In Brooklyn one night in May I was treated to my very first performance from Monstah Black, an artist who defies categorization, but whose show I would characterize as part-rock concert, part-live art theatre, with a black queer bent. Despite my awe I managed to divert my eyes long enough to dwell on the audience, mostly avant-hip black Brooklyners, but with two notable exceptions: indie filmmaker and artist Hanifah Walidah and, looking a touch out of place, internationally renowned artist Chuck Close.
I started thinking that something rather trendy was going on. Monstah Black seemed to be just one of a several black artists, performers and personalities working today trafficking in what he calls “genderfuckery.” (Though maybe I was just flush from an unusually art-glamorous day at internationally renowned artist David Salle‘s salon with such art world luminaries as Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman and Eva Respini in attendance!).
Has black queer (and, in many cases, black androgyny) come back in style?
Well, first, there are probably three immediate responses to that question, depending on who’s reading this: 1) What do you mean by “back,” it never left!, 2) What do you mean by “back,” it’s never in!, 3) What do you mean by “black androgyny” or “queerness”?
I won’t respond to 2) because the charge lacks merit. I’ll respond to 1) in a bit. Identifying the starting/stopping points of cultural trends is futile. My question is more of a provocation. It seems to me, for those who are aware, it has become easier than ever to access images of black artists playing with the Holy Trinity of cultural studies: race, gender and sexuality, my rather expansive definition for “androgyny.” (A better word might be “queer.” Ah, language.)
WHO IS HOT TODAY**
The list is small but mighty. We have Kalup Linzy, pictured above with James Franco, who has over the past several years become the toast of the art and fashion worlds, headlining lush events, booking major museum shows, getting major fellowships, collaborating with major designers and, well, James Franco. Monstah Black appears to have amassed a loyal following in New York and rising visibility by the press. We should all remember personality Andre J, who a few years ago made the cover of Paris Vogue and continues to produce. Though decidedly less queer, out artist Kehinde Wiley had made a name for himself deconstructing masculinity…and selling sneakers. Andre Leon Talley‘s celebrity is blossoming, becoming an obsession of the gossipy press, most notably Gawker; his America’s Next Top Model colleague, Miss J, isn’t doing too bad either.
Along with Kalup Linzy, a number of these personalities maintain a strong presence online. Much has been written on B. Scott, who is remaking celebrity online and has been working hard by blogging, hosting his own radio show, vlogging on YouTube, and appearing on various television shows. My students keyed me into KingsleyBitch, the 19-year old who has amassed over 100,000 subscribers on YouTube in less than a year by kvetching, vlog-style whenever he feels like it. It’s the kid of transgression endemic to YouTube, the kind that Mr. Pregnant, who is a kind of queer figure, takes to the next level. New York-based performer Britney Houston moved from online to offline, making a name for herself doing music video remakes on YouTube then making music and performing live in NYC, much like Monstah Black and Kalup Linzy have, but with more pop. Online, black gay narratives are another small but mighty bunch, including Christopher Street, Drama Queenz, Lovers and Friends, Anacostia and Buppies.*
WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE
We have been here before. Some would say we have never left, and they might be right. (Warning: really sketchy and incomplete history to follow).
The black gay and/or queer sexuality has always been with us. Since the 19th century, it has been increasingly public. There is, for instance, the fairly well-documented case of Peter Sewally, an ostensible cross-dresser arrested and tried for his “monstrous” behavior” (much of GLBT history is accessed through police records). As scholar Tavia Nyong’o writes: “Sewally’s monstrousness lay both in his evident race and in his shocking conflation of the gender binary around which the dynamics of middle class propriety pivoted.” Black queer as boogeyman.
There’s an interesting footnote in the Sewally tale which has him discussing how, in the black community at the time, his gender-bending was quite accepted at the balls. Yes, balls are a decades-old tradition. Allen Drexel writes how the balls were big, community-wide affair. Drag balls were quite public and often officially allowed – mostly because they often took place on Halloween, etc., specifically in the black community. The balls were covered by the mainstream black press and engaged a diverse section of the South Side community. Talk to many old black gays today and they’ll confirm black queer/cross-dressing/genderfuck has been a perennial staple in black performance.
To mainstream America, music, from Little Richard to disco in the 1970s and its club scene carrying over in the 1980s, brought black male diva worship and flamboyance to the masses, or at least urban aesthetes (let’s not forget Tutti Frutti was whitewashed). New York in the 1980s brought us the likes of RuPaul who genderfucked her way to the top in just a few years. Black queer writers (Audre Lorde) and filmmakers (Marlon Riggs) were producing groundbreaking art. Heightened visibility brought Paris is Burning, and we all know the 1990s, with the dominance of Ru, was as black queer as any other time.
So the pivotal question is “why now?” If there’s something special about this moment, there has to be a reason to explain it all.
It’s become a pat answer, but certainly the rise of new media — I know, I’m sorry for bringing it up! — has contributed to the heightened visibility of these narratives, at least for those, like myself, who are looking. The proliferation of blogs, vlogs, Facebooks, Twitters, websites, film festivals, cable channels, etc. has given performers an increasing number of venues for publicity and distribution.
Culturally speaking, I think it’s certainly possible the desire to consume in niches, a process beginning in earnest in the 1990s, has led people to marginal corners of cultural production, the same impulse driving TV watching to cable.
At the same time, I think a small group of people are now becoming dissatisfied with the relatively cookie-cutter predominately white gay representations we see on television and film (and even on television, we are somewhat far away from the mid-2000s of Noah’s Arc, Will & Grace, The L Word, and Queer as Folk). Black queer might just be fresh, especially in the the NY-LA epicenters.
Is there anything that differentiates black queer performances today from those of yesteryear? I’m not an expert. However there are a few interesting cultural threads I see running through the examples I’ve been noticing.
I’d have to do more reading on this, but it seems there is a consistent pull (and always has been) among minority-produced media between resistance and integration. The desire to integrate oneself into mainstream society and the need to push against it. This perhaps most clear in Paris is Burning, focusing as it does on how performers articulate desire for fame, fortune and the American dream while still residing on its outskirts.
Today, this means black queerness can sometimes conjure the neoliberal (individualism, self-determination, self-help) and the spiritual alongside the anarchic and the transgressive. It can be as soft as it is sharp; it goes down easy, at times, and fights its way down at other times. To be popular is to compromise, to be marketable and trendy is to integrate oneself into easily understandable ideas.
Yet with markets and niches, someone can sustain their art and still hold true to some artistic ideals. It depends on one’s aspirations and industry. Artists like Linzy and Wiley have a relative degree of autonomy. Burgeoning celebrities like B. Scott have more constraints.
It takes more than one to map out a cultural moment. I’d love to here your thoughts on a) any big names working right now that I missed (because I know I missed a whole lot), b) any perspective on what it means to be black and queer today, c) any thoughts on the importance/limitations on being “hip,” d) anything else. In the meantime, here’s Kalup Linzy hanging with James Franco!
*That all these performers are men is a discussion that needs to be had.
**It’s important to note that many of these artists may not identify as “queer” or even “gay”. The point of this article is not to call anyone’s sexuality — as in sex — but rather cultural performance. So someone like Eddie Izzard, who is straight, can be read as queer, same goes for someone like Dennis Rodman or John Leguizamo, you get the idea.