Queer Club Culture in 1990s Kansas City: A Chance Encounter with Soakies
There’s a new movie theatre at 1308 Main St in Kansas City, Missouri; this recently gentrified area was once home to Kansas City’s only Black, queer club - Soakies. By day it was famous for serving the city’s best sandwiches and at night it transformed into a magical place where hip-hop culture thrived due to a community of Black drag artists. The sequence of events that led me to Soakies changed the trajectory of my life and whenever I drive past that movie theatre now, it reminds me of how hip-hop handed me the keys to my growth as an author.
Iain Bleakley’s article - The chance encounter as the fifth element of Hip Hop - describes the elements of hip-hop as: ”DJing, breakin, rapping, graffiti, knowledge, conspiracy theories and unnecessarily long handshakes.” Iain’s reflections about his life caught my attention; when he wrote that hip-hop can happen anywhere, I resonated with those words and recognized how my voyage into hip-hop has zigzagged across chance encounters too. It has been touched by every element that he listed, along with a few of my own ingredients mixed in. I’m a Black, lesbian author and gatekeeper to the underground culture of LGBT artists.
Queer people have long held the keys to the gates of dance - going as far back as the 1920’s. The Harlem Renaissance era in the United States produced Black artists in their droves; those people are the real OG’s of hip-hop. What is hip-hop culture if it isn’t storytelling? African American artists started a movement by sharing their struggles of the Black experience; they gained some recognition in poetry, dance and literature, but it was the ballroom scene in Harlem where queer people first got their shine. Transgender people and cross-dressing women and male entertainers added flavour to those ballroom parties back then and it was those choreographers, performers and costume designers who were the ones to pave the way for the Drag Queens and Kings of today.
The author Langston Hughes wrote about what he witnessed in the Harlem ballrooms after his travels outside of America. His article, Boy Dancers of Uzbekistan, was published in 1934 and his writings speak of seeing the freedom found in Harlem’s ballroom culture and gender expression in other countries. Hughes found the queer dancers of Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a marker of progress for queer entertainers, but the Soviet Union thought otherwise; they shut down the practice of feminine men dancing by subjecting them to violence.
Meanwhile in America, the freedom parties never took queer entertainers seriously even though they didn’t mind sexing some of them on the side. Queer performers like Gladys Bentley, Mabel Hampton and countless others used their sexuality as an expression of freedom along with their raunchy lyrics for women who love women and sexually explicit dancing. African American leaders were starting to gain ground on defeating white supremacy in the law but Black people were still being lynched and the leaders wouldn’t allow queer entertainers to become part of the revolution even if they had a platform. Consequently queer performers were forced underground where many still are today.
These artists took their styles of expression with them into private parties - which were the house parties of that time – and if the parties couldn’t hold enough people, an entertainer might rent out a private space for a show. That became the blueprint for the queer underground club scene. But it was not until the 90’s when Voguing started gaining popularity - from Madonna seeing the style of dance from gay men in night clubs – that the gates opened for everyone to enjoy what queer people did in the club scene. I am a product of that history and here are my own chance encounters.
My adoration of all things hip-hop related started in the 80’s. I was born in Los Angeles in 1973 and the neighbourhood I grew up in was a beautiful, ratchet mess. Music played all day and night from the speakers on our neighbour’s front lawn. Gunfire and sirens were the soundtrack to my childhood, but an elderly woman could still walk down the side-walk carrying groceries and the homies on the block would make sure she got home safely.
I grew up in a Christian home and secular music wasn’t allowed. I found a kid at school who sold mix-tapes for $2 a pop and the only way I could entertain myself was with my cassette player, pen and notebooks. While my parents were at work, I’d sit in my bedroom window writing stories and poems about what I saw whilst listening to Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy and Ice T. The lyrics, no matter how vulgar, spoke a truth and life in the ghetto made me love hip-hop music because it reflected my pain.
We left LA and moved to Leavenworth, Kansas to be closer to my dad’s side of the family when I was 16. The change of environment slapped me in the face with small town life, but my collection of mix-tapes kept growing thanks to a few guys at my new school. I had the freedom to walk around my quiet neighbourhood, but I was bored out of my mind. I’d never done anything so risky as sneaking out of the house before, but the kids at my new school kept talking about a teenage club called Oasis and I desperately wanted to go. One weekend, I packed my bright blue MC Hammer pants and new matching shirt into an overnight bag. My pastor’s daughter and I used a sleepover as a ruse, and we got picked up by some friends and made our way to the club. The building was packed. My friend and I stood on the upper level of the club watching everyone dancing below us. A guy, also in MC Hammer pants, dancing full out in the middle of the dance-floor caught my attention. I’d never danced anywhere besides by bedroom before, but the music felt too irresistible not to join in.
