This is for the women who love women, the men who love men, and all the people in between.”
Before an adoring crowd at Friends & Lovers, Maluca delivered these words before she took the mic once more. Closing out as the last live performer of the Brooklyn Pride afterparty Azucar Papi (a merging of the two parties, Azucar! – A Queer Latin Dance Party and Papi Juice), Maluca had taken us through a frenetic set, bouncing between her iconic merengue-rap-mambo club singles into flashes of her aggressive, melodic yet-to-be-released material.
Azucar Papi had already woven together distinct iterations of QTPOC fierceness: Princess Nokia praised her Puerto Rican roots; she sported some choice knee-high boricua flag-patterned socks as she led the room in a “qué bonita bandera” chant. Rapping her way through “Bikini Weather Corazón en Afrika,” this artist formerly known as Wavy Spice was joined by Club Yes sister and collaborator K Rizz, who almost stole everyone’s thunder in her turquoise lamé assless chaps. Earlier, Carioca bass diva Zuzuka Poderosa amped up the crowd as the first performer of the night, alongside her long-term collaborator Nego Mozambique. In between sets, DJs from all over the musical map kept the crowd dancing: Nenas Rudas (Precolumbian and I$LA), Oscar Nñ, Adam R., and False Witness.
Altogether, the sounds highlighted, celebrated, and complicated queer Latinidad. As photographer Cristobal Guerra described the scene, “You walk in and there’s folks voguing to a sick beat. Or all of a sudden everyone’s dancing to El General, or it’s 3:40 AM and everyone is singing along to a Selena remix. People are actually dancing and sweating and having an amazing time. The go-go dancers are not ripped white guys with pomade on their hair. There might be someone selling burritos or tamales at the party. There’s queers of color from all parts of the country and the world. The looks are the MOST.” Or, as Precolumbian puts it, “it feels like an amazing celebration of fabulous brown bodies.”
How did this scene come together? The answer is through a serious amount of long-term, intentional effort. Both behind the scenes as event producers and on stage as DJs, the individuals involved in creating Azucar Papi have invested several years in creating a nightlife space for self-defined identities and open-format musical selections. It’s hard work creating a safe space to wine yuh waist. Here, we break down how the most exciting thing happening in NYC Latino nightlife came to be.
The push to create these parties, in so many ways, arose out of necessity. When Ivette arrived to New York over four years ago with her partner Crystal, now also a co-organizer of Azucar, they found themselves seeking a space to listen to the music that they liked that was also a safe space for QPOC folks, and came up short. “We found Que Bajo?!, which was everything we wanted in terms of music…it was a safe space, but it wasn’t intentionally queer. That was the closest that we could find. We were living in Brooklyn and were like, if we could have something like Que Bajo?! that was intentionally queer, and a safe space, with great music– that would be really awesome. But we really couldn’t find something like that, so we realized that we had to create it.”
Thus, Azucar was born. An invitation from DJ Tikka Masala of the Bar-B-Queer parties gave them the space to start a Latin-focused party at One Last Shag; and last month, they celebrated the party’s three year anniversary there. Former manager of One Last Shag, Pepper (aka Fernando Cambeiro) also played a major role in welcoming QTPOC artists, both in giving them a consistent space to create their own parties and also the artistic freedom the develop the booking and aesthetics on their own terms.
“We really couldn’t find [the party we wanted], so we realized that we had to create it.”
In regards to Papi Juice, Oscar explains, “[the party] was born out of Adam and I’s [sic] frustration with the traditional gay male stasis, where there was sort of this lack of appreciation for men of color in particular, also for people of color’s aesthetics, sounds, musical tastes. We both felt that all of that was missing throughout our formative years. I think a big part of the coming out experience for men of color in traditional gay spaces, is that we often feel invisible in the mainstream gay culture. Nightlife, porn, mainstream media…now its getting a little bit better but like in the early 2000s, when I was going through puberty and in the beginning of college years, all I would see was pictures of white gay men.”
He continues, “From the early starts of Papi Juice we wanted to give out this vibe, of sort of like a little bit of nostalgia…there’s this word in Portuguese that I love, saudade, a longing for love, a longing for a certain someone, a longing for happiness…and for us, it was really important to start a party for all queer men of color to come in and have their beauty be actualized, have their beauty seen. Visibility was a really important part of this; it has been from the beginning. That’s why we have this Tumblr that we regularly update, and it’s just full of beautiful men of color. And that’s very important to us– seeing the images of these men, affirming their beauty, and affirming their sexuality as well but not in a fetishizing way. It’s intentional. I think people have picked up on Papi Juice…it’s because of its intentionality.”
