Black Promoters Are Taking Back Chicago's Nightlife
Musicians and event creators are fighting systematic racism by creating spaces for themselves.
Despite its low-living costs, diverse population, and rich music scene, Chicago suffers under the weight of longheld and debilitating divisions. Institutionalized racism and neighborhood hyper-segregation are embedded in the very fabric of how the city is run, keeping opportunities limited and exclusionary both in mainstream and underground music communities. POC regularly face obstacles to operate and sustain nightlife, including inaccessibility to venues, exclusionary social circles divided by race and class, and micro-aggressions inside and outside of the club. Although conditions are improving as creators find new means of operating in both above-ground and underground spaces, it will take coordinated and continuous effort to create lasting change.
Discriminatory practices are woven into the very DNA of Chicago. People are unlikely to travel long distances to nightlife destinations, because the city's limited and unreliable public transportation system means it takes an hour or more to travel from one part of the city to the next. For residents of traditionally black and Latino neighborhoods on the far South or West sides of the city, going out can be particularly difficult. The majority of legal nightlife venues, such as Smartbar in the Wrigleyville neighborhood, are located on the North Side of the city—a predominantly white area often populated with drunken white males.
POC venturing to North Side venues are often met with resistance, as was the case in the late aughts and early part of this decade, when black queer youth from the South and West sides of the city said they faced racial epithets or felt racially profiled when they spent nights in Boystown, a traditionally gay neighborhood. Locals also attributed a rise in crime to the young POC hanging out on the street, sparking a charged debate on whether the problem comes down to violence or racism.
According to locals, nightlife establishments sometimes use discriminatory practices to "curate" their clientele. "A lot of the club owners circumnavigated being overtly racist by instituting these highly exclusive dress codes," says Lauren Black, a Lesbifriends Cartel promoter whose parties cater to lesbian POC in the city. Jared Brown, a DJ and producer born and raised in the city, agrees with Black, adding, "The black weirdos travel an hour and a half to get to these parties and feel like they're not really welcome."
Boystown, a traditionally gay male neighborhood situated next to Wrigleyville, can sometimes serve as a salve against the aggressive antics of Wrigleyville, but many believe it still caters to a white, male, cis-bodied population. "It's not like a sustainable place to feel good about being queer," says Brown. "It's very gay, but it's also very male body-centric, with a few exceptions."
In addition, social segregation is as prevalent as racial segregation—meaning people are not only separated by race, but also by gender, sexual orientation, class, and education. "Chicago's very cliquey and it's very centered around the crew life," says Brown. "I think people roll deep as fuck in Chicago." On one hand, this cliqueness helps the city's many scenes distill sounds popular within their groups to create new genres of music—juke and drill and house were all born here. On the other hand, it also makes makes it difficult for musicians to perform and grow outside of their communities.
"The black weirdos travel an hour and a half to get to these parties and feel like they're not really welcome."—Chicago DJ and producer Jared Brown
This difficulty is heightened by the fact that white people in power utilize performers and operators they trust, often within their own (white) circles. "My main concern is the presence of straight white males who often fill entire line-ups with little to no POC, queer, or female artists," says local event creator and DJ Cid Ikarus. "It's unjust because so much of our music, especially house, was developed by these [types of] individuals."
Even at parties and venues that tout an inclusive, safe atmosphere for all, many POC find these platitudes to be performative at best. "Everyone feels like we're all under this comfortable queer blanket, but white supremacy still exists under that blanket," Brown says. He recalls an incident from December 2015 when he and a friend were told by a white woman that they were "taking up too much space" at one such event while they were standing on the dancefloor. He says that same woman later tried to shove poppers in their faces so they could "loosen up." After telling the event organizers what happened, Brown says only minimal action—a warning on the mic—was taken. "I feel like it's up to me to handle it, because I don't trust that many curators will do much to enforce safe spaces," he says. "I don't even know that I believe in that notion anymore."
Vincent Martell, an event producer and videographer of the city's nightlife scenes, also understands how difficult it can be for event operators and participants that fit outside of the straight, white population in the city. He remembers running into issues when he first tried to create his own nightlife events between 2014 and early 2016. "I didn't have those connections. My dad didn't own a bar or restaurant, [so I] didn't have the network that a lot of other white people did," he says.
Spurred by his frustration with the status-quo, Martell co-founded VAM STUDIO in 2015, an experimental events and creative studio often focused on underground artists of color. "[The VAM STUDIO team] looked around, saw that all of our friends were doing cool shit, and wondered why they weren't getting the same mainstream attention as some of their white counterparts," Martell says. "From there, we just made it our mission to break into the system and disrupt everything."
"I think we forget in Chicago that we can manipulate the system," he says. "It just takes more work."
Like Martell, many POC in Chicago have learned that in order to experience sustainable, enriching nightlife, they must create and foster opportunities for themselves, and embrace the "twice as hard for half as far" mantra to make that vision a reality. Many POC nightlife organizers have also turned to newer underground DIY or event spaces, largely in more diverse neighborhoods on the city's South or West Sides like Pilsen, Little Village, Humboldt Park or Bronzeville. Event creators like Ciera McKissick of amfm and Elijah McKinnon, a co-founder of Reunion, are building their own inclusive spaces from the ground up. Both hire their own staff, establish close relationships with established and underground venues that they can trust, and create explicit socio-political and racial intentions for the events they host. These spaces give POC performers crucial outlets to share their art in public settings.
"I think we forget in Chicago that we can manipulate the system. It just takes more work."—local event producer Vincent Martell
Black's popular 1LLUM1NAUGHT¥ events, for example, were a safe space for queer people of color in the city and offered patrons diverse, homegrown music.
"Chicago is very culture-rich. There's this intrinsic connection with music, especially homegrown [genres] like juke and house, whether it's a queer party or a straight party," she says. The party, which ran once a month from early 2014 to late 2016 at Progress Bar, was one of the only dedicated nights for queer people of color in the Boystown neighborhood at the time. Other events Black and the Lesbifriends Cartel organized took place in venues outside of the Northside, such as The Shrine in the South Loop, Simone's and The Promontory, among others.
Some creators, like Martell, are going a step further, aligning with corporate partners who might serve as a buffer between event creators and the bureaucratic red tape, confusing logistics, and discriminatory practices of venues or city government. After helping fund VAM STUDIO using money from his 9-to-5 gig, Martell found outside financial and venue resources from Red Bull. "One thing that I've learned is it's important to get that network behind you if you can," Martell argues. "I think we've lucked out in having a cool corporation back us and believe in our ideas, while giving us the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want," he says.
Although working with corporate partners might go against many people's understanding of how the underground should operate, it might also give POC creators additional opportunities to build more of the events they hope to see–ones that are inclusive of all races, genders, sexualities, and income levels.
Nightlife scenes manifest in waves. When options diminish in the mainstream, communities flourish in the underground. Often, these communities are formed out of necessity. In a city like Chicago that is systematically racist and oppressive, musicians and event creators utilize a number of different solutions – from creating their own spaces to working with international corporations – to make their visions a reality. I grew up in and outside of the city of Chicago, and have witnessed a variety of scenes pop up and disappear overnight. The only hard and fast rule I've learned is that creators united—and in particular, POC creators united—is better than a community divided. In an increasingly confusing world, we will need solidarity now more than ever.
Britt Julius is THUMP's weekend news writer. Follow her on Twitter