Scene Spotlight: Clubbing with Care in London’s Queer + BPOC community

DJs, artists and collectives using the club as a space for social change - tackling mental health, anti-capitalism, harm reduction, sobriety and reconnecting with the land

Words by Anjali Prashar-Savoie

Anjali Prashar-Savoie is a cultural producer, yoga teacher and DJ. Her work focusses on collaboration, creating opportunities that challenge inequalities in the cultural sector and alternative modes of making and being together. As well as working as a club programmer and festival producer, Anjali has researched, published writing and lectured on the topics of nightlife, community organising, labour rights and the nighttime economy. She is active in the scene as a resident DJ with SISU, a platform celebrating women and non-binary DJs and behind-the-scenes roles. 

For many queer and BPOC people in London, clubs are an important place to connect with others, express oneself authentically and share art beyond exclusionary mainstream spaces. Alongside being a source of creative inspiration, clubs have historically functioned as a space to organise queer communities and create environments that promote social change. Today, in an increasingly fast-paced, individualised and productivity-centred world, clubs offer a much needed sense of connection and embodiment. However, our venues are designed around alcohol sales, club work tends to be a precarious, low-paid all-night thing, and competition for resources and creative opportunities has become the norm. As a result, the experience of clubbing can become a site for short-term transactional exchange rather than community and care. 

Over the past few years, London’s queer nightlife has exploded with the rise of joyous festivals like Body Movements bringing together previously separated sounds, styles and identities. As events commercialise and expand, participants are striving to continue conversations about care, welfare and wellbeing. The intensity of clubbing, and its firm place within commercial markets remains a reality that we must acknowledge; clubbing has both nearly destroyed and crucially saved me, and I know I am not alone in this experience. But what does care in the club actually look or feel like? How exactly is the club culture engaging with wellbeing? 

In this scene spotlight, I cover some of the DJs, artists and collectives using the club as a space for social change - tackling mental health, anticapitalism, harm reduction, sobriety and reconnecting with the land - all via the medium of dance music. 

In the last 30 years dance music has become a global industry creating an entirely new job market. DJ, broadcaster and mental health advocate Vanessa Maria highlights some of the aspects of working in dance music that affect wellbeing: “Factors such as irregular schedules, sleep deprivation, substance use, performance anxiety, and the pressure to maintain a specific image can contribute to mental health struggles among artists and professionals.” Safe Only, trailblazing queer peer-to-peer welfare and club security providers tell me about the challenges of this work: “Nightlife workers are among the most poorly paid, with some of the harshest working conditions, and subject to major dehumanisation. And yet they’re expected to bring their A game the whole time, and respond to people having peak experiences (highs and lows), with very little support.” I have written elsewhere about the precarious working conditions in clubs, and it is safe to say these are not conditions conducive to personal or collective wellbeing. As a response, a number of figures have become vocal, using their online platforms to share the realities of working in an industry designed around late nights and loud music. 

DJ Winggold

Similarly, Charles aka DJ Winggold, founded London-based events platform Unbound Events after a “particularly intense, gruelling and protracted depressive episode”. DJ Winggold uses social media to speak candidly about their personal journey with mental health and outlined to me some of the challenges of being a creative: “I find the constant need to be 'on' and connected really draining - artists these days are expected to be content creators, maintain some form of relationship with supporters and also keep progressing their art. This is nigh on impossible if you have a full time job (often the only way to support any form of creative career)”. Social media is a double-edged sword here. While useful for connecting with others, DJ Winggold feels “there's a perceived need to be constantly making progress and to have continuous upwards momentum, but that's all an illusion.” Charles speaks candidly about their personal journey with mental health and has since become a fierce advocate and speaker on topics such as identity, the minority experience, musical subcultures, community organising and mental health.

