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Acclaim Digital Cover 002: Venus X

The most punk DJ shaman in the world, New Yorker Venus X speaks on why the club is no different to the church, and breaks down her mission to normalise everybody.

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Photography: Lekhena Porter

NYC based, Latinx DJ Venus X is the founder of GHE20G0TH1K. Established in 2009, it’s considered one of the most revolutionary underground parties to ever hit the global club scene. You can spot Venus X in early A$AP Rocky music videos—look for the girl with the green hair in ‘Peso’—and her signature hood-goth style was rumoured to be jacked by Rihanna in 2014. In response, she considered closing down GHE20G0TH1K as an act of protest against the music industry’s customary practice of appropriating subcultures. But GHE20G0TH1K continues to thrive in 2019, having now amassed a loyal discipleship around the world, and after spending a mind-expanding hour and a half with Venus X, it’s not hard to see why.

When I arrive at the warehouse for Venus’s photoshoot she’s smiling and making jokes. She seems overwhelmingly familiar, which of course is a function of her fame—DJ superstar and activist sister with a community that extends to Hood By Air and M.I.A. She looks punk, albeit a very beautiful punk of colour that likes hip-hop and has floral shoulder tattoos, pink hair, and fluro sneakers. If she said she was 20 you wouldn’t doubt her—she’s 32—and her aesthetic feels like an amalgamation of the people that attend her events, where local club kids are seen mixing with renowned stylists.

But the reason I admire Venus X is because she’s more than just another DJ trying to throw a cool party for the sake of ego and hedonism—her mission feels akin to that of a spiritual leader. It’s a form of resistance when marginalised people simply experience joy, because we live in a world that often breaks the spirit of those who deviate from the cis-white-heteronormative standard. 

Even so, it’s hard to know what to ask a famous DJ, not unlike the difficulty (I imagine) of being a famous DJ answering the same tedious set of questions. The first thing she says to me, as the hairstylist ties 90s Bjork-esque knots into her hair, is “Are you interviewing me? Ask me something no one has asked me before—ask me about DJing and shamanism!” We hit it off immediately.

Venus! I first read about you and GHE20G0TH1K in 2013, and I totally mimicked you. I thought, “There isn’t this in Brisbane!” and ended up throwing the first alt-queer parties in my hometown outside of the normative gay sphere. Who or what inspired you to throw your first GHE20G0TH1K party in New York?
Amazing! Thank you. My first GHE20G0TH1K party was definitely inspired by a lack of representation for my own interests. I was definitely what people called “queer” at the time.

Did you feel there was a lack of representation even in New York?
Yes, specifically the demographics that are serviced in nightlife often exclude people of colour, even when they are extremely politically radical. People of colour aren’t allowed to be that kind of gay that white people are allowed to be, or the kind of punk that white people are allowed to be. Or the kind of artists in visual media that white people are allowed to be. There’s all this prescription for what alternative, black and Latino culture is, and very little of that is actually black and Latino. It’s more appropriation of white culture or assimilation into white culture.

Nowadays clubbing is very white, commercialised and mainstream.
I was like, “My brand of lifestyle doesn’t have a space for other people to convene in.” And, you know, GHE20G0THIK started as a 70 person event at a bar, once a month, when I didn’t know how to DJ. The irony was that I had been in an abusive relationship and they were part of my trajectory.

I’ve dealt with it through music, but [I] know [they were] a part of my trajectory of building the space. So it was interesting, because they were directly involved with me healing myself from the things I didn’t even at the time understand, nor their transgressions against me because we were friends. At that time I was also heavily addicted to alcohol and drugs. So, I had a relationship to them that didn’t allow me to protect myself, so I thought it was my fault.

That’s how abusive relationships often happen. You look back once you’ve become stronger and realise that it was legitimately fucked. DJing and party throwing restores that confidence, right?
It does. It’s a really unique experience to learn how to play music and to be able to connect with that many people at once on any given night of your life. I only realised six months in that I was working with my abuser, when I had already become autonomous enough with GHE20G0THIK and also with my DJ skills.

It was around that time that Facebook and Instagram really took off. That’s when discourse was being formed online around abuse and power imbalances.
I was able to create a sense of community through Facebook and through the parties. I was able to say “I need this space. I need to be around people who think like me, who like the type of music that I like, want to dress like me.” And those people happen to be very talented people like Shayne from Hood by Air, House of Ladosha, Total Freedom, and Nguzunguzu. People that would go on to become definitive of our community and of our style and our sound and everything.

Does it bother you that people like myself have mimicked GHE20G0THIK?
I think we’re all entitled to be individuals and sadly, there’s a prescription that enables us to just consume more. That’s why there’s so many specific kinds of personalities, and they limit and marginalise people who are interested in what I created as a formula for self determination. So, it doesn’t bother me when people mimic what I’m doing, because it’s a formula to figure out who you are, to create spaces where people are genuinely free, where everyone can party, not just queer people. See several people who want to transition into a spectrum of possibility. That is the point. Or gay people who want to transition into other parts of their self that may identify on the outside of the norm.

