New York is a city people flock to from around the country and the world. For the allure of nightlife. For the arts. For the music. For the people. It manifests a circular motion of influence. People inspired by its characters move here to partake in a creative world in the making. In doing so, they become characters themselves, inspiring the next generation of influential personas. Juliana Huxtable is one such dignitary.
Born and raised in Bryan/College Station, Texas, Juliana’s path to New York started with a teenage passion for the art and music emerging from the club scene. Now a DJ with her own party (Shock Value), Juliana’s personality, her selfies, and her prolific attitude have already left an indelible mark on NYC’s underground queer club scene. If you’re not already one of the thousands of people following her on Tumblr, Instagram, Soundcloud, and Twitter, even a quick glance at her various feeds and timelines will have you coming back for more.
While Juliana’s exquisite outfits, (previously) long braids, and imaginative DJ sets are exciting and deeply considered, she often gets pigeonholed as simply a nightlife personality. In fact, her work and interests extend far beyond the club scene. She is a published writer, an accomplished performer, a visual artist, and a provocative thinker.
Her reflective artwork was a part of the the House of Ladosha’s joint art show “The Whole House Eats” on February 7, 2013 as well as at the group exhibition “Neuromast: Certain Uncertainty and Contemporary Art” at Franklin Street Works in Connecticut in February 2014. Some of her portraits ran in Artforum and Mousse Magazine. Juliana’s loosely autobiographical piece “Real Doll” was recently published in Future Perfect, an anthology of queer writing and art, edited by Andrew Durbin. A book of her own writing is scheduled to come out early next year. Juliana is also a performer, recently seen at the White Columns Annual last May, and at a show tributing José Estaban Muñoz at the Whitney Museum in April of this year.
Earlier this month, Juliana sat down with us to discuss her path to New York, her fascination with reimagining past and future, and making her own place in a world impatiently boxing queer people of color up into ‘personalities’.
What was your path to New York like? When did it start?
I hated high school, and a lot of other things about growing up. After having a rough academic passage in junior high, I realized that I would be able to get out if I just did well academically. I was obsessed with college. I took all the Princeton Review quizzes. In my hometown, everyone went to churches and played football. There was a lot gay-bashing, anti-abortion and racial tension. I was basically looking for the opposite of my hometown, a place that would be super liberal and creative. Bard kept popping up on the list.
My time at Bard was good and bad. I often felt racially isolated and creatively stifled. The teachers there didn’t really know how to deal with people like me, with people of color generally. It was very foreign to them, especially in creative majors. So when I did take painting classes or writing classes I felt like I was either trapped in my identity or ‘focusing too much’ on my identity. The financial gap between me and many other students also became really clear to me at the end. I worked 30–40 hour work weeks on top of a hectic school schedule. By the end of my time at Bard, I felt pretty crazy.
But I’m glad I went there. I’m generally not the type of person to have regrets. I took a lot of classes in human rights and gender studies. Although there was lot of things I didn’t like, it was good place for identity exploration and general experimentation.
Right after I graduated I went home for a while, and then I got a job [as legal assistant] at the ACLU. Two weeks after I found out I got the job, I moved to New York.
You eventually quit your job as legal assistant at the ACLU, which you've talked about in previous interviews. Was that a difficult decision to make?
I knew I just had to trust my instincts. I had enough money to pay rent for a couple of months but that’s all I had. At that point I had been making supplemental income through nightlife but not nearly enough to survive.
How did you make the transition to where you are today, making your living as an artist, writer, and DJ?
I sort of rediscovered my creative agency through social media. A lot of early opportunities came because I was active on Tumblr. I was angsty at a really boring job and I put that out there. People liked it and started asking me to do readings and then I would get published somewhere. One thing led to another, it all grew organically. Now I can see myself doing all of the things that I always wanted to do. I have shows coming up where my portraits and collages will be displayed in museums, a book of my writing is coming out, and many other things that I previously didn’t have time for are now attainable, which is exciting.
