August 21, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Stick this into
By Amanda Nowinski
ODC THEATER, 10:30 p.m., June 2002: A thunderous, distorted breakbeat rolls through the theater, and the audience here for the mostly tame "Fresh Meat" queer arts series is no longer smiling. The naked ass of Pointfivefag (Juba Kalamka) is all greased up, and he's rubbing it fast, with his back facing the audience. The only item of clothing covering his torso is a green Starbucks apron that reads, "I Am the Star Buck." He takes large, exaggerated steps across the bleakly lit stage, mic in hand, shouting, "Don't let niggers call you faggot / Don't let faggots call you nigger." The waiflike G-Minus (Ralowe Trinitrotoluene Ampu) stands motionless center stage, his mouth bound with tape, and his butt covered in a thin, sad-looking pair of boxers. 25percenter (Tim'm T. West), draped in a T-shirt that reads "Mandingo," joins Pointfivefag's chant and struts left, where he breaks into a flawless head spin. "Don't let niggers call you faggot / Don't let faggots call you nigger."
"What is the Deep Dickollective supposed to be?" whispers a perplexed, mohawked man sitting next me. The largely white, queer audience is visibly uncomfortable. Backs stiffen against seats; eyeballs desperately search the stage for something they might consider familiar, normal, sane. Most of tonight's performances have steered clear of race and focused on issues of gender, soberly defining who and what each actor is: male-to-female, female-to-male, tranny-boi, butch dyke in man's body, and so on. But the D/DC brutally deals with race during this Pride Week show, thereby calling into question the validity of the supposedly all-inclusive rainbow flag with their act, "Intro to the Famous Outlaw League of Proto-Negroes." There's something extremely disconcerting about G-Minus standing there on the gray stage, gagged and skinny, and when he rips off the tape to join the chanting, the performance feels as if something has gone haywire, like an acid trip gone wrong. Generally, a queer crowd is tough to shock, but judging from the audience's squirming response, it's clear the Deep Dickollective has triumphed, confronting head on what Kobena Mercer once wrote: "White gay men retain a deafening silence on race."
After the 10-minute performance I rush outside to meet them. West grins wildly, as if he's just heard the best joke of his life. Kalamka steps lightly, almost hopping to West's car. Ampu has cut out, but the rest of us are headed to Cabel's Reef, a classic black gay bar in Oakland. "Now that was a great performance," West says, gunning the motor. Of course, there was no standing ovation, no sign of comprehension from the audience whatsoever but that's exactly what the members of the D/DC have come to expect.
"D/DC occupies this space that isn't exactly comfortable for anybody," West tells me a week later, during our interview at Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County (SMAAC), the Oakland-based gay youth center where he worked until he recently left to pursue teaching high school full time. "We're not comfortable for black gay people; we're not a comfortable act for white gay people, white straight people, black straight people. We draw people who are actually thinking about identity dealing with their racism and erotophobia. You don't get to be this cool gay white guy and not called out in some regards. But there are audiences that do get committed to the ideas that we're talking about, and they are doing some soul-searching."
I pursued the D/DC in late June because I wanted to find the right artists to cover for the last Bay Guardian story I would write before moving to New York. I went in search of a local act that was compelling beyond just the manifestation of their art, and after hearing about the Deep Dickollective, I knew I'd found my subject. I mean, if you mostly covered acts named after integers and drum machines, wouldn't you leap at something that sounds as if it was made of flesh and blood? Not to mention I'm a sucker for anyone with a wicked sense of humor.
"The Pointfivepoints," by Pointfivefag
Point one: Don't drink orange juice after brushing your teeth.
Point two: Never, ever, ever trust a rapper with dreadlocks.
Point three: Skilled MCs don't worry about being bitten, they just write more dope rhymes.
Point four: We are bourgeois, boho, post, post-modern, African American, homi-sexual, counter-hegemonic, anti-imperialist, renaissance Negroes stalling your cipher.
Point five: It's not that deep.
