Page Illustration: Blood Orange, “Benzo“, 2019
ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA
Blood Orange (2016). Freetown Sound. United States: Domino. (Stream or watch via YouTube).
CONTENT WARNING: Paris is Burning contains descriptions of anti-trans* violence and murder. Livingston, Jennie (1990). Paris Is Burning. Off White Productions Inc. Copy. (Currently streaming on CRAVE TV in Canada).
Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “1909. 601 West 61st Street. A New Colony of Colored People, or Malindy in Little Africa,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 177-191. New York: Norton. (via Course Text)
Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “Mistah Beauty, the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Woman, Select Scenes from a Film Never Cast by Oscar Micheaux, Harlem, 1920s,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 193-202. New York: Norton. (via Course Text).
As we have already covered in Week 2, this course focuses on the multiplicities of possible futures proposed by radical social justice movements within popular culture.
When we discuss futurity, we are not talking about an imagined “future” that is set, yet unknowable, but rather we are analyzing the world through a lens in which multiple futures can and are made possible through collective action, communal affect, and radical forms of practice and failure.
This week begins our investigation into the political importance of forms of Black queer futurities within contemporary social movements. It seeks to engage in the thinking through and enacting of queer ways of being outside of white supremacist, cis-heteropatriarchal, capitalist, and ableist power structures.
This is not idealism. It is a practice that is riddled with failures, like all important social experiments (this is what Saidiya Hartman means when she calls them beautiful experiments). A key text in queer theory, The Queer Art of Failure gives credence (and perhaps grace) to the fact that the process of creating new ways of being is difficult – there are no models – and people are struggling within the current dynamics of society that are filled with all kinds of oppressive mechanisms of control, shame, self-hate, etc.
“Rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures.”Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, “Ending, Fleeing, Surviving,” 2011
What is perhaps the most important take-away here is the notion that trying to imagine and live out realities that don’t yet exist in our society is a collective experiment in creativity, failure, and incongruence. As we will come to see in our analysis of the film Paris Is Burning, the NYC Black/Latinx led queer ball scene of the 1970s-1980s was one such site of social, political, and emotional experimentation.
What is Queerness?
As we’ve done previously, we need to dig into the historical roots of the word to situate our analysis. The term queer has its origins in the English language in the 15th Century as an adjective from either the Scottish “strange, peculiar, Eccentric” or the Low German “oblique, off-center.” These original definitions will be helpful to us as we explore further.
By the late 18th/early 19th century the term began to be used as a verb, meaning “to spoil, ruin” or “to puzzle, ridicule, cheat”. This more negative connotation can be seen as an extrapolation of the adjective – adding something strange or peculiar to a substance can have the effect of spoiling it.
The development of the term queer or queerness into a slur used to denounce people who were or were perceived to be homosexual or gender-non conforming can be traced to the term’s usage as “strangeness” and has overlaps with Christian and Victorian principles of propriety that sought to label anything that was outside of the monogamous, nuclear, cis-heterosexual family as abject or monstrous.
This use of the term was weaponized in the early 20th century as a way to besmirch, shame, and ridicule people who did not fit into these rigid gender and sexual frameworks. However, like other slurs, a segment of the LGBTQ2S+ population (predominantly BIPOC, lower/working class, trans* and non-binary, and disabled segments) began to reclaim the term as a source of pride.
This is where the term started to gain more acceptance as a way to politicize and name the theories, knowledges, and practices that emerged out of the experiments in other ways of living that occurred over the 20th Century, often underground, and most often by poor and marginalized people – like those who erupted into riots against the police raids at the Stonewall Inn in NYC in 1969.
The hype and success of the Stonewall Riots were both a blessing and a curse – as social movement victories often are. For one, the riots were widely supported by both marginalized and more mainstream (self-identified respectable) groups, including a number of high profile “homophile” organizations (white middle class liberal gay acceptance movements). In an excellent article on the power of storytelling in social movements, Armstrong & Crage suggest that a coming together of a whole bunch of factors they call “mnemonic capacity,” led to the decision to commemorate the Stonewall Riots – which subsequently led to an annual march, the Christopher Street march (named after the street in Greenwich Village where the Stonewall Inn is still located). They were later called ‘parades’ and were intended to show pride and solidarity as a community against police vice squads and the mainstream media who sought to “out” known homosexuals.