The same guy I’d been watching danced up to me and that night I made a new friend, dancing with him until my shirt was soaked with sweat. He introduced himself as Jimmy. I didn’t know it then, but Jimmy was a DJ, music engineer and hip-hop dancer. Meeting Jimmy, DJ Highlander, set me on an irreversible path and by the time I left the club that night I was hooked. I was a club kid. And so every chance I got to sneak out, I kept going to Oasis. Jimmy and I became good friends and many years later he helped produce my first CD of poetry. Last I heard, he still spins my rhymes in his sets.
Can You Rap?
When I was 20 I moved into my own apartment and started working in a beauty salon. A friend of mine called me after work inviting me to a house party at his place. The Oasis club had closed and there wasn’t any place else for those of us under the age of 21 to hang. I really didn’t like the guy who invited me, but house parties were the only way to get my fix and I missed hanging out at the club.
I remember hearing music thumping from his apartment window as I pulled up in the parking lot. I’d been to parties at the guy’s house before, but the music was never that loud. Instead of the usual house party scene where he’d played CDs on his stereo, my friend introduced me to his friends - DJ Hike and DJ Papa Cal J. Set up in the corner of his living room they worked in tandem on the turntables and I gawked open mouthed at the set-up. Technic 1200s on a cardboard table...with red and black milk crates full of records behind them. I was back in Cali.
There were 10 of us crammed into a tiny living room and I’d never seen a DJ spin up close before. My eyes kept shifting from the turntables back to the crates. I didn’t want to geek out about being so close to an actual DJ, so I sat on the couch making stank faces as I bobbed my head to the music.
As people started leaving, DJ Hike put on an instrumental track. DJ Papa Cal J took the mic and started freestyling. This was my first cypher and it was kicking off. Next thing I know, Papa Cal J handed me the mic. “Can you rap?”
I’ve been a poet since I was a little girl, but I’d never rapped before. I gave my friends a glance and they were waiting for me to do something, so I stood up and took the mic. During those next few moments I blacked out and couldn’t tell you what I spat, but the guys went wild over my bars. It was the blue of early morning by the time we left and I waited outside for the DJs to finish loading up their equipment so I could talk to them. I found out that they were good friends with the same guy I met at Oasis, Jimmy. They were also members of the dance group Flavor Pack. We exchanged phone numbers promising to keep in touch. The next day I received a call from Papa Cal J: “We are putting you in our crew and I’m giving you the rap name Mugz because you were mean mugging us all night sis. We’re meeting this weekend to work on some music.” The call was short but it left me feeling proud of myself for impressing them enough for them to want me in the crew. I didn’t tell them that I was a lesbian.
I hadn’t come out to anyone at that time, not even my own family or friends. Growing up in a Christian household, I feared losing relationships if I shared my truth and I didn’t know if the crew would still want me if I told them about my sexuality. Meeting the guys that night started me wondering...could I be a rapper like those artists I’d listened to growing up? Holding onto my secret identity, I agreed to join the crew.
Nobody Carded Me While I Was With My Crew
I’d heard about Soakies from friends long before I was old enough to be allowed inside. There were plenty of rumours floating around about what happened in the building and some friends told me that the business was owned by a former Italian mobster. It was. Selling sandwiches was the front for the mobsters to do nefarious activities back in the day and they said that the owner kept a baseball bat under the register to handle any unruly customers. Real gangster stuff supposedly went down there. That turned out to be true, I’ve seen the bat. More importantly, they also said that Drag Kings and Queens performed there at night.
I joined the crew known as Zone Millennium and started making music with them the weekend after the house party. We started making moves around Kansas City in different clubs as well as underground spots like the Peanut and Kabahl. Nobody carded me while I was with my crew. There wasn’t one consistent spot to go to. Sometimes we were in abandoned buildings with concrete floors and graffiti on the walls but we had plenty of space to move. Sometimes we went to clubs like the Granada which rappers frequented, but every place we went there were artists and I started seeing them on a regular basis. Since I was newish to Kansas City, I didn’t realize I’d been mingling with dancers who choreographed and danced for MC Hammer, Big Daddy Kane and Aaliyah. We were all just club kids coming together to party and create.
