A three-foot-deep rainbow-colored ball pit at the entrance to a show was a first for me—I had no idea that by the end of the night I’d end up juggling them, circled by spectators. I was at Renaissance One, a Pride-themed showcase put on by Party Noire at the Promontory on Thursday, June 27, and that kind of spontaneity animated the night. The glowing dance floor changed colors underfoot, glitter-filled beach balls bounced around the room, and iridescent streamers fluttered from the ceiling. The equally spectacular crowd, full of queer and trans people of color, kept the energy high with death drops, duck walks, and dance-offs—and the artists would sometimes hop off the stage to join them. I hadn’t come to Renaissance One expecting that kind of splendor, but for many of the people in attendance, it’s the norm—to them, that’s just what a Party Noire event looks like.
Nickecia “Nick” Alder and Rae Chardonnay Taylor—aka DJ Rae Chardonnay—founded the Chicago-based event-planning company Party Noire in 2015. According to their website, Party Noire “creates experiences that celebrate Black femmes, queer women of color, and Black womynhood along the gender spectrum.” Renaissance One, a collaboration with Red Bull Presents, included performances from Chattanooga’s BbyMutha and Baltimore’s TT the Artist, as well as homegrown DJs and musicians Kidd Kenn, Blu Bone, Professor Wrecks, and Hijo Pródigo.
“Our goal with Renaissance One was to activate a safe space for Black women and Black girls,” says Alder. “With this event we wanted to continue doing what we’ve been doing to celebrate Pride: making a cool-ass dance party on the south side.”
Alder and Taylor, both 31, are queer-identifying women, but neither had much if any experience with Chicago Pride celebrations prior to Party Noire. Taylor didn’t even go to one till 2013. “I hadn’t been until a friend of mine visiting from Florida asked to go,” she says. “After I went I was like, ‘OK, cool, I don’t have to do this again.’ I just wasn’t thrilled or moved to continue to go.”
Peach & Party Noire present Pound the Alarm (Ode to Carnival)
An all-day event at Northalsted Market Days featuring art installations, vendors, dancers, and live music, including DJ Rae Chardonnay, DJ Bonita Appleblunt, DJ [X]P, and Cut-Cuz. Sun 8/11, noon-10 PM, Northalsted Market Days stage at Belmont and Halsted, $10 suggested donation, all ages
Experiences like Taylor’s inspired the mission of Party Noire. In contrast to what she found in Boystown—an unfamiliar north-side neighborhood and mostly white crowd, neither of which helped her feel comfortable celebrating—she and Alder aim to throw functions that energize their audience to return again and again. A major part of that is aesthetic. Taylor and Alder create the concepts, but they credit collaborators such as VAM Studio cofounder Vincent Martell with conjuring up the environments where their ideas come to life.
“Vincent was key to how we got in touch with Red Bull in the first place—he introduced us to someone who was a part of their culture-curation team,” says Taylor.
Alder especially likes the way VAM can help audiences get on board with Party Noire’s ideas and match the energy of their events. “In terms of our intention of bringing people along with us, I think that Vincent’s organization truly embodies that with the work that they do,” she says. A Chicago-based full-service video-production company, VAM also specializes in set design. Party Noire has collaborated with Martell’s company in the past, but this time it was Red Bull that hired him. The dazzling environment at Renaissance One was VAM’s handiwork.
The vibrant dance floor was a stage for the twerkers, headbangers, duck walkers, and death droppers. At the same time, the glowing bar, colorful couches, and outdoor deck provided a refuge for the settled-down drink sippers—and the whole scene created an unrivaled backdrop for the selfie takers. The feeling of freedom in the room backed up everything that Taylor and Alder talk about—an absence of the wariness and self-consciousness that queer people of color feel when they’re “othered” or put on display.
“I would often find that in many spaces, there felt like an expectation to perform. Like going to a club, and you’re expected to wear certain things and behave a certain way,” Alder says. “With Party Noire I still feel like people are performing, but they’re performing for them-damn-selves.”
Party Noire is dedicated to creating empowering spaces for Black queer folk, of course, but their other main foundation is collaborations like the one with Martell. Even Alder and Taylor’s own relationship is the result of cultivating connections in the city’s creative scene.
“We had known each other through community,” Alder says. “People had been telling me about Rae, people had been telling Rae about me. We exchanged a chain of e-mails, and finally we met up for tea downtown.” During that three-hour meeting at Teavana, they laid the groundwork for Party Noire.
“At first the plan was to just have me be the DJ,” Taylor says. “Then in our second face-to-face meeting, we decided that it made sense for me to help with formulating the entire thing.” It was in that second meeting that they came up with the name.
Each of the two women is a force of her own. Alder is a PhD candidate and the entrepreneur behind the online community Black Girl Fly Mag. Taylor is not only an arts administrator and organizer of the Black Eutopia forums but also an internationally traveled DJ—she was voted the best in the city in the Reader‘s 2016 Best of Chicago poll.
