Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. For this series, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
Who: DJ Tikka Masala
Tell me about the first, or an early experience, going out to a gay nightlife space.
It was my first semester in college at Rutgers. I went to the Colosseum in Sayreville, NJ. It was a big club. It had big marble sculptures of Adonises around the space, and was shaped like a warehouse. It had a sprawling parking lot where all kinds of things were happening. It felt like a suburban sex temple. It was beautiful. The lesbians from my college took me there. They were like, you are one of us now. I was into one of the girls in the group. It was my first time seeing real drag queens, so tall, so beautiful. One queen gave me a bunch of flowers. I was very well received as a tiny new person in that space and they ate me up, but I was so shy.
I also remember it being really terrifying. I went straight to the reggae room because I was not having the techno room. I wanted to be with people of color and there was a space inside of the club where POCs were. I saw public sex for the first time, in the parking lot. I stepped out to get some air and there were people doing it against their cars. It was so free and uninhibited. I felt like I was stepping out of high school in New Jersey. Sex, especially queer sex, was not in my face. I was curious about what that looked like in the world around me and I saw that at the Colosseum. I saw gay men being present and unapologetic. I started to find lesbian bars in New Jersey too, and that cultural difference became clear to me. I definitely preferred being in the nightclub and being around people who were dancing.
You liked one of the girls, you felt freedom in a space where people were responding to you, but you were overwhelmed by some of the whiteness and music, and needed to find a space where you could be around POCs and hear music that you liked.
It was a lot. But it was all very clear to me too. Intersectionality hadn’t arrived in our common vocabulary yet. Everybody I know who lives multiple identities absolutely in their bones already knows what that is. There are all kinds of rooms where there are all kinds of different things about you that are going to stand out or fit in. With very intersectional bodies, there are fewer and fewer rooms for us. But those rooms are so precious when you find them. I’ve found many, I’ve made many, you know, because it’s hard to find that space.
I saw public sex for the first time, in the parking lot. I stepped out to get some air and there were people doing it against their cars.
How did you end up in NYC and start going out here?
I come from a musical family and I grew up studying music. I never thought I’d enter into a musical profession though. I came to NYC for graduate school to study documentary cinema at NYU. I needed a part-time job, and the summer before I got here I met an incredible DJ who became my friend and mentor. His name is Cheb I Sabbah. He was a big deal but I didn’t know it at the time. He’s French-Algerian, a Berber on his father’s side and Jewish on his mother’s side, and known for DJing house music. He helped me realize that music is serious. The summer before I moved to New York, I was working with him. I was helping him with his video and we were talking about music the whole time. In my mind, it felt like DJs didn’t play instruments. They push play, they do this, they push play, they do that. It’s not the same thing as singing for years of your life, learning how to change your body to sound right. I saw in his work that he had a lot of discipline. He told me I already knew the skills. He was like, “you’re already a musician, you already do this stuff.” I grew up studying classical vocal music. My father’s family builds instruments. I wasn’t allowed to listen to American music until I was a teenager. In their view, it was something to not be wasted.
My first gig in NYC was for Murray Hill’s amateur burlesque night, one Monday night a month. Murray Hill is a famous drag king performer who had a show at Galapagos Art Space, which was in Williamsburg at that time. I became one of their regular DJs from doing that gig.
What was that like for you?
I was there for four years and was doing private events. The regular Monday night got me connected, and they would call me for their big parties too. I was really young, like 23, when I got here, and I started doing that and going out. Galapagos made me their resident and then after that, a lot of things came.
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The moment of expansion was when I had a gig at a bar called Sputnik. There was a seminal Brooklyn hip-hop group called The Gang Star, and one of the people in that group ran the bar. He asked me to come in for a gig. It was a benefit for an organization, and the other DJ didn’t show up. No one came to the bar for it. At the end of the night, I thought, I can’t put my heart into this, nobody was there. The owner came up to me and he was asked if I wanted to work at the bar. I thought, are you kidding me? It was just me and the people who are trying to make money off of a good cause. But he really liked my set and started to let me know who we was, and I thought, how can I say no to this opportunity? He asked me to throw a monthly party. There was a different kind of pressure coming from someone who’s a long-time Brooklyn underground hip-hop artist with a big legacy. It felt like when Chebb I asked me to do music.
