Aces: Sarah Akawa of Queer Pressure

The DJ and event organizer discusses carving out queer space in Madison and shares a few of her favorite tracks.

Photo by Alex Andre.

Photo by Alex Andre.

While we here at Tone Madison would never expect a DJ to simply dump their entire record bag full of secrets out in front of us, our goal with this column, Aces, is to chat with some of our favorite local residents, as well as visiting guests, about a few of their favorite, fail-safe floor destroyers.

For this installment of Aces, we reached out to Madison-based DJ, event organizer, and LGBTQ activist Sarah Akawa. For the past several years, Akawa and her partner Joey Bee (who spins tunes as DJ Boyfrrriend) have been working tirelessly on a series of events under the name Queer Pressure, which are meant to create safe and political party environments and art spaces for the local queer community. They've put on Queer Pressure shows and dance nights at venues ranging from the Majestic to The Wisco to Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua. Certain Queer Pressure parties are exclusively for LGBTQ-identifying folks and require new attendants to communicate with the organizers ahead of time to introduce themselves and get on a list, which Akawa elaborates on in our chat below. However, Akawa and Bee also throw plenty of events that are queer-centered but open to straight allies as well, like their upcoming Hot Summer Gays party at Robinia Courtyard on Saturday, August 19, part of a partnership with another local LGBTQ organization, Dyke Dive. The bill features several local live artists and DJs ranging from Madison-based electronic artist Midas Bison to rock outfit Tiny Dinosaur. Akawa will be DJing next at a Queer Pressure party on September 22 at The Frequency and at Gear And Beer Fest on September 24 at the East Side Club.

The Queer Pressure folks also recently hosted an artist lecture and opening festivities for NYC-based artist Rashaad Newsome's show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (which is up through December 3), and have been organizing monthly art exhibitions at Robinia Courtyard. The current show there features artist Jourden Schultz, and the next will feature Ariel Wood.

We sat down with Akawa to discuss the importance of reading a room at Queer Pressure parties, why she loves the organizational side of throwing events, and the importance of keeping those events political.  

Tone Madison: When did you start diving into electronic music and what pulled you in?

Sarah Akawa: To be honest, I loved Tiesto when I was like 12.

Tone Madison: Whoa, so Tiesto was the gateway? Is there a particular Tiesto track that you remember freaking out over?

Sarah Akawa: [Laughs] No, I definitely don't remember any specific track. I've always  been really into music—harassing the roller rink "DJ" to tell me what song was on, that sort of thing. I have two older brothers and I always felt very different from them. One liked rap and the other liked acoustic singer-songwriter stuff, so I guess I was looking for anything that wasn't that. First, I was really into techno—as much as a 12 year old could be—and then I got really into rock, specifically emo and screamo. And I suppose as I've gotten older it's been all over the board. I do like rap and singer songwriter stuff now, but I've specifically been really into new R&B and anything queer-made, of queer interest, or political.

Tone Madison: Most of the tunes you picked out for this interview sit perfectly at that intersection.

Sarah Akawa: Definitely. [Laughs] I listed to the songs from the list I sent you and realized I'd only sent you sexy shit ,which is humorous. I guess I was feeling some sort of way when I picked those songs.

Tone Madison: What pushed you to start DJing and throwing events?

Sarah Akawa: I've been putting on events in some form or another since I first started booking shows at the Boys & Girls Club as a 14-year-old for my band. I'm the type of person who always wants to be prepared for events and I'm a bit of a control freak in the sense that I want all aspects to go very smoothly. So, my interest in DJing came from that. I was doing a queer women's night and relying on an out-of-town DJ. With Wisconsin weather, you never can really tell what might happen, so I became interested out of being worried that the DJ might not show up. I started DJing while managing a climbing gym and working at a wine bar in the same building. We had an opening and needed entertainment. I guess I should also thank my BFF Angela for pushing me to just do it, as well as Joey—my partner and co-creator of Queer Pressure. At that point, I'd had had the controller sitting in my room for a few years.

I've been doing for-queer, by-queer events in Madison for four years now. There were a couple of brief hiatuses where I was in New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Honestly though, I usually find myself on the organizing side of events—hiring or working with DJs. I really enjoy the "business" side of events and parties—finding venues, graphic design, bartending, or whatever.

Tone Madison: So basically there are several years of experience that inform the very focused work you're doing with DJ Boyfrrriend on Queer Pressure?

Sarah Akawa: I've been really lucky to be in a partnership with an awesome queer DJ—DJ Boyfrrriend, my counterpart for Queer Pressure. I feel that seeing just how obnoxious it is to be one of few women DJs—and one of even fewer queer DJs—in Madison helped give a little push. It's funny, too. Queer Pressure doesn't feel like work for me, though I arguably put in more hours for those parties than any other work I'm doing right now.  Queer Pressure started out as my baby project when I was doing a "gay stream" event that I was growing less and less excited about.  Queer Pressure wasn't even supposed to be a series. I just wanted like one party that was explicitly political and to make a night that I wanted to be at. I should thank Tina She from God-des & She and their manager Jill for pushing me to pursue more than just those first normie-type parties. They were definitely a big reason I became interested in doing nightlife events.

Tone Madison: When you were preparing Queer Pressure, what were some of the guidelines and focuses in curating a vibe for the party?

Sarah Akawa: Queer Pressure came out of being frustrated at the constraints of working within a business and being limited about what I could say, which artists I could bring in, et cetera. I wanted to create an experience where safer space practices were employed—everything from having gender-neutral bathrooms to make trans friends more comfortable and support them to having a sliding scale cover, no cover, and offering people for whom the cover could make the night inaccessible to be able to email us and get on a list so they won't have a super awkward interaction at the door. Additionally, when we first started out, we definitely leveraged our connections to get donated alcohol and mixers so that there wouldn't be a barrier or class stratification toward those who couldn't afford to have a drink. We also ensure that there are non-alcoholic options and, when we can, sober spaces for people who choose to not be around drinking folks. I think is a huge reason that Queer Pressure remains queer and true to what it started as, is that I have a ton of really awesome friends who talk things through with me, critique, and give me feedback on what to change, how to make the space more accessible, or generally better. I think it's really important to include a diverse group of people. I want Queer Pressure to be a space defined by those who come. It's not just me, it's everyone who comes out, and hopefully that's a multigenerational, not all-white, and not all-cis group.

Tone Madison: It's been really interesting to see more folks in Madison adopting safer space practices, putting disclaimers in their spaces, and at the very least offering gender-neutral bathrooms.

Sarah Akawa: We're not scared to make statements that not everyone will agree with. We're not focused on profit margins or revenue. Also, we're explicitly anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic, and anti-gender-policing in both our personal and public lives. It's been really great to create a space where we can demand more. I think that people also expect more from us. When people see something fucked up or if we're not doing a good job, the Queer Pressure people let us know, and I think that's really awesome. We're also really intentional with who we book or bring into the Queer Pressure collective. We are intentionally booking queer, trans, and POC people.

Tone Madison: If someone wanted to inquire about getting on the email list, what would they have to do?

Sarah Akawa: I made a public Facebook page for this recently. We have always done Queer Pressure as a private Facebook group filled with our networks. The group is intentionally a queer-only space. We have that page for straight allies to follow what we're up to and for out-of-town people, out-of-town events, speaking engagements, and events open to non-queer people. if a queer person wants to come to the queer-only events, they should like the public page, send a message to that page explaining who they are and that they want to be added to the private group to attend exclusive Queer Pressure events.

Tone Madison. Let's chat about these tunes you picked out. They all carry kind of a sleek and heady downtempo feel that's rooted in hip-hop and R&B. Is this a vibe you tend to stick to on the decks?

Sarah Akawa: Yeah, I chose these songs on a feeling/mood I was in. I'm more interested in a loungey and silky feel. Honestly, it's probably because I'm very often in super loud party atmospheres. So, when I'm DJing, I want to create a mood for people to connect, chat, and dance in a way that they can get to know each other—specifically in a queer setting.

Tone Madison: How did you come across H.E.R.'s "Lights On" and how do you like to  use it in a DJ set?

Sarah Akawa: I came across H.E.R. in some article, or maybe it was Alicia Keys' social media actually. I don't know. It was huge on Soundcloud. For maybe too many years, I've been throwing around ideas of anonymity—her album cover was just a silhouette—and how to have less posturing or cool-kid parties and ideas for how to remove stratification based on social capital. I'm generally uncomfortable getting any attention that I didn't 1,000 percent earn, so I was really into the idea of H.E.R. I use this song to set a mood. One beautiful thing about having exclusive parties is that queer folks can get as sultry and steamy as they feel comfortable doing. I think for me, finding my queer identity definitely happened in nightlife spaces and seeing other queer people just doing their thing—finding love, lust, sex, or whatever. I want to recreate that vibe for other queer people. Additionally, I think this song encapsulates the special "first moments" Ihave had, which cannot be uncoupled from my queerness.

Tone Madison: I definitely agree that sometimes it's tough to deny the allure of mystery with regards to anonymity and art. I really like how spacious this track is, how those wobbling pads slither in the background, those background vocals weaving in and out of the mix.  

Sarah Akawa: Definitely. Everything about it reflects two bodies moving around together. It's kind of enveloping. With the current state of affairs, as well as history, queer bodies doing that and not being afraid is magic. I would put that song in as soon as I see a couple canoodling.

Tone Madison: It seems like the connection between the DJ and audience is particularly crucial at a party like Queer Pressure and you put a lot of care into reading the room.  

