A witness to the birth of house music, Honey Dijon is one of the genre’s most prominent and innovative DJs. Growing up in Chicago, Dijon began exploring the city’s vibrant queer nightlife from a young age, finding a mentor in DJ Derrick Carter, who she met while buying records. Moving to New York in the 1990s, Dijon entered the second golden age of Chicago house, and began DJing herself alongside artists like Mark Farina and Green Velvet. Dijon has released two albums, been tapped for remixes by Lady Gaga and Madonna, and in 2019 launched her line Honey Fucking Dijon in collaboration with Comme des Garçons. As a trans woman of colour, Dijon is steadfast about protecting house music’s radical, racialised origins as the culture of clubbing is threatened by commercialisation.
Portrait by Ricardo Gomes
THEASTER GATES What’s going on chile, how are you?
HONEY DIJON I’m well, honey. I’m just all about vitality over here. I am not playing with these hoes in the street. I realised that I was still looking for that external validation – for someone to see my beauty, my sense of style. I realised that these motherfuckers aren’t going to, so I have to give it to myself.
TG Every time you choose yourself, I feel like you lay the groundwork for people who are discovering who they are. I’m the ninth child, and I got eight sisters. My brothers-in-law were always saying, “This nigga gon’ be gay.” When they would say, “Don’t hold your wrist like that”, I took it as a sign of absolute honour that I would switch like my sisters and hold my hand like my mom. It didn’t dawn uponme that what I was doing was in some way destroying their sense of manhood.
HD That is what [author and academic] Joy DeGruy calls post-traumatic slave syndrome. Their sense of manhood is not their own – someone else has to correct it, so they can experience a sense of worth.
TG I couldn’t decide growing up watching The Dukes of Hazzard if I wanted to be Bo and Luke or if I wanted to be Daisy. I wanted to wear Daisy Dukes like Daisy.
HD The beauty of now is that you can. Just put a Prada triangle on it and bitches can’t say shit.
TG You were so kind as to bring your mom by the Arts Bank and she was so loving. The people I have known haven’t always been.
HD My dad is dealing with brain cancer at the moment, and it’s brought me and my mom closer together than we were before. My mom had six brothers and sisters. She lost her mom when she was very young, so she was raised by a single father, at a time when the court system wasn’t kind to Black men, and my mom and her brothers and sisters were put in foster care for a while. My parents were very young when they started a family, and she often says to me that she didn’t have any blueprint for which to raise children, but what I always felt was love. Over the course of my evolution – I don’t like the word transition – she struggled. Parents are conditioned so that when they have gender non-conforming children, they feel they’ve fucked up. It wasn’t until she saw me flourishing that she realised she had given me those tools without really knowing it. I won the lottery in a lot of ways. Early Chicago house music culture wasn’t policed so I went to 68th and Cottage Grove and got a fake ID to go to the club nights. I was taking the bus to Evergreen Plaza at 13 years old and my mother was letting me do it. Without knowing it, she was laying the groundwork for my sense of freedom with her love and her allowance.
TG It’s beautiful to hear that. In a way, it meant that your mom could also evolve with your evolution.
HD People like to say that family represents unconditional love, but no love is unconditional. Love is always conditional. I had a really volatile relationship with my dad because we are very similar. I got my ass kicked a lot growing up as a kid because I talked back, even when I knew that I could be punished for it. We both don’t like bullshit.
TG You’d call him out and he’d call you back out?
HD Yeah, and this is why I don’t suffer fools lightly. I also got my sense of style from my dad. My dad used to wear clogs and Daisy Dukes and tank tops and carry satchel bags. Imagine me seeing this masculine figure dressing in a very non-binary way but still having a super male energy.
TG In the 1970s, all of those cats sang in falsetto. When I think about cats who were were mentors to me, they were all playing along some kind of gender spectrum. In some cases, they had lifestyles that they couldn’t articulate because of their positions at church.
