Alt Leeds The queer pioneers
Leeds International Festival will be welcoming a whole host of Leeds’ alt music heroes, from Acid House and Leeds Soak, KAOS and Up Yer Ronson pioneer Tony Hannan to Nightmares on Wax’s George Evelyn to Orbit’s Nic Gundill to The Hacienda’s Graeme Park to BacktoBasics’ Dave Beer to Hard Times’ Steve Raine.
The names don’t stop coming.
To accompany this spectrum of alt sound was Leeds’ alt scene; groundbreaking in both the past and the present. Cultural icon Suzy Mason returns to this year’s festival with another Speed Queen / Vague night, featuring DJ and icon Princess Julia on the decks, as well as Lucy Lockett, Curtis Zack, Liam Frisco and Keith Gillott. Juicebox, at the other end of the spectrum, brings together the freshest of cutting edge performance, with the amazing hard hitting rap and drag glamour of Mykki Blanco alongside anti-drag icon David Hoyle.
In many ways, Leeds legend Suzy Mason set the scene for the vibrant, pioneering and inclusive world Leeds is today. Founder of KitKat Club, then Vague and Speed Queen boutique, Suzy did something pioneering – creating a scene which celebrated the cutting edge and novel, whilst still making everyone welcome.
Away from the era’s grunge scene, KitKat served as an outlet for the opposite – a glamorous 50s inspired club night, KitKat welcomed everyone – gay, straight, girls, boys, in drag and high-fashion – with open arms (once they made it through the door, that is).
The nineties were a time of revolution in Leeds. Institutions formed which made history – and are renowned to this day.
There was Dave Beer et al moving the house scene beyond acid house, whilst the fashionistas got kitted up by Nicholas Deakins, Hip Store, or darted into Speed Queen boutique, for their free make up and glitter before a night out. Pioneering new nights popped up to celebrate the outré, the individual, the alternative.
Suzy and Kaz did something no one else was doing – they pushed the envelope, in fashion and music, with their night at The Warehouse. It ran from 1996, every Saturday, until 2006, playing a massive range of musical genres. “Guest list’ members paid £2 entry, which went to a local charity (long before the idea of ‘social enterprise’ even had a name). Single mums got in for free.
Their shop, SpeedQueen boutique, was the height of fashion, but without the snobbery often inherent with a ‘scene’ – girls without a place to call home did their washing here. They cut their own mix tapes, to sell on the newest tunes, not yet played on the radio.
When it came to the nights, anything went. They employed drag queens, not to perform on stage, aloof performers removed from the crowd, but to mix in – to break down barriers, and stereotypes, by interacting with the crowd. The gay crowd and the heteros could mix in a way they couldn’t elsewhere, without a defining ‘label’. It didn’t need to be a ‘gay bar’ – it was, and is, a space for everyone.
Back for Leeds International Festival ’18, Suzy Mason’s night is the Fashion After Party. Alongside massive and iconic DJ names such as Princess Julia, Lucy Lockett, Curtis Zack, Liam Frisco and Keith Gillott, the night will exhibit live art installations, and performances from The Dynamite Project – some of Leeds’ most dynamic creative talent. There’ll also be photos, original film footage, graphics and ephemera from those ground-breaking club nights – purposefully created to breakdown gender, age, race, and social barriers, and to build up new communities and support local talent. Some of the UK’s leading figures in fashion will also be coming down to soak up the scene.
Leeds International Festival is celebrating the alt scene from its roots right through to today’s boundary breakers. Genre defining, gender defying Mykki Blanco will be performing at Juicebox, alongside David Hoyle, for an amazing night of music, film, cabaret and club culture.
If you haven’t heard of Mykki Blanco, prick up your ears. This performance artist-turned-rapper has worked with Bjork and Basement Jaxx, amongst countless others, and his hard-hitting rap and sharp tongue lay down some shock-wave inducing beats. When you see that the figure behind the beats vacillates between the rap uniform of shirtless with baggy jeans to high fashion drag, your reading of his music may become more informed, but it doesn’t change – his sheer nerve and braveness do, though. There’s homophobia across countless musical genres, but Mykki Blanco has (and will) certainly face a good deal of hate for his aesthetic switching – from strong, topless and sweaty, his black torso tattoed to the nines – to maven, dressed to kill in a blonde wig and false lashes. It is, pardon the pun – ballsy.
This is not Ru Paul, or cabaret drag – Mykki comes from a Riot Grrl and Punk background. This is beyond gender – his gendered aesthetic moves to enable his artistic self expression, as performance moves closer and closer to self.
‘Queer rap’ is a defined genre he’s been elbowed into – and has (sort of) made peace with. But Mykki is something on his own – truly capturing the performance art of drag, within amazing lyrics and rap performance – without compromising either of the two.
The Juicebox night will see Mykki alongside David Hoyle, queen of the avant-garde anti-drag scene, an outsider amongst the outsiders.