Growing up, we bricolage householded our lives. Hangers and tinfoil for Brady Bunch reception. My auntie could wield a gun, take on three dudes at once in a fight, (they said she did that once in college) and wear a white pantsuit and heels flawlessly. One afternoon she called everybody in the house “Le-ROY,” and threw silly putty at the wall like it was a baseball. And it stuck.
There in Birmingham, the magic city, in the Ensley neighborhood, home of Sun Ra, (I could walk to his childhood home and not get out of breath), we were still country though urban. Across the street from where we lived, Tay, short for Talia, told us her mama said damn near everybody did it with a woman at least one time. We were twelve, and I didn’t sit and wonder whether or not what she said was true or why she told us. It was just there.
I was born in 1972. My summers, growing up as hip hop was emerging, were split between Birmingham and Chicago. At the New City YMCA, on the West Side of Chicago, just across and down the road from The Cabrini Green housing project made famous in the television sitcom Good Times, we hung out in the basement that they absurdly called “camp.”
At New City, the counselors put Terrence, a soft-voiced effeminate boy with processed hair, tight clothing, and buck teeth, with the girls. He was safer that way. But he never jumped rope like his twin sister Terry. She talked to him in an annoyed, curt voice. I stood next to him cause I swung double handed and didn’t quite fit in the game either.
The boys rejected Terrence, but they liked Sylvester. “Sylvester cool, he not no gaybird!,” they said. But Sylvester’s boyfriend was also a counselor at our camp. He fades from my memory. Sylvester’s charisma eclipsed that of almost all the others in charge. He led us as we danced to the music of the other, famous, Sylvester. It was Chicago after all, and we took turns twirling [End Page 162] a flashlight around to make the gym seem like a club. And Tricia, the best dancer among us, jack jack jack jacked her body.
Common sayings in that space and time:
I stay with, my grandmamma.
That’s my daddy but not my real daddy.
I’m not no regular project kid.
In those days, us black children watched the Brady Bunch and could barely see it for all the snow. We ALL came up queer, truth be told.
And the music that surrounded us, with our bricolage households, held together our inheritance of starships and funk, men in feathers, Labelle dressed for outerspace, Bootsy with stars in his eyes, and beats, all kinds of beats, working simultaneously. Rapper MC Shan sampled British queer Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who borrowed that baseline from disco genius Nile Rodgers. David Bowie sang “Fame” on Soul Train and tore it up without the blink of an eye. Though he wore a slim suit that day, we knew who that glam rocker was. Our soundings were roaming and loving, our foundation was lush. The disciplines of our bodies were stern, though our family structures weren’t. The dancing was virtuosic (what if Moynihan had looked at that instead?). Drawling mother tongues, new to asphalt, sounded of displacement woven into a collage of meaning. Still hungry, still outsider, still despised, and still beautiful migrants. The remix of country and countryside people, translocals to the metropoles, coming at the city sideways, with our suitcases duct-taped. We were just like hoods and ghettoes all over the place.
Hip Hop was born this way. (And I want you to think Carl Bean, not Gaga, when I say that.)
This wandering meditation is how I come to thinking about what is queer in hip hop. But of course that’s not all of what we mean to talk about when we put the word queer next to the words hip hop. We mean something literal, about sexual orientation too.
I did an interview recently for a documentary...