Des­ti­na­tion: Black Starr Planet

Athena Holmes Chal­lenges Race and Gen­der Norms in Per­for­mance

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Arno Pe­dram and Glo­ria François The Mcgill Daily

Athena Holmes (they/them) is a per­form­ing artist with two per­sonas: Ms. Holmes, a roots, blues and jazz singer-song­writer, and BIG SISSY, a drag per­former from an­other planet. BIG SISSY is from Black Starr Planet, and her show is an Afro­fu­tur­ist rock-opera. Them­cgill­daily sat down with Athena to chat about per­sonas, per­for­mance, race, gen­der, black supremacy, and healing.

On Per­sonas

Them­cgill­daily (MD): Were your pro­jects born at the same time, or one af­ter the other? Were there any events in your artis­tic ca­reer or life that in­spired your per­sonas?

Athena Holmes (AH): They were not born at the same time. Ms. Holmes is my singer-song­writer project which I’ve been do­ing since I started play­ing mu­sic. [Ms Holmes] is for my own songs and ideas, or if I get a com­mis­sion to write, I’ll write un­der that name. BIG SISSY… I’m not sure what the cat­a­lyst for that start­ing was. I had seen some per­for­mances where peo­ple were do­ing things that made me really un­com­fort­able. I had to ask my­self, “why does this make you un­com­fort­able? Is there ac­tu­ally any­thing wrong with what this per­son is do­ing? Why do you think they should be do­ing it dif­fer­ently?” I had to ques­tion my own judg­ments about what I thought was per­mis­si­ble on stage, or what I thought was the right way to act. I wanted an out­let where I could push my own boundaries as a per­former in terms of what I thought was “okay” or “go­ing too far,” and push my­self out­side of my com­fort zone. As an artist, I try to push my­self out­side of my boundaries in life in gen­eral, but [BIG SISSY] is sort of a safe en­vi­ron­ment where I can ex­per­i­ment and see what comes out.

MD: So, would you say that BIG SISSY is your­self or an al­ter ego?

AH: It is an al­ter ego, but it is def­i­nitely a lot of me. I asked my friends who have seen BIG SISSY, “what as­tro­log­i­cal sign do you think BIG SISSY is?” and they were like, “well, ob­vi­ously a Scor­pio,” and I’m a Scor­pio, too.

MD: How would an en­counter be­tween BIG SISSY and Ms. Holmes un­fold? Would they ever meet? If so, how?

AH: They do meet! They’re both in me!

MD: What would they say to each other?

AH: I think they would write mu­sic to­gether; they would prob­a­bly write a song! It would prob­a­bly be about smash­ing the pa­tri­archy or de­stroy­ing cap­i­tal­ism.

MD: Do you think Ms. Holmes would feel un­com­fort­able?

AH: No! I’m still down to say the things that I say through BIG SISSY in my other pro­jects, but I would just say it in a more po­lite way.

On Race, Gen­der and Per­for­mance

MD: What is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween your gen­der, per­sonas, iden­tity and per­for­mance?

AH: As some­body who’s been raised or per­ceived as fe­male and as be­ing “pretty,” I’ve of­ten felt like I was per­form­ing my gen­der. Equally, be­ing a singer with a fairly clean- toned voice, I’ve been per­form­ing an ide­al­ized ver­sion of my­self for mostly white au­di­ences. When­ever peo­ple find out I’m a mu­si­cian, they would re­mark, “oh, you sing jazz, right?” I know that’s what you want, I know you want me up on stage, in an evening gown, singing jazz… That’s how you want me. And

“There is a bit of dis­so­ci­a­tion that hap­pens when I look out into the crowd, look­ing specif­i­cally for Black faces, and I don’t see them.”

-Athena Holmes

“I like to present my gen­der [the way peo­ple ex­pect me to], but only when I want to. So when I do it as BIG SISSY, I’m in con­trol, and it also feels like a bit of a “fuck you, you want me to look pretty — well, how’s this?” But it’s not for you; it’s not for the male gaze when I per­form it, be­cause usu­ally by the end of it peo­ple are slightly grossed out, which is nice.”

-Athena Holmes

I’ve never been in­ter­ested in act­ing the way peo­ple wanted to per­ceive me.

I also wanted to per­form as BIG SISSY to un­der­stand gen­der bet­ter and to turn it into a source of free­dom, as it didn’t use to be. I felt like so­ci­ety has told me, “you have these fem­i­nine traits that we find sexy, and you should show them off.” So, with BIG SISSY, I just go at it at full force: my ass is hang­ing, and ev­ery­thing is on dis­play – my hair is long, I’m hy­per-fem­i­nized, and hy­per­sex­ual. In a way, I do like to present my gen­der like that, but only when I want to. When I do it as BIG SISSY, I’m in con­trol and it also feels like a bit of a “fuck you, you want me to look pretty — well, how’s this?” But when I up­hold these fem­i­nine stereo­types, it’s not for you; it’s not for the male gaze, be­cause usu­ally by the end of it peo­ple are slightly grossed out, which is nice.

MD: Do you re­call any per­for­mance where you felt like your mes­sage was per­ceived the wrong way, or peo­ple weren’t un­der­stand­ing what you were try­ing to con­vey?

AH: As BIG SISSY, I al­ways feel great af­ter the shows. I did do a show re­cently where I per­formed ‘ Black Su­prem­a­cist’ [a seg­ment in BIG SISSY’S per­for­mance], and I looked around and there were no Black peo­ple. The au­di­ence was very sup­port­ive of the per­for­mance, but I was kind of like, “what? What is this now?” Black folks have long been con­sid­ered or used as en­ter­tain­ment for white folks. When I per­form for mostly white au­di­ences, it’s chal­leng­ing, be­cause I can’t help but feel the weight of that. Even though I’m do­ing the work for me, it’s a com­pli­cated dy­namic.

I also re­mem­ber do­ing one per­for­mance where I had this video play­ing in the back­ground of a Black preacher ex­or­ciz­ing a white woman. The sound of their voices was quite vi­o­lent — she was speak­ing in tongues and ev­ery­thing. I wanted it to be rep­re­sent­ing an ex­or­cism of the white devil specif­i­cally. Then, it cut to a song by Sis­ter Soul­jah, and I went down on my knee with my fist up and I had some­body pass a hat, so that ev­ery­body could give me money.

On Black Supremacy

MD: BIG SISSY is a self-pro­claimed Black su­prem­a­cist. What’s the first thing you would do af­ter a Black su­prem­a­cist rev­o­lu­tion?

AH: A Black su­prem­a­cist rev­o­lu­tion? That sounds like heaven. I would want to have a party or cel­e­brate in what­ever way we would cel­e­brate. If there was a Black su­prem­a­cist rev­o­lu­tion, it would bring a lot of peo­ple with sim­i­lar ideas and com­pas­sion­ate hearts, en­ergy and creativ­ity to­gether, and I would just want to be with them.

MD: What would a Black su­prem­a­cist so­ci­ety look like?

AH: I wouldn’t want it to look any­thing like a white su­prem­a­cist so­ci­ety. In my utopic vi­sion, it wouldn’t be a sys­tem of dom­i­na­tion, even though Black­ness would be ‘ reign­ing supreme,’ so to speak. I feel like it would be more like an ac­knowl­edge­ment and a cel­e­bra­tion of Black­ness, and peo­ple not be­ing afraid of it and in­stead ac­tu­ally em­brac­ing it and putting them­selves out­side of their com­fort zone as a means of learn­ing. There would be so much warmth and com­mu­nity, and more re­spect for chil­dren and el­ders. I feel like there would be a lot of laugh­ing too, a lot of laugh­ing at white peo­ple if they were mad about some­thing, be­cause then their power would’ve been stripped.

On Healing

MD: What do you dream of? AH: I think I dream of healing a lot. Be­cause I think, again, un­der the white su­prem­a­cist cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety that we live in, there is so much suf­fer­ing, and a lot of it is un­nec­es­sary. As the old­est child in my fam­ily, I al­ways wanted to bring peo­ple to­gether to have real con­ver­sa­tions and to ini­ti­ate healing. I’m sure that to some ex­tent, this bleeds into my per­for­mances too, in the way that I en­gage with au­di­ences and how I in­voke cer­tain emo­tions that I think should be brought up. Hope­fully, it’s a step to­wards healing. With BIG SISSY, I don’t nec­es­sar­ily try to say any­thing in any kind of pretty, flow­ery way. I think it can be really cathar­tic to not have to be elo­quent and to say ex­actly what you’re feel­ing, and es­pe­cially to be able to do so in a pub­lic space.

The in­ter­view has been edited for clar­ity.

Catch big sissy per­form­ing at hy­per Real: black his­tory kick-off party at the VAV Gallery on novem­ber 15 at 9 p.m .!

“With BIG SISSY, I don’t nec­es­sar­ily try to say any­thing in a pretty, flow­ery way. I think it can be really cathar­tic to feel like it’s okay to not be elo­quent and to say ex­actly what you’re feel­ing and be able to do so in a pub­lic space.”

-Athena Holmes

“I’ve of­ten felt like I was per­form­ing my gen­der and per­form­ing an ide­al­ized ver­sion of my­self for mostly white au­di­ences for a long time.”

-Athena Holmes

“Black folks have long been used as or con­sid­ered en­ter­tain­ment for white folks. When I per­form for mostly white au­di­ences, it’s chal­leng­ing, be­cause I can’t help but feel the weight of that.”

-Athena Holmes

Glo­ria François | The Mcgill Daily

Athena Holmes as BIG SISSY | Cour­tesy of Athena Holmes

Athena Holmes as BIG SISSY | Cour­tesy of Athena Holmes

Athena Holmes as BIG SISSY | Cour­tesy of Athena Holmes

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