At a Maracuyeah party, the dance floor transforms from a room of individuals to a full communal experience. The Latin-alternative, tropical-hybrid sounds and the emphasis on shared freedom are both crucial: The DJ collective wants to create spaces for marginalized identities — namely queer people of color.
“I think about the idea that our bodies are policed at other places, and what are the possibilities of feeling free somewhere, and what are the possibilities of connecting with each other in ways that aren’t blocked by language?” says Kristy La Rat — stylized as Kristy la rAt — through a crackly phone. “Parties are a way of creating unexpected interactions, which are hopefully really positive and transformative.”
As the collective makes clear on the Facebook invitation for its five-year anniversary Friday night: “This fiesta is a mixed-community-amor, queer-fly, immigrant-posi, POC-centered, genderpolice-free, nena-run, friends-welcome, mucho-respeto space! No wackness, no one-identity-dominance! You are importante, loves! Gracias a todxs por ser inspiradorxs.”
Kristy la rAt started Maracuyeah — the name is an enthusiastic take on maracuyá, the Spanish word for passion fruit — with fellow DJ Mafe Escobar, known as DJ Mafe. Since its inception in 2011, the collective has grown to include other D.C.-area “Latinx” DJs, including Carmen Rivera, aka DJ Carmencha. (The “x” is a way to eliminate a/o gender distinctions in Spanish words.)
The community has stretched beyond the city, to Mexico, Austin, Texas and Paris. The goal is “world domination,” DJ Mafe deadpans, but then lets a laugh escape. She’s been in Paris for a couple of years, spreading the Maracuyeah gospel.
But despite that increasingly international reach, Kristy la rAt believes in keeping some of the action firmly in D.C.
“One strong element is a very local party that contributes something to the local scene,” she says. Both Kristy la rAt and DJ Mafe have backgrounds in community organizing.
The five-year anniversary show is Friday at a regular venue, a Salvadoran restaurant in the U Street NW neighborhood named Judy’s. Before the birthday bash, the DJs reflect their time together and what the future holds.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bandwidth: What is your relationship to music? How did you come upon music and how does it play in your life?
DJ Carmencha: It’s hard to define my relationship to music. I think that my relationship to music started in my living room listening to records with my family, and I try to carry that with me everywhere I go. All those songs and the way they make me feel in my heart.
DJ Mafe: I think growing up a Colombian, you’re pretty much surrounded by music 24/7. So you go to the store, you go anywhere and there’s music blaring there. In my relationship to music, it’s very important. I’m in finals week right now so I’m listening to a lot of music. I love this app called TuneIn where you can listen to radio stations from across the world. So I started with a radio station in Cartagena, Colombia, and then I moved to a station in Lagos, Nigeria, and then one in Tallahassee.
Kristy la rAt: In childhood, it’s how I related to different parts of my family and understood moving between a lot of different spaces. it was kind of like the soundtrack of different experiences that helped me make friends and move through hybrid identity spaces. And then I would also say that growing up in this area, one of the amazing things is that it’s one of the more all-ages type city. So if you’re a teenager, maybe 13, 14, music was the way I could socialize with other people, express myself, even as a participant. I feel like also another really important part of music is raising money for different things. Some collectives I’ve been a part of here, they’re really grassroots efforts and a lot of the time, we end up getting into DJing as a great way to throw parties and raise money and fund our organizations that didn’t have any other funding.
“I don’t really believe that music can exist in an apolitical vacuum at all. We’re working with all different kinds of music at our parties. We’re touching on themes of gender and race and ethnicity and migration and safety, and all those are political and social concepts.” — DJ Carmencha of Maracuyeah
So following that, how exactly did you get into DJing? What made you want to be behind the table as opposed to in front of it, in a sense?
Kristy la rAt: Now looking back, a big purpose was to support different community initiatives. It was for grassroots radical organizing without having to deal with some sort of funding world or a funding world that didn’t want to fund what we were doing. But also, I started organizing and DJing dance parties in Lima when I was there during college. We organized a femme-organized — or “nena-run,” as they say in Spanglish — event space, so we brought a lot of elements of our identities into the vision and how we wanted to move and how we wanted boundaries and how we wanted our bodies to feel existing in that space and how we express ourselves. So kind of creating a space for our experience was a big part of it.
DJ Mafe: For me, I started DJing in college, first at the radio station and then I started the first Latin-alternative party there because I was tired of all the parties that were just Top 40 Latin music. There’s so much music and artists to showcase that are different from mainstream Latin Top 40. And then when I got to D.C., it was also on the idea that nobody else was playing the music that we wanted to hear, so we just took it upon ourselves to play it and learn how to be great DJs and create these spaces and tour.
