We Belong: Q + A with Dee Torrell

A Conversation with DJ and Musician Dee Torrell

Hello, my name is Dee Torrell. I am currently a DJ at WYXR FM 91.7 Memphis. 

I host the show called We Belong every Sunday afternoon at 4:00pm CST. 

When did you start working with WYXR? 

I started at WYXR during the first week of its broadcast in October 2020. So, I was among the first set of DJs to bring the station in. It was during the pandemic, so we were also socially distanced, even in the training sessions. I was a DJ before WYXR, among other things.

When did your DJ career start?

I started in 1987 at a country station called WAKM in Franklin, TN. It was an experience because I was only 16 at the time. I was at seven other radio stations before I started at WEVL, and that was my Memphis introduction in 2000. I started a Friday morning radio show called Modern World. It was basically 80s music and all the music I loved. So, when WYXR started and I was asked to be on the show, I had no idea what I was going to do. I wasn’t going to do the same thing that I did at WEVL. It was suggested I introduce myself as an LGBTQ+ DJ. I wanted to involve the entire show around the LGBTQ+ community and serve as an introduction for others outside the community. I realized that most of the music that I liked in the past year, not knowing what their actual background was, was all queer. My favorite artists for the previous two years have been Angel Olsen, Caroline Rose, and another artist named Nakhane.

Dee Torrell holds a record in the WYXR studio.
Studio photo courtesy of Chellie Bowman

You started broadcasting at a very young age. What sparked that desire?

I’ve grown up with the fact that I was connecting with the DJs on the radio stations when I was a child. I used to collect charts. I was always trying to find out every single song that ever hit the charts, just to see how they’re reacting to something, and to see if I share that experience. So with radio, that was the next logical step to take. I spent probably about 14 years doing radio as my career. The most fun I’ve ever had was on the stations that were listener supported stations or ones that had a very creative outlook on the programming. WRLT in Nashville and WEVL were both wonderful experiences. I was also a music director of WUTK in Knoxville for five years.

Where does the name of your show, We Belong, originate?

“We Belong” is a song I first heard in 2017 by Namoli Brennet. She’s been around for 20 years, and it hit me, I did not realize that she was a trans artist. She’s actually kind of grown her entire career, so you can actually hear the transitioning happen. The growth of a personal spirit. And the song “We Belong,” I call it the LGBTQ+ Anthem. It’s one of the few songs where it just sinks in how happy I could be just being myself and no longer hiding. Of course, my coming out was in 2015, so it still means a lot to me. And that’s the theme song we play on the show. 

And you pretty consistently play new music on your show, is that right? 

Yes, it’s always a learning experience, and I always love pushing myself to find new music and artists I am not familiar with. Being in touch with the community, I learn more about what people’s favorite artists are and what people like to do. I also bring people onto the show to talk about different things in the community, including community outreach and, in fact, legal issues. It started back in 2021. We had a whole panel of LGBTQ+ related legal advice. It all led up to this year with the anti-trans/drag law, when they passed it. We had people on the show discussing their involvement with it. That also included the protests that we had last year. So we broadcast it to talk about it and really learn more about what we need to do. But the station is music first–but all different kinds of music. Primarily, I was trying to find new releases and also purchase new music going through Bandcamp, finding artists that don’t have exposure on the radio stations. It’s looking at what songs should be charted somewhere and they’re not. And it’s the most brilliant music out there.

Rainbow colored record graphic of We Belong With Dee 91.7 FM with yellow background and white bubble with text that reads Sunday 4PM WYXR inside
Photo courtesy of Dee Torrell and WYXR FM 91.7 Memphis

You play a wide variety of music. How do you determine what is played on your show?

I didn’t know the exposure of these artists, because we were not hearing them on other stations. So when a concert featuring an artist like Orville Peck, an artist that I’ve been playing since the beginning of the show, comes into town and sells out, I’m amazed. I wasn’t sure how many people would really love this music. So the music itself has become more popular, even in the last 2-3 years. I do dig back to old music too. I will throw on Cole Porter, a lot of Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone. I played her once and people asked, “Wait a minute, why are you playing this?” I’m like, yes, she had been in the closet until a certain point of her career. A lot of these artists who weren’t open back then had to slowly come out, even Luther Vandross never came out officially. There were many of us in the music industry, but we were not able at the time to come out and really reveal our true selves. So everything that was unfortunate back then is finally being brought forward, and I love to touch on the history of that. We do talk about history on the radio, and I love the educational aspect of it and mixing it in with whatever’s new. Of course, I have to find some sort of easy transition between a song from 1937 and 2023. But with this music coming out, let’s broadcast. Let’s give it a place.  

You are a musician as well as a DJ. What bands are you currently working with?

I moved to Memphis in 1995 and probably started in bands here in 2004, and lately it’s just snowballed into multiple bands. I do have a solo project that I am currently writing and will be releasing. I am also in Screamer; Thalamus; J Robot; Obscured, a Cure cover band; and Blood, Graffiti, and Spit. I’m filling in for Joy Bomb and Mama Honey, and I also sometimes play with Kathy Zhou.

Could you talk more about Blood, Graffiti, and Spit? 

It was a project started by Holly Walnuts covering Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s a wonderful tribute, and I am very honored to have joined the band in May 2022. We have performed a few times, and then this year we performed on the big stage at Memphis Pride. It was probably the most exhilarating experience. To be with queerness, with everybody around me. 

How has living in Memphis affected your show?

I never expected this, coming out years ago. I never thought that I would amount to anything. We have progressed. Memphis has been wonderful. The community has been wonderful. Memphis also has quite a strong ally community. Which is surprising, being in the US South. It’s a diamond in the rough. And I’ve had positive reactions with people who are conservative. They’ve been very loving and it’s not something you’d find everywhere else in the United States. Or around the world. 

I think a big part of that too, is education and exposure.

Yeah, and just being around somebody, whether or not somebody shares your beliefs. But if they know you, they have a stronger understanding. Maybe even stepping back on pushing any actual belief. Just because we’re feeling positive. We’re happier and they notice we’re happier. 

And we belong. 

And we belong.