The danger in covering a gay hip-hop act is that one could easily lapse into wow-value reporting and treat the subject as just another "perpetual-phenomenon phenomenon," as scholar Sherrie Tucker calls it. Sort of like those tired stories about women in music that forever proclaim, "Guess what, guys? Women can make music, too!" (Note: I am guilty, once upon a time, of writing this story.) But after years of "Girls and Homos Can Do It, Too" reports, the novelty has long run dry. We've already read or heard about gay hip-hop acts like Mz. Platinum, Nikki, Hanifah Walidah, Tony Pope, Doug E., Arif Miles, Marcus René Van, Rainbow Flava, Duality, Katey Red, Caushun, Cyryus, Tori Fixx, Money, Tru Sol, Gemini, and Kage. So truthfully, I don't feel there's anything shocking or new about gay hip-hop, and if anything, I'm just annoyed with the way it's usually positioned in the press: as the freakish anomaly within hip-hop's frighteningly macho, relentlessly homophobic culture, one that festers around bitches and hos, guns, pimps, and drug dealers. While it's no secret that many rappers (and rockers, for that matter) have lyrically gay-bashed, the trumped-up false dichotomy of the sissies versus the gold-toothed thugs represents a racist, fear-based notion of hip-hop derived from tabloid sources like Hard Copy or 20/20 a version of hip-hop that begins and ends with Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Ice Cube.
The seeds of the D/DC were planted in 1998 when West, a writer (whose memoir, Red Dirt Revival, will soon be published), musician, scholar, social worker, and graduate of Duke, Stanford, and the New School for Social Research, linked up with Kalamka, a musician and performance artist and a graduate of Chicago State University. The two met at a Castro Theatre screening of Marlon Rigg's documentary on black gay life, Tongues Untied. There West read some of his own erotic poetry, and Kalamka approached him after the performance, aware that he had met his creative match. Kalamka produced his first album, Pre/Tensions, with Dick Deluxe of the Club Foot Orchestra and founded the Sugartruck label, on which the D/DC's work is released. At Stanford, where West was working on a graduate degree, Phillip Atiba Goff (Lightskindid), fellow grad student (and Harvard alum), entered the picture. By 2000 the group was formed, and the three began creating rhymes and beats. Soon Ampu, an anarchist and writer, joined the group and began to translate his novel in progress into verse. The D/DC is an ongoing, open-ended organization that now also includes 24-year-old Jeree Brown (J.B. RapItUp), a recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz who, in addition to being a poet and an MC, produces house and drum 'n' bass; and Marcus Rene Van (Mr. ManMan), a female-to-male performance poet and MC.
Sharp as switchblades
A week after the ODC performance, I catch the D/DC at a release party for their new CD, BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo. Tonight's show is at Brava Theater Center, and this time, instead of bewildering the audience, the group simply draws them in. After all, we know what we're in for. But during tonight's show, as Kalamka, West, and Ampu do their thing onstage with DJ Manny Black, the first thought that pops into my head is that the members of the D/DC could have easily pursued a mainstream career in hip-hop had they decided to leave queer politics out of the picture. They are, quite obviously, highly skilled MCs who make their own beats and possess dynamic stage personalities: West the intimidating heavy thinker with the preacher's voice, Ampu the mile-a-minute anarchist with an uneven afro and thrift-store clothes, Kalamka the personable, easygoing one with the game show-host voice, and Brown, the gorgeous, doe-eyed, soft-voiced poet. Their tongues are as sharp as switchblades, their vocabularies would put most college professors to shame, and although the name is clearly absurd, make no mistake: the Deep Dickollective is not a gimmick. Lest there be any doubt, the D/DC grew up b-boying just like the rest of hip-hop's finest.
So why go with the name, then? Why not tailor it to slip past disapproving eyes and into the man-loves-woman mainstream, where they could easily make their way like a host of other boho hip-hop acts such as Black Eyed Peas and Mos Def? Why turn off a large portion of a potential audience before it even gets a chance to hear the group play, because truly, few straight men are going to have the courage to say, "The Deep Dickollective are the dopest MCs in town."