This effort and care comes in at a community-wide level; it’s not just a platform for the artists to promote their own name and aesthetics. As Ivette elaborates, “Parties in a way can be self-indulgent for the organizers, but the way we like to approach our party is that it really is bigger than ourselves. And especially the first few years, we made it a point to never put our faces on the flyers or posters, it wasn’t about us, it’s about our community and we want to keep it that way. Even my decision to start DJing — though I’ve been learning for a few years now, I’ve been very hesitant to put myself behind the decks in a very visible space. It took me a while to have the confidence to do that and to realize that I can participate in more than just an organizing capacity. A lot of it is keeping that space open to new talent, and we always have rotating DJs, to make sure that people feel invested. I think the longevity of our party can also be attributed to that [fact], that our community does feel invested in our party and that they feel like it’s theirs just as much as it is ours. And we want to keep it that way.”
“It’s important that people find a place to feel like they’re at home.”
Hearing the organizers talk, it strikes me that nightlife is often overlooked as a critical social space for expression and collaboration. Being comfortable in the club deserves the same amount of emphasis as being comfortable at work, or any other social environment. Producer/DJ False Witness (aka Marco Gomez), who is a frequent guest at both parties, echoes this sentiment. “When I found this party I was really relieved and excited to know that people who don’t fall within a certain spectrum of personalities and identities have a place to go. When I go to regular club nights, that’s not necessarily the focus…people are ostracized out of the club or are not welcome in certain places like that. Nightlife is just as important a space as home life, work life– it’s important that people find a place to feel like they’re at home.”
For the last three years, Azucar has found a fixed home at One Last Shag in Bedford Stuyvesant/Clinton Hill, and the Papi Juice party followed suit when it debuted in 2013. At the time, the self-described “mod/tiki/70s dance floor/local watering hole” made sense for a fledgling party. However, the atmosphere has noticeably shifted over time, reflecting rapid gentrification and the challenges of creating a raging dance party in a narrow neighborhood bar with almost no dance floor to speak of. It’s times like these when the intention behind the party can get lost; people enter the space sometimes and don’t know what they’re walking into.
“One Last Shag isn’t a queer bar, it’s a neighborhood bar,” Ivette says. “As gentrification has really taken over the neighborhood, the face of the folks that walk into the bar has really changed. And it often creates tension. When there are folks that either don’t know the intention of the space, or do know, and still feel entitled to it anyway, and aren’t respectful…there have been moments when our friends have had drinks thrown in their faces, when a bro comes up to our DJs and tells them to change the music because they don’t get it.”
Oscar echoes Ivette, recalling a number of occasions that people have entered the bar only to take up a lot of space, both physically and emotionally, rather than checking their privilege. “One month we were going through a polar vortex in New York, so we had a party called Papi Vortex, and that night was really hard…we had two people come up to the DJs that night, harassing them…this white dude came up to me and was like, ‘Can you play some Biggie, man?’ and I was like alright fine, I honored his request…then he yelled every word of the song, like no one in the bar could hear or enjoy the song because he was just yelling. He felt entitled to start screaming at me across the bar, at 10:30 PM, yelling at me that I wasn’t playing any music that he liked. I was like, get out– if you don’t like it, get out. This is a one of a kind space tonight. You, a white straight male, can go into any other shitty bar you want and you’ll be fine, you’ll be safe. This space wasn’t really created with you in mind; you’re very most welcome to stay here, and enjoy it, and be happy and dance and you can make out with a papi, but this is the one night where folks like me can come in and feel good about themselves.”
The challenges of finding an inclusive space are complicated. While the crews are rooted in particular neighborhoods and spaces, the natural expansion of the parties also lend to experimentation with communities that share cultural ties, such as Papi Juice’s objective of throwing a party in Queens, or Azucar’s 2013 collaboration for label and collective Dutty Artz’s six-year anniversary at Tammany Hall. In order to keep the intention of the space clear, however, there are consistent elements that lend to promising a certain level of control. As Oscar puts it, “We trust that the guest DJs that come through are DJs from our community a lot of the time, and it’s also people that have reached out to us explicitly or have been coming to our parties and have supported Papi Juice for awhile– we notice that. We always feature people from the community because we want to give other people that outlet as well, and empower them. It’s all very real, it comes very naturally; it’s all kind of homegrown, and family based.”
For Azucar and Papi Juice organizers, the identity politics attached to music are just as important as delivering dance-floor bangers – and that outlook is reflected in the people they book to play their parties. Ivette explains, “I think that tropical-based music and music of the global South carries lot of responsibility around representation of our communities, and pairing that with identity politics. It’s representing our cultures and our communities, not just a music aesthetic. It has been appropriated and exploited… So its important to celebrate where this music is coming from, what history it carries with it…I think it’s just being unapologetically political, for lack of a better term, and being really vocal about our intentions.”
“It’s representing our cultures and our communities, not just a music aesthetic.”
Precolumbian (aka Chaska), a Philly-based DJ/organizer who recently joined Azucar as an official resident, has years of experience holding down the long-running Cut/Paste party and freshly-hatched Selena global bass parties. On the care that goes into booking, Chaska explained, “I’m really conscious about how who we book or collaborate with is going to affect the vibes of what I’m doing. And to who’s benefit would it be– more the community that’s queer or trans, who don’t have access to a lot of spaces, or to these straight people who will sometimes get more credit for collaborating with gay folks. For instance in Philly, a lot of the gay media won’t cover our event, because its too WOC, too poor WOC doing the event…but whenever we’ve booked straight artists who they like, they’ve totally covered our party. So in that respect it’s like, who is it really for? Is it really gonna be [good] for me and my community, or is it giving more credit to these straight people who are like willing to collaborate with gay folks?”
