Professional Development

Milwaukee Bucks DJ-turned-entrepreneur Shawna Nicols finds purpose beyond the booth

Following her "Dare to be" mantra, DJ Shawna Nicols talks NBA bubble and giving back to the community she loves.

DJ Shawna at the Milwaukee Bucks' arena.

(Courtesy photo)

As the Milwaukee Bucks’ official DJ and producer, Shawna Nicols — aka DJ Shawna — could rest on her laurels and enjoy the cushy gigs and partnerships that come with thrilling arena-sized crowds.

But that’s not her style. Instead, the DJ-turned-emerging-entrepreneur is looking to extend her influence beyond the booth, using her growing platform to spread positivity. It’s all part of Nicols’ mission to “dare to be.”

The mantra is something Nicols’ embraced as she has transitioned out of a professional basketball career into live entertainment, and today as she dips her toes into creative entrepreneurship. The phrase is also behind the name of her parent business, Dare to Be Entertainment, under which she not only books DJ performances nationwide, but also runs a clothing line, hosts a podcast, and serves as a motivational speaker.

As an athlete for the better part of her early life, being a positive role model was something the young player took seriously. When she launched a DJ career full-time, her desire to inspire the people around her took on even greater significance, especially as her platform grew alongside the Milwaukee Bucks’ rise to the national championship.

“The thing that you get taught as an athlete is that as soon as you put on your jersey, people look at you differently,” Nicols told Technical.ly. “People might know me as DJ Shawna, especially working with the Bucks. And it might sound ridiculous to quote Spider-Man’s grandpa, but ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ All I want to do is my part to make this world a better place.”

Nicols grew up in Milwaukee where she became a star player at Pius XI High School. After high school, she was recruited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to play for the Badgers, but her career there ended early due to repeated concussions. She eventually bounced back, playing for universities in Tennessee and Kentucky, until she landed a spot on a pro team overseas.

Along the way, Nicols listened to music constantly and spent her free time making mixtapes to play for her teammates and friends. But DJing wasn’t something that ever crossed her mind.

When Nicols returned to the States, she was unsure of her next step. While out on the town at Walker’s Pint one night, Nicols — who abstains from drinking alcohol — said she fueled her self-professed social awkwardness by connecting with the bar’s DJ. The rest is history, she said.

“I honestly started hanging out with a local legend DJ Rock Dee [Roderick Schaeffer] and I never looked back,” said Nicols, adding that he became a mentor and close friend. “It just continued to snowball.” (Schaeffer died by suicide at the age of 40 in 2008.)

After purchasing her own set of ones-and-twos, Nicols navigated an uncharted path into the male-dominated industry. In the beginning, as she hauled her equipment back and forth and spent hours practicing between small gigs, she forced any negativity that came with being the rare woman DJ out of her mind. She focused on breaking her own mold — not someone else’s.

DJ Shawna. (Courtesy photo)

She eventually got her big break. In 2016, she invested in hiring a manager and became the first official DJ to play for Marquette University, starting with the women’s team. Since the university was hosting the Big East tournament that year, she got to play that, too. And just weeks before the women’s Final Four, she cold-called the NCAA and asked if she could DJ. To her surprise, they said yes.

That was the same year the Milwaukee Bucks came calling, first for a handful of games, which eventually led to an annual contract. She’s been the official DJ and producer for the Milwaukee Bucks ever since.

“I think that was when my family started looking at me, like this is a job, this is real,” Nicols said.

For Nicols, DJing became a way of life. During the height of COVID, she was one of just four NBA DJs — and the only woman — sent to live in the “quarantine bubble.” While she admits living at the Disney World resort could feel isolating, it was still surreal to see the likes of Lebron James riding his bike around the grounds and playing two NBA games a day.

But the experience also served as a painful wakeup call: At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Milwaukee was experiencing a deep reckoning back home. And playing alongside the Milwaukee Bucks, which protested a game following the police-involved shooting of Jacob Blake, added a weight that brought Nicols to a halt. Nicols remembers watching the coverage unfold on TV and breaking down in tears behind her mask.

“No matter what I was going through or how I was feeling, I wanted to be the best I could possibly be and to stand up with these incredible players and support them in any way possible,” Nicols said. “That’s something I will carry with me for the rest of my entire life.”

As a proud gay woman, Nicols also wanted to use her newfound platform to inspire all people to “show up as themselves.” She followed the Bucks’ championship series by performing at the All-Stars game, opening for Lizzo at Summerfest, and headlining Pridefest. Music is one of the few things that bring people together, she said.

But living through the pandemic also shifted her perspective on life after DJing. Nicols said she is aiming to create something “bigger than herself.” Outside of regular performances, she volunteers for hunger alleviation causes, raises money for people experiencing homelessness, and is slowly easing into music production, motivational speaking, and content creation as she eyes her purpose beyond the booth.

Last year, she also released her first original song, “I Won’t Give Up.”

“I love playing music for people [because] it brings people together on so many levels,” Nicols said. “But hopefully I can share my story and it will inspire you to take that light that you have inside of you and make it bigger. My goal is to make this space feel like all of ours. That’s what keeps me going.”

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