So many people told me not to get sucked into nightlife, that three years would pass and nothing would come out of it. People are so negative, and they love to project their own anxieties onto you. I was so terrified and for a long time I didn't trust my instincts. But now I'm really happy with where my life is going.
After moving to New York, you became a member of House of Ladosha. Could you explain House of Ladosha? What is it exactly?
House of Ladosha is a collective of people, a family of sorts. It started out with a group of artists and other creatives that went to school together in New York. Antonio is the mother of the house. It expanded over time. It now includes people that support each other, spend a lot of time together, have compatible views on the world and share creative visions and dreams. Being a part of the house, I know there’s always a group of people that will come and support me in what I’m doing. I spend holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving with many of them. We’ve done shirts together. We did a group show last year. Me and Neon did a performance together. Sometimes we support each other financially – literally like family. If I’m short on rent, I’ll call Christina and ask to borrow money.
Did you always want to be a DJ? To host parties?
I was always obsessed with nightlife and club culture. Growing up, I idolized Studio 54. My AIM screen name always had 54 in it. The fascination started when I watched the VH1 documentary Studio 54: Behind the Music. It covers that whole era, the people in it and the various offshoots that came out of it.
My parents divorced when I was really little. I spent the summers in New Jersey and sometimes we went into the city. I listened to disco all the time. I listened to New York radio, mostly KTU. Now they play super corny dance music but when I was younger they played club music, and sometimes they’d play 80s mixes and 90s club music. I would always fantasize about dancing in clubs in New York, I thought it was everything, it was all I wanted to do.
Once I got of age, I would disappear to New York on the weekends, and for the first time I got to experience it. I loved it. One of the first parties that I went to was called Mr. Black. It was one of the last club era parties, or at least a remnant of it. It embodied that huge night club atmosphere, with a crazy cross section of people. It wasn’t labeled as a gay party explicitly, but like any good party in New York it was gayish. The people I would see there, the music, the cages you could crawl into... I was hooked.
Mr. Black ended up being shut down for drugs – I caught the last leg of it. And apparently, like is always the case, I ‘missed the glory days’. I thought it was awesome. They jumped from location to location and there was a lot of cocaine, ecstasy, and other drugs. The NYPD just caught onto the party and shut it down.
I also went to a lot of parties in Bushwick that Kingdom and other people threw. Only a few years ago, the Jefferson stop [in Bushwick] was really out there, but now you could as well be in Park Slope. Going to Bushwick parties is how I met all the House of Ladosha people.
When I first moved here it was kind of dead, which I was a little sad about. We mostly hung out at Tandem and other bars. It was right after they had cleaned up New York, and nightlife died down as a product of that. Especially in Manhattan, which is why Bushwick was happening. The idea that you could go to multiple parties in Manhattan that all catered to queer crowds and people of color was unheard of. But Ghetto Gothic was one of them, and we went to it religiously.
I don’t go to Ghetto Gothic as much anymore. I’m really happy for Venus’s success. When I first went it was awesome; it was really good music, and one of the only places where you would meet a really wide cross-section of people. It was a party that was actually developed. You could go to a bar in Bushwick and see a cool mix of people, but it was just a bar. A party with a thought-out concept playing exactly the music you wanted to hear was rare, and for a while Ghetto Gothic was that. It combined a lot of the DJs that played at Mr. Black, like Telfar and Kingdom. There would also be a more bro-y, club DJ, but the mix of people was cool. I really liked that.
Did these parties influence your own musical act?
What was inspiring about it was a result of a nexus of things that where happening and that influenced the atmosphere and the culture around it. It’s not like, a party was created that put out sounds and then people started doing the same thing. Rather, the party reflected the general disposition of all the people who made that party what it was. Younger people who listen to different types of music.
I threw parties while at Bard and I booked some of these DJs. I was already paying attention to them, and I think a lot of people were. They reflected the next generation of blog and Tumblr culture. You no longer have to get a dance hall magazine to find out about dance hall music. You don’t have to be aware of this specific imprint of some isolated thing to get a certain type of music. Everyone has immediate online access to a lot of things and that party reflected that.
Ghetto Gothic also emerged in conversation with other parties that were happening. LA producer Total Freedom lived in New York at one point but he had his own party in LA. Influences from LA and California were brought over here, like Nguzunguzu. To me, Ghetto Gothic was a convergence of many things that influenced each other.
What was it like setting up your own party, Shock Value?
I always wanted to throw my own party. When I moved to New York, I was part of a generation of people that understood the cool things going on but I also felt like things had become fragmented again. Parties become popular and the crowd changes – it’s no longer as queer as I’d come to expect. But one party will never take on one’s full set of desires.
I started hosting parties, working bars and DJing through gay nightlife. Gay nightlife is really beautiful, I think that’s where the best music and the most musical innovation is in New York. Me and my friends would go to gay male parties, or Bushwick parties, or queer women’s parties. But they were all very isolated. Two or three parties that had a legacy of being kind of mixed but at a certain point they became super popular and changed. I was annoyed and frustrated, and I wanted to produce something that I liked. Also, the DJs around me weren’t being booked, so I wanted a place to do that.
I had been in nightlife long enough and figured I could pull it off. That’s why I did the first one. It was awesome. One of the biggest frustrations in nightlife is dealing with venues; the politics of it can be really difficult. If I was a white dude who rolled up to venues, they would take me seriously immediately. But because of how I look, venues tend to be really skeptical.
Has that changed?
Now I can send them press mentions, but it’s still pretty difficult. Shock Value is currently on hiatus – I haven’t done one for three months. The last space we were at was awesome. Unfortunately the venue was not supportive at all and treated me like I was naive. They made so much money but gave me no support. I had no budget and had to pay people from the money we made at the door and the minimal portion we got from the bar. The fact that they were willing to give us something from the bar is better than a lot of places but it got to be really frustrating. I felt that I needed support from the venue in order to do what I wanted. I put that on pause because I’m working on a lot of personal projects right now.
It’s a big project to do yourself!
Yeah, but it was cool. I wanted to create a space where trans and gender variant people could feel comfortable and not be boxed in. I emphasized booking trans artists and performers. Trans people are often marketed as spectacles; for some people, that’s their career choice and that’s great. People like Amanda Lepore represent one idea of what a trans women is. But there are people with practical talent and skill that aren’t being show-cased unless they’re pigeonholed as a trans person. There’s a community of trans men in New York that weren’t being brought in, like Brooklyn Boihood, and the guys from Original Plumbing. I wanted to bring all of these groups together in a single space in part because the parties I really enjoy going to set out with a specific intent of fusing great things that didn’t coexist before.
I was happy with Shock Value and it became a really fun environment. If a guy came in and started groping people, groups of women would personally kick him out before security had to get involved. I felt really good about how the intent was being reflected in the party itself. It was always fun, but it has to be both fun and feasible. Once I start doing them again, it’ll be better.
Do you think of DJing and party-hosting as your main project? What about your other work?
Nightlife has become such a central focus of my work in the media, and my other work doesn’t get talked about as much. Most of what exists of me in the world and online is related to nightlife, my other work is also less documented. Anytime I do anything in nightlife, it’s over-documented – 50,000 photos on Instagram, all these hashtags. But when it comes to all the other things that I do, I’m like: Where are the photos?
I learned my lesson. In the future, I’m just going to hire someone to do it for me. My friend Chris is good about that, he always pays someone to do documenting.
For a long time I was really intimidated by the art world. It’s similar to how I felt at Bard: Are my ideas valid? Am I allowed to just do my own thing? There were all these kids who did things like just put a square on a piece of paper, but they were really confident about this square on the paper so I guess that’s what they’re doing. I always felt really shy and dumb, that my concepts weren’t developed enough. My anxieties in the New York art world were related to that. I’m starting to let that down.
I never saw myself as a performer, I just fell into that. My natural inclination is towards writing and visual work. So now I’m trying to segue from the recognition I’ve received from my performances into visual work.
What are some of the inspirations behind your visual and written work?
