Jeanie Crystal: Jeanie’s Manifesto

Jeanie Crystal has a special way of seeing. While her bold, boundary-pushing vision of the world is defined by a riotous sense of fun, it simultaneously turns a serious lens to certain topics labeled taboo. The DJ and co-founder of FabooTV is the directorial mastermind behind the video for Eliza Rose’s international megahit ‘Baddest of the Them All’ (26 million views and counting). 

Jeanie’s been a star of the east London club scene for years, a regular DJ at Dalston Superstore and at Bermondsey’s Venue MOT. The first time I saw her perform at a Decius release party, glowing like a phantom chanteuse in a white latex dress in the dystopian gloom of Venue MOT, I knew that I was witnessing something transcendent. Audiences are captivated by her confidence and her pride in her art (a healthy unself-consciousness not often seen in this anxiety-ridden modern world). Her skill in curating an environment in which art and emotions of historic proportion flourish, if only for a few hazy, magic hours, is unmatched. 

In the hectic days since ‘B.O.T.A.’ soared to the top of the charts, Jeanie’s kept busy. She’s directed the video for Eliza Rose’s soon-to-be-released single, ‘Take You There,’ shot a kitsch and kink-filled video for Decius’s house track ‘Show Me No Tears,’ and cast a posse of classically trained dancers in Day-Glo rave gear for Warmduscher’s chaotic, joyful punk track ‘Love Strong.’ And there’s so much more to come.

Ingrid Marie JensenHow old where you when you first started DJing? What inspired you to start?

Jeanie Crystal: My dad used to own a nightclub and a roller rink when I was really little. My older brother was the DJ at the roller rink. He had decks in his room, and he had a massive vinyl collection. A lot of it was ‘90s rave music. In my household in general, music was a really big love. My dad would have his collection of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and the Stones. My mom was into jazz—Billie Holliday, Nina Simone. She also was a really big Lou Reed fan. My sister loved neo-soul, like Erykah Badu and Lauren Hill, and she was a big Bjork fan. So, basically, when my big brother would go out, I would sneak into his room and play his records on his decks. I fell in love with the Prodigy when I was about nine or ten. There were always parties in our house, there were always people around. I started DJing when I was ten—it was my family who inspired me, really, and growing up around nightclubs, parties. Music was a real big deal; my parents actually met at a nightclub. My dad was the manager, in the ‘70s, and my mum was competing in disco dancing competition that was there. Disco music was really big in our house; my mom loved disco. That’s what inspired me, being brought up with the decks being there, and people dancing and partying around me since I was very little, really.

Ingrid Marie JensenWhat was it about the nightlife of east London, and club atmospheres in particular, that you initially fell in love with?

Jeanie Crystal: I moved there way before the gentrification started. It was like the Wild West. I lived above Brilliant Corners, which is a bougie sushi restaurant now, and that was a brothel. A lot of drugs, a lot of drug dealing, a lot of prostitution. There was this mad market there called the Mess, which is, like, where all the addicts, or people who were homeless or just really fucking struggling because there wasn’t that much money in the area then, would come sell the most bizarre set of trinkets, probably stolen goods, bundles of chargers, whatever. It was a really wild little corner of East London, but I was really at home there because it felt so unregulated. There was also a queer community; they were fabulously dressed. Everyone was almost harking back to the New Romantic period. 

There was a real contrast of this darkness of people dealing with addiction and trying to survive and then this shine and glitter. From growing up in the club scenes of Birmingham (which was very different to what it’s like now—it was very rough, a lot of gang violence) to when I moved to London and was just being me, a brash, opinionated strong working-class woman of color, it was very triggering to a lot of people in London. There’s a lot of wealth here, and I feel like when they can’t quite box you, it really confuses people. But in East London, where it’s like, Jamaican and Irish heritage and queer clubs, I was loved and revered and was encouraged to be more and more myself. To be louder, to be bigger, to be stronger, to basically be more fabulous. And that suited me just fine. I fell in love with Hackney very quickly and met some of the most amazing performers and characters that I now consider my family.

There’s a lot of people in London, because of the nature of the city and the class divides as well, who are really full of shit and quite inauthentic. I felt in East London, especially because the queer scene is so big there, it means that people are allowed to live in who they really want to be, and I think that brings an authenticity and a love and a truth to Hackney and to these certain spaces. Being around people that are truly expressing themselves as they want to be is quite an honor, and that rubs off on you. Be yourself, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise, you know? People create themselves in Hackney. There are people there who are like walking pieces of art. How could I not fall in love with that?

Ingrid Marie JensenThe videos you’ve directed all showcase your consummate knowledge of London’s underground creative scenes. The video for Eliza Rose’s ‘B.O.T.A’ in particular is such a gorgeous, living, breathing love letter to London’s queer club scene. What was the shoot for that video like?

Jeanie Crystal: The B.O.T.A shoot was chaos; whenever you have more than one drag queen on set, get ready for chaos! There were a lot of queens and divas in that video. The concept was like a short film, and we did it in one day. I’d choreographed this simple, Macarena-inspired dance routine that was meant to go in at the end but by the time we got to that scene everyone was so trashed, that no one could pick it up, so I had to cut that scene. I do love that video. It’s a snapshot of some of the most interesting performers: Kuntessa, Novaya, Sakeema, Sharon Legrand, Wet Mess…

Eliza released that song from her own record label. We didn’t really have any money to make the video. Because she’s one of my really good friends, and I just wanted it to be amazing for her, I sublet my room for a couple of months to pay for the video. Then it ended up going to number one. It’s quite a story. She’s Hackney born and bred, proper salt of the earth, and the track went to number one. It beat Beyoncé and Drake, and now we’re going on a US tour next month. I do all the visuals for her live shows and direct all the performers. It’s pretty cool.

