She Dares: DJ Shawna on basketball, clichés, and dance parties

Cory Ampe • Milwaukee

Shawna Nicols is better known in Milwaukee as DJ Shawna. If you’ve attended a Bucks or Badgers game, you’ve cheered for your hometown team with her. If you’re a Pride Fest regular, you probably danced with her. And if you caught the Lizzo show at Summerfest last year, you warmed up with her. Shawna has a knack for taking center stage yet her generous spirit brings everyone along for the ride.

Shawna’s day job is quite possibly the most fun gig in the state. She is the official DJ of the Milwaukee Bucks, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, and NCAA Women’s Basketball. Her professional goals: to make you happy, to get you jumping, and motivate even the fuddiest of duds to join her non-stop pep rally. He pedigree is impressive. As a former professional point guard turned DJ, there are few people better suited for her job—although no doubt, many wish they could do what she does.

It’s not just her resume that makes her click. Shawna has a sparkle and intensity about her. Her daily routine includes sharing positive affirmations with her many social media followers, which is why she describes herself as a “walking cliche.” It’s true; she’s so publicly positive, that one might be tempted to question her sincerity. But Shawna is the real deal. She believes in you. She really wants you to be your best self and live your best life. It’s her mission. She doesn’t even need to know you. Clichés, aside, Shawna is 100 percent unique when it comes to how she amplifies her message. Sure, she’s a social influencer, but It’s a harmonious blend of basketball and music that gets her message out to her audiences.

“For me, one of the coolest things I bring to the table is my history as a professional point guard. Like basketball, when I’m DJing, I call the shots. I control the tempo,” she says. “Whether I’m helping Giannis warm-up or welcoming guests to the Forum with music, I aim to make people happy. I wanted that when I was a player, too. I gotta say, pushing play on Jump Around and experiencing 80,000 fans shake Camp Randall...there’s nothing like that level of happiness.”

When she’s not in the arena, Shawna is managing her clothing line and interviewing guests for her podcast, both branded Dare to Be. Shawna is also frequently tapped to serve as emcee for a variety of business and community events. If that’s not enough, she’s the author of a published children’s book titled The "Adventures of Bob and Downtown Milwaukee," which benefits Key to Change, a non-profit organization helping to end chronic homelessness.

Chip off the block

Shawna is a force in Milwaukee in her own right. But it’s interesting to witness people connect the dots when they realize who her mother is. Shawna is a second-generation Milwaukee champion. She is the daughter of Beth Weirick, the much-loved CEO of Milwaukee Downtown. Weirick, a true pillar of the community, has led the downtown business improvement district for more than 20 years. She’s also one of the founders of Key to Change. It’s no surprise who Shawna credits as her professional and personal inspiration.

“My mom. That’s an honest answer,” replies Shawna. “I’m extremely fortunate to have Beth Weirick as my mom and best friend. I’ve been incredibly lucky to grow up under the guidance of a stubborn, passionate, driven woman. Her amazing work always makes our city shine. I’m seriously so impressed with her leadership through this pandemic. She's making some really difficult decisions.”

I control the tempo.

The greater the obstacle

Shawna and Beth are no strangers to perseverance. In 2017, Shawna lost her step-dad Joe Weirick to a short, hard-fought battle with cancer. They were closer than many stepdads and daughters. Shawna’s love for Joe is evident. His signature is tattooed on her forearm. When asked about it, a giant smile floods Shawna’s face. Another Milwaukee proponent, Joe was a prominent commercial real estate developer who played an instrumental role in establishing Milwaukee's River Walk. He also helped re-imagine and revitalize the Shops of Grand Avenue in 2000.

Joe’s legacy continues to serve as a guiding light for both Beth and Shawna. He was the inspiration for "Adventures with Bob", which was a project hatched as a surprise for Shawna’s mom. “After losing someone like Joe, your whole perspective changes,” said Shawna. “I don’t want to misquote my mom, but she says she is strong now so that she can help others through hardship like the Coronavirus crisis. She wants to give back to those who were strong for her when she lost Joe.” Shawna is clearly cut from the same cloth as her mom.

Unfortunately, loss wasn’t a new experience for Shawna. She learned about perseverance early in her athletic career.

Her foray into basketball was the stuff of dreams. Shawna graduated from Pius High School where she won three state titles and was the 2000 Gatorade Wisconsin Player of the Year. Her success earned her a basketball scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Shawna was recruited by legendary Wisconsin head coach Jane Albright, who delivered the good news in person.