DJ Carmencha: I came into DJing after working at a radio station in Berkeley, California. I started realizing that one of my favorite parts was picking the songs to play between talk segments and sharing music with people and feeling their reactions to the music.
Did it take very long to learn to DJ? What are some of the tips you’ve learned over time?
DJ Mafe: Technology is different, I would say. I started going at it with CDs and then learning the different tools. So just understanding how to do better mixing and understanding the different types of files and different types of sounds like if it sounds bass-y or not and if they go together or not, but also play with those differences. I remember there’s a lot of, how you say, prejudice if you don’t play a song or how the song should be played. So sometimes we were just like “f**k it, we don’t want to continue with the same BPM, let’s just mix it and change it up.” So I would just say keeping up with technology and covering those tools has been important.
DJ Carmencha: I was very privileged in taking a workshop that Kristy organized with another DJ in D.C. for women and gender-nonconforming people of color to learn some of the basics of digital DJing and organizing parties. And that definitely helped me very much feel more confident with what Mafe’s describing in playing with the tools and playing with the technology and experimenting. Just letting go of that perfectionist fear of making mistakes. But I’m still learning.
Kristy la rAt: One thing that I think is important before learning how to DJ is to think about your goals. Especially right now there’s a lot of hype in DJ culture and the atypical, mythological example of making it big very quickly as a DJ. And I think if that’s part of your goal, that’s fine, but it’s good to be realistic because that’s not most people’s experience. And the same elements that happen in society definitely play out in the DJ world, like attaining different levels of economic success and popularity. It’s very traditional in that way with, you know, discrimination and lack of opportunity. I think that’s why it’s important to have identity-based workshops and identity-centered spaces. Sometimes it’s easy to get confused on why you want to DJ, so just take a second to write down your purpose. Also, I think making playlists is half the battle of DJing, right? Like, a lot of the time it’s what you hear and curation is a huge part of it. And having your friends, too. DJing has always been a collective experience and a vehicle for more collective experiences that I just wouldn’t have enjoyed 100 percent alone, ever.
How have your parties changed?
Kristy la rAt: Well, we’ve learned a lot in how to organize these spaces and in the way that we DJ. And we’ve gotten a much stronger community over the years which means more people can hold down the space in a more collective way instead of the few of us who are organizing. Even the music collection has gotten a more hybrid in terms of playing with a bunch of different genres. And the space is a lot more centered on people of color and queer identities feeling welcomed, as well as everybody, but those identities feel more centered than when we began so that’s kind of cool and that was a goal and something that we’ll keep working on.
Should music always have a political role, or does it just have a social function? Or is it a combination?
DJ Carmencha: I think it’s hard to make a distinction between political and social for me. I think anywhere you exist in a space, you’re saying something with your actions or movements or the songs you’re choosing. I don’t really believe that music can exist in an apolitical vacuum at all. We’re working with all different kinds of music at our parties. We’re touching on themes of gender and race and ethnicity and migration and safety and all those are political and social concepts.
DJ Mafe: For me, music is how to share the immigrant experience and the immigrant experience is very political itself. I think it’s very difficult to separate, just as Carmen said.
Has it been hard keeping these spaces safe?
Kristy la rAt: I would say, even like safer spaces is a challenging proposition given the social conditions we’re working with that play out in most public spaces. So I’ve helped organize parties from house settings where you have more control to club settings where you really have to put your trust in the venue. I think that’s something that people don’t expect, to really create agreements with the venue and conversations about what would security look like and what would interactions look like and what does escalation look like. How do we want our guests to be treated or addressed, even thinking about something as simple as checking an ID. We have discussions on having those respectful interactions and having people not feel like their gender is being policed at the door when they’re coming to a place looking for a positive social experience. It’s a lot of work and it’s an ongoing set of questions that we’re looking to address. When we started working with Judy’s, the restaurant that we work with, it’s all-gender bathrooms, but it’s a whole system you have to work on. It’s a huge challenge and one of the most important challenges in organizing a space.
DJ Mafe: It’s just s****y when you go out to a place and you don’t have security or there’s not a positive space. Being harassed can ruin the whole night, so a space should be more open and safe spaces should include best security practices. People should demand more when they go out so that more of these practices can be shared and applied.
What tips can you give to people coming to a Maracuyeah party?
Kristy la rAt: Respect. And think about each other’s humanity. Not putting hands on other people unless you know they want you to. Not singing along to horrible words that you can’t say since they aren’t part of your identity. Just because a song is playing, doesn’t mean that gives you a pass to use that language if it’s not your place to.
Maracuyeah’s five-year anniversary takes place April 29 Judy’s Bar and Restaurant.