Exploring M. Lamar's 'Negro Gothic Sensibility'

First published on Out.com, May 23, 2014. Read the original with photos and video here.

Before starting a conversation with musician and multimedia artist M. Lamar there are a few things you should read up on: doom metal, Robert Mapplethorpe, Frantz Fanon, Plato, Leontyne Price, bell hooks’ concept of white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, James Brown, James Baldwin, counter tenors, Cecil Taylor, the early films of Todd Haynes, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker…

This list could go on forever—as could any conversation with Lamar. Thankfully, to enjoy his performances and their freaky bricolage of opera and heavy metal, raw emotion and formal training, flesh and spirit, there’s no reading required. You simply have to be willing to go there. “There,” in this case, being the deep recesses of Lamar’s psyche, where an entire universe of “negro gothic sensibility” is waiting for an audience willing to take the plunge.

"It’s always been a total vision that I have,” Lamar says of his work. He’s an auteur of an artist, determined to write, direct, and star in all of his own endeavors. Perhaps that’s one reason why Hilton Als labeled him a “diva” in the pages of the New Yorker (where he also wrote that Lamar is an “up-and-coming” luminary of NYC’s downtown performance scene).

This totality of vision is what drove Lamar from Alabama (where he was born and raised), to the San Francisco Art Institute(where he studied painting), to Yale’s prestigious studio art MFA program (where he switched over to sculpture), back to San Francisco (this time fronting a series of metal bands), and eventually to the galleries and cabarets of New York City, where his vision is finally blossoming into a series of performances. And a feature-length film. And a gallery show. And a haunting music video wherein naked white boys in a stockade read Hegel while Lamar croons “fuck you” to them in his evocative soprano.

And that’s not to mention the role he’s probably most well known for: Playing the pre-transition scenes of Sophia in the first season of Orange Is the New Black (a part for which he was particularly well suited, given that Laverne Cox—the actress who plays Sophia on OINTB—is Lamar’s twin sister).

For the last two years, Lamar’s been working on a show called Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, which he performed at NYC’s La Mama gallery in January. It explores the story of Willie Francis, a 16-year-old black boy who was executed in Louisiana in 1947. Twice.

How is that possible? “I always say in America we can find a way to kill a black man twice,” Lamar laughs, but he’s only half joking. A drunken prison guard, he explains, installed the electric chair improperly the first time. Francis had been found guilty of killing a white pharmacist named Andrew Thomas, who was either his employer, his lover, or his abuser, depending on how you assemble the facts and rumors swirling around this nearly century-old crime.

The question of interracial consent and desire in a racist world is at the heart of Surveillance, which shuttles back and forth in time between the true story of Willie Francis, a hypothetical consensual slave/overseer relationship on a plantation in 1847, and the modern day. The film’s visuals are as visceral as Lamar’s vocals. When talking about his art, Lamar is an intellectual powerhouse, but his work is informed by that thinking—not constrained by it. It is as emotional as it is thoughtful.

Much of his work focuses on black male sexuality, and white America’s pathological fascination with it. “I’m very interested in white men and their preoccupation with certain kinds of stereotypes about black men and black men’s genitalia,” Lamar tells me. This interest isn’t limited to gay men, Lamar points out—just look at all the white guys directing “big black dick” straight porn. In his music, Lamar turns the lens around, and looks at white people looking at black people. In so doing, he makes obvious the distance between the real lives of black men and the narrow ways in which they are portrayed in the mainstream (white) imagination.

Lamar is currently working on turning Surveillance into a feature-length film, which he hopes to complete later this year. Early stills and props from Surveillance (including a “penis guillotine” and a “Mapplethorpe whip”), as well as items from some of Lamar’s older pieces, will form the basis of NEGROGOTHIC a Manifesto: The Aesthetic of M Lamar, a visual art show that will run from Sept. 7 through Oct. 12 at New York City’s Participant Inc. Gallery. “It’s going to be like a retrospective,” Lamar says, “but not—because I’m too young.”

Is Gay Singer Steve Grand Really Country Music’s Frank Ocean?

First published on The Daily Beast, March 25, 2014. Read the original, with video, here.

On July 2, 2013, little-known singer-songwriter Steve Grand YouTubed the video for his indie single “All-American Boy”, which the now 24-year-old Illinois-native made for a little over $7,000. “I’d never used a credit card before,” he recalled with a laugh. The video featured a chiseled Grand serenading an oblivious (but ultimately understanding) straight male friend, asking him to be his “All-American boy tonight/Where every day’s the 4th of July.” Seven days later, the song had gone hyper-viral and Grand was being written about by every media outlet in the country (I covered him here). It even rocketed him to a spot on Good Morning America, where they proclaimed him a “gay country star.”

Perhaps it would be more correct to say the gay male country star, since there has yet to be one in America (Canada, on the other hand, is home to sexy bear crooner Drake Jensen). But while the response from fans was instantaneous and overwhelming, critics opined that a single did not a star make, and that country music just wasn’t ready for an out gay man to top the charts.

Now, the Kickstarter campaign to fund Grand’s first album has become one of the top five most funded music campaigns in the site’s history, generating over a quarter of a million dollars so far. But the question still remains: Is the country music establishment ready for a gay star? And if so, is Grand the one?

Truth be told, country music already has a long history of gay songs and singers, with obvious recent examples being k.d. Lang and Chely Wright. Dolly Parton, although rumored to be heterosexual, certainly has a big place in the gay world. Grammy award winner Kacey Musgrave scored a hit last year with “Follow Your Arrow,” in which she sings “Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into.” Latin country artist Ned Sublette wrote “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” in 1981, and Willie Nelson covered it in 2006. In 1992, Garth Brooks scored a GLAAD Media Award with his song “We Shall All Be Free,” which has the lyrics “We shall be free/When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” And there are any number of queer banjo-and-fiddle hipster bands for the country-by-way-of-NPR set (not to knock the genre; it takes up half my iPod).

Earlier country musicians may not have performed songs with explicitly homo sensibilities, but many found radio success with story songs that tweaked the sexual mores of their listeners, like Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” or Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Tom Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA.” And I know I’m not the first to wonder what made Billie Joe McAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. (How do I know that? Because in 1976, Warner Bros released the movie Ode to Billy Joe, which despite the change in spelling was an adaptation of Bobbie Gentry’s song. In it, Billy Joe commits suicide after a drunken gay hookup.)

I could go on, but what’s the point? No matter how long the list, a few things will remain true: all the men on the list are straight, as are the most successful women. The two lesbians listed only came out after they had released multiple albums. Country has engaged in a long flirtation with gay music, but so far, Nashville hasn’t been ready to seal the deal. But there are signs that that’s changing.

Legendary country radio DJ and songwriter Gerry House has been ensconced in the Nashville scene since 1975. In his recent memoir Country Music Broke My Brain, he has an entire chapter devoted to “Gay Country.” In his opinion “hardly anyone on Music Row would punish you if you’re gay,” and in fact, he’s “long suspected there are several major Hillbilly Twang Slingers who ride Side Saddle.”

This theory must be in the air in Nashville, because it’s also on the air in Nashville, the hit ABC show starring Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton. On the show, Chris Carmack plays up-and-coming closeted cowboy hit maker Will Lexington. In a 2013 interview with Vulture showrunner Callie Khouri said “It is something that I think is a real thing… There are always rumors.” Just ask Kenny Chesney or Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, both of whom have had to address gay rumors repeatedly throughout their careers.

The stage seems set for country’s Frank Ocean moment—which brings us back to Grand. When asked if country music is ready for a gay star, Grand comments on “this huge shift in our country socially,” which he sees as being generational. “There’s definitely a lot of progressive country music fans, especially my generation and below.” Younger listeners simply don’t care as much about labels (for sexuality or musical genres).

Even if established industry execs are still hesitant, the explosion of YouTube has made it easy for new, edgy artists to get around traditional gatekeepers. Just look at, say, Steve Grand. “All-American Boy” has nearly 3 million views.

But though country music may be ready for a gay male star, and Grand is flattered and humbled by the assertions that he’s it, he’s quick to point out that his music isn’t traditional country. He sees himself as “a pop artist with influences of country and rock and maybe some folk,” and fans can expect to see all of that on his album this summer. “I know I have a lot of country fans,” he says, from reading the messages they send him (all of which he tries to answer). He’s delighted they’re responding to his music, but he doesn’t want to misrepresent himself—there’s more to his sound than just country.

There was a time, perhaps, when that alone would have prevented Grand from becoming a country sensation, but in the age of Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood, the line between country and pop has become rather porous. Grand might not be pure country, but then again, country’s not pure country anymore either.

Who knows when country’s gay glass ceiling will break, or whether it will be done by an established artist coming out or an up-and-comer who’s never been “in.” But the glass gets thinner every year, and someday soon the sound of it shattering will be playing on every country station in America.

Steve Grand’s ‘All-American Boy’ and the End of the Gay-Panic Defense.

