nothing like the real thing

Based in Edinburgh and supported by Creative Scotland, Arika is a non-profit organisation staging experimental arts events across the UK, including an ongoing series of festivals in Glasgow exploring the intersection of multi-disciplinary artistic discourse and radical cultural politics. I was gutted to have to miss their last event, but this time around made only slight progress by scoring a late-release ticket to the closing discussion at south-side venue Tramway. Episode 6: Make a Way Out of No Way (named from the African American folk proverb, drawn from Isaiah 43:16) dedicated its weekend to exploring race, sex, sexuality, and gender as social categories versus the reality of lived experience, through a programme of music, film, and performance. Variously tired, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and overstimulated, the assembled panel pressed on through two hours of in-depth discussion on black identity and experience. An introductory point about the whitewashed, cis-centric narrative of the gay rights movement was perhaps most illuminating, as activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett cited the work of key trans activists of colour Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, firebrands of the Stonewall riots of 1969 now yearly commemorated internationally as Pride. Gossett is currently working on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a documentary about the important work and friendship the two women shared, and spoke of the mistreatment they suffered as the gay power narrative gained traction; the commercialisation of the movement in their wake; how parades that once ended in public parks now make their way to public houses. This set the tone for much of the discussion ahead: pride and passion in the work being done, but frustration at the enduring widespread sociopolitical and economic hardship of people of colour; the selective solidarity displayed by certain sectors of the lgbtq* community; the minority status within the minority status. At times anecdotal, at times abstract, at times angry, the conversation was passed around the table like a pliant piece of clay, shaped and reshaped by each speaker according to their background, encompassing institutional oppression, gentrification, theology, and molecular biology. The sheer wealth, breadth, and depth of knowledge and experience in the room was dizzying.

The overall theme of the evening was “realness”: a phrase popularised in the mainstream by Jennie Livingston’s pivotal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a chronicle of NYC’s drag ball scene as it ebbed towards the end of its Golden Age. Beginning with the queer masquerades of 1860s Harlem, ball culture reemerged in the 1920s and 30s with the “New Negro” movement, developing in the neighbourhood’s myriad jazz clubs and speakeasies, where black bohemians and white voyeurs flocked to see Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sing the blues for hot poppas and bulldaggers in their tops and tails. Navigating the Prohibition-era cultural clampdown, the Puerto Rican influx of the post-war years, and the heteronormative ideologies of the 1960s Black Power movement, the scene continued to thrive behind barred doors, centring around competitions of theatrical catwalking categories showcasing the looks, moves, style, and attitude of femmes and butches in turn. In the 70s and 80s, the competitive circuit developed into a house system, with membership based upon personality traits and biographical kinship, echoing the burgeoning street gang and hip hop crew cultures. Here, nominated house-mothers and -fathers preside over family-like collectives, providing guidance, tough love, and understanding to their drag children. Ensuring shelter and safety for generations of homeless, ostracised lgbtq* youth, this community structure became particularly important through the heights of the Western AIDS epidemic, with entrance fees to underage balls waived for the sake of a visit to the HIV testing booth, and safe sex information disseminated by house-parents and respected emcees. Always preoccupied with the luxe spectacle of it all, the ball scene fell headlong into the haute hypercapitalism of the late 80s and early 90s, with houses often named for luxe labels and brand-conscious “mopping” (shoplifting) fast becoming a vital skillset for any serious competitor. Icon Ayana Christian was another member of the Arika panel. ‘Have any of you ever owned a real designer bag?’ she asked. ‘Real genuine leather, with that little card inside?’ The language of luxury goods easily lends itself to the ballroom.

We’re born naked, the rest is drag. –RuPaul

Filmed over seven years, Livingston’s film is a part tender, part ribald portrait of a maligned community on the cusp of being co-opted by the zeitgeist. Greeted with rave reviews and a cull of festival awards, its release came hot on the heels of Madonna’s smash hit ‘Vogue‘, and captured the spirit of the identity politics era, in which every college kid worth their bottle of CKOne belonged to a grassroots activist group designed to their own personal sociopolitical specifications (talk about theatrical catwalking categories). It was around the same time that the whiter, gaucher, downtown Club Kids caused quite the stir on the daytime television talk-show circuit, and it’s fair to imagine that, for most viewers, sightings of a befeathered Pepper LaBeija and displays by voguing godfather Willi Ninja all folded into the same spectacle, selling a scandalising vision of a post-Warhol, pre-Giuliani New York City populated by drug-addled gender-bending cartoon hedonists. In fact, though the two cultures were central to lgbtq* history and the development of postmodernism, and though both grew from the outcast’s fetishisation of fame, fantasy, and fortune, each was deeply rooted in a very different musical and artistic tradition — garage-house and techno-house, disco and punk, glamour and the grotesque, sequins and sci-fi. Without casting aspersions upon the cultural importance of the Club Kids, the ball scene certainly engaged more directly with sociopolitical issues, offering a safe space for the city’s economically and societally disenfranchised to congregate, celebrate, and imagine themselves living a divergent life. Beyond self-expressive role-play, ballroom drag allowed anyone bold enough to step up on that stage to be ‘anything that you’re not, and might want to be — or might want to make fun of, in some cases’. Alongside femme/butch queen and dance rounds at any given ball were categories such as ‘executive realness’ and ‘banjee realness’, with walkers competing to sell themselves to the crowd and judges, to prove they might “pass” in public, as a member of the social sub-group of their choice.

Though many of Paris is Burning‘s stars met with a tragic fate, dying young or in mysterious circumstances, the houses live on, and the ball scene continues to thrive today, albeit in a largely google-unfriendly fashion. Besides the widespread international influence of vogue, the culture has trickled down through popular culture in manifold ways. While pop artists like Beyoncé, Ciara, and Willow Smith have paid homage in their lyrics and dance routines, acts such as Lady Gaga and the Scissor Sisters have been even more overt in their shout-outs. Perhaps the most overlooked torch-bearer of the ball scene was Sex and the City, whose scarlet-headed Stylist-in-Chief Patricia Field had the dubious honour of founding ‘the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls‘. The influence is evident in Carrie’s commitment to dressing the part (#executiverealness), but the most pointed tip of the hat is in ‘The Real Me’ (402), in which she is called upon to work the catwalk (with disastrous results) before play-strutting around her bedroom to Cheryl Lynn’s ballroom anthem ‘Got to be Real‘ in the episode’s closing scene. Though RuPaul’s background is more Party Monster than Femme Queen, his disgustingly entertaining Drag Race brings the zany humour of the Club Kids together with the unique lexicon and house-mother warmth of the ballroom, borrowing the America’s Next Top Model format to create something of a drag renaissance in recent years. This revival has been compounded by a new wave of queer black artists eager to pay their respects, from fashion darling Zebra Katz of once-ubiquitous ‘Ima Read’ fame, whose live shows feature gimp masks and Njena Reddd Foxxx’s creepily slow-mo’d voguing, to provocative lyrical spitfire Azealia Banks, who mixes voguing and ball lingo with posthuman iconography and post-CK electroclash covers. Despite being one of many subcultures riddled with homophobia, the more mainstream strands of hip hop too seem to echo with the legacy of ballroom. Rap — which grew up in the Bronx before spreading to neighbouring Harlem — is another genre quite uniquely preoccupied with the notion of “realness”: being real, keeping it real, authenticity and legitimacy. As Andrew Marantz writes in a recent article for the New Yorker, examining how this theme has developed through rap’s history, ‘realness in hip-hop has a slippery definition, related to the everyday sense of the word but not synonymous with it.’ While Maranz details the various examples of respected rappers whose backgrounds didn’t quite align with the hood narrative they were selling (Rick Ross was a prison guard?!), the article is essentially an attack piece on Iggy Azalea’s brand of glossy, ebonics-driven pop hop, and concludes that ‘realness, for her, is just another hip hop tic … nothing about Azalea feels real, in any sense of the word.’ There’s absolutely no denying that Azalea is a deeply problematic artist, but what such articles fail to consider is that, despite being a Tupac fangirl, rap for her is more a mode of artistic expression than a dyed-in-the-wool lifestyle. First things first, she’s a performer, and her public persona is infused with drag ball culture, as shown by frequent social media references to being “beat” (done up in flawless make-up), and her sheer glee at being called ‘a great drag queen‘ by RuPaul. Taken in this context, as a pretty young white Australian woman who gets up on stage every night as a flawfree swaggering rap goddess with a deep south drawl, Iggy is the realest: is practising ballroom realness on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the drag ball scene has featured plenty of cis-PYTs through the years, and bald bombshell Amber Rose found her feet there as ‘Paris Karan’ long before she was Kanye’s most infamous ex (now going by ‘Muva Rosebud’ on the internet). Considering the widespread cultural narrative that Yeezy taught her everything she knows, it’s interesting to hear such a ballroom influence in his 2011 collaboration with Jay Z, ‘N*s in Paris’. So good it defies all superlatives, the track is both a celebration of the jetsetting life of the young, black and gifted in the twenty-first century, and an ode to the city of lights as a place of freedom and frivolity for African Americans since early in the twentieth. Through homonymic and homophonic wordplay the song operates on two levels, ripe for reappropriation by the ball scene. The opening ‘Hova’ shout-out — a reference to Jay’s “god of rap” moniker — is voiced in such a way that it could be the ball scene warcry ‘ovaaah’, bestowed upon only the most fabulous of queens. A comment on the disproportionate criticism and ridicule levied his way whenever he acts or even just speaks out on America’s racism, Kanye’s ‘doctors say I’m the illest / cos I’m suffering from realness’ also serves to meld the worlds of hip hop and ballroom, extolling his authenticity, his aesthetic, and his willingness to stick his head above the parapet in one fell swoop. ‘Ball so hard’ is a given. To top it all off, Kanye wears a leather skirt in the promo. Give Jay his due but there’s a reason everybody says that Ye changed the game, Heidi Slimane.

These are some of the thoughts I took into the Arika round-table. What I brought away was an understanding that realness is a far more complex, political concept than I’d realised, tightly woven with notions of safety, survival, and catharsis, rebelling against the hegemonic strictures of the world we live in. While in the media and common culture lgbtq* people of colour are ignored and invisiblised, paradoxically in public spheres they are highly spectaclised, unable simply to walk down the street without risking the wrath of bigots and law enforcement agencies. In their ballroom walk, competitors at once take control of this hypervisibility, basking in the spotlight, while living out a fantasy of blending, passing, getting out from under the glare. Realness mediates the idealised self, the “true” self, and “reality” as defined by our culture. In living out these fantasies onstage, competitors escape the persona thrust upon them by society and socialisation, not by rejecting the narrow categories but by subverting them, proving them as fictions. Nevertheless, they do buy into these fictions, enjoying a brief taste of the attached privileges not afforded to them in real life — affluence, respect, adoration of the masses. Through realness they finally do feel real; feel recognised as valid social beings. What I brought away was leading advocate and Legendary House-Father Michael Robertson Garçon’s call for fury; filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s words on rejecting the idea of ‘difference as a basis for pressure’; poet-educator Fred Moten thinking aloud on ‘difference without separation’ and asking sound tech to restart the track, this time from the top, ‘this is Aretha‘. In a poignant moment, theologian Charlene Sinclair talked of the strangeness and difficulty of always discussing racial issues ‘under the white gaze’ at such events; Moten replied ‘I don’t care who is looking — look on, white people.’ I’ve spent the past four days reading over my notes with about twenty-five tabs open at any one time. Next year I’ll be sure to book early.