In response to recent creative clampdowns, a young cabal of Belfast musicians, designers, and performers are promoting fierce individuality and a collective DIY spirit
In Belfast, with ravaging cuts to the arts and the recent closure of legendary clubs like the Stiff Kitten, the Student’s Union and God’s Waiting Room at The Maple Leaf, the young creative community has been inspired to take action. Here, we look at the burgeoning individuals at the heart of scenes of their own making — from roaming clubnight and fashion collective MELT to local drag pioneer, Blu Hydrangea.
The drag scene in Belfast, according to 22-year-old Josh Cargill, has a “very colloquial sense of humour – no one is safe!” While the city’s performances are generally lighthearted and rowdy, Cargill’s performances as Blu Hydrangea stand out for their scope: one night, she might appear with her entire head made up as a pineapple; the next, she might dress as a serpent queen, or wear an outfit dripping with sewn-on fried eggs.
Growing up in Hillsborough, a village outside of Belfast, Cargill was introduced to drag via RuPaul’s Drag Race rather than any local scene. “With RuPaul and YouTube being my drag mentors, (it) was very much based on looks and artistic performances. This was something that definitely helped me stand out – I found a niche drag style, focused on looks, which helped me build my name.” Before creating this persona, Cargill tested the water by going to Belfast’s LGBTQ bars and clubs in make-up and from there began posting transformation videos online. After studying animation at the University of Ulster, Cargill studied make-up at college and became an artist with cosmetics company, M.A.C. This helped him test the limits of his creativity, eventually creating Blu Hydrangea: an avant-garde, head-spinning drag queen with thousands of Instagram followers anticipating her weekly looks. “For the most part, I enjoy performing pop (music),” says Cargill of Blu’s shows. “Because who doesn’t love a bit of pop?” — A. Cliff
Fashion’s most radical movements have often been born from raging conflict, phoenixed from the ashes and scavenged from scant resources to make something beautiful and new. MELT is a collective of designers, stylists and performance artists – “outsiders who felt we didn’t have a place, so we crafted our own,” says stylist Lucinda Graham. The idea is to lash back against the city’s political stagnation, the lack of arts funding and the brain-drain of creative minds out of Belfast.
“As a collective, we recognise strength in collaboration – partnering with other people in Belfast to better this city!” she says, adding, “I love my city so much. We are hungry to see Belfast rise out of the shadows of the past to become a space of hope. We want her to grow and blossom, to nourish the space for fellow creatives.”
Graham is currently working on an upcoming knitwear collection, as well as creating a new performance piece which explores the treatment of men’s mental health, a vital global issue. “Young people can feel devalued and (that) their opinions don’t matter,” she explains. “Facilitating safe, creatively stimulating spaces for youth culture is important.” — A. Cafolla
Womenswear designer Senan O’Neill is one of seven founders of MELT – the collective he calls a “massive, rowdy family”. “I like to design clothes for people who want to party and have fun with life,” he explains. “(It’s) like, you tried to be glamorous but took a tab of acid while getting ready.” “Our approach to the fashion system here is definitely radical rather than political,” O’Neill says of the movement.
“There is a radical feeling about Belfast at the moment... If you can’t take it to parliament, take it to the streets!” O’Neill champions provocative aesthetics, something which sits in direct opposition to the country’s staid commercial fashion landscape. “We self-fund, we direct, we create our environment. It’s time for a new era for the younger generation,” he says. “To stand up and shout about what they can do, stop idolising the high street, and buy into what Northern Irish young designers are making.”
MELT’s ruthless ethos is pulsing through an invigorated local arts and queer scene in Belfast, challenging regressive barriers that exist in Northern Ireland, epitomised by its parliament not signing up to the Equality Act 2010, which protects the rights of minorities. “There’s a sense of being suppressed and not having the freedom to be fully expressive – we are here to stay in Belfast, to challenge these attitudes.” — A. Cafolla
18-year-old photographer Macy Stewart’s portraits vibrate with a kinetic, emotional energy, inspired by music videos from fearless innovators like Solange and Prince. “There’s a different story and personality behind every person I’ve shot with,” Stewart says of her work, which has appeared in Vogue Italia as well as Northern Ireland-based arts and culture magazine Turf & Grain.
She dreams big – her goals are to shoot Virgil Abloh, Adwoa Aboah, and the cover of Vogue – and as a young woman of colour in a relatively small capital city, she strives to make Belfast's creative pool a welcoming, inclusive space. Stewart left school at 17, something she says was a “huge risk”, to pursue her current path. But being so heavily immersed in an accelerating creative community, she bears witness to her peers helping each other, and ensuring they raise other voices alongside their own. “The determination to share stories and experience drives me,” she says. “We aren’t alone when we have our good and bad times. Here (in Belfast), there’s always a voice of reason and support (so) we can create our story.” — A. Cafolla
“Belfast is new to my genre of music,” says Jordan Adetunji. “My music is always evolving, and what I write is in keeping with the changes in society – my songs speak about the struggles and dynamics of life on this island.”
