For the city’s DIY scene, the year 2014 was anything but static– openings, closings, you know the drill. And while one little venue might seem like it’s simply joining the list of short-lived venues and tragic casualties, in all probability, Nola Darling is just getting started.
Last September, Queens native Winston “Win” Scarlett, 26, opened Nola Darling in Chelsea, probably one of the last neighborhoods that comes to mind as a place to check out shows. After landlord troubles he’s already planning to close up shop, but he’s very matter-of-fact about the space continuing. “It’s important to provide a commons,” he explained. “Because without that you can’t really exist.”
In some ways, Nola Darling follows a model similar to Bushwick’s Body Actualized Center (RIP) in that the space functions as a yoga and fitness studio called Bella Vita by day (though Win was careful to point out that, unlike the Bushwick venue, Nola and Bella don’t mix their audiences). That explains why the place looks a lot sleeker and more comfortable than most DIY venues you’ve probably set foot in (e.g. chandeliers). But that level of coziness is also part of Win’s design.
“I call myself the Vibe Engineer because I try to cultivate an anti-show show,” Win explained. “I sage it down and burn incense, put yoga mats down, and set up a really nice atmosphere, it feels like you’re in a living room.” Unlike most DIY venues where you might roll up with a small group of friends, crack a cheap beer, and watch the music in silence, engaging with others by moshing or cigarette bumming, Nola is more about interacting directly with other people. “At Slackfest, it wasn’t about the beer or the bar,” Win recalled. “It was about being comfortable and watching each other and having a nice space where you can chat and chill with people.”
But Nola Darling is unique from its venue peers in more profound ways. Win has created what he calls an “intentional space” that’s unlike any other in the New York City DIY scene. The venue is specifically geared toward people of color. It’s a place where POC bands, musicians, performers, artists and the people who support them can come together under one roof.
“There isn’t much space in New York where people of color have empowerment, or where people of color can congregate on their own terms,” Win explained. “[Opening Nola Darling] was a reaction to the DIY scene I’m a part of, in the sense that a lot of the venues and institutions I go to don’t really have a POC-first perspective. It just seems necessary to have more DIY spaces where POC are the center of programming.”
The venue was inspired by other places in other cities, where Win found that people of color were really running the underground art and music scenes filled with work made by other people of color. “Before I moved to Bed-Stuy, I’d been living in Newark, which has a huge underground warehouse scene, there are a lot of people of color, people of hip-hop parties, and young artists,” he recalled. “I remember my first week there I met this 23-year-old black dude who started a black skate shop on their street and it was just a commons for black business and culture, and it was about the youth culture too. There were artists, graffiti artists and musicians who all sort of gathered there, and that wasn’t something I was used to seeing in Williamsburg or Bushwick.”
As a native New Yorker and indie rock fan, Win’s had a long relationship with DIY venues, but it always seemed as though people of color were marginalized when it came to ownership of these spaces. Win moved to Harlem in 2008 and became a part of a group of dedicated DIY fans, but always found himself traveling to North Brooklyn.
“We would traverse the A train to the L to be a part of Monster Island and 285 Kent,” he recalled. “I came up in those spaces realizing I was one of, like, five people of color in those audiences at the time. It just struck me as bizarre, [Brooklyn] having such a crazy diversity and so many talented people, that these audiences and groups aren’t in these spaces as much, even when they are just as much of a part of the allure as why people move to New York City and why people are attracted to the underground culture.”
Taja Cheek is the vocalist, bass player, and keyboardist for Brooklyn-based band Throw Vision, but she’s become something of a right-hand woman to Win at Nola. Though they’re inarguably close collaborators now, she doesn’t remember exactly how she met Win. “I probably met him on the internet,” she laughed. “Because Win’s the king of the internet.” Which is where Win first became acquainted with DIY culture.
“I’ve always lived on the internet,” Win explained. As a kid, he found his way on to message boards. “I met some of my good friends on the Afropunk community board, and just being there and knowing there’s a community of weirdos online helped me understand that like, you know, there are people out there who want to connect and support each other.”
