(Interview from TheGuardian.co.uk)
Venus X has previously described DJing as a kind of witchcraft, but on the day I meet her she seems more goddess than witch. The kind of goddess, that is, who’s fallen to Earth by way of a Bollywood film set, 90s hip-hop video and cyberpunk convention. She’s wearing tight jeans, high tops and a bomber jacket, an outfit set off by bright cobalt blue lips, an ornate gold nose-to-ear chain and a smile that can only be described as beatific.
The 25-year-old, who’s now paying the bills by playing art parties, fashion shows and, most recently, touring with Gang Gang Dance, made a name for herself with Ghe20 Goth1k, an underground party begun in 2009 with her friend Shayne Oliver, a fashion designer. They put it on wherever they could, usually in warehouses around the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As with every too-brief New York scene, it seems more talked about now than it ever was then.
‘Venus X, photographed in New York City for the Observer New Review, June 2012. Photograph: Annie Collinge
“When it was happening nobody paid it any attention!” she laughs. Not strictly true. She may not have fielded as many press requests back then, nor was she getting booked by the likes of Damien Hirst and Terry Richardson, but the parties weren’t exactly under-attended. Ghe20 Goth1k rapidly grew from a smallish “very weird mixed Brooklyn crowd of crazy people” to a catholic clientele of “skaters, punks, drag queens, radical black lesbians, young gay people, art-school kids, the art crowd, the urban, streetwear scene, pop stars, fashion people…”
It was, she says, “an experiment in all kinds of ways – musically and socially”, and the music she played was as eclectic – and as loud and outrageous – as the attendees. They charged everyone $2 at the door (“We wanted to be really punk about it”) – and that included minor celebrities such as M.I.A. “Why treat her any different?” she shrugs.
Jazmin Venus Soto grew up in Washington Heights in New York City, the daughter of a Dominican schoolteacher mother and an Ecuadorian drug-dealer father. “My mum had me when she was pretty young. She got married when she was 18 and my dad was 20 and they had me a year later. They got divorced two years after that. My dad has been in and out of jail my whole life – he’s had attempted murder charges, money laundering. He was engaged in every kind of illicit activity you can imagine.”
In the past she’s mentioned dodging gunfire on her way to school but she recounts her childhood cheerfully.
“I was really into making my parents happy and getting good grades,” she says. “It wasn’t even like I was a nerd, because I did it in order to get my freedom; I was running around being a bad, bad girl, but I had straight As so my parents didn’t care.”
As a kid she wanted to be a lawyer, then the president, then a doctor. And now, she laughs, “I sort of feel like I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to do, but within music.”
She adds: “I can be an activist and I can also play music that makes people feel good and that’s healing. I mean, music can do tons of different shit: you can control people and help clean out spaces with sound.”
Being politically provocative is as important to her as delivering floor-fillers, and in her mind they needn’t be mutually exclusive; alongside fail-safes such as Rihanna’s We Found Love, she’s known for including excerpts from al-Jazeera broadcasts and audio footage from the Arab Spring in her sets.
“It’s supposed to be corny, to do that,” she says, “but I think that’s a privileged perspective. We don’t have to pretend that the world is amazing. It’s like, yeah, you’re at this party and you’re wasted, but did you forget that there’s mad drama in Egypt? There’s always people who don’t know what’s going on in the world.” She adds flatly: “I don’t like pretending to be stupid.”
Her catholic approach to culture means that when she plays, “all the worlds collide for a moment”, and that’s meant she’s appreciated in impressively disparate contexts: rapper A$AP Rocky has her dancing in his videos, but she’s also opined on the year’s best music for the art magazine ArtForum. And how many other party promoters get mentioned in the same breath as avant-garde composer and theorist Pauline Oliveros?
On the day I meet her, Venus X is, in art-world parlance, contributing a “sound design” for a parodic fashion show by the feminist artist K8 Hardy at the Whitney Museum. The models walk to blasts of bhangra and jungle, which are shot through with voiceovers from cosmetics commercials. It’s addling and electrifying and REM’s Michael Stipe is among the people nodding his head to it in the front row. He’s not the only big-name fan: Shakira’s people have been courting her too. What happened with that?
“Um… ” she says, sounding a bit cagey. “I tried to work with her management company as a creative consultant but it didn’t work out. They were looking for singles and that’s cool, but I was just talking about music and they weren’t really ready for that…”
Venus X, in turn, isn’t ready to compromise her independence. Rather than sign to a major label, she hopes to release a mixtape online later this year.
“Now everybody’s watching us, everything is calculated and has to be done properly in order not to waste moments.”
As for finding new music: “All you have to do is walk outside your door and look around and ask questions and you’ll be able to figure out what’s working. The internet is amazing because it allows me to exist, but it’s also the problem – people want too much stuff because there’s all this space to fill. It’s too disconnected from reality. A lot of it is people building up these false realities for themselves. I like talking to people in real life; I don’t like bullshitting with them online!”
When I ask about the sort of people inspiring her now, she reels off a characteristically global list which includes the late Latin pop star Selena (“I look at her and she makes me want to be a better woman”) and Arundhati Roy as well as Missy Elliott, Miles Davis, Lil’ Kim, Björk and the Lebanese model and singer Haifa Wehbe.
“People,” she concludes, “who just changed the whole room, the mood and made culture special.”