The phrase ‘safe space’ is a tricky one. In clubland it’s too often bundled into the sales pitch for clubs and events, a magic password that some think will turn a tech-house night into the second coming of Paradise Garage. All clubs should be a safe space, surely?
In 2016, the Babe blog carried out a survey of 14,000 UK students and discovered that 91 per cent of women and femmes had been groped in a club. All too often, queer women of colour can face even worse. On Valentine’s Day this year, though, two parties just a few yards from each other in London’s Hackney Wick showed just how fun a safe space can actually be. In 2018, nights like Pxssy Palace and gal-dem’s Sugar are at the forefront of a defiant movement against an unacceptable norm by creating safer dancefloors, open to all but specifically aimed at women and femmes of colour.
“We need nights where women of colour feel comfortable,” says Melz, a regular attendee of female collective gal-dem’s Sugar party, her face framed by a beaded braid swinging freely in front of her glasses and radiant smile. Gal-dem is a platform for music, art and lifestyle, and Sugar, held at The Yard, is its club night, flying the flag for women of colour DJs. The room quakes to the boom of Beats 1 and Reprezent Radio’s Naina, who drops an instrumental rework of Missy’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’. A couple rush to the centre, desperate to wine to the ground to their favourite jam. For Valentine’s Day Sugar has gone full out on the décor: overhead are sparkly balloons, their silver strings dangling over the jumping crowd, while projections of queer icons like Kehlani, Syd and Hayley Kiyoko, along with red-lit silhouettes of bodies sitting on benches littered with petals and hearts reading ‘baby girl’ surround the floor. Whether skanking in the front row to DJ Fauzia dropping a bumping Cardi B remix or taking a break in the chilled smoking area, a relaxed house party sensibility permeates the semi open-air event.
A slim man in a white T-shirt with long, sleek hair twirls on the edge of the dancefloor and beams at us. “When I’m here, I just wanna dance! At other nights I feel uncomfortable because they’re filled with guys trying to take home girls. I’m not about that. I wanna have fun, and this is fun!” Sugar aims to be the kind of place you can show up to alone and leave with new friends for life.
“I used to be stressed by going out,” says Antonia Odunlami, gal-dem’s music editor and creator of Sugar. “It’s good to know that there’s loads of movements like ours happening at the moment that are trying to turn that on its head: initiatives and platforms like Pxssy Palace, BBZ and Born N Bread promote having a good time, having it safely and respecting other people’s ways of life.
“The choice of venue can be tricky, she continues. “The Yard is a good place for us to be, because the people who manage it are quite aligned with our beliefs and respect them. It’s hard in London at the moment to find [clubs] that actively seek bouncers for promoting safe spaces in nightlife. [That are] not just there to make money or get as many people in as possible. It’s really important that people who come to our events feel safe, and feel like the people who are meant to be securing the venue have their best interests at heart.”
Sugar is just another facet of gal-dem’s increasingly 360-degree approach to what Antonia describes as “shaping our own narratives and taking control over what we want people to see… promoting people who need to be promoted, contributing to this amazing scene happening at the moment and giving a platform to the people that deserve it.”
While Sugar lends its DIY house party aesthetic to building a utopian community, Pxssy Palace’s ‘Luv Urself’ night, also in Hackney Wick tonight, is more like a wild, Studio 54-inspired birthday party. With humble origins as a party in a flat on Brick Lane inhabited by a multitude of badass women and kittens, the Pxssy Palace collective has grown into a full crew of female-identifying promoters and DJs set on spreading positive energy to the world. Partygoers are encouraged to be as flamboyant, colourful and free as they please, in an environment where the safety and comfort of women and non-cis or hetero people of colour is a priority.
Entering Pxssy Palace’s Valentine’s Day shindig is like stepping into a bouncy castle full of kings and queens from all corners of the rainbow. Funky red and blue lights layered over bustling Jersey club, infectious bashment and trap-heavy hip hop reworks turn Mick’s Garage into a place of wonder. Looking down from the balcony, a sea of flailing braids, beautiful bare brown skin, spiralling afros and sequinned torsos meets the eye. At Pxssy Palace, you can be yourself. Everything that is too often forced into hiding by the shackles of mainstream – ie white, straight, cis – culture flourishes here, and it’s heavenly. We catch the alluring eyes of two boys dressed in Egyptian belly dancer masks and black crop tops reading ‘QUEER’, fiercely vogueing to the sound of Yaeji’s ‘Raingurl’ dropped by DJ Jess Ajose.
"Our policy enables queer women and femmes of colour to come out their shell and explore who they are"
“It’s a club night with a safer space policy to [allow you to] not sacrifice who you are while having fun,” says Pxssy Palace co-founder Nadine Artois. “Why can’t the dancefloor be an educational space? Our policy enables queer women and femmes of colour to come out their shell and explore who they are. That is powerful. What can people who do this achieve? Anything.”
Pxssy Palace is vocal about the importance of consent in nightclubs - on entering the party, you are politely reminded of its policy of zero tolerance to harassment of any kind, to ensure their night remains inclusive and free of judgement. To enforce the Pxssy Palace policy, free taxis are available for trans femmes of colour, funded by donations on the door and 10 per cent of the earnings from the night. ‘Badge bitches’ roam the party, chatting, reporting any problems, encouraging people to open up about any mishaps and acting as a friendly face on the dancefloor.
At the climax of Pxssy Palace a circle forms in the crowd. A pinstriped, bald, curvaceous woman and a muscular man in leopard-print scarf and nose jewel are majestically vogueing. The crowd cheer, before jumping into the circle and cranking up the energy level, a delicious parody of the testosterone-fuelled mosh-pit.
Pxssy Palace and Sugar celebrate being free, colourful, female-identifying, black, and queer. With the focus on the wellbeing of their guests, both nights value acceptance and self-worth above all else. No-one is self-conscious or worried about how they’re dressed or the way they’re dancing.
‘Freedom’ is a word that’s long been associated with club culture. But what is it? It’s being safe to dance comfortably in your own skin, embrace your colours and truly ‘luv urself’.
Jaguar Bingham is Mixmag's TV presenter, follow her on Twitter