METRO : Faggamuffins' night out

Black gays and lesbians, spurred by the rhythms of ragga, are changing the face of London clubland, says Paul Burston
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The Independent Culture
The publishers of Skank, the black adult comic for fans of "pure ragga", have been putting a face to black male homosexuality. One of their regular cartoon strips, "Faggamuffins", concerns the exploits of a couple of black queens, who refer to eac h other as "darling" and "dear scrotum juggler", and fantasise about "getting bummed".

In a recent issue, the pair are booted out of their flat by an angry landlord demanding his rent. Hitting on a way to make some cash and have some fun into the bargain, they go looking for trade on "Batty Road", make passes at straight men, and get beaten up. The image presented is of black gay men as victims - not unlike the image that existed of white gay men before the media realised the extent of their spending power.

"It's crap, man," says Steve, a gay black man in his mid-twenties "It's not the real picture." Looking around, you are forced to agree. Steve is a regular at Silk, one of a growing number of London clubs catering for a crowd that is predominantly black, gay and, if appearances are anything to go by, brimming with self-confidence.

These are the real-life "faggamuffins" - the "bullers" (gay men) and "wickers" (lesbians). "Black people tend to be very self-conscious," says Ronald, who is here for the seventh time in as many weeks. "And the gay scene as a whole is so white. It takes clubs like this to really bring us out of ourselves."

Clubs such as this - and Funky Feel, Nwangi and Shugs - have been a long time coming. For years, the black gay scene was a strictly underground phenomenon. Faced with homophobia and racism, black lesbians and gay men developed their own social network based around private parties. Neville Clayton remembers a time when hanging with the homo boys and girls meant waiting for invites to crowded house parties where nobody had room enough to dance and the sound system was usually "atrocious".

So why have things changed? "Cos I'm here,'' he says with relish. Clayton, the man behind Sunday night's Funky Feel in Kensington, was one of the first promoters to recognise the potential of the black gay club market. After a brief stint with the Black Experience, who ran the moderately successful Time club on Oxford Street, Clayton joined up with DJ Supadon and Thomas M, promoter of Silk, to launch what was to become the most popular, high-profile club of its kind: Pressure Zone, at the Vox club in Brixton.

"Thomas came to me and asked if he could use my DJs,'' Clayton recalls. "I remember thinking it sounded a bit shady, but I wanted a regular venue. So on 29 January 1993, we launched Pressure Zone. We were mobbed.''

From January 1993, the impact of Pressure Zone was enormous. "The whole black party scene came out into the open,'' says Thomas M. "People who didn't fit into the mainstream gay scene had been given a space.''

He believes the choice of venue had a lot to do with it: "The Vox was special, because it had the advantage of two dance floors. Upstairs you could play Jamaican music like ragga and reggae, and downstairs you could play club classics, and attract a wider audience.''

Perhaps not quite wide enough. According to Clayton, the reason for the club's demise was that it fell prey to black party politics. "People became very defensive about it being a black space,'' he says. "You'd have mixed-race couples coming in there, and getting attitude. A lot of woman were made to feel uncomfortable, too.

"Most of the problems tended to be with the sorts of people who stereotype themselves, if you know what I mean. Once the ragga music started, these guys would come out on to the dance floor and start being very aggressive.''

As a result he decided against playing ragga at Funky Feel, he says. And that was why Pressure Zone didn't last.

Thomas M takes a different view. "Pressure Zone educated a lot of people from both sides of the divide,'' he says. "The white people who came got used to particular ways of behaviour. At the same time, those black people who were really quite stand-offish at the start became much more amenable to the idea of having all sorts of people around them, and just concentrated on having a good time.''

If there is one thing both men agree on, it is that a good time tends to be had by all when clubs operate a mixed door policy. A typical night at Funky Feel is 70-75 per cent black, with 10-15 per cent of punters women. Silk attracts a 60 per cent black crowd for the first few hours, rising to 80 per cent as the night goes on and the music switches to the heavier sounds of ragga and jungle. Again, a fair number of women are in evidence.

"Women are an essential part of the black scene,'' says David Cairns, manager of Lowdown, where Silk is also housed. "There simply isn't the same split you find on the gay scene in general.''

Asked about ragga's reputation as a homophobic genre, Thomas M is unfazed. "Ragga is a rhythm,'' he says. "There may be quite a few homophobic songs. But that doesn't make all ragga music homophobic. A lot of ragga is culturally aware, and consciously political in a way that most white pop music is not.''

Whatever the reasoning behind the music policy, the punters seem to be enjoying it. At Silk, the temperature is rising.

Paul is white and has come for the first time with black friends. "I prefer this kind of music,'' he says. "The whole gay scene at the moment seems to revolve around music to take drugs to. I can't stand that. Also, this is one of the few clubs you can come to where there is an interracial mix. There is still such a lot of segregation on the gay scene. Places like this help break down barriers.''

His friend Cliff agrees. "A lot of the black guys here tonight wouldn't go out on the gay scene 'cos the music is crap. I know lots of black lesbians who won't go out to the girl bars 'cos they know they're unlikely to meet other black lesbians. Here, the music is a lot better, and it doesn't matter what colour you are.''

Neville Clayton could be speaking for both when he says: "This whole scene is important 'cos it's showing people there is another way of enjoying gay clubs and being with the brothers and sisters. It's not about black versus white, or who's right and who's wrong. It's all about mixing."

Silk: Fridays at Lowdown, Falconberg Mews, W1.

Funky Feel: Fridays from 17 February, Young Street, W8.

Nwangi: Thursdays at the Market Tavern, 1 Nine Elms Lane, London SW8.

Shugs (women only): last Sunday of the month at the Brixtonian Backyard, Neal's Yard, London W1.