By Kaylin Tran
Several years ago, high school junior Natalie Lee decided to attend a music show at a small skate shop on a whim. She had never been to something like it before and had never even heard of the bands who were performing. Artsy and edgy teenagers filled the cramped space. The crowd moshed and screamed along to the high-energy performances. That night in the Scott Pilgrim-esque atmosphere, Lee found herself loving the experience.
“It was just this sort of little environment that I had never been involved in before,” said Lee. “It’s kind of like when you watch a coming-of-age movie … I don’t know how to explain it. It was just very thrilling. Ever since then, I wanted to explore more of the local scene and just go to shows where I didn’t know the bands to discover new music that way.”
Since then, Lee has attended the University of Southern California (USC) to pursue her newfound passion in the music industry. As a recent graduate, she has been able to continue this interest through her work as a music journalist and organizer/founder of Sleezehog, a DIY music promoter that curates live shows by and for queer, person of color (POC) or femme individuals. As a member of the queer and POC community herself, she is extremely passionate about representing marginalized musicians and artists through her shows.
Sleezehog initially began as a class assignment. In Lee’s Live Music Production and Promotion course, she learned everything there was to know about producing a successful show. From venue safety and proper planning to technical equipment and production needs, she gained extensive knowledge on the ins and outs of how live music events come together. For her final project, she and her group were tasked with producing their own show. While other groups threw acoustic shows at coffee shops or raging concerts at clubs, hers decided on a punk show at someone’s house.
“At the end of it, when we were cleaning up, people were still hanging out and were like, ‘That was so cool. We needed that,’” said Lee. “There’s such a lack of music like that around the USC scene. There’s a lot of really talented musicians, but they play things like pop, R&B or rap. There’s really no representation of this sort of music here.”
When she noticed that the entire lineup for their first show consisted of male-fronted bands, most of whom were white, she wanted Sleezehog’s new goal to be creating a safe space for queer and POC artists. Lee’s desire to uplift those in her community had always been in the back of her mind, but it was not her priority at the time of completing the class project.
For Sleezehog’s second show, a queer POC punk band called The Groans was booked. However, the other two groups in the lineup were fronted by white males. At the end of the night, a member from The Groans told Lee how uncomfortable and unsafe they had felt throughout the show. Even she could see how the other bands took over the stage and dominated the performances.
“To hear someone, who is essentially a guest of mine, express that really upset me,” said Lee. “I’m also a queer person of color and they felt unsafe and that’s the last thing I want.”
From then on, Sleezehog’s mission has been to create a safe space for others. Every so often, exceptions are made for non-queer and non-POC friends, but the group’s priority is that anyone involved—whether it be an artist or a venue—shares the same values.
“People will want to come to our shows because there’ll be good music, it’ll be a good time and you see your identities represented by people who are playing that night,” said Lee. “There’s no room for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. We make it a point to make sure that those kinds of microaggressions or problematic behaviors are not allowed at our shows. I think that’s how we’ve been able to make our little community grow.”
Two of Sleezehog’s original founders have left the group, but new members have joined the team to assist Lee with financial and administrative work. Sleezehog runs just like a business, except Lee’s team does not make much profit, as much of the money goes to the performers. Instead, they are motivated by their work to represent marginalized communities in the music scene.
Lee’s passion to have strong representation also stems from identifying as a queer POC individual herself. Lee grew up around supportive peers in a fairly open community and has been comfortable with her identity for some time.
“There was definitely some internal struggle about what [being gay] meant for me and the girls that I liked when I was younger and how to navigate that,” said Lee, “but I don’t think I ever officially came out. People just knew because I was so butch and gay.”
Though her work in music plays a large part in how she supports the queer and POC community, there are other ways that people can do so through their own means.
“If this whole Black Lives Matter protest and social media thing going on is teaching us anything, it’s that allies should listen to the voices of queer people, not try to speak on behalf of them,” said Lee.
She also emphasized the importance of educating oneself about the context of history, especially when it comes to the strides that have been made for the queer community and the privileges that some groups are afforded.
“A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of our language comes from queer people or queer Black people. Like new slang that people use all the time, that’s taken right out of drag communities. So it’s important to educate themselves and realize when they’re appropriating things.”
Lee believes that the L.A. Pride parade, which was cancelled this year due to safety concerns regarding COVID-19, does not do the best job at supporting the queer community. She appreciates the message of the annual event, but dislikes how it has been capitalized for profit, whether it is by companies branding their products with rainbows for the entirety of June or ticket costs preventing lower-income queer individuals and allies from participating in the celebration.
“I feel like Pride has been co-opted by a lot of white queers to be this huge party,” said Lee, “which is fine; like we can celebrate Pride, but I feel like too many people forget about the history of pride, the activism that went behind it and all the queer Black trans people who fought for our rights.”
Especially with recent events from the Black Lives Matter movement, Lee emphasized how the focus should instead be on the Black community and the intersectionality between the queer and Black civil rights movements.
Like L.A. Pride and many other public gatherings, Sleezehog has also paused its shows due to COVID-19. However, Lee is still able to continue her work as a music journalist through TRASH MAG, a women-owned independent zine that focuses on underrepresented artist voices. With this position, she is able to feature female, queer POC musicians in her bi-weekly playlist called “L.A. or Bust.” At the time of interviewing, it was uncertain whether her work would be paused out of respect and understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.
TRASH MAG was established in 2016, but was adopted a year later by the same friend who invited Lee to the very show that ignited her interest in the music industry. Lee has previous experience writing concert and music reviews for KXSC Radio, USC’s student-run radio station. This, coupled with her unique perspective on the L.A. scene and interested in queer POC artists, perfectly captured the platform’s message, which is to “make space for people to question and process topics surrounding power, privilege, self-identity and representation.”
When she is not busy promoting other artists or creating live shows, another aspect of music that Lee loves is songwriting. She began this hobby during her freshman year of college and learned how to play the guitar some time before that. She was initially a songwriting minor, but decided to drop the degree in favor of simply pursuing the interest in her own free time.
“Songwriting started as a creative outlet for me, as it does with everyone,” said Lee. “It’s just a way for me to put how I was feeling into an artistic expression.”
As someone who is constantly surrounded by music, this is the most natural way for her to process her emotions whenever they become overwhelming. It also allows her to emulate the artists and songwriting styles she admires. Her self-described “sad and gay” music can be viewed here.
Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.