Local Current Blog

Hear from the team behind Daddy, the queer variety show and dance night turning one at First Ave

Brent Pennington (left) and Archie Bongiovanni (right), the co-founders of Daddy, at Icehouse on May 24, 2018. All photos by Darin Kamnetz for MPR.

At around 10:30 p.m. several weeks ago, I leaned toward an oval-shaped mirror. Coffee grinders whirred on the other side of the door, and I could hear dishes clanking as a barista heaved a bus tub. Studying my face in the mirror, I uncapped an eyeliner pen and got to work.

It’s not every weeknight you’ll find me applying make-up in a Nicollet Avenue coffee shop. But that night, I had plans to go to Daddy, a queer variety show and dance night held at Icehouse about once a month. At this event, people tend to show up and show out.

Stepping into Icehouse, I was glad to have put in work. Folks with glitzy and/or bold outfits milled around me, dancing or grabbing drinks as they waited for the night’s performers — DJ Lisa Lisa Simpson, Mike Queenz, the means., Sarah White, and Brian Bose. Ro Lorenzen of Static Panic had explained the format to me beforehand: people arrive, then performers kick off the variety show, then a DJ takes over and the event “ramps up into a dance party.” Lorenzen describes Daddy as “a blast.”

Not only is this queer-centric party fun and equitable, it’s also lucrative for performers. Daddy has sold out every show so far. As Daddy alum Nick Jordan says, “No matter how you feel about f—ing queers, they have money, too. They like to have fun. They buy drinks; they go out. No matter how you look at it, it just makes sense.”

On July 14, Daddy will celebrate their first anniversary at First Avenue, lending the stage to Symone Smash It, Dua, Doña Pepa, and more. Before the weekend, I had the opportunity to discuss Daddy with co-founders Brent Pennington and Archie Bongiovanni, plus the event’s self-described “femcee,” Marcel Michelle Mobama.

Cecilia Johnson: So I figured we could start out with some background. Who was involved at the beginning? How’d you get there?

Marcel Michelle-Mobama: I’m Marcel, and I’m the resident host/femcee of Daddy. I’ve been with Daddy since day one.

Brent Pennington: I’m a musician; I’ve played in bands for years and years. I took an interest to a lot of queer arts/nightlife scene and was finding myself not happy and fulfilled by just the indie rock circuit of music. I would be performing and putting so much of myself into trying to work this scene, and then I would go to these queer events. At the queer events, I was like, “This is much more of a space I want to be involved in.”

Archie Bongiovanni: I’m a cartoonist. I don’t necessarily have the same background as Brent does with facilitating stuff, but I’ve done smaller events. I love parties, and I think that they are real important to queer survival and community. I’m so happy Brent asked me to help be a part of Daddy.

I was curious about the variety show aspect of the event. In my background, I’m more used to going to concerts. You all obviously have music in Daddy events, but there’s also drag and other performances. Why is that mix important?

Michelle-Mobama: As someone who wanted to go out and experience more music but didn’t feel comfortable or sometimes even safe in some of the spaces where you could access that music, I’m so grateful for the gift of being exposed to local music and to be around people that I feel comfortable being around. Exuberant — not just comfortable. Joyful.

PenningtonWe had Static Panic play, and something that makes me so happy is that many people who are watching, dancing, and freaking out over this band are not necessarily people who go to shows regularly.

Michelle-Mobama: Yeah, and I think a lot of the audience isn’t necessarily going to your standard drag show. There’s this thing they tell you: “Trust your audience.” So often, we’re looking at the commodified version of whatever we’re trying to do, whether it’s music, burlesque, drag, or poetry. And we forget that the audience is willing to take risks with us. I’m sure musicians feel that way. I feel that way a lot in engaging with cabaret performances. It feels good to do our own thing, and I think people want to see that.

Bongiovanni: The community here is the most artistic, wild, and varied. If you give a space for it, people will come up with the best version of what it is, whether it be a fashion show, puppet show —

Michelle-Mobama: — read poetry while feet are projected behind you!

