Gal Wine: The Secret History of Sistermatic
In the mid-80s, Black lesbians in Britain were isolated – shut out from both white lesbian culture and Black women’s spaces. Sick of it all, two women took matters into their own hands and created a pioneering space for affirmation, refuge… and maximum fun.
“A dinner party!” Eddie Lockhart and Yvonne Taylor exclaim in unison when asked how they first met.
That night, loosely remembered as taking place “sometime early 1985”, would prove fateful. The two DJs shared an instant bond which, the following year, would culminate in the forming of Sistermatic, the UK’s first Black lesbian-run sound system. The pair’s deep connection is evident as soon as we sink into the sofas at BRXTN Village Studios. Throughout our conversation about their trailblazing club night, Lockhart, now 62, and Taylor, 63, often land on similar ideas and excitedly chatter over one another, Taylor’s playful sense of adventure complementing Lockhart’s steely, determined energy. (In true Caribbean elder fashion, when I first greet Lockhart, she quickly appraises me before responding, “How you know my name?”). “We’re very different,” chuckles Taylor. “We are,” agrees Lockhart, “but we always make it work.”
This unique dynamic between the pair metabolised to create something bigger than themselves. “Eddie was a powerhouse and I just followed her,” Taylor laughs. It was at that dinner party in a Kennington estate where Lockhart first put forward her plans for a new kind of party. “There was a fire in my belly – I wanted to change what was happening in the lesbian scene. I didn’t like the music or ambience, and everyone was very white,” says Lockhart, who also goes by DJ Shineye. The kind of music she and Taylor were raised on – Black genres like soul, reggae, lovers’ rock and ska – was nowhere to be heard on London dancefloors. And if it was, more often than not it was accompanied by a sea of white faces. By the time the plates had been cleared, Lockhart, Taylor and two other Black women – Lorna Edwards and Sharon Lee – had decided to create their own sound system.
Jamaican sound system culture was a defining pillar of Taylor and Lockhart’s childhoods. Originating in the Caribbean island’s capital of Kingston in the 1950s, by the 60s and 70s, sound system culture – characterised by its mobile DIY speaker stacks and the impeccable music tastes of its selectors – had migrated with the hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans arriving in the UK, and regular dancehall and reggae parties, known as shubeens, took hold. “The music brought joy,” Taylor says, her face lighting up at the memory. “Suddenly, people who spent the whole week working at a job where they’ve probably been treated like something on the bottom of somebody’s foot, say: ‘Friday or Saturday, we’re having a party.’ It felt good to make Black people happy.”
“I wanted to change what was happening in the lesbian scene. I didn’t like the music or ambience, and everyone was very white”
Perched at the top of the stairs of her family home as a child, Taylor would take it all in. Bodies slick with sweat, wining to the rhythms of dancehall and rocksteady; drinks passed; puffs taken. One night, she got caught observing by her mum’s cousin, who brought her downstairs. “That was the first time I’d ever danced with the adults at one of these parties, and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is for me. This is what’s going to keep me sane.’”
This sense of freedom and acceptance for women who, as Lockhart says, “looked like me”, was the essence of Sistermatic. By the early 80s, Black lesbians in the UK were under siege. Black communities were routinely harassed and brutalised by the police, struggled to secure safe housing under discriminatory policies, and had to fight against an education system that targeted Black – often Caribbean – children. Worse yet: within the Black liberation spaces that sought to change these conditions, Black lesbians were demonised.
Black women’s caucuses, like the Brixton Black Women’s Group, dithered over whether to lend their venues to Black lesbians, influenced by the AIDS moral panic, an increasingly homophobic climate stoked by the media, and the steadfast belief that lesbianism was a bourgeois white import that had no place in Black communities. Places where Black lesbians could come together, without censure or fear of attack, were few and far between. In a previous article about Sistermatic, club regular Glynnis describes the difficulties that Black gay women faced when trying to establish a social life: “When I came out, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. The straight Black community didn’t know how to behave, didn’t want to accept or be comfortable with my sexuality, which made it difficult for me to feel good about the events I used to go to.”
So when Sistermatic made the South London Women’s Centre on Brixton’s Acre Lane its base for their monthly club nights, many disenfranchised Black queer women flocked to it. Relentless flyering and word-of-mouth promotion carried the news of this novel Black lesbian-run affair – alongside Taylor’s own creative self-promotion techniques. A frequent raver, she would spread the word at events, advertising that if you were a lesbian and wanted to go to a “proper party”, then you needn’t look any further. Today, neither of them have any of these flyers in their archives; a picture of one advertising a Sistermatic fundraising party in 1989 is a rare, ephemeral reminder of their dogged efforts.
The soulful sounds of The Uniques, Beres Hammond and The Techniques beckoned dancers into the South London Women’s Centre. With a sliding-scale admission fee of between £2 and £4, reducing access barriers was integral to Sistermatic’s work. “We made it cheap for people. We’ve run dances where it was free for entry, [making money] from the food and drinks,” Lockhart explains. Once inside, the shebeen was anyone’s to dominate, made up predominantly of Black women losing themselves to sets by Black women DJs. When the night ended for ravers, Sistermatic duties would continue well into the next day as they worked to leave the centre spotless. “You come in, you find it clean. It doesn’t matter whether it was 11 o’clock the next morning,” Lockhart asserts.
These values shaped the club nights, which were often a place of refuge. “We needed a space for women who didn’t have the finances to get a babysitter. So [we created an environment where] they could bring children,” explains Lockhart. While the parties roared into the early hours, children were taken care of in a crèche upstairs by a qualified childminder, easing the minds of their raving parents just a floor below.
But it wasn’t just young children that Sistermatic carved out space for. “We had teenagers running away from home due to homophobia, being attacked by their mothers, fathers and other children. They needed somewhere to go and knew we were doing something,” Lockhart says. Her demeanour, as she explains how Sistermatic welcomed young queer people who were homeless or at risk, is matter-of-fact. Sistermatic is for the community, after all. “A lot of them we still know, and they’ve remembered that.”
“We were in a room with S&M dykes, feminists from the left, feminists from the right – because there were some of them”
Today, the pair are proud of the many accomplishments of Sistermatic. They never encountered any conflicts at their nights; they played at other women’s centres and clubs; and were invited down to protests like the annual Black women-led march, Million Women Rise, in London. Taylor recalls when Sistermatic was invited to play at the 1989 Pride festival in south London’s Kennington Park – an event that still makes the pair beam some 35 years later. “That was the first [event] to have a Black tent, let alone have two Black lesbians DJing,” Lockhart says, proudly. The variety of women who came through the door across a decade of Sistermatic club nights has also left a lasting impression. “We were in a room with S&M dykes, feminists from the left, feminists from the right – because there were some of them,” Taylor says wryly. “And white people who would never have been in a space like this, let alone seen Black people in a club, so it was a big thing.” For Black queer women, Sistermatic was life-affirming; not only did the dancers see themselves reflected in the room and music selection, but here, they were a majority.
But all good things must come to an end, and for Sistermatic, that came in 1995. “[The centre] was about to close and I think we’d run our course,” Taylor explains. She was seeking more reliable work, whereas Lockhart continued to DJ, but opted for house parties instead. When the Noise Act was introduced in 1996 – with the potential for seizure and forfeiture of noise-making equipment – Lockhart ventured back into clubs, while Taylor, after a five-year lapse, began promoting queer spaces in London again. But the Sistermatic era had largely come to a close – until now.
On 17 February, Sistermatic’s first party in almost 30 years took place at Market Row in Brixton Village, in collaboration with local collective Nite Dykez. Both women slightly groan when I ask them in advance of the party, happening during LGBTQ+ History Month, how they feel about playing in Brixton almost 40 years after they started Sistermatic. “You know what, I find it quite interesting,” Lockhart says. “It’s probably going to be very challenging, knowing full well that there are still a lot of [hostile] people I dealt with as a younger Black lesbian still about.”
There’s also the fact that sound systems emerged in opposition to public radio censorship and the discrimination of Jamaica’s working class. The pair now return to a Brixton ravaged by gentrification and the Black Caribbean population across the borough of Lambeth in decline. Establishments like Brixton Village and Pop Brixton – both filled with trendy restaurants, bars and shops – remain a source of contention among the area’s local communities.
There’s a hope that the party will entice Brixton locals and Nite Dykez’s audience of younger Black queer people. In particular, Lockhart and Taylor hope this event will bring younger and older Black queer people together on the dancefloor, moving to riddims that transcend time, like Gregory Isaacs’ chart hit Night Nurse or Chaka Demus and Pliers’ decade-defining dancehall banger Gal Wine.
As we wrap our conversation, we all acknowledge the lightness in the air. For three Black lesbians, spanning different generations, to sit together and examine Black lesbian histories feels transformative. So much of what forms the slim official record of Black lesbian history in Britain emphasises political organising, rather than how the community lived, loved and whiled away their free time. Sistermatic’s story, instead, offers a crucial glimpse into the social lives of Black queer women in Britain – women who have been (and continue to be) systemically trapped in precarious conditions due to their race, sexuality, gender and class – and how they designed a sanctuary that enriched their communities. “I knew I could change [the lesbian scene] – that I needed to change it,” says Lockhart defiantly. “And there was nothing in the world that was going to stop me from doing that.”