Despite Texas being a notoriously Red state (Trump received more than 4.6 million votes in the 2016 election), Austin is frequently referred to as the city reshaping the Lone Star State's conservative reputation. The capital is a real cultural hub, home to live music, great food and an oft overlooked, but active LGBTQ+ community. But with the a massive tech boom, supported by new Apple and Google offices, Austin has inevitably experienced visible gentrification, slowly pushing out queer and POC people who were OG players in making the city fresh.
Anita Obasi, a queer first-generation American, is a member of the tech flock, and originally moved to Austin from DC with hopes of having a big, successful sales career. She also saw it as an opportunity to eventually tap into the local creative community. After five years of calling Texas home, she's pinpointed a void in the scene and founded her collective Unbounded Agency, which aims to create spaces for underrepresented groups — specifically queer and POC Texans who're being underserved by the sea of cis, white gay bars.
One of Unbounded's many events, Equal Axis, was thrown in collaboration with Red Bull Music this winter, and brought together a lineup of LGBTQ+ DJs, performers and collectives under one Austin roof with equal access to the space — no VIP's or special treatment. The party supported local talent, including radical performance art group House of Kenzo and Puerto Rican DJ Jeva, as well as international names like Maya Jane Coles, who made her Texas debut. Thanks to Obasi, the night was a win for Austin's queer community, and an example for what's possible in a city dominated by straight techies.
PAPER caught up with Anita Obasi, below, to learn more about her background, Unbounded Agency, and how she's creating visibility for her QTPOC friends in Austin, Texas.
Talk me through your background. Where are you from originally?
I am a queer, biracial, first-generation American; my mom is from India and my dad is from Nigeria. I grew up in Northern Virginia, right outside of DC, with an older sister who was born in Nigeria, and my two other siblings born here. When I was younger, I always called myself an alien. I guess I still feel that way sometimes. My childhood was a trifecta of culture clash manifested into constant familial conflict. I didn't know how to engage with either of my (divorced) parents' cultures, and it was really hard trying to understand how to "properly" fit into American culture when the two different homes I lived in were so foreign to that. I felt embarrassed a lot of the time about the cultures I come from and felt like I was constantly hiding from my truth when I was around people who weren't my family. I never really felt like I had a "safe" space in that regard and would always retreat by reading books and exploring music.
Now, throw in the sexuality card — I was 17 years old when I came out to myself and close friends as queer, 23 when I fully came out to my mom, and here at 27, I'm still not out to my dad. I grew up in a very religious family, so the thought of being anything except straight never crossed my mind until it found itself consuming my thoughts. It wasn't necessarily a freeing feeling to acknowledge my queerness; it was initially met with internal guilt and disgust, even while I was dating my first partner.
How did you end up in Austin?
Fast forward a year after graduating college to 2014, where I find myself in Austin, having never expected to move to Texas. When I graduated college, I was desperately looking for that first "adult" job, which was eventually handed to me as a tech sales gig. On my first day of that job, my boss pulled me into a room and asked me if I was interested in relocating to Austin, where they were going to open another office, as he wanted me to be part of the team to help open it. They offered me relocation funds and I told them we could leave the next day if we wanted. Three months later, I found myself in Texas. That was almost five years ago.
I didn't move to Austin with the intent of making it big in the tech world. I basically just used that opportunity to leave the DC area and work to eventually transition full-time into creative. With the impression I had of Texas at the time, had any other city in the state been offered up, I would've swiftly declined. But since it was Austin, I saw it as a huge opportunity to eventually legitimize myself within the creative space, specifically as it relates to music. That's not to say I didn't enjoy working in tech. A lot of the skills I learned through those endeavors have definitely carried over and supported me in the work I do today.
"To have unbounded agency is to be limitless in realizing your abilities, and the more those words are vocalized, the more real that goal becomes."
At what point did you create Unbounded Agency?
Unbounded is a product of years and years of trial and error and countless projects under my belt. I would say that Unbounded is also a direct legacy of a 4,000 sq. ft. warehouse turned maker and event space called Topology, which I co-founded and ran from 2016-2017. It was a barebones, raw warehouse with very few amenities that became a community space for DIY creatives in Austin to get their hands dirty, rub shoulders and exchange ideas. It was a really powerful place in the sense that Austin's creative spaces are actively being pushed outward due to the city's increased development, and Topology was smack in the middle of that, making it very accessible.
Since we were leasing the space, the whole project had an expiration date. If you go to the place on the east side where it used to be, you'll see a multiple story structure, probably a parking garage, in its place. When Topology closed, I was intent on manifesting my experiences and the ethos of the warehouse into something that didn't require a physical structure. Those elements, in addition to my own personal experiences are how Unbounded was formed.
The name "Unbounded" didn't actually come to me until I was planning the launch event of this agency. I wanted to name the party Unbounded, but realized how impactful that sounded next to "agency." When you say it in full, Unbounded Agency, it becomes a statement of strength, resilience, and determination. To have unbounded agency is to be limitless in realizing your abilities, and the more those words are vocalized, the more real that goal becomes.
All that being said, Unbounded was incepted around this time last year, and formally went live early this year.
What was its original mission, and who all is involved in the collective?
The mission was, and still is, to engage in projects that create visibility around traditionally underrepresented demographics. That can either mean doing things like creative strategy for Red Bull to create a space for LGBTQ, building out an installation to support a production during pride season, or even taking on social media and fundraising responsibilities for a non-profit that leverages sports to engage at risk-youth, all of which I've engaged with this year. Although this 2018 has seen a great deal of projects centered around LGBTQ communities, specifically QPOC demographics, I purposefully include the word "underrepresented" as part of my mission statement so as not to exclude any other kind of low-visibility groups.
Unbounded is primarily a creative agency focusing on strategy, curation, booking, promotion and production. Through my experiences, I've realized the power of being conscious of the way spaces are curated, and Unbounded allows me to continue incorporating my degrees in politics and sociology into encouraging higher level societal change through micro-social interactions. I am basically the lone wolf manning this whole operation. However, I've structured Unbounded to be a vessel through which I can leverage larger platforms to shine a light on people and conversations that need to be heard.
The "collective" aspect of it then, comes from the individuals I work with to help bring these projects to life. You could say that the collective comprises of all the people in this DIY community who express their willingness to contribute their talents and abilities, and have just stuck with me through the growing pains. I never ask or force people to be a part of any projects that I do, and I think Unbounded has been able to grow so organically as a result. This is similar to the collective mindset formed through Topology, too. The next step for me after having tested the waters in this regard, is formalizing a team for 2019, and I am very excited for that.
"The mission was, and still is, to engage in projects that create visibility around traditionally underrepresented demographics."
How would you describe Austin's LGBTQ scene?
Austin's social scene in general is very different from other major cities across America in the sense that there really isn't a club scene in Austin; it is very much saturated with bar culture, which changes the way people interact socially. The scene then is more relaxed but also less intentional, which has its consequences when you zero in on groups like LGBTQ.
Austin's queer scene is definitely present and active; but Austin is still Texas, and not only that, is whiter than some of the other major cities in the state like Houston and Dallas. This translates socially into a very cis, white, male-centric bar culture, which doesn't give way for much visibility around POCs. There is an entire "gay" street that caters mostly to cis white males. It's the only place I've ever experienced blatant and explicit racism when I was with a group of women all passing as white, walking into Rain on 4th Street, and being the only person in my group physically pushed out of the establishment by security, without explanation, before I even walked in. It was really confusing and shocking at the very moment it happened, but once the dust settled I was able to understand it for what it was.
Are there any intersectional queer spaces available?
Austin has one of the highest rates of LGBTQ residents in the county, but doesn't take into account narratives of trans, POC, and non-binary folx as much as it could in the social scene. There are lots of spaces that work toward being safe queer spaces, but in reality are more spaces for white allies. Even at my favorite bar I can expect to be one of just a handful of queer POCs around, which is unfortunately is the reality of the situation, but is something I am actively working on changing.
