I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I am an artist. I am a NEGROGOTHIC, devil-worshipping, free black man in the blues tradition. Those are the things I am now.”
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M. Lamar is an artist whose work in music and performance straddles the genres of gospel, opera, punk, goth, and metal and blues traditions. While these sources may seem broad-ranging and disparate, Lamar has found a way to synthesize them into a cohesive musical, political and aesthetic statement. Connecting the virtuosity of operatic voice to that of the gospel soloist, goth’s dark theatricality to operatic grandeur, the mournfulness of the blues to punk’s political agendas, Lamar seeks to understand how colonial and plantation narratives about gender and race underlie daily life in the US.
The result of this fusion is vocals that haunt, lyrics that expose endemic problems, and performances of baroque grandiosity that point to capitalist excesses. Through an exhibitionat PARTICIPANT INC last summer and a recent performance at ISSUE Project Room last month, Lamar has produced a series of short videos, prints, and sculpture to accompany his songs, with the videos to be consolidated into a longer film tentatively called Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche, currently in production.
Risa Puleo How are you?
M. Lamar I’m frustrated. How are you?
RP I’m upset. I just came from a conversation about how people living with HIV are criminalized. Michael Johnson, a young man in Missouri, was recently sentenced to 30.5 years in prison for allegedly transmitting and “exposing” others to HIV, though there is no evidence to prove this.
ML How do they justify that? It’s not legal!
RP If your jury includes a group of conservative people who think the only acceptable sex is missionary within the confines of marriage, then a sex life filled with other kinds of sex acts with multiple partners is constructed as evidence of irresponsibility. This is how he was constructed as a threat to public safety.
ML But it’s a fiction though! Related to the imagined over-sexualization of the black man since plantation times.
RP Since the medieval ages, at least! When Christians defined themselves against Jews and Muslims by projecting sodomitical sex acts.
So now that we’re both upset… this is a great segue into your work, because self-making and world-making against fictions of black masculinity and sexuality are really important aspects of what you do.
ML It is. The only way you can create different kinds of possibilities within this current political and cultural context is to imagine them. The question is how we imagine. In my process there has to be an acknowledgment of what has happened to people—black people, in my case. One can’t be delusional. Many people walk around in a haze believing that horrible stuff isn’t happening all the time. We still have very serious situations in prisons, with poverty. I think fully acknowledging that and trying to make a fully emancipated self—who is aware of the past but is also trying to make a difference in the present and future—is important. I find a lot of solace in my own practice; it enables me to go on. It’s a question of survival for me, this world-making, imagining the possibilities for a different kind of self and fighting for that, too.
We can just stop there in a way. This is what I’m trying to do.
I mean, I’m frustrated. As I enter a kind of public sphere, people are wanting to put me in an identity box.
RP What are the words you get tagged with?
ML I get invited to show a lot with transgender people, and I am not transgender. I’ve never said that I am. It’s confusing to me as someone who is trying desperately to liberate himself from all these forces. The difficulty of stepping outside the status quo is that your life is more difficult. Transgender identities are mainstream right now, but I think in terms of representation, people don’t seem to be stepping outside of a binary presentation. I just don’t think that that’s liberatory. Even as we push against all these hegemonic forces, there still seems to be a status quo that reinserts itself, because under capitalism you need a new take on something. So the new take on femininity is trans femininity. The new take on masculinity is trans masculinity, but the hegemony is still in place, nothing has been dismantled. On one level if we acknowledge that transness is inherently hegemonic, maybe we can get to something truly radical and challenge these kinds of constructions.
RP What are the words that you prefer?
ML I consistently describe myself as a “NEGROGOTHIC devil-worshipping free black man in the blues tradition.” I’ve been really loud about that, but people want to understand my identity by some preexisting script. I’m trying to write my own script. That’s where the frustration comes from, where you’re constantly trying to construct yourself and people are pushing you back. We were saying this yesterday: liberation isn’t something you do and you’re done. It’s a constant fight.
