Ladies’ First: Welcome to NYC’s Female-Friendly Party Scene

New York City’s female-run and female-forward party scene is creating safer spaces for women.

Judging by your average door policy in NYC, mainstream nightclubs are anything but uninviting towards women. A little cleave (or leg, in my Birkin-esque case) and a thick air of condescension will get you past the tightest of velvet ropes. It’s a numbers game, really. Cute girls are currency in the world of nightlife: necessary, but not necessarily treated like human beings. It’s the classic “bottles and models” approach to a good time. That’s not to say some women can’t or don’t enjoy this type of scene (and the free drinks that come with it), but for them and others, this kind of blatant objectification can be the furthest thing from a fun night out. And from the looks of NYC’s underground nightlife scene, women have taken this problem into their own hands and are solving it with some of the most dynamic and original parties in the city.

Erika realizes there is a problem endemic to hip hop that can make the scene less than friendly towards women

Erika is a self-described “pre-gentrification” New Yorker from Brooklyn. She’s also the founder of SET IT OFF, a queer hip hop dance party in NYC. What started out as a genre driven endeavor has quickly evolved into a destination event for women, namely queer women artists and attendants. Despite being a former “house head” herself, Erika’s foray into hip hop was as much a reflection of her personal tastes as it was an attempt to “fill a hole” she describes having seen in the DIY underground dance community. “The women’s scene is very poppy and Top 40. Every hip hop song is remixed with a house song,” Erika explains.

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

Having worked in nightlife myself, I can attest to the fact that playing hip hop music is discouraged in many mainstream nightlife venues for a host of tragically predictable (re: racist) reasons. One white club owner I worked for was more than straightforward about his disregard for the genre and the type of crowd he thought it would attract. (He shared his preference for Asian waitresses with just as much enthusiasm.) “I got yelled at during pride by a lesbian promoter for playing hip hop,” Erika says. She also confesses that she’s been asked not to wear her hat or hoodie, and one would suspect for the same reasons.

However, Erika realizes there is a problem endemic to hip hop that can make the scene less than friendly towards women. By way of evidence, she brought up Rick Ross’s recent interview on The Breakfast Club, where the rapper suggested he wouldn’t sign a female artist to his label without sleeping with her. The same show had another guest on, who made comments saying he wanted to kill trans people. “It’s a male dominated genre from the DJs to the rappers,” Erika says, “[The] hip hop [community] tends to be very straight and aggressive.”

There’s no homophobia, sexism, racism, fat-phobia, nothing. I let everyone know [that], from the security guard to the person taking money.

In its current iteration, SET IT OFF is decidedly and proactively bridging the gap between hip hop, and women and the queer community. “It created a space where gay women and the whole LGBTQ community could go and not feel shunned for listening to hip hop and feel safe. And by safe, I mean a promoter allows you to just be yourself,” Erika explains. “This is our genre too,” she asserts. As SET IT OFF began to pack on more social and political weight, Erika released a mission statement to “weed out the bad people,” as she describes it. “I make sure [guests] know what kind of parties they’re getting into. Each one of the people in there is like your mom or your sister. There’s no homophobia, sexism, racism, fat-phobia, nothing. I let everyone know [that], from the security guard to the person taking money. It’s not a man-hating thing, it’s a sexist-hating thing,” she says. Amen.

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

Erika’s approach has attracted some mainstream support. More recently, SET IT OFF has hosted events at the Ace Hotel and less underground spaces in Williamsburg. All of this above-ground support advances Erika’s cause of “promoting people of color in the queer scene, especially women DJs to showcase their skills, and still [having] a great hip hop party.” And “in the words of LL Cool J, ‘We’re doin’ it, and we’re doing it well,’” she says.

If you’re reading this and think that the misogyny inherent to mainstream nightlife culture is overstated or flat-out false– especially if you’re a man with that thought– take it from the countless women who are seeking refuge in the alternative party scene as proof that you’re wrong. Not even the underground scene is immune to the pervasiveness of male entitlement.

Jane released a new door policy with a zero tolerance stance on intolerant behavior and inappropriate, unsolicited sexual advances.

We spoke to one organizer, who preferred to remain anonymous both to protect her events and those involved in their production; we’ll call her Jane. “My parties have been mostly illegal and in random spaces,” Jane explains. You won’t find much information about her events online or on social media, as she has learned the downside of mainstream popularity and messaging: a certain type of mainstream male presence. Earlier this summer, Jane hosted a larger scale event with more visible partners. The wider draw brought in and a group of unsavory male partygoers who were caught harassing women and shouting homophobic epithets. Jane took the incident very seriously. “It liked triggered me in a deep emotional place that reminded me of when I was in high school, and I was into punk, and how I absolutely despised toxic men. My whole life as a human being and as an artist has been about creating a space outside mainstream society,” she explains. And yet, here was mainstream society rearing its uglier head at one of her events.

