NATIVE Exclusive: DJ Poizon Ivy on her time as Music Coordinator for the 2021 Basketball Africa League

"I’m still excited from all of it."

Over two years after its announcement, the inaugural edition of the NBA-affiliated Basketball Africa League (BAL) took place in Kigali, Rwanda, from May 16 to May 30. Initially scheduled to tipoff in early 2020, this yar’s edition was held in a bubble environment that required all twelve teams involved to gather in the Rwandan capital and play all the games in the Kigali Arena. Egyptian national champions Zamalek emerged winners of the league’s debut edition, closing out a 2-week run of group and playoff games.

“It wasn’t a tense environment, there was security and a great venue,” Poizon Ivy the DJ recalls of her time serving as Music and Sound Coordinator at the recently concluded league. Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, before moving to Dallas at age 9, music and basketball have been ever-present in Ivy Awino’s life. She played basketball in high school, started figuring the turntables out in college, spun for a short while in the WNBA, and is now a well-known figure as regards sound-tracking games in the NBA.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Ivy (Poizon Ivy The DJ) Awino (@poizonivythedj)

Currently, the Senior Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sports Sound Strategist for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, DJ poison Ivy is well-versed in the act of keeping basketball games lively, having spun music and directed audio proceedings at countless professional games, including a record-making stint at the 2018 NBA all-star game held in Los Angeles’ Staples Center, as it official DJ—the first woman to hold that title. She brought all of that experience to this year’s BAL, entertaining the limited crowd in the Kigali Arena and engaging viewers from all over the world with her eclectic music selections and audio prompts.

“It was one of those things I had foreshadowed while it was in the works but I didn’t know that,” she tells me of being tapped to be part of the league’s game operations. “I just envisioned this opportunity where I’d be able to program Basketball games on the continent with fully African content.” Throughout our conversation via Zoom call, she’s palpably grateful for being able to play such an important role at the debut edition of a pan-African league that has the potential to be hugely, globally significant in coming years.

During the 2-week league, DJ Poizon Ivy used the opportunity to celebrate, flaunt her knowledge—and discover even more—of the diversity of music being made by African artists across the continent and in the diaspora. With plans to release a playlist with all the songs she spun at the BAL, and a short project featuring song remixes debuted during the league, DJ Poizon Ivy will be displaying how tapped in she is into African music. For now, she’s still very excited about her work at the BAL, so much so that she considers it a landmark in her career, so far.

Our conversation with Poizon Ivy the DJ follows below and has been lightly edited for clarity.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Ivy (Poizon Ivy The DJ) Awino (@poizonivythedj)

NATIVE: How did you get into DJing and music in general?

DJ Poizon Ivy: Music has been something that’s been present in my life for a long time. I’ve played piano since I was five years old, I played the cello at some point, always been interested in the vocal realm, you know, performing. I’ve always been intrigued by the arts, stage shows, music directing and how all those concepts come together. That’s just been a common thread throughout my in terms of personal interest. In terms of DJing, when I was in college some of my good friends were top DJs in the city, so it was just one more instrument to learn and my house was always the party house. One of my friends, Josh, he’d bring turntables since we had parties and one day I was like, “I want to learn how to DJ.” He dropped off the turntables and he left them there for me to figure out how to set up, that was the birth of DJ Poizon Ivy.

How far back was that?

Oh man, that’s at least ten, eleven years.

I know you were a Ball Kid with the Dallas Mavericks, but how were you able to link DJing back with Basketball?

Basketball has also been a common thread in my life, whether it was being a ball girl to playing on a team in high school, and then I ended up being the team manager. A lot of my friends would now remind me that I made warm-up CDs in high school, so there’s some foreshadowing in there. I auditioned to be the Milwaukee Bucks DJ in 2012, nearly landed that position but ultimately didn’t. I toured with the WNBA for a while, then when the Tulsa Shock relocated and became the Dallas Wings, I went with them for a season. At that point, I had a friend of mine who nudged me to reach out to the Mavericks and ask about any available opportunity. Some point in the summer, their DJ resigned and they were searching for a new DJ, being that I was top of mind they reached out and here we are five years later.

What’s been the best moments of that journey so far?

That’s hard because—not to be that person—for me, every day I work is a new day. There are no games that are the same, so I value each and every one of those opportunities. But I would say that what I just got done doing, sound directing the BAL because that came as a result of trajectory and progression throughout the NBA. All roads led me to that, so definitely being the sound director and music coordinator has been the height of all that.

How did you get into that role?