In a city that’s long been known for its raging punk roots and techno underground, Adetunji is part of a new wave of rap and R&B, supported by the collective and label NxGen. Across exclamatory, bouncy big beats that call to mind J Hus, Wizkid, and Jeremih, Adetunji’s lyrics explore powerful themes such as self-reliance, mental health and pushing back against hard times – and they come from personal experience. He speaks of the domestic violence and homelessness his family has endured, and how his mother and aunt’s resilience continues to inspire his drive to represent strong familial figures. Today, Adetunji cites the charity Help Musicians UK as a vital resource for himself and other artists across Northern Ireland.
“People here are embracing wider world cultures and music,” the artist affirms proudly about the capital. “(They’re) healing, building, and open to wider horizons.” — A. Cafolla
When most people think about pursuing a creative career in fashion, they might not envision themselves caked in rain and mud at 4am in Belfast. For Lily Bailie, though, that’s a frequent reality – as a trainee in the costume department for Game of Thrones, she works on set, where she might find herself embroidering a dress one day, and coating soil on the face of an Unsullied soldier the next.
Bailie, who grew up with a mum in the fashion industry and a dad in music, always knew she wanted to pursue a creative path. “I was immersed in the Belfast music scene as a teenager, working with bands, promoting gigs, DJing and styling music videos,” she reflects. “Eventually, costume came naturally to me, because it combined all my interests in film, textiles, creating characters and story-telling.” She studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, and landed the Game of Thrones gig just one week after she graduated.
A natural synaesthete, Bailey finds that her most satisfying work blurs the boundaries between fashion and other art forms, especially music: she’s worked on a Bonobo video, and on a Namilia ‘vagina-sleeved’ dress worn by Björk. With film and TV production growing in Belfast, though, the demanding life of shooting is where she now feels more comfortable. “The fashion scene in Belfast may not be as evolved as London, but it’s a much friendlier place to make connections and collaborate – it’s getting better each year.” — A. Cliff
INSPIRE THE SOUND
“We wanted to create a brand combining our disciplines – but to do it our way, with our own rules,” declares Daryl Jones, who runs gender-fluid label Inspire the Sound with Esther Mogada. “Although we have a long way to go, we’re getting there and having a geg as we go.” (In case you missed that, “geg” is Belfast for having a laugh). “It’s wild!” Jones says about the city’s creative scene. “Despite the setbacks Northern Ireland has had, we’ve built our own community of inclusiveness and belonging.”
Away from fashion, Jones and Mogada are also members of the fearless (and geg-heavy) collective, MELT. “We can go out, dress to the absolute nines and be our authentic selves – that’s the vibe we try to encapsulate at our events,” Jones comments. The pair met as fashion and textiles students, and bonded over how strikingly different their pattern-cutting styles were to their teachers’. They may have felt like outsiders back then, but they now find themselves part of an exciting moment for Belfast.
“I love that people are inspired to stay (here) now, instead of moving to London after they graduate,” Mogada observes. “The nightlife and creative scene are merging together... so (now) everyone can feel the magic.” — A. Cliff
“There are no airs or graces here. Belfast doesn’t stand for bullshit!” says Marion Hawkes, co-founder of the club nights GIRL (with Claire Hall) and Ponyhawke (with Dillon McDonnell). The nights are there to provide a safer, alternative space for women and the queer community, as well as a roaring, sweaty dancefloor charged with pulsing Chicago house and screwface-inducing disco.
“We started out because we wanted to play the music we liked, but quickly realised we were providing something that wasn’t being catered for elsewhere, and people soon came and felt safe partying with us,” Hawkes asserts. “They’d tell us how they felt free to express themselves. The vibe, as much as the music, is very important to us.”
Hawkes says she has been infinitely inspired by the scene’s mainstays, as well other on-the-come-up artists, from locals acts Brien, Or:La and Carlton Doom, to international DJs like Dazed 100er Peggy Gou. And in a capital city that’s been bridled by stodgy political conservatism, Hawkes’ contribution is vital – a bass-heaving, leave-your-inhibitions- in-the-cloakroom enclave for a continually evolving local youth culture. In her words: “We’re for the queer kids, the misfits, the free spirits.” — A. Cafolla
“We want to create an atmosphere where people can really connect to the present – somewhere they feel comfortable to be themselves.” So says Helena Hamilton, a visual and sound artist, as well as one of the creative forces behind RESIST, an immersive installation-meets-live-music event providing an experimental alternative to the city’s nightlife.
“I would say RESIST is on the fringe of what happens in Belfast,” says techno producer Koichi Samuels, her creative partner-in-crime, who has been producing music since the tender age of 14. “We’re not the typical event here. We might programme free improvisation next to live modular, next to headline artists like Aisha Devi or Lorenzo Senni.” Using voile screens and geometric projections, the pair say they aim to craft an environment where experimental electronic music can become a 3D, living space. And while they bring something leftfield to Belfast’s live music scene, their record label, RESIST, releases music from all over the world – upcoming projects are planned from Montreal’s DJ Pacifier and NTS Radio DJ Shiva Feshareki.
The tagline of RESIST is: “Resist the categories that define and divide.” Samuels explains that this isn’t about any specific political ideology. “It’s more about resisting strict definitions – both musically and artistically – (and the) labelling that divides and categorises people.” Hamilton agrees: “I’m not a fan of categories – there’s a freedom in just doing and being.” — A. Cliff
Photography assistant Christina Russell, styling assistants Sofia Lai, Ayaka Matsuda