She elaborates, “I try to be very, very conscious…and the same thing happens in global bass where you have poor artists of color in the global South collaborating with these European or American DJs, and who really gets more of the credit?”
The residents DJs are aware of their role in bridging digital and hyper-local urban concepts, as in the case of Azucar’s “Gothic Cumbia” event with Cutn Paste, which playfully weaved together “brujeria beats” and “doombow.” But they also make nods to their personal histories; Chaska and Ivette reference the ska and rockabilly culture from their upbringing in Washington DC and Orange County scenes respectively; Adam R.’s pays homage to old school house music; Oscar incorporates merengue classics “El Baile del Perrito” and “El Venado” as staples in his sets. This multiplicity of self-expression also extends to their invited DJs, such as guests D’hana exploring a mix of hard house, Caribbean sounds, and vogue beats, or Ushka connecting sounds and communities of the global South through her perspective as a Sri-Lankan born, Thailand-raised, Brooklyn-living migrant.
In a time where nostalgia is king, the crew plays with creative renderings of of the past. Shomi Noise, who was resident at Azucar until recently, now hosts a new event series called Telenovela that links old school baladas, cumbias, rancheras, and more to bridge “songs from novelas and family gatherings that somehow found a special place to live in our subconscious.”
Setting the stage with this amount of care also creates space to push the conversation forward for cultural production, designating a safe place not only to gather and party but also to experiment. For example, Marco Gomez explores (in his words) “juxtaposing genres of music, creating new fantasy worlds where a nightclub like Berghain in Berlin would find a new home in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, transporting that aggressive, industrial style of music to a different space.” In his case, he’s found the parties to be “a unique testing ground for new material that I’m creating…the fact that one of the songs I heard on my very first night at Papi Juice was a song that I’d made that I thought was very experimental at the time (“Baile Tra,” a collaboration with Rizzla). The fact that it was being played, and was being received very well, was massively encouraging to know that I could keep moving forward, testing the limits of what’s acceptable in dance music culture.”
These spaces, perhaps, are creating the backbone of something that’s growing into a larger movement of artists and organizers dedicated to bringing each other up, and to helping artists experiment and fine-tune their work. As Marco puts it, “while I’m figuring out my own work, I’m helping other people who haven’t necessarily had those options, especially WOC and other QTPOC, so that they can start taking up that conversation and producing work so they get the attention, privilege, and respect that they deserve…there’s a whole spectrum of people in the world that deserve that amount of credit, and I think it’s time to start waking those kids up, reminding them that they can aspire to get this sort of stuff.”
Photography and consistent art direction also plays an important role in growing community around the party, which found an immediate reaction on-and-offline as soon as it was introduced a few parties in. When artist Mohammed Fayaz came on board to design the custom illustrations and flyers to promote the party, as well as Cristobal collaborating as photographer, the party took off exponentially thanks in part, Oscar believes, “that people are just really excited to see themselves. Traditionally, maybe going to another gay party, they probably wouldn’t have been photographed, it happens to me all the time. Even to this day, I go out, and not that I’m like trying to get photographed or anything, but you know, you notice these things. After so long you notice it’s either like they’re taking my picture because I’m a brown gay male and it’s kind of exciting, or they don’t take my picture at all.”
This online presence has gotten attention beyond New York City. After a recent trip to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest, Ivette linked with the folks at Queer Cumbia en Tejas, who had reached out to the Azucar crew in the past asking for support while they launched their own event series. “We find that it’s more productive and it’s better for the community as a whole to be open to collaboration and to supporting each other,” Ivette says. “We get messages all the time from folks that are trying to start parties like Azucar in other places, and that’s really exciting to us; that we can be some sort of model for queer folks and people of color in other places that want to do similar things. The more visibility they have, the more visibility we have, and that’s really empowering.”
“When we first started Azucar, we didn’t know what kind of response we would get. We had a really great immediate response, but I don’t think we could have imagined the level of response we’re getting now. Even during the winter the party is packed and there’s lines out the door; it’s been really wonderful to see so much community support around Azucar and I think people really appreciate it for the intentional QPOC space that it is. We have people coming up to us all the time saying telling us that they met their partner at Azucar, or got engaged at Azucar– it’s a community space more than just a dance party.”
“For me, to be honest, this is actually very emotional,” Oscar discloses. “I think it started off as a little bit selfish for me, because I was looking to create a space for myself. I wanted to play my music. It just so happened that it managed to touch other people as well, and those other people told their friends, and those friends told their friends…that’s how are where we’re at right now, through word of mouth. I’m always so, so thankful…at least once a party, someone comes up to me to say, ‘I can’t believe this exists;’ ranging from ‘I’ve never felt so at home,’ to ‘I’ve been looking for this my whole life.’ For me, that’s everything.”