VENUS X INTERVIEW
This is the full text of a feature in POP Magazine A/W 2012, for a warrior theme. Venus supports MikeQ in London tonight at House of Trax.
In the past couple of years several female popstars have proudly applied images of warriors to themselves. Rihanna has performed stradding a pink tank, in the ‘Run The World’ video Beyoncé was backed by an army of women being attacked by riot police, and in ‘Bad Girls’ M.I.A. is surrounded by camouflaged hijab/niqab wearing, gun toting dancers. in ‘Bad Girls’. It sounds kinda cool – on face value these images celebrate women’s power. ‘Run The World’ and ‘Bad Girls’ are explicitly messages about women. But once you try to unpick exactly what their message is, things get slippery.
Photos by Bibi Borthwick
Both ‘Run The World’ and ‘Bad Girls’ can be taken as demonstrating the simultaneous universality and arbitrariness of the categories (race and gender) by which oppression exerts itself. That is to say, Beyoncé and M.I.A. are kind of saying that they and the women backing them are powerful despite the forces that would constrain them. But the artist’s personal ownership of the song creates problems about authenticity. Can Beyoncé and M.I.A. really claim to be spokespeople for the women they are using to project their ‘message’? (‘Run The World’ has obvious resonances with the Arab Spring). This is a problem barely satisfied by answers like like, oh it’s pop, it’s postmodern, because the problem is about the enormous and tragic gap between the real and often life-threatening circumstances of so many women around the world, especially living in those cultures that Beyoncé and M.I.A. reference, and the hugely disproportionate wealth and comfort those superstars enjoy. (Beyoncé, as Laurie Penny pointed out, was once paid $1 by the Gaddafi family for a private performance: M.I.A. lives in Brentwood in L.A.). ‘Run The World’ and ‘Bad Girls’ threaten to collapse into blind egotism, and their politics is staked on a compromising irony.
How valuable can this iconography be? If in order to overturn stereotypes about terrorism, we need to feature hijabis more in our visual mainstream, as ordinary and not threatening, isn’t using them to portray gun-toting rebelliousness actually completely unhelpful? And rather than just ordinary, rubbish lyrics like ‘my chain hits my chest/when I’m banging on the dashboard’ makes ‘Bad Girls’ risible. Shouldn’t we be calling ourselves women, not girls? In what way, exactly, do we run the world? How does getting attacked by riot police prove women are powerful? By drawing attention to themselves as ‘girls’ Beyoncé and M.I.A. invite scrutiny: perhaps it’s enough to show how loaded that category still is. Perhaps that demonstration in itself is the true message about women and power.
But a warrior should be totally committed to a lifestyle. I heard about Venus X through a mutual friend in 2009, when she started DJing at and promoting a party in New York called GHE20 G0TH1K, with her friend $hayne (also a fashion designer for label Hood By Air). Via the party’s popularity and due to her unique DJing style, demand for Venus X rapidly soared. She has played at fashion shows for K8 Hardy and Gerlan Jeans, been booked for parties by the likes of Terry Richardson, Damien Hirst, Phillip Lim, at MoMA, the Gagosian and Art Basel Miami, supported Gang Gang Dance on tour, been featured in an A$AP Rocky video … you get the deal. The New York Times said, ‘not since DJ Spooky […] has a DJ been appreciated in so many cultural contexts’, while The Guardian’s Hermione Hoby described her as ‘the kind of goddess […] who’s fallen to Earth by way of a Bollywood film set, 90s hip-hop video and cyberpunk convention’. She’s Latina (her dad is Ecuadorian and her mum Dominican) and challengingly beautiful.
As interesting, though, as Venus’ ascension have been her vocal attitude and her refusal to deny the fact that culture is always political. Or rather, her determination to ramp the politics up. There are artists who seek to suppress the involvement of culture in politics (at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest Engelbert Humperdink refused to make any comment about protestors trying to draw attention to the Azerbaijani government’s corruption and human rights abuses), and there are artists who seem to think that they are being politically astute by creating a void of meaning. Venus, on the other hand, is a politically informed and clearly intelligent artist who employs her skills and weapons precisely and creatively. I therefore vote for substituting her for Beyoncé and M.I.A. in the warrior women of music.
Venus has famously played audio footage from the Arab Spring in her DJ sets, describes her aims as a DJ as both to disrupt and heal, and tells me at the moment she’s loving Moroccan radio streams and the music of fellow New Yorker Fatima Al Qadiri. She also famously got in a public verbal spat with Diplo after he pulled out a mobile phone and started recording her set at a GHE20 G0TH1K party – high earner Diplo isn’t exactly renowned for crediting his sources, and the word imperialism was used (not, in my opinion, inappropriately). She has since called him ‘a heteronormative piece of shit’. She too questions the value of annexing performances overtly dealing in gender and sexuality to the personas of superstars: ‘I think it’s better when people are dealing with attention and are actually changing things and they’re aware of the way the system is using them to mould consumption. That’s my thing, it’s fine if you want to have gay pop stars that are like trannies or whatever, and that’s fine because we know those are gimmicks and we understand what those archetypes are, they’re not artists. And now we’re living in a super high era of archetypes, people are building characters and they’re doing as much as they can with that character to make as much money as possible really fast. And it’s not making people safer on the street when they’re walking around looking like trannies, you know what I mean. So maybe they’re selling out a studio or a stadium somewhere but the reality is that the street is still pretty unsafe’.
