We Need Discwoman
Club culture is plagued by sexism and white supremacy. These three women won’t stand for it.
The FADER Summer Music Issue 2017
Photo by: Mary Kang
If you’re a raver, you see your city’s streets in every kind of light. The brooding shadows of the midnight shift. The soft focus of pre-dawn. And the rude, hi-def splendor that greets eyes emerging from an all-nighter. In the intimate hours between days, certain streets outside underground clubs, bars, and warehouses are transformed. Soaked in the warmth of shared confidences and cigarettes, a scuffed up bit of pavement can become a nook — somewhere to huddle with friends and speak dreams into the breeze, before breathing deep and diving back into the dance. In the afternoon sun of the following day, the same spot will look ordinary, but you’ll know different.
On the Sunday night of a hot mid-May weekend, the street corner outside Bushwick’s Bossa Nova Civic Club plays host to such a scene. People borrow lighters and trade names, drawn to one another like moths to a flame. While most of the city sleeps, one hundred or so bright young things have come together to party into the early hours of Monday. It’s a birthday party for Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson — the visionary 30-year-old co-founder of Discwoman, a collective and DJ booking agency that exclusively represents cis women, trans women, and genderqueer artists — and her friend Gregory, who is a loyal regular of the supportive scene Hutchinson has helped build.
Inside, Frankie’s Discwoman partners are behind the decks: Emma Burgess-Olson, 28, who makes spare yet dynamic techno as UMFANG, and Christine McCharen-Tran, 29, an event producer who is the business brain behind the operation. Dressed respectively in a voluminous white jumpsuit and a baggy black shorts and tee combo, the pair make a point of playing Rihanna’s “Sex With Me” for Frankie, who hot-foots it to the front in a cheetah-print crop top and patterned pants. Discwoman is often associated with techno, but tonight anything goes: reggaeton, Afropop, rap. The lights rotate through vivid blues, greens, and pinks, while the fog machine exhales deep, creating an ever-shifting space in which guards lower and spirits rocket sky-high. The crowd is mostly N.Y.C. club kids, including GHE20G0TH1K artist LSDXOXO, Tygapaw of the queer collective Fake Accent, and local rapper Quay Dash, whose last record was packed with anti-transphobia anthems. Later, ascendant stars Kelela and Moses Sumney roll up to let off steam after a gig. But nobody’s dancing harder than Yulan Grant, a.k.a. SHYBOI, one of the eight artists signed to Discwoman’s agency. In a corner with her baby sister, she twists and leaps, channeling the music with her body.
“Being a part of Discwoman has been a game changer,” SHYBOI tells me later. “They’ve been so great at constantly outlining and reifying their ethos that it’s inspired me to be even more upfront with what I want from a nightlife space and those who organize those spaces.”
Club culture is nowhere near immune to the systems that enforce the status quo. “It’s without a doubt that queer women/gender-nonconforming/trans artists, especially those of color, are treated differently than their white male counterparts [in the music industry],” SHYBOI continues. “Having the backing of these incredibly talented people has pushed me to test myself more, tweak a boundary here and there in a different direction. No one on this roster takes any bullshit.”
As SHYBOI hints at, creating a space that is truly supportive is not a one-off job, it’s an ongoing process. One that requires patient negotiation and tireless listening skills. For Frankie, Emma, and Christine, launching Discwoman has been more work than they’d ever imagined — and a test of their friendship.
Until she turned 8, Frankie lived with her parents and older brother on a council estate in London’s Hackney borough. Her father was an alcoholic, and was physically abusive to her mother. “One day, my mum came and took me and my brother out of school and said, ‘We’re leaving your dad right in this moment — your dad knows and he’s coming for us.’” Her mum hid them in a doorway around the corner from the school as they watched their father pass by on foot. “That was one of the last times she’d see him for a really long time,” Frankie says. “Same for us, actually.”
We are perched on a sofa in the cozy Bed-Stuy apartment she moved into just a week ago. It’s the first time she’s had a proper base in months of sleeping on friends’ couches, and she’s relishing the sense of security. While we talk, her new roommate, Stephen, quietly dishes out wine and weed before retreating to his room to give us space.
Frankie’s mum found a place in a women’s refuge in north-west London, where the three of them ended up staying for two years. “We shared one room, literally pissing in a bucket. It was really intense.” Between the stress of their living situation and lack of money, Frankie’s mum was miserable — but she took pains to empower her young daughter. “From as young as I can remember, she would just be like, ‘Kick men in the nuts,’” Frankie says, laughing. “She tried to drill some sense of self-worth into me, which now feels even more powerful than ever.”
In 2005, Frankie moved to Sussex for a degree in Film Studies and American Studies. (Her mother had remarried an American and moved to New York, which granted Frankie a green card as a minor; the city was in her sights.) “As soon as I got there I knew I didn’t fit in,” she says of university. “Finding out that a bunch of people’s parents paid their rent for them, I was like, What is going on here? Alarm bells were going off.”
There wasn’t just a massive wealth disparity on campus; racism was also rife. “I was living in a house with eight or ten people, and I got really close with this girl,” remembers Frankie, declining to name her. “Meanwhile, I had developed friendships with some black friends — Kuchenga, Patrick, and Xavier — and they were becoming really significant relationships to me.” When it came to sorting out a place to live for the following year, Frankie suggested to her housemate that they all live together. “She said, ‘Frankie, can I talk to you?’ She was squirming a little bit. She said, ‘I just really don’t feel comfortable living with all black people.’ It was a fucking kick to the stomach.”
“I said, ‘I’m the only black person in this house, what do you think my experience is?’ I got up and ran to my room. This white girl who lived upstairs came down and I heard her say, ‘Did you do it?’”
It was Kuchenga who saved Frankie in that desperate moment, and who she went on to live with. “She validated what I went through, she understood it,” says Frankie, explaining that Kuchenga, a darker-skinned black trans woman, has experienced discrimination “on another level.” “I’ve been friends with her ever since.” It was a different story with her white friends, however. “The amount of white people who would not engage with what happened — and I told so many people about it — was insane. It was just so painful.”
Looking for a distraction, she threw herself into partying. She took her first ecstasy pill at a rave called Raindance in London (she found it “so therapeutic”) and attended all-nighters in a field behind her campus where she danced to house, techno, and, notably, “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin.
As part of her degree, Frankie spent the 2007-08 school year abroad, at the University of California in Santa Cruz. On a social level, the local nightlife didn’t hold a candle to back home, but, intellectually, studying in America opened another door.
“I discovered all these amazing writers who talked in ways I didn’t even think was possible: James Baldwin, Angela Davis, bell hooks, the usual ones,” she says. “I had a breakthrough in my understanding of myself — from being a young black girl wearing towels on my head ‘cause I wanted straight hair, to understanding that you have just been trying to obtain whiteness your entire adolescence. That was such an emotional point for me. I hated myself a lot and thought I was so ugly and horrible. You realize why — because you’ve been bombarded with all this bullshit. It’s such abuse.”
Frankie moved to New York two weeks after graduating. She worked a string of part-time jobs in her first couple of years in the city — from doing community outreach for the African Diaspora Film Festival to serving hot dogs at Brooklyn’s Trophy Bar, which is where she met the people who would go on to launch Bossa Nova Civic Club. It was, in fact, at Bossa in late 2013 that she first met Emma, who had a monthly residency there. Frankie gave her props for mixing in a “fucking dope” Call Super song, and by the following May, they were hanging out every week.