Listening to Dion McKenzie speak is somewhere between having a spiritual experience and receiving a pep talk—that is, if either one of those experiences was happening on the dance floor. The 34-year-old DJ, producer, musician, party promoter, and designer—who’s better known to New York City nightlife as Tygapaw—is a veritable patron saint of good vibes, with the unshakeable belief that everyone deserves the space to let loose, feel free, and dance. It’s the reason why McKenzie started making music over a decade ago and, perhaps more significantly, why she started Fake Accent, a party-turned-creative hub with the goal of creating an inclusive and celebratory space for queer people of color like herself to go out and have a good time.
“It started as an idea, a party,” McKenzie tells me with a laugh from her sun- and plant-filled Crown Heights apartment. “I just did it all myself in the beginning, not even thinking twice. Looking back at the journey now, I’m like, ‘Wow, what a fucking ride!’ That shit was crazy knowing that it’s not easy to start things in New York.”
McKenzie herself can’t exactly pin down when or how Fake Accent, a party that she began throwing solo five years ago, garnered the kind of frenzied, faithful following it has, but, as she explains to me with her characteristic spirituality, she attributes it to hard work, instinct, and “something embedded that my ancestors left behind”—especially since she had had no prior experience in the competitive, often cutthroat nightlife arena.
“I think it’s a lot of my island tenacity, my confidence within,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘What do I have to lose?’ I’m a creative person and I really believe in what I’m doing. There needs to be a space for marginalized people. I’d always been interested in throwing my own events and creating space for people like me who feel that they might not necessarily fit in heteronormative spaces.”
McKenzie’s desire for a safe, inclusive space to express herself was born out of deeply personal experiences. Born and bred in Mandeville, Jamaica, she was always interested in music but says that the culture around nightlife was deeply patriarchal. When she moved to New York to study graphic design at Parsons, it provided an opportunity for her to see women at work in music and nightlife in a way that she could participate. In the near two decades since, McKenzie not only completed her degree, dabbled in making and producing music, and became a celebrated DJ, but helped steer Fake Accent from a party to a collective and back to its roots as a harbinger of nightlife good vibes with the creation of a new sub-party, No Bad Mind.
McKenzie created No Bad Mind this year as a monthly response to both personal and political challenges that she’s faced and witnessed in recent times.
“No Bad Mind is a response to how I was feeling, with the temperament of nightlife and how things were getting with some of that toxic energy that capitalism breeds—that dog-eat-dog mentality,” she says. “It’s been a way to remember what we are doing this for; that we can come together and feel good at a time when we really need to celebrate each other and our diversity and feel comfortable with the idea that we can live together and be different. Sometimes, when really catastrophic things happen in the world, beautiful things can develop.”
McKenzie’s creation of this party as counter space for those who are feeling othered or oppressed is also an act of political resistance as an immigrant and a queer person of color in the current climate.
“A major part of what drives me, even though it’s scary to talk about it, is that for a portion of my time here, I was undocumented. It almost broke me to a point because that’s when I began to understand the dynamics of America in regards to Black and brown people. We really exist in the shadows, and it was disheartening. I had so many dreams when I came to America, as all immigrants do. We come here to fulfill our dreams, and then when you realize there are systemic things that are rigged against you to inhibit you from pursuing those dreams or not getting to actualize them, that’s the most heartbreaking element.”
For McKenzie, the conversations around immigration are especially urgent right now. She’s using her platform to urge people to take political action in what they believe in and to re-think the way they undocumented individuals as well as green card-carrying immigrants in the U.S.
“Even though I’ve dedicated 16 years of my life to contributing to America by paying taxes and being an upstanding citizen and building cultural platforms that mean something, to feel that my work doesn’t matter because I’m an immigrant or Black, that’s the part that’s really rough,” she says. “There’s agency here that we can feel empowered, even though we’re not Americans. We contribute to the building of America and we just want to be respected like any other person in the world.”
While the heaviness of the current state of affairs might weigh the average person down, for McKenzie, it’s just motivation to manifest her plans for the future. She’s hoping to apply for citizenship next year and, in the same time frame, she’ll be starting her own record label under Fake Accent. She’ll also be celebrating 16 years in New York City.
“I owe so much of my growth to New York, my toughness and my resilience to this place, and my heart—because even though it has beaten me up and I’ve gone through ups and downs, ebbs and flows, I’m still standing,” she says. “It is good for people who never give up. Making New York my home was one of the best decisions I made for myself and the fact that I’ve survived says something.”
Shop her style