Parade of Rosie's/DJ/she/they/Mama, Colleen Balchin's intent on bringing women & queer-friendly spaces in the concrete streets of Johannesburg has changed the club space in South Africa forever.
She's a nurturer to most, a lover to some and a kind spirit to all. I speak with Colleen Balchin (aka @coco_as_in_butter) about her event space and LGBTQI+ initiatives in the concrete streets of Braamfontein, Johannesburg – better known as Pussy Party. This is a very long but necessary interview identifying the importance of love, compassion and acceptance in club culture.
Johannesburg is known as a city of hustle. The contrary beat of the city is unique. It collides with many diverse cultures, backgrounds and great paradoxes. The swift, kick beating nature of the streets there is like no other place. It is a space where desolate areas and clusters of crowds come together to meet an exasperating collective of individuals. This attentive hustle embeds itself into the inner core of the city. Sometimes, this hustle is so intense that it becomes a matter of life and death. Raw and exposed, Colleen tells us about her collaborative event Pussy Party.
You're a jozi gal by heart, please describe the contrasting cultural backdrop of Johannesburg and why it was necessary for you to have started Pussy Party?
Colleen: Johannesburg is one of the best places to party on earth. People want to dance, people want to engage, people want to connect and share and let go and be free. The city has a reputation for being a place of work, not leisure, and I've even heard it referred to as having an 'architecture of anxiety'. Maybe it's because of this that we are all the more committed to this particular groove. It's as if every weekend being a holiday that deserves to be celebrated. At the same time, South Africa has a deep-rooted issue that's known as Gender Based Violence. It's the violence perpetrated by men against women. This term also alludes to the acts of violence faced by the queer community, mainly at the hands of cisgender heterosexual South African men. A short look back into South Africa's very recent history of apartheid, which ended in name only in 1994, but whose structures and systems live on unchecked, will reveal the depth of the issues of power and oppression our country is embroiled in.
It's understood that there are many disparities that exist within a social context in South Africa cannot be ignored. While it is a country that needs to go through a lot of healing, how, would you say, does this anxiety unfold through gender based violence?
Colleen: Of course, the most vulnerable among us are the worst affected by gender based violence in South Africa. In Johannesburg, we are protected to a degree by our 'urban-ness' (as problematic as that word is). It's these attitudes of violence toward women, and the queer community permeate all levels of daily life. Of course, the club is no different. How this violence manifests is as a general feeling of being unsafe, a feeling which amplifies at night. Abductions and trafficking of young black women are rampant, taxi drivers are known to assault women and queer passengers, hijackings are rife, and corrupt cops are known to assault women and queer people at roadblocks too. When you get to the club, women are often treated as objects; we experience a lot of unwanted physical contact, like being held/touched/grabbed as we walk past. Queer people are often subjected to similar disrespect and unwanted physical contact.
Coming from Johannesburg myself, I know that this definitely trickles into the club space. Can you explain how tensions can arise in the club space with regards to gender issues?
Colleen: You know, girl. If a man chooses to flirt with a woman, "no" isn't taken as an answer. A woman has to actively fight, argue and make excuses to be left alone. If a man does not accompany you, you get no peace at all, all night. It's like you have to rebuff these men. You may end up having your drink spiked, or being grabbed or kissed against your will, or being called a bitch or a slut, being spat on or being pushed or slapped. All these examples have happened countless times at the club where I work, which is also the birthplace of Pussy Party.
This club is classified as 'urban', in a gentrified neighbourhood, filled with basically middle-class people with disposable income. Across the globe, there has been a push for more inclusive and gender-diverse club and festival programming. When we came to implement this in Joburg, we found that the issues keeping women and the queer community away from the decks was more profound than just access or opportunity, it was a whole culture of nightlife designed to keep us vulnerable. That's why Pussy Party had to incorporate not just supporting DJs, but creating support structures for the entire club.
