Photographs by Jody Rogac, Styled by Lana Jay Lackey; Hair by Edward Lampley for Amika at Bryant Artists; Makeup by Allie Smith for Dior at BRIDGE; manicure by Ada Yeung for Chanel at Bridge; Photography assistant: Justin Leveritt; Photography intern: Caroline Fortuna; Fashion assistant: Jay Hussa
It’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday in late July, and Jazmin Venus Soto, better known as Venus X, darts about the pink-and-purple-lit stage at the Polonaise Terrace, a former banquet hall in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. Here, a diverse crowd of downtown designers, models, and outer-borough cool kids has converged, sporting vintage raincoats, metal cuffs and chains, and Adidas baseball shirts. They are lured to this weekly party known as GHE20G0TH1K as much by the eminently affordable $10 cover charge as by its mission to make marginalized voices—gay, lesbian, trans, black, brown—heard loud and clear. The music quick-shifts between dark wave and Chicago footwork, remixed Dirty South rap and the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.”
Tonight’s featured performer is Mhysa, a self-described queer, black femme musician—and the alter ego of E. Jane, a multimedia artist from Philadelphia. Dressed in a black tube top, hot pants, lug-soled ankle boots, and a pink studded dog collar, Mhysa drapes herself at the edge of the stage and delivers a set that veers between dance-ready numbers from her debut album and songs that fuse a chanteuse, R&B slow-burn vibe with arch social media self-awareness, addressed to her “Bb.” Venus X’s smile is enormous and excited. Soon, the floor has grown packed and sweaty, and, by three o’clock, girls and boys are tossing their bags in a pile, dancing exuberantly around them, caught up in the glorious, high-octane moment.
A long-running, location-hopping, boundary-pushing regular event, GHE20G0TH1K was created in 2009 by Venus X, who is also its resident DJ and the powerhouse behind both the party’s namesake music label and its affiliate downtown Manhattan boutique, Planet X. After starting as a monthly Brooklyn bar gig, GHE20G0TH1K moved to various warehouses and, for a particularly memorable stretch, to a beloved basement on the Lower East Side—and ignited an after-hours revolution.
“You could tell she had a total vision of the environment she wanted to create,” says Aaron Bondaroff, a gallerist and cofounder of Know-Wave radio, where Venus X broadcasts a show of her mixes. “She came to the scene on a mission.” Here was a party that intentionally blurred musical and aesthetic divisions, a crowd assembled from seemingly disparate scenes: voguers and skaters, club kids and punk kids, rappers and artists. Its free-spirited attitude toward sex and gender anticipated the shifting national consciousness around identity politics.
Born to a Dominican mother and an Ecuadorian father, Venus X, 31, identifies as queer and champions fluidity. “I like who I like,” she states simply. The same could be said of her musical tastes. Working solo (or, in the party’s earlier days, with fellow DJ and Hood by Air cofounder Shayne Oliver), Venus X challenges the expectations of the dance floor with fast cuts of music and spoken word sampled from all manner of sources—Christian Death mixed with baile funk mixed with Three 6 Mafia mixed with sissy bounce laced with samples from Al Jazeera news stories. As Ashland Mines (aka Total Freedom), another of the party’s longtime DJs, puts it, “Shayne and Venus X got everyone wrapped up in a new way to see music.” Meanwhile, the twinning fashion-and-music careers of GHE20G0TH1K’s core members took off. In 2013, Hood by Air made its Fashion Week debut with rapper A$AP Rocky modeling the label’s coveted elevated streetwear. Venus X and Total Freedom catapulted into greater international demand, with Venus X appearing in videos by A$AP Rocky and opening for M.I.A. on tour. After Rihanna added the hashtags #ghetto and #goth to Instagram posts of some of her own editorial shoots, Venus X called out the pop star for appropriating the party’s aesthetic without crediting the source. “The mainstream has to seize the best ideas and make money off them,” concedes Venus X, who has mellowed out a bit since. “But that doesn’t mean I have to stop doing what I do, stop evolving or experimenting or supporting the people I support.”
When Venus X says “our” or “we,” she’s referring to all parts of her operation, as well as the larger community she has helped forge. Where others might drop the word “brand,” Venus X prefers the term “ecosystem”; when she talks about the DJs she regularly invites to perform, she uses words like “platform,” “grow,” and “incubate.” Also taking the stage in Greenpoint that night is LSDXOXO, a pink-haired, proudly queer, proudly black Philadelphia producer whose album F--- Marry Kill was the debut release on the GHE20GOTH1K label. “There’s not a lot of girl DJs, not a lot of girls who throw parties, not a lot of girls who run labels, or run businesses,” says Venus X, adding that, gender or sexual identity aside, the most exciting voices right now are those with a female sensibility.
Take Lotic, a gay male producer and resident DJ at Janus club, in Berlin, who headlined the 20th anniversary season of Warm Up, MoMA PS1’s music series (Venus X is one of its curators). Or Juliana Huxtable, the black trans performer who traverses the worlds of nightlife and art, using her body as a means of expression; or Honey Dijon, the black trans DJ who has worked parties for Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton and is an outspoken advocate for queer and trans people. Or False Witness, a Bard College M.F.A. candidate whose caustic and queer EP The Art of Fighting is the latest GHE20G0TH1K release. “I have a very special network of friends,” Venus X says. “It’s not really geographical; it’s more like a floating network on the Internet, like WhatsApp, iMessage, SoundCloud. Playing each other, hitting each other up in the big cities, exchanging music, knowing the other exists.” Indeed, satellite scenes have sprung up around the globe, including Paris; Taipei (“very girl,” according to Venus X); and Seoul (“very boy”).
If GHE20G0TH1K is a platform for experimental DJs, Planet X is a breeding ground for similarly risk-taking fashion. Tucked away on the third floor of a late-19th-century building on Canal Street, the store is also Venus X’s de facto HQ, where DJs, designers, and videographers drop in to talk ideas, swap music, stage shoots, or just try on clothes to wear out that night. They might walk away with an elaborately embellished dress by Lou Dallas or a graphic hand-printed shirt by skate-minded brand Kamikaze, or pill bottles containing USBs of past GHE20G0TH1K mixes. (Recently, Venus X was one of 12 finalists tapped to design a specialty Air Max sneaker for Nike’s Vote Forward campaign; her red-and-yellow color scheme was inspired by the armed forces’ DEFCON alert system.)
A musical sponge from an early age, Venus X grew up in an immigrant family in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and developed a taste for Sade, Anita Baker, and Bon Jovi thanks to her mother. She was also exposed to salsa, merengue, MTV, pop, Soul Train, and bachata, “sad old-man music, crying music,” she recalls. Her father, a graffiti artist, always thought Venus would look good on the side of a building, she says. He was, in her words, “a career criminal,” and she grew up mostly without him. “I didn’t know enough yet to be angry at the system, so I was just angry at the fact that I had an absent father,” she says. “I was angry that we were poor. People think of tragedy, but they don’t think of poverty and broken families in this way.”
These days, however, she’s not looking back—it’s the next generation that she wants to influence most. “I’m curious about how we relate to the kids who can’t come to our parties yet,” Venus X says. “It’s exciting to me because if what I do affects Rihanna, then it affects them. So how do I position what I do in a way that is accessible to a 20-year-old, but also to a 12-year-old who needs to know, What music should I listen to? Am I allowed to be gay? Can I dress like a boy? Can I dress like a girl? We’re looking way ahead for them, because you shouldn’t have to wait until you’re 21 to figure this stuff out.”
Shayne Oliver is inspired by nightlife: