By Terrance Turner
About five years ago, Sean Royal, born in Houston and raised on its southwest side, began a path that would lead him to one of Houston’s biggest stages. He’d always had a passion for music engineering, but it blossomed when he became involved with a group called (He) motions. “It was a group of black LGBT men that came together to help build better brothers in the community,” Royal says. During group functions, Royal would bring CDs or connect his laptop to speakers, going through music files to find suitable songs for the events. While talking to his friends, Adonis and Joseph, both suggested that he become a DJ.
The next year involved research on what programs and equipment were needed. Afterward, Sean Royal got an opportunity that he has never forgotten. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was at a Swagger Sunday event when I was introduced to MC Zip and Lady Barbara,” he recalls. “At the time, they were looking for a DJ for True Colors when it was off Westheimer and Chimney Rock.” (MC Zip and Lady Barbara were the owners of the True Colors nightclub, which is now closed.) A mention by one of his friends sealed the deal: “Adonis had dropped my name as an up-and-coming DJ, and of course Zip and Barbara offered me the shot. I deejayed at True Colors for about six to seven months when I was picked up by the Haute Revolution team to work at Haute Lounge.”
The new gig brought Royal a new audience. “This was really my first time deejaying for an urban male crowd,” he says. From them, he learned how to assess what kind of music people would want to hear, “whether it be some twerk bounce or a smooth ’90s groove.” After a year and a half, Royal met Alexe’us Paris, who was looking for a DJ to work at a Sunday drag brunch at Bayou City Bar and Grill. Eventually, that led to an opportunity to spin at “Trade Thursdays” at Club XL. Royal also credits Paris, a club promoter, with helping him land the job at XL, the sister club of Bayou City. Those experiences all pointed Sean Royal to a new moniker—DJ Panda. “Panda has been my nickname for the longest,” he says. “I was given that by my friends because everyone said I reminded them of Kung-Fu Panda due to my happy-go-lucky attitude towards everything.”
Panda soon landed another surprising new opportunity. The St. Hope Foundation is a nonprofit community healthcare organization that, according to its website, is the largest HIV testing entity for BET’s College Road Tour “Rap-It-Up” campaign. (The campaign targets minorities at historically black colleges and universities.) After deejaying for two separate events for the foundation—one in New Orleans, another in Houston for an employee appreciation event—DJ Panda was asked to spin on their float in the Houston Pride parade. He remembers that “my face lit up like a Christmas tree and I damn near screamed, ‘Yes!’”
Royal had always wanted to perform in front of a large crowd, but never expected to play for one of that size. “I still remember it so vividly, like it happened yesterday,” he reflects. “It was like 100 degrees, and here I [was] setting up three 200-pound speakers, my mixer, laptop, and mics on top of a float. I was scared at first because the system kept overloading the converters.” Royal prayed that he wouldn’t lose power and that the equipment wouldn’t fall over.
But once the parade started, things went off without a hitch. The event was meaningful to Royal for both personal and community reasons. “I wasn’t just representing myself; I was representing the LGBT DJs out here who grind every single day just to be noticed, just to have a chance to DJ for giant crowds, just for that one opportunity to break into the business.” Secondly, the historical context of the parade had an emotional effect. “With the tragedy in Orlando, I know many people were there to show that they would not allow their fear to replace their pride,” he says. “It literally brought tears to my eyes to see people so happy and free. To see so many people in the crowd wearing ‘Remember Pulse’ T-shirts and ribbons really made me think of all [our] brothers and sisters that were taken away too soon. It motivated me to mix better than I ever had before. This set was for them.
“As we made our way to the front of the main stage, I remember dropping the beat to ‘Formation’ and the crowd went wild!” Royal recalls. As he engaged with the crowd and the spotlight shone upon him, he felt what he now describes as bliss. “For that one hour, I was able to bring happiness through the sound of music to almost 700,000 people.” That feeling of happiness and self-love is one that he wants fellow members of the community to share in as well. “I tell our LGBT youth now, ‘Just be you, don’t be ashamed of who you are,” he says. “F**k people’s opinion of you—as long as you are living right and you are happy, that’s what matters.”