DJ Vicki Powell on queer nightlife, a changing Atlanta, and the art of throwing a party

"I want our parties to feel like family."

Vicki Powell
A beloved member of Atlanta’s queer nightlife scene, Vicki Powell also mentors the next generation of female, trans, and nonbinary DJs.

Photograph by Andrew Lyman

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is DJ Vicki Powell, as told to Rachel Garbus.

I got into DJing because I was an introvert—really shy. But I loved nightlife, and I loved going to Backstreet, which was a huge club here in the ’80s and ’90s. I just couldn’t quite find my groove. But once I figured out that I could throw a party with a DJ booth around me, I was like, Oh, it’s on now.

I grew up in Marietta, and my friend’s older sister started taking us out downtown. I saw what was going on, and I was like, How do I get down here? As soon as I got my drivers license and a car, I started coming down and learning about house music. I didn’t get into drinking or drugs because I was so afraid of losing my car. And if I lost my car, then I had no access to queer people.

I didn’t see any women DJing, so I was sort of struggling—like, do girls do this? It was all dudes. But I found a mentor, Brett Long, who was a DJ at Backstreet. I was probably so annoying. I was this young kid, overly enthusiastic—What song is this? What’s that button do? It took some patience for him, I’m sure. I eventually crossed paths, thankfully, with DJ Yvonne Monet—so then I began harassing her! I was way underage. I was 16 and so annoying to them. But I just kept doing it. I kept showing up.

I started out DJing little parties here and there, mostly lesbian bars. There was a bar on Ralph McGill called the Tower Lounge—I threw my 21st birthday there. It was just this tiny hole-in-the-wall lesbian bar with pool tables, a dance floor, and a little DJ booth. There was another lesbian bar called the Sports Page, which had an elevated dance floor like the one from Saturday Night Fever. The Sports Page used a stamp at the door that said “PEACE” in this Woodstock font. I went into a store one day, and there was that stamp. And I figured out that, if I got the stamp, I could charge all my underage friends five bucks to stamp their hands in the back parking lot. So, that’s how I got my gas money!

Atlanta was very different back then. I think we had something like 62 gay bars at one point. It was just wide open, until the AIDS epidemic and then the Olympics, back-to-back—that really hurt Atlanta nightlife. I moved to New York and lived up there. It was happening everywhere: just rapid, rapid gentrification.

I came back in ’06, and I decided to try and get the nightlife that I remembered back. I would never say it left, because obviously people were doing the work, but it took a long time for it to get that momentum. But here we are! I started a queer girl party on Edgewood called Flux; now it’s called Deep South. And I’ve been doing Sunday Service at Church bar for 11 years. Deep South and Sunday Service, they’re totally different events, but they’re both my babies.

My friend Grant Henry was opening Church, and I kept thinking we should do a Sunday school or something. And then “Sunday Service” just came. It’s a perfect name. I’ll play gospel house, and people put the gospel robes on—it turns into a full-on fellowship revival. We never turn anyone away for lack of funds; these parties are for everyone. And I think that’s important, because when you’re dealing with queer youth, trans youth—these are safe spaces for them. The socioeconomic range at our parties is huge. I’ll be in the booth and look out—Oh, there’s my doctor. And there’s my barista!

Deep South promotes and books mostly female, trans, and nonbinary DJs. That’s another part of our ethos. And it’s also been really cool to mentor. After 30 years of doing this, I started to question, what am I going to leave behind? So, my DJ partners Ash Lauryn, Brian Rojas, and I have been mentoring young people, which has really given me a sense of purpose. DJ gear is not accessible to everyone. That’s probably why you don’t see more women and nonbinary people DJing—the cost of buying all that gear. At Deep South, we want to make sure that everyone can come over, have sessions, practice.

I want our parties to feel like family. It’s everyone, you know, feeding off one another, it’s not just me performing or someone dancing. It’s this energy. I look out there and I think, We’re in it together. We’re in this joy together.

This article appears in our October 2021 issue.