It’s actually been a long time coming. Obviously, my relationship with [BAL President] Amadou Gallo Fall was important. Immediately after learning about the inception of the league in 2018, I knew the people who were going to be responsible for game operations, and they’d even reached out to me before I even reached out to them. It was one of those things I had foreshadowed while it was in the works but I didn’t know that, I just envisioned this opportunity where I’d be able to program Basketball games on the continent with fully African content. The season was supposed to start in 2020 but, you know, Covid-19. I was actually four days out from leaving when the world shut down, and there was a possible restart at the end of last year but that didn’t happen, so it was a long time coming. It was also one of those things I’ve kinda been like, there was no other person for the job but me.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Ivy (Poizon Ivy The DJ) Awino (@poizonivythedj)

Was this your first time in Rwanda?

Yes, this was my first time visiting Rwanda. Granted, I am East African but I’m just now getting a chance to travel around East Africa. It was my first time but it definitely won’t be my last, it’s an amazing place if I may say so myself.

What was the experience like, considering the arrangements and restrictions brought about by the pandemic?

It was different because there’s a difference between travelling then and travelling now. You know, keeping up with testing requirements and all of that. But I’m very proud of the league and this being the fourth bubble to execute—NBA, WNBA, G-League and now this one. Managing these large competitions with people who are in close contact with each other, pulling that off is something that the NBA’s medical team should be recognised for, which made it enjoyable because you knew that in the bubble everyone was Covid-free. It wasn’t a tense environment, there was security, a great venue, and still being able to host a limited number of fans while restricting access to those in quarantine protocol. It’s a cool feat. I think the joy is that I was in there and part of it all, actually seeing it from the inside out is one of my highlights.

What were your specific roles and how was stressful was it?

As the music coordinator, I’m responsible for all the sounds you hear in a basketball game. I’m responsible for all the offense and defense prompts, all of the in-game stuff, so it’s not just the music before and during the game. I mean, it’s not stressful because it’s what I do every day for the Mavs, I’ve done it in several different capacities whether it be overseas, or All-Star or other functions. I think the difference between us and others is that our business is always high pressure, so with every experience, you’re getting training for the next time. For me, it was more so the nerves of, “Oh man, this is actually happening, like I’m actually here.”

How did you select songs to spin?

You know, market research is really, really important. Beyond the people in that arena, you typically have to program for the people also watching on TV, and that’s over 215 countries. Then obviously, there are teams from different countries playing so you gotta know who’s in front of the TV. I tried to travel around the globe during every game, I mean around the globe from the pan-African and diaspora lens. So, whether that be South, North, East, West, central, and artists from all over the diaspora with African ancestry. It was new songs, old songs, traditional stuff, and obviously for the arena you want to keep it up-tempo and show a lot of love for the hometown. I had two presidents at one game, the president [Paul Kagame] was at several other games, so there’s like learning all of their patriotic songs and all that kind of stuff.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Ivy (Poizon Ivy The DJ) Awino (@poizonivythedj)

How much are you tapped into music out of Africa?

I listen to a lot of stuff, my process of discovering music has no rhyme or reason. Like when I was in the bubble, they had a bar that was across my room and they played music out there and it would be different teams from different countries, they’d play their stuff. I would shazam everything—Shazam and YouTube are my two favourite things. Anyways, I’m very much tapped into music from the continent. In terms of what I’m listening to, there’s “OTF” by Yinoluu and Riverays, “Sativa” by Runtown and Minz—I’ve always loved Minz’s music. I’m really happy for King Perryy, also for Tems because it’s great to see her star rising. There’s Hart & the Band, they just dropped a new album, also Bruce Melody, and a lot more East African artists. Oh yeah, Fireboy. I remixed “Champion” with this Nigerian EDM duo, Maze & Mxtreme, those are my boys. We’re actually getting ready to release a remix pack of three songs we remixed for BAL purposes. But still, generally speaking, I’m a really big fan of Harmonize, the whole Wasafi family, my girl Bey T, Xenniah Manasseh and more.

You’re really plugged in.

Oh yeah, I could go on and on, I’m always listening to music. I’m actually getting ready to release a BAL playlist with every song I played during that 3-week span.

For you, which were the most memorable games in the league?

The first and the last games. Eventually, I would tell the full story, but in the first game the power went out. Like, we’d been rehearsing for this for a long time and the power goes out, but it tested my ability to bounce back. That’s live production for you, you can rehearse all you want to but on show day something goes wrong, you just have to adjust. This was the first game, we wanted to get off to the races; it was a Patriots game, a home game, it was crazy but we scaled through. Then the last one because, after going through weeks of games and being emotionally invested, it was crazy to see how people become fans of different clubs. In the championship, I was like, “How did I end up DJing a championship game?” I’m still excited from all of it.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.