Bombastic frequencies reverberate throughout Zone 1 of Papi Juice at Elsewhere, a nightlife venue in Brooklyn, New York. Time suspends as partygoers ambitiously push across the dance floor, making their way to the stage to show off their best bounce skills. Papis, mamis, and everyone expanding, compounding, and outright destroying gender, crowd together as the bass thumps. It’s still early, and though adrenaline and a few tequila sodas are making their way through my body, I haven’t gathered the courage to hit center stage. Instead, I find myself completely mystified by the gyrations of a partygoer dressed in white shimmering fringe pants that sit at the exact intersection of Cher and Pam Grier. Their butt, which could have only been divinely crafted by a higher power, travels in concentric circles.
As I prepare myself for another week of protesting my right to be Black and alive in America, I think fondly of that moment. I yearn for those nights of release. I find myself hungering for the incredible beauty that’s formed in every inch and every corner of a Papi Juice fête.
Founded in 2013, bar-side after a day of gallery hopping, Papi Juice was launched as a party and arts movement dedicated to “celebrate queer and trans people of color and the people that love them.” Oscar Nuñez and fellow DJ Adam Rhodes found that there was not a nightlife space that could fill their needs as queer people of color. A few years later, the duo expanded to include the work of artist and illustrator Mohammed Fayaz, whose colorful party fliers are almost synonymous with the party. Papi Juice's organizers spoke with NYLON on the eve of Pride Month about what beauty means to them ahead of their seventh anniversary celebration on June 26.
Kimberly Drew: Would you say that beauty is a core value of Papi Juice? Is it a priority?
Adam Rhodes: The beauty of everyone bringing their uniqueness to the function is absolutely a priority of Papi Juice. We aim to create a space where queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) feel safe to bring their full selves. To me, this means wearing what you want. Showing out through clothes, accessories and makeup you may not be able to wear in other places. We love looks and I’m consistently impressed by what our community brings to the table.
Oscar Nuñez: Beauty has always been a priority. I think it was one of the main pushes. It was our culture, our bodies, our beauty, our music that we felt we didn't see enough of in mainstream gay night life. So that's why I felt like we started [Papi Juice]. I feel like beauty is definitely like a core value, but something that Mo and I have been discussing about this piece for a while, or ever since we found out about it, was that we actually don't necessarily have a very specific idea of what beauty means to us. And so, to us, beauty can mean a person that comes to the party with just having wet their hands and brushed it to their hair. That's that extra step that they'll take in their daily routine to feel that beauty in themselves. That to me is also beauty, you know?
Or someone that comes in full makeup and nails and hair, when potentially in their everyday life, they wouldn't do that. So it just depends, I guess. Beauty is such a broad term to us and to our community, because there are people with so many identities and moods of expression. Like, every day it changes. Especially for queer folks, I feel like every day is an uphill battle with dysmorphia, even. So it's just like ... Beauty is just really in the day to day, like how do we feel that day and what are we giving?
Mohammed Fayaz: I just love the idea that people can approach Papi as this blank stage where they can just kind of bring themselves. And whatever that true self is that day is the one that shows up. And maybe you don't even know until an hour before doors open, but to me, that is beauty in the sense of like ... It's beautiful, full of beauty that you can just kind of come as-is.
KD: I think that making ourselves beautiful can be seen as a public gesture, yet there are many ways that the beauty at Papi Juice is very internal. It's like, we're dressing for each other at that party. When I'm turning a look for Papi — I know in my mind I want to see you, Mo-mo, and I want you specifically to be like, "Oh, this looks cute." And then the night is successful, but it's not like the traditional ways in which we understand beauty as this kind of capitalist project formulated and defined by a particular gaze. Can you talk about the process of curation of both talent and audience?
AR: We try to provide a variety of talent from the up-and-comers to established artists. It's a privilege to be able to have all these gifted folks in the same building. When we create a lineup, we think largely about how different musical styles contrast with each other. Maybe one room can have a specifically Caribbean vibe while another is more on the techno side, for example.
ON: We tell our DJs every time, when you play, we want you to play what you feel best playing, what you love to play, because that is what fully resonates with the crowd. It’s almost like conversation, a musical conversation, right? Between the crowd and the DJ. Come with whatever you feel is the best because that's when I think we show the best energy and that's when you attract the best energy.
AR: In some ways the audience of Papi is curated by our community. We started as a pretty small somewhat word of mouth monthly party and grew into something else entirely. The fliers with Mo’s beautifully rendered characters illustrate the audience we’re trying to reach. It’s the community though, that keeps inviting their friends and keeps the party growing.
KD: Mohammed, I was reading another interview where you were talking about how you get the inspiration for the fliers, which is another, of course, important aspect of the beauty of the party. And I wonder if you could talk about that process and how that works for you as an illustrator.
MF: Yeah, absolutely. When I sit down and do a new poster, I sit back and think about the actual event, being in this space, being around the people. Every once in a while, I'll kind of think about who in this community sees themselves in the posters all the time. Who doesn't see themselves that often? Whether it's like body types or textures or just outward, any sort of like expressions.
