evolution of the curator of cool

May 15, 2017

words by: jeanne brady

As DJ, promoter, filmmaker, director, artist, fashion designer, model - Va$htie Kola's work pervades the current American cultural consciousness. It seems like she’s on the brink of just about everything. 

Va$htie’s directed strong videos for Kendrick Lamar, Theophilus London, Kid Cudi and Solange, amongst others. Her iconic, monthly 1992 parties in New York have been reproduced in Miami, Paris and Amsterdam, and she’s a staple at Webster Hall. In 2012, Va$htie collaborated with Beats by Dre on a limited edition NYC-themed headset, and in 2010, she was the first woman to design a Jordan-brand sneaker under her own label, Violette. She’s rightly known for a capacity to harmonize a raw, urban aesthetic with a modern, cosmopolitan one. 

Va$htie’s latest venture is joining this season’s cast of the Showtime docu-series, 3AM. A “penetrating joyride into the bizarro world of late-night New York City,” the show follows “a cornucopia of drag queens, artists, escorts, and other insomniacs, trying to turn fantasy into reality...” Episodes featuring Va$htie track, as expected, her nocturnal activities: the DJ gigs, party-hopping and after-hours networking. But it’s what happens when the lights fade - and reality settles over Va$htie in that swell of solitude that comes when the sun rises.

I head out to Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood to meet up with Va$htie, curious about how the show has affected her life, personally and professionally. When I arrive, she’s in the middle of a photo shoot for this magazine. There’s no elaborate setup, no props, no extravagant wardrobe as one might expect for a creative multi-hyphenate - just her team of two. And Va$htie standing in the afternoon light. Her movements are measured, and she responds intuitively to the photographer’s direction. Under a dark mass of curls and doe-eyes she exudes control, allure and a resolve I think must come with having achieved so much, at such a high level of creativity. 

I follow the crew, while the light is still good, to a welding shop a few blocks away - it will make the right backdrop for the last few shots. We pass graffiti covered warehouses lining seemingly empty streets. Upscale coffee shops and gastropubs dot the landscape, signs of imminent gentrification. Va$htie and her crew survey the area and ask us questions about the neighborhood. It’s a familiar tale: soaring rents have pushed people further from the City’s epicenter, and Bushwick is quickly becoming a refuge for the native creative class. The photographer tells us about an artists co-op formed to keep rent stable and prevent too-much too-fast development in the area. 
Va$htie has spoken about her deep love for NYC and how difficult it’s been to “accept seeing the abrupt gentrification and corporatization of a city that is known for its abundant creativity and wild energy.” Unchecked development and urban sprawl have hobbled the creative culture so many of us came here for, she says. 

“A starving artist just can't come to NYC and really hack it anymore. Not like it wasn’t [also] that way for me when I came, but it's much harder and much more expensive [now]. I'm afraid to say that if the creative energy can't thrive here, I'm unsure what will happen.”

As long as we stay mindful about what’s happening, the established creative class can help keep things authentic, while evolving with the times, she says. ”It's important for people in our field to give the new generation opportunities and support the creative community, because at the end of the day it will only support [us].”

The New York atmosphere has changed considerably since 1999, when Va$htie left her hometown of Albany, NY to attend film school at the School of Visual Arts. At 18, the first generation Trinidadian-American had no idea how lightening-fast her path would unfold. Her first weekend in New York, Va$htie and a friend tried to get into an MTV after-party in SoHo. It was pouring rain, and with no fake ID or money, she figured they’d be turned away. Running to the closest door, they found it unlocked and unattended and stumbled straight into the party. They’d accidentally snuck in. 

“We were surrounded by so many famous people.” 

Someone approached the pair and asked if they wanted to be extras in a Spike Lee movie filming that night. As a film student, she jumped at the chance. The two met Lee himself, who offered to look at Va$htie’s resume for an internship and invited them to the ‘after-after’ party. 

“[We were] in serious shock that we had just moved to NYC and our lives had already began in utter rock stardom! I'd like to think it set the tone for more greatness to come.”

Greatness continues to unfold for Va$htie, in and out of the city where it all started. She’s thankful for the opportunities New York has given her and proud to be tightly woven into its rich cultural fabric. And so despite her private nature, she joined the cast of 3AM as a sort of love letter to NYC - an effort to share its magical energy and endless possibilities. But the private nature remains. Va$htie usually declines to talk about her personal life, including high profile relationships, and sticks to discussing her endless creative projects. She’s reluctant to overshare on social media. 

I think it’s important to save parts for yourself and the people that are closest to you.

“I come from an era where it was uncool to talk about yourself and give your own props, but social media is essentially you being your own publicist. I was super reluctant to embrace it which is why the social media links on my website vashtie.com have a title above them that reads ‘Vashtie Sells Out.’”

She’s able to curate her social media image online, but doesn’t have as much control with 3AM. Eager for to share the complexity and work that happens behind the scenes, Va$htie welcomed the cameras into her professional world. But as happens, they eventually crossed the line into the personal, capturing painful, personal experiences - even documenting some of her time in therapy. A vulnerable side, rarely seen, was exposed.

“My childhood stories came out by accident,” she explains. ”The production company had been taping my weekly interview, like they always do, and they started chipping away, asking questions about my family, one after the other. It led me into talking about the domestic abuse I grew up with. By that point I was sobbing. I felt awful afterwards because I never share those things.” 

After the taping Va$htie called her manager and close friend, Jonny Shipes. He was shocked. He didn’t know about her traumatic childhood experiences. No one did. “The people closest to me were supportive and thought that sharing it could inspire others who have faced situations like that or are still in them… I hope so.”

Va$htie’s has been in therapy for the past few years. To share an experience like that out loud, for the world to hear, was cathartic, she says. She hadn’t talked about those parts of her childhood - she felt they were irrelevant to where she was, and what she was trying to do with her life.   
“I don't like the idea of playing "the victim" or seeming like [one] by talking about problems. I also love my family, despite the issues I have with them, and was always afraid it could hurt them by talking about it publicly. After saying it though, I feel like I am one or many steps toward a healthier me.”

Rain comes down as the shoot wraps up. We shuffle back to the studio, huddled under a few umbrellas. Va$htie has to be back in Manhattan for a gig in the next hour, and getting back from Bushwick during a rainy rush hour is no easy feat. She’s concerned, and we talk about rescheduling the rest of the interview. I suggest a few options - DJ gigs, meetings, out-of-town appearances—she’s booked solid. A phone call might work. Email might be better she says, apologizing. 3It’s harder these days for Va$htie to make time for many things, including her passion projects. Real work takes priority, she says. It’s always a challenge to stay consistent and maintain quality and joy in that work. 

I will say that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better. I know what makes me happy and I am more comfortable in my own skin, so I align with projects that are true to me and I speak my mind when I need to. That helps me protect my vision.

With a few short films already under her belt, she hopes to make a feature film soon. She’s also thinking on music production - she tried her hand on the drums during film school and her DJing has her curious about what else she might create. Once asked about juggling multiple projects, Va$htie responded, “I’m cashing checks that make sense to my life right now.” She continues to push herself artistically into new territories and expand upon the creative roots she’s established for herself—a continual evolution. Her perspective is solid. It’s inspiring. 

All images c/o Delphine Diallo for Globetrotter Magazine