The party took me to Japan, to the White House, and all over Europe. It was very much a platform. And then I had burnout.
So two of my friends and I threw a successful party there called That’s My Jam. It got too big for Sputnik, and transformed into a party of about 5-600 people at the Bell House every month. It was the biggest queer dance party in Brooklyn for a few years. I got exhausted. Scaling the project became a lot. I’m a DJ, not a promoter. I’m organized enough to get it to that place, but after I got really tired because I was working on a bunch of other things too. I was in my Saturn return when I shut everything down, turned 33, stopped DJing, stopped being in a relationship and quit my job. The party took me to Japan, to the White House, and all over Europe. It was very much a platform. And then I had burnout. Now I’m committed to a bar and I don’t have to do all that stuff. The bar has a soul and a spirit and a story.
This is Henrietta Hudson the legacy lesbian bar in Manhattan. How did you start working there?
When I re-entered nightlife, someone invited me to DJ their 40th birthday party at Henrietta. I was ready to reset and see, so I did it. At the end of the night, the owner of the bar asked if I wanted to throw an event.
She felt like an old gangster. I was already working with all these old guys, they kept pulling me into their lives. It was always coming from people who were doing something closer and closer to what I wanted to do. At Henrietta, I meet elders and I’ve been writing about them. I’ve been there since 2014.
What’s your regular Henrietta’s schedule? How are you involved there?
I’m there every Thursday and Sunday night. Sunday is game night. Thursday is more of a hookup, pickup night. The Thursday party started as an old-school music appreciation party called Homotown, a night for appreciating our elders and our old music. Over time it adjusted itself to who’s in the room. Sunday is a Latin and international night. That’s the crossover at that bar. My audience is primarily queer women of color.
My colleagues are queer women of color too. I am in this intersectional space where I always feel blessed. My DJ peers have to go to places where they still deal with a certain kind of static about creating a queer space to begin with, I don’t have to do that. It’s a different job when you’re in a brick-and-mortar queer bar because that’s built around you. I still feel that intense, unbridled queer joy, but I don’t have the energy to organize it on my own anymore. Henrietta is this beautiful place where I can just chill and be.
What about being in queer nightlife brings you joy, and keeps you coming back to it?
People come in in a bad mood sometimes, and then when they leave, they’re so happy. People will come in and they haven’t met friends or they’re looking for community, and they find it. It makes them part of something. Every night I see somebody who’s shy or lonely find a way, or somebody who is having a rough time and gets helped out. People play out there, their nursery school dramas, attention, abandonment, that stuff happens too. But mostly the part I love is that there’s a lot of room that gets made.
Some folks throw parties that aren’t in these brick and mortar queer spaces. Usually when they feel really safe, it’s because they’re thinking about a lot of different angles that a person can go through in them. I always feel very safe in deeply intersectional queer parties that are well thought out by organizers.
What are some of the other safe spaces that you enjoy going to, outside of your Henrietta community?
Yalla party is where I go all the time as a participant and I also get to work for them, which is a privilege. It’s a party for Middle Eastern and North African queer folks. Arrebato is a really fun one. It’s in Queens and caters to Latinx queers. YAS Mama at C’mon Everybody, is a Latinx drag night. I DJed Yalla’s Pride party at C’mon Everybody this year.
So what is a space like YAS Mama or Yalla for you?
The people who are running the parties have an intuitive experiential empathy with the people who are coming in. They pay attention to everything that goes on in the bar to make femmes feel safe. Somebody who is trans or non-binary coming in, if the party is being carved out by people who walk through the world like that, they are going to notice a lot of details that other people don’t. It’s that quiet sense of safety. It’s not having police or guards. It’s making sure that it’s not easy to put drugs in people’s drinks, making sure that there are enough bathrooms and exits. Are the bar staff queer friendly? Are they people of color? This is all being thought out so when someone is coming into the space, they can be embraced as they are. That’s what I feel at Henrietta’s.
Henrietta’s has historically been a space for queer women of color. When there were more lesbian bars, it used to be that Crazy Nanny’s was the bar for queer women of color and Henrietta’s was more for white lesbians in the early 2000’s. After Crazy Nanny’s shut down, Hentrietta’s changed. I didn’t go there until I worked there. It really surprised me because everyone I saw working was a person of color.
I see the queer community gentrify and stratify ourselves, we put ourselves into separated safe spaces and almost don’t connect in the middle. That happened in an extreme way on Hudson Street where there was that bar for these people, this bar over there for those people, and they’re making choices to not hang out. Then one went away and the staff changed. Hentrietta’s owner got rid of people that were keeping a certain kind of culture. The project was to reestablish it as a safe space and put language and politics on it instead of it just being like, we don’t know who’s allowed here and who’s not.
You talked about a stratification of queer spaces. What’s your take on all of the new monthly parties happening that are catering to specific queer communities, at venues that aren’t fulltime queer venues?
I threw my party at the Bell House and that was not a queer brick and mortar venue. The project of who was on my team and our identities were really important. I’m an immigrant South Asian queer Dyke, and I worked with a white trans guy and a Black gay man. The three of us together could figure out if something bothered us. At the end of the night we’d sit down and sort it out with the venue until we got it right. I feel like people know how to do that for these new parties.
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I needed help because my group wasn’t South Asian queers, there were a lot of different kinds of people that were coming and I didn’t know all of their experiences. The way I see these new parties working is that they’re making sure their artists are getting paid. They negotiate with the venue properly for what they are bringing and what they are getting. Sometimes venues can be discriminatory and there’s no way to prove it.
Adam from Papi Juice used to work with me, and Maddie from YAS Mama. They’re all 10 years younger than me. When they arrived in Brooklyn, they were looking for smaller spaces that would hold them. Azucar, Papi Juice, and two other queer parties started at One Last Shag where I used to organize things. The consciousness shifted in that space from being very skeptical to seeing queers show up over and over again. Some of those parties didn’t work out. Azucar stopped. My friend Jack’s party stopped. Papi Juice and YAS Mama grew.
Are there any trends you see happening in queer nightlife right now?
Queer people of color are finding and creating their own spaces. I do wonder about that tension between multiculturalism and separatism. You need separatism to find your safety, but you need multiculturalism to get things done in community for real. Sometimes it’s hard to find spaces where they exist at the same time and people still want to be there over and over again. I’m hoping that’s a trend that’s coming to nightlife next.
Big communal spaces shouldn’t be a pink-washed rainbow Pride parade. It shouldn’t be corporatized. It should be a space that we take charge of as a community. Figuring out how to articulate that kind of a space in nightlife in the Trump era is a lot more difficult than it was in the Obama era. It doesn’t go over well at this moment in the same way of everybody unconditionally loving each other.
Hey Tikka! We first spoke at the very start of March 2020, right as the news of the pandemic was arriving in the US, a few weeks before lockdown. I’d love to go back to that time and hear what it was like for you personally, and how you participated in nightlife’s transition to digital.
I ended up going to visit a friend upstate before the lockdown started. I was doing everything digital at that time. As a resident DJ at Henrietta’s, I set up digital gigs for them on Zoom. I did Thursday nights, making sure that people who wanted to gather still had a place to come together. Henrietta’s is a place where a lot of queer women of color who are native New Yorkers were coming to. It felt important to be able to honor that. Out of all the places I work, this was the place where regular digital ritual was required the most.
While you were upstate during the summer, what was going on for you as the Black Lives Matter movement was happening in NYC and elsewhere?
I work as a digital organizer at the Audre Lorde Project during the day. I was very busy doing the digital side of pivoting what we usually do in person. ALP is a very broad organization. We organized a Trans Day of Action. We have a ton of programming every month that brings people together in physical space. Having figured out how to make a digital transition for nightlife first made it a lot easier with ALP because I was allowed to make all the mistakes before the George Floyd protests happened.
Henrietta [Hudson’]s is a place where a lot of queer women of color who are native New Yorkers were coming to. It felt important to be able to honor that.
As somebody who’s already in organic spaces where people are gathering, I pay attention to safety, accountability, transparency, making sure that people have access, and having safety plans for what could go wrong in a physical space. There’s a version of that in a digital space. I was able to see what some of the challenges were through my digital work in the nightlife that spring.
With ALP, we know that there’s no such thing as a totally safe space. And in nightlife, we know that too. With the nuance in digital space, there’s a new set of problems. In physical spaces, it became about vetting and understanding what a physical space is doing to keep people from getting sick. Harm reduction became a big part of my work.