Bongiovanni: Yesss! Yeah! That was so good. That’s exactly what I mean. Pouring Jell-O on yourself. Being a nun. There are so many ways to tell stories about ourselves, and I think having a variety show means that the possibilities are doing something are limitless.

Which is great. And I feel like having a variety show encourages people to come back month after month, versus, “I’ve seen Daddy.”

Bongiovanni: ‘Cause it’s going to be a surprise.

Pennington: The audience wants people to be challenged, but I feel like the audience at our event wants people to succeed. It’s a very supportive crowd. Obviously there’s space for critiques, but people engage no matter what. And that’s the nice thing about a variety show, too: performances are short. If it’s not totally for you…it’s seven minutes. Oh, now there’s a punk band on the stage.

Bongiovanni: The variety show also means we’re not stressed to book names, or “established” people. We can allow for newness and experimentation.

Michelle-Mobama: That artist is getting a paid experience. And there’s no other way to get a footing. A lot of these performers we’re talking about are grads of local art schools or art programs. They’ve studied in some way, but they’re like, “Now where do I put my s—?” The institutional program doesn’t always prepare you for the experience of failing on a stage in front of hundreds of people.

I know a lot of the musicians who have performed at Daddy are queer. What’s the intention behind booking queer artists? Do people have to be queer to perform at Daddy?

Bongiovanni: We’ve never explicitly been like, “This is a queer event with queer performers only.” But I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt, that they’ll opt out if it’s not an identity that they have. Instead of me being like, “Are you queer?”

Pennington: There’s been times where I’m like, I don’t know what this person identifies as, but they’re attributing to this space and dialogue that we’re having.

Michelle-Mobama: You know what the show is. You know what we’re doing. Don’t be weird. To date, there has not been anyone in the space that would take up a space that didn’t necessarily belong to them.

Bongiovanni: They’ll be like, “I belong here.” And we’re like, “Cool. You do.”

Michelle-Mobama: And there have been performers who do not identify as queer. I think all of those performers have been people who identify as black. We’re not just talking about mitigating gender-normative or sexual-normative practices. We’re also talking about dismantling and mitigating whiteness and white supremacy. That means there’s going to be some overlap of identities.

Not that you have control over this, really, but how are you thinking about how to keep it so that everybody in the space belongs in this space? You’re saying nobody has been trangressive in that way, but I’ve been to a few events around town where it’s like [the trope of] straight girls going to a gay bar for a bachelorette party. How do you navigate that?

Michelle-Mobama: I perform in a lot of gay bars. There are spaces where I perform regularly where most of the time, I don’t feel safe. Where audience members have no qualms about grabbing people and getting on the stage while you’re performing. And yes, there’s some bachelorette party. Also, we give the bachelorette parties a lot of flack, but there’s 35-year-old gay dudes in suits, also. [all laugh] Current gripe in the drag community.

But I think it’s easier to control that when it’s not like, “Come to Daddy. We’re open Monday through Thursday from 4-7.” We’re there once a month in an establishment that’s already pretty hip. People are there because they specifically sought this out.

They put it on their calendars.

Bongiovanni: Pre-bought their ticket.

Michelle-Mobama: We’re always sold out.

PenningtonMarcel does an amazing job, as femcee, getting the crowd to participate, saying, “Consent is what?” And they’ll answer, “Mandatory!” People know it. They call it back. You know, there’s always gender-neutral bathrooms. It’s pretty clear what kind of space we’ll trying to create and facilitate.

How did you decide to name Daddy “Daddy”?

Pennington: Archie, when I met with you, I was like, I like the name “Daddy.” But I wanted to recognize that a lot of roles can be very fluid. There were many different ways queers were using the term “daddy.” So the name is Daddy, but then we brand it very pink. We’re aware that this event is not just a leather bar situation. Or some sort of masculinity crisis. We were afraid not everybody would understand what we’re trying to do.

Bongiovanni: We wanted to repurpose the word for ourselves. Be your own daddy.