But I also reject notions of fixity. I am an artist. I am a NEGROGOTHIC, devil worshipping, free black man in the blues tradition. Those are the things I am now. I have this trouble with identity as a noun—even the notion of sexual orientation. The idea that there is one is a fallacy. Our sexual orientation changes and mutates throughout our lives. I use the term “practicing homosexual,” and I reject the notion of being gay. It’s all very bourgeois and white. I like the idea of being queer, or queerness as a verb rather than as a noun. Sex and sexuality is a thing that you do, not who you are—it’s not ontology. But fucking, I do that. So what? It’s a very reductive thing, to define people according to sexuality. It’s a very Western, scientific thing, the desire to name something and put it in a box. I just reject the names that aren’t my own, the names I haven’t given to myself.
RP You’ve also been making a lot of work recently that defies identifiers: music that crosses blues, opera, goth, punk, metal, and gospel traditions; performances on stage and for videos and still images.
ML I feel lucky that I’ve amassed a significant body of work. At PARTICIPANT, I showed the first part of a film that will be a feature, tentatively called Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche. There’s a book coming out of the PARTICIPANT show called NEGROGOTHIC. It will have librettos for Negro Antichrist and Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche,text from my Lynching Song Cycles and The Speculum Orum Requiem, and essays by lots of awesome people that I can’t say by name right now.The book is made possible through PARTICIPANT, the Harpo Foundation, and the Walter McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute. I’m pretty excited about the work that’s coming: a new recording with Mivos Quartet with Charlie Looker doing the string arrangements for the feature film. This project is supported by The One Archive and USC, and I’m doing a big performance and exhibition there in April. And I have a new piece at PS1, called Tree of Blood, that’s connecting this new revolutionary energy generating out of justice movements like Black Lives Matter with my research and past work on lynching.
RP Can you tell me more about Tree of Blood?
ML There’s lots of imagery about the dead rising up. I don’t want to be done with the dead. There is a finality—especially if you’re not a Christian—with death. The Christian tradition invests in an afterlife. The African tradition does too. A lot of spiritual music is about death, meaning that you’re going to die at some point, so this will be over. Really, my investment in this NEGROGOTHIC, devil-worshipping, free black man blues tradition is about a rejection of that. The blues began to form out of emancipation. It was a rejection of the enforced Christianity that was a part of slavery.
RP What dead do you want to speak to?
ML I particularly want to have a conversation with those we have lost in struggle. Sandra Bland, the black woman stopped by the police for some routine traffic violation in Texas who died in jail three days later, is a freedom fighter and a revolutionary. To me, the video of her not cow-towing to the police—being very defiant, knowing that she was involved in Black Lives Matter, knowing that she could die—is so moving. It’s like a Biggie Smalls “ready to die” moment. I don’t want to accept that she isn’t always going to be speaking to those of us who are lovers of justice. Or that Martin Luther King or Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown or Emmett Till or Emmett Till’s mother won’t always be the legacies.
RP On one hand you’re talking about memorialization, but really you’re talking about conjuring, incantation, spirit-to-spirit communication between the embodied and disembodied souls.
ML I’m very interested in ideas of possession, of being a vessel. I think the best singers, dancers and actors are the people who become conduits for spirits, energy channeling. Channeling and possession can’t be done when the ego is in the way. You have to let that go for stuff to move through you. I really believe that. Anthony Paul Farley has been writing about zombies relative to race. The dead can’t sing, but we know that the dead are singing to us all the time through spirituals and black music. If the dead can’t sing then maybe they’re just asleep, is what Farley says. And if they’re sleeping there’s always the possibility of awakening. A lot of Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, is about a certain kind of awakening. It’s very exciting. Even if it’s squashed, and all evidence suggests that it will be extinguished as a movement, at least we’re going to go out fighting.
RP Grief is an enormous political force motivating action right now. And there is a renegotiation of how people are reacting to fear, not being terrorized into submission.
ML The song that I wrote, “They Hung Her on the Deck” in Speculum Orum, is about the whipping of a black woman on a slave ship to install fear. It’s connected to a famous illustration. It’s a profoundly liberating moment to not be a afraid. I’ve been stopped by the police many times. I have been very much afraid. I haven’t been ready to die like Sandra was or Biggie, although I don’t think Biggie was ready then to die. I’ve been very afraid, and I think a moment in emancipation was about not being afraid. Marcus Garvey’s people would march with signs that said, “We are not afraid.” Malcolm X would talk about not being afraid. That’s one of the ways black people have been terrorized, with lynching. Lynching was about creating fear to keep the rest of the Negroes in line. In that Nina Simone documentary on Netflix, someone asks her, “What does freedom mean to you?” And she says, “No fear.” That sentiment means so much to me.
There’s always this mourning happening in my work. How do you grapple with profound loss and profound devastation? But in this new phase in my work, I’m trying to create a revolutionary impulse, what Cornel West calls “a black prophetic fire.” It’s about a longing to connect deeply with those we’ve lost. It’s a longing to remake the world anew. Really this new show at PS1 is about trying to put yourself back together. I’m in pieces.
RP This is kind of the opposite impulse of your song, “I’m Trying To Leave My Body,” which is about dissociation. You’re speaking about reintegration spiritually and physically.
ML If a body’s been traumatized, one has to go some place else. “I’m just trying to put myself back together, I’m walking around in pieces.” Many of us are walking around fragmented or dismembered. Parts of our spirits, our psyches, our bodies, are hanging off, barely there. Many of us are walking around decapitated, not whole selves. There is also a very literal meaning of “being in pieces.” I was reading the story of this one man who survived lynching. He had been castrated, and he continued to live in this dismembered state.
RP This relates to the story Willie Francis in the narrative for Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche, about another man who survived an execution.
ML Surveillance, Punishment and the Black Psyche is loosely based on the story of Willie Francis. I say loosely because I had to make up a lot of facts, because much of his story is unknown. What we do know is that they attempted to execute him in 1946 and it didn’t work, because the electric chair was installed improperly. Then the NAACP descended upon St. Martinville, Louisiana. He was allegedly having a sexual relationship with the man he was accused of killing, a 53-year old pharmacist, a white man. Willie Francis would have been 14 or 15 years old at the time. I was trying to imagine what interracial homosexual dynamics look like in plantation times or under Jim Crow. What did their relationship look like? There are always questions of consent when someone is underage, or in bondage in slavery, but he didn’t seem coerced. Maybe he was manipulated. Maybe he was paid. We just don’t know. I was trying to understand what the dynamic must have been when someone in bondage desires the touch of a white man.
RP The way you reconfigure Mapplethorpe’s image (Self-portrait with Whip) in the video made me think about how BDSM allows people to recreate these same master-slave scenarios with awareness and consent. It’s the other side of the possible dynamic you’re describing, where the power inequity between a black boy and white man in Louisiana of the 1940s is so pronounced. For instance, in the film The Night Porter, the relationship that happens between a SS officer and a Jewish woman in a concentration camp, when recreated by the same officer and same woman outside the camp after the war, carries all the traumatic weight of their shared history.
ML Mapplethorpe was obsessed with black men, and that’s no secret. We seem to be some symbol of his transgression, as if he was a radical, white male artist because he was daring to be fucked by “big, black cock.” He’s reenacting a white supremacist fantasy, what I call plantation fantasy, imagining black people as overly-sexualized with enormous genitalia—black women and men. White people have this incredible fantasy world around the sexuality of black people. By casting Mapplethorpe as plantation master, I’m trying to give back this construction of the white supremacist imagination. It’s yours, you made it, here it is. I don’t want this anymore. I’m trying not to be didactic in the work, but I don’t want this. I don’t want this thing placed on my body.
RP Thinking about Michael Johnson’s case in Missouri; he was a wrestler using the name “Tiger Mandingo,” referring to the West African people imported to the American South as slaves, whose name has become an equivalent for “big, black cock.” This image, which he participated in constructing, worked in the minds of the people he hooked up with and against him in court.
ML We’ve all internalized white supremacy. Even if you’re a black person only engaging in sex with black people you still deal with this, because we all have that stuff going on. Black masculinity gets constructed in very particular ways, and many men like playing that role. There can be something enjoyable about that for sure, but we won’t be truly liberated until we can move into a different place and embrace different parts of black masculinity. That’s why I get really frustrated when people want to say that I’m transgender, and I say: No, I’m a black man, and black men look all kinds of ways and exist in all kinds of different spheres. I want to proclaim that proudly and also claim these different kinds of ways of existing as a black man.