Later on, he began volunteering for the POC Zine Project, an organization whose mission it is to archive zines created by people of color. The project brought Win to Portland, Oregon. “I met a community of black punks there, and it’s where I met Osa Atoe of Shotgun Seamstress,” he remembered. “I was totally inspired by her.”
Win went on to create a zine of his own titled Slackgaze that, up until this year, existed online only. “It was basically a fascination with slacker culture and ’90s-inspired bands,” Win explained. “Also just the lifestyle of not giving a fuck. I was booking a lot of bands that sort of fit that aesthetic.”
Win had also been playing bass in a psych-punk band called Chimes, so wanting a space of his own to host shows naturally came next. He found a Craigslist ad for renting part of a shared art space at Grand and Driggs in Williamsburg. “There was a tattoo artist and I shared the studio with a costume designer. I was there for a good couple of months, but it was really small, like under 500 square feet. It was really not good for doing shows,” he laughed.
Nevertheless he crammed people into the space, which he named Portland, after his experiences in that particular city. “It was nice, I think it really put me in a good position because it was in Williamsburg proper, like no one could fathom going to a DIY show in Williamsburg last year [after all the closings]. It was just insane to think of shows happening in a small commercial space loft with a backyard, all happening right there.”
But around the same time, Win hit a turning point in his work. The Black Lives Matter movement was picking up and he suddenly began to feel like his work booking shows was “a one trick pony.”
“I kind of looked around and saw all the work I was doing and realized I was just in a predominantly white room. It clicked that I should be doing something else. I should be doing what I want to do, which is book shows and organize for my 13-year-old self,” he explained. “I started to really put intent in my work. I started to ask myself, ‘Is this necessary? Will this band be OK without me? There are tons of other DIY venues they can go to. Who am I catering to?’”
He added: “Reflecting on that and the political nature of what DIY is and what’s happening in our country really made me switch directions.”
Ever since, Slackgaze has been fully devoted to spotlighting POC artists and musicians. Win issued the zine’s first print edition, titled Pain. “It features some artists, plus interviews and photos and it’s all on the topic of pain: how we deal with pain as black and POC artists,” Win explained. “I asked all the artists featured very similar questions like, ‘What causes your pain? How does pain inform your artistic process?’”
After hosting just five or six shows at Portland, Win decided he’d outgrown the tiny space. He hooked up with some partners who wanted a space to run an indie theater out of, and Manhattan was the ideal place for that. In September 2014, they found a run-down spot in Chelsea. “It was sort of left in a hurry, very decrepit, black mold everywhere, lots of junk,” he explained. “And after about two months of doing shows there in a very raw space, my partner got an investor and they renovated and made it a much nicer space.” Hence the chandeliers.
Win said he preferred it “raw” but rode the wave. As for the name, Win dubbed the place Nola Darling, after the city of New Orleans. “It’s a very spirited place, you can feel that,” he said of the city. “And that spirit’s already there [at the venue]. I didn’t expect it to be there, it kind of surprised me.”
But the name’s also a reference to the Brooklyn-born heroine in Spike Lee’s film, She’s Gotta Have It. “When I was working on getting Nola Darling set up, I was reading a book about Spike Lee’s process of making his first major film and not having any money or any funding and not being deterred because it just had to happen. That really inspired me, coming from like, ‘Well, I have X amount of money, how can I make this work?'”
Win began putting together lineups of POC bands, but also recruited artists in the interest of putting people together who might never have met either due to genre constraints or distance. “I kind of relate curating to speed dating,” he said. “Like putting people in a room and seeing who takes to each other.”
Taja, whose band Throw Vision has performed at the space, also picked up on this. “I’ve met a lot of other people doing really cool stuff in the scene through Nola. It’s a good way to get connected with other groups,” she said. “The vibe there, just for whatever reason, sort of fosters this crazy supportive atmosphere I’ve never experienced in that way at other spaces.”
As a curator, Win’s all about drawing connections between artists. “People use space to congregate and people need a space to be able to connect, and that was what I wanted to do with Nola Darling.”