Tell us a bit more about what Pussy Party stands for precisely. It's known to be a place to "practice, incubate, exchange and expose"?
Colleen: Our primary function is as an incubator for women and queer DJs in Johannesburg. We host regular free and donation-based DJ workshops, intending to introduce one new DJ at every monthly Pussy Party. As well as workshops, we provide a safer space for women and queer DJs to hone their craft by playing out regularly to a warm and loving audience. We work with aligned queer and mainstream events to introduce our DJs to broader and wider audiences, all with the emotional and technical support anyone needs to flourish in this industry.
Pussy Party is open to all, with cishet men paying a small cover charge and honeys entering for free. We aim to create a controlled space where people who may not know much about feminism or queer liberation or who may, frankly, be opposed to it can come into contact with a community of beautiful, powerful and empowered women and queer people. At our best, this can spark conversations based in our shared experience (here, tonight, in this club!). We want to recreate a better club and nightlife for all to feel safe and free.
What was your thinking behind using a powerful word like "pussy"? I'm sure that some conservative views have been shared about the word, making it seem as if it's grotesque or shameful to use. Has it been well received, or have you fully reappropriated the word to mean something in a completely different context?
Colleen: Our name is a reference to our beloved Fela Gucci & their good friend, artist Tabita Razaire, who in 2015 hosted a private birthday party called CUNTY PARTY. Cunty, like pussy, is a praise term originating in ballroom culture meaning "ultra-feminine".
Pussy Party stands on the shoulders of the black trans and femme community who come before us. I also resonated with the idea of being 'pussy,' meaning being afraid. I, like most South African women, have spent so many nights (and days) in near-constant fear of sexual violence. This fear heightens in the club because when you're out at night, maybe you want to dress sexy, perhaps you want to drink, queer bodies may be dressed up, turned out, expressing themselves; all these things are part of rape culture's excuses to violate women and queer people. I wanted Pussy Party to become a place where we are not afraid.
Pussy being dirty slang for a vagina or an asshole - anywhere you get fucked - was an almost unintentional third meaning that led us to know very quickly where people stand on bodily and sexual autonomy and liberation. We've had women come at us over the name, asking how we can use such a dirty word to describe ourselves, but I think that anyway a person chooses to self-identify is valid. We've also had people considering our name gender-essentialist. We are pro-feminine, as a balm to the toxic masculinity that is the status quo, and that is so much a part of hetero-patriarchal capitalism. Still, we don't find the term pussy to be gender essentialist; we're not using it to refer to the vagina.
Collaboration and community are important, especially for groups who are often misrepresented, abused or disregarded within public spaces. Describe some of the queer initiatives and artists you have worked with to enforce this pussy power, how has your event helped to develop and progress these ideals?
Colleen: It's something we're proud of doing due to Pussy Party's ability to impact culture-creators outside of our own project space. Since the queer culture party scene was birthed, it had since exploded when we began. I'd say around 2017. It's then that we started seeing a real rise, and the last two years have been incredible for our extended community.
I think a massive part of this, besides women and queer consumers having the vocabulary and experience to demand spaces that prioritise them, it is the constant influx of new women and queer DJs from our workshops. There's an incredible talent & skill-level, which I feel our continued targeted one-on-one support can partly take credit for.
Can you tell us a bit more of this inclusivity and talent?
Colleen: I remember someone was interviewing Lelowhatsgood recently (who founded Vogue Nights Jozi), and they said that their DJs are always fresh. That's something Pussy Party is trying to push. The main aim is not just volume but diversity. It was in 2017 that we noticed that there were more women than queer-masc DJs pulling up, so we've put an 'internal quota' of sorts to ensure that we develop more queer-masc talent in our space. I put a lot of effort in seeking out such talent and all this extra personal effort has paid off. If it wasn't this personal, there's no way it would have the same impact.
Like a sort of personal pussy power, I like that. Tell us a bit more about that...
