As clubs become condos, Rebeka Dawn's parties remind Black Torontonians that celebration is ours too

Dawn is breathing life, love and inclusion into Toronto’s nightlife with a for-us-by-us ethos.

Dawn is breathing life, love and inclusion into Toronto’s nightlife with a for-us-by-us ethos

(Yannick Anton)

"I did it because I was fed up," says Rebeka Dawn to me over email, mapping out the motivation that drove her to her work. Two years ago, she started throwing parties. The first was at the Harlem Underground, one of the few well-known Black-owned establishments in Toronto. Then, she threw one more. And another. In a couple weeks, on June 9, Rebeka Dawn will be unveiling her fourth party series, dubbed #That Day Party. Joining in the ranks of her wildly successful, raved-about events — Rent, featuring the hottest songs of the moment; F*CK iT!, a Jamaican bashment series; and COZY, the '90s, early '00s throwback party of every 20-something-year-old's dreams — #That Day Party will be her first outdoor, summertime undertaking. And she's only getting started.

We don't have to be in wingtip shoes and dress shirts to make us — Black people, people of colour — enjoying our music acceptable. How you are isn't a threat.- Rebeka Dawn

With a background in stage management and collaborative events production, it was only a matter of time before Dawn began to curate her own festivities. In May of 2016, she threw her first official solo party. And while her parties are lauded as being some of the city's best, the impetus behind them was not all fun and games. "I was sick of seeing talented DJs, artists, and photographers go unpaid. I also wasn't a fan of the scene I was witnessing," said Dawn. "I didn't like how every venue I went to made me (and other Black girls like me) feel second-class and overlooked. I wanted a party where everyone felt like they were welcomed and actually wanted there — something that, in my opinion, was missing in most spaces spearheaded by non-Black people." And while #COZY is the specific party of Dawn's that encourages a casual, come-as-you-are air, that vibe extends itself far beyond it, across every party of hers.

Rebeka Dawn at the COZY one-year anniversary party at NEST in Toronto (Antonio Velarde)

Discrimination in nightlife is, by no stretch of the imagination, a new phenomenon. Particularly that faced by Black people (even more particularly, Black women), people of colour, queer and/or gender non-conforming peoples. And in Toronto, that's no different. (An extremely concise shortlist of bars and clubs with their own controversies: CODA, Monica's Bar, Wildflower.) The disappearance of venues in the city, too, comes with its own added ripple effect for already under served Torontonians. As the gentrification project in Toronto accelerates, the limited access to a pool of public spaces for Black people and other people of colour to congregate freely shrinks even further. How do we ensure that the last establishments standing are not falling into the same harmful traps of racism, sexism and unfounded phobias?

Dawn is ushering in a Torontonian return to spaces that prioritize a for-us-by-us ethos above all else.- Amani Bin Shikhan

"I think a lot of venue owners have preconceived notions and biases that fuel their choices, and that's not okay," stated Dawn plainly. "I can't tell you the number of venues I've reached out to and [have] just been flat out ignored by. Or [the number of venues who] once I specify my crowd, change attitudes. Concerns of violence [and other racialized stereotypes] automatically arise." But in two years of parties — remember: she throws multiple parties, at that — Rebeka Dawn has not had one issue at any of her parties. "I've never had an altercation, scuffle or close call. Not one." So the question remains: why is it still so hard to find space in the city?

(Yannick Anton)

The motions of racism are exhausting. Deep-set-in-the-bones exhausting. And in that sentiment is where Rebeka Dawn finds her purpose as a party planner. The problems we face are real —  "the current state of Toronto nightlife is… a lot," she told me, "it's a lot of loving Black music and culture, but leaving us out to wait in lines" — but there has to be something more. We have to be able to let loose and not be angry all the time, too. That's something Dawn believes in deeply. "It's important for me to erase all that bullshit and make going out about having fun again. We don't have to be in wingtip shoes and dress shirts to make us — Black people, people of colour — enjoying our music acceptable," she insisted, "How you are isn't a threat. What you're wearing isn't going to change your character."

It's clear that with her parties, Dawn is ushering in a Torontonian return to spaces that prioritize a for-us-by-us ethos above all else. She does, however, have her own set of rules that she reiterates every party eve. "The rules I apply to my parties are always centred around the same things: love, inclusion, safety and respect. I have an expectation of those that come to my events. That is, you come to genuinely enjoy yourselves. I don't believe that can happen with any malice in your heart. So, I remind people why we're partying, why we're coming together."

When asked what she thought of the future of Torontonian nightlife, Rebeka Dawn was not concerned with the bacchanal; instead, her resolve grew stronger. "It's really hard to say. All I know is [that] I will be here, creating spaces for us to celebrate ourselves for as long as it's needed."


Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer and producer interested in culture, tradition, and memory, among other things.