“Black Eutopia started from me wanting to have this festival of the ideal,” Taylor says. Black Eutopia’s first event was a 2014 barbershop conversation hosted at Carter’s in North Lawndale, which asked the question, “Why is a barbershop like an art gallery?” “The plan is to ignite Black people to think about what their utopia would be like,” she says. “Now we organize smaller workshops throughout the city.” As Rae Chardonnay, Taylor has DJed for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Infiniti, Soho House, Nike, and many others. She has also been a featured DJ at Red Bull events, including Renaissance One.
Alder is a New York City native who came to Chicago in 2013 to attend grad school at Loyola University, where she’s currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology. She developed Black Girl Fly Mag in 2013 to tailor editorial and social media content for Black women. “When we started Party Noire, we didn’t really have any followers on social media, so the platform I’d created with Black Girl Fly Mag was instrumental in helping us promote our events,” Alder says. “Learning how to be a good manager and how to run my own thing were useful skills that I carried with me from that experience and have been helpful in running things for Party Noire.”
In September 2015, Party Noire hosted their first event, a day party called Black to the Future. For nearly a year, day parties made up the entirety of their programming. At the foundation of Party Noire, the team had a third member of the team, Lauren Ash, but according to Alder and Taylor, in October 2017 she left to pursue writing a book full-time. Today Ash runs a holistic wellness and beauty website called Black Girl in Om.
In 2016 Party Noire took their show on the road for the first time, visiting Alder’s hometown of NYC. “I remember when we first booked the event and Nick was like, ‘People in New York don’t dance at parties,'” Taylor says. “I was just like, ‘Oh? Well, we about to make them dance.'”
- Party Noire produced this recap video for their Black Joy in Brooklyn event in February 2017.
Since then, Party Noire have been back to New York five times for events, to Detroit three times, and to Miami once. “Chicago is a unique city overall, so it’s always different everywhere we go,” Taylor says. “One of the biggest differences is just noticing how much more integrated queer communities in these other cities are in terms of race.”
Chicago has long been one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, and queerness doesn’t bridge that divide. For Black and Brown queer people from the south and west sides, the north side’s queer community can often feel inaccessible or unwelcoming, even with good intentions on all sides. It’s why bringing queer festivities south of Roosevelt is one of Party Noire’s core goals.
“We’ve collaborated with some great organizations for events based in Boystown, but the demographic that comes out always reflects the location,” Taylor says.
Party Noire consider staying true to their identity and ideals essential, so much so that they’re often wary of media coverage of their events. “Sometimes it can work in your favor, but sometimes it can start to diminish your brand. We don’t want the people attending our shows to feel like they’re becoming spectacles,” Taylor says. “It’s considered a safe space for a multitude of reasons—one is that you won’t have to always worry about ending up on camera.”
Party Noire were featured in the Tribune only months after their first event, and that had some side effects. “After we had that piece in the Tribune, we definitely saw an increase in white people at a few of our events,” Alder says. “But I think we’ve had the right amount of coverage to ensure that we’re not exposing the brand to people who we aren’t necessarily looking to talk to.”
Alder and Taylor recognize that they need to be protective of their community: the people they aim to empower and uplift have historically been vilified and endangered because of their identities. A 2012 study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, shows that the incarceration rate for queer people is three times the average for general population, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in 2014 that life expectancy for transgender women in the Americas is 30 to 35 years.
That said, Party Noire are enthusiastic about allyship. “You don’t have to attend the events to be an ally to us,” Alder says. “John Kosmo, a former employee of Red Bull, for example, is an ally who has never stepped foot inside one of our events. He has given us resources and opportunities to grow early on.” They encourage people to support Party Noire in other ways, including helping to secure event spaces or donating money to support the grant portion of their annual Femme Noir Award for Black women in the creative industry.
“There was one time when a white woman who lives on the north side reached out to offer to be a designated driver, in order to bring the Black girls who wanted to attend from up north to our event out south,” Taylor says. “We didn’t take her up on the offer, but it was the thought that counts.”
Running Party Noire presents too many challenges for Alder and Taylor to handle alone and keep their sanity. They’ve hired a team of three part-time employees. “We were lucky enough to have interns who love what we do and love how we do it,” Alder says. “Eventually we were able to give them opportunities as employees.” That team consists of art director Karlie Thornton, administrative assistant Vel Brown, and social-media director Janaya Greene (who also works as an administrative assistant for the Reader).
By creating events that explicitly welcome Black femme-identifying people, Party Noire help sustain and support the thriving queer community of color in Chicago. “There is a spirit of resistance in what we do,” says Alder. “It isn’t our main mission, but it is a side effect of centering Black women and Black queer folk.”
Both Taylor and Alder find the work that Party Noire does as rewarding as it is essential. “We get a lot of joy from seeing people be their authentic selves. It’s even allowed more room for me to be able to see myself and my wholeness,” Taylor says. “It’s present in the way they show up to Party Noire. The community has taught us that you are whole just as you are.” v