People often ask me how all the things I do are related. Everything that I do is from this pastiche worldview that I have. A lot of it is from my mom, growing up, what I learned at Bard, being very aware of myself in the world as a gender variant black person. But also people I follow on the internet, and my sisters in the House.
I love surrealism, science fiction, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Kara Walker, artists like Coco Fusco. I have general dispositions, characters that I’m going with. A lot of them are hard to list because they’re just traces, things that are in my head.
I’m obsessed with futurism, and with ways of envisioning differently gendered or raced futures in the world, like Nuwaubianism. That’s one of my biggest inspirations. It’s technically called a cult, but it’s a spinoff of the Nation of Islam. There’s a lot of Ufology in the Nation of Islam, like theories of aliens restructuring dominant accounts of the Egyptians and the Mayans. It stems from the ‘primordial knowledge’ that black people are the direct descendants of these aliens, and that the white race was specifically created as an evil spawn from one of the original black reptilian people who decided to exploit his brothers and sisters so that he could gain domination over the planet. He created white people, white people dominated the rest of the world, and so on. I like it because it’s a mythological system. I don’t seriously believe in it, but I think it’s a brilliant way of using science fiction to construct an idea of a world that’s based in reality but that imagines something completely different. An alternative way of explaining and theorizing about black people. I’m really into Afrofuturism.
I’m very aware of myself in the world and my experience greatly influences my work. But what I don’t want to do, and what I think there’s too much of, is to always focus on my identity as black and as trans. Yes, I struggle every day, and all of these narratives of how we experience the world are very true and it often is very difficult.
I break down and cry at times, but I refuse to let my imagination be anchored down by my political and structural reality.
I’m inspired by Nuwaubianism because it takes the reality of the world, takes different symbols and creates this completely alternate universe, and that’s what I try to do with my writing.
I’m influenced by religion. I grew up in the black church. It wasn’t explicitly liberation theology, but generally any black church has streams of that, and I think it’s really beautiful to take the power of religious symbolism, saints, and the story of the people of Israel, and to use the power of those images and translate them into the black experience. I love that people do that. I love that Jodorowsky used a Latin American liberation theology in his work.
I’m also influenced by BDSM culture. One of the reasons I’m into Kara Walker is that she takes the darker, unspoken aspects of sexuality and plays with it. There’s an expectation of artists who’ve been dealt this sucky card of structural reality to create an ideal image of an antidote to that. I love artists that do the opposite and play with negativity.
Lately I’ve been thinking and writing about racial role-playing. For example, black Americans who choose to engage in racially explicit role-playing and sadomasochism. Maybe they play a slave for an hour and have a really intense interaction with someone who plays a slave master. Imagine all of the worlds and all of the ways that someone came to be drawn to that – that inspires me.
As a female, you walk around the world every day and the second you show a single aspect of your sexuality, the presumption behind all the glances is that you’re putting yourself out there in a way that suggests you deserve being raped. The same is implied if you as a black person express yourself in a certain way – you’re presumed to disavow yourself of your healthy, upward-mobility black personhood. For example, if I ordered fried chicken here I would be very aware of being a black person ordering fried chicken. I really like when people choose to take that whole reality and explode it.
If you could give a book to every person who reads this interview, what would it be?
I’m going to pick three: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin;
The Destruction of Black Civilization by Chancellor Williams; and
Undoing Gender by Judith Butler.
What did you think of the recent uprising in Ferguson?
I talked about it a lot with my friends.
To give some context: I’m one of those people who’s always talking about things like that because they happen in front of my face constantly. Just in this neighborhood [of Bushwick] you see people being frisked all the time. I grew up in the south, so I saw the southern end of that, and now I see and live through the New York experience of it. One of the things I liked about Bard was that me and my peers became super educated in things like the prison-industrial complex, slavery, the different amendments, and so on.
In college, I got into feminism and racial theory and was animated by the idea of being an active participant in this world. But I felt really disenfranchised from the political system. I had the right to vote, but I felt that voting didn’t mean anything. I forced myself to vote last time, I voted for Jill Stein. It felt like a waste. I generally feel like I have no control over my government. Even in local elections. I voted for Bill de Blasio, but it’s the same bullshit.