The energy is just so palpable, like it's just very... inspirational is not really the best word, but you look around and then it's just like a feast. You're just like, “Wow. Like what even?” Like, your eyes are landing on so many different sets of people, people that you don't always see often. And it is that energy people are bringing to the space that they're not bringing on the subway, they're not bringing in the 9-to-5s. And so when people share life with us, it's really nice and it's so easy to be able to pick up on and bring it back in the posters.
And it's funny, because as I've been sitting down to do our E-Papi posters, I've been having the hardest time because I'm so far from the space and the people. And Oscar can attest to this, I've been struggling with posters because I don't have the community to really just have that symbiotic relationship. I just can't see them.
KD: Papi and other queer nightlife spaces have been lauded as spaces for self-exploration and experimentation? Do you think that's true?
AR: As queer people, experimentation is a huge part of us thriving in a world that continually blocks the ways for our mental and physical survival. We try to make Papi an intentional place for our community to try new things and experience art and music they can’t find anywhere else.
MF: I think it's interesting because it's almost like a “ball's in your court” kind of thing. Papi Juice is the one place where you come where you don't have to think about your identity. I think that for me as a nonbinary person, there's so many outfits, so many looks and so many inspirations I wanted to bring to life that I couldn't anywhere else. Literally nowhere else. Like I wouldn't feel safe in my house. And that includes other gay events or other queer events where if I don't know the vibe, I'm just not sure if I can wear a skirt or if I can wear a dress or have my hair a certain way.
You know, I kind of want to pull this look that I saw Naomi pull on a runway in 1994, and I'm thinking of wearing it to this party, and then you show up and you're actually really uncomfortable, and it's OK and next time you don't do that. So that level of exploration of that space to kind of play and be playful, I think is a really nice that backdrop that we can set up for folks.
ON: With experimentation... it's like practice, almost. And as we're developing identities or as we keep playing with our identities as queer people, I feel that experimenting is like really good for growth, for personal growth, and also for just feeling safer and more supported by a community. So I think experimenting is important, but I don't want it to sound like it's a must, you know? Because sometimes we're exhausted and like... Somebody might not feel like it, you know? And that's OK too, right?
KD: Speaking of turning looks, how do you go about documenting your parties?
AR: We love to have different queer artists take photographs at every event. We most often go through our Instagrams or through friends to find possible photographers. It's really important that we center QTPOC in our image curation and the photographers we work with make that their priority.
ON: I also think that it's really important documentation and just cultural archiving, too. We think sometimes of [the early years of] HIV/AIDS crisis, like we lost the community and it's so hard sometimes to connect to a time that we are so far from. I think that if you think like 50, 60 years from now, someone comes across a random, like whenever the future Tumblr is, posts of these very free people, I think that that would be so beautiful and so powerful as a part of the legacy to continue on, where who knows what direction culture and political regimes move in and what we lose over the time. Digitally, you think about a lot of the content that's at risk.
Also going back to Tumblr, [the 2018 "adult content"] ban went in and all sorts of stuff got swept up in that. I just think it's really important to think of [building a] living archive of real queer and folks of color who actually lived and thrived. Like, what a beautiful thing to document.
MF: Nightlife photography is something that has existed for a while. As digital cameras became more and more accessible, there was a lot more of nightlife photography as a sort of thing. And for us, at some point we just saw a lot of photography or people coming into our parties taking photos without asking for permission. And we felt that that added a sense of voyeurism and also, not danger, but discomfort. Or potentially danger too, who knows? But like definitely discomfort amongst our people because sometimes you don't want to be photographed, you know?
Everything is so consumable. We also have a pretty specific conversation with our photographers around consent with photography. I mean, most of them already know, but we always tell them, it's good to ask people if they can be photographed as much as you can.
KD: Queer archiving — in your own words, can you talk about the archive that you develop on Instagram and beyond for Papi. Why do you think that work is important? How have you seen the impact?
AR: The record of QTPOC experiencing joy in a space made for us by us is the point of the Papi archive. The images and recordings we share place us in a historical tradition of queer art and nightlife. I look back at queer images and ideas created before I was born for inspiration in my own practice as an artist and curator. Hopefully the work that we do can serve the same purpose for another generation.
KD: A burning last question: How will you celebrate Pride this year? Papi is 7!
MF: I'm sweating right now. We've literally been meeting almost every other day about Pride programming, but we're going to have our seven-year anniversary party on Zoom. And that's going to be the last weekend of June, which is our usual. So it'll be on Friday, June 26, and we’re going to donate 100% of funds raised to Black and brown trans initiatives.
ON: With this new digital landscape, we can literally do anything we want. We just have to dream of it. We're not bound to venues! That freedom has been really, almost like new, in a really cool way. Kind of like, a sense of weightlessness. You think seven years into something, and we're always trying to innovate and like make it bigger and better. It's actually a really new platform and really brand new parameters that's been really fun for us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.