Fo­cus­ing on the QPOC ex­pe­ri­ence, Matthew Pipes brings to­gether cre­atives of dif­fer­ent shades, sizes and back­grounds to have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about what it’s like be­ing a young black queer man in 2018.

Gay Times Magazine - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy Clif­ford Prince King Words and Art Di­rec­tion Matthew Pipes

Matthew Pipes brings to­gether cre­atives of dif­fer­ent shades, sizes and back­grounds to have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about what it’s like be­ing a young black queer man in 2018.

I’m a black queer man. Come this De­cem­ber, I will have been a black queer man for 37 years – Sagit­tar­ius for any­one who’s ask­ing. For those 37 years, I’ve al­ways felt a faint void in­side; an ab­sence, like a steady hum, that has fol­lowed me through­out my life.

It was there in high school when I over­heard my dad tell a friend how he read my jour­nal and didn’t know what to do about his gay son. It was there when, as an adult, some­one I thought I knew – a white gay cis man – called me the N-word. He ac­tu­ally said it to his then boyfriend as in: “How could you bring that N-word into my house?” And it was there last year when my old­est brother fi­nally suc­cumbed to his decade-long bat­tle with HIV/AIDS. Th­ese are the times in my life I’ve felt the low­est and when the hum has been the loud­est.

It wasn’t un­til re­cently that I re­alised the hum wasn’t that of a void. No – it was in­stead the pulse of a bea­con. In those dark days, my con­scious­ness craved a like-minded soul. Some­one who un­der­stood what it’s like to grow up black and queer in Amer­ica; a uni­corn, hid­ing in a horse-cos­tume, so as not to of­fend/frighten/pro­voke other ac­tual horses. Since this re­al­i­sa­tion, I’ve ac­tively sought out mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions with other black queer men that go beyond the lat­est Cardi B meme or week­end party line-up. In those con­ver­sa­tions, I’ve dis­cov­ered sim­i­lar­i­ties that calm my heart, dif­fer­ences that chal­lenge my soul and a free­domto-be that could only come from brother­hood.

So when Gay Times asked me to take the cre­ative reins for this fea­ture dur­ing UK Black His­tory Month, I im­me­di­ately knew I wanted to repli­cate the feel­ing of dis­cus­sion we POC queers sel­dom ex­pe­ri­ence. I set out to cast a group of cre­atives of dif­fer­ent shades, sizes and back­grounds to have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about what it’s like be­ing a young black queer man in 2018. I was lucky to find will­ing par­tic­i­pants in James Bland, Emmy-nom­i­nated ac­tor, di­rec­tor and cre­ator of the YouTube series Giants; Ra­keem Cun­ning­ham, artist, ac­tivist and pho­tog­ra­pher; Mau­rice Har­ris, artist and owner of Bloom & Plume Flo­ral Col­lec­tive; Devin Wes­ley, artist and for­mer track and field ath­lete; and Tokeyo, a ris­ing mu­si­cian.

When is the ear­li­est you can re­mem­ber un­der­stand­ing your queer­ness or black­ness as ‘other’, or not a so­ci­etal norm?

James: I would say for me I think black­ness came first. In school par­tic­u­larly, as an ath­lete and as an honor ath­lete, in terms of be­ing the ‘smart black kid’, but queer­ness wasn’t far be­hind. I just re­mem­ber I felt like mas­culin­ity ini­tially was a learned trait be­cause I was called a ‘faƒot’ or I was called a ‘sissy’. I learned that there were cer­tain things I couldn’t do if I wanted to fit in, but I think the thing that’s un­for­tu­nate when you’re grow­ing up… there’s no place for queer­ness in black­ness. And so, you tend to lean more to­wards black­ness as a male. Ra­keem: I think that’s what’s im­por­tant, too. At the end of the day, those things can ex­ist in the same space. You can be queer and black and play bas­ket­ball, but a lot of times we’re forced to kind of choose. It’s al­ways ‘or’ as op­posed to ‘and’.