During our interview at SMAAC, Ampu sits upside down in his chair, while Kalamka and West, who for more than three hours pour out thoughts that leave me thinking hard for weeks, tell me why they decided to take the D/DC risk:
Kalamka: It's a combination of being out and of my prior experiences with the industry. I have a tacit disinterest in record labels and in signing. I know how it works.
West: Because of my cognizance of my sexual identity, I automatically had an aversion to the mainstream music industry.
Kalamka: Once you understand that signing and success doesn't have anything to do with ability, then you understand the politics and the mechanics. And when you talk about what happened to a lot of gay black writers once they passed on, there were issues of their families denying that they were gay like Essex Hemphill's family and people having access to their work. I wanted something that was controlled by the people who conceived it. I didn't want someone to come back 10 years from now and say, "That was a joke." Even the stage manager at the Brava show asked us, "Are you guys really gay?"
West: We had the histories of being closeted and being into hip-hop. We've already done that, and that wasn't an option for us any longer. Choosing a name like Deep Dickollective forces people to think of sex and sexuality, our bodies, and blackness all of these things all at once.
Kalamka: And if you have a problem dealing with us, then I don't have a problem saying, "Well, you probably shouldn't listen to us."
We are daring our tongues to be rebellious, shameless, rhythmic
Essex incarnations filled with holy spirits
Boy loving banji-boy emcees endear it
Society fear it and never ever wanna get near it, gay lyric
Righteous rappers allude to Babylonian gunclappers
Wewearthemaskers and sodomite fudgepackers
My quest inverts the question back atcha
How you gonna be pro black unity when we excluded from the data....
From "Mariposa Pre-Lube"
At ODC, right before the first intermission and the D/DC's now infamous psychedelic onslaught, a man appears onstage under the name House of Vogue. There's a lonely spotlight illuminating his muscled body as he slowly, gracefully moves his arms around his face, building invisible shapes. The Buckethead's familiar house classic "Bomb! (These Sounds Fall into My Mind)" crunches through the sound system, and as the dancer unwinds his body with a sad, distant languor, I move quickly to the edge of my seat, and my eyes begin to tear. He removes his T-shirt and ties it around his head the headdress of the gay dance club diehard. I've never witnessed this sort of thing onstage, and it brings me back, far back to the gay house clubs that formed my fake-ID years. I have seen and felt this vogueing ghost a million times before; it's an eerie figment from a haunted, disconnected club kid dream. Of all the dance performances I've seen tonight and trust me, there have been many this slow-motion sequence moves me the most. I'm still perched on the edge of my seat, squinting, breathless, disturbed by this bittersweet vision from another time. The music ends, and he quietly walks offstage.
During the intermission I find Kalamka and grab him, demanding, "Please introduce me to the House of Vogue guy!" Kalamka gives me a funny look. "Huh? That's Tim'm." My love has just grown stronger, and later on, when I listen to West's house and hip-hop solo work on his Bayou Sessions EP, the bigger D/DC picture becomes even more clear.
"I don't know a straight MC who will want to get into a battle with me," Juba says during our marathon conversation at SMAAC. "I mean, what are you going to talk about? How are you going to break a fag who actually has skills? Hip-hop is straight black maleness."
If battling in the cipher (a circle of MCs) reveals the strongest MC, gay rappers who can rhyme would probably have the upper hand, particularly if you're talking about dissing. Rest assured that the gay rapper has heard it all before he or she comes prepared with an arsenal of comebacks. Words like "fag," "sissie," and "fudgepacker" aren't going to come as any surprise; in fact, these terms are expected.
West: [Describing an experience at Collective Soul in Berkeley] They knew who [Ampu and I] were, and as soon as we walked up to the cipher, they just stopped. They didn't want us to join in. It's that discomfort of "If my skill is also bound up in the fact that I'm a hetero, and being hetero in my mind is also being better than or more talented than a gay rapper, what if a gay rapper comes up there and out-rhymes me?" First of all, I sit around a gay youth center where black sissies talk about each other in ways you don't even want to step into [Ampu, Kalamka, and Brown break into laughter]. I know what to say about you to make you feel bad. Gay people master the dozens, and when they get together, it's what black gays call "reading." You don't want to step in the middle of that.
