How A New York Producer Is Creating A Platform For Queer Caribbean Artists
A talk with TYGAPAW, the Jamaican immigrant behind some of NYC’s most inclusive after-hours parties.
Dion McKenzie, better known as TYGAPAW, has a lot of plates spinning. The DJ, producer, party promoter, and designer is playing out regularly, getting ready to tour with Niv Acosta’s Discotropic production, and coordinating two monthly parties, all while working on her debut EP.
On April 2, McKenzie celebrates the second birthday of Fake Accent, a monthly party inspired by her experience as a queer Jamaican immigrant living in New York, which she curates to highlight queer and trans artists of color. The party also marks the debut of the Fake Accent collective, made up of friends and collaborators Niv Acosta, JJ Caranto, Shady Spice, DJ Kala, Nightdoll, and photographer Karla Xeno, all with the shared goal of exploring displacement through visuals and sound.
After moving to New York from Mandeville, Jamaica in 2002 to attend Parsons School of Design, McKenzie started two projects: a band named My M.O., and a rap duo called Kowabunga Tyga. With the encouragement of her Kowabunga Tyga bandmate Enki, she taught herself Ableton, and started creating emotional club bangers. Whether she's reworking the dancehall classic “Badman Forward” or remixing pop ballads by Deborah Cox and t.A.t.U., TYGAPAW pulls from a grab-bag of aesthetics: the R&B records her mother kept around, the grunge she grew up watching on MTV2, and the cathartic club sounds from the queer nightlife world she is now solidly a part of.
How did you start doing parties?
TYGAPAW: It came out of wanting to be booked and wanting to play out. I was always really apprehensive about DJing because it was so male dominated. Growing up, I never saw a woman DJ, I never saw anyone in that position that I could see myself in. Even if you have the interest you just don’t know how to get there, the path is not direct. It’s this winding obstacle-riddled way.
Male DJs [would tell me] “I can put you on” but [after] constantly following up with them they’d be like “sorry, I’m busy…” One male DJ ended up using me to make playlists for him, to do his work. Those examples of misogyny were really infuriating. With venues in New York you have to prove yourself before they give you the time of day. I was like, how am I supposed to prove myself if I don’t get in a place in the first place? I had to be like, [if] I really want to do this, I’m going to have to do this on my own.
How did you refocus from playing in bands to DJing?
I played guitar in [My M.O.] and I realized there was a wall and I wanted to be on the other side. I wanted to have more control of the creative process. I was like, I don’t like that barrier so I’m going to jump over it, kick it over, do what I have to do. It was a girl band. And Kowabunga Tyga was a female duo. It felt safe—I was always more willing to work with women to raise our platforms and visibility. I want to get to a level of success where the next generation doesn’t have to fight as hard. I can create opportunities for them. There’s always room for everyone.
Is that kind of ethos of lifting up other people in your community a factor in how you curate the parties you throw?
I’m very conscious with who I book and who I’m focused on—the demographic and the kind of space I’m creating. I’m recently out, I’m from Jamaica, and that in of itself is a whole [set] of problems for me. I started Fake Accent with that in mind. It was my way of figuring out my next steps, now that I’m out and trying to figure out this world that I’ve been away from and always wanting to be a part of. And I realized that it’s not an isolated instance; there are a lot of people who are queer and Caribbean and struggle with the same things that I do.
Fake Accent was the idea of the displacement story. I’m an immigrant, I’ve been living in New York for fourteen years. New York has been this crazy whirlwind ride, but also the best thing that ever happened to me in my entire life.
Wanting to create safe spaces for queer and trans people of color is really important to me because [of my experiences] growing up and not being able to be myself in any sort of party situation. Especially in dancehall, reggae. It’s a beautiful thing when you can bring people together that want to be in that space, want to feel the music, want to see DJs, want to relate and connect to each other. You see similarities and you feel more at ease knowing that you’re amongst your people.
That’s really important work. I feel like the mainstream queer narrative is a very white American narrative that’s portrayed as being at odds with immigrant cultures. It’s so important to make space for queers that are outside of that.
I started [my other party, Shottas] last year with my partner and friend Chris Udemezue. We have a clear mission of being a platform for the queer Caribbean community in New York. The visibility is just not there, they don’t have the space, the platform. We wanted to create something to change that.
Shottas is more for [the] dancehall, Caribbean music vibe, but we blend the style of club and dancehall, dembow… I call it Cunty dancehall—it’s ballroom, all that, a mixture of anything that celebrates the gay body. Fake Accent is similar but with a more open format [for] music, club content.
Where did the party's name come from?
