After hours revelers in New York City know Sebastian Villa well: under the moniker Boyyyish, the half-Mexican, half-Vietnamese DJ has thrown parties alongside some of titans of queer nightlife including Ladyfag and Ty Sunderland. With regular stints at top clubs like Le Bain and Q Club, he’s also been a driving force for Asian-American representation within nightlife. But the 36-year-old didn’t intend to start a professional career as a DJ: in a past life, he was a restaurateur serving up some of the best banh mi sandwiches in New York.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas to a Mexican immigrant father and Vietnamese refugee mother, Villa says he always felt close to his Vietnamese side — thanks largely to the food. Though Vietnamese ingredients at the time were hard to find in Corpus Christi, which is 60% Hispanic, Villa remembers his mother driving the family to Houston’s Little Saigon enclave to buy the essentials, as well as Vietnamese sandwiches to bring home and freeze.
“Although I see myself as equal parts Mexican and Vietnamese, I know Vietnamese food best,” Villa explains. “I never learned to speak Spanish or Vietnamese because my parents literally had to speak to each other in English. The only time I ever heard my mom speak Vietnamese was on the phone with her family. But since my mom controlled the kitchen, we always ate traditional Vietnamese food.”
In 2009 after graduating from college, Villa was working as a manager at a Thai restaurant in Ithaca, New York. When a space across town opened up, he jumped at the chance to open his own restaurant. His first venture was a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich concept called Meo, which would become a smash success. Following on the heels of that success, he opened another venue called Mexeo, serving Tex-Mex dishes like burritos and taquitos. “At Meo, I did everything, from the sourcing to the butchering,” Villa remembers fondly. “I even learned how to cure meat from scratch to make classic nem.
The restaurants closed in 2014, when Villa relocated to New York City. Having DJs on and off throughout college, he was familiar with nightlife, and took up gigs as an occasional party host. That’s when he met Sunderland, the queer nightlife king of New York City. “Ty had seen me out at parties, making the rounds and hanging out in the DJ booth,” Villa recalls. “He knew I was friends with a lot of DJs, and that I was super passionate about music. So when he started looking for DJs for his own parties, he reached out. I just needed that extra push.”
Since that time, Boyyyish has become a household name on the club circuit, counting Sunderland as well as the legendary Suzanne Bartsch as mentors and frequent collaborators. This month, Villa debuted his first-ever independently produced party, where he not only performed, but curated the rest of the program.
Frustrated by the lack of diversity in nightlife, Villa describes his ethos as inclusive. “I want to be intentional about how I book queer, non-binary, and BIPOC talent to create spaces that are more diverse — nightlife can be very, very white,” Villa explains, “Even when it comes to gay nightlife, it’s just white men DJ-ing 90% of the time. It’s assumed when you’re on a DJ lineup that you’re a man. Why? I want to create a community that looks different from what is already out there.”
As Villa’s presence within New York City nightlife flourishes, he says he’s likewise more connected to his Vietnamese identity than ever before. “I’ve recently made a lot of Asian-American and specifically Vietnamese-American friends,” Villa explains. “It’s really nice because I’ve never had that community in my life before. It’s been interesting to talk to them about my heritage and growing up Vietnamese because a lot of them also don’t speak Vietnamese so they feel disconnected in the same way.”
Villa credits his identity as a queer, biracial American to helping him think outside the box as an artist and musician. “I’ve always had this ‘identity crisis’ as a DJ — but also just being a person of color,” Villa says. “I know what it’s like to have people make assumptions about what you are like. So when it comes to my sound, I know I need to follow who I am and create something that’s mine even if it doesn’t fit neatly into a box like techno, disco, or pop.”
Though he hasn’t been back to Vietnam in recent years, Villa says he’s pleasantly surprised by the evolution of Vietnam’s electronic and dance music landscape — and would consider visiting in the future. “I would love to go back to Vietnam. No one from my family has ever even talked about it, so it was never part of the plan. But I just discovered this collective called Nhac Gay and they’re awesome. So it would be cool to see that.”
As for his relationship with Vietnamese food? Villa says he still makes traditional dishes for himself on a daily basis. “It’s just for me now, but I still make lots of traditional food pretty much every day,” he admits, with a smile. “My favorite dish is goi cuon (spring rolls) — it’s just the best, most fresh way to feel full.”