That’s the equivalent in tranny terms my opening criticism of Beyoncé and M.I.A.’s warrior iconography, although the conversation didn’t take place in reference to them but to the current rise of gay or queer rap. (M.I.A. has been to GHE20 G0TH1K, incidentally). Due to the fact that her and $hayne’s party has been a platform for upcoming and overtly gay hip hop artists, Venus has been associated with this movement/scene. But, similarly to New York rapper Le1f’s insistence in an interview with The Fader that ‘I’m proud to be called a gay rapper, but it’s not gay rap’, Venus does not think that either music can or should be defined according to sexuality. Not, unlike Queen Latifa’s recent insistence that despite her appearance at the Long Beach Pride festival that this didn’t mean she had come out, because of any kind of shame. Venus’ name references the transgender prostitute Venus Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning, and the likes of transgender rapper Mykki Blanco and vogue house DJ MikeQ play at her parties. It’s rather because the gay scene can also be exclusive – she’s faced a backlash for not being gay enough because she has male as well as female partners, she doesn’t want to scare straight kids away, and she doesn’t think that sexuality can define your outlook: ‘you don’t have to eat pussy in order to think, know what I mean?’. She warns, ‘We really need to be careful doing all this like ‘I’m gay look at me because I’m gay’ shit because yeah you might make a shitload of money but they’re just perpetuating the separation, which is the issue, that people are different and fucked up or weird or wrong, or like you know drag queens and this and that. They’re making these spaces more exclusive than they already were, you know it’s like I’m like a little bit worried […] You know it’s like there’s some famous person, you’re just selling a false dream, sexuality is long term and fluid’.
That emphasis on inclusiveness also pervades Venus’ style both as DJ and dresser. ‘I’m not great at what I do but I’m also one of the best because I reapply a more free energy to what I was doing, because I don’t even know what I was doing when I started […] I was using this to make money to survive […]so it put me into a position where I have to overcompensate with you know good ideas and really putting energy into it, just practising a lot and trying my hardest because I knew that I was going to be in front of people’. She says she was DJing 3-4 times a week within two months of beginning, in demand because ‘at the time there was nobody that was like meeting the needs of kids like me who wanted to hear like hip hop and goth music at the same time’.
Even avoiding any gay labels, there’s an obvious parallel between Venus’ DJ style and practices that evolved out of the New York gay community. Where based on mimicry of ballet high fashion modelling poses, Vogueing mimetically inverts exclusion from high capitalist heterosexuality; banjee boys both conceal and give access for homosexuality in overt masculinity. These are styles about including what would be marginalised. Venus DJs a diverse mix of ghetto and gothic music, mainstream and local, often slowing down tempos, looping recognisable choruses and lyrics and layering samples ripped from the internet and teen and horror films. By doing so she juxtaposes the global mainstream (she plays Rihanna) and variants of dance culture (dembow, hardstyle, juke) that have evolved out of the mainstream, playing with their relationship so that they both pass off into and disrupt each other. (A lot of localised variants of dance music have evolved by slowing down or speeding up tempos). The DJ Chief Boima has also pointed out how by sampling teen girl flicks she represents a feminine contingent normally only represented in dance music as objects. In DJing to survive Venus developed a style that experiments with the ways that music can be most inclusive and democratic. Most importantly it’s also fun.
Venus’ dress style also challenges beauty conventions. Besides fusing goth and ghetto she also reinterprets ‘feminine’ against the backdrop of a backlash by designers against resistance to the ideals of beauty that designers would force upon them (Louboutin recently defended a statement about women suffering to wear his shoes by saying ‘it is not my job to create something comfortable’, and Marc Jacobs similarly defended his use of underage models by saying ‘I do the show the way I think it should be’).
The likes of Kanye, A$AP Rocky, Azealia Banks and Zebra Katz have, in the past year, tightened the relationship between rap and fashion. Venus, who says she currently prefers affordable clothes, is aware of the potential contradictions of that. ‘When I first started coming on the scene and first started DJing I felt like the [fashion and rap] worlds were very separate, but now in the last year a lot of rappers have been rapping about clothes, so naturally the fashion designers have to acknowledge them, and they’re kinda working together to like make sure the clothes sell. So I feel like it’s changing a little bit, but I feel like it’s controversial because there’s so much capitalism involved in it, and you can’t tell if people actually give a fuck about black people or people of colour or lower income just because they’re rapping about it’. From the way she talks about these issues, they’re clearly things that Venus has thought or been thinking about – her answers are always long and eloquent. I’m guessing that wherever she goes next, she’s not going to stride unthinkingly into any high capitalist iconographies.