But, the point is that it’s always changing. You don’t control who you love. You don’t control your future, you don’t control anything, really. So it’s like, why are so many guided experiences about control and about basically policing our growth and policing our identities? My point is just break all of that shit down. Break the prison system down, because whether you’re in a jail or you’re in this life, you’re in a prison, and it’s an institutional system that is pretending like you have freedom, when in reality it’s going to punish you for being alternative in any way, shape, or form.

Historically, clubbing has provided a safe space for those who deviate from the norm such as queer, gender non-conforming, black, and LatinX people. But there are many ways we can gather in a space. So, why clubbing? What do you think is so special about clubbing itself to these communities?
I think there’s two things about clubbing to think about. Think about the semantics of the word ‘club’, right? It’s a group of people that connect on an idea. Whatever it might be—maybe music that they like, the aesthetics, the way that they’re living, or whatever it is. It could be a biker club, a poetry club, anything. So it’s a collaboration of spirits who align on some point. But, the two things that happen in a club that are special, are [firstly] that it usually happens in the dark.

And second, it usually happens in large groups. So it has both [the] aesthetics of mystery, and [an] inability to judge because you don’t know who the person next to you is, that’s unless light shines on them. Smoke, lights, large crowds, so anonymity. When you get a group of more than 50 people together, you start to see double. You can’t figure out who’s who, or you can’t find your friend anymore, right? Those three factors—human connection, mystery, and the ability to decrease judgment through the dark in large groups of people has the effect of essentially creating what I would call a new spirituality, or a new religion.

Do you think that’s what most people who go clubbing are having trouble with these days—connecting to religions from the past because they don’t reflect modern ideals?
[Nods] Exactly. The club is the place to restore your belief in something, even if it’s just your friends and yourself, and the way it feels to dance. It’s a very misguided community sometimes for a lot of people because they don’t understand the power of that. But that’s why it works too.

“My point is just break all of that shit down. Break the prison system down, because whether you’re in a jail or you’re in this life, you’re in a prison, and it’s an institutional system that is pretending like you have freedom, when in reality it’s going to punish you for being alternative in any way, shape, or form.”

But they’re tuned into it unconsciously.
Yes! Then in those spaces, if you’re consistent, you can incubate new ideas, which is what we tried to do. So, it became culty because whether it’s 75 people or 150 people, or 500 people or 2,000 people, the consistency in 10 years, in us remaining friends through all the ups and downs, the community that we formed takes care of each other, there is an ecosystem and [it’s] not just money and opportunities for jobs, but also ideas and feelings too. We cultivate really healthy feelings in our space.

The people that I work with, I love them, they’re my family. And I wouldn’t change them. I wouldn’t trade them out for somebody who can sell more tickets. I just don’t care. That is our church. And that’s the only church that accepts every part of us. So, that’s why I think clubs work. And that’s why I think, in the last 100 years or so, nightlife has been so important to human beings. Society needs to accept the fact that religion is no longer the place where they can align with others. It’s actually a place where they’re pretending.

I agree that it’s about something deeper—it’s more spiritual. Do you think there’s an inverse relationship between the secularisation of our culture and the increase in people going out and clubbing?
Yes. It’s almost always a political response, but it’s also a spiritual response to what’s going on around us—there’s a tension between religion and the club. Literally. There’s no difference. The power of the club is akin to the power of church and the Bible.

Do you think of yourself as a shaman, or is that too overtly spiritual for you?
People need to stop being afraid of divine power, regardless of where it comes from. Absolutely, I recognise my divine power, to shift consciousness and shift, rewrite, and deconstruct, then reconstruct narratives, while I DJ.

Everything I play has a narrative whether it’s a sonic narrative that comes through drums, or it’s a verbal narrative that comes through language. Or it’s a complete narrative that comes through both. It has a narrative, and so I never stray from playing music unless it is specifically, like homophobic or specifically racist. Music that is misogynistic is everywhere, because misogyny and patriarchy are everywhere. I can’t help that but what I can do is deconstruct it. It’s part of my personal narrative, my personal identity.

I grew up in the hood. I grew up in the ghetto. I do get to have a dialogue with the thing that I deal with every day, which is, men looking at me, men catcalling me, men assuming that I should be somebody’s wife, because I’m cute. I don’t want to avoid those conversations and only play queer rap, and only play rap made by women, when my world is forcing me to hear and deal with this narrative of misogyny and no one is deconstructing it for me.
I’m also not going to the club just to play what’s hot. Yes, I like what’s hot, because I’m influenced, and I’m participating in my culture. But I’m also questioning some of the things that are at the core of these narratives. I’m doing that in a way that is… what’s the word I’m looking for? In a way that is…

Life affirming?
No—it’s flirtatious. It’s like me saying, like, I know, you’re [a] straight, black man who wants to find the girl of his dreams and have a family, but I can seduce you into participating in this experience.