Pennington: Anyone can be a daddy.

Michelle-Mobama: I am aware of some controversy around the name, and I have had dear friends tell me they do not want to come because of the name. And can I tell you? It’s so boring. It bores me to tears. What is like to be a community ripping each other apart from the inside out? I feel like any frustration around the name is rooted in some sort of moral hierarchy…I think there’s a bravery in naming something something that can be misconstrued.

Bongiovanni: I’ve also heard critiques from friends — and strangers. “Daddy” is a word, and we try to make it our word, but we can’t necessarily change people’s perceptions of it.

I noticed the “consent is mandatory” message on the webpage, and the sort of disclaimer that, you know, “sexy stuff happens here.” Marcel, your bio includes the word “eroticism.” I was wondering what the beauty or benefits are of performing and spotlighting eroticism.

Michelle-Mobama: Permission. The body is under attack because of patriarchy and white supremacy. It’s no secret, right, that queer performers — especially trans women, especially trans women of color — have gravitated to performative eroticism throughout the last century or so. And even pre-dating that, with the drag kings in Europe. It’s liberating.

I remember the first time I saw someone who was like me, and they were naked on a stage. It changed everything about me, and I would not be who I am today without that performer. I am honored and grateful to be able to give that gift to other people.

Pennington: Seeing that vulnerability and confidence and explicit nature in performances can be very inspiring. I know that I’ve benefited from seeing erotic and sexual performances, with my relationship with my own body.

Michelle-MobamaIt’s permission to exist, basically. People forget that not everybody is born with the knowledge that they have permission to exist. And — I like sex. [all laugh]

Bongiovanni[Daddy] normalizes it. Especially when so much of the politics around transphobia and homophobia relate back to sex, to some degree. It’s nice to be like, this is fine. This is all good.

What music do you all listen when you’re feeling yourselves? Do you have any personal favorite artists or moods?

Michelle-Mobama: I’m a nerd. The music that I perform to is very different from the music I listen to. I listen, predominantly, to jazz, classical music, and the works of Stephen Sondheim. I really like post-bop; I like John Patitucci; I like some of the more extreme jazz stuff, like Led Bib. Of course I love Happy Apple. I listen to a lot of soul: Nina Simone, Jill Scott. And for modern stuff: obligatory Janelle Monáe reference. St. Vincent. David Byrne. Grace Jones. We’re going back in time again real fast, aren’t we?

Oh! Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.” [Marcel sings a medley of “Got To Be Real” and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You”]

Pennington: I listen to tons of music. I will say that as I was really wanting to make something like Daddy happen, I was seeing a lot of explicitly queer artists. I saw Mykki Blanco perform last year, and it was transformative for me. And Cakes da Killa. I had moreso listened to softer, more chill music, but then I was starting to hear these more energetic voices that were very queer; very proud. I was like, “Okay, I see what the kids are listening to.”

Michelle-Mobama: I feel like I’m being more fun because of this event, too. I’m an old stick in the mud. If you’ve ever partied with me, you know that I’m sitting in a corner with the oldest person in the room talking about — not this.

Pennington: You were dancing at that Y La Bamba show.

Michelle-Mobama: That’s what I was going to say! I have a friend — Rica — who’s a local artist and activist, and she talks a lot about the politicization of the dance floor as community; as activism; as action. I had never understood that until Y La Bamba.

Pennington: That show was a vision coming to fruition for me, because it was our first music showcase. There were three bands — it was not a variety show or a dance party. But it felt very different than your normal three-band show. People were dancing more. It was a less white crowd than I usually see at an indie-rock show.

Michelle-Mobama: But Archie, who do you listen to?

Bongiovanni: [laughs] I love K-pop. I like the beat; I can’t understand the words, so I’m just into the sound. And the music videos are really fun to watch. I’ve been listening to Sakima. He’s kind of an explicit nasty boy.

Photos by Darin Kamnetz:

Marcel Michelle-Mobama emcees Daddy’s First Avenue show in February 2018.