Sophia Kearney and Steven Braines were sick of just talking about it. As artist managers and longstanding dance world figures, the U.K.-based pair often found themselves on panels at dance industry conferences discussing the lack of inclusivity in the scene, why things needed to change, and how. Eventually they decided to just do it themselves.
They started pitching the idea for an intersectional, kind of gritty, sort of loose, pleasantly naughty, fully debaucherous and hopefully transformational kind club night at ADE 2017, taking meetings with marquee clubs including London’s Ministry of Sound, Ibiza’s Pacha and Amnesia and spots in Canada, Berlin and beyond. Every single person they pitched to said yes and offered them a budget to make the vision real.
“I remember, we stood under an umbrella in the pissing rain trying to find the next meeting,” says Kearney, “and we just looked at each other like, ‘Okay, now we have to deliver this in four countries in the next six months.'”
They figured it out on the fly, and in the past six years have turned HE.SHE.THEY. into a traveling nightlife bacchanal of music, dancing and freedom of expression that eschews the corporatization/homogenization of the scene that’s happened in many sectors and instead books every single type of DJ (white/black/brown/straight/gay/trans/cis/queer/male/female/etc.) features every single type of dancer (thick/think/curvy/flat/tall/short/etc.) and welcomes every single type of audience member.
There’s no dress code or impossible door policies. Crowds are only asked to abide by ground rules pasted on the walls of any given venue: no ableism, no ageism, no bodyshaming, no homophobia, no misogyny, no racism, no sexism, no transphobia.
Six years after launching, HE.SHE.THEY. is in the midst of its biggest season yet, with an eight-show residency in the coveted Friday night slot at legendary Ibiza mega-club Amnesia, shows in London, New York, Los Angeles and beyon and stage takeovers at events including the U.K.’s Secret Garden Party. The brand has also launched a record label, with releases by Anja Schneider, Rebekah, Cakes Da Killa, Eris Drew and Maya Jane Coles, the the latter of whom Braines also manages. On Saturday (June 24), HE.SHE.THEY will host a stage at the 12-hour Planet Pride month event taking over New York City’s Avant Gardner, with a lineup including ballroom legend MikeQ, sister house duo Coco & Breezy, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Aquaria and London producer and drag queen Jodie Harsh.
The goal, says the pair — who are funny, down to earth, impassioned and loquacious as they Zoom with Billboard from Ibiza — isn’t to create a night for any one type of clubgoer, but rather to bring all types of people together in a diverse, inclusive, and most crucially, fun, setting. Here, they hope, people will see fellow patrons like themselves and fellow patrons not like themselves, with the intersectionality of lineups and audiences not just fostering fired-up dancefloors, but meaningful, resonant experiences where people learn a bit about each other, learn to be less fearful by people not like themselves and then take those lived experiences back out into the world when the party’s over.
“Hopefully,” Kearney says, “that then trickles out into society, of, ‘OK, well I had a laugh and a joke and a shared musical experience with this person on the dancefloor, maybe I might not need to stare at them. Maybe I might speak up if I see somebody else being horrible to them, because I’ve had this shared experience of realizing that we’re all the f–king same.'”
Tell me about the importance of bringing HE.SHE.THEY to Ibiza.
Kearney: We just feel like Ibiza was lacking a bit of that grittiness, a bit of that sweaty naughtiness that it was born upon and known for initially. And whilst we’re a big fan of going out here, and we have many friends that work at all the clubs, we felt like the danceflooors were maybe — and also this is an overarching reason of starting HE.SHE.THEY. — just slightly sterile in places and a bit more about going to the concert of an artist, rather than being there to discover something about yourself, and everybody else you’re meeting on the dancefloor and getting lost in that musical journey. We also felt a lot of the lineups we were seeing perhaps weren’t as inclusive as they could be.