Once I finally came out to my crew, my friends encouraged me to go to Soakies. They said it was a gay club which confused me because the sign outside the building clearly read that it served sandwiches. I desperately wanted to check it out, but didn’t have any queer friends and none of my straight friends wanted to go there.
One night, after a recording session with my crew, I begged a friend to go with me. He insisted that he wouldn’t go inside because being a straight guy, he didn’t want people to assume that he was gay. He eventually gave in. We sat in my car across the street and it was like what people had described. Drag entertainers came and went and it was the first time I’d ever seen Drag Queens and Kings. The music was loud enough that we could hear it across the street. I felt a little intimidated, but eventually got out of the car. The party scene outside felt like family even though I didn’t know anyone. A beautiful young woman approached me. When she asked my name, I gave her my rap name - Mugz. We struck up a conversation about Soakies and she told me that she entertained there too. When we left that night, I was even more determined to get inside the building though I knew I’d have to go on my own. Meeting new people that night started my journey to becoming a Drag King at Soakies and the woman that I spoke to that night became my girlfriend.
I Was A Soakies Kid
I went to Soakies a few months after my 21st birthday. I walked to the bar and sat down. The space wasn’t large at all. One side had a bar, a couple of dart boards and a few tables to eat at, whilst the other had enough room for 50 people with concrete floors epoxied in black. There was a small stage - only one step high - and a tiny DJ booth at the back.
I stood against the wall holding my virgin drink close to my chest. A show started with a performer coming to the stage rocking a bright floral print jumpsuit who had one long leg exposed dripping in jewellery and their face painted for the Gods. The movements weren’t anything I’d seen before, I’d seen hip-hop dancers at other venues, but nothing prepared me for what I saw at Soakies. The first performer sashayed to the stage for a few seconds and then really got going. Long arms swinging wildly in circles, lots of attitude and the most impressive death drop in high heels. The way they landed on the floor with a thud scared me. The people who were crowded against the walls came up to the stage during the performance and started throwing money at them, so I followed suit. I came to understand later that this style of dancing with the swinging arm movement as waacking. Tyrone Proctor pioneered the style of dance in queer clubs during the 70’s, but I’d never understood that history until I got deeper into the scene.
By the end of the night, I was a Soakies kid. The first Drag Queen I saw perform was Dovee Love; they also had Drag Kings performing and this intrigued me. The first male drag artist I saw at Soakies goes by the name Biskit. She slid to the stage rocking a 3 piece suit and matching brim. I had seen the Kansas City 2-step before, but not the way she performed it. So much swag.
I went to Soakies most of the nights when they had shows and I wanted to see the woman perform who I’d met in the parking lot previously too. The more I went, the more comfortable I got. Eventually, I starting making friends within the walls of Soakies, most lasting to this day. When I got up the courage, I asked how I could join in on performing at the shows.
Our male drag group was called the Kings of KC. The connections I made at Soakies extended farther than just performing at the club and I started to meet male drag artists all over Kansas City. Our Drag King group practiced routines in my living room preparing for shows and one of my favourite memories is when we decided to perform a song by the Black Eyed Peas remixed with Love Shack by the B52’s. It was stupid hot that summer and we were wearing afro wigs for the first part of the performance, switching costumes when the song flipped.
We split up the choreography so each person had a solo with the rest of us jumping in on the chorus. Where the chorus repeats the lyrics, “father, father, father, help us”, we’d kneel down together holding our hands in prayer, spin to the left and jump up to change our wigs before the B52 part of the song started. I gained a new appreciation for hip-hop dancers who do floor-work. My knees will never forgive me for the hours we spent practicing that song.
We transformed ourselves into our favourite rap artists or RnB singers. I still remember using spirit gum and weave clippings to make a fake little moustache for my performance as LL Cool J. We would help each other by creating costumes and dance routines imitating rappers like, Outcast, Nelly, Q-tip and others. I even fried my hair one time bleaching it for my transformation to Sisqó.
Soakies had balls too, much like those of the Harlem Renaissance era, and that’s when we’d bring out the best performances. You were guaranteed to find top shelf entertainment, dance routines worked on for months and the newest music. As a member of the entertainers there, my eyes were opened to how society treated us outside the safety of our club, so I became a gatekeeper, making sure the place remained safe and it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.
