Nik Ceo sets her own path in Dallas’ queer music scene, creating a unique outlet for burgeoning new artists

SHARP-DRESSED STUD | As the head of Illicit Life Entertainment, Nik Ceo opens doors to LGBT musicians with a recording label and talent development. (Photos courtesy Paul S. Williams)

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer

The summer heat was on the cusp of exploding on Memorial Day weekend when Nik Ceo’s monthly live music event, the Moscato Music Lounge, got under way.

At Otaru Restaurant and Lounge in Addison, the evening sun still blared as a steady stream of people wandered in for a night of nosh and music. Ceo has spent two years building this audience — first by hosting the event in her apartment’s community lounge while giving away free glasses of moscato (hence the name). But by the look of the filled tables, the reserved signs and the packed bar on May 27, it was no longer an underground gathering of friends. This had become a Big Deal.

“I had been wanting to do something because I wasn’t seeing us out there,” says Ceo, a 40-year-old Dallas native. “There were no live music showcases except in straight bars. So I created something on my own.”

As people talked between performances (sometimes during sets as well), artists like Hunter the One, Shay Jae and Cris Dee (who is Ceo’s wife) performed to an eager and receptive crowd. The music was as diverse as the people gathered: everything from neo-soul to hip-hop to urban folk. And the audience was as mixed between gay and straight as the artists.

“I’ve been blessed to find a plethora of gay-friendly straight artists and venues,” Ceo says. “It’s that connecting that matters really, but I push Moscato as an LGBT outlet. Sometimes it’s a performer’s first time. I’m happy to open that door to new musicians regardless of who they are. But it’s also important that this has to be a big thing outside of Oak Lawn.”

Although not all her acts are queer, Ceo — who married Dee in Las Vegas in November (the couple will celebrate three years together later this month) — clearly has a passion for working within the gay community.

Depending on the calendar, Ceo cements one Sunday night each month that’s all hers. As the head of the indie label Illicit Life Entertainment, Ceo has taken on the responsibility of nurturing and promoting musicians — especially LGBT ones. And she’s doing it not in Deep Ellum or the gayborhood, but in a low-key suburb.

It hasn’t been easy. Trying to make strides in the gayborhood was frustrating for Ceo. Audiences there weren’t prepared for unknown singers performing their own music. Clubs where she tried to book her artists scoffed because they had built-in audiences for their regular DJs and familiar bands.

It was a learning experience, as Ceo realized she needed to prepare audiences. That uncovered a healthy desire among LGBT music fans for original work. Her fan base depends on a Ceo show to showcase independent music — and more importantly, they support it.

“That’s the most awesome thing,” she says. “I do wish there was more of a music scene overall — I don’t feel entirely uplifted by the mainstream community. I think if we had more showcases like Moscato, more people would be open to encouraging local music.”

She speaks from experience. From school choirs to a lesbian singing trio in the late ‘90s, Ceo herself is an accomplished performer. But she didn’t crave the limelight; her ambition lay in developing others. During the day, Nikole Harper makes a living as a network engineer, but when the lights go down, Nik Ceo takes over. It’s all very Puff Daddy …. and it’s working.

“I was in a group called Triple Threat and we dropped a CD that did pretty well. Afterward, people wanted to hook up with us,” she says. “Then I started connecting with people who could sing, rap and play instruments and recruited them to work with and formed the label from there.”

Since 2005, Illicit Life has dropped a small catalogue of R&B and hip-hop releases. But she has morphed into a mini music mogul of late, focusing Illicit Life on talent-scouting and leading back to her Moscato events.

LADY IN HER LIFE | Nik Ceo calls her wife Cris Dee the ‘idea genius’ behind her showcases.

Local musician SuZanne Kimbrell also sought to develop local queer music with Twist Dallas, but she’s put the show on hiatus to finish her debut album and rack up tour dates on the West Coast. That leaves Ceo as one of the few showcases in town for original music by LGBT artists. Kimbrell is familiar with the hard work involved in such an enterprise, and is glad to see another outlet.

“I think it’s great to hear about another showcase and it needs to be done,” she says. “Music is so powerful and the platforms for issues brought through music can be powerful. So if she’s bringing out the gays, then rock on!”

Ceo admits she couldn’t do it on her own. Where Ceo touts more of the business savvy to Illicit Life, she leaves most of the creative responsibility to Dee.

“She’s the idea genius. She somehow comes up with everything I can’t think of,” Ceo says. “We bounce ideas off each other, but she’s so awesome at putting it together and elevating what I envision.”

“Coordinating events comes naturally,” says Dee. “I take Nik’s big picture, give her my ideas and we make it come together successfully.”

Artists agree. At the most recent Moscato event, Keisha Hunter brought her own style of soul and hip-hop to the stage. Evoking a bit of Nicki Minaj’s oomph with a lot of Janelle Monae’s swagger, Hunter, who performs as Hunter the One, worked the spotlight as if it was her headlining night at the House of Blues. For her, Moscato has been a springboard to getting her music to a broader audience.

“I love that it moves to different locations, and when Nik calls I come — simple as that,” Hunter says. “My fan base has increased, I’ve sold merchandise and they had the nerve to throw me a birthday party at the January MML. I’ve never not had a great time.”

With a demanding day job, Ceo juggles a lot to keep Moscato going. Planning the monthly events involves both scouting acts and booking venues (although Moscato is usually in Addison, it’s not always at Otaru). She’s made some adjustments to keep on track and to keep the label functioning, and many of her expenses are out-of-pocket.

“The money we get from the music events goes back into the label to use for the next event but it is expensive to book,” she says. “I’m trying to do stuff for myself and Cris so I decided not to sign anymore artists. Instead, I’m working on development with the ones signed with us already. That’s what I love. I think being a talent scout for a major label would be a cool thing to pursue.”

In the meantime, Moscato travels to Houston on July 14 as the beginning of her outreach to other cities and artists. She wants to include video production into the mix. Ambition clearly overrides all else.

“I just want a place for queer artists to be able to be themselves,” she says. “I want to give them that spot where they don’t have to craft songs differently for the sake of the audience or fear being out. I think it’s important to have this outlet and take it as far as I can. Doors will open for them. I know it.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 6, 2012.