Ingrid Marie JensenHow has your background in performance art affected the way you approach directing, and telling a story through the medium of film?

Jeanie Crystal: I was a stripper for a long time. I did it to get myself through art school. I was also performing for Eddie Peake. It was a durational performance in the Barbican, and it was nude. I had to perform for four or five hours. Sometimes it was simulating sex, sometimes it was being aggressive, or shouting. Being in this academic space, I was really interested in [the question]: Can you free a sexualized or racialized body in a patriarchal setting? Is there such a thing as freedom and emancipation for the body? Working in these three institutions: academia, the strip club (which is looked upon as this low art form, and, in some feminist circles, it’s looked on as part of the problem of the patriarchy and objectification and violence against women) and then this very commercial art space, was my education into performance dynamics. At art school I was learning about Yoko Ono, Valie Export, Annie Sprinkles, these artists that managed to hold tension and redefine meaning for their bodies and, in turn, their status in society and make a comment on that. 

These three institutions that I was moving through really inspired the way I direct because it’s about holding tension, different characters, different body types, different politics, and how they all merge together. I was in polar opposite camps. From the most heterosexual side of the set up (which was the strip club) to going out on the queer scene in East London, which is all about bring all kinds of desires to the forefront, and then this very bourgeoisie academic setting. And then, going back to Annie Sprinkles, and Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’… it’s about subverting heteronormative power structures using the body. 

That’s how I come to the director’s table. For example, the Decius video. Lias Saoudi is a very provocative performer but putting him in the same room with someone like Evil Kebab, who’s also a very provocative performer, but comes from a very different scene and setup… I knew I had to put them in a room together, create a scenario, and they would either start fighting or fucking. I think there was a bit of in between. There was a lot of strangling from Evil Kebab and lot of nipple sucking from Lias Saoudi. There was a lot of that video that we had to cut out.

Ingrid Marie JensenHow did the ‘Show Me No Tears’ video that you directed for the acid-house group Decius transpire?

Jeanie Crystal: The Decius video came about because a few years ago, I’d met Lias and Saul in New York, really randomly. I was DJing for Afropunk in New York for BBZ, a collective of musicians, artists, writers, that all identified as queer and had varying gender identities. It was a very black, queer space that they carved out in their parties. It was a really important time for me, being with them. They introduced me to some brilliant thinkers: bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Sara Ahmed, Angela Davis. It really helped me understand how woke has been co-opted by the press. The term isn’t a meme or a soundbite on Instagram. It comes from real, brilliant Black women’s critical thinking. And that thinking isn’t about someone’s better or worse or putting anyone down. It’s essentially about liberation for everyone, for the human experience to be bettered for everybody. 

It was quite strange that the same week of being at Afropunk I met Lias and Saul. There was this real contrast of opinion. About a week later, I ended up in an apartment with them… very polarizing in contrast, those two anti-woke sesh gremlins. We had a really good night. It ended in a vignette with Saul with his trousers off with his legs behind his head and Lias inserting a rose into his anus. So yeah, it was a good night. I taught Saul some classical ballet, and he actually showed quite a lot of promise. Me and Lias kept talking about collaborating in some way, but we never got around to it until this Decius video came up, and he asked me if I wanted to shoot it. 

Ingrid Marie JensenHow did the ‘Love Strong’ video that you directed for Warmduscher transpire?

Jeanie Crystal: Sportsbanger asked me to shoot a Christmas message and Johnny Banger had got in Clams to be Daddy Christmas. Clams is a special character who recognizes talent and really platforms people. He’s always gassed me up and brought me in, which is nice because that South London crew is quite male-heavy. It’s nice that they have all encouraged me in my art and my work. 

For the Warmduscher shoot, I’d picked certain characters to be with the band because I knew it’d create a sort of tension at the start, and it did. It was a bit nervous for everyone, I think, because I’d made everyone put on loads of makeup, and I had Evil Kebab there, styling everybody. I’m not sure how comfortable everyone felt at the start of it, but by the end of it were all flitting round, smoking, drinking, talking about how our differences can bring us together. It was a bit of a kumbaya moment. I was really happy with how the shoot went, and they’re all really fit in Warmduscher, so I loved just kind of getting to perv on them through the camera. 

I suppose the tension was that the three performers in it, Jayla, Jasiah and Yos, were these amazing contemporary and classically trained dancers set against Warmduscher who are these seedy musicians. I think about groupies a lot, and the question of who gets to be a groupie and who is objectified. Obviously, women’s bodies are objectified all the time, so if I have the chance to tip those scales, I will take it, which is what I did there. What I really like about that video is the contrast of the band and the performers both being exceptional at what they do and then having a competition for attention. I think that’s in a lot of my work. It’s never really about the front man—the icon, the rockstar—being of a higher status than anyone else. It’s about congealing that all together with the performers that I use. Every single person that I work with, I consider an iconic star in their own right.