HD I couldn’t have a double life and I didn’t have the luxury of being in the closet because the lights were blazing as soon as I came out the fucking house. I was very feminine, and my body language was very feminine. This is why worldwide club culture and queer spaces are so much more than entertainment to me. It’s art: the music, the environments, the performance, the players, the dress codes, the spaces. I get frustrated because of how, like everything else in the world, house music has been capitalised upon, and the colour and the queerness has been stripped out of it so that it’s all shiny and glossy. Now we’re fighting back to reclaim the space and music that we originated. There was a Latin gay club on the North Side called Normandy; Cheeks, which was on Clark Avenue, was a trans club. I would go up to the North Side to Wax Trax and then jump over here with the New Wave and punk kids. One of my best friends was the organist at church. There were so many queens involved in the church who were at the fucking club! Talk about double lives. If you really look at it in that way, it’s not a matter of sexual orientation, it isn’t even a matter of gender expression, it’s a matter of societal organisation.
TG The same social pressure that makes us need the Holy Ghost every Sunday is the very same pressure that would make us want to be at the club. What both a preacher and a house music DJ knows is how much you need your audience and how much your audience needs you. I was in France recently playing some albums, record selecting. I decided to play “Car Wash” [by Rose Royce] and people got up and danced. Then I decided to play some Teddy Pendergrass and they stayed up and after Teddy, I put on some Jean Carne and then Loleatta Holloway. I was supposed to just be selecting my albums, but I was so excited that they were on their feet. I started to feel a little bit of what a DJ feels. It’s like, oh, what happens if I go from this to some Salsoul or some Luther [Vandross]? I found myself in the middle of emotional frenzy, a call and response. I realised in that moment that you carry in your body and mind a sound archive that is so amazingly complicated.
HD It just hit me what Salsoul means – it’s salsa and soul. A lot of early disco HONEY DIJON music was based on Latin music. Frankie Knuckles said that “house is disco’s revenge”, but it was basically the child of disco. There were so many different influences in disco – a lot of West African drumming, percussive Latin influence, orchestration, even strings and horns, a lot of which came from European classical music. Vince Montana playing the xylophone, call-and-response from the church, rhythm and blues, jazz. My musical education growing up was based on my parents’ record collection. There was a lot of conscious music in my house: Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Donna Summer. My mother listened to a lot of gospel. And on top of that, my formative teenage years were going to the North Side listening to The Cure and Depeche Mode. My musical education as a child was so vast. I used to have a Fisher-Price record player and my brother said that when I was a baby, the first thing that I’d say after we came in was, “I want to play my records.” The sheer joy of sharing music that I loved and seeing people respond to music that I loved; that energy exchange gave me a sense of fulfilment that I never felt with anything else. Mind you, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know you could have a career as a DJ. I just bought and shared music for the pure joy of it. Often I feel that if the stars are aligned, it’s almost communal, tribunal, shamanistic. I’ve had very out-of-body spiritual experiences on the dance floor without any enhancements. I think I’m booked for a lot of different things: skill set certainly, because it’s a craft, but my art is also experiential, how I’ve experienced music is expressed in the way that I present music and how my mentors presented music, the Derek Carters, the Frankie Knuckles, the Danny Tenaglias, the Lil Louis, the Green Velvets.
TG You’re playing to crowds of 10, 15, 20,000 people. It feels like your life is going through a series of upswings, of blessed moments, from glory to glory. It feels like you’ve reached a place of absolute clarity.
HD Frankie [Knuckles] always said that the minute you become more important than the music, you’re through. I carry that with me. I realised I could have been born at any other time in any other place, but I was born at the beginning of this culture for whatever reason the universe had in store for me. My mother likes to say, your steps are already laid out for you, you just have to walk them. Along with the bullying and marginalisation came magic and beauty and it would be a disservice if I did not do something with that. I think that’s where the clarity comes in – I’m just using experience, information and what I was blessed to witness. The trajectory is just as surprising to me. I never had a mirror that affirmed me; we were the first generation of trans women to have any visibility. We’re nine years post Laverne Cox on the cover of Time. I never knew that I could have a fashion line; I never knew that I could be a DJ headlining festivals. I live in gratitude. The trajectory that I feel I’m on now is to be even more honest and to show up even more radically queer, radically trans, radically Black, radically unapologetic. House has been turned into a billiondollar business run by cis hetero white men who have no idea of the backs that they’re profiting from, the souls that have been lost to AIDS. A lot of my practice was born between 1969 to 1985: 1969 was Stonewall, 3 July 1981 was when they first published mention of this rare disease that we now know as AIDS, found in 40 homosexual men. Between 1969 and 1981, the post-Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, sexual liberation, gay liberation, all of this shit happening in ten years. Disco, the beginning of hip hop, punk, new wave, the beginning of house music. So much of that was lost to the disease. I’m grateful that I can be a conduit of that energy and of that power. ◉
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TG If a community has decided that a monument doesn’t make sense where it is, they don’t always have the resources to hire a crane and shut down a city block in order to remove it, right?
EA We did the last round of grants with my colleague, Justin Garrett Moore, who understands this so precisely through his work as an architect and a city planner in New York City. Cities are always going to put schools and roads and streetlights ahead of monuments, so our involvement means you can keep it going. In Chicago there are nine projects running.
TG Hats off to you and the leadership of Mellon and Justin, a beautiful young brother, and to the team. You have created architectural urbanistic equity, so that when young kids go to school, they are affirmed in their culturehood. You talk about a protected class being undermined, but there are self-protected classes that don’t want their power dismantled, and they’re doing everything they can to maintain it. The beautiful partnership of philanthropy to artistry creates zones of equity to contend with those very powerful forces. This brings me to poetry, because the poetry that I love the most contains conflict. What are your thoughts on the relationship between language and action?
EA I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and I was deliberate about that, but at first I wanted to be a journalist and then I wanted to write short fiction. Then a teacher said, “What you’re doing is poetry.” He wrote out my words and broke the lines, and said, “You see that’s what you’re doing? Go away and come back when you have figured out how to do it.” I was very lucky because I had gone to that school to find this poet [Derek Walcott] because his work spoke to me so deeply. For poetry, the characteristic that is so extraordinary is its precision – to be able to say something very exact in a very small space that still has nuance and room for interpretation, to make something to return to. What we know about the structure of the blues is that in “I got a problem”, it’s always “I’m giving you that problem because you understand it, you might have lived it”. The I is always we and though the I is very specific, in that particularity we can understand sorrow, loneliness, love, betrayal, joy. The distillation of poetic form also makes it very transmittable and precision of expression and thought is a useful tool in the broader work of social justice. What does it mean to be a philanthropic engine? We’re not going to use a flabby version of the language. As a Black woman with a driving agenda, I have to be so precise. I can’t misspeak by a syllable.
TG Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the work of someone who’s very important to you, Ficre Ghebreyesus. The work in particular that I saw at Galerie Lelong moved me so much because I could see the love of a diligent person amplifying her belief in someone else’s artistic practice. I would love for you to talk about Ficre’s work and the ways in which his practice has impacted your sense of art, your sense of self and your own creativity.
EA Thank you for asking. The great fortune of my life was the 17 years that we spent together, not least because of the two extraordinary children that they produced. It was a beautiful union and an incredibly rich love and partnership. We were very intensely in each other’s practices and in the studio several times a week. I would show him every draft to which he would respond with absolute honesty and absolute rigour. What you sometimes want is, “Oh, baby, that’s beautiful, that’s done!” Sometimes he would put his finger at a place in the poem and say, “This is where the problem is.” Dammit, I was trying to be done with my poem! I can’t piece back together the conversations we would have in the studio because it was really one constant conversation. He left Eritrea because of the war, and his whole life was in the shadow of conflict. To learn about his extraordinary culture, to be part of that extended family, food and practice, all of that was a tremendous gift and the world I brought to him was a gift, too. Together, we had the whole Black world – the things that were not Eritrean or African American were Black diaspora touchstones for each of us. It all came together in a way that just felt infinitely rich. Now that he has passed, I have the privilege of living with his work. In the room I’m in now, there are two paintings of his. Just the other day, I saw a blue foot in the painting that I had not noticed before. I thought about Zora Neale Hurston, and the point in Their Eyes Were Watching God where she calls death “the strange being with the huge square toes”. As a teacher, I was always reading to him the things that I was teaching so I’m thinking, goddamn, with the square toe, this blue foot here is death. I’m still having a conversation. Aside from the awfulness of his loss, what an ongoing gift he has given. We did not know that we were outrunning time but because he was shy, he wanted to be left alone to make the work – which means that now I have a vast collection. What are you to do when you have 1,000 paintings, photographs and objects? You have a responsibility, and sometimes responsibility is just given to us. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. ◉