It's January 19th, 2014 (Martin Luther King Weekend). I am thinking about how I would be celebrating this holiday back in the states.
For over a decade I was the resident DJ for the longest running Tea Dance in New York City at Escuelita. And every year I made it my mission to create a mixed CD that gave a message of hope and freedom. But after spending most of my time in Toronto after getting married to a Canadian, I have had to get used to the people of color here being of a different background. Remember, my experience is that of an African-American. They do celebrate Black History Month.
This year has been even more interesting. The headlines and buzz on the news and internet have been chock full of racial and anti-gay incidents. From Madonna taking to Instagram using the n-word to The Bachelor and Sherri Shepherd sharing their views on gays…..it feels like we are moving backwards while all these steps have been taken to go forward. Human rights and racism are dividing countries everywhere. And I can't happen but wonder what Martin Luther King would have thought about the world today. King never said he was for gay rights, but he did work with a major homosexual by the name of Bayard Rustin who organized the march on Washington D.C. where King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech.
I mean….just as I think how far the United States has come by electing its first African-American President, the harsh reality of how much hate is still in the world keeps me from seeing how things have changed. Just look around. I thought it was so innovative that B. Scott was hired by BET (Black Entertainment Television) and now Scott is suing the network for discrimination after they asked him to put on men's clothing so no one would think he was female. We have world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni coming out against the LGBT communities in their countries. Thank God that Museveni vetoed the bill that would put homosexuals to death, but he still called them "abnormal".
Studies show that homosexual behavior has been found in over 1,500 species. Yet homophobia is found in only one.
So, then I started thinking about what "The Dream" speech meant to me. I believe it inspired me to do my best to support equality. It inspired me to be the ambassador for my people. I believe that every day when we leave our homes we are ambassadors for our people, be your people black or white, gay or straight. You are a representation of your community and what you do in that day and space is a representation of your people. So, I always try to remember that I am a black gay HIV+ man. My very existence…..me being a productive member of society……it all speaks volumes about me and my people. I try to always do the right thing.
For example, since I have been in Canada I have spoken out about racism in the gay community. And both times I have been attacked online, called names and told that I am wrong for expressing my outrage over injustice. Fortunately I have not had to endure the violence that Dr. King and his supporters did, but character assassination was just as hurtful. I am grateful for all those who have stood up before me and fought this battle for equality. And I try to remind everyone that activism starts with you.
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a huge fan of RuPaul, but early in his career he made one of the most poignant statements: "The biggest political statement you can make is being yourself." So, if you are true to yourself and you don't hide who you are, you are making a political statement.
Then I got to thinking about the racial barriers that I have broken. As a DJ, I became the first African-American DJ to spin at many venues that only employed white DJs. For this I have been accused of being a sellout or a wanna-be-white DJ. But many people and artists laid the groundwork for change by being the first. Louis Armstrong was called an "Uncle Tom" for his appearances at all white clubs and in films of his time. So, when I became the first black DJ at The Monster in Greenwich Village it was actually a big deal. I spun for the people who were there. All though the club only hired white or hispanic DJs, they never catered to their black clientele. I played for everyone in my room and I tried to be as inclusive as possible. That's how you build a night. That venue would never be the same. I got fired for playing Hip Hop. Today, they have all kinds of DJs playing Hip Hop for the floor downstairs in The Monster. I was only there for a short time, but I helped re-format that place and got them to change with the times.
Now, I appreciate Hip Hop as a form of the African-American experience, but I am still torn about the use of the n-word. Part of me leaving a gig recently had to do with being the only person of color in a room of white patrons singing along with the lyrics of popular Hip Hop songs that use the n-word. I tried to point that out, but how do you solve a problem when the people involved don't realize there is a problem? If you have never been discriminated against how can you be expected to empathize with the plight of a person of color? When Oprah asked Jay Z about the use of the word he stated that "Hip Hop tells stories that the police don't want you to hear." I am all for expressing oneself, but when your words reach around the world shouldn't your words be chosen carefully and represent the collective.
The hatred behind the word "nigger" has not changed. No matter how many times you tell yourself that you’re taking the word back. When other races start believing that because they have a black friend or have a child of color in their family that it gives them a right to use the word, we have lied to ourselves that it is still OK to just run around uttering "nigger" to whoever.
And people like Madonna should know better. I don't care if you have adopted kids from Africa or how much black dick you have taken (sorry for being rude, but it's the truth), you are not entitled. There's too much history and pain associated with that word for too many people.
I am married to a white man. We do not speak to each other with racial slurs. Out of respect for ourselves and our relationship, we cannot speak to each other like that. We have so much to learn from each other about our lives and cultures. I would hope that the rest of the world could learn that, instead of finding new ways to divide everyone.
It wasn't until 2001 that I discovered how racism had evolved. It was my first trip to London and it was my first time ever hearing the racial slur, "sand nigger". The other day I ran into a friend who had never heard that term before and was called it to his face. His lover punched the guy and later had to explain what it meant. The sad part is that my friend had decided early on to change his name because he did not want people to discriminate against him because of his heritage. He told me that his teenage daughter identifies herself as Arab and he couldn't be prouder. Represent who you are….always.
As a performer, my alter-ego Jade Elektra tries to break down racial barriers with what a drag performer of color is supposed to be and look like. I have worked in bars and clubs since 1985. I have performed in and watched a lot of drag shows in my years. When I first started, I used to do a lot of Millie Jackson material (mainly because her monologues really showcased my lip syncing skills). For those who don't know very much about Millie Jackson, she was a very popular R&B singer from the 70's and early 80's and she uses the n-word as a dialogue to speak to her black audience. When I first started female impersonation my early audiences were predominantly black. So, I never gave it another thought. It wasn't until I left Tampa, Florida for New York City that I started performing for a more diverse audience and it occurred to me that my choices of material was a direct reflection of me and where I came from. I wanted to reach a bigger audience and also tell my stories of where I came from. I still occasionally pull out a Millie Jackson track, but I now give a disclaimer about the n-word. Telling the audience that this is part of my history, but not in my everyday vocabulary. My mother (who was an English major in college) told me to always be articulate when expressing yourself. People judge you by how you speak and what you say.
But it is hard to explain to Canadians about celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday when there is such disregard and disrespect for the man when his own people make flyers for club nights that have nothing to do with his legacy.
I am not so naive to think that every event that was held this weekend was really to honor Dr. King. It is still a business. But when Harmonica Sunbeam, Sugga Pie Koko and myself did our Tea Dance at Escuelita we had contests to see who could recite King's "I Have A Dream" speech. We tried to make sure that the entertainment that night reflected and represented our black gay community and their belief in what that speech meant. And 'til this day, I always try to put a message of love, hope and freedom in my music.
When my uncle, Herbert King, was teaching me about being a DJ and programing music back in 1980, he always said that you have to make sure that you believe in what you are playing and to always know material to tell a story. So, when I do a mix set, I am not only playing for your listening ear but also for your subconscious. My cousin, Tarkesha introduced me to a site called Mixcloud and now I have found a great way to share my music and ideas. I did a mix this year for Martin Luther King and I hope you enjoy it.