recent blog posts

The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003, and over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor, bearing all costs for hosting the web site personally.