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As he celebrates a pair of milestones, the Toronto promoter reflects on how flyer portraiture became a rallying point for queer Black partiers
DJ Blackcat has upped his promo game with help from photographer Chris Cushman. (Suit by @Ellisesq / Styling by Tyshi Noir)
NOIR Patio Gala at IN LifeStyle (434 College) on Saturday (October 9), doors 6 pm; NOIR virtual party on Sunday (October 10); 6-9 pm, twitch.tv/djblackcatt; NOIR after party at Medley (2026 Yonge), doors 10:30 pm. From $25. eventbrite.com.
Mykel Hall is doing the birthday weekend thing. The DJ and promoter otherwise known as Blackcat is throwing three parties to celebrate his 50th – but also three decades as a fixture in the city’s queer club scene.
Never one to go small in a non-milestone year, Hall is making a comeback of sorts after a pandemic hiatus. Last fall, his annual Noir party was cancelled last minute when Toronto went into another lockdown.
Of course, three parties means four flyers: One for Saturday’s Noir patio gala at IN Lifestyle in Little Italy; one featuring singer/songwriter Jully Black as a guest at Sunday’s virtual birthday bash on Twitch; and two for the official (in-person) after party at midtown restaurant Medley, including one featuring 10 family members posing in official Noir merch that he’s produced for the occasion.
Blackcat parties, like Noir and Go Hard, have become synonymous with slick, editorial-style imagery. While he’s doing promo videos, social media, VIP packages and merch – all the things party promoters do to move tickets in 2021 – the flyers are something special.
“When I first started, it was always important to have somebody Black on the flyer. I’d never seen that on Church Street,” he says.
Today, his promo material is a decade-long visual record of the queer Black community who attend his events growing confident and claiming space in the queer party scene. But that didn’t happen overnight.
Before he started his monthly hip-hop/dancehall jam Go Hard in 2010, taking dancefloor photos was a delicate matter, never mind finding local club kids to model for a flyer. Not everyone was out, and not everyone wanted a stranger snapping their pic.
Hall got his start throwing underground parties in the early 90s in small cafes and church basements. There was no promo – the events were strictly word-of-mouth.
“We did it with the leader of the church’s permission – maybe they were gay,” he says. “We would sneak in with our sound system at night and we would sneak out before morning. It was really underground and, in some ways, dangerous. That is what it was at the time.”
In 1992, Church Street promoter Gilles Belanger heard one of Hall’s mixtapes and booked him to play the mid-week party Banjhi Boy at Stud Bar on Yonge. The night was a flop, but it was his entrée into the mainstream gay scene. Hall and Belanger teamed up to throw Blackcat Sundays at Ghetto Fag, the club formerly housed in the space now known as Crews & Tangos.
He played hip-hop, dancehall, R&B and soca on vinyl, attracting lineups down the block.
“I was the only one playing that at the time on Church Street, so everybody was coming – white, Black, Asian, South Asian,” he recalls. “Everybody was coming just to hear hip-hop in a gay club.”
He continued throwing parties when that gig ended, cutting and pasting famous Black celebrities like Dennis Rodman and Naomi Campbell onto photocopied flyers. A stint DJing Pride parties in the U.S. opened his eyes to the kind of imagery Americans were using to sell tickets.
“I was like, Toronto has some good looking people,” he says. “They should be on flyers.”
When he started Go Hard, he had been working with photographer Chris Cushman for a few years but dancefloor snaps were still “touchy,” he says.
“I would take pictures of people I knew were out and okay with it,” he says. “I’d have maybe 10 pictures if I was lucky.”
During his DJ set, Hall would turn down the music and do a public service announcement introducing Cushman, who is white, to the crowd and explain it’s okay to decline having a photo taken.
“You had to gain their trust somehow,” he says. “I got smarter about it and made sure the photographer was around for a long-time and became friends with the community. Now my Go Hard events pages are full of pictures of Black men and women – anybody and everybody. It’s a completely different atmosphere.”
He decided to stop putting photos of random models or celebs on flyers and start shooting original photos with people who attend the events.
The collaboration with Cushman evolved into elaborate party flyers, sometimes featuring up to 12 people all decked out in formal wear, Afro-futurist costumes or occasionally the opposite: glossy and nude. If you glimpse a Blackcat flyer photo, you might mistake it for a promo shot for a band or a TV show.
“It’s at the point now where it’s become a thing,” Hall says. “People want to be on a Blackcat flyer.”
Party photos are ubiquitous, but the pandemic has forced another shift. Gigs got cancelled and online parties were hardly a source of replacement income. When last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement prompted many to support and elevate Black businesses and artists, Hall focused on playing gigs that benefited local Black LGBTQ2S+ people.
Now he’s producing merch like sweatshirts and masks and offering food as part of VIP experiences – and working with Black suppliers to make it all happen. Toronto venues are still restricted by provincial rules around capacity. Parties are happening, but promoters have to get creative if they want to make even close to the cash they earned in the before times – and with half the crowd.
Even as he became a mainstream club DJ, Hall has always been about creating space for the Black community. But as the game changes, that focus has grown stronger.
“It’s more in the forefront for me now,” he says. “It’s a nice feeling that after 30 years people still trust me to create a space so they can enjoy themselves and still know that they’re safe. That truly makes me happy.”