Often when one thinks of "the club," the knee jerk visceral associations of long lines, demeaning dress codes, unwelcoming door policies and a homogenous musical lineup immediately come to mind. Not at Club Chai, the Bay Area event series and record label founded by FOOZOOL (Lara Sarkissian) and 8ULENTINA (Esra Canoğulları), which celebrated its third anniversary on March 1 at San Francisco's Public Works in partnership with Red Bull Music. A diverse crowd, impossible to label and categorize but notably young and enthusiastic showed up in droves despite pouring rain to experience the inclusive atmosphere of a Club Chai event.
"We were always really inspired by parties that had a monthly or weekly presence," Esra told PAPER. There's a party called High Fantasy in San Francisco, they're kind of on hiatus right now, but it was one of those things where it would be all the Bay Area weirdos ending up there on a Tuesday night. It was always this very authentically weird, queer, SF-based space that wasn't apologetic to anything. Lara and I always try to make Club Chai something where people feel like they can experiment and they don't have to tell the same story all the time."
That authentic, weird and proudly queer community that San Francisco has been known for since at least the late 1960s (if not earlier) has seen itself pushed out like so many marginalized people due to some of the most extreme gentrification the country has seen. With rent three times the national average in some neighborhoods (higher than even notoriously unaffordable New York City), artists in San Francisco have had to get extra creative with their resources and super clear with their intentions. The result, somehow, is a community that's thriving perhaps more than ever, with the leadership of folks like Esra and Lara and the artists that surround them.
Photo by Grady Brannan / Red Bull Content Pool
"It's a constant struggle for creative people to stay here, but there's so many artists that are making really experimental work, across all mediums," Esra said. "Especially in the music scene, there's so many interdisciplinary artists who are visual artists, but they might also have noise project, or DJ, or do a techno project, or maybe they used to be in a punk band. People here are really chameleons in the sense that they will pursue what they're inspired by, even if there's not a big economy for it, which is really inspiring."
"When you're in a stressful circumstance in the city, people still push to create stuff because it's part of how they survive."
Still, best intentions aside, times are hard for artists everywhere and especially those living under the looming shadow of Silicon Valley. "I feel like it's been some of the hardest times the past year in the Bay," Lara said. "But if anything, I'm seeing even more events happening, even if that means people working more venues or throwing renegades, people still find a way. I've been seeing more parties pop up that I didn't even know about."
"People are definitely struggling in the sense that there's not enough spaces and venues for people to push their work to the potential it deserves," Esra continued. "But the past few years have been really amazing to see how many people have gotten really invigorated about and excited about DJing and electronic music again. It's always been something that's a part of the Bay Area, but I think more recently people have been pushing the limits of what they do. When you're in a stressful circumstance in the city, people still push to create stuff because it's part of how they survive."
The duo explained that it's gotten easier over the past three years to find venues to work with as they've proven they can sell tickets. "With venues, it's all about alcohol sales," Lara said. "It's all they care about. We've been told in the past that what we're doing is too niche, but I feel like our story and the sounds and how they connect definitely relates to people on a bigger level."
"If you look at the way that mainstream music has absorbed so many different genres and sounds in the past few years," Esra added, "It's not that far out of peoples' scope. Most people that like music will acknowledge that music from anywhere is good. So I think it's more of an issue that promoters and clubs have to deal with. A lot of clubs and venues have shut down, so I understand it. It's frustrating for us, because I think it took a lot of press to get them to notice, but now that they have it's been interesting to build that relationship and see if it's something that could be good instead of assuming that it would be bad."
They noted that while the types of parties Club Chai and other collectives like them may have found spaces in say, non-permitted warehouses in the past, events like the tragic 2016 Oakland Ghost Ship fire make such options less appealing and viable.
"After what has happened in the Bay, [we're more concerned] about peoples' safety and making sure people feel good," Esra said.
Photo by Grady Brannan / Red Bull Content Pool
One artist who spoke to the same ethos of collective collaboration that Club Chai promotes was also the headliner of their third anniversary party, the legendary Venus X. Chatting over the phone as she packed for her cross country flight to San Francisco, the DJ and artist reflected on the gentrification that has also swept over communities in her native New York and the importance of remaining steadfast under industry pressure.
"Gentrification basically said, 'Fuck all the people that have been working really hard to build a community up, we're going to come in and buy it. And we all happen to be white,'" she explained. "With that comes sounds and aesthetics that are very particular to those communities, so you have two extremes. You have people who absolutely don't care about fashion or music, and when they do they're usually not taking too much time to look for a diverse offering of music, or even to challenge themselves and how they think about, 'What is nightlife?' and 'What is good music?'"
She noted that spaces like Club Chai — whose third anniversary party featured a lineup including the likes of SHYBOI, Quest?onmarc, Thoom, Qing Qi, B-Side Brujas, TR4VI3ZA and FELA KUTCHii — are hard to come by simply because capitalism sees little value in them beyond stepping in to steal potentially lucrative trends.
"Even though it seems very disparate, what's happening at Coachella on the main DJ stage is absolutely connected to what we're doing in the underground."
"It's been hard for bigger and smaller cities to justify having spaces where people can just go and be, as opposed to creating spaces where people want to spend a lot of money and do drugs and be at some really Coachella-like experience. They've forgotten why it's important to just have people out dancing who are young and who are also on the margins of society and not according to the prescription of college-job-marriage-children. It's really just peoples' obsession with money and not making the full-circle understanding that trends in culture are derived from experimentation in communities that are usually very small. Even though it seems very disparate, what's happening at Coachella on the main DJ stage is absolutely connected to what we're doing in the underground. Those people are absolutely keeping tabs on all of the things that are happening and the energy. The minute there's anything good, they sample it."
Understanding the way things work hasn't discouraged artists like Venus and Club Chai from continuing forth with their work; in fact, it's only deepened the roots and stretched the heights of their vision. "I think the music industry's just fucking backwards," Venus said. "Once you figure that out, you're like, 'Oh, I don't even care about these people.' God bless them, whatever they choose to do. You can come for me, you can not come for me, I know it's not even about me — you're just trying to stay relevant. But, my job is to create more stability out of the idea that we've invested so much time into."
Photos courtesy Grady Brannan / Red Bull Content Pool