queer icon and activist dj sveta is celebrating 20 years of trying to change the world
Talking to the DJ about ignoring music’s LGBT heritage and why Australia should be proud of our integrated queer scenes.
Photography George Sandman Popov
This year DJ Sveta celebrates her 20th year in the club scene—and it's been a hell of a time. Born in the Soviet Union, Sveta's family came to Sydney as refugees. She came of age in Australia, but it wasn't until Sveta started playing in New York City in the late 90s that she found her cultural community: the underground ballroom scene. The ballroom—as immortalised in Paris is Burning— was a safe space for people of colour and other marginalised individuals to use music and art to understand their identities and bodies. People performed and vogued in family grouped called Houses, making history each night they came together. Sveta's sound is still infused with the era's vogue beats.
Along with her impressive party pedigree, Sveta's got activist credentials. Her presence has helped make queer parties what they are: spaces where people can go to find their sisters and brothers, while celebrating who they are. Her success as a queer woman behind the decks deserves celebrating.
This year, she's touring Japan, Berlin, London and—of course—NYC. Before she headed out we spoke about finding her voice in community-activism and how the current environment in Australia continues to impact the way we feel about queerness.
So this is your 20th year as a DJ! What is your fondest memory of your career?
The fondest memory is the first time I played, it was at a party called Mr Black. In 2006 Mr Black was the party that New York had hailed as the return of the Studio 54 era. That night Nita Aviance from The House of Aviance came up to me and said, "I've never heard anyone play that track other than me, you're my sister now!"
My only dream for New York was to play one gig, I never thought about anything further than that, but by the end of my set everyone was so appreciative of my song selection I was asked to play the following week. By that time word got around all of the artists who I respected were shutting their nights to come and see me. It was a dream moment.
Queer people have influenced every single generation of the mainstream, but they're never the people that actually make money from it.
Looking back over two decades, how to you see queer culture relating to dance music?
When I started playing dance music I was 17, at university and I had my own radio show. It was 1990 and I was going to the Hordern Pavillion to the first dance parties and trying to play that music on the radio. It was a very exciting completely new culture and it didn't have a lot of the restrictions that I see now. Early dance music was this ideal world, where gays and straights would all party together and became united by music called house.
Cut to now, music festivals couldn't be more different and have very much gone backwards. From disco to early house music; it was all essentially created by gay men and performed on the queer underground scene. That used to be where you would go to access that music. Now people don't know that it was created in the queer underground. Queer people have influenced every single generation of the mainstream, but they're never the people that actually make money from it, which is an interesting dilemma.
It's sad to think that heritage is being lost. Did you notice a difference between queer partiers in New York and Australia?
When I first started visiting New York as a tourist I noticed it was extremely segregated. I went to every sort of party and found that where there were club kids the majority of the other people would be gay men. Nowadays there is more integration going on in New York in smaller circles, but it is still very separate. What makes Australia unique is that our queer scenes have become the most integrated I've ever seen. I remember the parties in the late nineties and early two thousands from sex parties right through to events like Bad Dog and Monster Gras, they were all completely integrated. That's something we should be really proud of.
What makes Australia unique is that our queer scenes have become the most integrated I've ever seen.
That's nice to hear considering the wider community has been slow to embrace queer culture. Even looking at your career, you were celebrated overseas before you were at home.
We tend to always assume things are better overseas. When people like myself go overseas, the audience really are a lot quicker to recognise us. Not only have they heard of me, but they acknowledge my experience and know of my work a lot more that the people here; Australia has always had a bit of tall poppy syndrome. I do wish I had more of an opportunity to play the sort of music here that I am recognised for overseas.
What do you feel you're recognised for?
The music I play is from another culture and I have a very unique connection to it. I embraced this style called Bitch House in the very early nineties, which ended up evolving into what they now call Vogue House. I've been asked a few times, "where did that come from?" And I've only recently understood that I'd connected to the fierce African Americans, transgendered people, and drag queens being bitchy. Bitchy and fierce because their environment was poor and they had to develop a really thick skin to exist in a culture where other people had a much greater advantage than they did.
I came from a refugee background from the Soviet Union, I was heavily bullied and I didn't have many friends so I really related to Vogue House.
Do you ever wonder what drew you to that?
I came from a refugee background from the Soviet Union, I was heavily bullied and I didn't have many friends so I really related to Vogue House. I understood the experience on a very emotional level and for others there was really nothing to gain from understanding that sub-culture, which is why it's only really come into the mainstream over the last few years.
Tell me about your dream party.
My ideal party would eradicate obviously any sort of lock out laws! I feel sorry for people who are growing up in this generation, it's a much more conservative generation to grow up in and there's a lot more shaming. In the nineties there was a movement toward being free and open—exploring your sexuality and being part of many different identities. So my ideal party would be to put something on now in the name of those freedoms. I would get a crowd that wants to dance together; I don't care what gender, or age, or sexuality. And I would program a few artists I respect without a brief. It would be a party about the power of fine artists, who love music and who create their own magic.