A Letter To Marlon Riggs by Serubiri Moses

A still of film maker Marlon Riggs in a PBS interview where he discussed the impetus behind "Color Adjustment" (1992)

A still of film maker Marlon Riggs in a PBS interview where he discussed the impetus behind "Color Adjustment" (1992)

Dear Marlon,

I wanted to write to you, in light of your film work and the children who have paid it forward because I have come to consider the meaning of your thoughts about the representation of gay men in popular culture. Your film, Tongues Untied, continues to haunt the art and cinema landscape two decades later, with its showing of communal expression, (as you termed it), diversifying mainstream media, and denouncing homophobia.

Despite your warnings, I find myself drifting towards pop music, and popular cinema. I wonder if you were friends with Grace Jones, or if you watched any of her performances. In the James Bond film A View To Kill, the crew cut she wore effortlessly, set an unprecedented sense of gender neutrality in film and television.

I first heard Grace Jones in 1996, when her song Pull Up to the Bumper played on the radio. In the new wave of R&B boy bands, and Dancehall, Jones stood out for her visual identity, her sense of style, and her lyrics, which paid homage to gay culture and its codifications.

I have since thought of Jones as embodying "signifying" or "snapping" in how you describe it in your writing as, "SNAP! "Got your point!" "SNAP!" "Don't even try it!" "SNAP!" "You fierce!" "SNAP! Get out of my face!" "SNAP!" "Girlfriend, pleeeaase." Not only did Grace Jones come from the fashion world that borrowed so much from the voguing scene, she “Snapped!” as a way of truth-telling, resisting misogyny and the fashion world's tendency to objectify black women.  

One of my best friends M. watched MTV and knew all about Madonna and her voguing. Since I hadn't seen the music video, I couldn't tell what M. was doing when he moved his hands in box shapes across his face, and behind his back.

The dance reminded me of photography and the picture-taking poses for super-models. It seems vouguing had gotten so mainstream, in fact, that one might not necessarily trace it to the film Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston nor to the gay ballroom houses in New York.

On the cover of the Vogue single, Madonna wears black lingerie, with her head pushed back and her hand slapped on her waist in one of the vouguing poses. In the 1990 MTV Awards show, we wonder what Madonna's queendom stands for.  Marlon,It is here that your thoughts struck out most. It is here, considering the lawsuits that have followed Madonna's Vogue tour documentary from the community of queer dancers that I find your critique of representations of queerness in popular culture to be truthful.

The cliché performance looks like a bad off-broadway show, and raises the question of whether Madonna's use of voguing dance routines pays any truthful homage to the queer community. While Madonna brought so much visibility to the gay ballroom scene, and its talented dancers of the time, it's not easy to buy into Madonna's role as the Queen of Vogue.

It is even harder to accept the responsibility that she, as a popular music star, has taken on to "speak for the community" in the role of Queen. On the awards show set, Madonna's queendom is literally a European court, where vouguing as the expression of an underground community is misplaced.

"Negro Faggotry is in vogue. Madonna commodified it into a commercial hit," you wrote so poignantly. It is disorienting to think about your notion of Negro Faggotry, when the dominant discourses of our time continue to misunderstand and misrepresent queerness. Your statement echoes back to us across time, because we indeed are witness to the careless ways in which queer people are depicted in mainstream politics.

Your choice of truth telling through Snapping! appears to me as a poetic form of exorcism in which you attack the reality of sexual misrepresentations. This speech reclaimed your sense of joy in a time of the HIV-crisis, and the dying of many of your brothers, and that in your own death.

"Instead of a symbol of communal expression, and at times cultural defiance, the Snap! becomes part of the simplistic reductive Negro Faggot identity: It functions as a mere signpost of effeminate, cute, comic homosexuality," you said this of Hollywood particularly. But you also said this of Hip Hop.

The problem that you set here of queer expression in popular culture is one in which coded language and communal expression are vaguely copied into popular cinema, where the characters are humorous, but not joyous. Where the Snap! is choreographed, but it has lost its meaning; where the communal expression turns into unflattering caricature.

In the age of social media, where iTunes and Tidal have decentralized the popular music market, MTV is no longer the yardstick for commercial musical success, nor is it that of pop stardom. I wonder what you'd think of Beyoncé who's hit song Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) has brought even more visibility to gay ballroom choreography than Madonna's Vogue did in the early 1990s.