He recounted a recent show he put together. “It was all black women who I follow– Mal Devisa played, Bria Monet played, Xhosa opened– and these are people from different scenes, but people I follow just from generally being interested in their lives. And I asked one of my heroes, Stas from THEESatisfaction, to DJ that party.” After the show, Win recalled that Stas tweeted about the experience: “‘I’ve never been in a room before where four black women were singing and playing guitar.’ That’s kind of how the scene works.”
But most of all, Win seems to be inspired to create something for people who aren’t necessarily artists or musicians just yet and maybe feel isolated within their communities, and as a queer person of color, he understands the perspective of being an outsider all too well. “A lot of people are like, ‘Hey, I’m the weird black kid who follows shows and no one’s there who looks like me or understands the nuances of being a black kid in an all-white room.’ Creating that sort of environment for them is in essence why I do this. I’ve been there in high school, I dreamed of this community and seeing it come together makes me feel like I’m being the person I always wanted to be when I was a kid.”
This year, Win put together a three-day music festival featuring thirty POC artists spread out over two venues, Nola Darling and Silent Barn. I asked him if he considered Slackfest (the second one was held at the end of June) which began as a birthday party for Win, the culmination of his efforts. “Yeah, it is in a way,” he said. “This year, the festival was less about me and more about the spirit of community and having done a great job last year. I have a little bit more of a name for myself where I can reach out to people and say, ‘Hey, this scene is all about celebrating POC people being in a space together and this is the mission of why I want to do this.’”
Taja agreed the scene at Nola Darling was forged largely by Win’s efforts. “Win is a crazy guy,” she laughed. “He has this amazing way of connecting to people and having them like fall in love with him and want to work on projects with him and want to know more about him. He’s really enigmatic in a really special way that makes it really easy to get other people on board and excited. ”
But Taja said the scene was also a product of POC artists independently wanting to connect. “It also comes from this place of celebration and in certain ways alienation, feeling weird playing music or being one of a few people of color,” she explained. “For me, [it’s about] feeling weird being a woman playing rock music. But whatever it is, Win was able to make that into a really positive thing and help people celebrate that, which is a really amazing thing I think.”
Though Nola is definitely Win’s pet project, he’s enlisted Taja’s input heavily. “My goal is also to have a strong female presence there,” she explained. “Because that’s not always super present, or at least not talked about as much even though there are tons of women doing awesome stuff at DIY spaces all around the city.”
Despite plans to close Nola’s current location by the end of the summer (the relationship with the landlord turned sour over renovations and rent, among other things), Win and Taja have worked to expand programming beyond music. Nola hosts community meetings like “Soul Tribe Session: The Modern Woman’s Circle to Connect and Disconnect in New York” as well as all-POC burlesque troupe performances. Win wants this diversity of programming to be carried over into the new space, which he is hoping will be a more “holistic” experience for the community.
“My vision is to have an art space, but also a commons that can be used outside of programming, whether it’s a studio or a practice space or maybe like a makers lab where people can use the place to work on projects,” he explained. “We want the space to be used in a way where it’s not a place to just watch content, but where you create content.”
Taja will also play a big role. “We’re both hoping to be in either Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights, those are both neighborhoods that are important to us,” she explained.
I expected Win to be at least a little upset about the place having to move on, but he seemed unfazed, confident that Nola Darling will find a new home and assured that the venue is better suited for Brooklyn. “One thing I learned from being in zine culture, is that zine-making isn’t about the final, tangible product, it’s about the community you build and the people you put together,” he said.
Cash and alcohol are of course huge concerns for any DIY venue. “I feel like the bar is the most stressful part of any DIY or venue situation I’ve been in, and just trying to imagine a future space without a bar is fun: How do we monetize that and make it work?” Win wondered. “I’ve been tossing around an idea of a membership-supported space, but that’s a high barrier of entry for people who don’t have much money so, we’ll figure it out. I’m in no rush to start a new Nola Darling unless it’s right.”
But, he added: “The space must exist.”