I can say confidently that I've been to one queer-centric hip hop event in Austin in the past six months, and it was an event I booked myself. It is very clear that there is a lack of diversity as a whole in the city, and that permeates into the queer scene. Other major cities are just more diverse, larger, and more established, but because Austin is still going through growing pains, the concept of intersectionality is often lost in the fold or overlooked.
All this said, I think there is so much room for positive growth, and as long as there are people encouraging conversations around this, and people open to reflecting on those messages, the city will benefit greatly. There is so much room for growth and I think the friendly nature of the city allows for that to be possible.
"Austin has one of the highest rates of LGBTQ residents in the county, but doesn't take into account narratives of trans, POC, and non-binary folx as much as it could in the social scene."
What are the biggest hurdles facing the queer community in Austin?
Like I said, even though it's Austin, it is definitely still Texas. I think a huge hurdle facing the queer community in Austin is the queer community itself. I think there really isn't a true understanding of intersectionality, and more of a grouping of queers as all the same type of queer. As much of a blanket statement as this sounds like, it translates into my day-to-day seamlessly when I look for queer events on any given day, and usually can expect to walk into a room of mostly white men at any of those events. Although yes, that is making space for queers, it's only making space for one or a few types of queers. I think the movers and shakers in Austin, not just the queer ones, need to be more intentional about inclusivity and aware of intersectionality, and not excuse themselves from being conscious of that. By ignoring those factors, you just make the division worse.
I think the most blatant issue facing the queer community, even within the queer community, is racism. Racism includes not claiming your whiteness and operating under a different ethnic narrative, which to me is more problematic than just being explicitly racist. It takes the idea of entitlement to a whole different level by ignoring the very real effects and everyday traumas of marginalization. Appropriating culture and thus excusing yourself from white transgressions is a problem whether or not you are queer or straight or anything in between, and is something that I unfortunately have been witness to too often in this city. I think people see Austin as this beacon of progression within Texas, but it shouldn't absolve us from understanding and calling out all the other nuanced ways people are racially oppressive.
How are you working to make things easier?
I am working to make things easier by working within the system in order to break it. I book shows that aren't just indie bands. I partner with organizations that are working to elevate the visibility of trans and non-binary people. I leverage events to create channels of revenue that also benefit local charities who work to better the lives of people who have been left in the fray — populations of which are disproportionately LGBTQ, POC, women, etc. I curate events that intentionally include creatives from the DIY looking to cut their teeth but don't have a means to, or people who have been in their craft but have never seen a tangible opportunity to level up. I strategize with brands to curate events that are more inclusive by showing them the history of the cultures we want to incorporate, so it isn't forgotten and hence appropriated.
Basically, I'm working to make Austin a more socially diverse place. When you think about the trickle up effect that has, that means more conversations, and more visibility, which means a wider array of people finding more interest in moving here, and more progress as a society in general.
"I think people see Austin as this beacon of progression within Texas, but it shouldn't absolve us from understanding and calling out all the other nuanced ways people are racially oppressive."
What types of events do you create through Unbounded?
The events I create are definitely multi-faceted. They aren't just events that entail one type of performance or one type of artistry. I strive for diversity in as many ways as possible. I think through every aspect of the event to make sure that throughout a person's whole experience, they are being engaged with and stimulated. I create events by taking the time to construct an entire concept and tie it back to the goal of visibility. I don't just throw a party to throw a party. Most people don't know or realize that, and it's not necessarily their responsibility to, especially with the goal of implicit messaging in mind.
What impact have you seen?
The impact has been so awesome to realize. I'm way more comfortable standing in the background and watching everything unfold during an event. That's actually my favorite part. Watching people meet other people they never would've met otherwise, having conversations they normally would feel too uncomfortable to have, showing up serving looks they normally wouldn't feel safe doing, the whole thing. The way people have been receiving these events is really humbling. With Equal Axis especially, people, including the performers kept telling me how they've never seen an event like this happen in Austin. It just gives me more fuel to keep building and sustaining this.
None of these events are exclusive to queers or people of color, but definitely keep these narratives at the forefront of the creative. I don't involve people — whether they are in or out of these narratives — to be part of a project if there is any hint of hostility in their mindset, because that just distracts from the goal.
The impact I've seen is an increased sense of community. I've met so many people, creatives and more, who are interested in seeing these efforts sustained, have given me advice, offered me a hand, accepted gigs, generally have just shown up to the events, and all of these actions work to build a stronger community as a whole. It helps to encourage conversations people thought were once difficult to have and expose people to other members of their community they would've never met otherwise.
"That's actually my favorite part. Watching people meet other people they never would've met otherwise, having conversations they normally would feel too uncomfortable to have, showing up serving looks they normally wouldn't feel safe doing, the whole thing."
What was the process for creating Equal Axis?
The process was so natural. Working with Charles from Thank You for Sweating was such an organic match. The way he markets and curates his warehouse parties is so in line with the way my events go, and with Mads' support through Red Bull, we created something unprecedented in quality. We shouldn't ignore the fact that both Charles and Mads are such intelligent, hardworking and capable people; we were always focused on the goal of creating a safe, fun and engaging space and nothing else. We always respected each other's opinions and I think I can speak for all of us when I say we learned immensely from each other.
Choosing the performers and the installation artists came just as naturally. These were all people I've worked with, booked, rubbed shoulders with at Topology, or have been introduced to or met in some way or another before. I am really particular about who I work with because I think there is something to be said about the dedication people put into their craft, and there is a lot of halfhearted artistry in Austin that overshadows the true gems that are ready to get their hands dirty and create something impactful. The beauty of Austin is that it's not really a "big city." That being said, the DIY community is pretty close-knit and it's not uncommon to start running into people you've only just met.
How do you think everything was received?
The impact of being so intentional about who we included in Equal Axis was more than apparent that night. The visuals from hyperreal film club looked straight out of a Harry Potter film! Performance artists like Belladonna and Leia Sakura brought the musical experience to the next level. Even the headliner we chose was perfect for the event, as Maya Jane Coles has never played in Texas before, is a biracial queer woman, and also has her hands in an amazing event the Ministry of Sound produces in London called He.She.They, that has a very similar ethos to Equal Axis in celebrating the relationship between house music and queerness.
With Equal Axis, we were able to curate a space that was explicitly accepting of people of all types. On that macro-level, I was working with an organization that acknowledges not only the brand power of LGBTQ, but on a cultural level is incredibly supportive of this demographic. On a micro-level, we are inviting people in the city to enjoy a night of music historically rooted in the QPOC community, involves queer performers, contributions from the DIY community, all coming together in shared space. There was no VIP or special access involved, everyone had equal access. We did that intentionally, and it was a success!
"With Equal Axis, we were able to curate a space that was explicitly accepting of people of all types."
What's your biggest goal for 2019 through Unbounded?
My biggest goal for 2019 for Unbounded is to formalize a badass team. My biggest goal for 2019 through Unbounded is to break the system. This is a goal that transcends Austin. You have to work within the system in order to change it. What that means for me on a business level is connecting with higher level players in the economy — brands, companies, NGOs, influencers, what have you, showing them the collective power of these demographics that so often go overlooked, and proposing ways to start constructive conversations through the thoughtful curation of space.
On a DIY and local level, that means booking more diverse shows that disrupt the norm and thus *pop off.* Showing people that it's actually way more fun to go to an event full of diversity instead of the opposite. It also means connecting creatives to opportunities that help lead them to that next level.
Personally through Unbounded, I hope to further challenge myself and cut out the noise. This has been such a transformational year for me in terms of personal and professional growth, and it is all a result of me trusting my skill set, putting my head down, putting the work in, and focusing. The work I do is really stimulating and I am really grateful to have the means and ability to even have the opportunity. I want to channel that agency into more successes for me and my community into next year.
Check out photos from Red Bull Music's Equal Axis, below.
Photos courtesy of Anita Obasi / Red Bull Music