There are unspoken rules about being in a place like Soakies and other queer spaces. The people within the community guard it fiercely. I call us the gatekeepers because we are preyed upon by outsiders for our dance moves, culture and more. There were several hip-hop dancers that came to Soakies who weren’t part of the LGBT family and we kept watch to make sure they stayed respectful to the entertainers. After the drag show, there was always an hour left to dance and I started seeing familiar faces in the crowd. The same dancers I’d seen in the underground clubs started showing up at Soakies. Straight dancers came to battle against the dancers in our club. Whilst everyone was welcomed there, all of us kept an eye on anyone we didn’t recognise.
Just like Langston Hughes 70 years earlier, I witnessed our own version of transference as the styles and fashions in the queer clubs started showing up at other places. I’m not saying that the hip-hop dancers jacked our swag, but I’m 100% sure those who came to Soakies were influenced by us. It’s hard to know what motivates someone to come to a queer club. Do outsiders come to bite our style, movements, fashions or to pick up a lover? As a gatekeeper, we protect our own by keeping watch and asking hard questions. Holding the receipts for men and women on the down low, or those who might be confused about their sexuality is a delicate process. Many of us understand what it feels like to not have a sense of belonging.
Let’s be honest. Hip-hop has traditionally been male dominated and problematic for queer people. Being a gatekeeper means that we are hyper focused on keeping our safe spaces safe. You can’t truly be authentic if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder worried about who in the audience might be there to attack you. That’s what made Soakies so magical. I could perform freely. I could experiment with my moves and look without worrying about anything but being myself.
One night during a ball, a group of people came for the show that none of us recognised. I was busy preparing for the event when I saw a man trying to spit game to a friend’s girlfriend. I made my way over to check on her and I saw that she was trying to get away from him and he looked like he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I jumped between them shoving him away from her. Everyone noticed. He stepped to me, but the guys in the club were already making their way over and escorted him out of the building.
My friend thanked me for having her back and I would have done it for anyone in my community. That incident happened almost 20 years ago and last year I officiated her wedding. A few weeks after my drag family helped toss the intruder out of the club, I received a call that one of the entertainers was murdered in a quadruple homicide at her home; we lost many great friends over the years, some by outside violence and some by domestic violence. One of my beloved Queens was murdered in her home by a former lover who feared being outed for loving a trans woman. Secret lovers of some of the entertainers would stalk the club waiting to see them and on other occasions prominent community people snuck into the club and tried to pick up sneaky links.
Each time I’ve received one of those calls it brings back the memories of the times we shared at Soakies.
Those who came to the club just to dance knew that we wouldn’t betray their identity, that’s also a part of being a gatekeeper. Just like the artists of the Harlem Renaissance era, I won’t reveal the names of those who came to Soakies to feel the freedom in the space, to move like you want and love who you want to love. I know what it feels like existing in fear, not knowing what will happen once you reveal your truth.
The Gods of Hip Hop
Iain described how running into people in the hip-hop community feels like meeting extended family and that resonates deeply. The chance encounter in hip-hop can happen anytime, anywhere. It can happen in a teenage dive, a friend’s house party or a queer club. I never thought that my own encounters would create such lasting bonds with DJ Highlander who produced my first CD of spoken word or the woman who I defended in the club that night many years ago who asked me to officiate her wedding just last year. Even DJ Hike and Pap Cal J are still close - our crew is working on a reunion album.
A sandwich shop in the heart of Kansas City opened a door and helped me refine my artistry; throughout these years I never put down my pen and have published 14 books. My latest, The Gods of Hiphop is a sci-fi/fan-fictional novella based on the characterization of Janelle Monae (a black-queer singer/dancer from Kansas City) and Les Twins (French hip-hop dancers).
I don’t believe that these meetings happen by chance...there are some Gods of hip-hop in play. Being in and around queer club culture has given me so much more than I can ever give back. Each person I met has led me to where I am today, giving me lifelong friendships and keys to open the gates or close them for my community. I smile every time I drive by the new theatre where Soakies once was remembering the encounters and stories that guided me to become the hip-hop author I am today.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to The chance encounter as the fifth element of Hip Hop by Iain Bleakley
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Some people paint pictures with words and others create art with language. Starla designs word play to engage the reader using a combination of her own life as a black-lesbian author and her love of all things hiphop related. She’s a former Drag King and rapper turned author, poet, spoken word artist, ghostwriter, LGBTQIA activist and warrior of words.
She has 13 published books and is currently developing a new sci-fi/fan-fictional novella using the dancing of Les Twins (French hiphop Artists) and Janelle Monae (African American Artist) as her muses.
She currently owns a business, Blue Notebook Publishing Consultants LLC, based upon her blue notebook of raps written 3 decades ago. Her mentorship and services assist marginalized creatives produce their own published books.