Doing this at a mega-club like Amnesia and bringing a queer party to a not necessarily explicitly queer space —
Braines: HE.SHE.THEY is queer, but it’s more that queer is one strand of it. It’s about diversity and inclusion, and if anything, intersectionality. If you’re a black trans woman, it should be good. But if you’re a straight white man, it should be good…
My experience, anecdotally — I was originally kind of in the closet and then started going to queer knights, but I had no queer friends. My best friend, who’s a straight Iranian Muslim, used to be the person who went clubbing with me. So I actually know the importance of allyship in that way. And also sometimes, I don’t want to be just in a gay space, like “Oh, because my d–k gets hard for a man means I have to go this club.”
Our friend group is naturally like an ’90s United Colors of Benetton ad. It’s just naturally really diverse. Why would we then have to all code switch on a night out? You don’t have to at work, you don’t have to in the supermarket or the cinema — but then when it’s clubs, it’s like, “This is for you, this is for you, this is for you…”
Tell me what it looks like inside the club on any given night.
Kearney: We don’t have a strict dress code or a door policy, because there are some people who’ve come to our events who might dress in jeans and a black T-shirt for the first party. The next party, you’ll see them they’re experimenting with latex or something because they feel comfortable.
Braines: That safer space thing becomes a ghetto if you don’t have other spaces where people can be more clear and democratized. We don’t like, villainize a straight white man, we’re just saying that the whole pie shouldn’t be for you. And same in queer spaces. It shouldn’t just be for queer sis white males.
Kearney: I’m a straight woman for example, so for me, for the party to be inclusive — one of the most important things for me at HE.SHE.THEY. is seeing different body types. I want to look up and see all different body types sweating and loving it, because I feel like I can lose my inhibitions in that space. And I can take my clothes off and wear a bit less, maybe some days I don’t want to, but some days I do. That’s so important in a space where often I might have gone and just seen only a very specific size and shape and movement style — everything’s for a show, everything’s for the male gaze, it’s all about the guys. Everyone wants to be the male DJ in the booth and maybe wants to date the dancers on the stage…
I still felt a little ostracized in those places — like I wasn’t good enough to be one of those dancers on the stage, and therefore, I would dance in a different way, or I would cover myself. It’s just about, “How can we have as many different types of representation behind the decks and with the dancers, to make the maximum amount of people who are coming through our doors — a crowd that’s then naturally more diverse because of the people that you’re booking and what you’re doing — be able to lose their inhibitions and have that clubbing experience that’s such a release from everything everyone’s going through in normal life?” These spaces are so important now. Just as important as at the beginning.
What are the considerations when putting together a lineup?
Kearney: We still book straight sis white men on our lineups, but they’ll generally only tend to be one on a lineup. We hope to platform other people, and we hope to bring the fans of — let’s say we’ve got Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann — we hope their fans come and then experience a queer black woman who’s directly supporting them and become a fan of that DJ, and also be surrounded by all different types of people on the dancefloor.
Braines: And also for instance, as a queer guy, I don’t just like queer DJs. The thought is that if you look up at the DJ booth at various points in the night, you might not see exactly you. But in the DJ booth at one time, you’d have seen a female DJ, and quite possibly a trans or non binary DJ, and a male DJ and someone of color.
What are the conversations like that you’re having with the venue operators when bring your party to a place like Amnesia or the Brooklyn Mirage?
Kearney: Every single one is different. We’re in a fortunate position where we were music managers by trade, so we had an existing reputation in terms of being good at what we did. We were constantly being put on all these panels at ADE, IMS, Miami Music Week, where I would be put on as a female manager or exec. Stephen would be as a queer person. Everyone was talking about all the problems, but no one was really doing anything to fix it. I think it was largely because a lot of people who were in power just didn’t know how to do it, and didn’t know how to do it authentically.
