LOS ANGELES — In 1984, the writer Richard Goldstein interviewed James Baldwin at New York’s now defunct Riviera Café, Baldwin’s Village haunt. Their conversation, now archived in the book James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, primarily focused on the state of gay life in America and its entanglement with racism and homophobia.
At one point in their talk, Goldstein, who spent nearly 40 years covering culture and gay issues for The Village Voice, asked Baldwin about black people’s capacity to accept gay America. The question perhaps caught Baldwin by surprise, as his very existence, though not always widely known, resided in this intersection. Baldwin responded that “there is a capacity in black people for experience, simply … . The capacity for experience is what burns out fear.”
Baldwin’s idea of the infinite realm of black experience, or queer black experience, crossed my mind as I watched the performances of “Quiet Isn’t Kept: Amplifications in Black Queer Voice” at the Main Museum on Sunday. The year-old museum hosted nine black queer artists for an experimental evening of poetry, storytelling, music and performance.
Though the show varied in mediums from hip-hop to poetry to mixed genre and more, MC and rapper Micah James explained that artists all offered a specific look — whether harsh, comical, or straight-up raw — into what he called the show’s main theme: “nigga shit,” the realities and journeys of black queer folks in America.
As each performer came to the museum’s center room, a rotating video played behind them, featuring a range of black media, from Marlon Riggs’s 1994 film, Black is … Black Ain’t, to music videos, protests, home movies of an unnamed black lesbian couple’s first wedding dance, and even images of Baldwin, whose spirit lingered throughout the show.
In one performance, rapper Thed Jewel echoed a well-known cry for liberation. In his song “Fuchsia,” which he believes is the color of sexuality, Jewel sang over and over “Let my people free,” his cadence and fervor bleeding into the familiar territory of gospel and prayer. He worked the crowd as fuchsia and indigo lights lit up his body. “I was born into a hearse because I was black first,” he sang, acutely aware of what Baldwin called being “menaced and marked,” the twofold conundrum of being black and gay.
With this existence inevitably comes the encounter with white supremacy. That was, on one level, the theme of poet and writer Brandon Drew Holmes’s reading— one part art critique, one part sociological observation — on Robert Mapplethorpe, who was known for exploiting black men in his photographs. Holmes opened the reading by asking the audience if they knew who Mapplethorpe was. “Robert Mapplethorpe is trash,” Holmes announced amid cheers before reading from his chapbook. Here, Mapplethorpe is not just a famous photographer, he becomes metonymic for whiteness, for any other unapologetic white gay male, thirsty to make blackness his own.
Underlying Holmes’s read of Mapplethorpe, Amanda-Faye Jimenez’s humorous storytelling, and Naeem Juwan’s solemn rap is the isolation of black queer folks, who caught between gay and black worlds, often struggle to find some semblance of home.
Yet the explosive voices of Sunday’s show created a joyful, if but brief, moment among friends. The second-to-last act found the audience coaxed into dance by singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “pop prodigy” Black Gatsby, who ascended the stage donning a black brimmed hat and sequined pants after a year-long hiatus. The mostly black, mostly artist crowd went wild, feet stamping, arms embracing, song pouring out — Los Angeles burned.