Sarah Akawa: That's true. It's more than just the DJ, though. Our volunteers and room roamers, so to speak—hosts and bartenders—we all go through potential issues and check in throughout the night. We also have a certain amount of responsibility. We had an event pretty soon after the shooting at Pulse in Orlando and that party felt especially needed.

Visuals by Sarah Akawa projected at Queer Pressure's "Sweat" party at the Majestic in July.

Visuals by Sarah Akawa projected at Queer Pressure's "Sweat" party at the Majestic in July.

Tone Madison: It's insane. Sometimes I hear people talk a bunch of negative bullshit about safe spaces and complain because they can't get into this party or that party because they aren't queer or POC and it's just like "aw, I'm sorry, this must be your first time being denied access to something."

Sarah Akawa: [Laughs] Yeah, I don't mind explaining to people who are confused or don't get it. But if you're pissed because you think you're entitled to this space, then fuck you. For Queer Pressure there are definitely things we have to address—like consent in touching. We are not free from oppression and power issues in our queer community. I think Madison is challenging. It's one thing when we have shitty interactions with white-dude bar owners, but there's another level of trying to explain and break down barriers to people who consider themselves allies. Then there are some super special cases of people who claim queerness who are also still very pro-police and anti-black. Or, there's the issue of people thinking queer parties will make them a bunch of money—thanks to recent news articles about the queer dance party as a protest. So, we get people who just see us as dollar signs.

Tone Madison: All of which further escalates the importance of doing some of these parties in a DIY fashion, I'd imagine.

Sarah Akawa: Yeah, and there's no way to keep it unheard-of anymore so why not just tell everyone, right?

Tone Madison: I dig the super downtempo and cavernous R'n'B vibe of "Unravel Me" by Sabrina Claudio. What draws you toward this one for DJ sets?

Sarah Akawa: Pretty similar story to "Lights On"—trying to make that magic happen. I think the lyrics really drew me in. She's got this super sexy mood going, but she's also saying something along the lines of "I know you're trying to pull me in, but you'll never unravel me." She also references "we're not supposed to do this" and it just hits a spot. I think, especially as a queer person, sometimes sex or intimacy in general feels like a huge risk. This is amplified by the fact that Madison is small and insular. Another aspect that draws on the "not being unraveled" is there's a risk, but she's going for it anyway. Lyrically, I just really got into it, she talks about "the fall," "the rise," and how her "mind is ruptured" and she like really wants to go for it, but she can't stay or whatever. It's just a really beautiful and sad feels-for-you type of song.

Tone Madison: It's an interesting contrast between talking to you about how you sequence a DJ set and interviewing house and techno DJs who mostly only talk about instrumentals. It really seems like the lyrics play an important role in your programming.

Sarah Akawa: Yeah, well l'm laughing a little because I might be a pretty bad DJ, but fuck it. We need more women, queer people, and non-white DJs.

Tone Madison: The only people who would judge you on your technique or track selection based on some traditionalist "DJ" bullshit about that shit are usually the worst kinds of DJs themselves.

Sarah Akawa: I feel very lucky, because the queer people are generally super supportive. I'm also happy to have Joey tell me when I'm fucking shit up or offer advice.

Tone Madison: I generally think it sucks when people have to get all "not-in-my-backyard" about DJing.

Sarah Akawa: [Laughs] Or think they own a venue.

Tone Madison: There seems to be a more playful energy shift with this Syd cut "All About Me." How did this tune come into your life and how would you utilize it in a set?

Sarah Akawa: I really liked "Special Affair" by The Internet and then I found out that Syd released a solo album. This is is my favorite song from it. It totally reminds me of being a little younger—getting ready to go out and find whatever you're looking for, but keeping your friends close. I feel a lot about my friends. I really like this song and the album because it has an underwater deepness. It's all about creating that vibe—slow, low, and heavy. I'm also into it because Syd is queer, black, and crushing it. It inspires confidence and keeping your friends in mind.

Tone Madison: Sometimes those kinds of tunes are the only way people can pull themselves out of their bedroom. By the way, this Mykki Blanco track "Loner" that you picked out is amazing. Perfect blend of pop sugar and heart-wrenching energy. How did this one come into your life?

Sarah Akawa: I think the Blanco track sticks out a bit from the other three. Mykki was heavily influenced by the punk and riot grrl scenes, which I can relate to in the sense that I grew up with rock and have grown into liking other genres. Mykki was at this semi-secret queer festival and fundraiser and I went home and looked up his music and was into it. Politically, I'm really into Mykki as well, I appreciate that what he is doing aligns with what I'm doing. He's unapologetic in his queerness and calls people and institutions out when they need it. This music video drew me in. I was super intrigued that PornHub produced it, and to be honest I was expecting something raunchy but it's this amazing art vid. I also do visuals/VJ and am otherwise really into producing visual art and experience and I think the mix of glitch and sexuality composed with the music is an intriguing experience.