- Let's Flip It! Quare EmancipationsBlack Queer Traditions, Afrofuturisms, Janelle Monáe to Labelle
I begin today by asking y'all to flip it. No, I don't mean to turn a somersault. I mean "flip the script." That is, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines "flip," "to make an unexpected or dramatic change. Also: to reverse the usual or preexisting positions in a situation; to turn the tables."1 "Flipping the script" means to invert or disrupt dominant paradigms—narratives—to challenge and defy exogenous and constrictive categories and to engage in discursive practices and performative acts that push against the bounds and binds of existing social relations and power structures. Our gathering at "Queer AMS of Color" or, rather, "Race-ing Queer Music Scholarship" marks the institutional beginnings of the ways in which we can begin to flip and queer the script with respect to both the larger institution of the American Musicological Society and the LGBTQ Study Group.
The scholarly literature about African American—as well as African and global African diasporic—music (like black bodies) both expresses and engages struggle. The academic project does not just study; instead, it falls beside and sometimes couples with a range of social, cultural, and political movements along a continuum from social commentary and critique to outright political action and revolution. Historically, black LGBTQIA have been left out of academic music's historiography and excluded from conversations both within and without the LGBTQIA academic music community—something I began to explore at the Columbia University December 2015 symposium honoring Suzanne Cusick, "Women, Music, Power." That this is so comes as no surprise; nor am I alone in beginning to confront the issue of race and LGBTQIA. Several recent African American theorists have argued that the term "queer" excludes, erases, or [End Page 79] minimalizes people of color and their cultural productions. E. Patrick Johnson theorizes quare studies, which "addresses the concerns and needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people across issues of race, gender, class, and other subject positions."2 Francesca T. Royster applies quare theory to postsoul music, examining both LGBTQIA artists and how a range of musicians explores gender and nonheteronormative sexuality.3 Sheena C. Howard explores intersectional black lesbian identity.4 Thus, today, I proceed to flip the script and move beyond identifying a concern in order to offer one approach to queering black music: through the prism of Afrofuturism and the music of the 1970s group Labelle (singers Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash) and the millennial Janelle Monáe. There is a long rich black quare music tradition to which Afrofuturism has been central. Afrofuturist quare musicians (from Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe) create post–civil rights worlds in which African Americans enjoy full social privilege and civil rights and liberties and inhabit spaces welcoming a range of emancipated black sexualities.
In this essay I will analyze two recordings and videos, one by Labelle and one by Monáe, that meld science (speculative) fiction with postwar black popular music. In 1974 the trio Labelle released the Alan Toussaint–produced Nightbirds. The album included both the monster hit "Lady Marmalade," which breached taboos by identifying with a sex worker and by addressing interracial sexual encounters, as well as "You Turn Me On." A quare reading of Labelle's 1974 "You Turn Me On," performed February 22, 1975, on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, considers how the group navigated the limiting girl group / soul diva dichotomies of the mainstream media to offer a utopian vision of black sexuality.5 The second recording is 2013's "Q.U.E.E.N." (Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated, and Negroid), from Monáe's Electric Lady CD, part of a trilogy that includes 2010's Metropolis: The Chase Suite and 2008's The ArchAndroid.6 "Q.U.E.E.N." posits Janelle Monáe as a revolutionary leader; Monáe's dystopia is the successor to Labelle's soul-era Afrofuturism. Vis-à-vis bell hooks (see "Selling Hot Pussy," in Black Looks: Race and Representation), these videos can be read as quare feminist critiques, for each troubles the way in which the music industry...