DJ and broadcaster Vanessa Maria shines a light on the loneliness of being a DJ, struggles with imposter syndrome and sobriety. Along with Fred Conybear, founder of music broadcasting platform Keep Hush, Vanessa has launched Don’t Keep Hush, an initiative aimed at tackling mental health in and around the music industry. Their campaign has involved throwing a Don’t Keep Hush party, and releasing t-shirts with proceeds going to Black Minds Matter. She uses her online platform to create a sense of solidarity among DJs and music professional, which she feels has had a knock on effect in pushing organisations and individuals to prioritise mental wellbeing and offer support. 


Eliza Rose wearing Don't Keep Hush

The impact of the online honesty of DJs like Winggold and Vanessa Maria reminds people that they are not alone in their struggles. DJ Winggold found that sharing the ups and downs of being in the industry deeply resonated with others: “I never really expected people to read what I was writing, since it goes against the bite-sized, fast-paced nature of the internet, but I've received countless supportive messages from people saying how me being open makes them feel more seen.”

Ayesha Khan, an abolitionist organiser and doctor, draws a connection between mental health and capitalism. They argue that our diverse experiences, which may be pathologized under mental health and psychiatric classifications, are actually logical human responses to the impacts of capitalism and colonialism on our society: “psychiatry finds increasingly mind-bending ways to reduce collective, widespread distress under brutal systems to individual “abnormal” neurological defects.” This doesn't mean that mental health struggles are invalid, but rather that they're linked to broader, shared systems and oppressions. This underscores the importance of community in mental health care.

Queer nightlife provides a range of tools for care in the form of welfare infrastructure and staff, safer space policies, workshops on consent, de-escalation techniques for dancefloor conflict and trained support staff. QTBPOC+ (Queer, Trans, Intersex, Black People & People of Colour) club night Pxssy Palace have launched their own initiative of ringfencing ticket income to fund taxi rides home for transgender people who face larger incidences of violence in public space. 

Virginia Wilson aka Gin – event producer and DJ involved with UK Black Pride, sex-worker led Sex + Rage, and Faggamuffin Bloc Party – previously founded Resis’dance, one of the first parties in London to implement a safer space policy due to discrimination from venue, audiences, staff and security. These policies have since become widespread in London’s nightlife with venues increasingly adopting this approach. This culture shift came from a grassroots level, where party organisers took on the responsibility of educating audiences, venues and security. With their years of experience, Gin emphasises that it is not enough just to advertise community and wellbeing, highlighting the importance of concrete action. DJ Winggold echoes this in highlighting how ‘community’ has become a tool for ticket sales: “While there's a lot of talk about 'community', I find a lot of it to just be surface-level chatter by bodies that want to co-opt the word for marketing purposes”.

Safe Only Ltd

On the flip side, Safe Only is one very active response to these issues. Founded by Dani and Yannis out of a need to offer an alternative to the “appalling treatment from security and nightlife staff – behaviour we now know goes against the SIA training that all security receive”, they tell me. “As queer people we were going to nightlife spaces to access somewhere we could thrive authentically, only to have our traumas and patterns of bullying repeated and compounded on the door. When inside there was no one to care for us – that’s not to say people didn’t care, but bar teams and managers are so stretched by what they have to do on any given night that they simply don’t have the capacity to show customers the care they feel. Having a holistic approach encompassing security, welfare, medics, and now training around inclusion and harm reduction has changed that very rapidly! We are abolitionist in our approach and committed to working in ways that directly challenge systems of oppression, such as the criminal justice system.”

While queer nightlife can provide a space for joy, the need for such spaces was born out of exclusion from mainstream society and a need for safer spaces to be with community. Danni and Yannis expressed the importance of caring for people in these environments: “There are so few places we can turn ourselves up to 100%, and exist without being subject to cis/het gaze. When we bring our full selves as queer people, that includes a lot of stuff that can be difficult to process, or needs community support to regulate. We don’t want to pretend that [these difficulties are] not part of our gorgeous queer experience, so having welfare and harm reduction means that people can bring their full selves and know they’ll be met with compassion and care. With Safe Only, it also means that if conflict, safety issues or other challenges come up on a night out, “there’s someone to respond to without resorting to the punitive, carceral systems we all loathe so strongly.” Safe Only is leading the way in their implementation of abolitionist and harm reduction principles into commercial club spaces. Educating around safe substance use for example is no small feat when venue licences depend on zero-tolerance policies, and don’t want to risk promoting anything related to substances, even in the name of safety. 

Safe Only shows the type of care that can flourish when infrastructures for our community are run by our community. Safe Only started with a team of three newly licensed SIA security workers, and in the past year, they have grown to a team of over twenty-five brilliant SIA workers, welfare staff and medics highlighting the urgent need for this type of support: “People are so ready for care”, Danni and Yannis tell me, “but given the financial strain promoters and venues are under, finding the money to pay for welfare and harm reduction staff is tricky for some people.” Safe Only offers a sliding scale to make sure their services are as affordable as possible for everyone, whilst giving people with more capital the opportunity to subsidise those with less budget, ensuring their services are provided where it is needed most. 

In a newly professionalised field, more people are exploring sobriety as a path to sustainability in the industry. A number of queer clubbers, DJs and promoters like Harry Gay of Queer House Party and Lewis G Burton of Inferno have opened up about being sober. Similarly, Riva, resident DJ at Fold recently held an online panel about sobriety in the rave community, while mental health collectives like Misery have paved the way for sober partying by, centering healing and joy for QTIBPOC+.

Misery pushes the dancefloor’s boundaries by providing community support to groups that face higher instances of mental health, housing instability,  suicide, and addiction. Along with a dancefloor that pops off, misery parties also have spaces to sit and relax, zine libraries, snacks, chai and areas with different sensory experiences, which according to Safe Only “can be gamechanging for neurodivergent people”. This expansion of the range of activities you can do in a club is a deep act of care, and can make these spaces more accessible for a wider range of people. In some parties, Misery even offered ‘One 2 Hun’, a therapeutic listening service with a counsellor set up in a private room at the back of a club.

Much like the difficulties of harm reduction in commercial venues, running sober POC events is no small feat. Misery struggled to find venues for their first party: “Nightlife and venues are completely beholden to alcohol sales, hence the lack of sober spaces readily available. Sober spaces aren’t just a health asset, but an anti-capitalist one too, which, call me dated or whatever, feels important.” 

Misery in Dazed Magazine, 2021

Misery’s powerful work extends beyond the dancefloor with Misery Moves, group gatherings that provide therapeutic experiences based on ancestral modes of healing that reconnect people with land, such as foraging herb walks. Misery’s work in and outside the club is a powerful act of reclamation that shows how club culture can be harnessed for community care; groundbreaking work that has recently been recognised in an award by mental health charity Mind.

Not all action has to be big or expensive to be impactful. It could be a simple check-in of your fellow ravers on a night out, making sure you have snacks and adequate sustenance to nourish your body when dancing for hours. Queer rave Riposte lovingly offers breakfast at the 5-6am end of the night, giving partygoers a nourishing send off. DJs like Winggold and Vanessa Maria sparking discussions around mental health, paired with the on-the-ground community work of organisations like Safe Only and Misery shows how clubbing is being transformed to better serve communities. These efforts reclaim the dancefloor from the lecherous claws of the alcohol industry, and are paving the way for the future of clubbing. 

Misery is always quick to remind us that clubbing for community care is not new. They follow in a lineage of parties like Shakti Disco, which grew out of the need to fundraise to support LGBTQ South Asians struggling with family rejection and homelessness all the way back in 1988. Similarly, DJ Winggold hopes to see more of a connection with the heart of dance music in club culture’s future: “I'd like there to be an acknowledgment that it doesn't always need to be about partying and for people to harness the original spirit of the dance industry and perhaps inject a bit more substance. Obviously it's still a business at the end of the day, but this doesn't need to mean there can't be real explorations of how we can all feel better or how we can actually use it to transmit important messages."

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