AN INTERVIEW WITH HEX ORGANIZERS FRANCESCA DOWNING & GRAY HALES
It’s no secret that Asheville is a special place - it’s hard to not be smitten with this town after spending just half a day stomping down a trail off the Parkway, having a meal at one of our many killer restaurants, or bearing witness to our thriving scene of craftspeople after a weekend visit. What makes Asheville a home, though, is the constant, quiet, and ferocious work of our local community organizers, who are committed to fostering tangible, lasting community and working towards equity for all the people who live here.
Hex, a bi-monthly benefit dance party in Asheville, amplifies the voices and honors the work of these local organizations while fundraising for them and creating spaces for community members to feel joyous, safe, and considered.
Started in April of this year, Hex has now held 3 parties and raised thousands of dollars for local organizations like OurVOICE, Tranzmission Prison Project, and Justice for All. Their fourth party, happening tonight (!) is in partnership with Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción (CIMA), who connects, strengthens and organizes communities to take action for immigrants’ rights in Western North Carolina.
I had Francesca Downing and Gray Hales, two of Hex’s organizers, over to my house for tea this week to talk about Hex’s work, building community, and holding space for the people who need it.
Francesca Downing and Gray Hales.
Tell me about Hex! How did it start?
Gray Hales: Hex got started this winter post-Trump inauguration. It was kind of a dream child of Evan Cohen and Cameron Zarrabzadeh - they got together and brought in our group of close friends - and was born out of this feeling of being really disheartened and frustrated. Being like: “I am so saddened by this administration and I want to do something that’s going to have an impact on our Asheville community.” Something that you feel like you can actually work on and give back to. We wanted to do something that was going to be impactful, but also really fun and uplifting and bring people together. Having a dance party is a thing that we enjoy participating in and feel comfortable organizing.
Hex keeps continuing to morph, but right now we’re sticking to partnering with local, Asheville-based organizations. We may eventually branch out to NC as a state or maybe even national or international organizations, but right now it seems more manageable and important to keep it local. We pick an organization every other month that we partner with and donate all the proceeds from the door to, and then we’ve been having local artists start the event off with a performance, and then we have local DJs perform. We’re trying to have it be - as much as it can - a safe space and an inclusive space for queer folks, people of color, and people of all ages. Creating a platform for people in this community.
Francesca Downing: We’re also encouraging new, different kinds of DJs and music to have a place in Asheville. In a small DJ scene run by just a few people, it feels important to have an opportunity to support different DJs, artists, and organizations.
How does Hex compare to other dance parties in Asheville?
FD: I think we’re really offering a different vibe. With Hex, we’ve really been thinking about how to make it so that all kinds of people will feel welcome there and that their interests are also being represented each time by different DJs and artists and such.
GH: One thing I love about Hex is all the collaboration that goes into it. The group of people that we are organizing with - beyond just being my best friends - we all work together really well. We have a lot of different skills that blend well. It’s like a really fun art project! Whether it’s making the films that we do or decorating the space or conceptualizing each dance, it’s really fun.
Some of Hex's organizers gettin' spooky.
I wanted to ask about the other creative components of Hex beyond organizing each party. It seems like a lot of work goes into the promotional materials and decorating, and you also offer things like tinctures and tarot readings.
GH: Yeah, Evan and I have been making the tinctures together and coming up with different potions. We made a chillout potion, a love potion, and a grounding potion and we always have had those available at the event itself - either for people to purchase or to use if they feel like they need some sort of care. We found a space to sell them at Heart of Gold Tattoo in Hendersonville - our friend Kerry owns that shop.
There are other creative components - we make the tinctures, videos, posters, decorations. This time, two of our organizers are doing a DJ set together - Cameron and Monster Truck are performing as Heavy Charms.
FD: We try to come up with a concept or have a theme for each Hex.
GH: Right. The last party was eclipse themed because it was happening around that time, and obviously this one is very much Halloweeny.
FD: There’s also some serious witchy vibes - that’s where the tinctures come in - and "casting a hex against evil forces." And also trying to throw a big dance party, but also making a place for people who are anxious and maybe don’t like dance parties or are overwhelmed, to still be a part of it.
GH: Yeah, that’s definitely something that we've made efforts toward: having things that happen on the earlier side. So if dance parties aren’t your thing but you still want to give back to your community, you can pay the $5 entry fee and come in and see an aerialist perform, or see a magic show, or see a hip-hop performance, or get your tarot cards read.
It’s been really cool because it’s become a space in Asheville where you really do see a variety of people. There are people who are under 21, people who are in their 60s, people of color, queer folks. For the most part, the vibe for every single one has been really joyous.
FD: We’ve also had a few people reach out to us who don’t live here who want to start their own versions of Hex in cities where they live. We have a good friend who lives in Durham who’s planning on starting one there this winter, and another person in San Antonio, Texas who found us on Instagram who wants to use Hex’s model to start a party there. It’s not like we’re the first people to ever do this by any means, but I think people get excited about fun stuff.
GH: Yeah! That’s all we’re really going for - that and making a bunch of money for good folks. The most we’ve raised is $2,000 in a night which is really rad, and we’re exploring ways to make more than that, since the Mothlight’s capacity kind of caps how much we can make in a night. We’ve talked about maybe doing more promotion before the events and we printed t-shirts at Lightning Bolt Ink to have another way of raising money. But now we’re making a decent stack of cash and it feels really good to go to whoever we are working with and hand that over after the event.
FD: It is really well thought out, the question of which organizations we work with - it’s important to us to know that they’ll be able to use the money well.
GH: We are very intentional about who we work with. As we organize each party, we think about which issues are most pressing in our communities and who would be best for us to work with. For this party and the last party, we’ve worked with organizations whose focus is immigration. Because Hex is better known now, we’ve had people approaching us and asking us if we’d be able to throw benefits for them, so we’re having to think about partnerships in a different way.
It seems like it’s becoming an important connection or resource for people who are new to Asheville to get acquainted with the organizations. Could y’all talk a little bit about making and holding space and what that looks like for Hex - both at the events and outside of events?
FD: Trying as hard as we can to make Hex a safe space is a really important part of holding space and putting intention into creating something that feels accessible to people. Trying to create a way in which we’re actively working with community partners that have existed here and that support people who live here and are affected by these issues here.
GH: Right, people who are affected by this administration specifically. Our first event was in partnership with OurVOICE because, at the time, Trump’s budget was threatening to cut the Violence against Women Act, and OurVOICE would’ve directly lost funding because of that. That was going to affect a fuck-ton of people. So it was really important for us to work with them and give money back to them at that time.
FD: And communities that exist here that have always existed here. There have always been immigrant communities and activist groups that have existed here and they’re an important part of Asheville. Because Asheville is attracting a lot of new, we want to work with organizations that have been here, working for people who are a longstanding part of this community.
GH: Something we thought about in hosting Hex at the Mothlight was wanting to have it at a space in West Asheville. So many other dance parties and events take place downtown; having something in West Asheville, where so many of us live and work, was a way for us to bring people together in the neighborhood where we live.
One thing with this month’s Hex event that I’m really excited about is Anthony (A Mac) performing - he grew up in Asheville and has lived here his whole life and is a hip-hop performer, but Friday will be the first time he’s ever performed in Asheville!
FD: It’s awesome to hold space for people who don’t usually have the opportunity to perform.
GH: ...And to have this space for people who live here, people who grew up here who want to perform who are artists. Having this as a platform where it’s like, if this is your art and you want to share...here you go. It is something I’m grappling with, being a white person organizing this, wanting to hold space for people of color and artists of color without tokenizing them. How do I lift you up or hold space for you without tokenizing you?
FD: I do think Hex is at a point where people feel comfortable reaching out.
GH: I also think the group of people we organize with is such an array of all different kinds of identities - brown folks, queer folks, gender fluid folks.
FD: Yeah! Definitely. And just participating in what feels like our own version of community.
GH: Yeah, I think that’s why we stay. Or why we leave and come back…
FD: Which I don’t think is necessarily how people perceive community to be here.
What does community here mean to you?
FD: In the queer community here, there is so much community and support that I think is really beautiful. The art community I’m a part of feels really fulfilling to me - which is mostly just making art with my friends. I think about art all the time, and it’s because of my friends and collaborating with them. Almost none of us ever show it or sell it, which is kind of cool!
GH: For me, the people who I think of as very close in my community are people who are having to hustle really hard to make money, to make rent, but who - in pretty much every other spare moment - are either collaborating, or making art, or have this side thing that they’re working on or working towards. If I wanted to do anything, like go do a photoshoot, I could call up so many people who would just say “Yes! I support you. I want to help you out and be a part of it.”
I think that in Asheville, there are a lot of small communities of close knit friends or people who you see and like their stuff on the internet and maybe say hi when you’re in public - or don’t - and I think that events like Hex have a really beautiful way of bringing those people together.