From the Streets to the Stage: Nikki López Spins Records, Holds Space for Queer Youth

By Sameer Rao Aug 07, 2017

Nikki López

City: Philadelphia, PA

Movement: Executive director for Galaei, an advocacy and direct service organization working with queer youth of color

Music: Spins at events that center queer people of color throughout the Philadelphia area as DJ NiLo; also writes and publishes poetry 

Story: Nikki López first saw a turntable when she and her family visited a pawn shop near her Daytona Beach, Florida, home to sell a VCR. By that point, she had only seen turntables in music videos, and the experience launched her on a lifelong exploration of DJing.

But it took leaving her Puerto Rican family for the predominantly White Bryn Mawr College for López to finally step behind the decks at her own parties. "The party scene was just really wack, and students of color on campus didn’t have a space to express themselves and be free," she says. "I was asked to DJ a big party on campus, and I just remember how insane the energy was—more specifically, how excited the students of color there were to hear me spin hip-hop, soca, dancehall, Latin flavors, all of these genres that were important to me. That was my a-ha moment on DJing’s importance to creating space for people of color."

López took that momentum into many other parties at Bryn Mawr, surrounding colleges and nearby Philadelphia, where she lived after graduation. She DJed at recurring community of color-focused events throughout the city, including in the downtown Gayborhood, where she also worked for Galaei as a youth coordinator. That job involved "everything from sexual health counseling to job readiness, skill building and other mentorship support."

López kept spinning in the area even after she moved to Newark, New Jersey, to pursue an MFA in poetry—an outlet that preceded her DJing, but was overtaken by her advocacy and DJing commitments. Her completion of the program three years later roughly coincided with the massacre during a Latinx night at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub—an influential place for her.

"It really took me back, because I went to Pulse," she says. "Pulse was that space that I always wanted to recreate as a DJ."

Combined with local organizing by queer people of color to fight racism in the Gayborhood, the tragedy prompted López to apply for an executive director position at Galaei, which had since moved to Latinx North Philly to better serve its community. She now primarily DJs private and community events, but still imbues her directorial work with the same ethos that guides her performances. Under her leadership, the organization pivoted to more direct action and grassroots involvement.

Her latest gig was a Pulse anniversary BBQ near Galaei’s office. As for the future, she says this: "I would love to set up my life so that I have the freedom to be an advocate, writer and DJ and not be tied down to a 9-5."

Listen to some of López’s mixes below, and read her poems, "Jefferson Street Hustle" and "Of the Splendor In-Between," here: