Kalup Linzy by Lee Ann Norman

Kalup Linzy on growing up in a small town, soap operas and his new feature film, Romantic Loner.

Genre-crossing, multidisciplinary artist Kalup Linzy is known for his short videos featuring a cast of characters with big dreams to match their big personalities and complex lives. I’ve known of Linzy and his bawdy, affecting, and quite funny videos for a while, but have only recently began to really look at them. Linzy’s low-tech aesthetic subverts the tropes and stereotypes from the soap operas and old Hollywood movies that populate his videos. Whether he is employing voiceovers and shooting in black and white or gender-bending and intentionally editing out of sync, Linzy makes work that obliges viewers to reconsider ways of making meaning. We met recently one afternoon in Brooklyn to talk about roots, home, family, and art.

Kalup Linzy 1

Still from Romantic Loner, 2013.

Lee Ann Norman You’re from Stuckey, a small town in Florida—would you call it a tight-knit community?

Kalup Linzy It was close-knit, but it wasn’t closed. It wasn’t really like a small town but more like a settlement where people migrated, so they just never incorporated. Well, I think they had the opportunity to incorporate [as a municipality], but they didn’t want to—the community was always reluctant. They thought the city or the county would come in and kind of take over.

My great grandmother and grandfather migrated there to work at a steel mill. Shanties were donated for people to live in—kind of like a Little House on the Prairie community. There were a lot of small businesses back in the day run by the people in the community, like gas stations and stores. But something happened, the crack epidemic, and shit like that… so there’s a gap. A particular generation didn’t keep the entrepreneurship going full punch. And then with my generation, a lot of us moved away and then came back. You were kind of taught to get away from there once certain things start to happen in your life. I think that happens in a lot of small towns.

LAN That’s true. I’m from a small town, too.

KL Where from?

LAN This place called Danville in East Central Illinois. My grandparents came up from Alabama to work for General Motors. It’s the same concept, I think: pursue something bigger; do something to get you to another, better thing. And us—we all leave and go to New York. (laughter)

KL (laughter) Yeah! Exactly! It’s a similar thing. You know, because they did. Our grandparents migrated, so probably the whole idea of going somewhere to work lives within us somehow.

One Life To Heal

Still from Conversations Wit De Churen X: One Life to Heal, 2013.

LAN People want to—whatever the dream might be, whatever this moment is—make their mark in the world. Stuckey is really remarkable—they have this whole society set up that’s outside of traditional forms of government, and I think that experience informs a lot of your work. Have you always been making videos and performances, or how did you get into that?

KL I actually started making the short videos when I was in high school, but I started in junior high, just walking around with a video camera. When I got to high school and it was time to write a paper, I would just ask if I could make a video. The media teacher taught me to edit and let me go into school after hours to work. I was student body president, so they trusted me to be there after hours. Even when I went to college, I could go back and work at the high school.

I didn’t know what a video and performance artist was. I just wanted to make movies and be in entertainment, so I just started writing little stories, and then me and my cousins would act them out. When I went to college, I studied mass communications, which, then, was like how to do the news. But it’s different now. When I was doing it, they were like: “You’re being a little too effeminate.” I had a little too much feminine swagger when I was doing it in a performative way. But now, you look on TV and everybody is everything. I wasn’t offended when my peers would say that to me, but I do remember feeling: This is not going so well. When I recorded some songs like Toni Braxton’s Let It Flow, the studio engineer told me he thought I could have a real career as a recording artist. But in my mind, I didn’t see that as a possibility because a person like Usher was our idea of a male teen idol. I never saw myself in that way. I mean, I loved to sing, but being a recording artist just didn’t connect with me. I took some theater classes, but I didn’t want to major in it, and something in me was not…

LAN It just wasn’t enough.

KL Yeah. I just couldn’t get settled. My advisor told me to take some film classes in the art department. They just gave us cameras there, and then we’d have discussions, go out and shoot, bring the footage back… We had access to the 8mm, the Bolex cameras, and we also had digital cameras—we already knew things were going digital. I only shot on the film cameras every now and then. We were experimenting, so you had to figure out what worked for you. They were teaching us a “visual artist way” for film making, not a formula.

LAN When you were making that transition to thinking of yourself as a professional artist, you began developing your aesthetic of lo-fi, lo-tech (like the soap opera work), but also focusing on maintaining a compelling story filled with characters that people can relate to and care about. How did you know that was your thing? Where did that come from?

KL In terms of technology, it was about doing the most that I could on a semi-professional level without needing a big budget. When I was in screen writing classes, they taught us how to develop characters, how to format screenplays and TV shows. I grew up watching soap operas with my grandmother. I told one of my cousins that I was going to move to New York and be on a soap opera, but that I wouldn’t keep people hanging like on a Friday, and he said, “Well ain’t nobody go’n’ watch your soap opera if you tell them everything in one day.” (laughter)

LAN Growing up, I watched them with my grandmother too. I remember in the summers when we were at her house that there would be time for her stories. I was never really into them, but the next summer when I would come back and we’d watch them, I would remember what was going on. They draw things out forever!

KL I got pulled in during junior high school. By that time, I was watching them myself. My grandmother was deaf from a young age, and she had already caught on to the soap operas, and so she was able to continue to follow them. It was DonahueSally Jesse RaphaelThe Price is Right, the news—she’d kind of watch the news, and she’d cook lunch or whatever. Then by 12:30 (she would sometimes be at the sewing machine watching), it used to be The Young and the RestlessCapital—this is CBS—then they took Capital off and put The Bold and the Beautiful on (laughter), then As the World TurnsGuiding Light, and then turn to ABC forOprah! (laughter)

LAN Issues of race come up in your work, and so do gender and sexuality. In a lot of the films, you play all of the characters. I was just thinking, Well, he’s a man, and he might be playing a female character and people think immediately—oh, drag! But it’s not necessarily drag all the time, right? Is it that simple? I think of someone like Tyler Perry who plays Madea, but people don’t really talk about that character or Tyler Perry being in drag. And what about the heavy metal hair bands from the 1980s when we were kids? I feel like maybe there is more of a critique or a questioning of our norms and stereotypes in your work that could be looked at.

KL I think it came up when I was deciding what I wanted to do. For me, there was always a separation, like drag is what I see when I go to the gay club—

LAN Me too! That’s how I think of it, but I know there’s more.

KL Yeah, I was the same way. When I first discovered it, I would go watch, and think, Some of these shows are interesting, and others, they needed to push it more… but I also wanted to be like Eddie Murphy. At the time, Tyler Perry was underground, and he hadn’t really risen to mainstream status.

LAN Right, no movies yet.

KL Yeah, just the church plays. I would go home, and people would pop in these tapes and I thought, Oh this is interesting. They would say to me, “You should do this,” and I would be like, “I do not wanna do no church plays!” (laughter) And people would say, “But he makes all that money!” And I would think, Chile, you do not want me up in there… (laughter)

I don’t have anything against his work, but he is not really an influence. I was also at this stage where when you kinda know you’re gay, but you don’t really tell people. I thought that if I worked hard and really developed this stuff then said that I’m gay… I felt that I shouldn’t just make work about being gay. I mean, I am gay, but I don’t think about that all day long. It’s not what’s driving me. I have to be careful though. Sometimes people in the community ask me if I’m ashamed of being gay, but it’s not like that. I’m not ashamed of being anything. I just have other interests.

Romantic Loner Still

Still from Romantic Loner, 2013.

LAN This question is probably silly or obvious, but did you feel like people had this expectation of what your life is like or how you would behave when you would tell them you’re gay? Do you think that’s what they were questioning?

KL Coming out of the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS crisis… that’s what my family saw, so they thought, That’s your fate if you’re gay. I did decide in my mind to work really hard not to be a statistic. My mother was on drugs and schizophrenic—I was raised by my grandmother, aunt, and uncle, my father was fifteen minutes away. I didn’t want to be on drugs, or a drug dealer, or a gay person dying of AIDS. Because of trauma—and I had some hard times in childhood—people do turn to drugs, start dealing drugs and have unprotected sex because they don’t feel love. I do feel love, but I have periods where I just feel alone and I need to connect with people. So I understand that impulse, but I never gave in to it because I also saw where people could end up first hand.

LAN It seems like you had enough good influences in your life, and places where you could ground even if you were feeling unsteady.

KL You know how they say black people have to work twice as hard? I just knew with adding the gay layer that I’d have to work that much harder to really make the work outstanding so it could transcend, and people could look past the other stuff to really appreciate it.

LAN So let’s talk about Kaye. Kaye is a new character you’ve created and stars in your new feature film Romantic Loner. I think everybody can kind of relate to Kaye—he’s on this quest, this search for meaning in life.

KL Mmmhmm. (laughter) Well, Kaye looking for his place in life is also me trying to find a place for him in my work at this point.

LAN (laughter) So he’s truly wandering!

KL Right! I decided to kill off Taiwan (a crass, diva-like singer of emotional songs like Assholeintroduced around 2003) because he operated in such a sad space, and I felt like I had to go pick up that sadness in order to perform him, and it was a lot. I mean, I love endurance, but I endure in a different way. I was looking for a shift, and George Haddad commissioned me—he was looking for artists to do these music videos. I did a video, but when I was doing it, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to use one of my characters because it would intrude on this piece commissioned by someone else. Needless to say, I went out and got a wig and created an outfit. When I got to the shoot, I put it on and thought, Ooooh, I kinda like this. (laughter) I told George that I wanted to develop the character more, so he would probably see him flow in and out of other videos. I named the character “Kaye” and started developing this script called Art Jobs and Lullabies. When I got into writing it, I realized that I would need a whole film crew to produce Art Jobs and Lullabies. Then, I heard about the alumni residency program at Headlands Art Center, and thought maybe I could write something that could work there. I developed a prequel to introduce Kaye and called it Romantic Loner with the idea that he would go on an art residency and he would sing songs. Having him be in an art context relates him to my character Katonya, and him singing relates him to Taiwan, so I made him Taiwan’s cousin.

I made Romantic Loner so that Kaye could have a story, but also so I could show people my stories in feature film form. The short stuff, that’s my brand, but when you try to do a feature, people start asking all of these questions, and I thought this would be a good way to show them the scope of what I can do, to create this space that will allow me to make feature films as well as continue to make the shorts. In fact, I’m shooting a new short with Michael Stipe [ofR.E.M.], so it’s funny that you brought up the 1980s rockers! It’s called Conversations Wit De Churen X: One Life to Heal. I’m developing a project now where I’m building a family tree; there will be 40 branches with each character. It’s going to go back to the great grandmother and grandfather who were orphans in Florida. The grandfather’s name is Jacob Queen and the grandmother’s name is Florida Rose Queen. (You’ll see the characters from All My Churen, KK Queen and her kids…) Michael Stipe is married to a character called Teresa Linzy Jones, who is Hope Jones’s sister. I’m playing Teresa.

Michael plays a character called Christian Jones, so he’s actually Kaye’s uncle by marriage, and Taiwan’s cousin. In the film, we find out how Taiwan came up missing and how he died. They were all on a cruise—Kaye, Taiwan, Teresa, and Christian. They left, but Taiwan stayed on the island longer to record a project and something happens to him.

So with the family tree project—I’m taking still images from past videos and putting the characters on canvas with their name and the year they’re born, and people can figure out what video they came from. I’m also making new characters: I’m gonna play Kaye’s mom (who is Lisa) and his aunt (Teresa), and then for Hope Jones—since 3 people have played her—I will probably have all three Hopes collaged together, you know how they do that on soap operas, so you can get a taste of how all three took on the role. I think that will be funny. (laughter)

I’m excited about it—the new characters in the family tree will be introduced in May. I knew the characters were related, but I didn’t know how. Now that I’m starting to sit down and connect the dots and create their story, interesting things are starting to happen. Because of how complicated African American history is, we can only go back so far, and that’s why I decided to make the grandparents orphans. Trying to go back to Africa, and then decide what plantation they were part of… that would be a bit much. (laughter) It will be interesting for people to see me in new roles, but then the characters they’ve gotten to know will start popping up, so hopefully that will trigger their imaginations, too. But it all depends on what I’m interested in and what people want to see. That will take center stage.

Check out Kalup Linzy in Katie Cercone’s Goddess Clap Back: Hip-Hop Feminism in Art, July 11-August 10 at the Cue Art Foundation. For more on Kalup Linzy, visit his website.

Lee Ann Norman is a culture maker and bridge builder whose interests lie in the ways others read the world, and how their reading(s) influence everything. She uses her formal education along with her street smarts, intuition, and wit to fuel a penchant for shaking things up in the world.

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