Were you continuing to do the virtual Henrietta gigs that summer too?
Henrietta’s was the consistent gig through the summer. One of the reasons I got hired at ALP was because I had my life experience. That organization in particular had a history of engaging with nightlife and that’s how I met them. I was running parties that they would show up at with safety kits. It felt like this very full-circle moment for me.
Henrietta kept going digitally until fall, and then I stopped because I felt like I was at capacity. My time away from that was putting me in a more reflective place about what I’m supposed to be doing. A lot of nightlife people ended up embracing their introverted side or their creative side, parts of themselves, seeing what it is about the community that makes them be there.
Going into winter last year was such a big time for reflection and inward assessment.
I keep thinking about our last big event at ALP, it was Trans Day of Action 2019. I interviewed Jay Toole, who was part of the original Stonewall riots for that month’s newsletter. We talked about the LGBT Movement and the Abolition Movement. Sometimes we think they’re not that connected or we don’t understand the direct relationship. Jay gave me a really clear narrative about what happened at Stonewall, which is that it was not strictly a gay rights moment. It was an abolitionist moment where a bunch of organizing entities came together in order to accomplish that day’s long riot. That is an important moment to reflect on. On the organizing side of what happened that summer, with people in different organizations working to support the anti-police trajectory, there was so much going on internally with activists getting canceled, internal strife, and organizations not being able to work together.
The missing piece was being able to learn how to heal the inevitable conflict and risks that come up from organizing against the collective trauma. We’re not going to do this work unless we learn how to heal with each other. That means using transformative justice instead of replicating punitive tactics.
Stonewall…was not strictly a gay rights moment. It was an abolitionist moment where a bunch of organizing entities came together in order to accomplish that day’s long riot.
When did you get back into DJing?
There were one-offs that would come to me that were for some of the organizations that had had physical spaces. Arrebato had a couple, and Ars Nova too. I did one with Thomas from Yalla, and there was one event that was mobilizing the Senate vote in Georgia. I started to feel Zoom fatigue with my day job and nightlife gigs. It didn’t feel fun. I was staying in an isolated situation and that also had an impact on how I was doing too.
Can you tell me about Pride?
I DJed Pride for Henrietta and Yalla. Unless there’s a vaccination check at the door for an indoor event, I don’t do it. Henrietta was open for Pride and they had a certain number of people at a time were allowed in the venue and everyone had a vaccine card. Every two hours, the group of people that were in the space would leave and a new group of people would come in. The owner was trying to figure out how to make space for everyone without it being too crowded. I felt a little bit at odds with myself because when you show up, letting people you’re inviting know that it’s safe, the implication is that you think it’s safe, and I didn’t totally feel safe yet, but I still went because it’s Pride. It was a really important return for a lot of people.
Did you have fun DJing at Henrietta’s besides feeling uncertain?
It felt good to be back there. It’s such an icon, so to see this place surviving through transformation and adapting to the new conditions felt really good. Women were freaking out, they were so happy to be able to see each other. They definitely hadn’t seen each other in a long time and wanted to be around people. I could see this like pent-up enthusiasm for being in community there.
I was really in my element at the Yalla Pride party. It was on the rooftop at the Turks Inn. It was mostly people of color and it was an outdoor party with adults. It’s inherently a more tight community because people socialize with each other outside of that too. That was the space for, for me to be and to find myself. All my friends organically came.
Where do you see nightlife going for you now and for New York?
I think I’m going to have a much more moderate relationship with it as I find my way back in. There’s just a different set of safety measures for me in order to work comfortably. I still have the same ties with the organizations that overlap nightlife and social justice. I see those directions being more interesting to me. Those overlaps are in community. They’re not just about dancing together at night and being strangers during the day. They’re actually people who have a daily life together and have a community life together. I could see myself being a lot more invested in those kinds of spaces, being accountable to each other through the structures that people are participating in. If you go out dancing with the same people you’re organizing with, you treat them differently than if you’re in a city you’ve never been to.♦
Tikka is back DJing parties this winter in NYC. She played the Halloween “Be Cute” party at Littlefield in Brooklyn, and will be playing at Arrebato’s upcoming party on December, 17th in Queens. Find her upstate for Catskill Pride’s first New Year’s Eve party in Livingston Manor, NY.