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How Swagger Like Us Pushed Queer Hip-Hop Forward in SF

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Kelly Lovemonster at Swagger Like Us in 2018. (Jennifer Wong @takeover.tokyo)

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n July 29, 2012, a family function was born on the patio of San Francisco’s El Rio.

Rapper MicahTron, who grew up in Hunters Point, struck a pose onstage in a silk bomber jacket, encouraging an ecstatic queer crowd sporting shaved sides, crop tops and improbably tight denim to “back it up, use it like a bumper.” Her set followed a wraithlike performance by Tosh Basco, formerly known as boychild, an art star of the freak-drag movement that enraptured the city. Basco entranced the audience in a neon-green look consisting of little more than fishnets and happy face stickers. The event’s co-mastermind Kelly Lovemonster generously distributed hugs and booty pops, ensuring a certain atmosphere in their whisper of a gray tank top.

“We did this because we wanted to support our community,” says Lovemonster, who is now living on the other side of the world in Australia. “I helped run and produce Swagger Like Us because I really thought this was an important space to hold.”

DJs played a joyful, aerobic collection of beats: Club-remixed R&B divas rubbed up against queer artists from niche subgenres of the nationwide hip-hop diaspora. The event’s namesake, the chest-out line from M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that Jay-Z and T.I. had spun into their own banger, boomed out over the lemon trees that flanked the neighborhood bar’s dance floor. No one on the corner has swagger like us, indeed.

Twelve years later, Swagger Like Us is now wrapping up its monthly format with a finale at El Rio on June 2. On a giggly, time-zone-spanning video call I had with the party’s two co-founders, Lovemonster brings up some thoughts occasioned by chapters on Black San Francisco in David Talbot’s history book Season of the Witch. “I was thinking about places like the Fillmore and thinking of Swagger as a space for Black folks, and Black queer folks in particular, to say that we still exist,” they say.

The crowd at Swagger Like Us in May 2024. (Jennifer Wong @takeover.tokyo)

Aside from a truly significant decade-plus of supporting the financial viability of queer hip-hop artists, this may well be Swagger’s true legacy in a city that has largely failed to hold the line for its Black community. “A space for us to congregate, a space for us to celebrate,” they smile.

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That long-ago debut twirl took place years before Swagger started selling out 1,000-person venues with indelible Pride events featuring larger-than-life allies like Trina and Leikeli47. But if you knew, you knew: Those of us who attended that first edition could absolutely clock a new chapter in queer San Francisco hip-hop history.

As Swagger’s finale approaches, it seems like a good moment to reflect on what the party has meant for its artists and attendees. (This may not mean goodbye forever: Organizers hint that they might be back in the future for special events.)

“T

he community that has formed around Swagger Like Us is nothing short of beautiful, vibrant, colorful and inclusive. It’s been a beautiful journey, and I feel incredibly humbled by the trust that David and Kelly have placed in me,” says acclaimed vogue dancer and queer socialite Jocquese Whitfield, who has been hosting the party since that way-back first edition.

Jocquese Whitfield at Swagger Like Us in 2018. (Jennifer Wong @takeover.tokyo)

The party’s debut came mere months after a little-known “212” ingénue named Azealia Banks nonchalantly told The New York Times she was a bisexual. This was years before Lil Nas X came out with his 2019 track “C7osure,” a release that arguably ushered in the era of the mainstream gay rapper.

Nowadays, queer hip-hop has taken definite steps out of the underground. Streaming algorithms suggest LGBTQ+ performers like Doechii and Ice Spice, and veteran MCs Queen Latifah and Da Brat have finally gone public with their decided lack of heterosexuality, to the delight of legions.

Swagger was born to book queer hip-hop’s rising stars long before the majors were ready. On national tours as one half of the queer electro-pop duo Double Duchess, davOmakesbeats realized their home of San Francisco lacked inclusive, Black and Brown community functions that would “get” the lyrics and moves he and Krylon Superstar were delivering on stage. davO’s own Caucasity aside, the beats-obsessed, Maryland-born DJ wanted to feel that energy in his adopted City by the Bay.

“When I came to California, I would play Baltimore club tracks and no one would know what they were,” remembers davO, who was also the founder of the sweaty Chinatown basement party Blood Sweat and Queers. “I didn’t get it. I was like, ‘Not everybody listens to this?’”

India Sky performs at Swagger Like Us in 2019. (Jennifer Wong @takeover.tokyo)

If it’s queer, immaculate vibes you’re looking for, you could do much worse than seek out davO’s eventual collaborator, Lovemonster. The multi-hyphenate creative with Haitian roots started producing events with their “Love canvases,” paint-spattered, clothing-optional performance-happenings they convened while attending their home state of New Jersey’s Rutgers University.

Today, they are successful curator and party producer in Sydney, Australia, where they live with their partner Spencer Dezart-Smith (a.k.a. boyfriend) — one of the founding DJs of Swagger Like Us — and their son. True to form, one of Lovemonster’s current events, Leak Your Own Nudes, is an underwear party. By the time they came together with davO over starting a new monthly function, Lovemonster was already a local nightlife heartthrob who curated the inclusive and foxy “go-go babes” at El Rio’s marquee soul music Saturday afternoon monthly, Hard French.

I

see now that this was one of the many golden ages of SF queer nightlife. In the early ’10s, you could drink affordably potent cocktails while grinding with sexy weirdos every night of the week: DJ Stanley Frank’s Viennetta Discotheque on Mondays, High Fantasy at Aunt Charlie’s on Tuesdays, Booty Call Wednesdays at Q Bar, Thursday nights at DJ Bus Station John’s Tubesteak Connection and avant-garde drag cabaret Club Something on Fridays at The Stud’s original location.

