Talking with GeeXella over coffee, the words "higher vibration" echo in my head. It seems fitting that the singer, rapper and DJ would use their visibility and platform to create party spaces where LGBTQIA folks feel free. GeeXella’s nomadic and sporadic dance party, Duval Folx, evinces the innocence of a block party married to the intelligent compassion of a safe space. Because it’s still dangerous to be a queer/nonbinary person of color in the south, saying things out loud—like, literally, out loud in the public sphere—is powerful. But more than that, it is necessary.
“It was hard for me, when I first started deejaying here in Jacksonville," GeeXella told Folio Weekly. "I would see my friends who live in New York, Philly and California and they’re deejaying at a black-owned club with black and brown people in their space. They don’t have to deal with the same things I have to deal with here. Being queer, being non-binary—I am half black and half Mexican—there aren’t spaces for us. And if there are, they’re segregated to an 'urban' night. And it’s very frustrating. I was told by certain clubs, ‘Do not play rap music.’ It felt degrading because hip hop music pop music.”
The singer continued, “Certain artists could pass that threshold … if they made that crossover then I could play them, but it felt very limiting as an artist. Also, I kinda felt a certain way, being a black person and having to hide that part of my culture.”
In talking about the hip hop scene in Jacksonville, GeeXella credited Paten Locke (DJ Therapy) and Niam Hadaf (Willie Evans Jr.) with blazing the trail. In addition to being stars of the local scene (and good friends), both performers have toured the world and garnered national and international recognition for their music. Though they’re elder hip hop statesmen now, GeeXella said the legacy they helped to create, one of spaces “where their people are at,” is a part of what drives them to create a place for people “to be together and dance together.”
The idea for Duval Folx specifically was sparked by a UNF event. “I was deejaying [and] I noticed that the only people dancing were the black and brown students," GeeXella explained. "They were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you so much for coming and being here.' And also I was deejaying at one of the gay clubs, and I was just kind of like, ‘I need to create my own space.’ This is a need for my community, this is also a need for myself as a creative, and just wanting to have that space with other QTPOC (queer, trans people of color) […] I created this event to showcase my friends as beautiful humans. Queer trans women or queer people are only showcased when we die, and it’s time to show us alive, as beautiful and powerful humans that are going to change the world!"
So GeeXella rounded up some friends to do a promo photo shoot. Photographer Toni Smailagić was tapped to capture the moment. (“I just love his photography and the way he shoots black and brown people.”) Documentation is an important part of Folx. Not only do Smailagić's photos show what a fantastic party looks like, they serve the purpose of preserving a moment in time. Of his commitment to the scene, Smailagić wrote in an email, “I knew none of the other major platforms in the city were going to show up and document it the way it needed to be, with care/admiration for the community, so it became a personal goal to make sure it was done right.”
Part of that “rightness” surely comes from the photographer’s own eye: his sense of composition and timing. When asked what he looks for, Smailagić explained, “When it comes to parties like that, style and emotion are the only thing I look for. Anyone who took the extra time to dress up/experiment with how they presented themselves, or people who just came to have a good time dancing without a care in the world, are the two main components I'm looking to get.”
As Duval Folx celebrates its one-year anniversary July 27 at Spliff’s Gastropub, it is worth reflecting that for many QTPOC, the dance floor has long been a safe place of expression, connection and love. However, as GeeXella moves the party forward, they hope to create other spaces for more quiet, perhaps even conversational pursuits.
One final thing worth addressing is what inclusivity look like: Over the course of our conversation, GeeXella recounted that a white friend posed the question of whether or not they’d be welcome. The deejay’s response was one of gorgeous kindness and wisdom: “Everyone is always welcome.” But for those who are a part of the majority culture, remember you’re invited in, as a guest.
Ultimately, GeeXella said, “I’m trying to get my folks to know that they deserve a space … and I’m saying it out loud.”