Why Safe Spaces In Nightlife Are Essential

London’s black, brown and queer bodies need a place to express themselves—even if safety can never be guaranteed.

Everyone has their own idea of what makes a "safe space.” For me, it’s anywhere I don’t feel fearful of inequalities which distract me from expressing myself. Everyone deserves the choice of who they party with, and in my experience of clubbing in London, it’s especially important for anyone who isn’t heterosexual, male, or cisgender to be surrounded by people who “get it”. With this in mind, I started running my club night Body Party in London eight months ago. I promoted the night as a safe space for queer, black, and brown bodies, stipulating "no homophobia, no transphobia, no patriarchal flexing”– and it kind of worked for a while, but it wasn’t perfect. The reality of being in public spaces is full of inequalities, and while I was dismayed to hear that women had been harassed at my night, I wasn't that surprised because of how often this happens. Eventually, I stopped billing my event as "safe."

Body Party started as a visual project that comes from Jamaican culture and nightlife, dancehall queens, black London boys, and queer communities in NYC. I worked with artist Isaac Kariuki on designing the Body Party aesthetic; we were looking at Malick Sidibe’s party photography, and talking about bootleg designer labels and prioritizing the everyday over the fantastical. I’d planned for it to be a one-off event for friends and east London locals—mostly creatives who were familiar with me curating and hosting art exhibitions in London and New York. After working with the founders of Papi Juice, “a Brooklyn-based monthly dance party and kiki celebrating queer male-identified people of color and our friends, fam, and allies,” I wanted to continue the dialogue by seeing how a party with broader societal concerns would fare in my hometown London.

ADVERTISEMENT

I was optimistic about creating an environment filled with likeminds—an optimism that was quickly replaced with the very real practicalities of running what rapidly became a monthly club night. “Safe space,” a statement of intent for what I and many others would have liked to see in nightlife, became a loaded term. I found myself being held to the impossible ideal of guaranteed safety for everyone, particularly the most vulnerable and victimized groups. Before this, I had never had to think about accessibility to gendered bathrooms, or whether someone would take advantage of the dark and touch me inappropriately. I was confronted with the question: how much of others’ safety can really be controlled as a host?

To start with, a good relationship with security is essential. While working the door at popular nights, I’ve met a few white security staff members who raise their eyebrows slightly when they hear about an R&B, hip-hop, grime, trap, or dancehall event, preparing for a long night ahead fretting over too many black people. It’s as present in underground spaces as it is the celebrity status fuelled culture of West End clubs—like DSTRKT, which came under fire last month for its racist door policies—where we are “too dark or too fat” or “intimidating.”

“So many places are white safe spaces by default,” says broadcaster, DJ and magazine editor Zezi Ifore over an afternoon coffee in Brixton. She has been hosting some of the most consistently exciting parties in the city for years, whether she’s co-running the casual South London turn-up at Brixton Local (pictured above) or celebrating highlife and afrobeats at Palm Wine Club. “They can’t empathize with that need. Imagine if you let spectators into a gym, how would that fuck up the dynamics? Are you gonna feel comfortable or safe? It’s the same thing with nightlife. Good clubs are safe spaces, which are few and far between with London’s property boom; everyone is hyper-aware of the value of space.”

“Parties are meant to be hedonistic, thoughtless, and even meaningless, which is all fine—but everybody in the dance has a history and a culture they should feel proud to represent.”

Although one of the aims of a safe space is to escape the gaze of spectators, I've seen how it can increase your visibility in less desirable ways. Take the example of Bahar Mustafa, a student union’s Diversity Officer, who received a barrage of death and rape threats after her irresponsibly worded tweet saying “#killallwhitemen” went viral. She originally found herself in the midst of a media frenzy because she wanted to facilitate a space for open, honest discussions, where white men were asked not to attend; now, she is due in court on charges for “malicious communication.” In the eyes of the law, Mustafa’s intentions are perceived as a legitimate threat to society. Queer, ethnic women and non-binary people are harassed online and IRL constantly for discussing the complicated relationship between oppression and identity. Mustafa's detractors should be outraged at the deep rooted structural inequalities that create a need for such safe spaces, not the people who are trying to heal from its traumas by making themselves visible to each other. Being an advocate for safe spaces in nightlife means we’re targeted for being divisive, but it’s really about acknowledging the ways oppression can and should be let go at the door.

When I eventually decided to stop billing Body Party as “safe," it was because the message of intention became an expectation of an impossible ideal. Safety implies privacy, but even with a strict door policy, Body Party is held in a public event space where the variables are much less controllable than more conventional safe spaces found in academic and political institutions. Artist Jam City recently billed his party Earthly as a no-go zone for “aggressive leery boys. No Tories.” It’s not as clear as “no homophobia, no transphobia"; these things are relative to your intentions and experience. In a recent interview for Dummy, Jam City acknowledged that “I’ve never had to experience those things [harassment] directly” and that “a club night isn’t going to solve misogyny.” But it was after I attended Earthly earlier this year that Body Party felt possible. There are rules and intentions we can put into place and enforce at our parties, like asking security to keep a closer eye on “aggressive leery boys”. The most organic step forwards is dialogue; as Jam City says, “we can talk about and be positive about the environment we want to create and try to let people know, ‘I want that too!’”

Much of hosting parties with these intentions involves hoping for the best, and making do with and celebrating what you already have. If by striving for an ideal we end up with a casual space to dance, for now, I’ll take it. I’m not going to draw for the bell hooks and Audre Lorde quotes to describe the dynamics of a club night—it seems pretentious—though I’ve learned from them both how feeling othered often leads to a drive to create challenging and potentially healing spaces for our theories to be put into practice. Parties are meant to be hedonistic, thoughtless, and even meaningless, which is all fine and ideologically sound, but everybody in the dance has a history and a culture they should feel proud to represent, not silence or hide. Queer individuals (LGBTQI) in the U.K. are twice as likely to suffer mental health problems than heterosexuals. Having access to chill nightlife spots is essential. Our bodies are important to us. Our lives, including our racial and cultural backgrounds, matter—all the time. Running a “safe space” is about sharing and creating, trying to build something better. It’s not just a club night.

ADVERTISEMENT
Why Safe Spaces In Nightlife Are Essential