After moaning at how we’d been put on all these panels for years, we kind of realized, “Well, actually, I don’t know who else in music has this unique point of being able to have peoples’ ear to explain why it’s important… and also be able to deliver something that isn’t box-ticking or tokenistic — and they know they can get things wrong in front of us or ask questions. We’re not here to shoot anybody down or make anyone feel bad if there’s a genuine willingness for learning and change. We’re not perfect, we’re still learning s— every single time. We get things wrong. We check each other on stuff. It’s an ever-growing process of learning.
But in terms of the conversations, they’re different every time. A club in Amsterdam, for example, might be looking to turn the dial on their inclusivity by having more of a gender split in their audience. Whereas there are other clubs that are very much 50/50 in terms of gender, but perhaps the club hasn’t ever catered to queer people on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s about meeting people where they are and hoping to turn the dial the best way we and they can without it being forced and extreme.
In terms of the political climate in the U.S., are there special considerations when you’re bringing the party here? It’s a transphobic moment, women’s rights are being stripped. Obviously, you’re operating in larger cities where these problems are arguably not as palpable, but is there anything you do differently here because of what’s going on?
Kearney: No, but with with the certain attacks and different things that have happened in the U.S. at queer venues and different stuff, there’s a certain level of risk of something happening at our party on a weapon level level that is very unlikely to happen in other territories. That’s something I think about; it’s something that also makes me feel even more passionate about being there… Again, the education and the welcoming of everybody is surely even more important in those places, because they’re even more likely to need to get along with each other and to stick up for each other, because it is more dangerous.
Give me an example of moments at one of your parties recently when everything was happening, and you were like, “OK, this is exactly what it’s about.”
Kearney: There was one where a guy messaged me ahead of one of the parties and said, “Hey, can I come to fabric and can I have five names on the list?” I was like, “Sure.” He messaged me afterwards saying, “I just had to send you a message, because last time we met I had a girlfriend and I didn’t know I was queer. The guest list I asked for was for my now boyfriend and four of my straight mates. I wanted to come out to them, but I didn’t want it to be this massive deal, and I didn’t want to take them to a queer space. Taking them to dinner felt too formal. So I just said, ‘Hey, I’ve got guest list for this for this night at fabric. It’s these DJs playing, come down.”
He told me that they all came and met each other. He introduced the guy as his boyfriend and they spent the whole night raving together and had a great time. It’s things like that that spur us on, because I don’t know where else they would have done that, if the party didn’t hit point of all the straight mates being like, “Oh, our friend’s invited us to fabric and look at the lineup — I know that male DJ that I’ve seen three times before. I don’t know the rest of the lineup, but my mates invited me.” Then they turn up and some people are dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, but then there’s a guy standing in a rubber apron with his bum out, and there’s a girl with a harness with her [chest] out and my friend is telling me he’s with this guy now. Like, chill. Great. Let’s get a drink. Let’s have a dance.
I read that DM from him on a train, and I just burst into tears.
You guys are obviously independent. In terms of massive operators in the space – AEG, Live Nation, what would you recommend they do to make their own dance shows more inclusive?
Braines: With Live Nations and AEGs, because they’re so big, I think you need to change and diversify the workforce itself and the decision-makers at all levels. Because then that does naturally elicit some of these things. Some of the big festivals, rather than having a non-branded dance stage that tends to be the same eight DJs or whatever, use a local promoter, or us, or whoever. There’s so many different collectives. Give them a platform; or have your four people you know are going to sell the tent out, and then go and have a few different collectives. Realistically, hardly anyone is coming for the first two hours of a festival [anyways], so you have a lot of plasticity of what you can play with for that opening slot.
Kearney: I try and think, if we’re putting people on at the very beginning, who are those people that can take the building block of saying “I opened for HE.SHE.THEY, I opened for this big DJ.” Who are those building blocks of information and bio and CV things most useful to, so they can go and grow and pitch to other people and get this other opportunity over here.
Braines: Most importantly, no one’s s–t. Never give a platform to someone who isn’t good.