In hindsight, this riot (and the many other riots against vice squads by LGBTQ2S+ people before and after Stonewall, including the 1981 Bathhouse Raid and 2000 Pussy Palace riot in Toronto), gave voice to the bourgeoning queer politics of the late 20th Century and early 21st Century. These movements burst into the mainstream and forever changed our concepts of love, family, gender, sexual desire, consent, policing, interracial love. They also influenced our mainstream language, fashion, music, art and aesthetics among other forms of popular culture.
Despite these successes, the space created by these movements to open possibilities for LGBTQ2S+ folks more generally also came with a series of losses: (1) appropriation; (2) erasure; (3) commodification; (4) a return to respectability politics; (5) an investment in capitalism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy (pink washing); among others.
For instance, demands to dismantle vice squads and abolish the police, (central to those of the Stonewall rioters) soon became sanitized and more palatable forms of political goals like legal marriage, inclusion in the workplace, etc. Important goals – but goals that tended to benefit predominantly white gay middle/upper middle class men, nonetheless.
Activity 1 - Stonewall and the Legacy of Marsha "Pay it No Mind" Johnson As Armstrong & Crage suggest, mnemonic capacity is a critical part of spreading a social movement. The ability to remember, commemorate, and narrate the stories of social movements allow for movement actors to not only reach new audiences, but to help people deeply feel their shared struggles. This is what George Katsiaficas calls "the eros effect". However, mnemonic capacity and who has the resources to control the story can also have a huge impact in demobilizing, flattening, and white washing a social movement. Popular culture often plays a significant role in this process. Take, for instance, the story of Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson was a largely forgotten figure in the Stonewall riots (including prior and subsequent struggles). A Black, trans* women, Johnson worked as a drag performer at local gay clubs, and was at the Stonewall Inn the night of the riot. Her story lives through the word of mouth narratives of people who participated in the riot, including that of Sylvia Rivera, a trans* Puerto-Rican activist who was also a key figure in the riots, who believes that Johnson was the person to start the riot by throwing a shot glass at one of the arresting NYPD officers. The story of Marsha P. Johnson had been ironed out of the more sanitized versions of the history of the Stonewall Riot. However, in recent years, the Black trans* film-maker Tourmaline, began work on a short film in Johnson's memory, Happy Birthday, Marsha! Check out the trailer for Happy Birthday, Marsha! here:
Tourmaline's film was self-researched, crowd-funded, and throughout the film process she struggled to secure funds and distributers to finish the movie. During that time two large feature films were released, both created and produced by white men, purporting to tell the story of Stonewall and to reflect on the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson. Watch the trailer for Stonewall, here:
Watch the trailer for the documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, here:
After watching these three trailers, take a moment to read this article written by Tourmaline in Teen Vogue, where she explains how the archival footage she had found on Marsha P. Johnson ended up in the David France film The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Reflection Questions 1. How does the work of Black trans* storytellers like Tourmaline get flattened or erased in the trailer for The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson? How do we engage with an otherwise important piece of work given what we know about David France's appropriative relationship with Tourmaline? 2. With the added understanding that the character of "Danny" in Stonewall is fictional and never existed. How does the story of the Stonewall riots get white-washed and sanitized in the feature film? 3. What aspects of the Black radical imagination can you point to in the way Tourmaline portrays Marsha P. Johnson in her film Happy Birthday, Marsha!?
You Never Did Define Queer Futurity, Did You?
To help us understand what we mean by queer futurity, we turn to the late Cuban-American queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. Muñoz’s work has been influential to many scholars and activists include the likes Robin D.G. Kelly, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, among others who are seeking to theorize the Black radical imagination.
In his groundbreaking book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Muñoz draws on familiar concepts in this course. For Muñoz, queerness is not yet here and he suggests we are not yet queer.
What does he mean by this?
We should now have the tools to decode it. If we understand queerness as a utopian ideal of the multiplicities of love, gender, sexuality that are based in principles of consent, care, non-possession, experimentation, and beauty, then it can never be a fully accomplished ideal. Instead, queerness is an experiment in practice, transformation, healing, and collective imagination. It is a recognition that we will never reach a place where there is no violence or hurt or fairy tale peace – but rather we can work towards practices and principles that allow us to work through these negative aspects of life in healthier, more full, and more intentional ways.
Sounds familiar, right?
Muñoz is not interested in queerness as a brand or identity or even as a noun. He instead pulls us back to the origins of the word as a adjective and as a verb. For Muñoz queerness is an active practice, it is not a self-realized identity. He suggests that in the realm of the aesthetic (i.e. the arts, fashion, music, theatre, style, literature, poetry) we can often glimpse pieces of the promise of queerness as a possible other way of being outside of the current logics of our society.
Think about and reflect on the way queer/trans* artists often offer otherworldly artistic pieces that provide us with new possibilities to understand love, intimacy, healing, consent, etc.
This week’s focus on the documentary Paris is Burning and the album Freetown Sound by Blood Orange looks specifically at how the Black radical imagination is filtered through and within queer futurity.
Paris Is Burning: A Promised Queerness
First, a disclaimer, Paris is Burning (1990) is a documentary film by a white director, Jennie Livingston. Livingston had been a very active activist and organizer with ACT UP, one of the first and most influential groups that mobilized in response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Livingston was (and continues to be) a committed activist and organizer and has actively built and maintained relationships with BIPOC queer/trans* communities in NYC.
Despite this background, a controversy that erupted following the success of the documentary resulted in all but two (Willi Ninja and Dorian Corey) of the main participants suing Livingston for a share of the profits.
Prior to filming Livingston had agreed to pay each participant a share of $55,000 divided equally amongst the 13 key informants, but fought the lawsuits in court (they were eventually all dropped).
However, this incident raises important questions about the responsibilities of film makers, researchers, service providers, and others to the communities that they seek to support. Was Livingston’s documentary (which is undoubtedly an important push against the erasure of this ball scene important subculture) extractive in its intent? Did the director maintain a relationship with the participants after filming? Should the director and production company have shared profits from the film with the participants? How would this transform the nature of documentary film making?
This is an ongoing question. As Hartman, explains in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, it is a question that Mary White Ovington grappled with alongside W.E.B. Du Bois – what parts of your commitment are extractive and moralizing and what parts are a desire for connection, relationship, and solidarity?
The NYC Ball Scene
The documentary Paris is Burning is filmed and captures the “ball scene” in New York City over two distinct time periods (1987 and 1989). The documentary is structured as an oral history told by participants in the community. There is no narrator or overdub by the documentary producer, the participants and organizers of the balls are narrating their own story.
Each participant provides different aspects of the story of their community and sub-culture, including: its organization, its purpose, the lived realities of the participants, the failures and imperfections, and the language and culture that is co-created through the balls.
HOUSES: ORGANIZATION OF COMMUNITY
Participants in the documentary spend considerable amounts of time explaining the organizational structure of the balls.
We learn that the balls are run through “houses” (Labeija, Xtravaganza, Pendervis, Ninja, etc.) and that each house has a “mother” and “father”. While the participants cheekily refer to their houses as “gay street gangs that fight at a ball,” there is a clear modelling of chosen family structures within queer/trans* communities (“a group of human beings in a mutual bond”.
The houses are a prefiguration of the types of chosen families that queer communities were creating and continue to build today – with all of their imperfections and beauty.
FUTURITY: THE PURPOSE OF THE BALLS
Participants suggest that “in a ballroom you can be anything you want” and participants model this not only in their creative runway walks, outfits, and dances, but also in the way that the culture is constantly evolving.
Dorian Corey, for instance, suggest that the ball scene used to be about “drag queens and showgirls” but now (1987) the participants are more interested in looking like supermodels or playing with “everyday” categories (i.e. realness).
The enacting of futurity is prevalent through the film with some participants fantasizing about living “like a spoiled rich white girl,” while others suggesting that “I wouldn’t enjoy being a millionaire and hoarding it.”
The ball scene is both a place of class and race consciousness as well as a space of contradiction and incommensurabilities.
Participants speak very clearly about the lived realities of survival and violence that they face – and – we learn in the 1989 segment of the documentary that one of the participants Venus Xtranvaganza is brutally murdered.
The participants also talk about being forced out of their birth family homes, living in poverty, and the nuances of sex work. They are hyper aware of the violence that they face as queer and trans* Black people and people of colour.
For instance, in one scene, Venus Xtravaganza pushes back about questions of doing sex work by saying “if you are a married women in the suburbs and you want your husband to by you a washer and dryer set, you might have to sleep with your husband to get it.” Refusing the framework of “selling one’s body” or being “exploited,” Xtravaganza returns the gaze onto mainstream society and clearly points to the ways in which women’s bodies and their sexuality are also controlled in patriarchal marital relationships.
There is agency in her comments.
Following her death, one participant responds, “that’s part of being in NYC, a transsexual, survival.”
LANGUAGE & CULTURE
The language and culture created in radical underground sub-cultures often trickles into mainstream culture. Sometimes, major events (like the release of Paris is Burning or the appropriation of Vogueing in the Madonna video/song “Vogue”) can speed up this process.
The NYC ball culture developed a language and culture that wasn’t simply stylish, but had real and meaningful importance within the society they were in the process of co-creating.
Terms like vogueing, throwing shade, mopping, being legendary, reading, yaas queen all had their origins in this scene – and have since been (mis)appropriated mostly without attribution or knowledge of their origins by mainstream (white) gay culture and then eventually mainstream society.
Reflection: What happens when in-culture language is mainstreamed? How does it flatten or remove context?
The categories at the balls, however, provided another element of mainstreaming of queer culture that perhaps has a more positive effect. Through these categories participants were able to play with gender and style and find themselves not within a strict male-female binary, but instead along a much more fluid and dynamic spectrum of gender identities and forms of expression.
The ball scene critically gave language (butch, butch femme, high femme/low femme, realness, etc.) to the multiplicities of identities and ways of being that seemed impossible within the classic binary male/female dichotomy.
In Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, the chapter “Mistah Beauty, the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Woman, Select Scenes from a Film NEver Cast by Oscar Micheaux, Harlem, 1920s” provides us a glimpse into the radical lineage of the NYC ball scene.
Hartman narrates the story of Mistah Beauty (Gladys Bently) as though it was presented in film by the Black film director Oscar Mischeaux. Hartman describes Mistah Beauty’s transness and queerness in cinematic fashion: “In the film, the telltale gestures, tics, and queer traits would give Bentley away: his tendency to swagger; the too-big body, the too-loud voice, the mountain of flesh, the vocal intonation, the distribution of hair, the masculine distribution of weight, his brazen flouting of law and custom and civilization, the preening defiance and naked display of pleasure” (194). Hartman humanizes and normalizes Bentley through his queerness and transness and also admonishes him for his patriarchal treatment of the chorus girls.
In the 1920s ball scene, like in the 1980s ball scene in Paris is Burning, queerness and transness especially accompanied with blackness was a threat to the “imperilled norms of temperance, monogamy, and heterosexuality” (200). She imagines the tragic ending of the film: a car crash, a bullet, prison…and yet none of these are as painful as the reality.
The 1930s NY state law that would require “female performers to apply for a license to wear men’s clothing in their acts. Cross-dressing was now labeled as subversive. Queers were placed in the sightlines of Senator McCarty and the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC]. Bentley’s much discussed marriage to a white woman in a civil ceremony made the entertainer vulnerable” (200).
Here we see how the ball scenes were threats to the US state and in particular the fact that these scenes fostered interracial relationships and spaces for queer love. These provisions forced queer people to fear for their lives even more – to read more about this in a Canadian context check out The Canadian War on Queers by Kinsman & Gentile. Think about the context, then, in which these ball scenes went further underground and reconstituted themselves into what became the ball scenes of the 1970s/1980s documented in Paris is Burning.
Moving into the future, we can see these dynamics play out in multiple ways in the reaction to the Black Lives Matter-Toronto sit-in at the Toronto Pride (World Pride) parade in 2016.
Based on this week’s lecture content, take a moment to revisit the controversy that erupted after Black Live Matter-Toronto’s actions at Toronto Pride in 2016 and 2017.
Read this article by BLMTO co-founder Janaya Khan.
Think about the notions of erasure, appropriation, relegation to the margins, and shifting of political focus that has taken place since 1969 and Stonewall.
FREETOWN SOUND: ARTEFACTS OF BLACK QUEER FUTURITY
Blood Orange is the musical persona and project of Devonté Hynes, a London-born, NYC-based singer, songwriter, recorder producer, artist, and director of Guyanese and Sierra Leonese descent. The project began in 2011 with the release of the album Coastal Grooves (2011), followed by Cupid Deluxe (2013), Freetown Sound (2016), Negro Swan (2018), and Angel’s Pulse (2019). Hynes has also written and produced several scores for film and art, including the original score for the film Queen & Slim.
Hynes’ music is inspired by his love of history, archives, and exploration of his adopted city of New York. In a New York Times article on his album Freetown Sound, Hynes explains, ““I like the idea of these actual physical hubs, and what’s happened on those streets over time — there’s almost ghosts, traces of what’s been happening.” There is significant overlap in the process that Hynes describes in making the album and the methodological approach used by Saidiya Hartman in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.
Both projects seek to draw upon fragments of Black and queer sociality and lived realities to craft a narrative and affective engagement with the subjects of their work.
For Hartman, this is our sense of longing for more information about the protagonists of her historical narratives – our fears, frustrations, and then bits and pieces of joy when we see glimpses of living free.
For Hynes, we are brought into a rich tapestry of soundscapes, fragments of recordings, personal and social lyrics, and a sense that the project as a whole is a love song in the name of a Black queer feminist futurity.
We will trace pieces of the Black queer futurity presented by Hynes through an analysis of “artefacts” found among the fragments and sonic landscape of the album Freetown Sound.
Artefact #1 – By Ourselves – Ashlee Haze – NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
“By Ourselves,” the opening track to Freetown Sound does not feature Dev Hynes’ voice. This is very uncommon in most popular music – where the primary artist – is often at the forefront of the album. Instead, Hynes makes a conscious decision to begin the song with harmony vocals by two upcoming artists Ava Raiin and Ian Isiah over a sample of the Jazz legend Charlie Mingus’ song “Myself When I Am Real“.
These decisions immediate situate the listener into the world being created in Freetown Sound. This is an album that situates itself in the underground history of Black music clubs, but also in the futurity of Black queer performers.
We then hear a second sample, this time a vocal sample of the spoken word poet Ashlee Haze “For Colored Girls,” a poem about the revolutionary affirmation of Missy Elliot in Haze’s growing understanding of Black feminism. Hynes’ again situates his album in the lineage of Black feminism that we have studied already in this course.
The artefact I selected to engage with the themes of Black feminist futurity within Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, is a video performance for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series. Here, we see Hynes’ on keyboard accompanied by Jason Arce on saxophone, Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah on vocals along with a powerful full-length spoken word performance by Ashlee Haze of her piece “For Colored Girls” (0:00 – 4:33).
Feminism wears a throwback jersey, bamboo earrings, and a face beat for the gods/ Feminism is Da Brat, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, and Angie Martinez, on the “Not Tonight” track/ Feminism says as a woman in my arena you are not my competition/ As a woman in my arena your light doesn’t make mine any dimmerAshlee Haze, 2015, “For Colored Girls”
In this piece, a dedication to the rap artist Missy Elliot – and specifically referencing her 2003 track “Pass that Dutch,” Haze constructs a distinctly Black feminism that affirms the importance of popular culture and mainstream representation of women like her. She draws on the unapologetic way in which Missy Elliot displays her fatness and Blackness as beautiful – and she locates Elliot within the history of hip hop artists who have also been apologetic about their bodies and sexuality.
Hynes’ playing the accompanying piano (with the virtuosity of a lineage of great jazz pianists from NYC including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington), enhances Haze’s words with an emotional tenor and intimacy that is both befitting for the poem but also serving to let the listener into the journey they are about to undertake.
Artefact #2 – Augustine – Lyrics Sheet & Video
Lyric sheet from Genius.com: CLICK HERE
The second track on Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound is titled “Augustine” and references the 4th Century African Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine. As per the lyric sheet at Genius.com, Saint Augustine was the descendent of a father who was freed from slavery during the Roman Empire.
Hynes’ opens the album by situating himself in the narrative. He tells the parallel story of his parents’ migration from Sierre Leone (father) and Guyana (mother) to London at the age of 21 with his own migration to New York City at the same age.
This is a crucial component of the albums meta-narrative – the weaving and leaning on our ancestors and ancestral knowledge in the face of oppression and violence.
My father was a young man
My mother, off the boat
My eyes were fresh at 21
Bruised, but still afloat
Our heads have hit the pavement
Many times before
You stroke his face to soothe him
While knowing that there’s more
The chorus then comes in:
Late have I loved and chose to see
Skin on his skin
A warmth that I can feel with him
Here Hynes’ directly sites Saint Augustine’s most famous work, the book of Confessions. As noted in the genius article and in interviews Hynes’ conducts about the album, here he is attempting to show a parallel between Saint Augustine’s conversion to Christianity and his feelings of being “at home” within his newfound spirituality and Hynes’ own feelings of being ‘home’ in New York City – of finding his place in community an context. This can be plainly seen through the way New York City becomes an intimate backdrop for Hynes in the video – with him sitting and playfully playing “air piano” atop a car hood that is driving through New York City neighbourhoods.
And no one even told me
The way that you should feel
Tell me, did you lose your son?
Tell me, did you lose your love?
Cry and burst my deafness
While Trayvon falls asleep
The things that I can’t do to you
The things that I can’t do to you
The final verse finds Hynes’ grappling with the killing of Trayvon Martin, whose murder by George Zimmerman in 2012 sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Through the intimacy of this verse we witness Hynes’ praying to Saint Augustine, until he must cry and “burst my deafness” – forcing him to listen to the streets, listen to the vibrations of struggle that are building around him.
The outro, sung by Hynes and Ava Raiin (who we meet in By Ourselves), calls to another African spiritual person, this time Nontetha, a Xhosa prophetess who following the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 who began to preach liberation from white Apartheid in South Africa and was eventually incarcerated for her spiritual mission of unifying Black South Africans against the racist settler colonial regime:
We heard it all from you
We waited here for you
We heard it all from you
We waited here for you
We heard it all from you
We waited here for you
Kushé-o aw di bodi
Hynes invokes Nontetha name as a means of recalling the ancestors and evoking a blurring of past/present/future in the lived realities of Black people struggling against a brutal racist regime in the United States. The song ends with lyrics in Hynes’ father’s native Krio language, “Kushé-o aw di bodi,” which translates to “Hello, how are you? Nontetha” which suggests that the spiritual connection has been made.
Artefact #3 – Desirée and Queer Futurity
The final artefact that we will explore from Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound is the track “Desirée”. Desirée is the track that most closely loops in all of our lecture content for the week.
First, Desirée opens with fragmented samples from Paris is Burning.
Later because of the fact that we’re waiting for the working girls to get there [unidentified person]
(And what is it those girls are doing?) [Director: Jennie Livingston]
Well, they’re making money for the balls, or they’re making their costumes [unidentified person]
Their outfits, or you know getting, getting it together like that
(What is their profession?) [Director: Jennie Livingston] something like that [unidentified person]
At times they do expect sexual favors, but that is between myself and them
So I do not wish to further speak about that
If they do, but at most times ninety-nine percent of the time they don’t
Ninety-five percent of the time they don’t [Venus Xtravaganza]
In an interview with Pitchfork, Dev Hynes explains how important the NYC ball scene was to his artistic and political engage in the world:
[Interviewer (Jason King)] As I was listening I was struck by the idea that there are all these queer ghosts on the record, voices who passed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, like Venus Xtravaganza from Paris Is Burning. You weren’t in New York at that particular time, but it feels like you have a melancholy for a New York era that you didn’t actually live through.
[Devonté Hynes] Blood Orange wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for that period of New York and the voices that spoke up in that era. And, to a certain extent, the person I am now wouldn’t really exist if I hadn’t started listening to people like Octavia St. Laurent and Marlon Riggs almost as mentors. Not only did I find strength in what they were doing and their words and energy, but I fell in love with the actual aesthetic of it all too—this frozen thing that maybe doesn’t fully exist anymore felt like the home where I needed to be.
I moved to New York nine years ago, and it wasn’t calculated at all. I just came here and then stayed. Around that time there was a publicized string of gay teen suicides, and it fucking tore me up. As someone who was bullied so intensely when I was younger—to the point of near suicide and all types of shit—I knew that feeling. I was at a point where I was feeling really strange; I was writing music but I actually had no intention of releasing anything. I felt kind of done. Around this time I was also revisiting dancing a lot more.
In the interview, Hynes recalls the lives of Venus Xtravaganza, Octavia St. Laurent, Marlon Riggs, and others from the NYC ball scene as ancestors – in the same way we see him call to Nontetha and Saint Augustine in “Augustine” or the way that Ashlee Haze recalls Missy Elliot in “By Ourselves.” The album projects futurity through the lived realities of those who struggled for the present.
Think back to the line in José Estevan Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: “Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic.” See how Hynes parallels this notion in his response to King’s question about Paris is Burning. For Hynes, this documentary and the people who made up the NYC ball scene helped him glimpse a future that was outside of the brutal logics of our current world.
This aesthetic, as Hynes’ suggests, influences not only his beliefs and engagement in the world, but also his style, his art, and his collaborative approach to his work.
See for instance the ways in which part of Hynes’ aesthetic is drawn from the style of such legendary ball icons like Willi Ninja
Throughout Freetown Sound the ghosts and voices of queer, Black, femme, and Black queer femme ancestors and community give life to the political urgency and radical futurity put forward by Hynes in his work. These artefacts are only a small component of the dense richness of this album as an example of the Black radical imagination through a lens of radical Black queer futurity that it is.
Most recently, Dev Hynes has been named Artist-in-Residence at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute and students will have an opportunity to learn directly from him.