Thursday, April 17, 2008
Thoughts on Jamaica, Masculinity, Performing Gender, Orishas & House Music
**This is a discussion I have had many times with close friends, its good to actually be blogging this, finally putting it in writing!
Besides growing up with two sisters, an awesome mom, and a super conscious dad, I really must attribute a lot of how i inhabit my gender to house music.
I was born in New York City, but I went to high school in Jamaica. In Jamaica, gender roles are made even more rigid by the homophobia in the culture. The box of acceptable masculinity is tiny. Dancehall music further frames manhood with images of men conquesting women with one’s “womb turna” with which you “pump up her pum pum”, and then seals off the box with tunes like Assassin’s hit last year “Dem A Sissy” (lyrics), evoking gradeschool taunts to keep men in check. The “rude bwoy” image is held up as the rock of masculinity. Of course, like hip hop, there isn’t just one kind of dancehall, and there is also roots reggae, soca and other traditional forms of Jamaican music that doesn’t necessarily enforce hegemonic masculinity in so aggressive a manner. But indeed, we were and are flooded with these messages as young boys.
I moved back to New York City in 1988 when I was almost 18. I had started deejaying in Jamaica when i was 15. My love for music made me search out new sounds and scenes. House music anthems like “Break For Love” was on the radio, mixed with Rob Base & EZ Rock, New Order, Public Enemy, Information Society, and much more. I used to spin freestyle in Jamaica (as well as dancehall and 80’s) so house grabbed me instantly. Working at record stores in the Village opened me up to more music- and also introduced me to meeting visible and out queer folks. I was fascinated. I’m sure I must have offended a couple of gay people with well intentioned curious questions that could have sounded like someone white sincerely asking me if I found watermelon particularly tasty. But I managed to make friends.
It was going out to house clubs that was life altering.
I would go to mostly to Red Zone to hear DJ Dmitri from Deelite spin. It was a mostly people of color crowd, and people would just be there to DANCE their asses off, go to the bathroom to wash their faces and gulp water from the pipe, then go back and dance some more. Then there was the dancing itself. Gender became a blur. Drag queens would go from voguing to uprocking and breakin. Girls in baggy pants and baseball caps would do the same. There was a large diversity of gender. And men who i knew were hetero would have fun busting into a runway strut and a fierce vogue. And it wasn't done in this apeing, making fun way that a lot of black comedians do (i think they enjoy that too on a deep level, much less to be able to have it witnessed), but was done in a way that just shone of absolute freedom. After living in Jamaica, to see such a celebration of gender fluidity was stunning- and more importantly, liberating. Judith Butler theorizes gender to be performance, and we all tried it on, supported and ritualized fluidity, away from the gender police. It gave me permission that i had never had before as a hetero man to try on various masculinities, to be more comfortable being andro, and trying on movements where i could explore being more butch or more femme. I had officially escaped the confining box of hegemonic masculinity, and wore my fluidity naturally with pride.
The element of spirit and community was also strongly present at these parties. It was the only POC party scene that was such a static-free celebration of bodies and love. Gospel house would elevate the vibe more, and tribal house tracks like "Koro Koro" would evoke ancestral rhythms that became like essential life blood for me. (one of my first dj monikers was iTribe. this is before iPod people!! Nowadays, "tribal house" has become a slightly problematized and passe term... i have been adopting the term afropercussive house) I would participate in the circles/dance cyphers that formed where all the fierce solo dance improv and dance battles would go on... circle children they called us... and you could feel spirit suffuse the space. Only later in life did i start to recognize movements associated with certain Orishas (West African deities/energies/principles). In my minds eye, i now see fierce queens evoking Oshun, the tempramental river Orisha of Love, Abundance, Healing and Honey. The fan is one of Oshun’s accoutrements, symbolic of her cooling and healing rivers... and i have lost track of how many drag queens i have seen workin it with a fan in their improvisation. Also click here to see some amazing vogue battles done with umbrellas, another accoutrement in the tradition. Male warrior Orishas like Chango, god of Thunder and the Dance, and Ogun, God of War and Iron were imitated as well, concsiously or unconsciously. Proud chests, arms held elbows outward at shoulder level, with stomping feet mixing in with lighter, nimbler movements and twirls echo dances to these surviving ancient ancestral energies. Indeed, Orisha worship celebrates fluidity as well because in the tradition we have ALL the Orishas inside us, male and female. And there are aggressive female warriors like Oya, Whirlwind Orisha of Transformation, and male orishas like Chango who has been known to wear a dress in the folklore.
I am noticing that at some of the house parties I go to now, that the more masculine improv circles are becoming the norm. Its good for men to get their dance on (butch on?) together for sure. But I am clearly noticing the absence of the fluidity. No stretching of the gender box as much, just safe, “gender appropriate” dances... that can take up a lot of space on the dance floor if its not big enough! Then it becomes men taking up space as well. I think it is important for men to stretch themselves in this culture. And in my experience, this stretching is in roots of the tradition of house music. Also the more fluid the circles, the more inclusive and communal it is. Whatever your level of dance proficiency is, pretty much anyone can “strut” a runway and look fierce :)
At this point, i consider house music and house music culture to be a healing force on many levels. I feel like it builds community unlike any other music culture I have experienced. I feel like it destroys the box of gender in a safe space. I feel like it is a spiritual experience. And there are virtually no oppressive messages in the music. Or at least MUCH MUCH less than a lot of contemporary musics. And while i feel it is helpful for people of all genders to jump outside the prescribed box, I would prescribe real house music culture to our men as a ritual to loosen the asphyxiating hold of the tiny box we have.
I leave you with the late, great, and fierce Willi Ninja, House Mother of the House of Ninja, as he breaks down some of what voguing is about in an excerpt from the classic documentary “Paris Is Burning” (1990). I was blessed to meet him almost 15 years ago (dayum!), and I can still see his black cap with the word NINJA spelled across the front in large, block mirror letters. Rest in Peace, Power, and Fierceness! Ashé.