How should we describe a community, when the notion of community has changed so much since the 80s? More today than before then (?), exists a multitude of queer communal expressions. There is no longer a central gay utopian community with its own communal expression, but rather the expansion of Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender (LGBT) activism across the world has seen the emergence of several movements, utopias and forms of communal expressions.

The anthology you edited with Joseph Beam, Brother to Brother, continues to be a cultural reference point for young queer people of color today.

Jamal T. Lewis who is currently working on a project titled, No Fats, No Femmes has taken your critical views on homophobia in the national media further by focusing on intra-community femme-phobia on social media and online dating apps.

I appreciate how Lewis deals with the app preferences: no fats, no femmes, particularly when considering the LGBT and racial struggle in America. He/She echoes your own thoughts regarding the distinction between gay culture and its unflattering, and at times violent, representation in the public consciousness.

Your implicit emphasis on Black Macho has come out of fashion nowadays. Your interest in leather jackets, muscled body types have lost its hold on the kids. More and more the children are transitioning from Brother to Brother to Fem 4 Fem.

You listened to Audre Lorde when she said:

"And it is never without fear---of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective."

Your anger seemingly was directed at such popular depictions of queer people as in Spike Lee's School Daze, where as you point out, "verbal fag-bashing becomes the weapon of choice in the fellas' contest for male domination." You responded to the stereotypical and hateful antagonism towards queer people. You Snapped!

"Notice is served.
Our silence has ended.
SNAP!"

In the same way that Audre Lorde's feminism inspired you to break your silence about homophobia in popular cinema, recently the young South African performance art duo FAKA (Thato Rumaisa and Desire Buhani) have been inspired by Brenda Fassie's refusal to confirm to notions of white beauty and the cult of Madonna.  

When South African musician Brenda Fassie was asked in the mid 2000s if she was the Madonna of South Africa's townships, she responded to the journalist by saying that Madonna was the Brenda of America.

Wait, Lorraine the short experimental film by FAKA takes clips from Brenda's music videos, and juxtaposes them with depictions of a white South African beauty. The montage seems to describe the struggle for beauty as being a racial struggle in pop culture. As a duo, the performers resist categorization to conventional African masculinity by Snapping!

Regarding the commodification of queer communal expression, and what you saw as characteristic Negro Faggotry in Vogue, are there any chances for redeeming queer representation in popular culture?

Grace Jones in her interaction with the art world, showed how as Miriam Kershaw notes that "sexual and racist clichés became artificial and unstable." Her constant remolding and reshaping of categories shows a resistance to the cult of Madonna, allowing her to become the artist she envisioned for herself.

You described the homophobia in Hip Hop by exposing rapper Heavy D's locutions of male-male desire in his bravado lyrics that "his rap will make you 'happy like a faggot in jail.'"

FAKA (Thato and Desire) , photo courtesy of Elle South Africa

FAKA (Thato and Desire) , photo courtesy of Elle South Africa

Yet I wonder what you'd think of Hip Hop artists like Missy Elliott who have set an unprecedented gender-neutrality within the music genre. Her collaborations with the filmmaker Hype Williams, showed how gender norms could be destabilized. Missy's tendency to borrow influences from a large timeline of black cultural expressions seem to echo your own mission to "look at history and find value and meaning and lessons," as Jim Marks said about your films Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment.

Your interest in codification as resisting racial and sexual categorization is seen in Cape Town artist Dope St. Jude, a non-gender conforming rapper that uses gay slang.

Regarding this code the online article on Gay Slang in South Africa notes that "Apartheid's racial categorizations are evident in the range of terms designating gay men of different races: Iris for Indian, Golda for Jewish, Wendy for white and Zelda for Zulu."

The racial struggle and the LGBT struggle meet in their work, when Angel Ho, the artist featured on the song says that a wendy from an art gallery tells her that, "This is a place of decorum." She/He goes on to interpret this statement as "she was telling me that this is not my house." These voices are loud and piercing from various networks across the Internet and the global.

She/He breaks the silence by responding: "I told that bitch to Keep in Touch."

Regards,

Moses