I started feeling really immobilized. I can only share so many Facebook articles, go on so many rants and go to so many rallies – ultimately it’s not gonna do anything! Nothing’s gonna happen. That’s how I felt for a really long time.
When I saw what was happening in Ferguson, it excited me, because it animated an awareness among black people. I felt really, really inspired by black people all over the place voicing that this is not OK. It was such a political, revolutionary impulse, an impulse to voice concern, discontent, and frustration with the government. When was the last time, besides isolated incidents, when all black America were up in arms together? Now, when I go to any neighborhood, when I see black people, I’m very aware of that. That was inspiring.
At Afropunk last weekend, that spirit was very much in the air. So many performers would acknowledge Ferguson. Many did the whole ‘hands up, don’t shoot’. I felt really inspired by that energy.
It will probably blow over very quickly, like a lot of things do in the U.S., but the moment was important. I’m glad the moment happened, and it’s still happening, in a lot of ways. In my ideal world it would continue to spread, but the police state in America is so totalizing. It will be another five years before something sets it off. We can hope for something better.
There’s obviously a problem of police violence in America. But to the same degree that people are becoming aware of it, people are also starting to take it as normal. Tomorrow, someone might tell me: ‘Three kids were beaten to death, having lollipops.’ My reaction would be: ‘That’s fucked up’, but I wouldn’t blink! The amount of exposure I had growing up in the South normalized it. When people start to be aware of it being normal, it also normalizes it.
Take the number of trans women of color that are killed on such a regular basis. As much as more and more people are aware of it now, they’re not shocked when they hear about it happening to another person. What does it lead to, in terms of action? Another rally? That’s great and those should keep happening, but I feel a new sort of frustration, because I don’t know what to do with all this awareness.
Every once in a while there’s a CeCe McDonald that becomes a national campaign, everyone is talking about it, but there are countless people that disappear in the news stream.
[Tyler:] “A few incidents become viral because they provide an opportunity for people to show how not-bigoted they are. Where their allegiances are. But it doesn’t really affect anything. I’m frustrated with that as well. But I’ve also seen the opposite happen, where everyone gets really pumped up about a solution that never actually works. It’s part of the thing that holds everyone down. And what I think is most interesting about the Ferguson thing is that there’s so clearly no solution. It opens up this opportunity for people who experience it every day to be pissed off. And it becomes obvious that nothing you can say is gonna solve that problem. And people who don’t experience it every day, all they can do is acknowledge that these people are pissed off. I would pissed too. I think that’s it. Without some cataclysmic shift in politics in this world, we’re in this trap. At least we can be pissed about the trap together.”
What I wish would happen, and what does happen sometimes, is that this sort of awareness would translate into people’s creative work. Musicians, artists, should be able to use it without having to be pigeonholed into some political X. The producer Schwarz made a club track – I love his music and I play all the time – where he took a sample of that sonic beep they use to disperse crowds, and then he layered it on top of this famous Baltimore club song called “Hand’s Up Thumbs Down”. Gun shots are really popular in Baltimore and Philly Rap so it has that. He replaced “Thumbs Down” with “Don’t Shoot”. At first I wasn’t sure if I thought it was appropriate for him to do that, but now I love that every time I have a set I can have three minutes where everyone in the room is reminded of Ferguson.
I don’t know how that might translate in other ways. I thought it was a really brilliant way to insert this sort of sentiment into a creation that would normally not be a part of it. I think it’s brilliant that in the club, even in the middle of dancing, you’re all of a sudden, like OMG, that was intense, I was just getting drunk listening to whatever before and then this was inserted.
For a long time I was part of an unproductive strain by being absurdly critical to the point at which you’re boxed in and can’t do anything but voice very basic assertions about your own experience. That’s not productive at all.
I think people should be critical of male-supported feminism, or white allies who support anti-racism. It’s important to be critical and aware of how those can be insidious forces. But I’m glad that more people are talking about it, even if it’s in slightly problematic ways, than not talking about it. I’ve become more optimistic in the last few years.