Ampu: [Still hanging upside down] The fag has entered, and the cipher has stalled.
West: There's a social ignorance around black queer culture. All the ideas in the mainstream we get about queer culture are white it's Ellen, it's Will and Grace, it's Queer as Folk. And when you do have black characters, they have white partners and lovers. You can't enter a room of black
Ampu: [Interrupting] of black orgies. But you can rent it.
West: It's expected for black men to be homophobic. It's a part of the way we construct black male identity. Black male equals homophobic. And when journalists give excuses to "conscious" rappers like Common, it's like, "Oh well, Common is just a black male who grew up in a black environment where being homophobic is accepted." No it's not. My mother didn't allow my brothers to use the word "faggot" in my house. People make assumptions about the black community that are unfair. I mean, these kids all come from black families, and when they leave SMAAC, they go home to their black mommies, their black daddies, and most of those family members know that they're gay and lesbian. And we're not getting that side of the story.
Kalamka: And then there's the whole politics around Eminem, like he's so hard and so real. The journalism around it is this feeding frenzy, especially about his homophobic lyrics, but there's been homophobia in hip-hop forever.
West: But all of a sudden GLAAD wants to act now. But it's like, well, what about when I was 17, listening to X-Clan or Slick Rick or whoever else was saying "fag," and you weren't trying to protect me then? Now you're talking about homophobia in hip-hop affecting gay youth suicides, but you weren't concerned about it then, when it was niggers listening to niggers. But now that our white kids are listening to hip-hop, oh, well, we'd better pay attention.
After the interview at SMAAC we head over to the Merritt Café, Oakland's classic after-hours eatery. From the tables you can see pies, cakes, and Jell-O cups reflected in the mirrored fridge, and the waiters wear matching uniforms. As soon as we open the menu, I know exactly what Ampu is going to order, even though I just met him hours earlier: waffles and fried chicken breast. The waiter comes up to us, and Ampu orders in a strange, vaguely European accent: "Yes, I'd like the fried chicken breast and waffles, please. And I'd like two breasts with that, if you will." Ampu is careful to overly enunciate the word "breasts," and the older waiter is visibly annoyed. "You can only get one," she says. But Ampu, for whom the world is a perpetual stage, isn't done yet: "Yes, but I would like two breasts. Two breasts." I get the feeling it's going to get ugly, but she takes the rest of our orders, and we begin to relax.
As we eat, West talks about his positive HIV status, about having to take those damn pills everyday, and he asks, "What if I stopped taking them?" I know he's joking, but it's hard to tell. This makes my mouth run dry and sends chills up my spine. I can't even begin to count the men I've lost in my life to AIDS. When you listen to West speak, when you know what he's accomplished in his short life so far, it becomes apparent that you're in the presence of someone larger than life, someone whose name will never be forgotten. Thus, I can't believe what I'm hearing.
Later, when I ride BART back to the city with Kalamka and then hop on the 47 alone, I start to think about West and begin to cry. I play the last part of our interview on my tape recorder and find the West quote that pulls it all together: "What the D/DC is doing is not about homohop, and it's not really about gay people in hip-hop. What it's really about is, we are rappers who believe, struggle, and fight for freedom inside of hip-hop to the utmost degree." I get off the bus, and it's after 1 a.m., but I can't fall asleep until sunrise.
Deep Dickollective plays Aug. 31, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., East Bay Pride, PeaceOUT Stage, 14th St. between Clay and Jefferson, Oakl. $5, free before noon. Call (510) 663-3980, go to www.eastbaypride.org, or contact Juba Kalamka at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Also Sept. 1, 10 p.m., Oakland Metro, 201 Broadway, Oakl. $10. (510) 763-1146. Tim'm T. West performs at "OUTSpoken: A Poetic Experience," Aug. 30, Washington Inn Hotel, 10th St., Oakl. $10. Go to www.reddirt.biz for more information about Tim'm's performances. Go to www.deep-dickollective.com, sugartruck.tripod.com, and www.gayhiphop.com for more about Deep Dickollective.