Colleen: Some collaborations I'm especially proud of are Vogue Nights Jozi (VNJ), and Same Sex Saturdays (SSS). With VNJ, we consider our role to be "production support" as well as co-curating DJs, which involves both helping to bring fresh talent to Lelo's attention and curating flow. I see our role as using our club and industry expertise and contacts to support Lelo's vision and agenda. We also do a whole lot on the decor side, because with my theatre background, I feel strongly about how aesthetics can impact the experience of a space. Just as our patrons dress up for us, I want them to know we dress up for them.
With SSS its a much more fluid, interchanging collaboration where, in every single event, I'm surprised at how effortless the partnership is in terms of sharing our labour and vision. We began working together in Durban, when we first connected with Andiswa Andyee Dlamini (the visionary behind the SSS event) for our first ever Durban Pussy Party Workshop. We worked so seamlessly and brought Ikonika (UK) to join the party. Since then, we've had many powerful collabs like our recent coming together on the DJ portions of Other Village People's (SSS's rebranded identity) Online Queer Festival.
So we're seeing more queer representation in the club scene of Johannesburg. Give us a shout out to more of them if you can, because representation matters.
Colleen: This explosive collab has not only introduced us to new party girls, but it has birthed a sense of power and growth in our scene. I'd also like to give honourable mentions to the following events:
House of Quriosty (HoQ): this is hosted by LOTION, a core Braam baddie and one of the original Pussy Party community. HoQ is hosted primarily at Kitchener's where I then run production and production support on the night.
Bad Girls Club: hosted by one of my favourite daughters, workshop alumnus DJ HOT ATHENA, it's hosted at Kitchener's and is supported by Pussy Party in terms of production, coordinating with the venue and creating support for their rules of engagement, as well as hosting workshops for the new and young DJs they source.
KU33R$: An event by second generation Pussy Party community member, the incredible designer and activist Khanya Kemami. We've worked together at Kitchener's before (the birthplace of Pussy Party). I ran production support and curatorial support to ensure the vision was met.
Fervid feels! You're obviously playing a powerful role in reclaiming the space of music and party culture in South Africa. Describe the strategies that you and your team have initiated to ensure this powerful inclusion exists and is not always 'othered'.
Colleen: Essentially, the role of Pussy Party in our local community of events is really about professional support, as well as emotional support. When DJ friends from Cape Town or Durban are in town, I will always help them with local bookings. There is a beautiful sense of trust that my community has given to me to represent them ethically and powerfully. At the same, this beautiful sense of trust exists within the more mainstream (still underground tho, lol) club and party scene in JHB, DBN and CPT.
We have to keep this up at all times by being exacting on the ethical and quality standards we wish to meet. What I'm trying to say is that it means never letting go of someone, always being present to support someone as you are asked to, or as you can see is needed. If we didn't have genuine love circulating among us, and pure talent, these things wouldn't be possible.
What tools or techniques could you share that keeps this love cycle circulating?
Colleen: In terms of tools and techniques, it's hard to know what could translate into other contexts, so I think the most important thing is to communicate openly to give what people need. A big part of this is self-care, as you cannot pour from an empty cup. I try my best to recognise my privileges as a white, middle-class person. I'm a person of relative wealth, a straight-passing person and conventionally attractive person (attributing to lookism culture). Using my privileges to leverage better conditions for those less privileged than me is vital. Often, this also means passing on opportunities to others in my community.
In South Africa, some of the crucial things to consider are the physical safety of DJs and party-goers. It's imperative to look at things like safe transport, a hot meal, access to liquor & weed because a party is also about a DJ enjoying themselves in the space. I believe it's critical to create a space with this event where there are support systems and include the South African proverb "are you home safe?" text, followed by a phone call if you don't receive a reply. Again, I guess it's love, it's the real, genuine, personal investment that gives you the energy and foresight to commit to the finer details.
Can you explain why and how one of the fundamental tenets to your party is "no toxic masculinity"?
