Arts

Vancouver's women and nonbinary DJs are battling the juggernauts of gentrification and intolerance

"When people need something to reach for, we can be that hand on the other end."

'When people need something to reach for, we can be that hand on the other end'

Softie Shan. (Kezia Nathe)

Vancouver is in the midst of a rent crisis deeply affecting its music and arts spaces. It's a city with a tiny and sparse Black population, about 1.2 per cent according to the 2016 census. And it's also a city with an underground scene that hasn't always considered its Black contributors.

Despite all this, collectives like Nuzi — run by Betty Mulat, a.k.a Venetta, and Samira Warsame, a.k.a Zam Zam — have coalesced to fill a void. Along with others, they throw events that double as both fun parties and therapeutic meeting places for Black people to be together.

Ever threatened by "renovictions" — landlords evicting tenants under the guise of conducting renovations on the building — Vancouver is losing venues at a rapid rate. The rising rent crises that are afflicting venues farther east in Montreal and Toronto are nothing compared to the beast Vancouver artists are grappling with.

Nonetheless, Black women and nonbinary DJs share how they remain hopeful, the gravity of the work they're doing and how, in true DIY fashion, they've cultivated a community that did not exist before.

'Renovictions'

It can be fairly bleak for newcomers on the scene to have such slim pickings for venues. The nightclub Index was one crucial space that shuttered this year when development company Low Tide Properties evicted them abruptly in February. Owned by Chip Wilson (founder of lululemon athletica), Low Tide has a public goal of owning 1.5 billion in Vancouver real estate by 2026 and is buying up properties across east Vancouver.

Low Tide also owns the building that previously housed Red Gate Arts Society and evicted them in 2018. Thankfully, they were able to reopen on Main Street.

"When it comes to gentrification, he's really at the top of the ladder," says Mulat. "He's playing a huge role in why the nightlife is dying."

Betty Mulat and Samira Warsame. (Marv Houngbo)

Industrial areas on the east side of Vancouver are being repurposed by condo developments, and independent venues just can't compete. For Mulat and Warsame, Red Gate and Index were integral spaces to get their party off the ground. Index in particular provided allyship, waived some booking fees to make things affordable and "offered the space without expecting some sort of praise or public shoutout."

They say they're now down to two venues where they can host their after-hours parties. At the time of interviewing, Warsame mentioned two weekends in a row where there were no events scheduled.

"I don't know what we're going to do anymore or where we're going to throw our events," says Mulat. "And I'm really scared."

DIY pop-up spaces are the temporary solution de jour. In March 2018, Councillor Heather Deal announced the Vancouver Music Strategy, an initiative meant to "[reduce] regulations to make special events and public spaces more accessible to local musicians." One of her goals was to make it easier to host events in pop-up or unconventional spaces.

Shanique Kelly, a.k.a Softie Shan, throws Vancouver's only monthly queer hip hop night, Level Up, at a DIY venue called The Clubhouse. The series launched in November 2018 — but unfortunately The Clubhouse is another temporary venue and will be renovicted in October of this year.

Building a scene in their image

"A lot more women-run and queer-run nights have popped up in the city over the past few years. There are more of us playing music and creating our own spaces to do so," says Kelly. She lists Nuzi, Chao, Bossy, Contrast, Rhythm of the Night and Fatality among the collectives and nights leading the charge. Although not all of them are lead by Black women and nonbinary folk, they've all featured Black women and nonbinary headliners.

This is in stark contrast to four years ago when Warsame started to explore the city's nightlife and discovered there were few, if any, spaces that were predominantly Black or were even playing trap and hip hop. As she delved more into the electronic scene, she felt everything she did being scrutinized — right down to her movements. "If I started dancing people would be staring at me, telling me with their eyes to tone down my Blackness."

Samira Warsame. (Courtesy)

After experiencing microagressions as a Black woman, being underpaid and having men mansplain DJing to her, she set a personal boundary not to DJ "with people who are not queer or Black." This meant she ended up not playing a show for almost a year.

Mulat was enamored by the parties she discovered on the east coast of Canada and in New York and returned home dejected. "How is it that there's these queer Black parties going on everywhere, and in Vancouver I go out to a rave and I'm the only Black girl and I feel like I'm being stared at and being ostracized?"

Nuzi was born out of this frustration. The pair willed it into existence out of sheer necessity — and the community response to their first event in 2017 created the momentum that's carried them since. Kelly puts what these DJs have collectively accomplished quite succinctly: "I have been able to create space that feels safe for my friends who used to dislike going out dancing."

Reclaiming house and techno

It's still a novel concept for trap, rap, techno and house to be played at the same party. s.M.i.l.e, another collective that came up alongside Nuzi, is helping to create nightlife less stratified by genre, democratizing the dance floor.

Part of what pushed Mulat into DJing was learning about the roots of legendary Black genres like house and techno. "Once I found out that they were made by queer Black communities, I thought about how I'd been going to raves since I was a teenager and I've had white dudes constantly telling me that it's 'weird' that I like this kind of music."

Betty Mulat. (Katrina Braga)

Historically, Vancouver has had quite a prolific electronic music scene. But like many cities in Canada, it's been predominantly white and male. It's important to her to reclaim these genres and refute misinformed assumptions that house and techno "aren't Black music."

Tokenization and isolation

Combatting the isolation of being Black or a racialized person in Vancouver is an imperative for these DJs. "You're usually the only Black person at your job, on the bus, at parties, constantly," says Mulat. "You always deal with microagressions and harmful situations alone — there's no one to have your back."

Having more visible Black women and nonbinary folk at the forefront of things creates a sense of familairity and solidarity. However, it can be a double-edged sword. Something Kelly learned to look out for is the trend of booking Black DJs to score inclusivity brownie points. "As more and more promoters begin to realize that inclusivity is something partygoers enjoy, there becomes an increase in bookings by people who may not necessarily care about inclusivity but who are asking for your involvement in a project simply for the perceived optics," she says.

These hollow, performative displays of inclusivity are usually more about making money than building community.

A much-needed community

Over the past three years, Black women and nonbinary DJs have shown that they bring out an entire new demographic of people, centralizing Black women, women of colour and trans individuals. For them, creating that community has been worth any cost.

"We have to sacrifice our food money to make these things happen," says Mulat — but the outcome is worthwhile because they've been able to see tangible change.

A fairly unique part of what they've established beyond the party aspect is an online network where they share resources, exchange contacts for accessible therapy and protect each other from online harassment and trolling. They also host community healing nights and have implemented a pay-what-you-can policy for people of colour so that financial worries aren't an inhibitor to the rave.

Softie Shan. (Kezia Nathe)

Warsame recounts walking down the street and getting stopped by people asking when their next party is, telling her, "I need to let go of all this heaviness that I'm feeling, all this anti-Blackness in the city. I really need to go off."

For this community, having these collectives and venues means more than throwing cool parties. Warsame wants to remedy the alienation and discomfort she felt before they started to carve a space for themselves within the scene.

"When people need something to reach for, we can be that hand on the other end."

About the Author

Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto. Her writing explores the intersection of music, art and film, with a focus on the work of marginalized cultural producers. Along with CBC Arts, she's written for The Globe and Mail, The FADER, NOW Magazine and Canadian Art.