Tokeyo: I re­mem­ber I had a mo­ment when I said ‘Ok, I am very, very queer’. One day, I saw this pink nail pol­ish and was so freaked. Mind you, I’m five or six. I didn’t know what nail pol­ish is, but I know what they do with it… so I did my nails. Look­ing at it in the mir­ror like ‘It’s pop­pin’, and then it’s din­ner time and I’m with the hand soap and I’m scrub­bing and this ain’t com­ing off. This day, it was fried chicken and french fries which is hand food so there was no way I could eat like this. I have two sis­ters, a lit­tle brother, a mom and a dad and I re­mem­ber at that mo­ment ev­ery­body. When I no­ticed I was queer, ev­ery­body else did too.

You all use your­selves as sub­ject mat­ter in your art. In what way has be­ing your own muse chal­lenged your art and chal­lenged thoughts about your­self?

Mau­rice: For me, I would say I’m a lit­tle more chal­lenged by it just be­cause I struƒle be­ing ok with my­self with all the images that are poured at me con­stantly, and so I use my­self. I for­get who said this quote: ‘Be the change that you want to see in the world.’ If I want some­thing to shift or be dif­fer­ent or change or what­ever it’s like, well bitch, start with your­self.

James: That’s a good quote: ‘Bitch, start with your­self’.

Tokeyo: I em­power my body so much. If you see any of my videos, I’m ei­ther half naked or some­what naked be­cause 100% peo­ple can look at that – peo­ple that work nine to five jobs – they’ll see that and be like ‘Oh my God, that’s so much. That’s so ex­tra. That’s so raw.’ But me, I be­lieve ev­ery inch of my black­ness, of my curves, of my abs, of my face, of my nose, of my lips all of this black­ness is beau­ti­ful.

James, you’ve spo­ken about the idea of be­ing paral­ysed by per­fec­tion in the cre­ative process. As black men, we’re of­ten taught we need to be ten times bet­ter than our white coun­ter­parts. How do you bal­ance this idea of try­ing to give 110%, but also com­pro­mis­ing and edit­ing so you can get your work out there?

James: Yeah, I con­stantly re­mind my­self I am enough in this very mo­ment. I have to just re­mind my­self that ev­ery­thing I’ve done up to this point has pre­pared me be­cause I am a sum­ma­tion of all my ex­pe­ri­ences. So the way I do that is I al­low my­self to be hon­est. For ex­am­ple, on Giants Sea­son 1, ev­ery [episode] was a first draft. I didn’t re­write any­thing, and that al­lowed me not to get par­a­lyzed by per­fec­tion but to be as hon­est and as vul­ner­a­ble and as raw and as unapolo­getic as I could pos­si­bly be. It was re­ally sit­ting at the com­puter and writ­ing what I felt and putting that on screen.

Mau­rice: It took my lit­tle brother to tell me this: ‘When you’re work­ing IN your busi­ness, it’s like be­ing on a ham­ster wheel and you’re go­ing nowhere. You have to work ON your busi­ness.’ Ya know, you can’t man­age ev­ery­thing, you lit­er­ally can’t do it. Ra­keem: It’s hard be­cause we’re trained though. I don’t think any­one at this ta­bles’ par­ents told them

‘You know what, grow up to be medi­ocre. That’s go­ing to be great. Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to love you’. Mau­rice: But I think that’s also the thing that’s been free­ing for me, re­ally ac­knowl­edg­ing and un­der­stand­ing that hard work is not a black is­sue, it’s not a white is­sue, it’s an Amer­i­can thing. Ra­keem: Ex­actly.

Mau­rice: It’s lib­er­at­ing to know that we’ve been sold this story about hard work be­ing this thing. Like if you work hard and get a de­gree and you do all that, this will pay out in this way... and I lit­er­ally don’t be­lieve that any­more.

Ra­keem: No that’s bull­shit.

Be­ing part of a mi­nor­ity; queer, back, even a cre­ator, you of­ten hear about the ‘crab bucket’ men­tal­ity when it comes to suc­cess. Peo­ple pulling each other down or not let­ting oth­ers suc­ceed at the mercy of ev­ery­one else. Have you seen this in your work at all?

Devin: I think we ex­pe­ri­ence that a lot in our com­mu­nity just be­cause we all nat­u­rally feel that pres­sure to be the best. So, we want to make sure that no one else sur­passes us and we stay on top, and we feel like ev­ery­one is com­pe­ti­tion.

Ra­keem: Yeah and it’s also the at­mos­phere too ‘cause it’s set up like that for us to ar­gue. It’s why slaves weren’t al­lowed to read. It’s why they weren’t al­lowed to write, be­cause when we come to­gether and sup­port each other shit hap­pens and shit gets done. Peo­ple are scared of that and that’s why a lot of times we’re put in sit­u­a­tions where we’re forced to com­pete and forced to feel like we’re each other’s en­emy when that’s not re­ally the case. James: Be­cause this is not by our de­sign or our mak­ing. This idea in terms of black folks be­ing crabs in a bar­rel, no one ever [points out] that there’s boil­ing wa­ter at the bot­tom of that bar­rel. So, they’ve lit­er­ally thrown us into this bar­rel where there’s boil­ing wa­ter.

Mau­rice: OK.

James: So us claw­ing at each other… we’re try­ing to sur­vive.

As cre­ative peo­ple, you’ve all faced some kind of re­jec­tion. Does any­one have an ex­am­ple of a good ‘no’? A ‘no’ that was given to you that ac­tu­ally turned out to be some­thing re­ally great? Some­thing that took you down a path you wouldn’t have seen?

Devin: I think the biƒest ‘no’ I’ve ever re­ceived was a metaphor­i­cal ‘no’ from the Uni­verse. I was a very com­pet­i­tive track and field ath­lete for the ma­jor­ity of my life and af­ter col­lege I was try­ing hard at go­ing pro­fes­sional – I just could not get it to­gether. I just couldn’t stay healthy. I kept get­ting in­jured and just lost so much of my iden­tity that I had cre­ated for my­self be­ing this ‘You were the top ath­lete. You were the gay black ath­lete’ which, in my aw­ful mind, made me feel ac­cepted. It was ok for me to be gay be­cause I was an ath­lete. If I lost that, then who am I? So that forced me to come to terms with things I do like and the per­son that I want to be and how I dress. And the la­bels that peo­ple like to put on me: ‘light-skinned’, ‘top’. I just say ‘Fuck that. I do not want to be la­beled’.

James: I see how you slid that ‘top’ in there. Ra­keem: I’ve al­ways found that re­ally in­ter­est­ing be­cause it comes off to me as not a com­plaint on the la­bels them­selves, but more a com­plaint on what the la­bels mean. And I feel like some­times, for black peo­ple, be­cause you say a ‘black artist’ it as­sumes that ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be this cer­tain kind of way. And I think the is­sue is al­low­ing black peo­ple in the room to do what­ever they want to do ver­sus say­ing ‘be­ing a black ath­lete means this. Or be­ing a black painter means this. Or be­ing a black model means this. Or, be­ing a black pho­tog­ra­pher means this.’ It should mean what­ever that means for just be­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher.

Devin: Right.

But don’t you think that as cre­ators, you paint, you write, you cre­ate what you know? I think white Amer­i­cans aren’t con­stantly boŽed down by their white­ness. Where as black Amer­i­cans, ev­ery day I’m think­ing about be­ing black. So, when you cre­ate art, you’re push­ing that en­ergy out...

Ra­keem: Oh, yeah!

So there’s free­dom once you can fi­nally tran­scend that and say, ‘Oh, I’m just go­ing to paint flow­ers all day’.

Ra­keem: I don’t want to tran­scend it. I’m black. I’m a black artist. That’s what I am. Pe­riod. Peeer-i-od. So if that’s what’s go­ing to hap­pen, I don’t care about be­ing la­beled a black artist. What I care about is what that means.

Devin: And how that’s de­fined. Your black art is dif­fer­ent than my black art.

Ra­keem: Ex­actly.

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