Papi Juice are far from their Brooklyn stomping grounds. Away from the balmy Miami heat outside, Oscar Nn, Mohammed Fayaz, and Adam R. are putting down their suitcases and settling into the Red Bull Music offices. In a few hours, they'll be a few blocks away bringing their Papi Juice sounds to Swetboxx, the 12-hour warehouse rave bringing together queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming collectives from around the country. For now, though, they're fine right where they are -- sipping coffees and talking about their party series that's been celebrating "queer and trans people of color and the folk who love them" for five years.
"If you don't have a diverse lineup or a lineup that reflects the people who are doing the most interesting nightlife, then your shit isn't going to pop off," Oscar says with finality. It's one of the reasons he and Adam began the party series half a decade ago. After going to the standard circuit parties whose audience was overwhelmingly white, cisgender gay men and finding themselves outsiders in these venues, the two came up with the idea in an entirely different axis of white wealth: a night of gallery hopping in Chelsea. "Everyone around us was white and rich. It was us and two of our other friends and we were the only black or brown people," Oscar explains. "The stares we were getting inspired us to be like, 'Yo, let's make our own space.'"
What followed might have been the best thing to ever come out of the Chelsea art gallery openings. Oscar and Adam gathered a handful of DJs and began Papi Juice, eventually adding artist Mohammed Fayaz into the fold to create their iconic event posters, including the one for this weekend's Pretty Papi summer finale.
While they took a break from running around Brooklyn to celebrate Oscar's birthday in Miami, we sat down to talk about how they made Papi Juice one of the borough's most inclusive parties.
OUT: Tell me about starting Papi Juice because there are a lot of parallels with Swetboxx and your own event in Brooklyn.
Oscar Nn: It's been five years now. We just had our fifth anniversary in the summer. Basically, it was me and Adam's idea at the beginning. We were gallery hopping in Chelsea.
For the free wine?
Oscar: Yes, exactly! (Laughs) It was a warm Thursday night and it's the Chelsea art galleries. Now, I feel that they're a lot more inclusive and reflective of different sorts of artists but at this time, five or six years ago, it still felt very white. Everyone around us was white and rich. It was us and two of our other friends and we were the only black or brown people. The stares we were getting inspired us to be like, 'Yo, let's make our own space."
Adam R: We've been DJing since college. I would do it at house parties and I knew about Oscar's gigs and I guess he knew about mine, but I was very minimal -- doing small bars and stuff. I was trying to find my way into other DJ crews. We were at the right point where we both wanted to do the same thing and create a space where we were able to bring together everyone we wanted to see who wasn't out at these bigger events.
In Brooklyn, there are bigger spaces like Dreamhouse and Mood Ring. Do you feel that there's been a renaissance in the number of spaces opening up for queer people of color and the trans community?
Oscar: I think so. We're not the only ones that have been working and proving to different venue owners and people in charge of these spaces that queer and trans events are the future. We're it. There wouldn't be nightlife without us.
Historically in New York City, nightlife has focused around the experience of queer and trans people of color.
Adam: And we're not a niche market. We'll come out to have a good time if the party is in service of us. I think that it's been proven time and time again over the past decade -- even before we were around, too.
Oscar: In the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, there were all of these queer places in Harlem before that queer movement existed. There wasn't even a word to define it but you'd go into a jazz club in Harlem and be at a drag king show. That's where Balls started.
It's always been around, but do you feel that these communities have become more visible in mainstream culture?
Oscar: We've always been visible. The imagery around [the 1980s party] Paradise Garage was iconic. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna were there. That shit is iconic. That was very visible at the time and with ballroom, for example, it is extremely visible right now, which is amazing. The shine is actually getting to the people producing it and living those experiences.
Us as organizers and people devoted to nightlife, we're building networks and families around the world and holding spaces accountable to cater to us. If you don't have a diverse lineup or a lineup that reflects the people who are doing the most interesting nightlife, then your shit isn't going to pop off.
Adam: It's so interesting how even five years ago, we had so much pushback around our mission and this idea of having a night that celebrates queer and trans people of color. Now, people who rejected us years ago are coming back and saying, "Oh hey what's up? You guys want to play here?"
Yeah, Papi Juice has become such a big name in Brooklyn's club scene. I'm sure that feels nice.
Oscar: It feels nice but it's also unbelievable.
Mohammed Fayaz: We've been really deliberate about our growth. Starting at a small bar called One Last Shag, the capacity was 75 people. We packed maybe 200 people a night with the backyard in there. There is often a time when we know we've outgrown a space but the way New York nightlife works, there aren't a lot of better places to go to. It almost feels like we're doing ourselves and the community a disservice by not moving but at the same time, you don't want to move prematurely and go into a venue that doesn't respect you or will over police your crowd. We find homes that make sense and then stick around.
Elsewhere is our home now and it's a really great match. It's so important whose putting together a venue. They're folks who actually worked in nightlife for a decade and then decided to open a venue and put the time and energy and resources into it.
I think you're doing a good job of creating a safe space for your community.
Adam: I think with our presentation, people were initially thinking that this was just a cis male party, which it wasn't at all from the jump. Luckily, by word of mouth and people talking about us, it became known that everyone is here and that you should feel as safe here as you can. We're doing everything we can to ensure that.
Oscar: Although, we don't believe in the term "safe space." I don't think as queer and trans people of color, there will ever be a safe space for us. We can say "safer space" or "intentional space." We like to frame it as intentional instead of safety because safety isn't an option for some of the most vulnerable folks in our communities.
Mohammed: There's so much power in intention. For the three of us to sit down and talk about what we're giving, what's the vibe, what's working and not working. All of that dialogue and conversation is work that goes into the space and creates this energy field.
Adam: That's informed a lot of our venue selection too. When we hopped around for a couple of months and doing different venues, we had some weird experiences with security teams and the management. When we find a security team and management team that is amazing and inviting, those are the people we stay with.
Adam R. at Red Bull Music's Swetboxx. (Photography: Karli Evans / Red Bull Content Pool)
There was an incident at Bushwig Berlin here where a friend of mine who had performed was pepper sprayed by a security guard. It was such a strong reminder that one stray security guard who has a problem with queer or trans people can escalate a situation.
Oscar: That's why it's super important for us at every event that we have. Now we're really close with Elsewhere, for example, and their security team knows our community very well, but the first time we're ever in a space and we're in charge and our name is out there, we'll talk to the security teams about the things they should consider. Maybe their gender won't necessarily match their IDs so be respectful of that. Also, we're threatened daily with violence so responding with an aggressive tone won't work. It will just escalate the situation.
Mohammed: Also, let's skip the pat-downs. We can vouch for our crowd that you don't need them.
Oscar: Also gendered pat-downs too. You cannot assign people their gender.
And those are things that security teams won't even think to look out for.
Mohammed: It makes their team better and more adaptable to different environments. It's funny because when we have these talks and touch base, nine times out of ten they'll be like, "Oh yeah I've done loads of gay parties." We have to remind them that this isn't exactly a gay party. There are a whole assortment of folks who will come through that they might not be able to identify and that's okay because that's not their job. We've gotten into a really good rhythm with the security teams.
Oscar: They love us. It reflects where they're from. I'm sure most of our community looks like their families.
Mohammed: It reminds them of their queer siblings or just the queer folks in their neighborhoods.
When you were younger, did you feel that you had the kind of space you've created now?
Adam: That was the biggest drive. Going in our 20s to these spaces separately and uniting on this conversation that the music was so lame and whack. We wanted to hear stuff that we wanted. I played house parties and Oscar played at them and the people we saw at those parties, we wanted all of those things to be combined.
Mohammed: I'm from Queens so I've been going out in New York since I was 18 or 19. The first places I went to were in the East Village and Williamsburg. Metropolitan, Eastern Bloc, This n' That. All those bars. Phoenix back when it was a thing. (Laughs)
Oscar: Did you do Sugarland?
Mohammed: (Laughs) No I was never that girl.
Oscar: I was that girl.
Mohammed: You get it where you can. I remember that the first Papi Juice I went to was the second one and I was blown away. Like, where am I? Where have all these people been my whole life? Some of those people we still know and talk to.
Oscar: They still come to the parties.
Mohammed: It's amazing! What's the phrase? If you build it, they will come. That's what happened.
Oscar: For me, in my formative nightlife years after I turned 19, I was in cities where I was going to all of these gay clubs. I'm explicitly saying gay clubs because they were for gay men.
Adam: Excluding everybody else.
Oscar: Yeah. It made me so upset. I remember my first experience in a gay club, thinking wow this is it. This is the space I've been looking for my whole life, but as I started going more and more to these spaces, I realized this was not it. The haze began to wear off and I was like wow, I feel invisible and don't belong. People are really rude and pushing me.
For us to have created this space is something out of my dreams. That was exactly what I was dreaming about. For us to truly be free and truly celebrate, the whole family needs to be there. That includes everyone across the spectrum in their queerness and of course our trans family and people of color. That was something so important from the beginning; to make sure we were being as inclusive as possible.