Literally my accent. I felt [my speech change] from where I grew up versus where I live now—the way I pronounce words, the way my accent comes out, it’s not predominantly patois anymore, it’s not like that Jamaican accent. When you’re in a new environment, you want to adapt. You do whatever you can to feel safe within that space. And with Fake Accent I’ve always said to myself, well, how I speak now is fake, it’s a fake accent. If I speak to another Jamaican you’re gonna hear patois come out instantly.
Fake Accent is my tale of my journey to New York and my story of adaptability and finding a home in a new land, a new place. It’s that idea of not feeling 100% at home but knowing that you can find a home here.
The title also made me think about Rihanna’s ANTI, how so many people misunderstood “Work” and posted about how Rihanna was “speaking gibberish.”
The ignorance to me is appalling at times. Go on the internet! There’s no excuse. That riddim already sounds very reggae/dancehall—you can already tell it’s coming from somewhere besides the United States. Not that they speak patois in Barbados, but that’s another thing.
Jamaicans are hated amongst other Caribbean [cultures] because .. [they say] we’re unruly, rude, loud, pushy...but the fact of the matter is that we’re just very strong and opinionated people. We’re not afraid about people’s opinions, we just kind of live our lives, and culturally, musically, we’re a big deal. Other Caribbean islands ride the reggae and dancehall train and don’t give any sort of credit to Jamaican artists. That’s the only thing that I have problems with. Rihanna’s track I like, but I have problems with it only because of how Bajans in particular see Jamaicans and always talk shit about us.
The conversation about appropriation is currently mostly about Americans borrowing from other cultures, but it’s also a thing with non-American cultures as well. There are other power dynamics there.
That’s facts—why are you Bajan and try to speak patois? That doesn’t make a lot of sense. She’s just like in love with Jamaica and Jamaican culture, from “Rude Boy” to “Pon de Replay,” to “Man Down.” If she was American, oh that would be a whole different story. But she’s Bajan. It’s cool, just give more props to Jamaica. In interviews just say, I have so much respect for Jamaican culture. Then I’d be like “hey, that’s right Rihanna, thank you.”
“I realized that it’s not an isolated instance; there are a lot of people who are queer and Caribbean and struggle with the same things that I do.”
The samples in your music are really distinct. There’s dancehall and reggae but there’s also a lot of pop.
I have a Deborah Cox sample—"Nobody’s Supposed to be Here." That’s a big track, growing up in Jamaica. That’s another thing that I like to tell people—y’all don’t know how Jamaicans fuck with pop ballads. We love that shit. We love Whitney, we love Celine Dion. Celine Dion is a superstar in Jamaica, she’s the queen, she’s Beyonce. Elephant Man has a rework of one of [her] tracks. It’s the lit-est thing. Y’all would never get that.
I feel like Jamaicans, we’re hopeless romantics at heart. We just want to love and be loved. And one of the things we struggle with is how to love each other more. We thirst for it, we want to, but the patriarchy is stifling that love and connection. We can’t love one another in the way that we dream.
That’s the clear [reason behind] homophobia—something scares you so much that all you can do is have that connection to the Bible. They use religion as that defense. It has them feeling love in some way, but also spewing hate towards [the queer] community. It’s very violent; sometimes I am so scared that I can’t possibly go back to Jamaica because I speak out against the injustices and point the finger. I just feel that if we don’t speak about things, nothing is going to change. People have just had enough. There’s too many of us—now we’re starting to have these conversations more, where before we would hide. I’m actively being a person that’s queer, Jamaican, and saying I will not shut up, you can’t silence me.
What do you have coming up besides Fake Accent?
I’ve been blessed to have a lot going on right now, as I prepare to release my EP. I’m working [on two tracks with] Wayne Paul, who is an incredible vocalist and opera singer. Abdu Ali is going to be doing a feature. Rain Love is going to be laying down some vocals. I’m stepping into that world where I get to work with incredible artists that I respect in the QPOC community. I’m super excited to share that [and] create music that affects you in some way. I think people are very uncomfortable with feeling. And in my music, I explore emotions, I want to make you a little bit uncomfortable with feeling something.
I’m scoring a tiny film / music video. Building on Fake Accent. Traveling and touring. Doing more Shottas, seeing that build and develop and grow. Shottas is one of my favorite things, the energy of that party, people coming and thanking us, every single time we throw the party. Because, where else in New York are there queer Caribbean parties being thrown on a consistent basis? [It’s] a home for a community to come and enjoy themselves without any queerphobic, transphobic, bad vibes. Badmind people? Not allowed inside the space.