By Sam Manzella and Jason Lamphier
When we first learned about Frank Ocean’s “PrEP+” event, an invite-only queer dance party at a “to-be-announced” location in New York City, Team NewNowNext had two reactions: First, Damn, that sounds incredible. Second, How can we weasel our way into this?
The good news is that a handful of us managed to snag some invites because clearly someone (Lesbian Jesus?) was looking out for us. So we went, we saw, we had way too many tequila sodas.
But first, the origin story: “PrEP+” borrows its name from the modern HIV-prevention drug that has changed the way the LGBTQ community—particularly gay, bisexual, and queer men—engages in casual sex. When word of the party first spread on Thursday morning, Pitchfork reported that Ocean chose the name as an “homage” to “what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug… had been invented in that era.”
The criticism that followed was inevitable. Dr. Steven W. Thrasher, a professor at Northwestern University and a scholar who has written at length about the AIDS crisis, noted on Twitter that “AIDS isn’t a lifestyle backdrop,” and that drugs and pharmaceuticals pervade contemporary gay culture in an incredibly blatant way (pumpkin spice latte poppers, anyone?). Others pointed out that PrEP was introduced after decades of grassroots organizing and activism from LGBTQ and HIV-positive advocates, and attempting to reimagine (or worse, ignore) that legacy is glib and insensitive.
Spokespeople from the pioneering HIV/AIDS advocacy group ACT UP chimed in, too, adding that queer NYC nightlife in the 1980s was revolutionary “because of people living with HIV and their caretakers,” not in spite of it.
we love you frank, but 80’s nightlife was revolutionary because of people living with HIV and their caretakers. let’s uplift our elders and honor their legacy. https://t.co/rRdattak17
— ACT UP NY (@actupny) October 17, 2019
So then, what was this thing all about? In typical Ocean fashion, the singer kept the details of the bash under wraps (aside from the fact that folks needed to behave themselves and put their phones away) until the last minute. We didn’t even know where we were going until around 7:30pm, when the location of the event—Knockdown Center in Queens—showed up in our inboxes. The line was in full effect when we arrived at 9:45, but it moved pretty swiftly. As expected, the crowd was young and fashionable, an eclectic mix of mostly 20- and 30-something queers and straights. The kid with the best look sported slicked-back hair and a bright yellow Honda X Supreme ensemble. The runner-up? A cutie with a light-colored blouse and fabulous sequined black tuxedo pants.
The space was dark and cavernous, with plenty of nooks and crannies for furtive hookups, and the drinks were stiff and not insanely expensive. As promised, the music—at least for the first part of the night—was a mix of “Detroit, Chicago, techno, house, French electronic,” and other “iterations of nightlife,” and it was generally fantastic. DJs spun everything from remixes of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” to Prince’s “1999” and Crystal Castles’ modern freakshow classic “Untrust Us” (partygoers lost their minds as soon its signature ghostly vocals kicked in).
Queer producer Arca was there, gay Brockhampton frontman Kevin Abstract might have been there, French duo Justice did a surprise set, and, yes, Ocean showed up behind the decks at around 2am, looking, as one Reddit user put it, like Tiger Woods. (We were three feet from Ocean and can confirm this.)
Later, he premiered what seem to be two new tracks, which a reveler captured snippets of:
A flashing PrEP logo hung behind the DJ booth, and producer SXYLK, who also did a set, shared a special PrEP+ mix on Soundcloud for the occasion.
But ultimately, PrEP+ had nothing to do with the actual HIV-prevention drug (Gilead did not sponsor it, and no sort of marketing was present at the venue). And aside from a fair share of its attendees—particularly one androgynous red jumpsuit–clad voguer in stunning eye makeup—there wasn’t anything overtly queer about it. SXTLK even told The Fader afterwards: “Justice was everything, but the party was lacking in actual queer underground DJs. Brooklyn is becoming the new Portland and industry heavyweights should run in the opposite direction.”
PrEP+ wasn’t the big statement some of its guests might have expected, and perhaps the name was a poor choice. It was really just a party—a really fun party, mind you, but nothing for the queer history books.
Update: Shortly after this article was published, Ocean posted a statement on Tumblr in which he emphasized that he decided to name his queer party PrEP+ to raise awareness about the HIV-prevention drug, which he says some of his friends and his ex-boyfriend didn’t know about. He also reiterated his desire to imagine a world in the 1980s in which a drug like PrEP could have saved thousands of lives. “I’m an artist,” he wrote. “It’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist and it’s a joy to.”
Read his full statement below: