By Lillian Lema
When he was 7 years old, Richard “Juma” Ogweta recognized he had a deeper love for music than most people he knew. At the time he was living in Sudan but his older brother had emigrated to the U.S., and fed his younger brother’s passion by sending CDs of hip-hop artists. In the fall of 1999, Ogweta, who was to become known as DJ Onax just a few years later, moved to Portland with his two sisters and uncle. His mother and younger sister joined them two years later, making the family complete again. Fast forward to 2003, to a house between Front Street and Washington Avenue, where a crowd filled the basement-storage-space-turned-dance floor. DJ Onax recently recalled women moving their hips to the beat of the music. The men following. Hip-Hop, Afro beats, Latin sounds filling the room. The energy intensifying. Reading the crowd, 15 year-old Ogweta felt in control of the room. He knew the next hit that would satisfy the crowd. In effect, without fully knowing it, he was on his way to a career as a DJ.
Learning about music has been a lifelong pursuit. When he was living in Egypt, on his way to the U.S., his mother bought him a radio. That was when he added the sounds of Arabic music to his music memory repertoire. And every Thursday at midnight during that time, he would stay up late to watch an Arabic music channel that played international music. From this show he learned a bit of English. His mother didn’t mind these late nights because she knew listening to music was something he loved. “I used to write and [at the time] thought I was going to be a rapper, but I quickly realized that was not it,” he said with a laugh.
Once Ogweta was in Portland, his older brother wanted him to focus only on school and put his passion for music to the side. But although he tried to comply with his brother’s wishes, his itch to be a DJ remained. Whenever his older cousin, who already was pursuing a career as a DJ, did an event, the future DJ Onax was invited. “I looked up to him during the beginning of my career,” Ogweta said.
One night, his cousin hosted a basement party, and spread the word through flyers, text messages, and MySpace, which was the only social media platform at the time. During the party, the young man was given a golden opportunity to showcase his musical taste and style. “My cousin said he was going to the bathroom, and told me to take over,” he explained. “He took long … too long. Looking back, [I see] he did it on purpose, to let me do my thing.”
And from then on, although he would attend his high school classes and participate in sport practices afterwards, once he got home he would go to the basement and practice his DJ skills. While most teenagers filled their spare time with video games, he surrounded himself with his DJ set: “I didn’t get tired [and go back upstairs] unless I was hungry!”
Eventually, when Ogweta needed an upgrade to his equipment, he decided to host basement parties of his own and charge an entry fee of $10. Although pricey for the time, people still came, and partied until dawn. “I wish we could go back [to that time for] one night only,” he said.
He also worked at his aunt’s Sudanese restaurant as dishwasher, server, and host. When he graduated from high school, he tried to convince his mother to be supportive of him taking a gap year, but did not succeed. He enrolled at Andover College, but after a year and a half, decided to return to his true passion.
By day he worked as a team lead at Paradigm Windows in Portland, and by night he tried to make a name for himself in local venues. Being under 21 kept him from getting in front of the right people in the right venues, but he didn’t take “no” for an answer even back then. Instead he found a way around the age problem. A well-known DJ referred him to the managers of Asylum, now known as Aura. The team there was impressed with his music selection and how the crowd responded to his charisma and beats. So they decided to bring him in the following weekend. But when the management learned his true age, they had no other choice but to let him go.
He continued playing basement parties, which was hard work, DJ Onax said, noting that many of the DJs he admired in his early days had to give up. They either left the profession behind or got into other sectors in the event industry. But he credits his work ethic and his humbleness to his early days of struggling to break into the scene. “It has influenced how hard and seriously I work now,” he said.
As he built his brand and credibility, DJ Onax had many doors slammed in his face. At first, age seemed to be the main factor. But once he turned 21, he realized that racial biases were also at play. “I witnessed white DJs start one night at a simple venue and by next weekend they were booked at a venue in the Old Port. … Like how? I knew many DJs who had more experience than them who couldn’t get [jobs in] the clubs they were DJing at … it was limited and very hard.”
But the crowds gathered when DJ Onax was at the table, and that spoke for itself. At Pearl, he was given the Thursday slot. Week after week, the place filled and by the third Thursday, one of the owners from Boston paid a visit to see the packed dance floor for himself.
“One weekend, a couple men in suits sat by the VIP area to watch my set. … Apparently, there was talk of giving me one of the weekend slots,” he recalled. But in short order one of them came over to say hip-hop wasn’t allowed. DJ Onax was shocked, since the hip-hop and club scene go hand in hand. “He told me, ‘No hip-hop because it attracts the wrong crowd,’ ” DJ Onax said.
Next came a two-year break. Moving wasn’t an option because by then he had a daughter, and wanted to live close by to help raise her. During his hiatus from the Portland scene, he was invited to DJ at out-of-state Sudanese events. “It took off and I was invited to go to Dallas, New York City, Arizona, Kansas City, and Tennessee,” he said.
Then in 2013, DJ Onax decided to give the Portland venue scene another go. “I was hopeful that things might have changed for the better. I missed it!” he said. Word spread and things started to take off. Together with a friend, he rented venue halls and hosted events. But then the unexpected happened: COVID-19.
“It was 2020. Everything shut down. Everything crashed,” DJ Onax said. And after lockdown, when things did open up again, crowds were small. “We didn’t do anything!” he said. Someone else – DJ Steady – contacted him in the summer of 2021, asking him to come DJ with him at The Yard. “As soon as I met the owner, it felt like we had known each other for a long time. He liked me, and he enjoyed what I was about.” he said.
His first night at The Yard was a success. The venue hosted a sold-out Fourth of July weekend event as. He continued at The Yard, and then one of his friends became a promoter for Aura, and DJ Onax began working there. Today his weekends are booked with private events, as well as gigs at places like Free Street and Citrus. For the duration of his work at The Yard, he dominated the crowd, keeping 400 people moving until closing time.
“I feel very blessed…I just keep moving forward,” he said.
DJ Onax urges aspiring young DJs to work hard. “Always be a go-getter. I know many great DJs who are too lazy to grind,” he said, adding that focusing on goals is important, and avoiding all negativity and distraction. “And when doors close, and people say ‘no,’ “just go and create your own event.”
“Now I don’t host my own shows anymore. They book me! Not bad for someone who used to play out of his mom’s basement. I think this life has chosen me,” he said.