After a breakup, I wound up living with Lovemonster, Hard French promoter Tom Temprano and a passel of other sparkly queers and their pets in a ramshackle flat on South Van Ness Avenue. An easy drunken stumble from El Rio, our lair was the designated after for, uh, releasing the energy of the bar’s daylight-hour parties. Despite a preponderance of shenanigans, we all got along surprisingly lovingly. The last of us didn’t leave that house until many years later, when the front staircase collapsed.

Even amid so much festivity, Swagger filled a void. Nearly every decade since hip-hop’s birth, Bay Area queers have made space in a genre that, much like the world at large, is all too often hampered by heteronormative rigidity. In the ’80s, Page Hodel’s The Box hosted Queen Latifah, over three decades before she came out officially. In the ’90s, DJ Olga T gave birth to the eternal (27+ years running!) Mango at El Rio. Juba Kalamka of Deep Dickollective produced the first edition of the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival in 2001, and in 2003, Oakland’s electric fundraiser-dance-party Ships in the Night set sail.

Though Swagger is indubitably part of this proud legacy, its founders were more focused on creating a proper Bay Area stop for the countrywide queer hip-hop circuit. Their first edition featured local nightlife stars, but the crew was soon introducing growing crowds to their next Soundcloud addictions. Early lineups featured Nola bounce queens Katey Red and Sissy Nobby; UNIIQU3’s defiant Jersey club; NYC ballroom giants MikeQ and Byrell the Great; Baltimore rappers DDm and TT the Artist; and the cadre of brilliant queer hip-hop artists who at the time always seemed painfully close to breaking the genre’s glass ceiling: Le1f, Zebra Katz, Cakes Da Killa and even Princess Nokia, who delivered an early performance of “Tomboy” to the Swagger crowd at Oasis.

Dancers at Swagger Like Us in May 2024. (Jennifer Wong @takeover.tokyo)

Some of these names are now Bay Area party regulars. At least in part, that’s due to their initial Swagger bookings. Eventually, the sound expanded to run the gamut of Black-rooted genres, including baile funk, the reggaeton of Mexico City’s Rosa Pistola and Latin club. The CDMX party I hosted (I’m telling you, it runs in the family), Traición, came up for a Swagger crossover Folsom Street Fair afterparty in 2017.

“It was the first time that I had been welcomed by a space that was so queer and Black,” remembers Saturn Risin9. The Hercules-raised performer had come up through what she calls San Francisco’s “universal” nightlife spaces, all-comer dance parties like Lights Down Low and Blow Up. “But at that time, I needed to connect with people like me,” she continues.

Swagger was there at every shift in her career, providing a stage for Saturn’s early, elaborate choreographies and eventually, her sets of breathy, club-ready R&B tracks that davO produced on Molly House Records, founded in 2017 to provide yet more amplification for the party’s talented collaborators. “It was a beautiful space for me to find ways to nurture others, and find out how I needed to be nurtured,” she recalls.

“It felt amazing to be celebrated as a Black queer artist in the city that I was born in,” says self-proclaimed “hyphy spiritual” and second-generation San Francisco rapper A.M.K, who adds that her Swagger appearances netted her exposure that led to out-of-state gigs. “Swagger Like Us represents the diversity and the love of the Bay Area,” A.M.K concludes.

But throwing a BIPOC hip-hop party in San Francisco has never been all positivity, as generations of promoters who’ve encountered manic police surveillance and hostile venue owners know. Lovemonster recalls an insurance company who jacked up rates for a major event when they found out Swagger’s genre of preference.

And the city’s evolution meant many from the event’s original crowd eventually moved out. “The only changes to the party have been by virtue of the city’s changes, which is to be expected,” says davO, who is now back in Maryland working as an addiction counselor and life coach. He left SF in 2018, the same year Lovemonster and boyfriend decamped to start their Australian family.

Dancers at Swagger Like Us in March 2024. (Jennifer Wong @takeover.tokyo)

Luckily, a younger generation carried on with the show, hosting and eventually becoming the new face of the party. “I think Jocquese and I were synonymous on the Swagger stage because we were its little siblings,” says Saturn. “Like, if davO and Kelly were the Kardashians, we were the Kendall and Kylie.” That they have given new life to Swagger over the last six years reminds me that as one person’s San Francisco recedes, another’s celebration of the city is just starting to pop.

But also: “There’s a beginning and end to everything,” says Lovemonster, explaining away the end of the 12-year monthly that provided a place to dance, flirt and link when it was needed most. “Like, it’s just literally the cycle of life.”

There are sure to be a few tears when davO spins his classic Swagger closer “Choose Me,” a sweet, sunny Cobra Krames remix of UGK and Outkast’s “Int’l Players Anthem.” (“I just chose everybody!” davO exclaims when asked how the track made it into his heavy rotation.) Still, don’t think the finale of Swagger’s last season at El Rio will have more sad than swag.

At least, not according to its headliner, Cakes Da Killa: “I’m honored to be in the mix for the last hurrah, and I hope everyone pulls up and shows out.”


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Swagger Like Us will host its final monthly edition at El Rio (3158 Mission, San Francisco) on Sunday, June 2, 3-8 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door for $25. There will be an after-party at The Stud (1123-1125 Folsom Street, San Francisco) from 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Tickets available online for $20, $25 at the door.

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