First published in The Daily Beast, July 10, 2013. Read the original (with comments) here.

Just in time for July Fourth, Steve Grand—a singer-songwriter who hopes to become the first gay male country icon—released his debut video on YouTube. “All-American Boy” is a paean to everything country: bonfires, whisky, pickup trucks, the American flag, skinny-dipping, and trying to make out with your best friend as soon as the girls are gone. In just a week it’s already racked up nearly a half million views on YouTube. Not bad for a 23-year-old kid from Chicago with no label, no agent, and no management.

Grand has the voice to make it, not to mention the face and the abs (especially the abs). But is country music ready for him? Who knows? Artists like k.d. lang and Chely Wright have proven that the world is ready for lesbian country singers, at least in a limited capacity; after all, neither of them is (or aspires to be) Miley Cyrus or Carrie Underwood. A true gay country star in his prime still seems as far away as a gay leading man. But even if Grand is just a sexy flash in the pan, the video for “All-American Boy” is still noteworthy.

In the video, we watch as Grand’s puppy-dog eyes stare longingly at his best friend across the campfire, in a pickup truck, and, finally, while splashing in the local swimming hole. As the music climaxes, he kisses his friend full on the mouth while they both tread water naked. For a long moment, everything is suspended as we wonder what will happen next. Is “All-American Boy” in the spirit of a “gay is good” mid-’90s independent film, where the rules of fantasy dictate that love can overcome all obstacles, even good-old-boy heterosexuality? Or are we about to watch the sort of brutal smackdown that’s all too common in both film and real life?

As it turns out, neither. The boy pulls away and returns to the party, as does Grand. The vibe between the two is unchanged. Sure, tomorrow at the rodeo there might be a few awkward moments, but you get the sense that that’s it. Grand gets to be disappointed without being disparaged, disowned, or disemboweled. And somehow, like nearly every living woman on earth, Grand’s love interest is able to handle a man’s unwanted advance without going ape shit and killing him. Astonishing, right?

The tradition of killing a man because he hits on you is so enshrined in our culture, it even has a name: the gay-panic defense (see: Matthew Shepard, Richard Barrett, Scott Amedure, etc., ad nauseum—very nauseum). “All-American Boy” is a sign that perhaps, just perhaps, the fragile flower of American masculinity has finally toughened the fuck up. Not that I don’t cherish my supposed ability to drive men crazy, but I’d like the crazy in question to be a little more metaphorical and a little less murder-y.

If there is a sea change in the making, it’s good news for straight guys as well as us predatory homosexuals. Just this June, the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section announced a proposal to urge the banning of the gay-panic defense in criminal proceedings, which will hopefully pass at its national meeting in August. The relevant text of the agenda for the meeting reads:

The Criminal Justice Section ... urges ... governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses, which seek to partially or completely excuse crimes on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction.

In recent years, the gay-panic defense has rarely carried the day in court, making this move somewhat symbolic. But homophobes, consider this a warning: very soon, you may have one less excuse in your arsenal. (Or maybe not very soon, considering the state of Congress at the moment.)

This change isn’t happening in a vacuum. Just a decade ago, the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 would have been unimaginable, in large part due to arguments that same-sex marriage would, in some ineffable way, damage straight marriages—or perhaps the very institution of marriage itself, not to mention the family, masculinity, femininity, religion, America, puppies, and apple pie. Today one need only Google around for a few seconds to find any number of amusing essays about what a ridiculous idea this is, many of them written by straight, married people.

Of course, these changes are all well and good in paper and pixels, but the real test will come when the rubber hits the road, or in this case, when the boy hits on the boy. And it should be noted that while the bar association urges banning the “trans panic defense” as well, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program’s 2012 report, transgender people are 167 percent more likely to experience anti-LGBTQ hate violence than their gender-normative LGB counterparts. In fact, in 2012, 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were transgender. In many states, anti-transgender discrimination in housing, employment, and other matters is still legal. Though the ABA’s resolution is a step in the right direction, given the magnitude of the problem, it is tantamount to putting a Band-Aid on a flesh wound. The lack of transgender legal protections in this country should be criminal, and it seems depressingly unlikely that the vast apparatus of anti-anti-marriage campaigns will transform any time soon into a broader movement for social justice for all LGBTQ individuals.

But still, I can’t watch “All-American Boy” without smiling, even if the boy doesn’t get the boy in the end. Unrequited longing is the essence of youth. Indeed, without it, Taylor Swift would have no career, and Twilight would have no audience. “All-American Boy” welcomes gay boys into the club.