[Laughs] And that’s shamanism! Magic. You’ve mysteriously induced a change in someone’s reality.
Totally! It’s a form of questioning. So my goal is not just to create safe spaces. It’s actually to create spaces where everyone is invited, because the reality is that yes, I’m a woman of colour who identifies on all versions of possibility on the sexual spectrum, period. And also gender. Like, I don’t care, you know, some days I wear no makeup, some days I wear baggy pants, I don’t really care and I don’t think about it, like, “Oh, my god, you know, I’m doing this, because of that.” I do what’s comfortable for me.

That’s why the club is so important because in that space, when I defined the rules, you break them and you’re out. So, don’t break them if you want to keep coming back here. And learn to get along with your brothers and sisters, learn to get along with their ideals, learn to get along with their ways of dressing, their ways of fucking, their ways of dancing. Their ways of everything.

“There’s no difference. The power of the club is akin to the power of [the] church and the Bible.”

That’s the power of these spaces. The aim is that the culture gets disseminated into the mainstream as norms, eventually.
Yes! I also try to create a temptation or a seduction so that people understand that it’s okay to want pleasure. Regardless, of where it comes from. The reason why you worry about where it comes from is because you worry about what someone else prescribed you for your success. Choose to do whatever the fuck you want.

But if I don’t create that space that is absolutely open to all, and centres around specifically people like me, and people who need, you know, this space centred around it, but it’s not limited and exclusive, then the fact is, I can’t create a sustainable economy where we can survive, and I can’t even get the visibility that validates us to the world that we’re fighting. That’s the whole point. We can’t create exclusive communities that are just for people of colour, just for gay people. We don’t have enough resources inside of our community, to be able to validate ourselves outside. So we have to have a conversation.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming DJs who are politically aware, but feel conflicted when offered opportunities to work with large music and media corporations owned by the conservative elite? Lately I feel so anti-corp, but the truth is I can see both sides and am experimenting in both spaces.
This is a conversation we need to have. Large events funded by these corporations really merge communities, and need that visibility and need those resources. So you know what, don’t not get paid. Don’t not work with these systems. Continue to call them out, continue to challenge them. They will continue to pay you, because they need you more than you need them. Every time you perform for one of these companies, every time you go out there and do those interviews, you’re going to get a kickback of that exposure, those kids are going to start following you.

Numbers do matter, because I control what gets put on my platform. I know that I’ve done everything in my power so that these very important formulas for space, specifically relational aesthetics, actually transform people’s lives and actually make it safer in the world. I spread them to as many people as possible.

The people that pay me more are usually the people that have more power and more access to people. So, yes! I do want to tour more. I do want to get paid more. I do want to play for bigger audiences. I do want more covers than magazines. I use the platform for good. When they ask me, bring a couple of friends, I bring a trans-woman, I bring a gay shaman DJ, I bring Total Freedom, I bring a makeup artist who specialises in object prosthetics because I want to normalise those things. We get to specifically define youth culture right now.

Reminds me of that Missy Elliott lyric, “Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang, just make sure you ahead of the game.”
A lot of people forget. Your politics don’t pay your bills. Your politics don’t get you health insurance. Your politics don’t help you, help your family, your politics don’t keep a roof over your head. Your politics are important and you should lead with them. But it’s a privilege to be able to just do everything that you align with. That is a privilege that most people of colour and most gay people don’t have.

I’m also not obsessed with these communities. But I am a part of them. I can’t choose to be Latina. I can’t just be half Latina like, that’s just what I am. I can’t choose, I can’t go back in time and undo the fact that I lost my virginity to a girl and I really enjoyed it. Like I can’t undo those things. But I hate being pigeonholed. All I’m trying to do is normalise, like, everybody. Period!

Same! I’m interested in marginalisation but my party is not heavily marketed as such anymore. I’ve always thought it’s about broadening the idea of normal and not asserting a “new normal” and excluding everything outside of that, which is what I see in the queer scene. It’s the same kind of oppressive process the white patriarchy uses.
It’s so sad. Like, “Oh no, we don’t want any straight women in here.” Well bitch, you’re gonna walk outside, and you’re gonna deal with a bunch of straight people, so you better teach them how to treat you. And the only place for you to do that is in your party. So even if they don’t take over, let some of them in so they can spread the message to their communities. I’m just gonna make a space where we can all get along. We can do what the fuck we want. Whether you want to come dressed in a suit, dressed as a school teacher, dressed as a dominatrix, or dressed as a clown. Everybody’s accepted here and I hope that everybody has a great time!

I would love this to be the best party on Earth. Why? Because if this is the only place that you feel safe and loved—awesome! But guess what? It’s not gonna work if we’re just in a circle jerk. Masturbating with other people who already believe in the same things that we do. There is no challenge in that, there’s no transformation in that, there’s no real narrative in that—that is just masturbatory. It’s as simple as like you fucking yourself for the whole of your life and then saying, “Why didn’t I get a baby out of it?” Because you are fucking yourself you dumb-ass!”

You can follow Venus X here for more.

Words: Kōtare
graphy: Lekhena Porter
Hair & Makeup: Tallulah Mclean
Styling: Kurt Johnson

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