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

Jane’s parties aren’t just fun, they’re art. She has always focused on “really powerful sound and lighting” to create a “dancing experience versus a fashion or social party,” she explains. And while she admittedly never intended her parties to support a particular feminist, pro-LGTBQ agenda, Jane acknowledges the way her events have collided with an organic social movement. “It makes me feel like I’m on the right path,” she says.

The only negative responses Jane has had have been from men. Many women, on the other hand, reached out to thank her.

After this summer’s incident, Jane released a new door policy with a zero tolerance stance on intolerant behavior and inappropriate, unsolicited sexual advances. Perhaps not so ironically, those who messaged Jane slamming the new policy were precisely the kind of people she didn’t want at her events. “The only negative responses I’ve had have been from men. If their first response [to the policy] is ‘I’m being discriminated against,’ they’ve outed themselves,” she explains. Many women, on the other hand, reached out to thank her.

However, Jane is keen on maintaining a positive and inclusive energy at her parties. “I don’t want it to be a depressing vibe, where it’s all agitated about who gets in and who doesn’t. It’s probably like 4 people [who wouldn’t get in],” she explains.

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

Perhaps the most exciting element of this swelling tide of female-first parties is its global reach. Lenora is the Creative Director of SISTER, “a virtual collective of over 1,500+ women and gender non-conforming electronic music professionals and enthusiasts across the globe, [who strive to make the industry a more equal place],” as per the group’s mission statement. The organic evolution of SISTER is worth recounting. It started as a private Facebook group. Like many of its members, Lenora became involved voluntarily, through a network of like-minded contacts, and now she helps run SISTER together with Global Director Coral Foxworth.

Lenora describes SISTER as a “bonding and discussion space,” where members confront issues facing women creators in the male-dominated world of live music production and performance.

SISTER’s first event was in 2015. “The Berlin on-the-ground team wanted to start their own party,” Lenora recounts. It’s this self-starter, authentic aspect of SISTER that makes it so special. As Lenora explains, “What seems to happen is [members] meet one another through the Facebook group and develop an in-real-life friendship and self-organize, which I really appreciate because it feels very organic. Every city has its own sound and energy that is unique to that city.”

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

Lenora describes SISTER as a “bonding and discussion space,” where members confront issues facing women creators in the male-dominated world of live music production [and performance]. “It goes from very light [topics] like ‘How do you wear your hair during gigs?’ to ‘How do you deal with an agent who’s not paying you what you’re worth?’ or how to write a contract,” she says. In a lot of ways, SISTER functions like HereYouAre, connecting artists in various local destinations to facilitate a cross-pollination of ideas, which ultimately leads to original on-the-ground experiences.

I’m going to wear sneakers. I’m a nerdy, queer nightlife person. I don’t want to get done up in that classically femme way.

Before joining the SISTER ranks, Lenora had worked in NYC nightlife for 12 years. “I started as a flyer girl in the street in Manhattan and was hired to do the door at different events. I worked as a promoter, [bartender], did set [decoration] … up until recently, the only job I hadn’t done was DJ or security, but then I [started DJing],” she says. Despite having experienced what Lenora described as a “woman-as-decoration” paradigm of mainstream club culture and bottle service-type clubs, she’s optimistic about the future of nightlife as a whole, claiming “in the past 7 years, we’ve luckily started to move away from that particular era of NYC nightlife to something far more egalitarian and vibrant.”

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

As long as we’re talking about the mainstream again, Lenora was quick to point a more subtle way that it has historically objectified certain women and alienated others: the dress code, which is often a “femme uptown look,” as she politely described it. “I’m a dance person,” says Lenora, “I’m going to wear sneakers. I’m a nerdy, queer nightlife person. I don’t want to get done up in that classically femme way. That tends to alienate queer people.” Dress code aside, Lenora is confident that the popularity of initiatives like SISTER and a general shift in public consciousness is “heralding in this new era of nightlife where the underground is the dominant culture.”

One thing is for certain, so long there are women who want to create music and women who want to listen and dance to it in an environment that won’t cost them their body, sanity or soul, there will be a place for them to do so in New York City. If you build it… they will dance.

Pictures Luis Nieto Dickens
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Social Info

SET IT OFF
Facebook: Facebook.com/groups/setitoffnyc
Instagram: Instagram.com/setitoffnyc/

SISTER www.sister.world
Instagram: Instagram.com/sister4131/
Twitter: Twitter.com/sister4131/
Facebook: Facebook.com/sister.world
Soundcloud: Soundcloud.com/sis-ter

Julia Reiss is a Los Angeles-born writer and humorist alive and mostly well in New York City.
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