Shawna excelled as a Badger, but basketball is tough on the body. After her seventh concussion, Shawna was medically redshirted. “My world came crashing down on me. It was really hard. I had to figure out what to do next. They had to put a seat belt on me. I understand more now as an adult than I did as a 19-year-old kid,” admits Shawna.

Moving on for Shawna doesn’t look like it does for most people. She realized she needed a new life plan, but she wasn’t willing or ready to give up on basketball. She allowed herself time to physically and emotionally heal. Shawna graduated from Madison and enrolled in grad school at Bellarmine University in Louisville where she pursued her master’s degree in communications.

Because she never gives up, she also earned a spot on the basketball team. Doors were opened once again for Shawna, which gave her a shot of confidence and the gumption to fly to Germany for a European team tryout. Holland took note. Shawna achieved her dream: She was hired as the captain and starting point guard for team Celeritas Donar of the Dutch Basketball League.

“I loved who I got to be when I was no. 40 and stepped on that court. When I was in grad school, as a 26-year-old senior, and later as a pro—those days were my favorite. Despite losses or wins, I learned how the game works as entertainment. I had fun no matter what the scoreboard said,” describes Shawna. “I’m competitive and always want to win but I know I’m not the best player. In my first pro season, we lost the most games, but I had so much fun. That was a valuable lesson learned.”

Everybody dance now

Shawna didn’t take DJing seriously in the beginning. It was more of a casual interest, stealing her attention between ball games. Eventually, her avocation morphed into a passion, thanks to some encouragement and luck. For 10 years, as she held onto the hope of someday returning to basketball, her path intersected with a local DJ who saw her potential off the court. DJ Rock Dee mentored Shawna for two years. He knighted her as DJ Shawna. The timing was perfect. As her basketball career came to a close, Shawna’s DJ career took off.

“I love who I get to be as DJ Shawna. When I’m on stage, I’m more confident than in real life. I’m very awkward and shy in person. But DJing is the next best thing to putting on a basketball jersey,” she says.

Her segue from basketball player to DJ, to DJ for basketball didn’t just happen because it made sense. Like she’s always done, Shawna hustled. She wanted to DJ for the NCAA so she picked up the phone and made the coldest of cold calls. She had no “in.” But her willingness to take a risk and her unique experience got her the job. She met Lizzo the same way. Simply by sending an Instagram message to the star, whom she would later open for on a stage in front of thousands of fans.

A revolution of infectious beats

A predictable continuation of this story could be the tale of Shawna’s trajectory to fame. But nothing is predictable at the moment. We’re facing an epic viral outbreak of COVID-19 which, of course, abruptly halted basketball and parties and Shawna’s DJ gigs.

There’s a pattern in Shawna’s life that no virus can disrupt. True to form, Shawna isn’t simply coping with the government-mandated stay-at-home order, she’s reinventing her career despite it.

Only one week after we were collectively sent to our homes, Shawna was longing for music and crowds. She turned to Facebook Live to sneak-in a quick, somewhat covert, virtual dance party. Word spread more quickly than she anticipated. It turns out that a virtual dance party is a perfect remedy for cooped-up parents and kiddos. Shawna had stumbled upon a new way to make people happy, and it is quite possibly her most important job to date. “I looked at all the participation and feedback from everyone dancing and I just started crying,” she says.

The first dance party may have been happenstance, but she knew she was onto something good. Shawna first needed to solve a problem before trying again. You can’t stream licensed music on Facebook without buying the usage rights, which is cost-prohibitive for a solopreneur like Shawna. Determined to find a legal way to DJ virtually again, Shawna turned to her peer network for ideas.

“It took me two and a half weeks to find a legal way to do this. Now I’ve got it set,” she reports happily. “My brand is of a person who does what she says she will do. I feel fortunate to have a cool team that helped me figure this out.”

Fortunately, Shawna had an "in" with Andrew Haese, the young CEO of A100 Radio Network Milwaukee, which can be streamed via iHeartRadio. “Andrew is a brilliant college student. He allows me access to stream my dance parties legally. A100 was the perfect solution,” says Shawna optimistically. After a recent broadcast, Shawna was surprised to receive a load of praise from new fans in Japan.

“I want to add value right now. I’m inside and I want you to stay safe inside, too. People are sending me photos of them dancing with their kids, pets, chicken wings, and their laundry. We’re all dancing together at a time when we all need a little love.”

Credits & References

Keep up with DJ Shawna on her website or follow her on Instagram