RP Your images don’t look like Mapplethorpe’s images of black men though. There’s not a lot of variation in how he wants them to look.
ML I placed my head on top of his collage Man in a Polyester Suit. It’s a decapitated man—the most important thing about that image is it’s decapitation. This was the cover of my 2010 cassette tape, Negro Gothic, and the first time I used a whip. I replaced the penis with a whip, making it a phallic object. I play with the etymology of the word “cracka’,” which comes from “whip-cracker.” I wanted to show how the black penis is a construction of the white imagination. For the record, black penises aren’t any bigger than any other penises. But it’s this power that it’s being given, and so I made it a whip—again this construction that I wanted to give back.
RP In addition to critical race and queer theory, you’re also talking about punk politics. Punk is about living your politics at every level of life: what you eat or put in your body, non-conforming dress and presentation, staking a position against capitalism and patriarchy and oppression. What was great about show-space was the way that everyone talked about these things. This is an ethos that’s missing these days, instead of all this empty chatter.
ML I was first politically radicalized when I was 15, 16, 17. I would go to punk shows and they would pass out lyrics for songs about being vegan, or the horrible things they do to animals, or patriarchy. That stuff to me was really formative; punk rock shows are so politicized. They’re an on-the-ground kind of activism. Like having lots of straight white men talking about patriarchy in public, asking, “What does sexism look like? What does misogyny look like?” I think it’s more important to talk about these things in groups of men by ourselves instead of only when women are present. It’s like talking about racism only when a black person is present. Patriarchy has no gender, but we can’t only put that onto women, or racism onto black people. It’s not only the job of women or people of color to end this.
RP It’s like you were saying about music being a spiritual force, it can also be a political force.
ML Cornel West recently said that black music is in a state of decline, that hip-hop is brilliant but investing in the charismatic front person as opposed to groups of people harmonizing. What does that mean politically? It supports a certain kind of American individualism versus a collectivity. The operatic diva is a figure I’m invested in as a trope, but she’s the same thing. What’s most compelling to me about Black Lives Matter is that it’s a movement with black women at the forefront, not about a charismatic male leader. There’s no Al Sharpton or Martin Luther King type. It’s a different kind of model, and it’s about a different kind of awakening.
RP Punk is a middle ground between the front man and the harmonizing group. It’s about individuals operating within a group as individuals while thinking about group concerns.
ML I credit my relationship with my boyfriend for turning me away from the need to be a loud, aggressive person fronting the band. A year into the relationship I wanted more intimacy with an audience. I think it was directly related to feeling loved for the first time in my life. In terms of revolutionary possibilities, all the deep people in the tradition of Martin Luther King talk about love as an action that can do—that has the ability to change a life and change political struggle. Love is the most enabling thing in terms of your life. It means you can proceed from a stronger position. I believe deeply in love. I’m a deeply romantic person. But I also believe in justice. Justice and love, what else is there? Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore is a line from Puccini’s Tosca when she goes to kill Scarpia, the man who raped her, and she asks god, “Why did you allow these things to happened to me? I’ve lived for art, I’ve lived for love.” I really like this, I’ve lived for art, I’ve lived for love. But for me those things are caught up in questions of justice.
M. Lamar will perform Tree of Blood at MoMA PS1 on Sunday, October 11, 2015 as part of the 2015 “Greater New York” exhibition. Tree of Blood, is, as he describes it, “a lamentation on the lynching tree as site of both violence and sexualized death as well as a site of hope renewal and sacrifice.”
For more information about Black Lives Matter, visit http://blacklivesmatter.com/
For more information about HIV Lives Matter, visit https://www.visualaids.org/blog/detail/hiv-lives-matter
For more information about the criminalization of those living with HIV, visit http://seroproject.com/
For more information about Michael Johnson’s case, read this: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32956-hiv-is-not-a-murder-weapon-racism-and-the-criminalization-of-aids
To donate money to Michael Johnson’s commissary, visit https://www.youcaring.com/the-family-of-micheal-johnson-404058
Risa Puleo is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. Her writing has recently appeared in Art in America, ART PAPERS, Art 21, and Modern Painters.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee