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.


Diana Pei Wu said...

thanks, fflood! i love this piece.

Unknown said...

amazing to have that experience of playing with gender identity in safety, community & fun. if more folks had that safe space, esp young, we'd mitigate gender rigidity, judgment & fear. thanks for the share. my teens were soo not that fun, but it was great to hear about yours. obviously, i need to get my dance on.

richard said...

thanks diana! glad you were feelin it :) I enjoyed reminiscing, writing it and putting it out there. heh, i enjoyed our last dance experience too!

and thanks for your comment too michelle! you're a regular now :) i agree, i think more young folks need to experience something like this. I know there are queer youth centers in Oakland that throw balls/dances where kids can play with gender in a safe communal space, but whew, hetero folks need to stretch too. badly. but yes, you should getcher dance on! have you done the thursday Luka's thing?? its the closest to this experience that one can get in the East Bay that i can think of. I was all ready to go and get open on the floor tonite, especially after seeing all the YouTube links of house dance battles and stuff, but after seeing some good spoken word at La Peña and dinner and getting home at 12:30... yeah. gnite! so yes, have u been?

Unknown said...

yup. Lukas thursday nite=good times. sadly my motivation wanes after a work day so my outings are sporadic at best. even in non-profit work, the day can drain. this is when peer pressure to dance can be beneficial. :)

Unknown said...

hey richard ~
beautifully written piece! thank you for your thoughtful spiritual insights. you gave me a new appreciation for house music and the community it builds thru movement, freedom, sensuality, and dance.


richard said...

ish! wassup empress!! so good to hear from you! and thank you for your kind words. wondering when i might get to hear you spit some of your lovely and powerful words on the mic! hmmm... think i need to add someone's website to the community links section...

Brandon said...

I remember a specific night, on a dance floor, house pumping, I let myself go, and I learned to dance, by mimicking a woman. It was a sort of lightness that I had never "performed." I remember going to Shelter and something similar happening.

Some house asks the dancer to embody a sort principal of acceptance. The same principal that informs the ecstatic possession of Jimi or Prince in the midst of a solo. To know the ecstasy requires that one let the sound "enter" one's self.

I have watched other young men walk up to this line, subconsciously holding on to a sort of policed gender in terms of their movement. Standing on the wall, head nodding. Even some of the dancers who star in the ciphers resist "crossing."
Straight males have step across this imaginary line in order to understand the possibilities of the music.

richard said...

man, that was so beautifully said.

i'm feelin 100% of everything you said.

if you have ideas you would like to contribute to this blog, just holla.

aimee said...

I am so glad you posted this. I am one of those blessed to have had conversations w/you on this topic...and as a lover-of-dance and someone constantly observing gender expression (at odds often with the impulses to move or express as felt internally), it's amazing to have a man/men reveal more about these impulses (because isn't dance an impulse from spirit? Is spirit gendered?)

There is more I want to comment, but for now, it struck me to post something from an article I wrote about the Babaylan. This is inspired by the part where you mention emulation of the Orishas. I am fascinated by the fact that in many cultures, shamans transcended gender. A bit away from the dance topic, but in line with the gender & spirit piece. This is just an introduction, but folks can read the whole article at

"The unique figure of the babaylan (also called shaman, baylan, daetahan, tambalan, and manggagaway), prevalent in pre-Christian Philippine society and throughout Southeast Asia, embodies the balanced coexistence of female and male energies. While the babaylan is feminine, she functions differently than most women do in a patriarchal society. On the physical level, men who become babaylan take on the feminine appearance by dressing in feminine clothing. Sometimes the babaylan is a hermaphrodite, literally possessing both female and male sexual properties..."

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, I have commented on it at History is Made at Night

richard said...

great blog, HIMAN! i love your definition of the politics of dancing.

for anyone who clicks on this awesome blog "the politics of dancing and musicking" also peep the link to DJ Ripley who also covered my post. givin thanks for y'all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Richard - don't suppose I can tempt you to complete the HIMAN dancing questionnaire? If you have time and inclination to answer send it to me at and I will post it (anybody else too).

1. Can you remember your first experience of dancing?
2. What’s the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?
3. You. Dancing. The best of times…
4. You. Dancing. The worst of times…
5. Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you’ve frequented?
6. When and where did you last dance?
7. You’re on your death bed. What piece of music would make your leap up for one final dance?

richard said...

heh! will sit with that, they are definitely questions that make one think! right now i am mentally and logistically preparing for doing the Walk Against Rape tomorrow, will revisit this later :)

richard said...

hey aimee, that link is broke...

Bakari said...

I was already planning to go to the White Horse (America's 2nd oldest gay bar, right here in Oakland!) tonight with a friend for some karaoke, which made me think about our conversation about masculinity and sexual identity.
(Considering I'll be wearing my sparkle shirt and singing Queen in a gay bar, I'll find it understandable when everyone assumes I am gay)

Now that I read this entry, it reminds me that I have yet to wear my new pair of high heels (which, unlike the pair I wore to my high school prom, actually FIT!).
Now I am looking forward for an excuse to bust them out of the closet (no pun intended)

Thank you for this.

minus said...

i know i am years late but this truth is ever timeless for me, i am a young black gay male and i have these discussions with people who really dont want to think about this ......i mean i heard my thoughts mastered and thrown back at me i almost had tears for the things i want to explain but lask understanding and to hear them and know them in your writing is a relief......i wish i could in some way have contact like email i have so much i want to discuss music is a language for me that i dont like to talk but dance people find me rude lolol i only want the beat and the floor