Colleen: Toxic masculinity, for us, is a perversion of masculinity. It happens when a man is disempowered and seeks to correct the power balance by acting out against those less powerful. Toxic masculinity becomes fearful when it's challenged. Toxic masculinity is a bully boy. It is entitled, to women's space, bodies, time and energy.
With Pussy Party, we have always wanted to be inclusive of men and masculinity. We have always felt that women's and queer liberation is of as much benefit to cishet men as it is to us. We know that men are bullied and abused by the concept of masculinity as much as they then take that bullying out on us. We want men to know that there is masculinity that is not toxic, and they can choose to be a different kind of man.
Please outline these power dynamics that were at play when you started throwing the event… any lessons to share?
Colleen: Pussy Party was created for Kitchener's, which has a very particular dynamic, so it's hard to know what could be transferable to other contexts. We were definitely looked down on for a long time, both by Kitchener's patrons and our local industry. It's been really difficult to be a collective pushing for real change, while still remaining non-combative and open to people outside our immediate community. We don't want to destroy the industry, and we just want to play there too. When you come out with an idea like this, people can feel attacked or offended like its a criticism of them personally, when all it is, is an opportunity to shift an out-dated system.
Yes, that toxicity seems to trickle through then. You seem very understanding to this though...
Colleen: Violence and intolerance aren't born in a person's heart, but they are so deeply ingrained into us by all the systems around us. We know that most of the time abusers have been abused too. So, with Pussy Party, we really try to be conscious of how we can be respectful of the cultures and traditions that have created certain mindsets while trying to help people find practical ways to be empathetic with and good to each other.
It's essential to learn and grow in these club spaces to ensure a safe and suitable environment for all, especially for marginalised groups. Please share the ways in which you've initiated some of these changes at your event.
Colleen: At the door, we have to judge on our feet what kind of person we might be talking to:
- someone here for the party
- someone who might have some knowledge of this kind of party and its concepts
- someone who might have an oppressive or harmful perspective on women and queer people based on their culture, religion or traditions.
Sometimes people in this third group can understand very quickly what we're doing and have no issue with it all. They usually support our freedom. Some people in this third group feel attacked by what we're doing, they become defensive and try to bully us – we typically try to catch these people at the door so we can deny them access. It seems they don't get it, but towards the end of the night, they've come to realise it's about how good a club feels when women and queer people can feel free. It's this tactic and lived experience.
And if they just don't get it?
Colleen: Well, if they don't really get it but don't hate it, by the end of the night, they might've come to some realisations about how good the club feels when women and queer people feel free. Its this tactic where we push the lived experience itself. It's what is most important for us. I think we can really adjust people's behaviour and open their minds by having a beautiful experience together. I guess the lesson is never to be hateful and to keep love at your core. We cant be hateful, even of our oppressors. Hatred is what got us here, and although there is space for it and we must honour it, we have to let love heal us.
This motherly approach is a great tactic, and one that is often forgotten in club spaces. How do you ensure that this approach is followed through? I mean, it can be hard to control the misbehaviours of inebriated people in a bar or club.
Colleen: The tone you set with the conversation at the door is key – this is a chance to create a personal connection that will hopefully support accountability and basic humanity. We fill the space with hyper-femme decoration so everything about the space reminds people what our intention is. We have phrases like RESPECT and BE GENTLE stuck up around the venue, positive messaging that offers ways of being rather than the Afropunk standard "no this no that" messaging. We have women and queer people in positions of authority - both bouncers and DJs. The men on the staff are aware of what the night is about and how we expect them to behave - which includes backing women and queer people up without question.
We have a whole team and extended community on duty, so there is always time for a heavy conversation. And of course, we are lucky to have the support of the venue to remove anyone who we find to be in violation of the spirit of the space. This is one of the most vital tools you can have - a tangible, active punishment for transgression of boundaries. No honey will ever feel alone at Pussy Party - our culture is to be inclusive and supportive of each other.